Monday, June 29, 2009

The batter is the matter

Byline by M J Akbar: The batter is the matter

The batter is the matter Take a guess. What would be the answer to this question in an India-wide opinion poll: which has upset you more, India’s early departure from the T20 world championship or the toxic wars against Maoists raging across the heartland of the nation?

No prizes for getting the answer right.

The spoilt brat of Indian cricket used to be an individual who had better be left nameless since he has finally departed from the team. He has been replaced by a collective noun. The utterly spoilt brat of Indian cricket is the cricket fan. This silly idiot has come to believe, for no worthwhile reason, that cricket is a game with only one result, a victory for India. All of us want our team to win more than it loses. But the fun of sports lies in unpredictability. No one can be sure what the particular chemistry of a set of men will be on any given day, or when luck will bend its momentum in one direction or the other. The part that media plays in publicising stupid tantrums following a defeat convinces me that this is not the work of genuine sports fans. They are publicity-seekers. If television cameras did not hover around their stupid protests, there would be no protests.

No one expects a captain to celebrate after his team loses, but the grovelling apology by Captain-Commander-General-Admiral-Marshal-President Dhoni strikes me as well-planned humbug of the sort encouraged by PR agencies. If you depend on the fans to buy all the products you advertise, then it makes sense to pamper even the most petulant with a pre-emptive apology. An apology costs nothing. Ads bring big bucks.

Media is clearly desperate for anything to fill the page or occupy the screen. We do want to know why Ravindra Jadeja was sent up the batting order when the tic in his eye is sufficient evidence to prove that he will not be able to see a rising ball, but do we want the answer from Aamir Khan or John Abraham? Their terribly inane reactions were turned into news stories. I just hope we do not see the day when Dhoni and Virender Sehwag are expected to double up as literary critics.

A panoramic sports championship has one undisputable merit: it reveals a great deal about any national frame of mind. The churning point of the cricket fiesta in England, at least for me, was when a British master-of-ceremonies (face unseen on television, but accent unmistakable) asked everyone to stand up for the national anthems that were played before the start of the match. “Be upstanding!” he boomed. That the English language is subject to various forms of torture, many of them unknown even to Dick Cheney, is a recognised fact. But this was murder of the language at home, matricide at its worst.What the chap meant was “Please stand up”. “Upstanding” means something else altogether. It is a synonym of honesty and virtue, a definition of morals. To deepen my anguish, an advertisement followed, trying to persuade me to buy a cellphone in “deep black”. What on earth is deep black? Have you ever seen “shallow black”? Blue or green or red lend themselves to variations of deep and light, but black is black. A paler shade of black is grey, not light black. This may not be on the scale of matricide, but it is a wound nevertheless.

In an effort to make the 20-over form of the game more American, the organisers have decided to change the language of commentary into American English. Hence the prolific and nonsensical use, in reportage, of “batter” for “batsman”. To begin with, “batsman” is perfectly adequate. The change does not add anything to meaning. A clever lawyer might argue that a change was needed to make the term gender-neutral, particularly with the growing popularity of women’s cricket. That would not be the truth, but it is an argument. If change is essential then you cannot usurp a word that already means something else. “Batter” is an existing term. It can be a verb, meaning “to hit repeatedly with hard blows”, derived from the French batre. Or it could be a noun, “a mixture of flour, egg, and milk or water, used for making pancakes or coating food before frying”. The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary does not recognise, as yet, a third meaning for “batter”, but it is possibly only a matter of time.

If it were elegant, there might be some aesthetic justification for murder. But all that is happening is that English is being battered to death. Can’t the Americans be content with taking over the world? Must they take over the English so completely? Or is it a case of mere subservience? Americans do not play cricket, and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future, so why should they care one way or another?

I had planned to end this column with a handsome flourish, a grand solution to the problem of finding someone to play in place of Ravindra Jadeja. Judging by the manner in which most Indian batsmen were getting battered by the rising ball, the coach, Gary Kirsten, could have summoned someone from the Indian women’s team to bat for the men. Alas, the women’s team also lost in the semi-finals. But at least its captain did not apologise.

