Sunday, September 28, 2008

Is it really Muslims whose credibility is at stake?

Is it really Muslims whose credibility is at stake?
By M J Akbar

There is nothing more subversive than the alternative narrative. A parallel version of the Godhra incident and riots sabotaged the re-election of the NDA government four years ago. A subaltern variation of the police operation at Batla House, near the Jamia Milia Islamia University on 19 September, is undermining the credibility of the Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi government today. It cannot undermine the credibility of home minister Shivraj Patil because he has none.

The first doubts began to circulate even while Patil, wearing a very self-satisfied expression on his face, began to congratulate himself in front of television cameras for delivering bullet-justice to two young men living in a small apartment of this building. He had, he said, personally supervised the encounter, presumably without taking any break whatsoever for fresh laundry.

Ironically, doubt needs the support of evidence. If it is mere partisan belligerence, it will last no longer than a puff of acrid smoke. Some things did not quite add up in the official story. It was, to use a phrase familiar from the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, the dog that did not bark that raised the first question. You rarely slip on hard concrete; it is generally the banana skin that turns a measured tread into a painful fall. The Rashomon effect, where the same event induces sharply different perspectives, can make for intriguing fiction; in real life, it can rip up communication lines carefully planted by a government trying to sell a fable.

The first question, followed by two photographs, began to dilute the triumphalism of the Delhi police even during the early phase of its self-glorification. The authorities noted, with satisfaction, that two 'terrorists' had been killed. They added that two had escaped from the rented urban cage where they lived, which was all they could afford. The deaths were explicable; the escape was not. The building had only one entrance, and hence only one exit. It was surrounded by policemen. How could the two escape?

When the murmur became a buzz, the police attempted damage control with a weak suggestion. The two could have escaped through the roof, hopping across rooftops. But it was daytime. The roofline was surely as closely monitored as the roadline. Neighbourhood eyes were tense and alert. Had anyone seen this acrobatic, even melodramatic, form of flight?


Two pictures propped up two ends of a growing conviction of foul play. One showed Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma, who lost his life, walking towards something, presumably the car that would take him to hospital, supported by two colleagues (one in a tie, the other in a T-shirt). His gunshot wound was obvious. There was a heavy patch of blood on the upper part of one arm, and only a faint discoloring on the lower front of his bush shirt, near the abdomen. Police had said that Sharma had died from a bullet in the stomach. The picture proved that the bullet had not hit the stomach, and that Sharma was able to come down four flights albeit with help. A bullet in the stomach would have left him a stretcher case, and caused far more blood loss, particularly through the exit wound.

The official story changed. The self-acclamation had been blared over media, the change was released discreetly, through a plant that said that he died of a heart attack caused by blood loss.
The questions multiplied: was Sharma hit by what is known in military parlance as 'friendly fire'?
The police would have been far more comfortable about their theories if some intrepid photographer had not snapped Sharma. The second picture, however, was part of their public relations offensive. It showed three suspects, Zia ur Rahman, Saqib Nishad and Mohammad Shakeel. As is usual in the case of suspects being put on display, their faces were covered with cloth: the police are gracious enough to disguise the identity of suspects for they cannot be deemed guilty until a court has passed judgment. But there was significant departure from normal practice. These three had been shrouded by Arab-style headdresses (made famous by Yasser Arafat, and now a staple of Arab identity in countless TV images) instead of the anonymous black cloth used by police.

Who had decided that these three suspects should be given an "Arab" identity? Was this a not-so-subliminal message to even the densest in the audience about the nature of the "enemy", that the headdress was a signature of "Islamic terrorism"? Did this brilliant idea emerge from the home minister, now the hands-on commander, or did it emerge from somewhere lower down the food chain?

Indian Muslims did not need to open a political dictionary to gauge the meaning of this forced symbolism? They knew that it was an attempt to stigmatize the whole community and link terrorism in India with an international conspiracy, with an implied hint at Osama bin Laden, the most famous Arab terrorist.

If the purpose of the UPA government's officialdom was to intensify fear of Muslims among non-Muslims, then it succeeded. Indian Muslims are used to being fearful - of riots, police prejudice and arbitrary authority. They have learnt to temper their response with realism. They believed in the government of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, if only because they reassured themselves that they had been primarily responsible, through intense electoral mobilization, in adding the crucial 20 odd seats to the Congress that enabled it to become the largest single party in the last general elections. That perception has been shifting slowly, almost reluctantly, because Muslims had no other national political anchor. The Jamia incident has become a wake-up call. The growing perception is that the UPA government has deliberately killed innocent men to satiate the demand for action against terrorism.

Is that the truth? I have no idea, because the truth is privy only to those who control the guns - on either side of the divide. But this much I do know. In public life, perception becomes the operative truth.

Appeared in Times of India - September 28, 2008

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fuse of self-destructive terrorism gets shorter

Byline by M J Akbar: Fuse of self-destructive terrorism gets shorter
Some three years ago, when President George Bush visited India, Dr Singh proudly told his American mentor that Indian Muslims did not believe in terrorism. As evidence he pointed to the absence of any Indian Muslim name in the rolls of Al Qaeda.

