Friday, April 29, 2016

Islamic State’s Shadow On The Land of Tagore And Nazrul

Islamic State’s Shadow On The Land of Tagore And Nazrul
                                                                             Saeed Naqvi

It was like a macabre end to a Chabrol movie. I had returned with images of such aesthetic delight from the Pahela Baishakh festivities in Dhaka that the news of Prof. Rezaul Karim Siddique having been hacked to death by Islamists left me in something of a daze.

Promotion of Bangla syncretism, which I had found so compelling, was precisely his “guilt”: he was in the vanguard of progressive literary and cultural activities, on the Rajshahi university campus; keen that students take an interest in the poetry and music of Tagore and Qazi Nazrul Islam, modern dance dramas, just the sort of stuff that lends to the Bangla cultural scene so much vibrancy.

Islamic State (IS) which claimed responsibility for killing Prof. Siddique, said he was inviting Muslims to the path of “atheism”. A few days later, the rampant culture of impunity claimed its next victim – Xulhaz Mannan, editor of the gay, transgender, magazine, and his fellow activist, Mahbul Rabbi Tonoy. So far extremism had struck in the Bangla countryside. The latest attacks are in the heart of Dhaka, deepening concerns about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s grip on the administration. A criticism of the regime on these lines invites from Sheikh Hasina a knee jerk response: darts are being fired by arch enemy Khaleda Zia, the BNP, Jamaat e Islami – the source of all Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. She is not exactly in denial of the IS presence but her focus is on the Khaleda – Jamaat mischief.

In this kind of polarization, what value does one place on an interview that a perfectly sensible, liberal editor in Dhaka places in my hand. Dabiq, the glossy IS magazine has in a Q and A, invited Shaikh Abu Ibrahim al Hanif, the Emir of the Khalifah’s soldiers in Bengal to spell out his plans. The 13 page interview, if validated as being authentic, has a dreadful message for Bangladesh: IS headquarters may shift to the country where Shias, Qadianis, Hindus and other deviants espousing cultural syncretism will be terrorized to their knees.

“Jihad base in Bengal will facilitate guerilla attacks in India from both sides”. There is terrible news for Myanmar too: “cells” will be helped until the nation is overwhelmed.

Ofcourse there is institutional support for the ghastly killings of writers, teachers, artists with a liberal streak who have been hacked to death with machetes and meat cleavers. Los Angeles Times headline rings alarm: “Bangladesh may be the next providing ground for global Jihadist groups.”

Macabre attacks on soft targets in Bangladesh has multiple purposes: they discredit Hasina government, intimidate liberals, the anti Jamaat e Islami masses. Under stress, the Hasina establishment responds to such criticism by unfurling its authoritarian fangs. This explains the crackdown on editors and journalists – 84 cases against Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star and arrest of 81 year old Shafiq Rehman.

The regime’s authoritarian streak, disheartens the secular, liberal elite. True Hasina takes on the obscurantist forces but must a price be paid in Civil Liberties to contrive an unsteady, status quo?

Because Indo-Bangladesh relations have seldom been as good as they are today, there is a suggestion, in murmurs among the elite that New Delhi supports the illiberal regime. This kind of talk carries. At the popular level questions surface: why must Dhaka be so obsequious with an “RSS led government”?

An influential China lobby takes heart and looks for balance in the Dhaka, Beijing, New Delhi, Washington quadrangle. Any illiberal act by the regime in Bangladesh, correspondingly causes tongues to wag about New Delhi’s heavy handed handling of affairs like JNU and Hyderabad universities. Between New Delhi-Dhaka official relations and the people-to-people perceptions, contradictions sharpen. What can New Delhi do? It certainly is in no position to stand on high moral ground and proffer advice to a regime increasingly intolerant of dissent.

The BNP under Begum Khaleda Zia is a depleted force banking on the Jamaat e Islami’s excesses. But her antecedents do link her to powerful elements in the Army, a source of great discomfort to the Prime Minister. She is therefore willing to give the armed forces all the toys they want including a nuclear submarine to be used against few know who.

