Sunday, December 31, 2006

Yearend Jottings

This column was written before the break for Id and before news of Saddam Hussein’s death by victor’s justice was known. A piece on Saddam Hussein will appear in this space next week.

Some odds and ends from a jumble of books picked up during a year’s rummage of bookshops. Opening thought: can any piece of information be totally useless? The emphatic answer is no.

First dip: 1215, the year of Magna Carta. A thirteenth century British monk, Jocelin of Brakelond, worried about his abbey’s debts, answered, tangentially, a minor query. He recorded: "There is an English tradition by which every year on the day of Our Lord’s Circumcision, 1 January, the abbot, as lord, is presented with gifts by a great many people." The Jewish circumcision is on the seventh day after birth. When and why did the Church stop the Abrahamic practice of circumcision, possibly to create a different identity for the new faith? That answer will come, hopefully, from next year’s reading list.

There isn’t that much difference between Plato’s ideal society and the Hindu caste system. In both, a rigid hierarchy keeps society stable and every man in his place. The four Greek divisions are sage, warrior, trader and menial, a precise mirror of brahman, kshatriya, vaisya and dalit. In Plato, property does not change hands; a class of wealth, rooted in land has been the norm rather than the exception till Marx smashed the class ceiling. The fatal flaw in perfectionist Plato is the ban on anything new, even in poetry and music. Old is romantic; new is growth rate.
Which city was the real capital of the British Raj? There was no confusion in the East India Company days: Calcutta. But once the north came under Sahib sway, the government spent seven months in cool Simla and only five in Calcutta. The choice of Delhi, far closer to Simla, was announced in 1911 during the visit of King George V and Queen Mary; the new capital would be a symbol of imperial power and British superiority, another Constantinople or Rome, designed in the "Grand Manner". A debate arose over whether the look should be "Indo-Saracenic", Mughal, Rajput or Renaissance classic. The much-vaunted Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens dismissed Indian architecture as "cumbersome, poorly coordinated and tiresome"; Hindu architecture was "veneered jointry" and the domes of Delhi’s mosques were mere turnips.
The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, thought such sentiments a bit thick, given that the bill
for British grandeur was paid by India.

Herbert Baker, Lutyens’ less famous colleague, touched up New Delhi’s pillars with lotuses, cobras, elephants, bulls and bells.

A useful thought from Kipling for both my fellow journalists and our honourable readers:

Men who spar with Government need to back their blows

With something more than ordinary journalistic prose.

Durru Shehvar, Princess of Berar, daughter of Abdulmecid, the last Ottoman Caliph, was born in 1912, married to the heir of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1931, and died in February this year in London. Her legal adviser, Walter Monckton, commented, "I learnt from her what any person must learn who has English friends — how unnecessary it is to talk just for the sake of talking, and that there is no unfriendliness and there would be no awkwardness or embarrassment in silence." She called it a Muslim way of life.

A return to that old favourite, Philip Woodruff’s The Guardians, resurrected a few gems:

* "Human nature changes when the Sind border meets Punjab, on a line east of Kandahar."
*After victory in 1857, the British Army decided that all gunners would be British.
* Sir Robert Montgomery, lieutenant governor of Punjab during the uprising, thought John Lawrence, victor of Delhi, was an old woman because Lawrence had not razed the Jama Masjid to the ground.
*Sir Alfred Lyall, one of Montgomery’s successors in Punjab, noted, ruefully, "One thing is sure; the natives all discuss our rule as a transitory state."
*Shiva cannot be defeated because he is god of destruction as well as the phallus.

Charles Goodyear, impoverished and manic, created vulcanised rubber by accident when, after years of experiments, he dropped sulphur on India rubber. So did he become a tycoon overnight? No. His patent was stolen by better, if unscrupulous, businessmen. Goodyear never owned any part of the company that still bears his name. Tycoon, by the way, is an American word of Japanese origin, from taikun, or military chief.

Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the American National Security Council and senior fellow at Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, wrote in the International Herald Tribune on 25 January 2006: "During its five years in office, the (Bush) administration has turned away from every opportunity to put relations with Iran on a more positive trajectory. Three examples stand out." Which are they? After 9/11 Iran offered help against the Taliban, but Bush decided to include Iran in the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in 2002. In the spring of 2003, Tehran sent a proposal through the Swiss for comprehensive negotiations, acknowledging that it would have to discuss its weapons programme and support for anti-Israel groups. The Bush administration snubbed the Swiss diplomats. In October 2003 Iran suspended enrichment of uranium to pursue talks, but Bush refused to join the European initiative for a dialogue. In the same month Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi foreign minister, noted archly that a nuclear strike against Iran would probably kill as many Palestinians as Israelis, and if it missed destroy some Arab nation. Blaming Israel for starting the nuclear race in the region, he suggested a nuclear-free gulf, followed by a nuclear-free region.

Note: by the end of the year Egypt had signed a deal with China for nuclear reactors — for peaceful purposes, of course. Saudi Arabia was also beginning to see the merits of "peaceful" nuclear energy.

Do you agree with this old Arab proverb: In every head there is some wisdom? Prince Charles, patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, quoted the proverb in a lecture on "Islam and the West" at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on 27 October 1993, a copy of which was given to me thirteen years after the event by Dr Farhan Nizami, who chairs the Centre and is nurturing it into a wonderful institution. The Prince, of course, was being modest, British, self-deprecatory. But is the subject, theme of a million seminars long before 9/11 (Remember 1993? The whole Muslim world had lined up alongside America against Saddam just after it had cooperated with America to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan), all that wise? Islam is a faith; the West is geography. How much dexterity do you need to compare apples and oranges?

The Titanic and Olympic were identical sister ships, both higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza. The former began life in 1911, hit an iceberg and became immortal. The Olympic went to sea a year earlier, in 1910, and sailed peacefully till 1937. No one remembers a success story.
King George, I am reliably informed by A.N. Wilson, in After the Victorians, did not bring his real crown when he came to India for the durbar of 1911. He wore a lighter version in Delhi, made by Garrard’s of London at a cost of 60,000 pounds. Guess who picked up the bill. Right. The Indian taxpayer.

Patrick French has an illustrative story about Colonel Francis Younghusband’s Tibetan expedition of 1904 in his latest book. "When the British officers marched to the Tsuglakhang and other places, the inhabitants of Lhasa were displeased. They shouted and chanted to bring down rain, and made clapping noises to repulse them. In the foreigners’ custom these were seen as signs of welcome, so they took off their hats and said thank you."

The World Health Organisation announced an important discovery, after years of research, in December. Circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection by half, so the Prophet Abraham, who started it all, was right. What was the name of the Belgian doctor who gave the world such good news? Dr Kevin De Cock.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A con in congruent

Byline by M J Akbar: A Con in Congruent

America is the oldest, rather than the youngest, country of the modern world. My definition of modern hinges on a great modern concept, democracy.

There were faults in American democracy, but for more than two centuries, America has found the creative link between national independence and individual freedom to create the world’s most successful economic and military power. You cannot enter the modern age simply by building highways as good as America’s. You also need a democracy as good as, or even better than, America’s.

The spine of democracy is the law. Governments come and go, and may the traffic be incessant, but the law is permanent. Governments can legislate, or amend legislation, but once that is done, governments become subservient to the law.

It is curious that one of the most vocal advocates of world democracy, a man ready to spend billions in war ostensibly to create it, should miss such a basic principle. President George Bush sought to allay Indian concerns over the civilian nuclear partnership that he signed into American law, by explaining that a President makes foreign policy, not Congress. For reasons that can only be excused by either ignorance or indifference, large sections of the Indian elite, including, sadly, media, immediately congratulated themselves on yet another "victory". If the American President makes foreign policy, why did Bush need Congress approval of his deal with India? The President is head of the executive, and he certainly has much leeway in his management of government, but he is not above the Congress. If the Congress defines the parameters, then the President can only break them at the risk of impeachment.

