Friday, August 30, 2013

US War Drums Over West Asia, Indian State And Muslims

US War Drums Over West Asia, Indian State And Muslims
                                                                                             Saeed Naqvi

If the sound of war drums over West Asia is receding, it is because the people have spoken up. British Parliamentary democracy looked more credible than it ever looked during the Blair years: 30 Tory MPs voted against their own party. Russia, China, Iran, Germany and others who matter applied the brakes. Has India internalized the truth that it does not matter? Such deafening silence from the government, principal opposition, even the pundits.

We are wise people and will read our script after the outcome is known, perhaps after Washington’s token strike to keep Saudi Intelligence Chief and hyper diplomat Prince Bandar bin Sultan in good humour.

Leave aside Ronald Reagan’s bombardment of Libya in 1987 when US intelligence overheard incriminating conversation in a Berlin discotheque, all other West led attacks on Arab or Muslim societies have taken place after the countervailing power of the Soviet Union dissolved in 1990. Beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, there have been a dozen or so military interventions and in recent years, Drone sorties, on Muslim countries by the US and former colonial powers, Britain and France.

Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan have been in the line of fire, sometimes repeatedly. Western powers have helped regional powers create conditions for a brutal civil war in Syria. Screws have been tightened on Iran by a series of punitive sanctions. Washington is playing both sides of the street in Egypt. Does this concerted closing in on Muslim societies not make Samuel Huntington, author of “The Clash of Civilizations”, the original prophet of our times?

Are you surprised that in this hothouse atmosphere there is a thing called Muslim anger? If this anger expresses itself in intemperate ways (how can you be angry and temperate), it is liable to be called “terrorism”. A global war on terror is then launched of which we must become a part. How do we explain to the Indian people what we are upto, particularly to the 180 million Muslims who experience the war on terror somewhat differently? Let me try to shed some light on the complexity.

A sample of Urdu newspapers in the capital confirms a pronounced reality not commonly noticed: Muslims take a relatively greater interest in Foreign Affairs. Mahatma Gandhi recognized this fact but adopted a faulty policy on the Khilafat movement.

The front page of the Indian Express on the day I am writing this column does not carry a single foreign story. This on a day when Syria and Egypt are obvious stories.

By contrast, Qaumi Salamati, recently launched Urdu newspaper, carries four detailed page one stories on foreign affairs, centered around Western machinations in West Asia.

As tributaries to our composite culture, religious, literary, linguistic and other cultural links with the Arab world, Iran and Central Asia are straight forward. Sometimes these linkages are exotic. Who would have expected the 2010 Uzbek-Kyrgyz riots in the Osh in the Farghana valley to find resonance in Delhi’s oldest habitation – Mehrauli. What dominates Mehrauli is the shrine of Sufi Saint Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki who travelled to India from Osh.

Ideally, foreign policy should represent national consensus. The policy of non alignment forged by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947, was therefore a comfortable fit with the Indian social reality. True, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab monarchies were in the Western camp throughout the cold war. But none of these societies were inhospitable to India. And among Arab socialists, Nehru’s prestige was no less than, say, even Gamal Abdel Nasser’s. A Pakistani poet, Raees Amrohvi, wrote in spontaneous admiration:

“Jap raha hai aaj maala ek Hindu ki Arab.
Barhaman-zaadey mein shaan-e-dilbari aisi to ho!”
(The Arab world is chanting the name of a Hindu!
A Brahmin with such ability to win hearts and minds?)

“Hikmat-e-Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru ki Qasam!
Mar mitey Islam jispe, kaafiri aisi to ho!”
(Consider the vision of Pandit Nehru!
A non believer and yet the world of Islam lies at his feet!)

The collapse of the Soviet Union consigned non alignment to oblivion. To make up for lost times, New Delhi lurched towards the United States. In West Asia, Israel became a special friend. Non aligned countries became “Muslim” countries in our eyes. How could a Muslim country be very different from Pakistan? “Hikmate Jawaharlal Nehru” be damned.

This new stance in world affairs which India had struck, distanced New Delhi from a national consensus if social realities are not to be overlooked. No, Muslims were not holding hostage India’s foreign policy options in a dynamic world. But disappointment did set in among Muslims and the Centre-Left elite when some supposed Constants in world affairs lost their saliency for policy makers. The question of Palestine, for instance.  

