Friday, July 31, 2015

In Their Gloomy Isolation After Memon Hanging, Muslims Turn To Owaisi

In Their Gloomy Isolation After Memon Hanging, Muslims Turn To Owaisi
                                                                                             Saeed Naqvi

In the night of the tyrants,
Who calls my name from afar?
I must climb the scaffolding of the gallows to see beyond the prison parapets.
Have they waylaid the caravan of the new dawn?
                                                                        “Majrooh Sultanpuri”

I had turned up in Mumbai to cover the aftermath of the 1993 bomb blasts. On my way to meet Rusi Karanjia editor of Blitz and journalist Olga Tellis, at the US Club in Cuff Parade, I tried to engage with my Muslim taxi driver. “How were Muslims reacting to the blasts.”

He was abrupt to the point of being rude. He said he was a hard working man who did not have time to concern himself “with riots and blasts”. He asked me if I was a Muslim. “Recite the Kalma”, he demanded. Then, reluctantly, he pulled the taxi by the side of the road.

“Dekho, sab barabar ho gaya.”(Look, it is even now.) “Ab train mein enter karo aur kaho ‘Assalamalaikum’, sub raaste dete hain.” (Now, enter the train and greet them like a Muslim and they make way for you.)

This precisely, was the sentiment that had to be crushed, Karanjia said, after I told him the story. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Karanjia had shed all left wing pretensions. He now spoke the language of the extreme right.

The way he juxtaposed the Mumbai riots of January-February against the blasts of March took my breath away. According to him, the state had sided with the rioters during the riots. That is why there was no reprieve for the victims. The blasts were an assault on the Indian State. This would not be tolerated. His brazen endorsement of majoritarianism planted the first doubts in my mind that towards the end, Rusi Karanjia did not always know what he was saying.

Since the blasts had taken place under the watch of the new Chief Minister, Sharad Pawar, Maratha pride had been challenged too.

The Babari Masjid was demolished on December 6, 1992, leading to agitations across the country which was attacked by mobs, with the police standing by or giving the mobs a hand, by a helpful round of firing. On January 5, 1993 riots erupted in Mumbai in similar fashion. An orgy of arson, loot, murder of Muslims by Shiv Sainiks, abetted by the police crossed the borders of the macabre. This was not dissimilar to the Gujarat riots of 1969 where I found myself in my capacity as Press Officer to the Frontier Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, then on a year long visit to India. The Congress Chief Minister was Hitendra Desai. Over 500 people, mostly Muslims were murdered. The great singer Rasoolan Bai’s house was gutted.

It is a fallacy that the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 were worse than the one sided massacre in the January-February Mumbai mayhem supervised by Bal Thackeray and overseen by the Congress Chief Minister, Sudhakar Naik. He, alas, was not in the good books of Pawar who, at that crucial stage, was Defence Minister in Delhi, smarting under the fact that P.V. Narasimha Rao had bypassed Pranab Mukherjee and him to the top job.

As Mumbai burnt, Sharad Pawar and Sudhakar Naik locked themselves into a hopeless stalemate. Pawar, as Defence Minister, would not send sufficient troops. He was content that the scale of the pogrom would expose Sudhakar Naik’s incompetence. Also, the troops would come directly into conflict with the Maratha lumpins on a rampage. Carrying the banner of Maratha pride, he did not wish that to happen.

Naik was sacked. Pawar took over as Chief Minister. Just then the blasts happened. Atal Behari Vajpayee, who is generally believed to have been critical of the Gujarat pogrom, did, nevertheless, describe it as a “reaction” to the Godhara train burning. Surely, the Mumbai pogrom and the blasts can be likewise equated.

The hanging of Yaqub has divided India. There is the largely Hindu establishment seeking revenge in the guise of justice. In competition is the softer, compassionate Hinduism taking the battle for justice almost to the moment of Yaqub Memon’s hanging.

This is the India that has held the country together. Former judges, lawyers, bureaucrats, social workers, teachers, journalists, students, other professionals who spoke on TV channels and congregated at the Jantar Mantar, and held meeting across the nation – this is the India that Muslims in their current phase of alienation would naturally gravitate towards, the clergy willing, ofcourse. But this precisely is the large swathe of India without an identifiable platform or a party. The BJP, and the Congress too, increasingly, are an anathema to these groups and the minorities.

