Sunday, June 29, 2008

War and Consequences

Byline by M.J. Akbar :War and Consequences
In a delicious irony, American policy towards Iran has shifted 180 degrees. In the last few days America has announced that it will open a diplomatic presence in Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad's Tehran. This has to be seen in the context of both the original break with Tehran after the Islamic Revolution and the dramatic seizure of the American embassy three decades ago, and Bush denunciation of Iran as the villain in chief of the Axis of Evil.

George Bush went to war in Iraq in order to create a new Middle East. Six years later, much to the shock of his allies and the horror of perceptive Americans, he has. The shock and horror arise from the fact that the Middle East has been changed by the Bush intervention in a direction sharply divergent from America’s fundamental interests as perceived by the Bush doctrine.

The Middle East was a term coined in 1903 by an American naval historian and strategic thinker, at the very height of British power across the world, when the Boers had been defeated in South Africa, the Ottomans had been virtually displaced from their most important colony Egypt, the Arabian Sea confirmed as a British lake and India itself was preparing to celebrate the glory of the Raj with a glittering durbar summoned by the Viceroy of Viceroys, Lord Curzon. India was a bulwark of this concept called the Middle East, a fortress of trade and imperial might that had neo-colonised China, and supplied the bulk of the troops for British expansion. The rupee was king from Singapore to Jeddah.

When George Bush’s team visualised their new map of the world they included India in what they termed the ‘Greater Middle East’. India was not an intrinsic part of the new power flows, but it was integrated once again as the fortress of the East. Since India was run by Indians rather than British allies, Indians had to be co-opted into the engineering of the new design. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the man for the job.

Six years later Project Greater Middle East is tottering all across this strategic map. In Delhi the Singh government has been unable to bear the burden of an alliance with Bush. The Congress encouraged the illusion, with the help of a cabal of analysts, publicists and lobbyists, that the Left was a lapdog rather than a watchdog, and could be either appeased by a bone or silenced with a stick. When the moment came to choose, the Congress stood with Bush instead of Prakash Karat. The official excuse for this decision is energy. But this is deception. Dr Manmohan Singh deliberately sabotaged a much cheaper and more immediate source of energy for the country when he deliberately undermined the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, raising one false spectre after another to mislead the country, so that it would seem that there was no option but to go ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal. We have forgotten now that the first objection he raised, three years ago, was that financing would be a problem. This is not raised anymore since it is obvious that finance would be easily available at a time of rising energy prices. Countries like Russia are ready to invest in overseas projects of this nature even with equity participation as the present Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (chairman of Gazprom from 2000 to 2008) has confirmed. A second scare was puffed up: the unrest in Balochistan. This did not travel when Iran and Pakistan laughed it off. The real problem was always the fact that American legislators had made India’s relations with Iran a condition of their support for the deal. The best oil minister we have had in memory, Mani Shankar Aiyar, was suddenly removed from his job because he was more sceptical of America than the Prime Minister’s latitude permitted.

In a delicious irony, American policy towards Iran has shifted 180 degrees. In the last few days America has announced that it will open a diplomatic presence in Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad's Tehran. This has to be seen in the context of both the original break with Tehran after the Islamic Revolution and the dramatic seizure of the American embassy three decades ago, and Bush denunciation of Iran as the villain in chief of the Axis of Evil. This should be sufficient to resurrect the ghost of Senator Henry Hyde, who ensured that there were 18 references to Iran in the Act that gave legislative approval for the Indo-US nuclear deal. Add to this the fact that Bush has repeatedly threatened war to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities and we begin to get an idea of the degree of capitulation — or return to realism — in American policy.

America is learning to live with the consequences of Bush's war. The single biggest beneficiary of the Iraq misadventure has been Iran. Before 9/11 Iran was chained by international diplomatic sanctions and hostile neighbours: a virulently anti-Islamic Revolution Saddam Hussein and a virulently anti-Shia Taliban. America cleared the Taliban out of Kabul and Saddam out of Baghdad for its own reasons, but no one thanked America more than the Ayatollahs in Tehran, although they may not have advertised their applause. Even as America got swamped by two wars that refused to end, Tehran used the new opportunity to strengthen its allies till they rose from the margins to the frontlines: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

At the heart of the Arab conflict with Israel, Iran's allies are in control: Hezbollah dominates Lebanon while Hamas continues to increase its influence in Palestine. In another dramatic turnaround, Israel has been forced into substantive peace talks with Syria, and has agreed to place the Golan Heights, advertised since 1967 as sacrosanct to its safety, on the negotiating table.

These shifts pale before the impact that American intervention has had on Iraq. For better or worse is not the real issue; there are new facts and we have to deal with them. Under Saddam, Iraq was a secular, anti-Ayatollah dictatorship. Under America, Iraq has become a Shia dominated democracy with a religious ethos and excellent relations with Iran, another fact that the Bush administration finds it convenient to ignore. The Baghdad government is also beginning to assert itself against America. Washington wants a security pact with Baghdad which is a carbon copy of the pact that the British imposed on Iraq in 1930 as a condition of granting “independence”. The one significant difference is that while Britain was content with two permanent military bases in Iraq, America wants 58. It was in this blithe spirit that Bush dismissed a question about when all American troops would leave the country. America still had troops in Korea, Japan and Germany, so why not forever in Iraq? Permanent is a very American term in Bush’s lexicon. Even the pro-American administration in Baghdad is beginning to baulk at this language of hegemony. Nor will the Arab world remain a mute spectator.