The army is in clover, what with both the ladies outbidding each other to keep it in good humour. The bonanza from UN Peace Keeping duties increases by the day. Recently Saudi Arabia very nearly extracted Dhaka’s participation in their year long war in Yemen. A decision to send troops was reversed by Sheikh Hasina: she agreed to troops only under the UN. By seeking Dhaka’s help, Riyadh was out to spite Islamabad which said “no” earlier. That Sheikh Hasina even toyed with the idea was to undermine Khaleda Zia’s support in Islamabad. Her expectation also was that Riyadh would help tone down Jamaat e Islami opposition to her. Has the Saudi initiative failed or does it still have life in it?

Meanwhile the diplomatic corps cannot take its eyes off the string of gruesome murders – four this month alone. American Human Rights group must have played a hand in 29 Bangladeshi bloggers being placed on the State Department list. In other words, if free thinking bloggers are threatened with death by IS, Al Qaeda and sundry extremists, they will be entitled to apply for US residence. This has the potential to swell the ranks of would be victims. It is a perfect arrangement: if militants wielding machetes, meat cleavers and bombs can qualify for the houris of paradise, their potential victims can now aspire for a fall back position in the real land of milk and honey.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Excellent Relations With Bangladesh Demand Tolerant Societies

Excellent Relations With Bangladesh Demand Tolerant Societies
                                                                                   Saeed Naqvi

We have grown accustomed to receiving greeting cards at the end of the year. That is why BJP stalwart Murli Manohar Joshi’s beautifully inscribed New Year greetings marked April 14, the first of Baishakh, always registered with me as no more than an eccentric attachment to his pre historic agenda. But this year, upon my return from Dhaka, when I found his annual greetings awaiting me in my office, it had a meaning, a context – my abiding differences with him notwithstanding. I suspect, he himself will find celebrations in Dhaka an eye opener.

Celebrating “Pahela Baishakh”, the New Year, earlier this month in Dhaka was pure enchantment – exquisitely choreographed dance, music, in chorus by hundreds in colourful kurtas and the stately sari which, in Bangladesh, is the popular garb. And all in Ramna Park, the vast maidan in the heart of Dhaka – masks of birds, animals, carnival like, in a “Mangal Shobhjatra”, peace procession.

That the price of Hilsa, Bangladesh’s national fish, shoots through the ceiling during this season is sufficient evidence that Pahela Baishakh feasts continue in homes across the country.

We found ourselves in the residence of Mahfuz Anam, celebrated editor of Daily Star. Attendance at his Pahela Baishakh party is in inverse proportion to his difficulties with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But neither he nor Shaheen, his gracious wife, look any the worse for the 84 cases Awami League workers have slapped on him across the country’s 56 districts for a “crime” gaining regional popularity – “sedition”. Obviously, the Anams are harassed, but much more worried should be the Prime Minister. There is a growing perception of rising intolerance.

There was no trace of anxiety on the face of Anam’s wife as she stood at the entrance welcoming guests. She had a strip of “bindis” in her hand – which she put, with diligent care, on the forehead of every woman who was without a bindi. Artists, writers, dancers, senior bureaucrats and a cross section of the diplomatic corps, including the US ambassador, elegant in a Dhaka sari – and a bindi.

Second track professionals addicted to Pakistani hospitality must look eastwards for greater gastronomical celebration – in Kolkata and Dhaka. Pakistanis almost make a statement with red meat. Bengal, on both sides of the border, is blessed with its range of fish and the cuisine handed down from Matia Burj outside Kolkata where the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was exiled in 1856 for 31 years. The sub continent’s best biryani is available both in Kolkata and Dhaka.

The basic conflict in Bangladesh is between modernism and Islamism. Bunched together as Jamaat e Islami and Khaleda Zia’s BNP, the Islamists constitute about 30 percent of the country living in an “Islamic” past, divorced from the magic of Pahela Baishakh. On the eve of the festivities, clerics with Jamaat support, issued a “fatwa” declaring Baishakh festivities as “haram” or impure.