The narrative of the Indo-US deal now has been bound with hard covers, and the covers are the Hyde Act. The July 18 agreement of 2005 is a limp document that may or may not be in the appendix. Bush has less than 25 months in office; the text of the Hyde Act, unless amended, will be in force long after Bush and this columnist are in their graves. Bush is an interlocutor; the Hyde Act is the lock that will seal the discourse for a generation if not more.

It is specious to suggest, as some in the Delhi government have done, that the Hyde Act is binding only on the United States. Isn’t that the point? We did not do this deal to supply nuclear fuel to ourselves, did we? We did it to get American fuel and technology, and if the United States cannot give it because we are in violation of some aspect of Hyde’s tough and unambiguous demands, then we are up a creek without a paddle.

What are the main objectives of the Hyde Act? They are written in clean English. One stated objective is non-proliferation. It avers that as long as India is outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which we have not signed, it will remain a challenge to the "goals of non-proliferation". How does the Act propose to achieve this goal? By seeking to "halt the increase in nuclear weapons arsenals in South Asia and to promote their reduction and eventual elimination".

Halt, reduce and eliminate. Remember these three words.

Those who insist that the deal is only about civilian nuclear energy are surely literate, and one presumes that they have imperatives that persuade them to gloss over such phrases. "The costs to the US appear minimal. The price India will have to pay may well be total loss of control over its future policies," M.R. Srinivasan, member of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, told the December 21 issue of Science magazine.

The Hyde legislation calls for Indo-American cooperation between scientists to develop a common non-proliferation programme — for the rest of the world, that is, not for America. America continues to exercise its right to test, and is working to build miniature nuclear weapons whose fallout can be contained, making them usable in conventional war.
It may be of mild interest that if we agree to this deal, we will also be committing ourselves to the elimination of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons along with ours. Perhaps optimists in Delhi believe that after he solves Kashmir, President Pervez Musharraf will discuss a nuclear-free South Asia, but somehow I doubt it.

If the first objective is corrosive, the second is colonial. It wants Indian foreign policy to be "congruent" to America’s, and expects "greater political and material" support in the realisation of American goals. I doubt, if during the talks, any Indian negotiator suggested that America might want to align itself with Indian foreign policy goals. That would be the language of equals, and this is an unequal relationship.

Sometimes the fog of peace is more dense than the fog of war, but there is a route map to guide us through to US strategy. It is a country called "Iran".

"Congruence" is an untidy word with very neat implications. Bilateral agreements rarely, if ever, are third-country specific. Here is what the deal expects India to do vis-à-vis Iran: "full and active cooperation to dissuade, isolate and if necessary sanction and contain Iran".

The text asks India to keep in step with US policy on Iran, and quotes, approvingly, the votes by India against Iran in the IAEA board of governors as evidence of such compliance. Iran is not the only country with which America has a problem about nuclear intentions. Iran does not have a weapon yet, although it is clearly making a serious effort to get one. North Korea has weapons.

There is no specific linkage to North Korea. Why? One possible answer: Washington does not contemplate war with North Korea, but retains the option for an assault on Iran in 2007.
Hyde is the stick to Bush’s carrot. But both are on the same side.

Bush would certainly expect "political and material" support from India if he started military action against Iran. Don’t underestimate the "material" part.

Dedicated astrologers apart, everyone concedes that predictions are a speculative science. There is something about the end of a year, however, that makes such a temptation irresistible. The current language of defeat, or "neither winning nor losing", may have lulled us into the belief that Washington’s military options are off the table. The Iraq Study Group, headed by as patrician a Republican as James Baker, a virtual uncle to George, has suggested that Washington starts talks with Damascus and Tehran, not war.