The change that Bush wanted in the Middle East has merely begun but the arc will not move in the direction of Bush’s dreams.

The one success that Bush can flaunt is in North Korea, the only region where Bush opted for diplomacy — hard and meaningful — instead of the rush of war. Given the enormity of damage he has done elsewhere, this is minor relief. There is a Hindi proverb that might sum up the Bush achievement: khoda pahaar, nikli chuhiya (he dug a mountain, and there emerged a rat).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Are economic reforms the solution to communal riots?

Croissants & Crescents:
Are economic reforms the solution to communal riots?
By M J Akbar (22 June, 2008)

Are economic reforms the solution to the Great Indian Curse, Hindu-Muslim riots? Economic reforms began in 1991. Between 1991 and 2008 there have been only two major outbursts of Hindu-Muslim conflagration, both connected to old wounds, in 1992-93 after the Babri episode and then six years ago in Gujarat. Those who take this comparative peace for granted might want to recall that riots had become endemic in cities like Ahmedabad and Hyderabad by the Eighties, and there was carnage in Bhagalpur, Bihar in 1989.

Are these disparate facts by any chance related?

Reforms have altered the culture of business, easing, unintentionally, a few genuine reasons for Muslim anger, like discrimination in private sector jobs. With products protected from competition and capital available through cozy deals, the closed economy businessman could afford the luxury of bias in hiring. The reforms economy is both more ruthless and more ruthful. Profit is its central compulsion. The stock market has no religion and only one faith: higher share values. Companies must hire on the basis of merit and maximum worth for every salary given.
Moreover, urban violence is anathema to commerce. In a city like Mumbai you can either have riots or a rising market. A bear might waddle into this market for any number of reasons, but a bull will never show its face if the city is in acrid flames.

Competition among small businesses used to be another reason for violence in medium-sized towns like Varanasi and Moradabad. The post-reform environment has suddenly expanded space for opportunity. You no longer need to wrestle for crumbs in a tight circle. The market has exploded. If you can create the product it will find its niche. Muslim businessmen in Calcutta can sell leather products on mobile phone to customers in Europe.

Have we reached then what might be called an Obama moment for Indian Muslims? I refer only tangentially to his startling ascent in democratic politics, and more particularly to his revolutionary speech to fellow African-Americans (as son of a goat-herder in Kenya he is more immediately African than the descendants of slaves). Obama told Black America that it was time to get out of the irresponsible sloth that was destroying families and turning the community into parasites — he did not use this phrase, but that is what he meant.

Indian Muslims cannot be accused of sloth. They have, indeed, to work harder to remain in the same place. Their big problem is a culture of self-pity fused with the politics of patronage, in which a demand for handouts becomes the principal motivator of their sentiment. This culture has been nurtured by successive governments who have given Indian Muslims the illusion of benefit, through a dribble of grants and denied Muslims a flourishing role in the economy. When the dole is inadequate, as it always is, self-pity sets in.

With the economy slowly seeping out of the control of governments and private sector bias unprofitable, a remarkable opportunity has opened up for Muslims as much as it has for other disadvantaged groups.

But this opportunity will not drop into their lap like manna from heaven. They have to make themselves equal to the opportunity. A revolution may be sweeping through the world around them, but in order to join it they must know how to open the doors of their mind.
The greatest enemies of Muslims are poverty, lack of education and gender bias. Common sense suggests that the three are linked. Muslims now fully understand the vital role of education, and thirst for English and its attendant benefits. But conservative elements retain their tight clamp on gender bias.

One reason why India has begun to lift out of economic stagnation is because of the social reforms that Jawaharlal Nehru initiated through the Hindu Code Bill. If Muslim families deny the girl child her rightful place in a modern world, they will only abort the community's productivity and potential by half.

Unless Muslims eliminate gender bias, they will not reap the extraordinary benefits of the twentieth century, never mind the 21st.

Appeared in Times of India, June 22, 2008

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Fine Art of Doing Nothing (Covert)

Covert: The Fine Art of Doing Nothing
By M J Akbar

COVERT (15TH-30th JUNE 2008)

Sensible politicians are wary of big words: they never know when one will rebound and bite them, with painful consequences. The philosophy of power is one word too many in a phrase about politics. Politicians keep their nose to the ground, philosophy out of their thoughts, and their conscience in a safe deposit vault, so that, while it remains out of sight, it can always be taken out, brushed up and put on display when expedient.

And yet, everyone who exercises power does so on the basis of some logic, even if we cannot in justice extend its meaning to the expanse of a philosophy. You have to be not merely very brave, but also intellectually robust to be a disciple of Kautilya, or even of Machiavelli. Their treatises on governance are more comprehensive and demanding than their one-liner reputations might lead you to believe. The only Indian Prime Minister who saw himself as a potential Kautilya, as early as in the 1930s, and had the intellectual bravado to pull it off in the 1950s, was Jawaharlal Nehru. Mrs Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee had read enough to appreciate the nuances of a Kautilya, but they chose to stress different elements of the Arthashastra prescription, creating vastly different medicines for the national health.

