Monday, August 28, 2006

Lousy travellers have no race (August 29, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

A surprising phone call I received last week was from an elderly Bengali friend who I address by the ubiquitous honorific Dada. A man settled in his retired ways, Dada breaks his routine each November to travel to London and New York for three weeks. “It seems”, he told me, “we have no option but to travel Air India from now on.”

Dada was, of course, referring to the shameful incident involving the humiliation and detention in Amsterdam of 12 Indian passengers aboard a North-Western Airlines flight to Mumbai. That a group of Bohra Muslims from Mumbai, all legitimate businessmen, should be the object of such paranoid reaction from fellow passengers and the crew has created consternation in middle class India. Those who had earlier dismissed allegations of Islamophobia as needless hysteria that detracts from the primary task of weeding out terrorism ruthlessly, are now alarmed by the heightened environment of anti-terrorism.

It is not necessary to endorse the alarmist “flying whilst Asian” allegations levelled by liberal apologists for radical Islamism to suggest that something is seriously going wrong with the security systems of the West. If supposedly experienced air crew and travelling air marshals are unable to distinguish loud, high-spirited and sometimes boorish Indian traders from determined suicide bombers, it will amount to a victory for the Al Qaeda.

Actually, the problem seems to lie more with fellow passengers than with the crew. On August 16, two cocky British Asians, Sohail Ashraf and Khurram Zeb, were taken off a Monarch Airlines flight in Malaga after the Captain indicated to the Spanish authorities that he would not fly if the two were on board. The problem, it seems, began after a 12-year-old girl got upset at the loud—and, I have no doubt, obnoxious—conversation the two were having with each other. She began crying hysterically. One thing led to another and the two were offloaded by the Spanish police.

As a frequent flyer to Britain I can vouch for the intense irritation young Britons—of all races—travelling in a group can cause to fellow passengers. They are, more often than not, insolent, inconsiderate, inchoate and inebriated. As a breed, they have rightly earned the disdainful sobriquet “lager louts” from the discerning classes. What distinguishes the Asian louts from their white counterparts is that the whites are naturally prone to violence after guzzling a bellyful of beer.

A compelling reason for travelling business class to the United Kingdom is to be spared the performances of the Birmingham lads who are travelling after a month or so of enforced good behaviour amid relatives in “the Poonjab”. Their pent-up frustrations find expression through the liquor trolley on the way home.

Young Asians of a particular class living in Britain tend to be confused, deracinated and a social nuisance. However, there is a 99.9 per cent chance that they are not terrorists. Indeed, the born-again Islamists tend to be extremely courteous, teetotallers and disinclined to make lewd jokes about fellow passengers. If existing evidence of their behaviour is any guide, they are least likely to draw any attention to themselves—and certainly not by passing around a newly-acquired mobile phone with exciting add-ons.

The finer points of Asian behaviour are unlikely to make any difference to those Europeans and Americans whose education about the terrorist threat is gleaned from the tabloid press and popular TV stations. To them, all Asians, like all Chinese, look the same. The not-unimportant distinctions between West Asian and South Asian, between Arabic, Urdu and Punjabi are naturally glossed over. It is one thing for the Dean Jones of the world to think that all bearded men are terrorists but airline staff should be more discerning. And all the problems, it must be noted, have happened because edgy airline staff has mistaken boisterous behaviour for a terrorist threat.

I would, of course, love it if all airlines specify a code of good conduct, violation of which will lead to either offloading or handcuffing and 30 days of solitary confinement. Since that is likely to involve interminable problems and charges of cultural insensitivity, it would be preferable if airline staff and security personnel at airports are put through intensive courses in terrorist identification. The Israelis have done it successfully for years—a reason why terrorists don’t try and mess about in El Al flights—and it is time others follow suit. Persistent stupidity will lead to the terrorists winning the propaganda war and all of us travelling Air India.

(Published in DNA, Mumbai, August 29, 2006)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Fanatics sing an anti-national song (August 27, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

A determined band of fanatics committed to unrelenting jihad against all "non-believers" have landed Muslims in a soup. A YouGov survey published in Friday's Daily Telegraph revealed that 53 per cent of Britons believe "Islam posed a threat to Western liberal democracy". In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 less than a third of the United Kingdom held such views. What began as a "war on terror" in the West is fast escalating into the much-feared "clash of civilisations."

Coming on the heels of another survey which suggested that nearly one-third of British Muslims are in sympathy with those President Bush called "Islamic fascists", it is not surprising that the West is gripped by a dread of Islam - a fear which explains the disproportionate reaction to 12 exuberant Mumbai Muslims on the flight from Amsterdam. "We simply do not know", admitted writer William Shawcross in the Wall Street Journal, "how to deal with the fact that we are threatened by a vast fifth column..."

It would be sheer escapism to insist these fears are missing from India. The Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey conducted after the Mumbai blasts showed that a whopping 35 per cent of Indians believe that terrorism is supported by Indian Muslims. A few more terrorist incidents and the perception may end up becoming common sense.

Amid this growing polarisation, it was heartening that a Ulema-convened conference on terrorism adopted a resolution condemning "all forms of terror" and describing terrorism as "completely un-Islamic". Regardless of the conference being too much of a sarkari show, the declaration was a positive move.

Yet one step forward was accompanied by two steps backward. On the sidelines of the conference, SQR Ilyas, spokesman of the All India Muslim Personal Board, announced that Muslims will not sing the country's national song Vande Mataram. "We love the country but don't worship (it)", announced Ilyas, "The song talks about worshipping, as in idol worship, which is against the fundamental ethos of Islam. It is a very sensitive issue for Muslims, so they can't be asked to do this for even a single day."

Sectarian objections to Vande Mataram were a key component of the Muslim League's separatist agenda prior to 1947. Yet, since the first two stanzas of the song was adopted as the national song in 1950 and put on par with the national anthem, the controversy was deemed to have been settled. By putting its authority behind an organised boycott of the most potent symbol of the freedom struggle, the AIMPLB has wilfully sought to pit Muslims versus India. The move is not only deeply offensive but an assault on the Constitution. It is tantamount to burning the national flag.