Governance is the easy part of being in power. You govern through systems. Systems are protected by institutions. Institutions grind their way forward on hierarchy, oiled by memory or precedence. When there is need for innovation, change is sifted through a time-consuming committee. The end product may not be brilliant, but it comes with minimal-risk insurance: it will not do damage, and might even do some good.

India's bureaucracy may not be the steel-frame of old. Corruption might have left it a brittle plastic. But it serves. Very often the difference between a good and a bad Minister — the titular head of the bureaucracy — is no more than his or her ability to leave well enough alone. Lalu Prasad Yadav has created a favourable reputation by the ingenious tactic of non-interference. He lets the Railway Board get on with the job and only appears on the scene when it is time to take credit. Give him full marks. More has been destroyed by the deadly combination of ego and incompetence than has been achieved in Government through genius. As the Railway Board has proved, India could be much better off if Ministers left Government on auto-pilot while they concentrated on what they know best: spilling each other's blood.

The difficult part of power is leadership. Any term of office is divided between phases of placidity and the roils of turbulence. If turbulence is not calmed it develops quickly into a storm. Terrorism has become a raging hurricane. The statistics are well known. There is no point wasting space on them. But there is no leader who can challenge this storm, manage its fallout and restore some balm to the jangled nerves of the nation.

Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi have, at best, the most banal phrases to offer. We do not need a Prime Minister to tell us that terrorism is a grave threat. That much wisdom is available from any taxi-driver, the familiar source of political perspicacity sought by a visiting journalist anywhere in the world. No one has yet written a speech for Mrs Sonia Gandhi that takes us anywhere near a remedy to this terrible disease.

An answer must begin with a question: when did terrorism begin? Too long ago. India is unique. Every faith has delivered its quota of terrorists. The Nagas who challenged Indian unity were Christians. The sister-regions of the Northeast gave us Hindu terrorists. Sikhs rose in Punjab, and Muslims in Kashmir. The overwhelming majority of Naxalites are Hindus.

And now some young non-Kashmiri Indian Muslims are playing with dynamite. Some three years ago, when President George Bush visited India, Dr Singh proudly told his American mentor that Indian Muslims did not believe in terrorism. As evidence he pointed to the absence of any Indian Muslim name in the rolls of Al Qaeda.

If this was true, then what has happened in the last three years? India has not been ruled by any party that Muslims consider hostile to their interests. Congress has been in power in Delhi. In fact, Indian Muslims believe that if they had not mobilised to an unprecedented degree the Congress would never have got enough seats in the last general elections to cobble together a coalition. Indian Muslims claim a sort of ownership of the UPA regime. Why have Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi been unable to prevent a spurt of despair within the community?

The Congress will not even admit this question, so it is difficult to see how it can introspect its way towards an answer. There are two principal reasons for the renewed rise of Muslim despair. First, the community has not got the justice it expected from the Congress. One fact will illustrate. While those found guilty of terrorism in the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993 have been, rightly, punished through the legal process, those found guilty of crimes against Muslims in the preceding riots have been left untouched. The constables found guilty of state terrorism during the awful riots in Mumbai after the Babri episode in the report of the Justice Srikrishna Commission are wandering around, free. Dr Manmohan Singh, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mr Sharad Pawar cannot "find" them.

The second major reason is a sense of helpless hopelessness. The history of economic deprivation long precedes the UPA Government, but its mistake was to believe that it could fudge through its term as its predecessors had fudged through theirs. Dr Singh should never have asked Justice Rajinder Sachar to find out the truth if he wanted to do nothing about it. The truth has become the ultimate betrayal, for the report is a devastating indictment of Congress neglect of its most loyal constituency. Muslim youth watched as Mr Arjun Singh reserved even more jobs for others, and maintained an ultra-secular silence on reservations for Muslims. As I have written before, other communities got jobs under Congress; Muslims got enquiry commissions.

This was fuel for a fire that could so easily mesh into an international conflagration. The memory of riots, particularly in Mumbai and Gujarat, was equally incendiary. Indian Muslims have had apostates and middlemen as leaders. In the vacuum, a number of youth found it easy to drift towards the malevolent attraction of evil. They convinced themselves that virulent hate mail and unpardonable killing of innocents was the means to display a destructive strength. This terrorism, of course, is already hurting Indian Muslims far more than it damages their avowed targets.

The Congress is twisting this damaged psyche further with its cynical response to terrorism. There is a suspicion, bordering on conviction, among Indian Muslims that the Government of Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi has offered scapegoats in the form of students of the Jamia Millia University to appease majority anger after the terrorist attacks on Delhi. We do not know the full truth, but there is enough that is murky in the events of 19 September when Delhi police surrounded and killed two students of Jamia at Batla House, while two others apparently escaped. There are questions galore, not least being the manner of the "escape": if there was only one entrance, how could the two "escape"? Police have shifted their version after every question. The "escape" now is meant to have been through the rooftop. Did anyone see them in the daylit skyline? Nor does anyone believe in the version offered of the death of Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma. It was first put out that he had been shot in the stomach. Then pictures were published of him walking after being shot, with no evidence of a stomach wound. The latest theory is that he died of a heart attack following loss of blood. One TV station claimed that the autopsy report showed he had been shot from the back, hinting at what is known as "friendly fire". The UPA Government then sought to demonise the community when they covered the faces of suspects with the red, patterned, Arab headdress instead of the black cloth normally used. Who got these headdresses from the market? Home Minister Shivraj Patil, who claimed that he had personally supervised these operations? Was he telling India that these suspects were linked to Arab terrorism?