Also, the exceptional warmth in relations with the US coincided with the most aggressive phase in George W. Bush’s war on terror. This exposed a major contradiction policy makers had not taken cognizance of. A hundred thousand people demonstrated at the Ram Lila Maidan against Bush during his visit in 2006. The meeting, where the participants were mostly Muslims, was addressed by all political parties except the BJP and the Congress. His address to the joint session of Parliament had to be cancelled.

Policy makers were puzzled. Why were Indian Muslims opposed to the Indo-US Nuclear Deal? They were not. They were hurt by the Congress led government cozying upto Bush who, in their perception, was engaged in an undeclared crusade against Muslims. It remains a major contradiction in the navigation of foreign policy of a country which has the world’s second largest Muslim population. The contradiction will plague us time and again. Minister for Minority Affairs Rehman Khan, casts doubts on the very existence of Indian Mujahideen. But newspapers announce in banner headlines the arrest of the IM chief by the Intelligence Bureau. Whom should the world believe?

It is against this perspective that the clouds of war over Syria should be seen. Just as an initially reluctant Washington was dragged into war in Libya by Europe, it came pretty close to be dragged into Syria by an unlikely duet – Saudi Arabia and Israel.

As I mentioned at the outset, the attack on Syria, should it happen, will be the umpteenth US led military action against a Muslim country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I mention the Soviet Union repeatedly because unprecedented military might in the possession of a nation in decline is a dangerous new global reality. New Delhi’s silence in such situations may be commended by those who place a value on cunning and craft. But cunning and craft towards what end?

I like to imagine neither Jawaharlal Nehru nor Atal Behari Vajpayee would have remained silent if there was any risk to Damascus, the world’s oldest, continuous habitation and the great civilization of which it is the capital.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

The Saudi, Qatari Dogfight And Al Jazeera’s Fluctuating Fortunes

The Saudi, Qatari Dogfight And Al Jazeera’s Fluctuating Fortunes
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

One way to make sense of the West Asian chaos is to pick out one fault line at a time for careful focus. An equation which has been something of a riddle in recent years is the one between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

They fell out because they supported conflicting interests primarily in Egypt. Elsewhere too – Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Gaza (Hamas). But their coming together in any case was for limited tactical reasons: to stall the Arab Spring. The big asset the Qataris brought to the union, hurriedly put together, was the incomparable credibility of their TV channel, Al Jazeera. (I hope someone in New Delhi is watching: a credible national media with an international focus is a global asset.)

The differences between Riyadh and Doha go back to days when the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, dethroned his own father. This assertiveness in a Gulf country, though confined to its own sovereign territory, was an affront to the Saudi school of feudal manners. The Emir survived an attempted coup.

Osama bin Laden’s war on the House of Saud for its “guilt” of according hospitality to American troops, provided Doha with an opportunity to host CENTCOM. Then came Al Jazeera, another affront to Saudi pride. Saudi King Fahd’s cousin, Kahlid bin Faisal al Saud’s Orbit Communications had entered into an agreement with BBC at a time when the BBC needed finances to boost its world TV operations.

The Saudi enterprise was taking advantage of the BBC closing down its Arabic service. Trained editorial and technical staff became available to the new joint venture. But within a year and a half the channel closed down because Riyadh would not permit it to telecast a documentary on “beheading” under Sharia law.

That is when Qatar moved in to launch Al Jazeera, initially only in Arabic. Later, superior retirees from the BBC like Sir David Frost were enlisted to launch its English service.

In February 1991, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, CNN inaugurated the era of global TV by covering Operation Desert Storm, bringing to the world’s drawing rooms, on live TV, the defeat of an Arab country. The BBC World Service TV was launched in April of that year.

If a nation is at war, its media will automatically become part of the war effort. As, the United States and its allies have been in a state of conflict almost continuously since Operation Desert Storm, BBC and CNN have had to pay a price for their unbroken spell of patriotism. Their credibility has plummeted, particularly in Muslim countries. (But as the sweet young thing asks: “does it matter?)