A weak UPA Government has declared that singing Vande Mataram is not compulsory. The issue is not the exercise of individual vocal cords; it is respecting and acknowledging Vande Mataram. By declaring a symbol of nationhood to be optional, the Government has opened the floodgates of emotional separatism. In its deposition before the Unlawful Activities tribunal, SIMI has stated that it is not obliged to sing the national anthem. Will the Government acquiesce to this outrageous assertion on the grounds of pluralism? Where will this assault on Indian nationhood stop?

Many Muslims have reacted sharply to the AIMPLB diktat. They recognise the enormous problems this decision will create for ordinary Muslims who are neither terrorists nor anti-India. They understand the grave implications of narrow-minded dogmatism on communal harmony. They must be encouraged to speak up, defy the bigots and speak up for India.

The appeal of Vande Mataram is inspirational, as AR Rehman demonstrated some years ago. September 7 will mark the 101st anniversary of Vande Mataram being anointed the national song. It should be observed this year and all years to come as Vande Mataram Day, a day when the soul of a nation long suppressed found expression. Let Vande Mataram symbolise both our commitment to India and our defiance of those who want to destroy it.

Published in Sunday Pioneer, August 27, 2006)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Difficult Words (August 25, 2006)

A controversy deemed to have been settled in 1950


The irony is inescapable. Last Tuesday, the country mourned the death of the nonagenarian shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan in Varanasi. The obituaries gushed over his enlightenment and his ability to combine his devotion to the goddess, Saraswati, with the faith he was born into. They recalled his performances at the Kashi Vishwanath temple and other Hindu temples and called him a personification of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzibi — a euphemism for syncretism. The Ustad, it was agreed, epitomized the civilizational values of India.

Yet, even as the tributes to this great musician were pouring in, some of the most vocal representatives of the Muslim community were raking up a hoary controversy over the singing of Vande Mataram, the mantra of the struggle for independence.

The furore was over an innocuous government circular to all educational institutions to observe September 7 — the day in 1905 the Congress session in Varanasi declared Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s patriotic hymn the national song — by singing Vande Mataram at 11 am. A section of the Muslim clergy took umbrage at the suggestion. The voluble Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid pronounced Vande Mataram to be against “Islamic beliefs”. Echoing his opposition, S.Q.R. Ilyas, the spokesman of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board — a body that has positioned itself as the arbiter of Muslim interests in India — ruled that “Muslims can’t sing the song”. His reason: “we love the country but don’t worship [it]. The song talks about worshipping, as in idol worship, which is against the fundamental ethos of Islam. It is a very sensitive issue for Muslims, so they can’t be asked to do this even for a single day.”

The contrast with the life and beliefs of Bismillah Khan couldn’t have been more telling or better expressed. Where the Ustad felt he could sing to Allah in raag Bhairav, the dogmatists asserted that the country could not be worshipped as the mother.

The AIMPLB spokesman and the Shahi Imam were, of course, not being strikingly original. The invocation of Vande Mataram has drawn flak from a body of Muslim opinion, right from the time it became the signature tune of Indian nationalism in 1905. As Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s monograph, Vande Mataram: The Biography of a Song, has documented, the Muslim objection to the “idolatrous” song became pronounced in the mid-Twenties and reached a pitch after the Congress-led provincial governments assumed office in 1937. Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s handwritten agenda for his discussions with Jawaharlal Nehru in 1938 listed three points: “(1) the Muslim Mass Contact: must cease; (2) Bande Mataram: must go…(3) National flag: must go.”

Leaving aside the first demand which targeted any potential opposition to his insistence on being the sole spokesman for all Muslims in India, Jinnah was clear in his mind that the contours of independent India would be shaped by the Muslim League’s veto. By shunning both Vande Mataram and the tricolour, both very dear to the national movement, he underlined the incompatibility of his nationhood with the dominant idea of Indian nationhood. The conflict over Vande Mataram, in other words, was symptomatic of a much larger schism which finally contributed to the Partition of 1947.

Jawaharlal Nehru, always uneasy with Vande Mataram because it “contain[ed] too many difficult words”, tried to meet Muslim separatism half-way. At his behest the Congress Working Committee in October 1937 “recognise[d] the validity of the objection raised by Muslim friends to certain parts of the song” and truncated its public presentation to the first two stanzas. This failed to placate the Muslim League. Consequently, following discussions in the CWC in 1939 and Mahatma Gandhi’s advice to “not risk a single quarrel over singing Vande Mataram at a mixed gathering”, the Congress took the position that singing the national song would be non-obligatory. Predictably, the Congress’s accommodating gesture yielded no political dividends.

The Vande Mataram controversy was finally resolved on the final day of the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950, when Rajendra Prasad, the president of the assembly, ruled from the chair that whereas Jana-gana-mana would be the national anthem, Vande Mataram “shall be honoured equally” and “shall have equal status” with the national anthem.

It is significant that there was neither a discussion nor a vote on the subject. This lends credence to the suggestion that a free vote would probably have led to the founding fathers enshrining Vande Mataram as the national anthem. The West Bengal assembly, for example, had passed a resolution demanding that Vande Mataram be given pre-eminent status. Some Bengali nationalists even went to the extent of bolstering Vande Mataram’s credentials by setting it to martial music.

In 1950, the political climate of India was intensely hostile to any expression of Muslim separatism. In such an environment, as Muslim voters migrated en masse from the Muslim League to the Congress, the pre-1947 separatist agenda was swept under the carpet. A stray cleric may have repeated the earlier denunciations of the “idolatrous” national song but no representative Muslim body included it as part of its agenda for 59 years. This week’s AIMPLB announcement marked the resurrection of an issue that was deemed to have been settled in 1950.