(Byline for June 21, 2009)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Secret Life of Foreign Secretaries

The Secret Life of Foreign Secretaries
By M J Akbar

Secret extra-terrestrial sources, with reliable knowledge of the future, have revealed the full text of the dialogue between the Indian Foreign Secretary (IFS) and the Pakistan Foreign Secretary (PFS) on the sidelines of the next non-aligned summit. We offer this exclusive to our readers:

IFS: Hi! All well, my friend?
PFS: (Shrugs) Is sarcasm your normal opening gambit, or do you reserve it for the Indo-Pak dialogue?
IFS: We don’t do sarcasm in Delhi, not with a monsoon lost in transit.
PFS: You could have fooled me. As for all being well vis-a-vis the Taliban, read the papers. Your chaps getting on well with that little war against the Naxalites?
IFS: Well, at least our intelligence agencies didn’t fund the Naxalites to kill innocents and blow up hotels in Pakistan.
PFS: Actually, we are quite good at that ourselves; don’t need foreign expertise. Frankly, the Taliban were a terrible investment. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you...
IFS: The bite hasn’t got septic, has it?
PFS: Well... shall I be honest?
IFS: That would be such a pleasant change.
PFS: Very droll... You do seem to have acquired a splendid sense of humour since we last met. Very nice. Not in the manual for foreign secretaries, is it?
IFS: Ha ha. I take your point, however. Every country in our heavenly subcontinent is trapped in a desperate civil war — apart maybe from dear little Bhutan. Time for a little cooperation, then?
PFS: Precisely what I was thinking! We always have been the biggest poverty pit in the world — that’s where the Naxalites come from, isn’t it? Now we are also the bloodiest.
IFS: Not to mention the blood of innocents. Your only consistent export to India is terrorists. You ramp up the supply or scale it down depending on your political GDP requirements. You got a bit defensive after Mumbai, but you’ve put them back in business, haven’t you?
PFS: You give us too much credit. These militias have their own agenda. And unless you settle the root cause, Kashmir...
IFS: It seems to have escaped your notice that for the world — including your ally America — that this ‘‘root cause’’ argument has long crossed its sell-by date. You want to get stuck on this, we might as well use the rest of our time discussing which movie you last saw.
PFS: Saw a sexy picture of Angelina Jolie the other day in one of your newspapers! Wow! Our newspapers are so vegetarian compared to yours. It’s those mullahs, I’m afraid. Will neither have fun themselves nor let us have a bit on the side.
IFS: Oh, we’re getting some moral police as well, but our elections sort them out, so that’s a relief. You are good at changing the subject, my friend, but won’t work. Why do you get collective amnesia when it comes to Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Prof Hafeez Mohammad Saeed and his associate Colonel Nazir Ahmed? They were released because you ‘‘forgot’’ to include al-Qaida in your list of terrorist organizations! The lawyer you deputed for Sarbjit Singh ‘‘forgot’’ to appear in court. Forgot! Do lawyers get paid extra for forgetting?
PFS: Ah, the familiar blame game. Why don’t we move on? We are ready for demilitarized zones on both sides of the border — say five miles on either side. That would send such a massive signal of peace, and take your Army off the backs of the Kashmiri people as well. You don’t want me to dwell on that bit, do you, after Shopian? DMZs could enable Kashmiris to share electricity, get on with trade and increase travel on basis of special travel permits.
IFS: All so convenient: our Army moves away so that your surrogate militias and self-styled jihadis can breathe more easily. Simultaneously, you want us to dilute symbols of Indian sovereignty wherever possible. But you will not compromise on your absolutist stand. Why don’t we declare the Line of Control the border and really get on with life? That would close the chapter, and bring peace.
PFS: Peace! What a brilliant thought! But we can’t accept the LoC as the border. It would only mean that for 60 years we have fought for nothing.
IFS: I know it, and you know it, that the LoC is the only answer. The rest is keeping the ball in play to fool the world if not to fool ourselves.
PFS: (Gently) That’s not our decision, is it?
IFS: True.
PFS: (Smiles) Tell me, how long will it take if our political masters really want peace?
IFS: About six minutes.
PFS: And how long if we keep talking the way we did?
IFS: Another 60 years.
PFS: Touche! See you at the next meeting!

Appeared in Times of India - June 28, 2009

God isn’t saving the Left

Byline by M J Akbar: God isn’t saving the Left

Bertolt Brecht, the leftist German playwright, was brilliant enough to give cynicism a good name. Parliamentary democracy, for him, was a moveable feast. He once suggested a great alternative to dissolving the legislature and electing a fresh set of representatives. “Wouldn’t it be easier,” he asked, “to dissolve the people and elect another in their place?”

He might never say so publicly, but Bengal’s Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is probably ruing the fact that Comrade Brecht’s admirable suggestion cannot be implemented. It is useful to remember that the CPI[M]-led Left Front got hammered in the elections before the Maoist insurgency in and around Lalgarh became front-page news. How much worse have the prospects of the Left Front become in Bengal since Lalgarh?

The news is not very good for the democratic children of Marx and Stalin. The conscience of the Left in Bengal, Mahashweta Devi, has expressed sympathy for the Maoists and contempt for the administration. The police probably did not take permission from the Chief Minister when they filed an FIR against filmmaker and filmstar Aparna Sen for visiting Lalgarh to assess the situation. If the police did check with the CM, he had no business authorising such a vindictive and counter-productive action. If they did not check with him, it means that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s authority has crumbled. Would the Bengal police have filed an FIR against Suchitra Sen or Madhabi Mukherjee when Jyoti Basu was Chief Minister without consulting him?

