Saturday, May 26, 2012

Protesting Veterans Overshadow NATO Summit

Protesting Veterans Overshadow NATO Summit

                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

The phase in life when we admired America, suddenly came alive: US veterans of Iraq and Afghan wars heroically throwing away their medals outside the venue in Chicago where the NATO Summit on Afghanistan was held last week.

Continuing a tradition, no Indian journalist was present at the venue to cover the 28 NATO leaders and 10 smaller countries focus on a region of singular interest to India. In hindsight it turned out to be not the earthshaking event President Obama had expected preparatory to his re election campaign. Yet, the protest of the veterans brought out all that is good about America.

Nothing has done the US more harm than the spin put on the collapse of the Soviet Union: that it was a license for Dick Cheyney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz to seek full spectrum dominance. 9/11 provided the occasion for the global war on terror. In this project Afghanistan and Iraq have faced destruction from which Pakistan too will not escape.

War on terror was the rationale for the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. What was the rationale for the destruction of Libya and now persistent destabilization of Syria?

French, Turkish, Qatari officers caught in Syria is old story. But how is the cause of democracy advanced if the United States and Ayman Mohammed Zawahiri seek support for the same side, the rebels splintered into more groups than have yet been counted?

These are unfortunate days for the idea of America some of us grew up on. I remember reading everything I could on Clarence Darrow, the very essence of American enlightenment. Faint hearts would not have fought and won the Monkey Trial in the midst of Southern bigotry.

The manner in which the system allowed Ed Murrow to almost single handedly terminate Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt. Arthur Miller found a remarkable metaphor in the Salem Witchhunt to cleanse the American soul.

Why, more recently David Hare’s spoof “Stuff Happens”, based on Rumsfeld’s shameful explanation for Abu Ghraib, created ripples in the theatre world even as the events were unfolding in Iraq.

I saw Guantanamo Bay off Broadway and a brilliant production of “Enron” in the West End. It says something about us that nobody has had the courage to produce these plays in India. This, when most of the Enron drama pertains to the debacle in Maharashtra.

These nuggets prove that Western conscience was not dead. It pegged away at a nagging length whether in the form of Noam Chomsky and his cohorts, in the world of Arts and literature, or more recently, the Occupy Movement.

All of these are very American/western happenings. Sadly, it is the meaner streaks in western capitalism, that received an extraordinary boost after the Soviet collapse. The victory of Democracy, as the West sees it, was made subservient to the triumph of rampaging capitalism. The project was placed on the wings of the likes of Rupert Murdoch.

And now that Murdoch’s wings are being clipped (hacked?) with great diligence, the project is in danger of losing height rapidly.

Put it down to my perversity, I do not see all of this as necessarily an unhappy outcome. In fact it strengthens the resolve of exactly the sort of people who came out on the streets in Chicago.

Read what Bernard Harcourt says in the Guardian of London.
“It was one of the most moving experiences many of us had witnessed in our lives. It is hard to describe in words. I couldn't get the lump out of my throat. Their words, their voices, crackling under the emotion of their courageous act, breaking under the weight of the pain, the trauma, their anger, sadness, and hope – theirs was a heroic and beautiful act, a moving ceremony. It was a privilege to be there with these women and men who served in our wars.”

The NATO summit meanwhile was a kind of mirror in which the member countries and their cohorts saw themselves as one composition and were reassured. Obama has little room for maneuver until his re-election.

Should he be re-elected, it is the pain and anguish of the veterans he will have to internalize to touch the soul of America.

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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Change Text Books To Charm Dalit Vote Bank

Change Text Books To Charm Dalit Vote Bank
                                                                                 Saeed Naqvi

There is a saying in Hindi: Apna khana, apna gana. In other words, we can transcend habits picked up from our childhood, except the ones concerning food and music. To these add one more: humour. True, humour can be universal, but a great deal of it is extremely parochial, conditioned by local inflections and attitudes.