Even when the US or NATO were not involved in a conflict, the sanitized coverage of, say, the Bosnian war or the two Intefadas, impacted differently on Muslim and non Muslim audiences worldwide. Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations would have remained a dark prophecy had the global media, BBC and CNN, not excavated deep along these civilizational fault lines to give it credence. After 9/11, and the manner in which the war on terror was conducted and covered, divided the world totally. India has internally not remained exempt from this division.

It was during this period that the Muslim Brotherhood grew exponentially in Egypt; Nekmetin Arbakan’s Islamist Refah party came to power in Turkey. The Kemalist army snuffed him out, just as the Egyptian army has snuffed out Mohamed Morsi. Teyyep Erdogan and Abdullah Gul are Arbakan’s spiritual descendents but packaged for a secular, Kemalist constitution. On them later.

Much more than the one sided coverage of conflicts, the anger among Muslims was on account of a suffocating absence from their TV screens of views they could identify with.

This was an enormous gap which Al Jazeera stepped in to fill. Its coverage was professional and thorough exposing BBC and CNN as vehicles of propaganda. Its viewership crossed 65 million in the early stages of the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

A rattled western war machine bombed its offices in Kabul and Baghdad. The channel’s credibility was sky high when it telecast Osama bin Laden’s taped interviews. This kind of “scooping” was so totally against the current that a question mark did stick to its image.

Then came the Arab Spring. In February 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia mobilized the monarchies, sheikhdoms and Emirates to join hands first in Libya and then in Syria to affect regime change. Otherwise, Peoples Power would consume the monarchies, including the Emir of Qatar.

That is when the Al Jazeera’s enormous credibility was placed at the disposal of less than credible military operations in the two theatres – Libya and Syria. Somewhat carried away by his role in the region, the Emir began to play a larger role linking the Brothers in Egypt, Gaza (Hamas), Turkey, Syria and Tunisia. He stepped on Saudi toes by trying to mediate between Afghan groups.

If there is one group the Saudis fear and suspect more than Iran and Shiaism, it is the Muslim Brotherhood. Iran is an outside power. Brothers are available even within Saudi society and they despise monarchies just as the Prophet of Islam despised monarchies.

So, the coffers of the House of Saud have been opened for Gen. Abdel Fattah el Sisi to break the back of the Brothers in Egypt. Al Jazeera, which became a mouthpiece for the Brothers during the year that Morsi was in power, is in the process of packing up its bags in Egypt.

Just when Al Jazeera’s partizan coverage in Libya, Syria and in Egypt caused it to barter away the hard earned credibility since 1996, new avenues have opened up for the channel in the West. All legal hurdles have been removed from its path in the US and Britain. Yes, there will be an Al Jazeera in the US and in Britain. So, why should the Emir of Qatar not thumb his nose at the Saudi King? Some day we should decode the real story: whose baby is Al Jazeera?

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Are Modi And UPA-III Part Of Same Project?

Are Modi And UPA-III Part Of Same Project?
                                                                     Saeed Naqvi

Surfing channels on August 15 to watch the spin that anchors and panels might give to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, I should be forgiven for feeling a little confused.

As if on wings of magic realism, I was transported from the disorderly tedium of our Parliament and, therefore, Parliamentary democracy, to the persuasive promises of a Presidential system.

This dream sequence was welcome on two counts: it provided an option away from the prime minister’s monotone and it seemed an engaging peep show into a presidential possibility at a time of universal disgust with our parliament beginning to resemble a fish market

The dream sequence I am referring was a show designed to upstage the flag hoisting at the Lal Qila: this was Narendra Modi hoisting the national flag at Lalan College, Bhuj, Gujarat.

Every school, institution, district, state capital has a flag hoisting ceremony on Independence Day. But it must be put down to the spell that Modi has cast on the media that his flag hoisting in remote Bhuj it was that the media surmounted huge logistical hurdles to cover.

This was unprecedented. Ofcourse, the Red Fort show was a tepid, lack luster ritual. But setting up Modi as a contrast, made the Prime Minister’s charisma deficiencies stand out.

Consider the careful choreography. Modi and his cohorts have been given sufficient time to underline the salient points of the prime minister’s colorless presentation. Rebuttals are prepared. And within an hour of the Lal Qila show, the one at Lalan College, Bhuj, is being telecast live on all the national channels. Manmohan Singh and Modi are placed side by side on the screen, making it look like a dialogue which the Prime Minister was losing. Having been denied a dialogue with Rahul Gandhi who failed the audition in April at the CII, Modi’s managers contrived to pit him against Manmohan Singh.