It must never be forgotten that in 30, out of its 45 years as a nation, Bangladesh has been under some form of Army rule.  During the remaining 15, BNP’s Khaleda Zia and Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina have been routinely quarrelling. Who can blame an exasperated elite, indeed, the political class, dreaming up a scheme which came to be known as the “Minus 2 formula”. It required the two ladies to live in exile. Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus was considered as a possible Prime Minister but the plan never took off.

Given Hasina’s temperament, the upshot is quite predictable: Yunus’ name is like a red rag to the regime. That is where Anam’s current troubles began. At the Daily Star’s 25th anniversary celebrations, Awami League Ministers walked out as soon as Yunus got up to speak. Bits of Anam’s interview were seized upon by Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed, a Bangladeshi American, parked in Washington.

“Sedition” he screamed. Awami League storm troopers ran to the courts.

The Anam controversy had not quite subsided when newspapers carry a front page photograph of 81 year old Shafiq Rehman, one of the country’s most respected journalists, being escorted to the courts by policemen. His guilt? He plotted to have Sajeeb killed in the US.

Never have India-Bangladesh relations been better. Militant camps in the North East have been closed. There is relative tranquility on the migrant issue and business between the two countries is booming. Only the Chinese are doing better. Anil Ambani and the Adanis are expected in Dhaka to sign $6 billion deals. There is much much more in the pipeline including the water sharing issue.

The future depends on durability of the secular edifice. Here is a superb relationship shaping up, quite in contrast to the unfortunate one with Pakistan. But how secure can secularism and democracy be if the regime is sliding into intolerance and one party authoritarianism? What can New Delhi do? Does it see itself embarrassingly as someone in a glass house?

It is a delicate relationship. Slightest pressure and up goes the chorus: high handed. Release the pressure and it is taken for license. Murmurs are rising against one billion dollars worth of beef migration stopped by India. “It hurts the poor on both sides.” This becomes a tool in the hands of Islamist to target the evolving “special relationship”. Complaints rise to a crescendo at India “throwing its weight” in world cricket. “In our 15 year history as a test playing nation, we have not been invited to play a single test match in India”. I spent the best part of an evening being harangued on a “no ball” controversy I knew nothing about. Apparently during a match in Australia, Virat Kohli was caught in the deep but umpire declared it a no ball despite protests by Bangladesh players. I rubbed my eyes as the incident was cited as India’s “hegemonic ways”.
“Le saans bhi ahista ki
nazuk hai bahut kaam!”
(Breathe very gently because the task at hand is of utmost delicacy)

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Friday, April 15, 2016

Is Mamata Losing In Bengal: Otherwise Why Stuff Ballot Boxes

Is Mamata Losing In Bengal: Otherwise Why Stuff Ballot Boxes
                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

A senior BJP leader, campaigning in Kolkata, may well have put his finger on the people’s pulse. When he attacked Mamata Banerjee and the Left-Cong Front in equal measure, the crowd response was tepid. But when he attacked the TMC for 60 per cent of his speech, people applauded. At 75 percent, there was thunderous applause.

This was at the earlier phases of polling but there is no reason to believe that the trend will change before counting day. In fact, if the violence witnessed during the earlier phases continues, and the stuffing of ballot boxes by ‘ghost’ voters after polling hours multiplies, it will become clear that the TMC is nervous. It is brazening it out through violence, which has now become associated with Mamata’s party in the popular imagination.

Does this mean there was no violence during 34 years of CPM rule? A left liberal intellectual explains it succinctly: “CPM was more disciplined because it was cadre based – cadres knew the area and its leaders, the ones who had to be attacked. TMC goons who have grown during the five years of TMC rule, enter areas they may not know and attack everybody. There is, therefore, much more bloodshed.” There is universal fear.

“Laat khayega ki biryani khayega?” (Would you like to be kicked or served biryani?) An “Aabdar” or barman at one of Kolkata’s many clubs, mimics the TMC’s neighbourhood tough. Aabdar is derived from Urdu – one who serves drinks.