No Government of India has been as minimalist as the UPA regime. For over four years now it has survived on a simple basis: Do nothing, and nothing unfortunate will happen.

There are some good reasons for this.

The central motivation of the UPA coalition has been fear of failure. It wanted to survive in office above all else. It knew that the alliance was brittle, and so compromised on two basic elements of power. No action was ever taken on the corruption or misrule of ministers, for fear that it would break the alliance. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not possibly have had two standards on corruption, a wink for allies like the DMK, and a taskmaster’s discipline for Congress ministers. So when DMK ministers began raking in the loot like there was no tomorrow (and maybe for some of them there isn’t) Congress ministers welcomed the signal. They got a free ride on a highway without tolls, and, being seasoned Congressmen, devised artful and even brilliant forms of bribery. I believe the fashionable thing to do now is to ignore silly old cash, and settle for benaami equity in private sector companies. Ministers with less imagination used power to get benefits for companies owned by relatives. Ritu Sarin of the Indian Express has done some superb investigation of how rules were bent and laws broken to favour a distillery owned by Home Minister Shivraj Patil’s son Shailesh. You only associated the Home Minister with starched clothes, white shoes, pomade and cluelessness, did you? Well, he had a distillery up his armpit.

What will happen?


Any action might cost Dr Singh his job and his boss, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, her reputation.

The Hindustan Times story on uranium might not have the drama of the Express investigation but it is, in a sense, even more damaging. It undermines the very basis of Dr Singh’s arguments in defence of the Indo-US nuclear deal, that India needs foreign uranium for its civil nuclear programme. As Neelesh Misra reports, “India has been sitting on massive, untapped reserves of uranium, hundreds of tonnes of which have been discovered over the past couple of years – adding to the over 1 lakh tonnes already identified in Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.” That is enough for our requirements for at least 40 years. Why did the Prime Minister keep this a closely guarded secret for four years?

What will happen? Why, nothing of course. To do anything would mean that the Prime Minister would have to appear on national television and cough discreetly before declaring himself guilty of misleading the country.

Dr Singh learnt what little he knows of politics from P.V. Narasimha Rao, a Prime Minister who perfected the art of doing nothing, and flaunted indecision as a decision. The epitome of this model was reached on 6 December 1992 when, in an unparalleled display of comatose indifference Rao did nothing while the Babri mosque was being destroyed through the day. Singh was Finance Minister then, and arguably the most important minister after Rao. What did Dr Singh do? So much of nothing that you could write a book on silence out of it. But here is the surprise. The government got away with it. Rao manipulated the still dominant government audiovisual media from the evening of 6 December, sold a lie, and the Congress won a handsome victory in the Assembly elections held a year later.

Moral of the story? If you do nothing successfully enough, you can always drift back to power. The danger of doing nothing is that it can become a habit. Witness how government has tackled rising prices. Measures against inflation should have been put in place in December last year. The government did nothing. By March this horse, inflation, had bolted. However hard the government slams the door now, the damage is done.

Narasimha Rao could legitimately claim some redemption in his record. He did do something in one area, the economy. He might not have done what he did were it not for the financial emergency he inherited; and he certainly could have done more, as Dr Singh would attest. But economic reforms will stand against his name. The record of the last four years, in contrast, is marked by only one significant departure from the norm: the Indo-US nuclear deal. That deal seems to have been sacrificed to survival. The Dr Singh years add up to a fragile zero. Perhaps the Prime Minister is beginning to understand this. Those who saw him on television asking ministers to stop going abroad in order to save Indians from the whiplash of rising prices were not overly impressed.

His mien was never very colourful, although he could be brisk. If he began as a grey man, he has deepened towards an ashy pallor. The price of power was visible in his eyes. You might imagine that if you do nothing, nothing will happen to you. Your eyes betray you.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

How Pakistan insulates India from terror

Croissants & Crescents:
How Pakistan insulates India from terror
- M J Akbar June 15, 2008

A few days ago, the government of Pakistan abandoned a ceasefire pact with insurgents operating across the tribal Pakistan-Afghanistan border, reached by Pervez Musharraf but reasserted by his successors in power. On June 11, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, said in Washington that any future terrorist attack on his country would probably originate in this region, known by its acronym, FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). This had become the most secure base of al-Qaida, he added, after the fall of the Taliban in Kabul.

Why has al-Qaida become a cancerous bone in Pakistan's throat, with the country neither able to digest it or spit it out? There is general agreement across different elements of the Pakistan establishment that swallowing this bone will infect the body politic beyond cure. But instead of surgery, there is a paralytic helplessness as al-Qaida and Taliban beliefs and prescriptions seep into street, village and towards the foot soldiers that form the core of any armed force.

Both the army and newly elected democrats fumble when faced with a basic, if provocative, query: Why is Islamabad fighting America's war against fellow Muslims? The overlap between Pakistan's 'national' interest and the interests of the 'Muslim ummah' has been further blurred in the northwest frontier by a shared ethnicity that has never recognized the Durand Line as a barrier between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Islamabad's dilemma revives a question that raged on the sidelines of the Partition debate between 1940 and 1947: Could united India ever have a secure border on its northwest frontier? The Khyber Pass was the traditional "gate" to Delhi. Would the Muslims of the region, and their brethren in the united Indian Army, secure the gate or open it for any Muslim invaders? The British, it is commonly known, regretted the division of the British Indian Army much more than they regretted the partition of British India. Others were not so sure. Among them was Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, the great Dalit hero who considered himself neither Hindu nor Muslim and was thus above the growing bitterness between the two.