What is equally significant is that the government of India has responded with the same degree of pusillanimity as did the Congress between 1937 and 1939. In suggesting that the singing of Vande Mataram is optional, the human resource development minister, Arjun Singh, was not dispelling imaginary fears of every student in India being recorded for decibel levels. He was conferring the element of choice on respecting a national symbol that has been enshrined in the Constitution. Since the national flag, national anthem and national song are on a par, the formal proclamation of boycott by the AIMPLB —a body that has been conferred de-facto status as guardians of the Islamic faith in India — is tantamount to flag burning. What is particularly ominous is that disavowing Vande Mataram has been elevated to the level of a religious obligation. In other words, the most vibrant symbol of the freedom struggle — the central pillar of contemporary nationhood — has been deemed incompatible with a religion.

The grave implications of the Vande Mataram boycott should send alarm bells ringing. Unfortunately, it has been viewed as yet another routine secularist-versus-saffron spat and a replay of the Saraswati vandana controversy under the National Democratic Alliance government. Such a wilfully complacent view ignores the political context of this act of emotional secession: the dramatic radicalization of Islam since 9/11 and the war on terror, and the disproportionate dependence of the Congress, its regional allies and the left parties on Muslim votes.

The Vande Mataram controversy is an exercise in testing the political waters. A small but determined group of theologians and separatists have taken advantage of the passivity of ordinary citizens, the unstated fear of global jihad entering India and the weakness of the Centre to literally shift the goalposts of public discourse.

In a remarkably prescient note penned in 1939, C. Rajagopalachari warned the Congress leadership that “these concessions [over Vande Mataram] will not save the situation. We may act up to this formula ourselves, but if we set them forth as concessions they will only become points for further agitation…” Today, the government has meekly acquiesced in a sectarian boycott of Vande Mataram and tomorrow religion-based quotas will make their re-entry. As for the day-after, the Student’s Islamic Movement of India has cockily informed the special tribunal adjudicating the ban on it, that it is under no obligation to participate in the singing of the national anthem.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, August 25, 2006)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Don't rejoice, tackle terror (August 20, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the past week, the Government and intelligentsia of India have been wallowing in an unseemly bout of self-congratulation. The much-feared terrorist attacks on Independence Day and Janmasthami did not materialise; the US and British advisory to its citizens in India turned out to be misplaced; and there was no visible backlash after the terrible Mumbai blasts of July 11. The results of an exhaustive opinion poll, suggesting that the support for the UPA is at an all-time high, also bolstered this enhanced comfort level. Internationally too, India wallowed in the praise lavished on its people by The Times (London) for being “majestic in their moderation.”

At a time when security in Western airports remain edgy over what has been quaintly described as “travelling whilst Asian”, it is great to be singled out for restraint and moderation. Ruing the possible end of duty-free shopping, a friend still managed to look on the bright side of life. At least, he announced loftily, pointing to a land mass west of Amritsar, “We are not like them.”

That’s a truism that hardly warrants reiteration. In 59 years, India has evolved and the others have regressed. While our neighbours are increasingly enthralled by the certitudes of medievalism, India has engaged with the modernity. There is an Indian identity and an Indian way of doing things which, despite their monumental imperfections, distinguish us from the people next door. Our avowed commitment to universalism is quite decisively national.

For the moment we have successfully resisted the temptation of being blown off our feet by the tsunami of hatred that has been unleashed from the West. Despite the arrests of real and potential subversives committed to waging jihad against the tenets of our nationhood, there is no widespread feeling that Indian Muslims have somehow gone over to the side of the fanatics. The belief that problems can be resolved within the parameters of competitive democratic politics is still not entirely discredited.

Yet, there are underlying tensions which have been wilfully skirted by the political class and the opinion-makers. We can ignore these early warnings at our own peril.

First, the opinion polls reveal that there is a monumental pent-up anger, in urban India at least, at our collective inability to thrash the terrorists—whether they happen to be foreign paratroopers or home grown deviants. That this has not manifested itself immediately in voting preferences has more to do with the waning credibility of the Opposition than confidence in the Government.

Secondly, there has been a complete erosion of faith in the ability of the state to mete out justice to those who kill and maim innocent Indians. Those who heard the comments of ordinary Mumbaikars after the TADA court delayed the 1993 Mumbai blasts judgment would have been struck by the popular exasperation with the niceties of law. The panic-stricken response to Raj Thackeray’s warning to lawyers to stay away from defending those involved in the July 11 blasts is very revealing.

Finally, the leadership of the Muslim community hasn’t exactly endeared itself to the rest of the country by its persistent policy of denial. By glossing over the increasing radicalisation of young Muslims, indeed justifying the drift with pan-Islamic and anti-American invocations, it is conveying the impression of being soft on terrorism. What, people are beginning to ask, have the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon got to do with us? Why, they ask, haven’t the Government shut down madarsas that serve as the antechambers of Islamism? The belligerent protests against police interrogations, which have resulted in some Muslim ghettos becoming no-go areas for the authorities, are helping establish new sectarian faultlines which may end up nullifying India’s much-acclaimed majestic moderation.

The entire focus of the Government is on preventing Muslim “alienation”, a position that ignores the ideological dimensions of Islamist terrorism. It is time to spare a thought to the mounting anger of those who have neither panicked nor yielded to terror: the Indian who is first and foremost an Indian.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, August 20, 2006)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A tenuous anniversary (August 15, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

From as far back as I can remember, Independence Day has become the occasion for collective self-flagellation. In the Sixties and Seventies, when the country was undergoing crippling shortages, the August 15 editions of newspapers were full of despondent articles by former freedom fighters lamenting that their sacrifices had all been in vain. “This country”, a friend’s father bemoaned, much to our mirth, “should never have been given Independence.”