The questions grow each passing day, each one another fuse for anger.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tentacles of dread and the terror Gameplan

Tentacles of dread and the terror Gameplan
By M J Akbar

Terror is testing the resilience of the Indian government and the sagacity of the Indian people. The first is in shambles, but the second is holding up. The will of the people has become the safety net protecting the Indian state from the wont (a slightly archaic English word for normal behaviour) of Manmohan Singh and Shivraj Patil.

The power of terrorism lies in its ability to generate fear. Arbitrary death — anonymous, place uncertain, extent unknown — is the principal means by which the terrorist seeks to shroud a nation under a pall of dread. But the essence of fear is personal: the collective is only a sum total of individual fears. This makes the potential reaction more intense, for the threat to one's life so easily breeds irrational rage. Rage is but one final provocation away from violence.

The Indian Mujahideen, whoever they might be (I am not totally sure they are truly Indian, and am certain that they are not true Mujahideen) know what they are doing. Their strategy of slander-and-slaughter is not aimed at the Indian government, for which they have utter contempt in any case. Their target is the real enemy, the people of India. They are sowing continuous poison along Hindu-Muslim seam lines in order to enrage the former, provoke communal violence and exploit the resultant angst among Muslim youth so that more might drift towards terrorism. They want gulfs that cannot be crossed without irreversible corrosion.

The Union and state governments have not been tested by a post-terror conflagration because the overwhelming majority of Hindus have shown an exemplary commitment to peace, but this can hardly be taken for granted. The Union home ministry seems to have a single, callous default position: amnesia. It has convinced itself that if it can fudge its way through a few days after any calamity, people will forget, or that popular consciousness will be overtaken by the next big story. Its abject failure to stem the tide of terrorism is evidence that its investigation is essentially non-serious, reminiscent of the police chief's formula in the famous film, Casablanca, whose solution to any problem was to “round up the usual suspects”.

A narrow pattern in names, suspect-sketches and allegations is pulled out from the same soiled bag within 24 or 48 hours of any incident. This cliché-approach begs a question: if the range is limited, why cannot the perpetrators be caught despite their repeated audacity? For starters, someone more qualified than me should check whether there is ever any resemblance between suspect-sketches and those eventually arrested.

In the absence of genuine culprits, alibis and red herrings are fed to public opinion in the hope that the appetite for punishment will be sated, memory dulled. But memory is an accumulator. Fear is a gathering storm, which needs to be dispersed before it breaks.

Terrorists have inflicted the greatest damage on those in whose name they pretend to act, Indian Muslims. Already burdened by multiple anxieties, Indian Muslim youth are now frozen in the headlights of suspicion, and thus easy fodder for a police force that exploits suspicion to harass a community instead of eliminating criminals. When the police admit a mistake, never easily done, there is nothing like a stainless release.

The victim of bias or misjudgment faces a hopeless future as even his meagre job disappears from the shrinking bundle of options. We never truly understand the despair of poverty, for even the sympathy of a brother does not extend beyond the fleeting breadth of emotion.

At one level, Muslims share the dread of sudden death with their fellow Indians. The bomb placed in the dustbin or a vehicle in a packed marketplace is not programmed to kill only non-Muslims. The killer devices do not have a selective device to demolish only the objects of the Indian Mujahideen's hatred. A bomb has neither religion nor discrimination.

But this pales before the dread of consequences, the worst of which is a riot. But consequences come in less hostile forms as well. Discrimination does not advertise, and the unwillingness to rent homes to Muslims in cities is only the most well-known form of it. Ghettos begin in the mind before they transfer into property. The desperate, and sometimes contradictory, search for alibis by Muslims indicates the pressure that the community feels. Conspiracy theories get fertile reception.

A measure of its collapsing faith in the Congress is the fact that these theories finger government agencies as frequently as they do traditional adversaries like the RSS and Bajrang Dal. Indian Muslims are relieved if anyone ascribes terrorism to Pakistan's ISI or America's CIA. The one Indian Mujahideen email that was traced to an American missionary resident in Mumbai was, for a while, the subject of much internet-advocacy.

Dissection pares arguments down to the bone in the search for any consolation: for instance, one of the two who signed the Mujahideen email signed himself as Al-Arabi; but Arabi was the name of a bridge-builder to other communities, unlike others who were aggressors. Would a terrorist have used such a 'peace-loving' pseudonym? Was this a mistake made by a non-Muslim mastermind?

Sometimes, a sense of discrimination propels some Muslims towards a prickly offensiveness. But these are palliatives that cannot hide the harsh truth, evident, after any incident, in the eyes of nameless Muslims, clouded by worry and uncertainty and in the shuffle of their step as they hurry home to their small mohallas in some corner of the urban sprawl.

News is a reflection of the visible. It has no space for the invisible. But each riot that did not take place also smuggles its way into the receptacles of the heart and the mind. For that we should be grateful to the sagacity of India, and not the capabilities of the government of India.