But there is a minority — and, I stress, speculative view — that a last-ditch desire to salvage a miracle out of the mess, might tempt Bush, Tony Blair and Ehud Olmert into gambler’s corner. All three have tasted unexpected and even humiliating defeat this year, and have one chance before the triumvirate disintegrates with Blair’s departure in early summer. Their fortunes might suddenly transcend if they were able to announce, at the end of a series of lightning strikes, that they had eliminated Iran’s nuclear facilities.

There is also a technical reason, which all but a few experts have missed. The destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities would become too dangerous, apparently, after November, because the fallout would then reach Chernobyl levels.

I spoke to Dr Steven Wright, who presented a paper on this subject at a security conference in Geneva in the first week of December: "Yes, there is indeed a technical issue at play which no one I have come across has picked up on. In essence, it is the loading of the Russian manufactured and supplied uranium fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor. Air strikes cannot be carried out after they have been loaded into the reactor due to the fallout being akin to Chernobyl. Therefore, they need to be carried out before that time, if at all. The Bushehr reactor, despite being a light water reactor, still has a proliferation risk as the uranium rods can be removed a mere four months after loading and a crude plutonium weapon can be fashioned from it. There is a common myth that light water reactors are proliferation proof. If the objective is to prevent Iran from developing such a weapon, action would need to be carried out before this stage is reached."

There are many reasons why war should not happen. Bush, Blair and Olmert may want one, but their publics are disenchanted, and their legislatures more circumspect. The Pentagon is stretched taut, as are the British armed forces. The impact on oil prices, and the region, would be catastrophic. But dreams of glory have this awkward ability to overwhelm common sense. It has happened before, in Iraq. India was not tested three years ago because Bush declared a premature victory. If there is another American "shock and awe" invasion, we will find out whether India is still independent or has become congruent.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A job to do

Byline by M J Akbar: A job to do

Hoax is one of the more cruel four-letter words in the English language. What happens when you double it? You get government — and Parliament — policy towards Indian Muslims.

On Thursday the Lok Sabha approved a bill providing a 27% reservation for "Other Backward Classes" in Central educational institutions by a voice vote, which means that there was such unanimity that there was no need for a vote. These benefits have no economic conditionality: the rich among these castes will be the ones who will of course benefit far more than the poor.

The government, and Parliament, did not need a special commission, and a report with 404 pages of statistics, charts and comments, to tell them to do this. They just went ahead and did it.
Other Indian communities get jobs on command. Indian Muslims get commissions. The Rajinder Sachar Committee, appointed soon after Dr Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, is the latest one.

The communities who benefit from job and educational reservations are better off than Muslims, financially, socially and psychologically. There are no riots against Other Backward Classes, for instance, that are aimed at terrorising the community and destroying entrepreneurs who may have set up a means of survival.

The Sachar Committee has done a good job of exposing implicit and explicit discrimination. But this has been said by other commissions before. My question is to others: does the political class really need another commission to tell them the facts? Don’t ministers and MPs see the truth on a million faces when they go to beg and plead for Muslim votes?

Muslims have a special claim on the government led by Dr Manmohan Singh. Whatever the statistics might say, and I don’t think they will say anything particularly different, Muslims believe that it was their focused energy, and their anger against the Gujarat riots that helped create a decisive swing of thirty to forty seats and brought the present dispensation into power. Their expectations from Dr Manmohan Singh are therefore higher. So far all they have got from this government is the usual dollop of rhetoric, and there isn’t much time left. There is a suspicion that after the Uttar Pradesh elections, even this rhetoric might die its usual death. The tensions within the Congress when Dr Singh suggested that Muslims needed the first right on resources were visible to everyone. The Prime Minister was forced into a fudge, tempting one wag to suggest that he lost the Hindu vote on the first day and the Muslim vote on the second.

The Prime Minister has a problem with the history of paper-secularism in his own party: the Congress takes Muslims for granted. Since Muslims will vote against the principal anti-Congress party, the BJP, in any case, what option do they have at the ballot box? So all you need is to sprinkle some sincere-sounding phrases in their way, and string together pious intentions in a garland of fifteen points. There will always be a convenient excuse to postpone anything specific and substantive.