The first Christmas programme I saw in London in the 60s is etched on my mind. A pair of polka-dotted panties cover the screen. A voice asks: “You’d wonder what these have to do with Christmas?” Pause. “Well, these are Carol’s”. Canned laughter. The pun on Christmas carols and Carol’s panties was supposed to induce laughter. It didn’t, in me.

In fact, the doggerel that followed left me worried that all reserves of humour in me had probably dried up:
“If every day was Christmas
            By some fantastic trick,
If every day was Christmas
            We’d all be bloody sick”

Here was British irreverence in the swinging 60s. But would the BBC risk such humour, say, in Northern Ireland, when just about this period, Terence O’Neill had resigned as the Protestant Prime Minister of Northern Ireland? BBC offices would have been gutted by Catholics and Protestants with equal fervour.

Nor would this humour go down well in the Bible belt of the American south or the varied Christian enclaves of India stretching from Kerala to the North East. In other words, Christmas, a day of universal festivities, is treated with varying shades of reverence by segments of the Christian church spread across the globe.

Irreverence, it turns out, is an essential ingredient in humour. And yet the capacity to cope with irreverence varies from culture to culture, class to class.

Every time the late M.G. Ramachandran fell ill, with high fever, a number of people immolated themselves. What to me was apotheosis of the bogus was to MGR’s fans a simple deification of the sublime. Even criticism of MGR’s government would result in government advertisements being withdrawn from my newspaper. Publish cartoons lampooning MGR in Tamilnadu and the state would break out in a riot.

There is tremendous wit and humour, quip and repartee in Tamil. But the Dravida movement, of which MGR, his guru Annadurai, contemporary K. Karunanidhi, were all leaders, had just emerged from the shadows of Brahmin domination. It had not yet developed the self confidence for self deprecating humour in the presence of its former tormentors. A lampoon in a non Dravida publication would register as an insult, a deliberate desire to put down the Dravida.

The emancipation of the Dalit is an even more recent phenomenon in North India. Hence the inability to stomach any comical casting of the solitary Dalit icon, B.R. Ambedkar.

The question, of course, is why this hullabaloo about a cartoon published 63 years ago? Because that was prior to Dalit emancipation, when Ambedkar was not seen in sectarian terms but rather as a brilliant author of India’s constitution. It just so happened that he had the origins of a Dalit.

There is another fact we tend to lose sight of. Democracy in a society shackled for generations in a triple hierarchy of feudalism, classes brought about by Macaulay’s education policies and a millennia old varna systems or caste structure, is compulsorily accompanied by egalitarianism. The Dalit who 63 years ago had no voice, is today a muscular electoral presence.

The Dalit who had to be careful not to let his shadow fall on the upper castes six decades ago, has today been able to create an icon he worships. The need for the icon will decline in direct proportion to the creation of a coherent Dalit elite. But until that phase of its evolution, the groupe will reserve the right to throw a ginger fit at any hint of its icon being laughed at.

The surprise is not at Dalit unease, but at UPA stalwarts vying with each other to drop cartoons from NCERT text books. This is attributable to one fact: a state of funk after the recent election results.

The release of Mushirul Hasan’s Pickings from Parsee Punch was almost custom made for a situation in which cartoons are an issue. Parsee Punch is essentially a sectarian replica of the Awadh Punch which derived from the Punch of London. Punch represented the highest level of British wit and satire, replete as it was with some of the greatest cartoons and satirical writings. The sophisticated elite of Lucknow paid the British back in their coin.

Instead of pelting stones at the British, the elite of Awadh (Oudh), who in their sophistication, style and diction, remain unparalleled, borrowed the title of London’s Punch to create a platform to attack the British. They published from mid 19th century to early 20th century the Awadh Punch in which poets like Akbar Allahabadi wrote their finest satire.

Here was a level of sophistication where even God and his abode were not spared:
“Sidharen Sheikh Kaabê ko
            Hum Inglistan dekhenge.
Who dekhen ghar khuda ka
            Ham khuda ki shaan dekhenge!”
(Let the Sheikh proceed to Mecca. I shall leave for London. Let him see the House of God. I shall see His wonders!) The spoof is on both, the Mullah as well as the new London crazy elite.