Appeared in Times of India - September 21, 2008

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Plants and Implants

Byline By M J Akbar: Plants and Implants

You never know what you can pick up from the shambles of a large edifice, and little could larger than the financial architecture of American capitalism. Here is a nugget from Tom Friedman's column as he talks about America's energy planning and the economy. His particular reference is to Republican candidate John McCain's idea that nuclear plants can meet America's energy needs. Friedman writes: "McCain talks about how he would build dozens of nuclear power plants. Oh, really? They go for $10 billion a pop. Where is the money going to come from?"

Good question. An American columnist is convinced that nuclear energy is too extravagant for an economy as rich as America's, but Dr Manmohan Singh insists on foisting it on the Indian taxpayer. To put the comparison in perspective, at over $1 trillion, the combined value of around half a dozen major American companies that collapsed in the last fortnight was near India's GDP of $1.4 trillion.

As each deception is exposed, the goalposts keep changing. Now that people are becoming aware that even in thirty years nuclear energy will not contribute more than six or seven per cent to the energy mix, at prohibitive cost, a new fudge is in the works. Another energy plan will be formulated to increase, on paper, the share of nuclear energy. As for the cost, let those in charge in 2020 worry.

Former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh has been asking the government for clarity on the cost to the consumer of this nuclear energy. He has still to get a satisfactory answer.

Almost every argument used by the government to sell the nuclear deal has been upturned by revelations. Dr P.K.Iyengar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, summed up the American position in a statement on 4 September: "if India conducts a nuclear test, America will immediately abrogate the 123 Agreement, and take back all nuclear materials, including fuel, it has supplied;there are no guarantees of perpetual fuel supply or provisions to stock for lifetime; there will be no transfer of sensitive nuclear technology such as reprocessing technology;the US does not consider the 123 Agreement as the only document governing civil nuclear cooperation with India – its actions will also be dictated by the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act and the Hyde Act."

The White House cited India's vote against Iran at the IAEA as evidence of a pro-US Indian tilt in conformity with the provisions of the Hyde Act. Under pressure from the United States and Israel, we have also abandoned the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which would have provided much cheaper energy than nuclear power. Moreover, even in the event of the abrogation of the treaty by the United States, the mandatory inspections of India's nuclear facilities will continue in perpetuity.

When such details became public, Delhi argued that we could always ignore Washington and buy from countries like France. On the evening of 18 September the French ambassador to India, Jerome Bonnanfont, clarified that the proposed Indo-French nuclear agreement is going to be on par with the American agreement – there will be no transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to India. The Times of India printed this pithy comment: "Certainly, it's a blow to all those who trumpeted that if the US wasn't prepared to give things, let's go to the French."

Some long-time supporters of the nuclear deal, who accepted Delhi's assurances about the negotiating process on good faith, like former Indian ambassador to Washington Lalit Mansingh, have now advised Prime Minister Singh greater caution before committing the nation. They have even suggested that he avoid a visit to Washington during his tour to America for the United Nations General Assembly session. But facts are unlikely to deter Dr Manmohan Singh from inking a one-sided agreement.

We might note that Americans, who are so anxious to sell nuclear plants to India, has not built a single new plant domestically since 1979, when the Three Mile Island accident took place. They do a more careful cost-benefit analysis when it comes to their own money.

One of the more interesting items lying in the debris of collapsing business reports is the only economic success story that George Bush can boast of during his eight years. He has been an unqualified triumph in arms sales. Eric Lipton wrote in the 15 September issue of the International Herald Tribune, which carries stories from the New York Times, "From tanks, helicopters and fighter jets to missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships, the Department of Defense has agreed so far this fiscal year [March to mid-September 2008] to sell or transfer more than $32 billion in weapons and other military equipment to foreign governments, compared with $12 billion in 2005…Deliveries on orders being placed now will continue for several years, perhaps turning out to be one of President George W. Bush's most lasting legacies…" And just in case you thought that Bush was not a good salesman, "most arms exports are paid for by purchasers without US financing."

Who are the greatest benefactors of the American arms industry? Those fighting alongside America in its strategic wars. Between 2006 and 2008, Saudi Arabia bought $8.6 billion worth of American arms; Iraq, $4.4 billion; Afghanistan, $11.4 billion; Pakistan, $4.2 billion; Australia, $6.5 billion. Saudi Arabia and Australia can afford their defence budgets, while Iraq has an $80 billion surplus, and Pakistan gets cash handouts from America. The truly appalling statistic is Afghanistan's, among the poorest nations in the world. Next year's figures should show a marked improvement, since India will be on the top of the shopping list. The architecture of an US-Indian military alliance is already in place, and construction has begun on various outhouses.

Will the Manmohan-Bush signatures be irreversible? If the UPA returns to power, in some variation or the other, the strategic pact will deepen. If the UPA is voted out, the next government will have to negotiate a difficult tightrope between perceived obligations and the need to protect good relations with America. It is going to be a complicated inheritance.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fluff-and-bluff can't change harsh truths

Byline by M J Akbar: Fluff-and-bluff can't change harsh truths

We may have all missed the most interesting point in the kerfuffle over the Indo-US nuclear deal. Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi have emerged as the greatest advertising team since World War II. They have sold a personal obsession as a nation's lifeline. The strategy is not dissimilar to that employed by Germany and Italy in the war: repeat a lie often enough and it will be perceived as the truth. High-decibel propaganda has this hypnotic effect on the masses. To use a term from theatre, there is a wilful suspension of disbelief.