A fiction, that Muslims are also beneficiaries of the reservations regime, is the veil that protects the face of paper-secularism. Articles 340, 341 and 342 of the Constitution deal with "backward classes", Scheduled Castes and Tribes. According to the Constitutional (Scheduled Caste) Order of 1950, a convert to Islam or Christianity from the Scheduled Castes, the poorest of the poor, cannot claim any of the privileges of reservation. In 1956, this was amended to include Scheduled Caste converts to Sikhism within reservation quotas, and in 1990 this facility was extended to Buddhists. No one has explained why Muslims and Christians are still excluded, and of course no one talks about it either. Silence is so helpful when there is a conspiracy of injustice.

Muslim converts from the better-off "OBCs" are, in principle, entitled to reservation benefits. But no one ever mentions how many Muslims have actually got jobs against these reservations, because facts will reveal another hoax. The answer is: minimal. Take state government jobs. The facts are shocking. West Bengal, by any measure a state with a progressive government, has a Muslim population of 25.2%, next only to Assam, with 30.9%. But only 2.1% of state government employees are Muslims. Delhi, which has secular governments on both tiers, regional and national, has 3.2% Muslims in government jobs despite an 11.7% Muslim population. Kerala has the best numbers: 10.4% jobs for 24.7% of the population, but only because the provincial Muslim League has made effective use of its partnership in power. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have 18.5% and 16.5% Muslims, but only 5.1% and 7.6% Muslims in state jobs.

There is as much economic inequality among Muslims as in any other Indian community, but Islam has no place for caste. There is no one who is backward or forward in a mosque; everyone is equal. Past caste distinctions therefore have got blurred. Moreover, many of the traditional crafts that defined the "backward" status, as for instance the jobs of weavers or julahas, have been made obsolete by the progress of modern technology. These people have moved to urban areas and are labourers in a non-traditional environment. Third, Muslims do not retain caste appellations like "Yadav", which they may have had before conversion, and so proof of their "caste status" is difficult if not impossible to find. Only Kerala has done something to ameliorate the problem by setting aside a guaranteed 10% to 12% quota for Muslims within the OBC category. The other states make no such provision.

Hence, as the Sachar Committee reports, "Muslim OBCs are significantly poorer than Hindu OBCs" and "land holdings of Muslim OBCs is almost one-third of that of Hindu OBCs".
The most revealing statistics are written on the faces of impoverished Muslims eking out a marginal existence in the bylanes of Kolkata, the slums of Mumbai, the illegal sprawls of Delhi and thousands of villages of Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.

Will reserving seats for Muslims as a category help? The instant answer is yes: if this is the way the political game is being played, then why should Muslims and Christians be excluded from the game? Almost everyone else has been allotted a piece of the cake, so why not them? Are they paying the price for being "foreign faiths", that is, religions that originated outside the Indian subcontinent? If that is the truth, then the establishment should change the truth before the people change the establishment. If that is not the truth, then someone should let us know what the truth is.

The reality is that there isn’t much of a cake left. The major growth of jobs is now in the private sector, not the public sector, which is excellent news for the country. To seek reservations in the private sector, as some backward militants insist on doing, would become a negative burden on growth. In a democracy, economics must occasionally pay a price to politics, but that would be a price too high. There have to be other means through which we can straighten the imbalance of decades.

Economic empowerment through credit to entrepreneurs is definitely more effective than a squabble over clerical jobs. Urban Indian Muslims have organised their economy into small businesses; this is one of the fortunate unintended byproducts of job discrimination. But the key to the future lies in education, and, more specifically, English education. Urdu is a beautiful language, but it is not a language in which jobs can be found anymore. Instead of creating Urdu universities from the budget allotted to Muslims, we need institutions that can make the young professionals in contemporary sciences like management, IT and media.