No one, not even the resident grouch, is likely to say anything so outrageous today. Regardless of all the moaning about crumbling infrastructure, rampant corruption and divisive politics, India has moved on from the time Western writers prophesied its imminent descent into anarchy. India, for all its unfulfilled potential, is not going to become another sub-Saharan Africa. On the contrary, the international community now believes India is on the threshold of take-off—if only a few self-goals don’t ruin it all. There is a can-do determination running through the country, fuelled by the emergence of a truly indigenous, somewhat consumerist, popular culture.

Yet, today, for the first time since Independence—and I don’t say this casually—India is confronted by a unique terrorist threat that has the potential of negating the achievements of the past 60 years. I am, of course, referring to the type of terrorism we witnessed in Mumbai on July 11, in Varanasi last April and in Delhi last October.

What makes this terrorism more dangerous than, say, the Khalistani terrorism of the mid-Eighties or the infantile Naxalite disorder in West Bengal in the early-Seventies?

For a start, India’s earlier experience with terrorism was geographically limited. True, the Sikh separatists did assassinate a Prime Minister and exploded a few deadly bombs in Delhi. However, by and large, this was a movement confined to Punjab. There are no geographical bounds of today’s terrorism. Its tentacles are local, national and international.

The authorities haven’t succeeded as yet in identifying the perpetrators of the Mumbai blasts. However, the preliminary arrests and the scope of their inquiries indicate that the conspiracy involves terrorist modules all over India, the neighbouring countries and West Asia. In other words, global terrorism has now acquired local footprints.

Second, it is clear that the motivations of those who were responsible for 200 deaths were religious. We can go and on about terrorists not having any religion and Islam being a religion of peace and brotherhood. Yet, it is undeniable that as far as the terrorists were concerned, waging war on India was a religious obligation. Jihad, to them, was not an act of self-purification, as some theologians disingenuously claim; it was a calculated act of warfare.

Third, the objective of the terrorists is millenarian and, consequently, does not lend itself to any half-way political settlement. They have no territorial designs, unlike the Kashmiri separatists; they are committed to the destruction of an entire way of life and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. Even their commitment to Pakistan, which many people mistakenly believe is their prime motivation, is ephemeral and tactical. These terrorists would equally celebrate if the state of Pakistan comes crashing down. “I don’t believe in Kashmiriyat”, Asiya Andrabi, the leader of the Islamist, Kashmir-based Dukhtaran-e-Milat, declared in a recent interview to Outlook, “I don’t believe in nationalism. I believe there are just two nations—Muslims and non-Muslims.”

Is it possible to have a dialogue with such people or allay their concerns with economic sops?

Finally, and this is the most distressing aspect, there is mounting evidence that the terrorist modules—whether attached to SIMI, Lashkar-e-Toiba or something equally bizarre—have survived because of political short-sightedness and community cover. Most of the modules that have been unearthed so far haven’t been based in remote jungles but amid overcrowded ghettos. This would not have been possible unless families and a section of the community, however small, viewed them with indulgence. The pressure mounted by the “community leaders” on the authorities to go slow with their inquiries and the willingness of the “secular” politicians to oblige suggest that the Muslim leadership wants to be in a state of wilful denial. They haven’t realised that it is in their self-interest to surgically detach the terrorists from the community.

The additional tragedy is that the rest of us would also like to pretend that terrorism is just a bad dream—limited to West Asia and Heathrow airport—that will have a happy ending as long as we keep our nerve. It is this misplaced optimism that makes this Independence Day so terribly unreal.

(Published in DNA, Mumbai, August 15, 2006)

Terror needs fearless tackle (August 13, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

It would perhaps not be outrageous to suggest that had the authorities in Pakistan been as forthcoming with information to India, as they were to the British Intelligence, the July 11 carnage in Mumbai may have been averted.

The heinous plot unearthed last Thursday to cause mid-air explosions on trans-Atlantic flights from London was to have been executed by middle-class Britons of Pakistani origin. From all accounts, it didn’t have the blessings of the Pakistani state. At the same time, there was an undeniable Pakistani connection which can be traced to the burgeoning jihad industry which operates part covertly and partly with the full knowledge of the ISI. Islamabad is always concerned that deracinated would-be jihadis carrying British passports will target the West and put the Musharraf regime on a sticky wicket. It is more indulgent if the army of rabid theologians can motivate enough young Muslims into inflicting a ‘thousand cuts’ on India instead.

It is unrealistic to believe that the attitude of Pakistan towards India will change in the short-term. Despite well-meaning attempts to project Them as People Like Us, there is such a visceral hatred of Hindu India in that country that an event like the Mumbai bombings will see the cigars and vintage Port being brought out in the Officers Mess of the Pindi cantonment.

It is not that the Bush Administration and the Blair Government are unaware of the many faces of Pakistan—the nuclear supermarket run by A.Q. Khan was, after all, unearthed by British intelligence. Bogged down in Afghanistan and beleaguered in Iraq, the Anglo-American alliance feels that it is best to not open another front and, instead, ensure that Musharraf’s dealings with it is above board. By passing on crucial information to British Intelligence about the jihadi plan to target trans-Atlantic flights, the ISI has won many brownie points in the West. This is also calculated to undermine India’s feeble diplomatic attempt to target the infrastructure of terror in Pakistan.

How should India respond to Pakistan’s calculated duplicity? A knee-jerk response would involve questioning President Bush’s sincerity in fighting the “Islamic fascists” when it comes to Pakistan. This is the response Pakistan would love, since it will portray India as unreasonable and petulant. If the British, the argument is certain to run, are looking inwards to grapple with the unique problem of “home-grown” terrorists with “Muslim sounding names”, why isn’t India doing likewise?

It’s a fair question. The post-July 11 inquiries have so far yielded suspects who are Indian by birth. Some members of terrorist modules may have travelled to Pakistan to be trained in arms and explosives but, like the 25 people arrested in Britain, they are “home-grown” perverts. The Laskar-e-Toiba originated in Pakistan but it now has branches in India which are run by Indian Muslims. Subversion has struck roots in our own soil and we can no longer blame terrorist attacks on Pakistani paratroopers.