The Secretary of State for India revealed, a trifle reluctantly, the ethnic composition of the British Indian Army in the House of Commons on July 8, 1943: Muslims were 34%, Hindus 50%, Sikhs 10% and the rest 6%. But these were wartime statistics, when emergency recruitment had altered the traditional balance, or imbalance. It was believed that the Muslim proportion of the peacetime British Indian Army, driven by the "martial races" theory and the belief that Frontier Muslims were superior soldiers, might be as high as 50%. There was no question that the army of a united India would retain a high percentage of Muslims, largely recruited from the frontier; political pressure from Muslims would ensure as much.

Would Muslim soldiers be immune to the lure of pan-Islamism? The Muslim League had resolved that the Indian Army should not be used against Muslim powers, conflating Indian and pan-Islamic interests. It was also recalled that during the Khilafat movement (1919-1922), Muslims displayed potentially explosive angularities. Maulana Mohammad Ali had invited the Amir of Afghanistan to invade India and conquer Delhi with the help of an Indian uprising.

Dr Ambedkar argued that India was better off divided, because it could not remain a secure state with such confused loyalties at its porous crown. A new 'Hindustan' army, created out of the resources of divided India, would be untroubled by dual loyalties. Given that Pakistan has few answers to the incessant diet of bombs and suicide missions, we need only to pause and consider the havoc that a strong Qaida-Taliban movement would have caused across the cities of the Indian subcontinent if it had not been substantially, though not completely, insulated by the Indo-Pak border. Imagine the nightmare of an undivided India.

Indian Muslims, who consciously opted for their motherland, paid a heavy price: they were not to be fully trusted with the defence of India. No one doubted their patriotism in the 1962 conflict with China, but during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, they were picked up arbitrarily and detained without trial by the Congress government of Lal Bahadur Shastri. The heroism of Havildar Abdul Hamid was treated as an exception. This prejudice was a major reason for minimal Muslim presence in the Indian Army and police services.

The Indian Muslim mind shifted from a pseudo-glorification of the idea of Pakistan in the 1940s to fear, resentment and uncertainty over the next two decades. Bangladesh was the turning point; it was clinching evidence that Pakistan was not a paradise for Muslims, but the preserve of a regional culture and mentality that was not ready to treat every Muslim as an equal. Indian Muslims abandoned, completely, any residual temptation for Pakistan. This is not just my effort to be politically correct. There is evidence: the complete lack of interest that Indian Muslims have displayed towards the Kashmiri insurrection has puzzled and frustrated the self-styled "pan-Islamic jihadi" organizations who expected Indian Muslim support in the effort to terrorize the Indian state and people.

When Indian Muslims get angry, they do so for their own reasons, not for Pakistan's. Muslims born in free India are not ready to be victimized for the mistakes of their fathers. This is an assertion of equality, part of the confidence gifted to them by the unique democratic values of the Indian Constitution.

The violent Sikh upsurge of the 1980s reminded India that there was more than one potentially hazardous minority, and that the politics of indifference could not be sustained.

The most heartening image of contemporary India, to me, are the slightly funny pictures of young Muslims puffing their chests to meet physical criterion during periodic recruitment drives for the Indian Army or paramilitary forces.

I wish Indian politicians would appreciate that the politics of patronage is no substitute for the politics of indifference. Patronage is essentially demeaning, and serves only small Muslim cliques who enrich themselves at the cost of the community. The Indian Muslim wants to be treated as an equal. He is waiting for the establishment to appreciate the true nuances of the term.

Appeared in Times of India, June 15, 2008

Equality is a right, not a favour for Muslims

Equality is a right, not a favour for Muslims
- M J Akbar 08 June, 2008

A potent threat to Indian secularism comes not from its perceived enemies but from a section of the vanguard, the secular fundamentalists: those ideologues who forget that an Indian's identity — as distinct from India's identity — is shaped substantially by his faith.

The Congress that gave us freedom and reshaped India never made this mistake. The three venerable icons of secularism are a Mahatma, a Pandit and a Maulana. Their faith was gentle, culturally harmonious and hence quintessentially Indian. They protected the power of religion from the dangers of religiosity.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was anointed Mahatma during the Khilafat-non-cooperation movement of 1919- 1922, an inspiring instance of Hindu-Muslim unity in the common cause of nationalism. Gandhi aborted this awesome upsurge suddenly, after Chauri Chaura, to the bitter disappointment of particularly the Muslims, who had staked their all on his leadership. A chastised Gandhi often said that the term 'Mahatma' stank in his nostrils, but he never abandoned it. He did not need the title. But he knew that Indians needed a Mahatma as father figure of a nation awaiting rebirth. He understood that Hindus wanted this promise to be a Ram Rajya.

Abul Kalam Azad was a genuine Maulana, whose tafseer (analysis and translation) of the Holy Quran commands respect, and whose oratory soared above the high levels of his contemporaries. Among Azad's early enthusiasms, quickly abandoned, was an organisation called Hizbollah, or Party of Allah: you might be familiar with the name from the present politics of the Middle East.