Where four-letter words are concerned, jobs is such an improvement on hoax.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bullet Bulletin

Byline by M J Akbar: Bullet Bulletin

Geneva: The last time Switzerland went to war was over five centuries ago. We are at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, in the sunlight of the Alps, to discuss what is politely called the "security" environment of South Asia. What they mean of course is insecurity, and South Asia extends up to the arc of Central Asia: the epicentres of the latest conflict are Afghanistan and Iraq with their echoes to the east and west. Geneva is arguably the world capital of peace, a safe haven for the United Nations and NGOs. Peace is a militant ideology of Switzerland, a far stronger virtue than morality for a country that has side-stepped the rough winds of high militarism, rampant imperialism and barbaric Nazism to place itself on the lofty peak of neutrality. When such a nation feels the surge of war at its doorstep, then the shadows have stretched far beyond the epicentre.

The sequence is lethal, the consequence bitter. War kills, maims and, perhaps worst of all, dehumanises, since it treats death, rather than life, as normal. It is a myth that the world has been at peace since the Second World War. War merely shifted its theatre of operations to Asia, Africa and Latin America. What is the corpse count of the last 60 years? No one knows, except that we are still counting in the bloodstained crevices of Rwandan memory, or the daily bulletins of Iraq. I have not checked the dictionary, but it seems logical that bulletin should be a philological cousin of bullet. How many have died in Iraq already? Half a million? Less? This much is certain: each dead man, woman and child, whether Arab, American or British, has relatives and friends who will live the pain and alchemise their anger into some stream of political lava. This lava has already scalded the principal architects of this war, George Bush and Tony Blair. Both have aged twenty years in five. Both have been defeated by Iraq, although their nations fight on. Both are in the process of handing over leadership of this conflict to a successor. Blair will go in a few months. Bush will struggle through a blinding mist for a little longer, having, in the words of Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the American Iraq Study Group, depleted America’s blood and treasure. And moral authority.

Sequence dominates the headlines, consequence rarely gets honoured by similar attention, since it kills deviously, in silence, with a slow poison that courses through the sinews of society. One of the most startling statistics I heard is that there are now five million heroin addicts in Pakistan. That means, roughly, that one out of 30 Pakistanis is an addict. Heroin is a war crop of Afghanistan, a by-product of a quarter century of invasion, turbulence, civil war and occupation. The Taliban have much to answer for, but in one respect they were right: they burnt out poppy cultivation. Before they were defeated Afghanistan’s share of the world’s drug supply was down to seven per cent. This year, Afghanistan will supply 90 per cent of the world’s street drugs, and production is at such a record all-time high that prices of heroin are going to fall in the dark alleys of America, Europe and Australia.

What is the cash flow of the Afghan drugs trade? Not billions, but trillions of dollars.

Who gets rich from this business? Not the Afghan farmer, who gets a pittance. The value addition from field to Amsterdam street is 500 times.

How does Afghan poppy reach every corner of the civilised world? On Aladdin’s flying carpet? In the secret pouches of medieval "Islamic fundamentalists" in the pay of some dreaded "Caliph"? The business and cash flows are run by men who drink gin and tonic, or bourbon and rye, or champers in their yachts before they write a cheque to political lobbies of their choice in flourishing democracies. This is the largest cash-flow of any business with effective supply lines, protection, managers, wholesalers, dealers, criminals and profiteers on various rungs of the ladder before it reaches the victim. Such a volume of trade cannot be hidden. It travels through land and sea, on trucks and ships. Can you name a single instance in which a supply operation has been busted by Nato, which has 37,000 troops in Afghanistan? When asked, Nato’s commanders blandly reply that destroying the drug trade is not part of their mission. Thus is the corrosive price of war paid, from the blood that flows on the battlefield to the heroin that courses through young veins.