A great deal of the humour of Awadh Punch was distinctly elitist, meant for what Sir Sayyid Ahmad called the “Ashraf” or elite.

In fact those outside the pale were also a butt of Awadh Punch humour:
“Council mein bahut Saiyid
            Masjid mein faqat jumman”
(The viceroy’s executive council is full of high caste Saiyyids and the mosques are full of Jumman, a disparaging name for the caste of weavers). If only the authors of Awadh Punch were around today they would rue the day they ignored the Jumman, who has pushed the “Ashraf” into the Margins. Indeed, in communal politics he calls the shots today.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Europe: Consumer Society Collides With Specter Of Austerity

Europe: Consumer Society Collides With Specter Of Austerity

                                                                                              Saeed Naqvi

It would be bad form to put it down to the curse of the Sufi Saint Sheikh Salim Chishti. Nicolas Sarkozy lost the French Presidency because he had become the most hated French leader in history.

True, on 4 December, 2010 the President and his wife, Carla Bruni, did visit the Sheikh’s mausoleum in Fatehpur Sikri and received special blessings. Only the superstitious would insist that the baby born to them nine months later was a result of this visit. Indeed, ever since Moghul emperor declared his debt to the Saint for the having answered his prayers by providing the expanding kingdom with Salim, or Emperor Jehangir made famous by the Bollywood classic, Mughal-e-Azam, the childless turn up at the shrine in droves.

The scorn Sarkozy showered on Muslims in general and “halal” meat in particular towards the last laps of the campaign, would not have pleased the great Saint. But it is extremely unlikely that the Saint switched his divine intervention in favour of Francois Hollande. Carla Bruni must have scribbled a quiet note of thanks to the keepers of the Salim Chishti shrine to ensure their neutrality in France’s Presidential stakes.

The return of a Socialist in France since Mitterand’s victory in 1981 confirms a trend in Europe which, instead of lifting the mist, is adding to the fog. The other day David Cameron, who has never quite found his feet, had egg all over his face. Labour had trounced the Conservatives in local bodies election across the country. The Liberal Democrats, for their sin of associating with the Conservatives in a coalition, have been decimated.

And yet, if this was a confirmed trend how does one explain the success of the Respect party leader George Galloway in Bradford? Galloway is one of those incredible politicians who has nurtured a constituency in the Muslim world. He has a regular programme on the Iranian Press TV! What is emerging in Europe is an aviary of doves and hawks and hawk nosed doves, even dove nosed hawks.

On superficial view, the British and French voters may have slided the balance of power just a little bit from centre-right to centre-left, from tweededum to tweedledee. But that may not be the lasting reality.

In France, a reality that has loomed for two decades is the anti Muslim, anti Roma, in brief anti immigrant, National Front founded by Mons Le Pen. His daughter Marine Le Pen, has a threatening 18 percent vote share in the first round. She advised her supporters to tear their ballots rather than help Sarkozy’s right wingism which by her reckoning is tepid.

The French will not stand for “austerity” which across Europe means lower standard of living, and Hollande has therefore promised growth instead. Without Angela Merkel there is pretty little he can do. The resulting frustration is what Marine Le Pen will capitalize on in the Parliament elections.

Neo-Fascists are not knocking at the gates in France only. In Greece, the abysmal economic situation is polarizing politics sharply – from extreme right to extreme left. Under 25 are swelling the ranks of the unemployed in excess of 50 percent. Monstrous political formations like “Golden Dawn” have emerged under the leadership of Nikos Michaloliakos who admires Hitler. He has adopted the Nazi salute and a variation of the swastika as his party’s emblem. “Most of the money is in hand of Jews”, he says.

The fascist right is only one danger. What worries the rest of Europe much more is the rise of communism. European political compasses have panned centre-left and centre right for so many years that they are rusted and screechy to pan the new expanse of possibilities. The Golden Dawn and two other far right parties have fierce opposition in the extreme left, under the banner of Syriza which contains every tendency from Marxist-Leninists to Mister Bardhan.