Take the promise of electricity to every village. The claim is arrant nonsense. The eight reactors the Government wants to purchase in the next four years — commissioning will be much later — will not increase the share of nuclear power in the energy mix beyond 2.5%. The Government's own estimates show that even after two decades and an investment of perhaps $150 billion, nuclear energy capacity will not increase by more than three or four per cent. The same investment in other energy sources would provide a far higher return. Does Congress propaganda mention either the percentage or the time? Of course not.

A second lie: the Hyde Act has nothing to do with the deal, which will be governed only by the 123 Agreement. This is astonishing disinformation. America has repeatedly stated that it will not — indeed, legally, it cannot — deviate from the provisions of the Hyde Act, and America is the supplier nation. Our only role is to hand out hard currency for what America decides to sell.

On whose authority do I say this? On the basis of a letter Jeffrey Bergner, Assistant Secretary in the State Department, has written to Tom Lantos, then Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House of Representatives. He answered 45 questions, clearing every potential doubt. There was no question of the fluff-and-bluff tactics used by Dr Manmohan Singh.
The third question asks: "Does the Administration believe that the nuclear cooperation agreement with India overrides the Hyde Act regarding any apparent conflicts, discrepancies, or inconsistencies? Does this include provisions in the Hyde Act which do not appear in the nuclear cooperation agreement?"

The answer is unambiguous: "In his September 19 statement, Assistant Secretary Boucher twice made clear that 'we think [the proposed 123 Agreement with India] is in full conformity with the Hyde Act'. Indeed, the Administration is confident that the proposed agreement is consistent with the legal requirements of both the Hyde Act and the Atomic Energy Act… The agreement is also fully consistent with the legal requirements of the Hyde Act."

The letter makes explicit much of what was left deliberately implicit in the 123 Agreement. The only defence mounted by Delhi was that there was "nothing new" in the Lantos letter. If there was nothing new, why was it kept a secret?

Perhaps US Ambassador to India David Mulford was right when he claimed that Delhi was fully aware of its content; maybe the Indian Prime Minister simply forgot to let us know. India is already in compliance with Hyde. This is why Delhi did not place an order for fuel from Russia or France after the NSG waiver. The Hyde Act prohibits any transaction without approval from the US Congress, which is yet to come.

The letter unravels the striptease of illusions carefully nurtured by Delhi. Paramount was the implication that the deal would give India access to the most sensitive nuclear technologies. Check out questions 4, 5, 6 and 7, on "dual-use items for use in sensitive nuclear facilities", assistance to "India in the design, construction, or operation of sensitive nuclear technologies through the transfer of dual-use items outside the agreement" and whether US would adhere to the Hyde Act which discourages the spread of such technologies. Here are the answers: "…as a framework agreement it does not compel any such transfers, and as a matter of policy the United States does not transfer dual-use items for use in sensitive nuclear facilities … the US government will not assist India in the design, construction, or operation of sensitive nuclear technologies… The Administration does not plan to negotiate an amendment to the proposed US-India Agreement to transfer to India sensitive nuclear facilities or critical components of such facilities…"

Nothing new, is it? It seems we have a slightly castrated agreement.

There is insufficient space to quote the document in greater detail; suffice it to say that there is huge variance with the Indian perception on fuel supply, fallback safeguards and reprocessing rights.

America has absolute clarity on a fundamental issue that could cause much grief: India's right to test. Delhi has hyperventilated that India's right to test has been protected. The House asked Bush, in question 16: "Would any of these commitments continue to apply if India detonated a nuclear explosive device? If so, under what circumstances?"

Here is the reply: "As outlined in Article 14 of the 123 Agreement, should India detonate a nuclear explosive device, the United States has the right to cease all nuclear cooperation with India immediately, including the supply of fuel, as well as request the return of any items transferred from the United States, including fresh fuel."

Please note: this ultimatum already exists in the 123 Agreement, which Delhi continues to sell as sacrosanct.

Dr Manmohan Singh has a dubious formulation on testing: India has the right to act, America has the right to react. But while India has nowhere included a clause claiming the right to act, America has specified what its reaction would be — extensive and expensive. Nor can India respond by ending invasive inspections. We have agreed to them in perpetuity.

A second public-relations ploy, to make this concession seem like a mere extension of the unilateral moratorium announced after our test in 1998, is disingenuous. A voluntary moratorium has become a multilateral commitment; the difference is critical. In 1998 America and the world could do very little, apart from cursory noises and sanctions that quickly withered on the bedrock of reality, precisely because our nuclear programme was totally indigenous, and there was no agreement through which punitive measures could be taken against India.

The propaganda offensive includes attaching labels on anyone who disagrees. Dissent is either "Islamist" [some of the language used by Government has been communal], "pro-Chinese" or "anti-progress". Nationalism has become the sole preserve of the Government and its acolytes. This is silly.