Peace is impossible without security, which of course is the problem. Security has many dimensions: intellectual, historical, perceptual, basic, empirical, and even acquisitive. "Energy security" has brought armies to endless swathes of sand for a century, as hungry nations want to control the source of this resource. Michael Friend, an American expert, points out that India was the focal point of the Great Game played out between the superpowers of the 19th century, Britain and Russia. In the 20th, India was replaced by oil. Oil has no ideology: the Bush administration had no qualms about negotiating an oil pipeline with the Taliban before 9/11. "Islamic fundamentalism", a term which contains more inaccuracies within two words than might be found in a book, was never a problem. Energy is as much the concern of tomorrow’s economic powers: India imports 70 per cent of its energy needs, and the figure will rise to 85 per cent in 20 years. China’s foreign policy is crafted quite substantially by its energy needs. Boundaries are a more obvious definition of security, or its opposite: they remain the most turbulent lines of history. Only those regions who have made boundaries virtual have found peace. India and China found a formula, under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping, when they stored all claims in the locker rooms of the foreign office and committed their nations to peace and stability on the border. The claims did not disappear. They merely disappeared from view. That was the basis of the trade we see today. There was one kind of security that never appeared on any horizon: poverty security. How safe are resurrecting nations like India and China from the anger of their own poor? China recorded 86,000 "insurrections" in one year, and there are 170 districts in India that have become bases of a Maoist movement. This anger will not be kept at bay; it will seep into the comfort zones of the privileged unless it is assuaged by wealth distribution. That is the real, and common challenge, that faces India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. What is true of a nation is true of the world.

In my last column I made a brave, if naive, claim. I thought that the latest furore about exotic forms of killing, that of former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko by polonium 210 had nothing to do with the circumcised. On Thursday, he was finally buried in a radioactive-proof coffin. His last rites were performed in a London mosque. A few days before he died, Alexander converted to Islam. A fascinating story is beginning to emerge. He was a KGB agent in Chechnya, where he made friends with a leader of the rebels... Watch out for more details, but this is a story that will travel from the gloom of espionage to the imagination of innumerable minds. Wars are fought outside the headlines as well.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A London Diary

Byline by M J Akbar: A London Diary

The red edge of dawn woke me up at 15,000 feet above Zurich. We had risen through a floor of thick, dark grey cloud that was both still and undulating, a sky-sea of waves at 10,000 feet. To my left an astonishing architecture of Alps rose above this sea, the top of the highest peaks jagged, rough-cut, utterly beautiful skyscrapers, slowly beginning to absorb into their pristine white the warm colours of a sun emerging out of a high horizon to start another day. Every horizon is relative to the eye. The blood red softened, and the Alps took on a pastel hue before suddenly becoming part of the dazzle of sunlight. Those five minutes of nature’s magic will last a lifetime in memory.

It was a relief to land in London and discover that this month’s panic about sudden death had nothing to do with the circumcised. Instead the Cold War was back in business, on-screen and off-screen. The latest James Bond is a spectacular smash in Casino Royale and on the front pages of the newspapers is a story about a space-age murder in a sushi bar that Ian Fleming might have had difficulty inventing. On 1 November an ex-KGB spy — you can always get asylum in Britain if you claim to be "ex" — called Alexander Litvinenko had lunch in Piccadilly with Mario Scaramella, an Italian "security consultant," which is a pompous term for the same profession. The Russian ate fish, the Italian, more circumspect, drank only water. Both ingested a radioactive isotope called Polonium 210, derivable from radium and apparently available on the Internet. But you have to be rich if you want to kill ex-KGB spies. Less than a pinhead is needed to destroy the cells in your liver, kidney and bone marrow, but the Russian had enough to kill him a hundred times. The cost of his dose has been estimated at over 20 million pounds. The Italian is also contaminated, but not lethally. Among other things the Italian is said to believe that his Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, is or was a KGB agent. I don’t know who did it, but every columnist in Britain thinks it is the current version of the KGB which is poisoning Vladimir’s enemies everywhere.