Aparna Sen is not an ideologue, but her heart and mind are in the right place. She can see what Governments, whether in Kolkata, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Ranchi or Bhubaneswar cannot. The Naxalites may be wrong in their tactics, but they are not terrorists sent by the Lashkar-e-Tayaba from Pakistan. They are born of an economy that has turned a handful of capitalists into the bloated masters of the nation, given the middle class the reality of a better life and the dream of riches, and left the poor to the whiplash of hunger and the misery of indifference. The overwhelming majority of Naxalites only ever wanted the self-esteem that comes from an honest wage. The CPI[M] has abandoned its core commitment by walking away from this reality. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee seems to have become besotted with power, which is probably why he will lose. Nor will the police war against the Maoists end in celebratory triumph for Writers Building, draped for more than three decades in fading red. It will continue long after the Left Front and Delhi have declared victory. The Governments have state-power; the Maoists have time.

The people of Bengal have sensed that while Mamata Banerjee may not have the sophistication of Marxist dialectic on her side, she is instinctively closer to their sentiments. That is why they shifted so significantly in the general elections, and will incline even further towards her in the Assembly polls. The CPI[M] has been reduced to seeking brownie points in a university debate. Sitaram Yechury is currently engaged in a debate with Rahul Gandhi over which constituency is more wretched. Rahul Gandhi thought, during the election campaign, that the tribal regions of Bengal were more backward than the worst in Orissa. Yechury responded that Bankura and Purulia in Bengal had better socio-economic indicators than Amethi or Rae Bareli. Both may be right, which means that we should offer a round of applause to Naveen Patnaik. Quiz question: When was the last time Yechury dipped into Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth?

The Indian political class may not be doing very much for the poor, but it also seems to have lost all sensitivity to poverty. You can hear Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s indignation simmer and boil in his voice as he denounces Maoists before his Cabinet and Front colleagues while defending the ban on them. When was the last time he got angry over poverty in Bengal? Unless, of course, he believes that he has eliminated poverty already and that Lalgarh is nothing but a conspiracy between Maoists and Mamata Banerjee to destabilise him before defeating him?

The Left Front would be better advised to take a long and hard look a little to the east of Bankura and Purulia, at the Muslim-dense districts that sweep towards Bangladesh and then bend into South 24-Parganas. Mamata Banerjee is Union Railway Minister largely [though of course not solely] because the Muslims of this arc abandoned the Marxists. Justice Rajinder Sachar intended nothing more dramatic than an honest report on Indian Muslims when commissioned to do so by Dr Manmohan Singh. His bleak portrait of Bengal had a sharp counterpoint: Bengali Muslims could not believe Muslims had more Government jobs in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat than in CPI[M]’s Bengal. That was the turning point, exacerbated by the Chief Minister’s ham-handed insensitivity towards cases like Rizwan, the young Kolkata boy who died as a consequence of an inter-community love affair. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is not communal. It was not, to paraphrase another playwright that the Bengal CM should recognise, that he loved Rizwan less, but that he loved the Kolkata Police more.

I should amend my suggestion: both the CPI[M] and Mamata Banerjee should take a serious look at the marginalised Bengali Muslims. Their young have not been attracted to Maoists because Muslims will not give up Allah and Maoists will not give up atheism. The first will not change, but the second might. The CPI[M] became an electoral force in Bengal because it softened its rigid position on religion. The Maoists might too.Mamata Banerjee has been long enough in Bengal politics to understand that replacing the Left Front also means acquiring a crushing burden of aspirations. No one will be more demanding than the poor, particularly the tribals and the Bengali Muslims. The Left Front got 30 years. Mamata will get about 30 months.

Tony Blair had some non-Brechtian advice for those politicians who wanted to win elections, as recounted in the diaries of one of his associates, Chris Mullin. Go around smiling at everyone, he said, and get someone else to do the shooting.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee not only has stopped smiling; he also picks up the gun himself when there is any shooting to be done.

Silence is not an answer

Byline by M J Akbar: Silence is not an answer

Every ruling system, no matter how radical its origins, develops a vested interest in silence. The most widely used justification for secrecy is national interest, of course; and, once in government, politicians quickly acquire the skill of extending the breadth of national interest to include their personal interests. This personal interest does not necessarily have to be venal. It can be partisan, in the sense that a party might opt for silence in the pursuit of a hidden agenda. But the culture of suppression works wonderfully for those who need to hide the unacceptable.

What happens when a politician begins to peel off the layers that have been used to hide a dramatic truth?

We do not know when the system will force Barack Obama back into the grooves of convention, but he is still young enough in his term, and radical enough in his thinking, to challenge the established wisdom of his own turf, Washington. Perhaps the most dramatic departure he has made is in upending American policy towards Israel’s nuclear programme.