But when did Jawaharlal Nehru become a Pandit? Nehru's liberal-democratic worldview was shaped by an European education and Indo-European sensibility. His personal lifestyle preferences were hardlly 'native'. Details of his breakfast need not detain us; suffice to note that they would not appear on the table of an orthodox Brahmin club. 'Pandit' was a political gesture, shaped by Gandhi, towards a conscious identification with an Indian reality. Indira Gandhi took care to visit the temple of Lord Krishna on his birthday. Their political heirs have lost this subliminal connect with the Indian psyche.

Indian Marxists, still convinced that class is the predominant determinant, are still reeling from the uppercut they received from Bengali Muslims in the recently held panchayat elections. Their grief is mixed with resentment: they gave Muslims protection from riots, and is this the reward? Peace was their sole exchange rate for the Muslim vote. It was a patronising view of secularism.
The CPM has not changed in three decades of power in Bengal, but the Bengali Muslim has. The young Bengali Muslim does not want to be a protected species. He believes he is an equal under the Indian Constitution. Safety of life is his right, not a favour. He wants jobs, education and healthcare, like the Bengali Hindu. And he wants the protection of his faith-identity. Biman Bose, the state party chief, attributed his party's sudden implosion to the corruption of its cadre. If that was the principal reason, the CPM ebb tide would have begun three elections ago. The tectonic shift has been led by the change in the Muslim vote.

Here is a paradoxical thought. The most successful Muslim leader of the 20th century, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was a secular-fundamentalist in his personal life, and a man with a single-point mission in his politics: security for Muslims. Jinnah had open contempt for Gandhi ("That Hindu revivalist!"). Jinnah was privately contemptuous of the Muslim mullahs. He understood only the law, and convinced himself that equality for Muslims could never be achieved in any Constitution acceptable to an united India.

Six decades later, Bengali Muslims are upending that logic. Their politics is born out of the self-confidence of equality. They have the right, as much as a Bengali Hindu, to tell the state that law and order is a duty and not a gift. They insist on stretching security to faith, food, incomes and jobs. The fog of uncertainty in which the fear psychosis of the 1940s flourished has given way to the clarity of a citizen's rights, and the anger of citizens denied their due. Jinnah, incidentally, was perceptive to say, at one point, that the passions of Indian Muslims were like soda water. He maximised its power before the water went flat.

But the new power of Muslims is stable; it is the power of an equal. Jinnah, it is not widely known, enjoyed going to the races in Bombay. In 1946, just a year before Pakistan was born, he gave a tip to a friend, telling him to bet on a horse called Hindustan, which was giving odds of nearly seven to one. The friend protested: how could Jinnah recommend anything called 'Hindustan'? "Never mind," said Jinnah, "it is only a horse."

Two generations later, Hindustan is showing the pedigree of a champion, galloping ahead despite the scepticism of punters who gave it no better odds than seven to one. Indian Muslims want to gallop to victory on that horse, for it belongs to them as much as it does to any other Indian community.

(Appeared in Times of India, Mumbai)

The myth of forced Islamic conversions

The myth of forced Islamic conversions
- M J Akbar 25 May 2008

An insidious debate has been initiated in the United States as conservatives watch, with obvious horror, the ascent of Barack Obama. Their campaign to label him a closet Muslim failed. Could he, however, be rebranded as the world's most powerful, and hence vulnerable, apostate — a few notches ahead of Salman Rushdie? Edward Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote recently: "In Islam...there is no such thing as a half-Muslim...As the son of a Muslim father, Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion...(Obama) chose to become a Christian...His conversion, however, was a crime in Muslim eyes; it is 'irtidad' or 'ridda' (apostasy)...the recommended punishment is beheading at the hands of a cleric."

The point is sharp; it can only be blunted by an answer.

Three weeks ago, in early May, the Shariah High Court of the northern Malaysian state of Penang ruled that Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah, a 39-year-old Chinese cake-seller, could return to her original faith, Buddhism. She had converted in order to marry an Iranian, but argued that she had never become a true believer. The Shariah court accepted her plea and blamed her husband and the religious authorities for failing to educate Siti. "I am very happy," said Siti, "I want to go to the temple to pray and give thanks."

The only surprise is that anyone should be surprised. Contrary to the fire-and-sword image that has been constructed, forcible conversion is prohibited in Islam. Even conversion based on an inadequate understanding of the faith is unacceptable, as in the case of Siti. You cannot be a believer if you do not believe, and belief cannot be forced down your throat.

Verse 256 of the second Surah is unambiguous: La iqraha fi al-deen (Let there be no compulsion in religion). Abdullah Yusuf Ali, whose translation of the Quran is recognized across the world, explains, "Compulsion is incompatible with religion because religion is based upon faith and will, and these would be meaningless if induced by force..." A second verse of the Quran reinforces the message: La qum din a qum wal ya-din (Your religion for you and my religion for me).

It is axiomatic that no new faith can grow without conversion; only Sikhism is younger than Islam. Equally, every faith discourages the faithful from abandoning their beliefs: this is why there is a persistent demand by some Hindu leaders for a ban on conversions in our country. Verse 106 of Surah 16 promises the "Wrath of Allah" and a "dreadful penalty" upon "anyone who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters unbelief". But it is vital to note that there is no earthly punishment for apostasy in the Quran. Judgment is left to Allah, the ultimate arbiter. Another verse (2:217) sends apostates to hell, but, as the Encyclopedia of Islam confirms, "In the Quran, the apostate is threatened with punishment in the next world." In a specific case, the Prophet consoled and welcomed back a Muslim called Ammar, who had, under severe torture, uttered a word that could be construed as recantation.