The great mystery remains. Modi is not the BJP’s declared Prime Ministerial candidate but the electronic media persists in projecting him as one. Asked why was the media was playing him up as the chosen candidate, Arnab Goswami of Times Now retorted, “please don’t have any doubt, he is positioning himself as the Prime Ministerial candidate; he is the Prime Ministerial candidate”.

Is the media’s adoration for Modi explained by his capacity to generate high TRP ratings?

That clearly is not the only reason because the BJP would have to be very stupid to demoralize four of its own chief ministers who are preparing for crucial sate elections in November. Picking Modi for the top job so early in the proceedings is to inform them that they are not in contention.

Also, supposing Modi, in defiance of the party line or with its acquiescence, is on a solo run, do you see the absurdity of that proposition? A willful Chief Minister disengages himself from the known party line and runs unimpeded across the land, even through states where the BJP has high stakes, and he is not checked in his tracks?

Or, that the BJP Chief Ministers or Chief Ministerial candidates in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Delhi would not undermine him in their areas of influence? That RSS cadres are working for Modi also does not make sense if you keep the four states in mind. The implication would be that cadres would work against state leaders.

No, friends, it just does not add up. Something else is afoot which the media is constrained not to discuss. After all, how can the media promote a debate on its own machinations?

In “Writing News and Telling Stories” Robert Darnton made a pertinent point that reporters and channels “bring more to the events they cover than they take away from them”. At this stage of his evolution, Modi is a media project. I would urge readers to give credence to a story The Times of India published in November, 2007 about a major US Law Firm and lobbyist, APCO, which is engaged in promoting him as prime minister.

There is no great mystery as to who controls the media. The Corporates with their multinational linkages do. It follows, therefore, that the Corporates endorse the Modi project.

Is Modi, independent of the NDA, a winning proposition in 2014? Ofcourse not. Then what is there in it for the Corporates? The gameplan has the merit of enabling Modi and his supporters, to gauge whatever improvement his candidature (but only when it is announced) will have on the improved vote share.

“Bus itni baat hai jiske liye
            Mahshar bapa hoga?”
(We await Armageddon for this small outcome?)

Modi’s popularity among voters may grow but he will scare allies, towards the UPA. Minorities who, because of their acute disenchantment with the Congress, may have voted tactically to defeat both, will think differently with the Modi “Ogre” looming. A search for power to thwart Modi will condition their voting rather than venting their anger against the Congress.

Is the UPA-III therefore emerging as a beneficiary of the Modi project and therefore the option in 2014?

Every business journalist knows the extent of co-ordination, visible and invisible, that exists between the Congress and the BJP on economic policy. In fact, except the Left, all parties are on board on the economy.

A sinking world economy is not likely to leave a trillion dollar Indian economy exposed to the vicissitudes of chaotic elections alone. To coax economic benefit entails managing the coordination between the two major political parties. Enabling legislations are required to place reforms on track. Somewhere there may be an explanation for the media inspired Modi candidature.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Durga Shakti Nagpal Walked Into A Trap Laid By Sand Mafia

Durga Shakti Nagpal Walked Into A Trap Laid By Sand Mafia
                                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi

What is the Durga Shakti Nagpal story all about? Is it about a 28 year old IAS officer, Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Gautam Budh Nagar, trying to live upto her name? The question does suggest itself when you visit her office. At the end of a long verandah, her name and designation in Hindi, are carved onto a dark blue wooden tablet jutting out of the cracked, yellow wall. But in her room, suspended from the wall, is a calendar with Durga-Shakti, the Goddess, I mean, riding a tiger.

The calendar is actually an advertisement, a sort of promotional gift from a group of lawyers with offices in NOIDA, Lucknow and Allahabad. For an itinerant journalist, this is helpful. I call up one of them. It was like having touched a beehive. They were agitated. They insisted I stop at the Magistrate’s office for a meeting with them.

In the five months that Durga Shakti Nagpal has been riding the tiger in the area, she must have worked very hard to have united the lawyers against her. My experience of lawyers in UP’s cities and towns has been uniform: they are mostly upper caste and inclined towards the BJP. But here the Sharmas and the Vermas were screaming themselves hoarse about the upper caste “SDM’s arrogance”, her “threatening manner”, use of “foul language”, a sort of unrestrained assertiveness. This is the universal image of the officer who has dominated headlines these past two weeks. What underpins this image is probably her inexperience.