In this situation, almost by default, the man on the white charger happens to be Asaduddin Owaisi. He pulls no punches, and is more articulate than most political leaders and TV panelists. For his opponents he is flawed because he holds his ground firmly with expert references to the Constitution. How this Sole Spokesman phenomena plays itself out has to be watched.

While there was no mercy for Memon despite the gaping holes in the case, the open and shut case of Rajiv Gandhi’s murderer, was considered worthy of a pardon. Likewise, Devinder Singh Bhullar, convicted for the Delhi blasts, has escaped being hanged.

There is a straightforward political angle. Karunanidhi and Prakash Singh Badal can pull strings with the centre for individuals from their respective states because of their participation in national coalitions.

While regional leaders can protect their murderers, the 180 million Muslim, the second largest Muslim population in the world, ironically have no comparable pull. How Owaisi harvests this incrementally ghettoised anger has to be monitored. He can cast a spell on Muslim youth but he cannot have this translated into votes by playing solo in a crowded field. He will have to select coalition partners. These will not be the Congress nor the BJP.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

The Puzzling Israeli, Saudi, Indian Shia Diplomacy In Lucknow

The Puzzling Israeli, Saudi, Indian Shia Diplomacy In Lucknow
                                                                               Saeed Naqvi

In May 1993, Shimon Peres became the first Israeli Foreign Minister to visit India. Rajiv Gandhi had taken the initiative to upgrade relations. P.V. Narasimha Rao actually accelerated the process which led to the opening of embassies in Tel Aviv and New Delhi.

Rajiv had to overcome considerable inertia on relations with Israel. Yes, India’s support for the Palestinian cause was non negotiable but the argument that Indian Muslims would be agitated if relations with the Jewish state were upgraded were patently false. Indian foreign policy being sensitive to minority interests was totally different from policy being hostage to Muslim whims. This would lend credence to the whispering campaign, against Muslim appeasement the Indian Right was embarked on ever since Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Shah Bano and Muslim Personal Law, the minority character of Aligarh Muslim University and such like issues had all been exaggerated as matters of vital concern to Indian Muslims. They needed security, education, jobs, entrepreneurial help and de ghettoisation.

Upgrading of relations with Israel had a global context. Collapse of the Soviet Union had created a compelling Sole Superpower moment. The set of reasons that caused P.V. Narasimha Rao to invent Manmohan Singh as his Finance Minister also operated in the switch towards Israel.

So internally prepared was the Indian establishment to clasp the hands of the West and its powerful engine, namely Israel, that the “switch” became a “lurch”. And this “lurch” began to look particularly unseemly after George W. Bush, embarked on a global war on terror.

Instead of quelling terror, this war ended up unwittingly promoting recruitment cells for terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Central Asia, Europe, US, Russia, China, everywhere.

In brief, promotion of relations with Israel in early 90s made sense because of the altered global situation and the promise of peace embedded in the Oslo process. An imbalance in India’s foreign policy was being corrected. Israel was being brought into groups India already was dealing with.

There was a measure in New Delhi’s steps then. In fact, when I asked Peres why there was not much substance in a relationship which had been inaugurated with such fanfare, he quipped:
“India-Israel relations were like French perfume: they had to be smelt not drunk.”

That was then; a relationship along with all the others in West Asia.

After the negative fallout of the War on terror, one would have expected New Delhi to proceed cautiously on a path that would prevent a 200 million strong Muslim community in India being alienated.

Earlier the Indian leadership has been wrong in holding up its equation with Israel because of the wrong assumption that such a step would anger Indian Muslims. It was perverse to see the Palestinian issue through a communal prism. But the manner in which New Delhi subsequently hurtled headlong towards Israel despite universal Muslim anger because of the provocative way in which the global war on terror was fought, distinctly hurt Indian Muslims. These circumstances are a total contrast to those attending the Peres visit in 1993. This is why eyebrows have been raised by the puzzling visit to Lucknow by Dore Gold, Director General of the Israeli Foreign office. This happened in May when it was more or less certain that the nuclear deal with Iran would be signed in June or July.