There is no Quranic case, therefore, for inflicting any harm upon Obama. His father lived among Muslims even after he had renounced his faith. As a product of Yale in Kenya, his father was hardly an unknown figure. But there is no record of any fatwa ordering the beheading of Obama's father at the hands of a cleric.

So where is the problem? The problem lies among some — not all — jurists who used one narrative (known as traditions) from accounts of the Prophet's life in which it is said whoever changes his religion shall be put to death. As Rafiq Zakaria points out (Muhammad and the Quran, Penguin, 1991) this "contradicts the tenor of a mass of other traditions and, therefore, cannot be relied. It also contradicts the verses in the Quran that speak of freedom of worship".
The faith often has to be rescued from the excesses of the faithful.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims will react to a President Obama on the basis of how he manages to take his nation out of the war that George Bush launched across wide swathes of the Muslim world, founded on false assumptions and fuelled by false rhetoric. If Barack Obama finds more comfort in Christianity than Islam, he is more than welcome to his convictions: Your religion for you, President, and my religion for me.

Appeared in Times of India, 25th May 2008

There's something about Indian secularism

There's something about Indian secularism
-M J AKBAR 18 May 2008

The Muslim bid for the conquest of Western Europe ended in the stifling summer of 1683, when Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, son-in-law and commander of the forces of Sultan Mehmed IV, retreated from the gates of Vienna on September 12 after a two-month siege. He had been invested with the highest honours of the Ottoman Empire, the Imperial Seal and the Key to Kaaba; his standard was no less than the Sancaci Sheriff, the Holy Banner. On the last Saturday in December, Christmas Day, he paid the price of defeat: two executioners sent by his father-in-law waited for him to complete his mid-day prayers, then throttled him. The Turk, "the terror of the world" in Shakespeare's line, master of eastern Europe, and Islam, had been stopped before they could race through disunited Germany and France.

The war over the croissant is still without a victor. On page 365, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary refers you to "crescent" when you peer through a magnifying glass at "croissant". In slightly quaint English, "crescent" is thus described: "Adopted as a badge or emblem by the Turkish Sultan, and used within their dominions as a military and religious this has been to Christendom in recent times the most formidable and aggressive Mohammedan power and rhetorically to symbolize the Mohammedan religion as a political force, and so opposed to the Cross as a 'symbol of Christianity'." Europe described a Turkish Jihad as a Crescentade; the British used this term to describe the Barelvi upsurge in India that lasted for half of the 19th century.

How did an image of Islam become a breakfast favourite of Catholic France? Popular legend has it that a Viennese baker, working at night, heard a subterranean rumble, alerted the authorities and thus uncovered Turks tunnelling their way below the city walls. He asked for no greater reward than the exclusive right to bake pastries named after the crescent. Voila, the croissant!

Turks have a less romantic view. They believe that the Viennese learnt the art of making the croissant, and drinking coffee, from them during that long siege.

Does it matter what the truth is? The croissant is perhaps the most pleasant byproduct of war in history; others are less savoury. The Western image of the Muslim in modern times was created largely by fear of the Turk, the terror of Shakespeare's age. Muslim armies twice threatened the heart of Europe, once when the Arabs crushed Visigoth opposition in Spain in 711 and soon reached within a hundred miles of Paris, leading Gibbon to famously wonder whether the azaan would have been heard from the minarets of Oxford.

The second time was when the Turks swept up to Serbia and Belgrade, swallowed Constantinople and reached the doors of Vienna via Budapest. The extraordinary success of Muslim arms created a reputation of invincibility, breeding fear. Fear is the father of prejudice; prejudice the mother of distortion. The Sultan's harem, for instance, was extended into the image of the "lustful Turk", staple of Victorian erotica, rather than treated as a privilege of the ruling class, familiar in other societies as well. Every Turk, and by extension every Muslim, became a fornicator and potential rapist. The scimitar became a symbol of inequity and forced conversion despite evidence to the contrary: Muslims ruled in Spain for nearly eight centuries, but never was the Muslim population more than 25%. A sword is surely more effective.

When the great age of colonization made European powers masters of the world, they took their prejudice against Muslims along, infected local attitudes and shaped divisive policies. Muslim armies came to India in the same year as the Arabs entered Spain; Muslim settlements were already present along the Indian coast. Hindus and Muslims have lived together for thirteen centuries. But there is no Dante in literature written by Hindus; that is, there is not a single instance of any Hindu writer having vilified the Prophet of Islam. Similarly, there is, to my knowledge, not a single Muslim writer who was abusive towards Lord Ram or Hanuman. Indian secularism is quintessentially different from that of the West. It is not the separation of state and religion, but space for the other: coexistence on the basis of mutual respect. I do not have to believe in Hanuman to respect my Hindu brother's right to believe in the Ramayana; the Hindu does not need to believe in Allah to respect my belief in the miracle of the Holy Koran.

The world is beginning to appreciate India's brains. It should take another look at India's heart.