A serious danger is the potential for misunderstanding with America, and the consequent damage to Indo-US relations. Pacts are always vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances. Bush has just frozen the 123 Agreement he signed with Russia because of differences over Georgia, a core Russian strategic interest. It is folly to sign an agreement vulnerable to circumstances that can easily be foreseen.

Advertising may be good politics, but national interest should be above politics.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Fundamentalists flourish in secular vacuum

Fundamentalists flourish in secular vacuum
By M J Akbar

The great contradiction of fundamentalist politics is that it cannot deliver on the basic problem that provoked its rise, economic deprivation...Ordinary Indians hunger for more bread, not more guns...The bad news is that it takes only 1% to wreak havoc.

Who, or what, is a fundamentalist? The word might even be a tautology, for a believer can only be true to his faith if he believes in its fundamentals. You cannot be very faithful, can you, if you believe only in supplementaries? I fast during Ramadan, one of the five fundamental tenets of Islam: I hope this does not make me a fundamentalist.

The slide begins when one faith begins to encroach upon a separate conviction. The first symptom of fundamentalism is aggression. When this aggression is channelled through an organized section of a community, it becomes communalism. When a state codifies such aggression through statute, or executive authority, it becomes a fundamentalist state.

Is an Islamic state ipso facto fundamentalist? No. The Quran repeatedly commends co-existence: “ Lakum deen-e kum wal ya deen (Your religion for you and my religion for me)” and “La iqra fi al deen (Let there be no compulsion in religion)”. The exemplar of the Islamic state is obviously the period when the Prophet was head of the city-state of Medina in addition to being rasool of the Muslims. Medina was multi-religious and multi-ethnic, with a mixed population including Jews, Christians and non-Muslim Arabs. There is no instance of a church or synagogue being destroyed under his watch. There was instead a Muslim-Jewish covenant on the principle of “Lahum ma lana wa alayhim ma alayna” : Jews and Muslims had the same rights and duties. “The terms of the covenant were primarily based on recognition of diverse affiliations and did not demand conversion,” writes Tariq Ramadan (The Messenger, Penguin).

This hardly means that Muslims today cannot be fundamentalists, but it is illogical to blame Islam for the sins of Muslims.

Indian secularism, turned into a modern political force by Mahatma Gandhi, a great expert in fusing the best of Hinduism and Islam, is based on the equality of “diverse affiliations”. His personality and philosophy attracted unprecedented Muslim support. No Indian has commanded as much allegiance from Indian Muslims as Gandhi did during the Khilafat movement (1919-1922), but that support withered after the Mahatma abandoned the movement arbitrarily after Chauri Chaura. One section of the disillusioned community drifted, over the next fifteen years, inexorably towards the politics of separation and eventually Pakistan.

British India re-mapped itself into three nations. Each has a father figure: Gandhi, Jinnah, Mujibur Rehman. All three wanted their children to believe in a multi-faith nation. Gandhi prayed all the time; Jinnah only when compelled; Mujib was somewhere in-between. Their personal predilections did not influence their vision for their country. Jinnah wanted his “Muslim India” to permit Hindus to worship as they pleased in their temples for religion, in his view, was no business of the state. Mujib’s Bangladesh promised equality to Bengali Hindus.

One measure of prevalent fundamentalism would be the distance that each nation has wandered from the vision of its father. Surely the most heartbroken would be Jinnah, as the laws and culture of puritanical theocracy invade public space in Pakistan with a momentum that no one seems capable of reversing.

The shift towards fundamentalist politics, even by a minority within a minority, needs a combustible base as well as a spark. Some Indian Muslims have been drawn towards extremist rhetoric by a growing sense of economic victimization. Not unnaturally, this was most evident among the young, who feel the humiliation of discrimination in jobs most keenly.

Rising India seems sympathetic to only two categories: the winner and the victim. The first becomes a celebrity; the latter wallows, effectively, in the swamp of the collective. The government has created a sanctimonious comfort zone for the victim. It is called reservations. Muslim youth have been denied the false comfort of reservations as well.

The spark is demagoguery. Oratory is a fine art in Indian Muslim culture; demagoguery is periodic epilepsy. The man who revived it was the Shahi Imam of the Delhi Jama Masjid in 1977, Abdullah Bukhari. His anger had cause. The Congress had threatened his sanctum sanctorum during the Emergency. The interesting point is that both the anti-Congress alliance, banded under the Janata label, and the Congress gave him legitimacy. The Janata used him to defeat Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1977; Mrs Indira Gandhi used him to defeat the Janata in 1980. His self-importance never looked back. In the company of imitators, he shifted to hysteria during the Shah Bano episode in the 1980s. This was soon answered by the equally ferocious hysteria of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It took the conflagration of the winter of 1992 and 1993 to put hysteria on hold.

The pause did not eliminate the strain in either gene. The culture of verbal violence had an inevitable physical by-product, organized riots and terrorism.

Fundamentalism flourishes best in the space vacated by secular parties. As the principal standard-bearers of secularism have devalued and corrupted their ethics, smaller parties have emerged with fewer reasons for restraint. The din of electioneering makes a mockery of electoral laws; very few candidates could survive a scrutiny based on the standards imposed by the Election Commission. Governments may screen their misdemeanours artfully, but their record is even more reprehensible. The overt indulgence of minority fundamentalism is compensated by covert compromise with majority fundamentalism. The end result is an unholy mess.