At the Lucknow meeting, Gold was flanked by high powered former Israeli military and Intelligence officers. What was even more spectacular about the Lucknow conclave was the presence of an equally high profile team from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi delegation was let by retired Major General Dr. Anwar Majed Eshki, Chairman of a Jeddah based think tank and once close to Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The delegations had the sanction of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

What was the purpose of the Lucknow meet? Who organized it?

The meeting could not have taken place without New Delhi’s unofficial support. Arrangements for the conclave were made by the Vivekanand International Foundation. National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, was Founder Director of the think tank. The bandobast for the meeting was handled by Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain of the Foundation who retired some years ago as Commander of the 15 Corps in Srinagar.

The Indian delegation was led by the former Raja of Mehmudabad, scion of a Shia family with wide connections in the Shia world, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Obviously, the Israeli-Saudi delegation were keen to gauge Iranian influence on Indian Shias, the potential for Shia-Sunni differences on future Indian attitude towards Iran,  after Iran becomes globally kosher post the nuclear deal.

Possible construct on the Lucknow meet, one of the five such meetings in various parts of the world, is an Israeli-Saudi desire to enter a consultative phase of diplomacy. So far they have operated in the Washington, Riyadh, Jerusalem triangle.

Above all, by holding hands in public, Jerusalem and Riyadh are institutionalizing a burgeoning romance. This will have ramifications.

 New Delhi can now play the Iranian string to its bow without looking over its shoulder for Israeli and Saudi sensitivities, the latter being a longstanding patron of Pakistan.

It is not nice to feel isolated in the region. At a recent meeting with the Taleban in Rawalpindi, both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, were overseen in the same room by US and Chinese officials.

Is it over ambitious to spot seeds of a reliable back channel with Iran and Israel, should the need ever arise in the uncharted post nuclear deal roadmap?

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Iran Deal Sets Into Motion New Regional Balance Of Power

Iran Deal Sets Into Motion New Regional Balance Of Power
                                                                               Saeed Naqvi

Excessive projection of the “eye for an eye” passage from Deuteronomy as the defining feature of Israel is exemplified by Benjamin Netanyahu’s verbal pugilism. But it obscures a large Israeli constituency for peace. Having signed the nuclear deal, Iran will expect this constituency to expand. This expectation does not contradict its principled stand on Palestine. Somewhere in this space will germinate the seed for the next phase of politics within Israel. There is a school of thought in Iran which sees the destroyed economies of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen as an opportunity for reconstruction in cooperative ventures with Israel’s vast intellectual resource.

Political fermentation will take place on the Palestinian side too. Factions will outline and disguise their roadmaps towards Israeli moderates.

From President Hassan Rouhani to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, there are a range of factions in Iran which will grapple with each other and also orchestrate. The deal unshackles Iran in so many spheres that it now has a range of external players to incorporate into its strategies with recalcitrant adversaries.

Israel’s occupation of that other Hill in Washington is well known. But the forces which enabled President Obama with the nuclear deal will manage the US Congress too. To use Marxist terminology, the US Congress is only as autonomous as the US imperial interests permit. How useful are Israel and Saudi Arabia to these interests will determine their saliency in the region.

The area where there is likely to be no ferment on account of the deal are the GCC countries because the people are not involved. Elsewhere, as I have indicated the deal will catalyze ferment which will, on occasion, boil over.

The regional picture has been radically altered. The US backing all Israeli and Saudi misadventures in West Asia may well be a thing of the past. With the emergence of Iran, a different balance of power has been created which partially frees the US from the day-to-day housekeeping in West Asia. It can now attend to the bigger league in the Pacific.

The powers required to maintain the new West Asian equilibrium are Iran, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The last mentioned in the list is internally a little move unstable than even the Saudis. Ironically, the Saudis are directly responsible for this instability.

When the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia returned from convalescence in Europe and saw his friends Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in Tunis and Cairo respectively, crushed by the Arab Spring, he swore to halt the Arab Spring and indeed, reverse it.

First, he quelled incipient rebellion at home by raining $135 billion hush money on his own people. Then he helped fuel the Syrian civil war in response to an Israeli desire to remove Damascus from the Iran, Hezbullah, Hamas “axis”. Behold, that “axis” now stands even more strengthened, even as the Saudis are exhausting their ordnance on the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen towards an unquantifiable end. A purpose clearly is to appear to be checkmating a “Shia” threat but the real purpose is to control forces within the country.