The young racist in Oslo who shot dead 70 young Norwegians represents the most stark form of European despair. Across Europe, including Britain where racist nationalists won 14 percent vote in last week’s local elections, to Finland, Hungary, Austria everywhere a monster of extremism is rearing its head. The word austerity is a red rag to this lot.

Really, in the 70s they were lampooning the consumer society. Now they can’t bear to lost it, which they inevitably must.

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Obama’s Priority: Successful Chicago Summit Not Afghan Peace

Obama’s Priority: Successful Chicago Summit Not Afghan Peace

                                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

The stealth with which President Barack Obama landed at Bagram air base on a dark night was in its secrecy an improvement on the Navy Seals miraculous visitation on Abbotabad last year.

Just as the Seals sailed away with Osama bin Laden, so did Obama fly away with the document that will enable him to show something of a success at the NATO Summit on Afghanistan in Chicago on May 20 to 21. Poor Karzai must have felt like a schoolboy from whose hand a diving bird has snatched away the cheese. By all accounts he had been refining his own choreography for Chicago, given his considerable sense of theatre.

He would have wanted to turn up at the summit with his own hand which would go down well with his domestic constituency. He would have liked to be seen as a tough bargainer, one who gave nothing away under pressure from the world’s greatest power.

There was speculation even in NATO circles whether Karzai would like to announce the outlines of the strategic agreement in Kabul, before leaving for the summit, in Chicago in front of the world’s most powerful leaders or upon his return like someone who has saved national honour at the gruelling negotiations in Chicago.

In his choreography, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, head of the Transition Commission would have delivered the entire country to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by mid 2013, relieving the US and NATO of their “leadership position”. Already, 50 percent of the country is under ANSF control since April 2012. The “leadership position” that US-NATO have, will be phased out by 2014.

The overarching agreement that Obama clinched during an hour’s halt a Bagram, does not terminate relations between the two countries, come 2014. In fact the agreement extends US overseer plus participatory role to 2024.

On November 27, 2011, Karzai announced the second set of Afghan provinces, districts and cities to start their transition to ANSF which is now complete. He was keen to announce the third and fourth tranche of transition. Will he now in Chicago?

There are other details – night raids for instance. US troops are supposed to be providing a support role to the ANSF. This is not as simple a matter as appears on first sight. It involves such touchy questions as “will US troops serve under the Afghan flag?” Ofcourse, not. Clever wording is required to circumvent such tricky issues. Special Operations will be done “according” to Afghan Law in such a way that the US troops have immunity from local laws. The US will cite UN resolution under which their troops operate. Detail swill be negotiated until 2014.

What happens to, say, the 3000 detainees at Bagram? This is a contentious issue and for the time being joint management of Bagram and other detention centres will be the order. This transition too has to be sorted out. Karzai will be hauled over the coals for having signed the strategic agreement without sorting out sensitive details.

Also, long term funding for ANSF is being pegged at $4.1 billion dollars annually. Of this, the US will pay $2.7 billion, the UK $110 million and the GCC countries the remainder. The GCC will be expected to spend much more. Their being seen in American company leaves them somewhat vulnerable at home, so their investments will have to be hush hush.

Ofcourse, the basic purpose for Obama to have undertaken the nocturnal visit is to show the Republicans as the misguided war mongers who thrust two wars on a nation in recession. True, Afghanistan was a war of choice but now unpopular at home. He would like to appear to be the leader who called back the troops. The troops, ofcourse, will not be called back but that is the music to be faced by the next administration in Washington.

No sooner had Obama’s plane left Bagram, a car bomb blasted a gate of a compound where the UN staff lived.

On past record, who knows how many of the Afghan troops will be loyal and how many will turn upon the Kabul regime which is sensibly thinking of advancing elections by a year so that transfer of power coinciding with the elections in 2014 do not mess things up irretrievably.

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