“This time we are quiet but we shall show our hands at the polling booth.” He is clearly among the urban Muslims still loyal to the CPM. Otherwise Muslims across the board have no grievance with Mamata.

In fact they quite adore her for the way she created an almighty movement in West Bengal on the land issue in Singur and Nandigram between 2006 and 2007. In both these efforts at industrialization by the CPM, poorest Muslims, among others, would have lost their livelihood and property, “had Didi not intervened.”

That is where she hit the political jackpot. She had lost the 2006 assembly poll but she used Singur and Nandigram as fulcrums to turn her fortunes around. She won 70 per cent of the 54,000 Panchayat seats in 2008. In 2009 Lok Sabha election, Left Front came down to 15 seats from 42 in 2004. In 2014, they had only two seats. Mamata won 38.

Now comes the “vote share” punditry on which those who wish to see the back of Mamata in Bengal base their calculations.

Even at her peak Mamata’s vote share was only 40 per cent. The CPM was 30 per cent and Congress, 10. The BJP may have won just two seats but its vote share was 17 percent. A very arithmetical argument is: CPM’s 30 percent and Congress 10 makes the alliance equal to Mamata’s 40. The question is: which way will the BJP’s 17 per cent split?

In a complex sociological turf, arithmetic is inadequate to accurately calculate electoral outcomes. To this comes a quick riposte. In Bihar Lalu Prasad Yadav held onto his vote bank. After the Nitish Kumar – BJP combination ran its course, it was the Nitish-Lalu combination that triumphed.

Through grit, courage and a refusal to lose, once Mamata ascended the gaddi, she faced her biggest challenge: how to cope with the CPM cadres? Violent tactics to overcome this handicap has become a strategy. Willy nilly she must keep riding the tiger. A group of thugs, cheering her along. Some of these cheering goons have formed an irregular system of co operatives called syndicates.

Imagine the new, garish, multi storeyed buildings near Kolkata airport. Obviously, land has been acquired. “Land losers” have been given a novel compensation. They will supply all the materials used in the buildings. The infection has spread. No enterprise can take to Wing without the syndicate’s blessings”.

A senior Bengali academic from the US, confident that many in Mamata’s administration had once been his students, returned to Kolkata to have his ancestral house repaired. Work progressed until one day a dozen peak capped TMC volunteers materialized. How had work begun without their knowledge?

The professor and his wife called up a powerful minister, their student. The minister said he was helpless because the syndicate operated on the directives of a different minister.

This system has replaced the Left cadres. Indeed, out-of-job cadres have switched sides and joined the syndicate system. There is great consternation all around.

Obviously, there is loss of support for her. This explains the conventional wisdom across the board: she will return with a vastly reduced margin. If it is generally accepted that she is on a down-hill slope, who can say with certainty where she may land?

She will however not lose support among Muslims who are over 30 per cent of the state’s population. Talk to Samsuzaman Ansari, local leader in Matia Burj, where Awadh’s last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah was exiled by the British in 1856, and he will list all that Didi has done for the community.

Did not the Left Front government also give them protection? Yes, they gave us protection but they also gave us a mantra:
“Gai ka gosht khaao
CPM ke geet gaao”
(Eat beef to your heart’s content; but sing the CPM’s praises). That was all.

There is populism all around. She has improved on the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalita’s rural schemes – not just Rs.2 per kg of rice but even gold bangles for girls.

For the Left Front and the Congress this could well be their last battle for survival in the state. They have joined hands in Bengal even though they are in direct conflict in Kerala. There may be no morality in all of this, but is it practical commonsense?

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Friday, April 8, 2016

Saudi-Tehran Tensions: Can New Delhi Avoid Taking Sides?

Saudi-Tehran Tensions: Can New Delhi Avoid Taking Sides?
                                                                              Saeed Naqvi

Polarized politics is what pundits were expecting from the party and its principal leader with an eye on polls in key states. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised people by turning up in Riyadh to meet the custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines, King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

In doing so, he has dropped a pebble in the pond. Ripples will lap at many shores in the region – Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf countries. Israel, ofcourse, will have noted the visit with satisfaction.