I am here as a guest of the Guardian and the British Museum to participate in a discussion on Faith, nation, culture: What Bengal’s history tells us about living with multiple identities. There is a serious level of eminence on the podium: Amartya Sen, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum since August 2002, Joya Chatterji, the fine historian now teaching international history at LSE and the young and very bright Tufyal Choudhury, who lectures in international human rights law at Durham. In the chair was Jon Snow, who personifies Channel 4 news. Amartya Sen, a great liberal in the finest traditions of his region, led the discussions with a well-considered and even impassioned analysis of the great virtues of Bengali humanism. Not everyone was equally sanguine about Bengal’s past, although its present under the secular Marxists has done a great deal to erase memories. Without trying too hard to be contrarian, I did suggest that Bengali Muslims, now in Bangladesh, were victims of a double irony. Bengali Hindus did not consider them Bengali enough, and other Muslims did not think them Muslim enough. At the nodal moments of history, it was all Bhadralok versus Chotolok and Ashraf versus Atrap. Perceptions of class proved more relevant than faith or culture. The Muslim ashraf came in 1204 but conversion in eastern Bengal was not by the sword. The Mughals actually forbade forced conversions when they conquered Bengal during Akbar’s time. East Bengal became Muslim because of the turn of a river: the Ganga migrated east and opened up forest lands for cultivation with her silt. That is a story that requires more space than a column. But this much is relevant and can be said here. The three great political formations of the last two centuries were the province of Bengal in the British empire, India and Pakistan. None of the three could survive the explosive overlap between culture, faith, identity and the dream of power that partitioned Bengal, India and Pakistan. The Bengali Muslim was censured as a traitor thrice, in 1905, in 1847 and 1971; but the plain fact is that all three were unable to contain the tensions of the social history of one people: Bengalis.

The idea of India defeated the British empire. The idea of Pakistan defeated India. The idea of Bangladesh defeated Pakistan. I am delighted that all three ideas, or idealisms, won their geography and independence, otherwise reality would never have been able to bear the burden of fantasy. Bangladeshis now cannot blame Pakistanis; Pakistanis can’t blame Indians; and Indians, thank God, can’t blame the British for the fact that 500 million of us still sleep each night with stomachs that are only half-fed or worse.

Apology, or even "deep sorrow", about the past is a limited virtue, particularly when there is so much more to apologise for in the present. Even sincerity about the sins of your ancestors is only a variable balm. Tony Blair has set the mood for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slave trade in Britain (doubtless an occasion for much self-congratulation next year) with an expression of "deep sorrow" about this "shameful" past. Not quite an apology, which the right wing press is fiercely resisting, saying that slavery should be considered within the context of its times. That is why Blair added, "It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at that time". As a descendant of the first slave trader shrewdly told the Guardian, no one uses the excuse of contemporary mores to justify Hitler’s barbaric atrocities. Britain was responsible for carting around 2.5 million slaves in its trade ships, second only to Portugal. That the City should participate in profiteering out of human misery seems more understandable than the fact that the Church of England used slaves on its Caribbean sugar plantations and opposed abolition in Parliament. (The Church apologised earlier this year.) It needs to be stressed that there was nothing specifically Christian about this atrocity: Muslim Arab traders were equally guilty, and someone from there should consider an apology as well.

However, I would urge Blair and Britain to postpone the 200th anniversary by about ninety years to 2115. That would mark the genuine end of the slave trade by Britain. How? The Empire still needed slave labour for its sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations in remote, far-flung corners of the world. When it could not ravage Africa by law, it simply turned to its existing brown colonies. The new slaves were not called slaves; they were described as "indentured labour". Slavery by any other name still stinks. And so Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were shanghaied off across the "seven seas" to West Indies, Mauritius, Fiji. Where do you think a quarter of the present West Indies cricket team comes from, whether Hindu (Chanderpaul) or Muslim (Dave Mohammed)? Or where Mauritius’ Prime Ministers come from. India is going to get a base in the Indian Ocean on one of the Mauritian islands at least partly because of bonds that make Bhojpuri an integral part of the patois that is spoken in Mauritius.

When Blair’s successor in 2115 issues his semi-apology, he should thank a man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The abolition of indentured labour was Gandhi’s first notable success against the British Empire.

In the meantime, could Tony Blair please apologise for Iraq?