Quite as uniform is another, more positive image of her: she is a “firm” officer. I did not meet a single person who was not supportive of her campaign against the “sand mafia”. What Nagpal appears not to have realized is that Mafias of any kind do not exist in a vacuum. They have political clout underpinned by mutual profit – for themselves and for the political party in power in, say, Lucknow.

In April, 2010, when Mayawati was Chief Minister, the Ganga and Jamuna riverbed between Allahabad and Kausambi was monopolized by a Dalit mafia: Kapil Muni Karvaria and Girish Pasi, both BSP leaders.

The Jamuna-Hindon riverbed in the Greater NOIDA area is controlled almost entirely by Narendra Bhati, Samajwadi Party’s Lok Sabha candidate for Khurja, encompassing the Greater NOIDA area. Bhati happens to be a Gujjar, much the most powerful community in the area.

The sitting MP, Surendra Nagar, is therefore, also a Gujjar, but on a BSP ticket. The Congress candidate is Thakur Dhirendra Singh, a Rajput. His claim to fame is that it was on his motorcycle that Rahul Gandhi surveyed the nearby Bhatta Parsaul scene in 2011. With the 2014 elections round the corner, every political party has an interest. The BJP is still undecided between a Thakur and Brahmin.

Ever since, Nagpal took charge as SDM, she has been sending out special squads, to stop sand dredging and loading onto trucks. She has arrested 15 people and imposed fines of several crores on those caught. Hundred of trolley and dumpers have been confiscated. The sand mafia was obviously rattled. In fact the entire construction industry was in a state of shock. And this construction industry is one of the biggest in the country – Sports City, Greater NOIDA Expressway, 82 colleges, four universities and apartment blocs upon apartment blocs. This requires sand. But license for mining along twenty miles of the river is granted only to one person. This dummy “miner” is the cover for hundreds of crores worth of sand.

So far, so good. But how did Nagpal turn upon the mosque in Kadalpur village which is what the controversy is all about and which has caused Akhilesh Yadav’s government to suspend her? What did the mosque have to do with the sand mafia?

Scores of trucks loaded with illegally mined sand, confiscated by the SDM had to be auctioned. The highest bid on one such occasion was for Rs.8 crores. It turned out that the bidder, obviously a “dummy” set up by Narendra Bhati, disappeared without depositing the amount he had bid for. At the last minute, someone raised his hand and bid for one crore.

Nagpal smelt a rat. There was a clear “fix” between the two bidders. She canceled the auction and invited new bids. Tired of this endless cat and mouse, the Mafia thought of a deep plot.

Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav cannot punish an upright officer, implementing the law in a way that pulverizes the sand mafia. We (said the Mafia) cant catch her on that score. But in her campaign against mining, she has exposed a chink in her armour: she has come to loath Narendra Bhati. She will see red, if Bhati provokes her.

The plot took this into account. Bhati would donate, say, Rs.51,000 towards the construction of a mosque in Kadalpur village. This would serve two purposes. For the 2014 elections, he would have the support of not only 75 percent Muslim population in Kadalpur but also in the other eight villages in the vicinity.

If the news of his help to the Kadalpur mosque is communicated to Durga Shakti Nagpal, spiced with the mirch masala that it was being constructed illegally on government land, she would come galloping on a charger, all guns blazing. And if the Gods were kind to Bhati, she might in her temper even be tempted to demolish the mosque.

This exactly is what happened. Could any government in Lucknow have reacted differently on the eve of crucial elections?

Bhati, ofcourse, lost a winning hand. He was keen to create the impression that the SP high command was supporting him by suspending Nagpal.

The SP, meanwhile, was paranoid that it must not be seen to be supporting the demolition of a mosque. And it had to punish Nagpal before the Congress took advantage.

Postscript: Should we not spare a thought for the Muslims trapped during Ramadan in a needless controversy about a mosque which does not exist? It was a tarpaulin roof and a six feet high brick-and-mud wall demolished at Nagpal’s behest. No onion dome, no minarets, nothing.

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