Since the 7/7 bombings, Britain has come to terms with its Muslim terrorist problem. Despite the howls of protests by do-gooders who like to believe terrorism is a function of “alienation” which can be resolved by wiping Israel from the face of the earth, the British police have been given a free hand to do whatever is necessary to protect the lives of innocent civilians. The Indian Government, however, remains in a state of denial and vulnerable to political pressure.

The protests by some MPs in Parliament that Muslims are being targeted by the police led to an intervention by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. In a speech to party MPs a fortnight ago, she, in effect, suggested that the Government be hard on terrorism and soft on suspected terrorists. The unmistakeable message to the police was to go slow.

Outside powers can assist but India will have to fight its own battles. Can we do so by preventing the police from doing its job fearlessly? Are sectarian vote banks more important than confronting this assault on our very nationhood? It’s time to reflect.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, August 13, 2006)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Desperate to oppose (August 11, 2006)

The problem of a faltering and out-of-form leadership

By Swapan Dasgupta

The rightful and appropriate role of the Opposition in a parliamentary democracy has long agitated the minds of those involved in statecraft. Before it became obligatory for post-colonialism to deny Westminster its role as the “mother” of Parliaments, it was assumed that the role of the Opposition is to oppose. This simple principle, however, was based on a few assumptions. First, that the Opposition was also Her Majesty’s “loyal” opposition and operated along the same gentlemanly codes of parliamentary conduct as the Treasury benches. Second, that the Opposition was also a potential Government-in-waiting and had to view itself as such. In short, its opposition should never be outlandish. Finally, that political life centred on the proceedings in Parliament and that there was little space for extra-parliamentary activism.

Even before these civilised assumptions were rendered redundant by the rough and tumble of ‘emerging’ democracies, there were alternative perceptions of the Opposition’s role. Radical politicians, particularly the early socialists and communists, were always disdainful of parliamentary politics—hence Lenin’s infamous “pig sty” analogy—and the idea of fostering change through legislation. For them, Parliament was at best an expedient platform to both articulate their radicalism and expose the shortcomings of the system. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, radicals and Leftists justified their participation in elections by promising to undermine the system from “within”. Till the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the phrase “parliamentary roader” remained a pejorative term in the lexicon of communist polemics.

Curiously, the communist belief that Parliament is at best a propaganda platform found an unlikely supporter in Enoch Powell, one of the most controversial but distinguished British parliamentarians of the post-War era. Writing in the Guardian in 1988, Powell, then an Ulster Unionist MP for the South Downs in Northern Ireland, lamented the Opposition’s penchant for expediency and opposition-for-opposition’s-sake approach. Opposition, he wrote with characteristic loftiness, “is about principle in a way that government, with its constant practical involvement in management and subterfuge, can never be.”

Powell’s assertion may have a contemporary resonance in the context of a whispered debate in the BJP over its present strategy in Parliament. During the ongoing Monsoon session of Parliament, the BJP has been hyper-active in trying to embarrass the UPA Government, in the belief that a few well-directed head-butts will create a political crisis and, who knows, even bring the fragile coalition crashing down. Driven by a small group which can best be nicknamed the ‘Hezbollah faction’, the party has sought to break out of the confines of the National Democratic Alliance and make common cause with the embryonic Third Font on a number of issues.

There has been frenzied activity to secure a “sense of the House” resolution which is critical of the ongoing legislative process in the United States on Indo-US nuclear cooperation. With the Samajwadi Party playing intermediary, the BJP has demonstrated its over-weaning anxiety to even join hands with the Left on this issue.

Likewise, over former External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh’s involvement in the Iraqi oil-for-food payoffs, the party—with the honourable exception of Arun Jaitley—has nonchalantly abandoned its role of prosecutor and become a part of the dissident Congressman’s defence counsel. Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani, who is very particular about his choice of words, for example, described Natwar as a “scapegoat”, a term that implies innocence. Another BJP stalwart, when confronted on TV with the R.S. Pathak inquiry report suggesting Natwar’s pivotal role, actually asked “Where is the evidence?”—thereby negating everything the party had screamed about when the Paul Volcker report was published.

Since nothing succeeds in politics like success, the BJP’s recourse to cynical expediency will be judged by its success in either destabilising the UPA Government or ensuring irreparable cracks in the Congress’ relationship with the Left, particularly the CPI(M). On both counts, the signs are not very encouraging.

As the chief promoter of India’s nuclear weaponisation programme, the BJP has every reason to examine the fine print of the ongoing legislative process on Capitol Hill. Some of its concerns over the ‘non-binding’ encroachments on sovereign decision-making and the fate of India-specific exemptions from the International Atomic Energy Authority guidelines for ‘non-nuclear’ states are shared in South Block as well. Yet, there is a world of difference between the strategic objectives pursued by the erstwhile NDA Government and the designs of the Left. One is premised on India’s role as an emerging world power and the other on visceral anti-Americanism. The BJP wanted negotiations with the US to be marked by very hard bargaining; the Left was keen to disavow any future strategic partnership between the world’s two largest democracies. The BJP criticism of the nuclear deal was based on prefaced on the party’s robust nationalism; the Left was echoing the misgivings of China and demanding parity for Iran. Some BJP stalwarts even embraced some of the more ridiculous and conspiratorial forms of anti-Americanism.

By allowing its distinctive position to be subsumed by the Left’s archaic international outlook, the BJP is guilty of compromising its distinctive brand identity. Since there is very little chance of the Left coming to terms with the maximalist position on India’s nuclear programme, the BJP—egged on by the Samajwadi Party— has accommodated the Left in the fond hope that this convergence will sign the death warrant for the UPA-Left understanding.