Appeared in Times of India, 18th May 2008

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Calculator vs Calendar

Calculator vs Calendar
M.J. Akbar

Mrs Sonia Gandhi would not be out in this heat, which also means that it is more difficult to obtain a crowd, without an agenda and almost certainly a calendar. Do they indicate a general election in November? India is a large country, and the sooner you begin the better. You could argue that she is on the road, using her credibility to explain her government's policies.

Has Mrs Sonia Gandhi begun the Congress campaign for the next general election? June has already witnessed a trip to Mizoram after a decade and a half; later in the month, she will be in Aurangabad on a schedule that has taken the Maharashtra Congress a bit by surprise. The Northeast and Maharashtra are regions where support for her party has softened, but, according to her strategists, not beyond recovery. If the Congress cannot retain these seats, it is going to be in boiling hot water.

The theme of her speech is also a marker for the party's election campaign. It will flog the Indo-US nuclear deal as the panacea for all ills, hoping to solve two problems with one promise. The logic runs thus: the deal will make us independent of that evil thing called oil, which has created this vile inflation. Not our fault, brothers and sisters: it's either OPEC or the Marxists, take your pick. By placing it on the election agenda, Mrs Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will also hope to blunt post-election objections by the Left, arguing that the deal has been purified by electoral holy water. It is not an argument that will change the Left, but the Congress believes that the Left will be a much-chastened force, depleted by as many as 20 MPs from its current strength, while the Congress will return with its numbers more or less intact. If its current crop of allies withers away, it will use the leeway of time offered by a generous President of India to woo replacements from the Third Front or even the NDA ensemble. To be more specific, Mulayam Singh Yadav and his MPs will be invited to join the government the next time, instead of doing duty for five years near the door, waiting for crumbs to descend from the Prime Minister's high table. If Lalu Yadav collapses, intermediaries will rush to Nitish Kumar and attempt to wean him away from the BJP; and Naveen Patnaik of Orissa will always be welcome in the name of secularism. In any case, the Congress will not be vulnerable to Marxist "blackmail".

The only thorn amidst the roses of such a scenario is that it might be one year too late. Such an election outcome would have been far more likely if the Congress had gone to the polls last August, when the Left took a final decision to stop the Indo-US nuclear deal. The immediate Congress response was aggressive. The Prime Minister dared the Left to do its worst, and Mrs Gandhi went on the offensive during a speech in Haryana.

But it was a very different world in August 2006. The BJP was still in utter disarray. The Gujarat elections had not taken place, so the Congress had not been routed there: the BJP's self-confidence only began to return with that result. The nuclear debate still evoked a frisson of excitement from the urban Indian middle-class, which has convinced itself that America adds a Midas' touch to their present and future [the Greenback Dollar may be undergoing palpitations currently, but no Midas was ever more attractive than the Almighty Green Card]. That frisson has flattened. The middle class, whose interest had peaked with the media campaign of last year, has a question now: if the deal was genuinely crucial to the national interest, why didn't the Congress defy the Marxists and go ahead? Was survival in power for a few months more important for the Congress than the national interest?

For more than one reason, an election last autumn would have seen a return of the Congress-led coalition to Delhi. But that moment was lost, apparently because Congress' allies were not ready to forsake the comforts of office for 18 months in pursuit of that roulette game called elections. Lalu Yadav and Sharad Pawar went public with their objections; and the DMK murmured its unhappiness in the typical half-bitten vowels that are its political trademark.

Nine months later, the environment is besieged by concerns that are far more potentially fatal to a ruling coalition. Inflation and economic mismanagement have eroded its support. No one yet knows who will win the next general elections, but there is growing belief about who will lose it. Last August, a Sheila Dikshit would have ensured a Congress victory in most of the seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi. This year the Delhi voter, still enamoured of Mrs Dikshit, is wondering if there is any way by which it can retain her but demolish the Congress. [There isn't. You either get both or neither. ]

When the body weakens it attracts the most curious ailments. If Mrs Sonia Gandhi goes to Vidarbha in Maharashtra, another traditional Congress seat-catchment area, and picks up a few sounds from the ground, she will hear a question from the fertiliser-and-hope-starved farmer. He watches television. He knows about the 20-20 cricket tournament organised by Sharad Pawar. He now knows that the state government, doubtless under pressure from the patron, waived away the entertainment tax on stadium tickets, losing more than a hundred crores with just this one decision. The farmer is asking why this money could not have been collected and used to alleviate the difficult conditions he faces.

Mrs Sonia Gandhi would not be out in this heat, which also means that it is more difficult to obtain a crowd, without an agenda and almost certainly a calendar. Do they indicate a general election in November? India is a large country, and the sooner you begin the better. You could argue that she is on the road, using her credibility to explain her government's policies. But why waste credibility on a practice match, rather than the real tournament? The most reasonable assessment, in the absence of any confirmation, is that Mrs Gandhi's tours are a precaution against the sudden necessity of going to polls before winter, along with elections to five states that have to be held by then.