The great contradiction of fundamentalist politics, its epic flaw, is that it cannot deliver on the basic problem that provoked its rise, economic deprivation. Rage is not an economic policy. Violence is the antidote of economic progress. It can succeed at moments of high social stress or public rage, but that is a short-term placebo for blood pressure. Ordinary Indians hunger for more bread, not more guns. This is what keeps the overwhelming majority away from fundamentalism.

The bad news is that it takes only one per cent to wreak havoc.

Appeared in Times of India - September 07, 2008

For Peace with Pak, India has to be Strong

For Peace with Pak, India has to be Strong
By M J Akbar
( The Seige Within)

The oddest fallacy within Delhi's current establishment is the conviction that Pakistan's India policy is leader-centric rather than a projection of national interest, which those in power might tinker with here, or twist there, but cannot shift from a fundamental axis: the belief that the Kashmir valley should be a part of Pakistan. Definitions of national interest take much longer to change than leaders.

The public lament of national security adviser M K Narayanan at the impending departure of Pervez Musharraf may have been well-intentioned but was ill-advised. It certainly did not help Musharraf, and may even have hurt him with his core constituency, the army and the ISI. If it is the prevailing view in the Manmohan Singh government that Islamabad's promotion of violence in Kashmir, either through directly sponsored terrorism, or encouragement of mass displays of disaffection, varies with the inclinations of individuals, then it is time to outsource Pakistan policy to less naive professionals.

Islamabad's policy towards Kashmir is calibrated on a sensitive thermometer that measures the fever between circumstance and opportunity. This was true of October 1947, when Jinnah launched a war for the Valley after the peaceful resolution of Kashmir through negotiations with Nehru and the Maharaja, with Britain as the fourth party at the table, became inevitable. All three, India, Pakistan and Britain, were agreed that independence was not on offer. Jinnah was convinced that Nehru's inexperienced government, unable to control a raging Hindu-Muslim civil war, would be incapable of fighting back a "tribal incursion" and he would be able to join the congregation on the first Friday prayers at the grand mosque in Srinagar within days of the Pak-sponsored "uprising".

In 1965, Ayub Khan saw an opportunity in three critical facts: the humiliation of the Indian Army on the China border three years before; a Congress bereft of Nehru, who died in 1964; and a Kashmir still in the tremors of an unprecedented upsurge over the mysterious disappearance (and even more mysterious reappearance) of the mo-e-muqaddas, a strand of hair from the beard of the Holy Prophet of Islam.

There is still some dispute as to who launched Kargil, but the evidence points to a still-unknown general, Pervez Musharraf. He saw a fragile coalition in Delhi led by BJP, and became convinced that he could creep up and take up impregnable positions astride vital communication lines while his prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, twiddled his hamburgers in Islamabad. The Pak army did not envisage a larger conflict because it had realized, as early as the early 1980s, that a conventional war with India was no longer winnable.

The despot who ruled the country then, General Zia-ul Haq, therefore stabilized relations on the surface and undermined them below eye-level through blatant support for secessionism in Punjab and Kashmir. The background and character of each man, whether democrat or dictator, had less to do with what he did than circumstance and opportunity. If India provides the opening, a Pakistani leader will seize the chance to change the status of the Kashmir valley. The latest Pakistani threat to take Kashmir back to the top of the agenda at the United Nations has come not from a dictator but a democrat.

War and peace are not open-ended options; both are framed by specifics. The good news for peaceniks (among whom I count myself) is that the bomb has ended the possibility of formal war. The bad news is that no one knows what peace means.

Can there be peace until Pakistan renounces its deeply held objective that the Kashmir valley cannot remain an integral part of India? Can any government in Delhi purchase peace by any compromise on the legal and territorial status quo?

We have elided Kargil from Musharraf's CV and replaced it with Agra and his periodic hints about an "out-of-the-box settlement" on Kashmir. To be fair, Musharraf always made it clear that the status quo was not acceptable as the solution. What precisely did Musharraf mean?

Musharraf's peace-drive was running at least partly on an American gear. With the Manmohan Singh government itching for its own American embrace, it made sense for Washington to have both South Asian nations on its side. The best American formula for Kashmir is obviously one that would guarantee trilateral benefits, the third interest being the American.

A model often proposed at Washington-encouraged conferences has been a Kashmir delinked from Jammu and Ladakh, over which India might enjoy at best a face-saving, limited sovereignty. Trifurcation is the first step towards an "autonomous" or "quasi-independent" Kashmir, while Jammu and Ladakh, unleashed from Article 370, integrate fully with India.

To create the psychological conditions for such an option, we need the same mindset that persuaded enough Indian Hindus to agree to partition in 1947. On one margin today is the radical-soft, human rights view that Kashmiris should be given their "azadi" because they want it. (It would be equivalent to the CPI position before 1947.) This argument is indifferent to two potential consequences. Indian Muslims, who have already paid a heavy price for the "guilt" of 1947, would be condemned to generations of discrimination for a second betrayal of the motherland by some of their co-religionists; and there would be a collateral rise in other "independence" movements in Punjab, Gorkhaland, the North-East and the South. Welcome to Balkan India. Kosovo could seem a large country compared with Gorkhaland.