A similar belief in the Government’s sudden death propelled the BJP to be led by the nose by the Samajwadi Party into embracing the discredited Natwar. By abandoning the attack against Natwar in favour of a shrill assault on the Congress, the BJP allowed a beleaguered Government to climb the moral high ground. TV viewers witnessed the strange spectacle of the Congress flaying the misdeeds of one its leading members and the BJP underplaying its significance and, in some cases, endorsing his angry fulminations. Since anti-corruption matters for the BJP’s middle class support base, unlike the caste-based parties which can afford to be brazen, the erosion of its brand image is marked. The repeated images of BJP leaders standing shoulder to shoulder and egging on Samajwadi Party’s Amar Singh and Natwar is unlikely to go down well in the party’s core constituency.

It is cruel but not an exaggeration to suggest that by the end of this parliamentary session the BJP could well be looking more and more like a B-team of the Samajwadi Party—a de-positioning that may cost it dearly in the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh election. In trying to combine blind opposition with a fanciful putsch-ist endgame, the party is guilty of both opportunism and adventurism. By attempting a contrived opposition unity, it has diluted the efficacy of issues it is naturally identified with—the no-nonsense approach to terrorism and internal subversion. Even at a tactical level, the BJP has got it all wrong. Unless the TADA court judgment in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case revives parliamentary interest, the Government seems to have successfully diverted attention from its horrible failure to contain the Islamist jihadis.

Meaningful opposition involves putting the Government on the mat on issues that simultaneously enhances the alternative way. At the same time, it involves combining principles with patience and perseverance. By picking up themes that nurture the vote-banks of the Left and Third Front parties, the BJP has shown desperation and, in effect, abandoned its leadership role in the opposition. The problem of a faltering and out-of-form leadership has again been exposed and it will come as no surprise if the coming months witness another bout of internecine warfare.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, August 11, 2006)

Monday, August 07, 2006

No need to get mushy (August 8, 2006)

India must draw lessons from Israel's response

By Swapan Dasgupta

All over the world, but notably in the Islamic countries and Europe, the ongoing conflict in Lebanon has become the occasion for another outburst of visceral anti-Americanism. The Bush Administration, controversial at the best of times, has been squarely blamed for its failure to force Israel into accepting an immediate, unconditional cease-fire. Televised images of civilian casualties, particularly the death of 19 children in Qana, and the endless lines of refugees have aroused a wave of moral indignation and turned the conflict into a public relations disaster for Israel.

Predictably, India has not been unaffected by the prevailing mood. Both Houses of Parliament, which had failed to agree on a common strategy to counter terrorist outrages like the July 11 Mumbai blasts, shed their differences and passed unanimous resolutions demanding an immediate cease-fire and condemning the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. With a “sense of the house” parliamentary resolution critical of the Indo-US nuclear cooperation programme proving contentious, the Lebanon resolution became the cloak for the expression of the all-pervasive anti-Americanism.

In such a charged environment, a clinical assessment of the lessons the Lebanon conflict holds for India may seem heartless. Yet, having climbed on the bandwagon of liberal outrage, it may still be pertinent for India to consider why the peremptory condemnation of Israel and the US is a trifle rushed.

The immediate provocation for Israel’s bombing and attack on southern Lebanon was the July 11 raid by the Lebanese Hizbollah on a military post in northern Israel. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two were abducted and taken to hideouts in Lebanon. The Hizbollah was clear it wanted to use the hostages to secure the release of jailed terrorists, including Samir Qantar, a man responsible for the brutal murder of a 28 year-old Jew and his four-year-old daughter in 1979. Qantar, according to eyewitnesses, shot the father and then smashed the little girl’s skull against a rock with a rifle butt.

The July 11 attack was followed two days later by the Hizbollah launching rocket attacks from southern Lebanon on Haifa.

It has been suggested that Israel’s response to the Hizbollah provocation was disproportionate. In the Indian context, where every terrorist outrage is invariably followed by appeals for tolerance and cross-border amity, this is apparently so. Yet, the undeniable fact is that Israel was pursuing a robust, zero tolerance approach to a problem that is plaguing many countries in the world—the menace of non-state militias.

The Hizbollah is not some rag-tag cluster of wild fanatics operating from tents and dingy basements. It is a formidable non-official army, committed to the destruction of Israel, which was created by elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran. Having hijacked the control of southern Lebanon from an effete Lebanese army, the Shia-dominated militia has fast become the leading anti-Israeli force in the region, outpacing both the PLO and Hamas. Now backed by both Syria (which opposed it initially) and Iran, it has demonstrated its fighting capability over the past fortnight by doggedly resisting the Israeli army and firing a daily shower of between 130 and 160 rockets into Israel. Any unconditional cease-fire will be seen as a victory of Hizbollah and establish its claim to be only force of standing up to Israel.

The de-facto Hizbollah takeover of Lebanon is a pointer to the dangers arising from non-state militias going out of hand. The Hamid Karzai Government in Afghanistan faces such a threat from the regrouped Taliban operating from Waziristan and, in time to come, India could well be confronted by a similar danger from either the Lashkar-e-Toiba in Pakistan or another jihadi outfit.

Although the authority of the state in Pakistan hasn’t degenerated to the level of Lebanon, there are visible similarities between the LeT and Hizbollah. Both derive military sustenance from organised state power; both are motivated by variants of Islamism; both have elaborate tentacles in civil society; and both have a political presence in the democratic system.

By tacitly endorsing the depredations of the Hizbollah, India has implicitly questioned the right of sovereign states to take military action against cross-border terrorism. This short-sighted and populist posturing is almost tantamount to negating an important defensive option.

However, it is important to acknowledge that Israel could not have exercised its right to defend itself aggressively without the blessings of the only power that really counts. Without Washington’s protective umbrella, Teheran’s threat to wipe Israel from the face of the earth would have acquired even more menacing connotations. Yet, Israel hasn’t acquired its place in the American imagination by guilt-tripping invocations of the Holocaust. In offsetting the natural American inclination to put its oil interests above all else, Israel has had to work diligently over decades. Of course, the Jewish-American lobby has played an important role but far more significant has been Israel’s successful projection of its commonality of values with the US. Considering the historical schism between Judaism and Christianity, the achievement is seminal.