Editorials in the gulf newspapers give glowing accounts of the visit. Millions of Indians in these states will obviously rejoice as well as their families in India.

Establishments in Islamabad and Rawalpindi will peruse every phrase in the joint declaration issued at the end of the visit. The timing of the visit was such that defence and strategic relations had to be given saliency.

Saudis are in deep trouble in Yemen. Relentless air bombardments for a year has razed cities and infrastructure to the ground but not brought the Yemenis to their knees. Riyadh talks only of “Iran backed Houthi rebels”. With falling oil prices, the treasury is depleted. Providers of mercenary armies like Blackwater have been making money hand over fist. Almost comically, Riyadh has opened its coffers to lure Latin American private armies for combat duty in Yemen. Imagine Roman Catholics from Colombia fighting for Wahabi Islam.

It were in these desperate circumstances that Riyadh turned to their Pakistani friends for military help in Yemen, including for combat duties. After conferring with army Chief Raheel Sharif, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif placed the issue before the National Assembly where it was shot down.

Saudis were in no mood for niceties. They simply put aside their old friendship with Pakistan and clasped India’s hand. It would be wrong to say the Riyadh turned to New Delhi on a rebound. It is a long friendship of which energy security, Indian Diaspora, billions worth of remittances, annual Haj are some of the salient features. The finest diplomats have been generally selected as ambassadors. Vice President Hamid Ansari was one such.

Also, the late king Abdullah was the Chief Guest at the January 26, Republic Day Parade in 2006. In 2010 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Riyadh, signaling an acceptance of the regional order under US auspices. To that extend the present visit represents a continuity but in a different setting. Saudis have to pull themselves up if they are to avert a nosedive in Yemen at a time when nothing is going Riyadh’s way in Syria.

The other uniqueness derives from Modi’s persona. Here is the first avowedly Hindu nationalist leader, one who declared in Parliament that the entire Muslim period was one of “ghulami” or subservience: he has now reached out to befriend a country with a special resonance for the world’s Muslims. It would be too abrupt to put it down to a change of heart. Implicit in the visit is nimble footed diplomacy: it foils Pakistan in its most vulnerable moment with the House of Saud.

The Saudis have given New Delhi everything it could have wanted on defence, terrorism – and much more without naming Pakistan. There will be “exchange of visits by military personnel and experts, conduct of joint military exercise, exchange visits of ships and aircrafts and supply of arms and ammunition and their joint development.” In this and several such blanket statements, the sky is the limit.

Visits are often forgotten once the ink dries on agreements. To forestall this danger the two sides have “welcomed the decision for convening of the second meeting of Joint Committee on Defence Cooperation in Riyadh to follow up on the visit of Prime Minister Modi”. Already there is talk of special envoys to keep up the momentum.

The flip side to the narrative is the lack of finesse with which Iran has been handled. The visit was planned at a time when Saudis had snapped diplomatic ties with Iran after an uproar in parts of the Muslim world after the beheading of popular Shia cleric, Nimr al Nimr in the oil rich Eastern province of the Kingdom. Surely Tehran, with which we have a more assured future, could have been kept in the loop.

That Oil and Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan is being sent to Tehran with a technical team to ostensibly discuss the $6 billion Farzand–B gas field project will be seen by Tehran for what it probably is – a damage control exercise. The Farzand project has been discussed for six years. That Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and, at some stage, even the Prime Minister will be Iran bound, is all very well, but an unnecessary phase of defensiveness would have been avoided by taking Iranian foreign office into confidence.

It is very tempting to help protect the sea lanes off the troubled cities of Aden in Yemen and Jizan on the Saudi-Yemen border. Caution would be required because an opening with Riyadh could become a slippery slope if New Delhi finds itself taking sides in the Kingdom’s adversarial moves in the region, eventually targeting Tehran. Already talks with Yemeni groups and the Saudis are taking place in Oman. These cannot be without direct or indirect Iranian participation. It is a dynamic area New Delhi has chosen to strike a high profile in.

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