The cynical school of Congress thought, always a large and ever-increasing academy, believes that a November election would serve no purpose other than slicing three months of power, with its attendant lucrative benefits. But each month of delay will mean a few seats less for the Congress, not more. The Congress party is staring obsessively at a calendar just now. Someone should also bring out a calculator.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Secret Diaries of Manmohan, Advani

The Secret Diaries of Manmohan, Advani
- By M.J. Akbar
COVERT (1-15TH JUNE 2008)

How could my fellow-traveller Buddhadeb Bhattacharya call me the worst Prime Minister India has had? That stung. I rather like Buddha. I know his type, a sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing. I’ve done my bit of lip-service to socialism. What option did one have if you wanted some trajectory up the old Congress bureaucracy greasy pole? Indira Gandhi would spread nonalignment at breakfast and turn pink with the salad over lunch: poor dear, no one told her that nationalization and nationalism are not quite the same thing.

Rajiv was different. His instinct told him that this socialist claptrap might be good for the ballot box but would not do for the economy, dear boy. But Bofors blew him away before he could merge his brains to his instinct. However, all this jargon did help when Chandra Shekhar – I wish he had stopped wiping tears out of the eyes of the poor in every speech – became Prime Minister. He kept me in play with probably the last decision of his brief and unlamented term, when he put me at the head of University Grants Commission. That may not sound a big deal when you are Prime Minister, but it is one huge blessing when you are a retired babu in Delhi.

Like a good bureaucrat, I have always believed in what the boss believes in. What a miracle, then, was 1991, the Year of the Great Counter Reformation: I finally got a boss who was persuaded to believe in what I believe in. Narasimha Rao had an intellect but no beliefs. That was helpful. When the call came he somersaulted right into the economic reform box.

I thought Buddha was one of us: spouting socialism as long as the feed came from there, and switching instantly to my old bank’s free-market-leave-the-poor-with-a-trickle thesis the moment we were sworn in. Ah, the pleasures of that great ebb and flow of intellectual dialogue in the World Bank canteen! I didn’t expect Buddha to have as much faith in America as I did, but then he wasn’t lucky enough to land a job at the World Bank. Studied Bengali at Presidency College, I gather. Pity he couldn’t get into Economics. We would have pulled him up to Delhi School of Economics, saved him from the Commies and made him leader of the Congress in Bengal by now. Buddha telephoned to apologise of course, but the explanation was thin: election rhetoric. Bah! I am an honest man. Everyone knows that. How can I help it if everyone in my Cabinet makes money? Why should I be called the worst Prime Minister?

I gave my country the Indo-US nuclear deal virtually single-handedly; even George was saying so. Well, not single-handedly; that is immodest. There were a few others, I must admit it. But who can deny that I brought my nation to the brink of an understanding with the United States that could make India America’s most important ally in Afro-Asia after Israel! We made history, and history will remember its maker! Those who oppose the deal are relics of a dead past! The Soviet Union is long dead, Comrades! I never criticized Buddha for being wrong on the nuclear deal; I could appreciate that he had to toe the party line. Why did he get personal with me just because the Congress has lost every election under my watch?

What I can’t understand is why the geeks of Bangalore never voted for the Congress after all I did for them. I don’t get it. The Indo-US deal is for their India! I’ve sacrificed my future for their future! And yet they’ve shifted to the awful BJP, which didn’t have the decency to support a deal that they would have happily done themselves. I only sold the right to test – which fool wants another bomb, in any case; the BJP would have sold the whole store! Politics is so unfair…

Young Prithviraj Chauhan was wrong when he said we lost Karnataka because Deve Gowda split the secular vote. Judging by the speed with which Gowda’s secular vote rushed towards the BJP rather than towards us, we are lucky Gowda held on to 16%. If he had sunk further, the margin between the BJP and us would have been greater.

I can’t understand why chaps keep talking of inflation as the reason for the Congress slump. My economic policies are beyond reproof. What have prices got to do with defeat? Millions of honest Kannadigas voted for Congress. Don’t you think their wives go to the market? If prices did not affect them, why should they affect anyone else? I can’t stop the price of oil from rising, can I – and when I offer peaceful nuclear energy in 2020 no one wants it! I could have been a Gulliver during these four years but little men from Lilliput have tied me up, made me immobile.
Let us face it, Dear Diary: this is a moment of introspection. I must be honest in my analysis, for I am an honest person. I was reading a Reuters report on the election results; it is a Western news agency, so it was unbiased. Reuters described the results as “another blow for the Centre-Left Congress party”.

That’s it. There lies the problem. The branding is wrong. Congress is now off-message. Bangalore doesn’t want a Congress that veers between Centre and Left. It wants one that veers between Centre and Right. We should rebrand the Congress as Right-Centre, because we are both Right and Centre. Must discuss it with the media boys in the office tomorrow, if I can find one who isn’t looking for another job.

Goodnight, Diary.

Extract from the Secret Diary of Lal Krishna Advani: It’s nightmare time again. I won’t be able to sleep. This is precisely what happened four years ago. We swept the Assembly polls, stepped out with confident stride, brought the general elections forward and fell into a big hole from which we still cannot quite get out. If I had to offer one explanation for that catastrophe, it was the smug look on the faces of all our chaps on television. That cost us the general election. I can see that same glimmer back on some BJP faces on television sets. My sweat is cold already: remember all those who predicted that the BJP would get 300 seats…

It doesn’t bother me a jot when television channels are critical of the BJP. That is probably advantageous. Who cares if their opinion polls give Congress twice the seats it eventually gets. It makes no difference to the voter. The BJP cannot be defeated by its foes. But God save the BJP from its friends!

Is there no one who will ban television news channels till the next general elections are over?