Yes, during King Abdullah’s hyper active phase, the balance in Cairo was also disturbed. A pro Muslim Brotherhood conduct and official appointments by Mohamed Morsi had, by way of a reaction, brought out secular demonstrators onto the street, supported by the army Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The Saudis and the Israelis leaned heavily on the West to tilt the scales in favour of the Army. Muslim brotherhood or political Islam is anathema to Riyadh and Jerusalem for separate reasons. Political Islam is inherently anti monarchy and therefore a threat to the House of Saud; it is also coherent with Hamas which adds to Israeli nightmares.

Countries like UK postponed taking decision on whether or not to recognize Muslim Brotherhood by setting up committees on the issue. There is no reason why foreign offices will endorse long term support for army rule or dictatorship in preference to Muslim Brotherhood which in essence is not very different from Europe’s Christian Democrats during the cold war. The results of these committee reports will be a matter of suspense.

The deal with Iran places John Kerry in the history books. His record will provide a contrast to Hillary Clinton’s dismal record as Secretary of State at a time when she is aiming at the White House. The killing of the US Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi; her inept statement, synchronized with the macabre murder of Muammar Qaddafi – “I came, I saw and he died”; her imperious wave of the hand – “get out of the way, Assad”, will not look pretty in the US election season, particularly if Bashar al Assad keeps smiling as if nothing happened. But should a consensus in favour of Muslim Brotherhood emerge in the West as a coherent, Sunni force to checkmate Iranian Shiasm, Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan will be emboldened at Assad’s expense. This, Iran will exert every muscle to prevent. The new West Asian balance of power will have been set in motion.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Greece’s Tsipras And Tripura’s Manik Sarkar: Two Communists In Perspective

Greece’s Tsipras And Tripura’s Manik Sarkar: Two Communists In Perspective
                                                                                                     Saeed Naqvi

Upon my return from a driving trip around Europe, the front page anchor of the Indian Express caught my eye. It showed Union Minister for Communication and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad in a warm handshake with the Communist Chief Minister of Tripura, Manik Sarkar, at the inauguration of an Internet Gateway in Agartala.

Even more striking was the treatment the newspaper gave to the headline which encapsuled raw, facts: the state has an astounding record in the incidence of crime, civilians killed, security personnel killed, kidnappings, encounters, rebels killed. The figure on every count is ZERO.

When a former Director General of Police in Tripura, B.L. Vohra a year ago gave me similar figures for the previous year, I rubbed my eyes with disbelief. I had never imagined a senior police officer, conservative to the core, in such ecstatic praise of a communist Chief Minister.

So, last April, I turned up in Agartala. Lo and behold, I found myself seated in the presence of the present DG Police, K. Nagaraj, endorsing all the figures I see on page one of the newspaper today.

Ofcourse, at the top of the page, across six columns, are stories related to the Vyapam scam, but I found the Tripura story heartwarming. This, for a variety of reasons including the unstated petrifaction at Europe grappling with communism in Greece, then possibly Pablo Iglesias’s Leftism in Spain and similar streaks in all of Latin Europe.

India had its first communist government in Kerala in 1957 snuffed out by Indira Gandhi.

For 35 years, Jyoti Basu, a communist to boot, ruled West Bengal until his successors fatally mishandled the land issue.

All of that later. Let me, for my immediate purposes, try and explain the Tripura phenomenon, from my notebook.

The State has been ploughing its furrow diligently with some quite extraordinary results on the Human Development scale and which no one discusses. Has the State with a population of 40 lakhs, not been in focus because it is small? Only Sikkim and Goa are smaller. Or has the media thus far been squeamish about applauding a State which for 32 of the past 37 years has been under Left Front rule? It was for this reason the page one display was striking. I had seen nothing positive about the new Greek political preference in European newspapers. The contrast was refreshing.

Some of its records are amazing. Its 96 percent literacy makes it the country’s most literate State. Literacy rate in Gujarat is 83 per cent. Kerala was once the leader but its Human Development record in recent years has been slipping.

Life expectancy of 71 years for men and 73 for women in Tripura too is a record. In Gujarat, it is 64 and 66. Tripura’s Bengali population ruins the absence of gender bias among tribals. Even so, it is 961 as against 918 in Gujarat.