On the obverse, this scenario needs a growing "enough-is-enough, to-hell-with-Kashmiris" attitude among Hindus, aggravated by anger against ingratitude - after all secular India provided Kashmiris not only the chance to join a rising economy, but also a modern education and the freedom of a multicultural society, and they rejected it. The two points of view would coalesce from different directions. Impossible? This is precisely what happened in 1947, leaving Gandhi and Maulana Azad distraught but utterly helpless. Sixty one years later, some opinion-builders in English newspapers have begun to articulate the "enough-is-enough" argument.
Dr Manmohan Singh spoke a few days ago of finding a permanent settlement to Kashmir. Implicit in the use of "permanent" is the belief that the status quo is unsatisfactory and needs alteration. The official position of India lies in a Parliament resolution, binding on all governments, that Kashmir's status cannot be diluted. The pragmatic position, which would find acceptance if ever put to the test, is that the ceasefire line should be converted into the international border. Even peace-loving Musharraf, who did not have to worry about a popular vote, was not in a position to accept the ceasefire line as the final destiny. His successors will not sign on either, when they get time from their increasingly vicious internecine battles for political supremacy. So what "permanent" solution does Dr Singh have in mind?

Peace with Pakistan is possible, but it can only come when India looks strong, not when it seems vulnerable. The health of India is what Delhi should worry about, not the health of Pervez Musharraf.

Appeared in Times of India - August 24, 2008

Saturday, September 06, 2008

On Sharada Prasad

Byline by M J Akbar: On Sharada Prasad

His laugh was always a little less than a laugh, and his smile much more than a smile. This was not uncertainty; it was a discretion that suited the gentle character of a true gentleman, H.Y. Sharada Prasad, aesthete, scholar, author, adviser to two Prime Ministers and a muse to whoever was privileged enough to be friend. His warm heart lived on his face; his measured tones were a reflection of his temperament. He believed in understatement, not because he had less to say, but because neither assertion nor aggression was his preferred virtue. If you could not hear, he did not have much to say.

That made him a bit of misfit in Government of India culture, where assertion/aggression between colleagues is matched only by the competitive degrees of sycophancy displayed towards the boss, no matter how often the boss changes. I got to know him when he was working as the senior bureaucrat in the Prime Minister's Office during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure in the mid-Eighties. Continuity across generations is not the easiest of transitions. Sharada Prasad had been Mrs Indira Gandhi's most trusted adviser, joining her in 1966 when she first became Prime Minister and lasting till 1977 when she was voted out of office in India's most dramatic election. He had the prickly [the euphemism was 'sensitive'] portfolio of press relations, not an easy job at the best of times and self-defeating during those interminable 19 months of censorship during the Emergency. He was perhaps the only member of Mrs Gandhi's inner circle to emerge from that calamity with his reputation unsullied. The first decision that Mrs Gandhi took on her return to power in 1980 was to reappoint him to the PMO. That says it all.

But it is a very rare jewel that shines in an heir's court as well. Delhi is more familiar with the Abul Fadl syndrome: Emperor Akbar's star courtier was killed by his son Salim [later Jehangir]. Death is not a modern solution, but a rough nudge into an inconsequential placebo, like an ambassadorship to a trouble-free capital, is. Rajiv Gandhi kept Sharada Prasad on board, not so much for media but to continue in his parallel role, to pen a sagacious speech, often livened by a brilliant turn of phrase.

There is a great distance between the draft of a Prime Minister's speech and its final delivery. A host of hovering "specialists" is eager to intervene. Competition over paragraphs can be sharp as envy jostles with the urge for self-promotion. Sharada Prasad never disturbed the inevitable interference after having crafted the framework. He was never possessive. But if a speech ended up resembling an out-of-control buffet, you could always tell which sections were the creation of a master chef. It was quite different from the slaphappy offerings of butlers masquerading as cooks.

It is not easy to survive in a PMO. There is too much power, and with it too much temptation. That Sharada Prasad managed to survive without the faintest whiff of sycophancy was a marvel. That, trust me, is an achievement in Delhi. But Sharada Prasad could never be part of a rat race. He did not belong to the species.

He left government with the same lack of fuss with which he had survived in it. Departure was a moment of release, not loss. Imperceptibly, and with some vigorous encouragement from a friend, he began writing a column that grew gradually upon its readers till it became an institution. When a collection of his columns was published, it became the surprise bestseller of that season. For the first time a larger world knew of his extraordinary understanding and love for Carnatic music. He found it difficult to be critical of even those he disliked, but he did not refrain from using a pin to prick ego-bubbles. But he did it always with that endearing half-laugh, full-smile.

Wisdom has its own equity. I recall a bit of advice he gave me after being part of a conversation or two. "You can always tell a king," he said, "but you cannot tell him too much."

It is not advice that I have always followed, being in a profession where the risk of stating what you know, against the power of government, must be taken. But you can argue that wiser words were never said for those who want to live in Delhi.