At the same time, Israel is not a client state of the US. Israeli leaders over the years have never hesitated to say No to America when it has been in its national interest. A special relationship has evolved by Israel juxtaposing uncompromising nationalism with strategic commonality.

As India battles against a terrorist assault on its nationhood, it is worthwhile drawing the right lessons from the Lebanon conflict. Mushy sentimentalism is no substitute for hard-nosed diplomacy.

(Published in Times of India, August 8, 2006)

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Mountain over the Mole hill (August 6, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The media, all of us know, can be a damned nuisance at times. But what really took the biscuit was the sight of TV cameras literally following Jaswant Singh to the toilet at the launch of his controversial A Call To Honour—as if the privacy of the Maurya Sheraton’s Men’s toilet would be the right setting to divulge the name of the elusive mole.

I don’t think this column will be deemed habitually offensive for suggesting that India’s first great mole hunt, conducted in Parliament and through the media, has been anything but a monumental farce. After a fortnight’s frenetic search and oodles of whispered calumny heaped on the reputations of distinguished public servants, we are nowhere close to discovering whether or not the Americans had secured privileged access to India’s nuclear plans in 1995. Alternatively, we are yet to dispel the possibility that some dirty tricks department somewhere had successfully planted on the senior BJP leader a document whose authenticity is unverifiable.

Politically too the jury is still out over the consequences of the mole hunt. For the moment, the Congress appears to have got the upper hand after it emerged that there was a discrepancy between what Jaswant claimed in his book and what he told Parliament. There was jubilation in the Treasury benches that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a very effective intervention. Equally, there was concern in the BJP that a furtive mole hunt had diverted attention from economic mismanagement and terrorism—issues which are awkward for the UPA Government.

There are four broad conclusions to be drawn from the inconclusive mole controversy. First, that Jaswant erred by attaching inordinate significance to what is at best a clumsily drafted, non-official intelligence input. These days such inputs can be purchased by subscription over the internet or even extracted from blogsites. Jaswant compounded that folly by not being able to anticipate the political fallout of the media’s speculation game.

Secondly, the BJP did not succeed in its efforts to link the mole controversy to the ongoing furore over the nuclear deal with the US. There may be reasons to be concerned about India’s status as an independent nuclear power if the US legislature imposes extraneous conditionalities. However, this is not an inescapable conclusion from a purported letter from one think tank functionary to a former US Ambassador to India.

Thirdly, there was no seriousness on the part of the Government to use Jaswant’s revelations to review its in-house security. Beginning from its astonishing dismissal of the Mitrokhin Archive—which pointed to the KGB’s deep penetration into the political class—and extending to its nonchalance over the leaks from the National Security Council computers, the Government’s commitment to counter-espionage has been dangerously casual. It has been content scoring high-school debating points over the Opposition. To this date, for example, no legal charges have been pressed against a senior intelligence official who defected from two years ago.

The amateur mole hunt has shown that India is too casual about Intelligence. Successive governments have failed to evolve a system that combines functional autonomy with accountability. It’s a shame that the present controversy didn’t become the occasion to foster a more meaningful debate on the scope of gathering and protecting intelligence.

Finally, the mole hunt has inflicted collateral damage on the writing of contemporary history. Indian politicians are not accustomed to penning their political reminiscences. The number of revealing books on Indian politics by its practitioners does not run into double figures. Jaswant tried to initiate a welcome trend. In the process he broke the one cardinal rule governing political memoirs—they are written after retirement. This facilitates honesty, detachment and prevents the past from intruding into the present.

By trying to straddle his political responsibilities with his obligations as a chronicler, Jaswant, tragically, has fallen between two stools. Since Indian politicians don’t retire, his experience may well prove a deterrent to members of the political class sharing their past experiences so freely.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, August 6, 2006)

Pakistan is not an estranged brother (August 12, 2006)

The Partition has defined Pakistan's identity. It exists separately because there is India. This fundamental contradiction can't be wished away

By Swapan Dasgupta

When it comes to Pakistan, a very large number of Indians nurture a peculiar complex. Jaswant Singh, whose bestseller, A Call To Honour, represents the candid confessions of an Indian Tory—as distinguished from a Right-winger—is no exception. His second second chapter is entitled “Born of the same womb-Pakistan”. It’s a formulation calculated to put him on par with those sentimental souls who travel to the Wagah border to light candles each year on August 14.

Of course, it is not as simple as that. The Wagah candle brigade harbours a Amar-Akbar-Anthony vision of South Asian fraternity, whereas Jaswant’s perception of Indian identity is rooted in the culture and folklore of Rajputana. Where the twain do meet is in the heartfelt conviction that the Partition of India in 1947 was a monumental tragedy which ought to be negated sometime in the future.

People differ as to who and what was responsible for a large chunk of Indian Muslims going their own way. Jaswant, taking his cue from historian Ayesha Jalal, is comfortable heaping all the opprobrium on the Congress and Jawaharlal Nehru. The “progressives” who also include a large body of Left-leaning Muslims, blame the messy separation on the Muslim League’s willingness to dance to a divisive imperial tune.

What linked these two versions of history is the conviction that Partition was a consequence of “high” politics which scarcely touched the “people”. By this logic, Partition was akin to two brothers moving into separate wings of the ancestral property and being separated by a line drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe. Separate living arrangements, it was implied, didn’t entail the end of kinship.

My belief in the sameness of India and Pakistan collapsed one evening in a London bar some 30 years ago. I was sitting with some friends enjoying the mandatory Friday night drink when a South Asian gentleman sat down in the adjoining table. During a lull in our conversation he butted in abruptly and asked me: “Where are you from?”

I was in no mood for polite conversation that evening and, with a bored expression, answered: “India”.

“I’m from Pakistan”, he replied sombrely.