The great genius the leadership has demonstrated is in grasping an essential truth: like politics, good governance too is essentially the art of the possible. Instead of beating its breast and flailing its arm around, the regime picked up all the Central and State schemes, put its head down, called in the officials, party cadres, involved the three tier Panchayati Raj system and gave a sense of real participation to the elected Autonomous District Councils which cover two thirds of the State and all the Tribal areas of Tripura.

This is the key. The basic conflict in the State, one which exploded as the fiercest insurgency in the North East, was on the tribal-non tribal faultline.

Under the Maharajas, who figure in mythology, Tripura was overwhelmingly tribal. But after the creation of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), Hindu Bengalis from contiguous territories that were once managed by the Maharaja, migrated to Tripura. The tribals, (a total of 19 tribes) became a minority in the State. The 70:30 ratio in favour of the tribals was exactly inverted. Today 70 percent of the population is Bengali.

The Congress, its eye always on the main chance, fell back on the simple divide and rule strategy, pocketing the Bengali vote bank. If ever there was a shortfall, there was always a tribe to be played against the other.

A great tribal, communist leader, Dashrath Deb saw the future. He launched Jana Shiksha Abhiyan or campaign for education among tribals in 1945 forcing the Maharaja to recognize 500 primary schools, which mushroomed and today saturate the State – a school every kilometer.

It was from this wide base that the tribals gravitated towards communism while the Bengalis were turning towards the Congress. While the Congress was content with sectarian divine, a leader like Nripen Chakraborty accurately gauged the difficult social reality: without tribal support all Bengali agenda would be circumscribed. Likewise, tribals would not advance without Bengali help. The call went out: tribal-non tribal unity was the absolute imperative.

The idea flared up, across the State for two reasons. Tribals, who had taken to communism in the 40s and 50s, grasped the idea instantly. In driblets, Bengalis too came into the fold. So, while the Left slowly expanded its platform of unity, the Congress persisted with its Bengali focus, not without electoral gains. True, the Left Front has 50 seats in a House of 60, but the 36 percent of the opposition vote share must be largely credited to the Congress.

What keeps the electorate, indeed the population persistently in the Left’s thrall is the universally accepted incorruptibility of the leadership. Congress MLA Gopal Roy shook his head in agreement “personal incorruptibility cannot be denied”.

The first Left Front Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty (1978 to 88) entered and left the official residence with same two tin trunks – full of clothes, books, and a shaving kit. Grocery purchases for the CM’s household were made on a ration card. Modern capitalism would probably consider him an outcast because he never had a bank account.

His disciple, Manik Sarkar, Chief Minister for 17 years without a break, is equally austere. His wife, a school teacher, goes to work on a rickshaw.

In efficient implementation of central schemes, the State has no parallels. Clinics, schools, anganwadi, infant and mother care, electricity distribution and, above all, building roads, connecting the remotest areas.

Heaven knows what feedback Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has on his Swatch Bharat or clean India mission, but if he were to send his officers to some of the more remote parts of Tripura, they would rub their eyes with wonder at what has been achieved in such a short period.

The road from Agartala winds around Longtarai hill range to Ambassa, about 80 kms away. A measure of the administration’s reach is Kumardhan Para, at a forbidding height.

A few years ago, folks at the village walked 18 kms to reach grocery stores in Ambassa. Today the Kumardhan peak has been conquered; a motorable road has been laid right upto the village centre. Little wonder Milind Ramteke, IAS, Collector of Ambassa (Dhallai) and his Block Development Officer, Amitabh Chakma, are local heroes, village after village.

The problems of Tripura, in a sense, begin now. The King of Bhutan floated the idea of Gross National Happiness. That, roughly, has been Tripura’s trajectory. It is now on an efficient welfare plateau. What next? It has an inimitable school network. But very little by way of college and technical education. There are no openings for the educated youth. The State, surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh looks admiringly at Shaikh Haseena. Indo-Bangla friendship will give it access to Chittagong port, 70 kms away.

The regime is not paranoid, but it is “aware” that the Church networks affect both college and post college job scene. A middle class so created is inherently anti “Left”, says a CPM leader. Moreover, further penetration by the Church would provide an opening to Hindutva forces to enter the scene with a countervailing sectarian agenda.

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