“It’s the same thing,” I retorted, anxious not to prolong this exchange.

“Same thing?” he asked incredulously. “Oh no, it’s not the same thing. It’s not the same thing at all.”

For close to six decades, well-intentioned Indians have been trying to keep alive the fiction that the divide between India and Pakistan is politically contrived. The drawing rooms of the metros are replete with anecdotes of that Pakistani taxi driver who gave a discounted fare to a visiting Indian. The Sunday supplements abound with mushy articles by apprentice journalists describing their journey to the house in Lahore where grandmother grew up. Grandma’s family, needless to add, “Owned half of Lahore.”

The Lahore disease has proved infectious. Last year, it claimed its most celebrated victim in the form of L.K. Advani.

What prompted Advani to go beyond the demands of protocol at Jinnah’s mausoleum? How did the man Pakistan believed was the “invisible hand” that scuttled the Agra summit abruptly become so weak-kneed about Pakistan?

Advani’s motives were entirely noble. He proceeded on the belief that the biggest obstacle in the path of an enduring Hindu-Muslim understanding in India was the memory and consequences of Partition. If the rulers of India and Pakistan agreed to bury the hatchet and agreed to stop terrorism and respect each other’s borders, the ensuing peace dividend would transform Hindu-Muslim relations radically. In the summer of 2004, many ‘eminent’ Muslims privately advised Advani that if the BJP persevered with the peace process it would win the confidence and votes of Muslims.

I was personally witness to one Muslim intellectual telling Advani that for Muslims the 2004 general election would be as important a turning point as 1952. In 1952, the Muslims broke with their earlier infatuation with the Muslim League—and, for that matter, the slogan of Pakistan—and voted overwhelmingly for the Congress. Now, in 2004, they were on the verge of effecting another tectonic shift—this time to the BJP!

In hindsight, this sounds absolutely cuckoo. However, in the heady atmosphere of early-2004, when almost everything seemed to be going right, there was a market for such fanciful ideas within the BJP.

Of course, the 2004 general election didn’t turn out the way many expected. The Muslim vote for the BJP remained in the realms of fantasy. However, the idea of making the BJP acceptable to Muslims persisted. One of its misplaced manifestations was Advani’s intervention at the Jinnah mausoleum in Karachi.

To a large extent the problem is generational. There is little doubt that till the late-Sixties a section of Muslims, particularly the underclass, had a macabre fascination for Pakistan. In Uttar Pradesh, where the Pakistan movement originated, many middle-class Muslims imagined emigration was the escape route from the loss of a way of life. The aggressive Hindi nationalism and the corresponding decline of Urdu also convinced many Muslims with emotional ties to a disappearing feudal order that India was not the place to be.

Such comforting thoughts of a Promised Land across the international border disappeared with the creation of Bangladesh. Coupled with the beginnings of the Mohajir problem in Karachi, the 1971 war convinced the Muslim community that it was not worth reposing faith in Pakistan. Moreover, the ignominious surrender in Dhaka persuaded the more obtuse sections that the legend of one Muslim soldier being equal to 10 Hindus was a statistical miscalculation.

What these anecdotal titbits go to suggest is that for one generation of Hindus, Muslims and Pakistan are virtually synonymous. Clobbering Pakistan on the head also implied showing the local Muslim his place too. In Gujarat 2002, the local population were quite clear in their mind who Narendra Modi was actually referring to when he flayed Mian Musharraf.

Why single out Modi for opprobrium? Immediately after the Mumbai blasts of July 11, the Prime Minister, his National Security Adviser and Foreign Office mandarins have been vocal in accusing Pakistan. So far, there is nothing concrete to link Pakistan to the blasts but there is mounting evidence to indicate that radical Islam, another euphemism for terrorism, has struck roots in India. It is, however, politically unacceptable to speak openly of the reality of a Fifth Column in our cities. The Samajwadi Party and other bleeding hearts are already protesting against religious profiling by the police. Consequently, with this government too, General Musharraf has become the euphemism for rabid mullahs and their murderous followers. What Modi said angrily in Gujarati after Godhra is being said in understated English by the senior functionaries of the UPA today.

The difference ends here. Whereas many in Gujarat believed that popular retribution is the only way to fight terrorism, the UPA Government has thrown up its hands in despair. It cannot go after all the terrorist cells because the political cost of such an exercise is likely to be enormous. At the same time, its diplomatic offensive against Pakistan lacks teeth and credibility. Consequently, it has fallen on the “Mumbai spirit”—the contemporary term for old-fashioned Hindu fatalism.

The Mumbai spirit is to political mobilisation what the Upanishads are to Hinduism—a mass of abstractions which establishes intellectual superiority in a climate of political servitude. It is manifestation of both fear and defeatism, and it is likely to be interpreted as such by the Islamists. There is a feeling in the Muslim community, quite openly articulated in Pakistan, that Hindus lack the mental wherewithal to wield power. “We were rulers here for 800 years. Inshaallah, we shall return to power here once again”, threatened the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid to his congregation on July 17, after accusing the authorities of targeting every “bearded man” in the country.

The Shahi Imam is a loose cannon who defies the expedient stereotype of the pious maulvi. What then will they say of the belief, again widespread in Pakistan, that the problem with Hindus is their deep sense of inferiority vis-a-vis Muslims? This, of course, is a peculiarly North Indian phenomenon but it continues to shape Indo-Pakistan diplomacy. The good UP small-town Hindu genuflects before the so-called “refined Urdu” of the Muslim feudals while his Punjabi counterpart drools over the greasy food served in the by-lanes of Lahore. Together they add up to the foreign policy conclusion—common to all governments—that the rogue state be given another chance to affirm its allegiance to a composite culture.

It is a colossal blunder that stems from the ‘estranged brother’ act. Pakistan, it is important to realise once and for all, is just a troublesome neighbour who has little in common left with us. We can’t change our neighbour but we are not obliged to love him either.

(Published in Tehelka, August 12, 2006)