The fact that Israel has a nuclear arsenal of over 200 bombs is surely the worst kept secret of the last few decades, but till Obama became President it remained an official secret in both Israel, and in its strongest ally, America. Israel jailed any citizen who dared to utter a word on the subject, and American Presidents, across party lines, resolutely avoided any mention of the “n” word in reference to Israel. George Bush repeatedly threatened Iran with war on the grounds that it had transgressed its obligation to keep its nuclear programme peaceful; and Bush went to war against Iraq, with appalling blowback for his own country and horrific consequences for civilians in the battle zone, in ostensible search for nuclear weapons. He never uttered a word about Israel’s illegal nuclear stockpile. He was following precedence.Obama has, bravely, ended this hypocrisy. He understands that this duplicity cannot be sustained. You cannot wink at Israel and scold Iran with the same face. It is, in essence, racist to justify Israel’s nuclear status with silence and deny a neighbour like Saudi Arabia the right to defend itself and the Arab world with matching weapons. The implication is that one nation can be trusted with restraint in its use of nuclear power, but another cannot.

Obama first permitted an official of the US government to speak openly about Israel’s weapons, and upped the ante with the demand that Israel sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty along with India and Pakistan. He has now made the same point, albeit less starkly, in his Cairo speech. The credibility of his Cairo oratory was strengthened immeasurably by the previous American recognition of Israel as a nuclear weapons power.

Such candour will not persuade Israel to abandon its arsenal, and no country can force it to do so either. Israel will remain a nuclear power as long as any country in the world has a single bomb, which probably means forever. But recognition of this fact changes the dialectic of the Middle East discourse completely. It lends greater legitimacy to American pressure on Iran, and strengthens the argument for some form of a nuclear umbrella for those of Israel’s neighbours who ask, rightly, whether this institutionalised imbalance in strategic strength can be justified. So far, America has avoided a response to such a question through its non-recognition of Israeli capability. This, in turn, has persuaded nations like Iran to pursue a clandestine programme.

The history of nuclear weapons is the story of fear, cause and consequence. America and Britain developed the atomic bomb during the Second World War in the Manhattan Project for fear that Germany might do so before them. (It was a joint scientific effort, although America got all the public credit.) Stalin could not afford to be without a nuclear response once the hot war changed to a cold war. Britain was part of the original partnership; France developed an independent capability for reasons of status. China perceived both the American and the Soviet arsenals as a threat; and India, which had fought a war with China in 1962, had to find its answer. Pakistan responded to India.

Israel used regional conflict as its rationale; and Israel is Iran’s implicit justification. There is a cyclical logic in operation. North Korea also has an argument; its war for survival in the early Fifties. The rest of the world does not have any sympathy for this argument, which is why China has joined the United States in condemning North Korea’s brazen behaviour. But the very fact that the Security Council can do very little about disarming even a nation as weak and unstable as North Korea indicates the difficulties inherent in the very laudable concept of disarmament. Anyone with a couple of bombs, and the capability to launch them, has the ultimate blackmail mechanism. It might be suicide for North Korea to actually launch a bomb at Japan or South Korea, but this is surely the ultimate suicide mission. Anyone who is sane has to shudder at the sheer havoc such insanity would cause. This, of course, leads us to the existential dilemma: what happens if a weapon ends up in the command of terrorists, or those who believe that such havoc will destroy their perceived enemy? The civil war in Pakistan is tinged by the dread that if the Taliban, or its clandestine supporters in the political establishment, succeeded, the world would enter an unprecedented age of dread. This seems unlikely just now, but the future is another story.

What is the answer? I do not know. What I do know is that silence is not an answer.

(Byline of 14th June 2009 : posted on 28th June 2009)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

West Bengal: Next time, the Volcano

West Bengal: Next time, the Volcano
By M J Akbar

The Left may have lost the plot in Bengal, but has anyone found it? The Congress lost the plot between 1962 and 1967, and it was a while before anyone found another narrative.

In 1962, the Communists were on the wrong side of nationalism, since they refused to condemn China as the aggressor in the traumatic October war. The venerable Jyoti Basu spent a few months in jail along with his comrades. The party corrected this error internally; the pro-China extremists moved away, developing their own tactics for revolution. The Naxalites (named after Naxalbari, a small village in North Bengal) proclaimed Mao Zedong as their chairman, although it was never made clear whether Mao himself was enthused by the honour.

The Communists had already split formally. The breakaway CPI(M) found the correct balance. It was sufficiently radical for the first post-Independence generation that had begun to filter into Kolkata's College Street, and non-violent enough for the parents who had jobs that the Naxalites seemed determined to destroy. The classic Indian formula for conflict resolution, after all, has been to stop on this side of conflict.

The Congress was not immune from turmoil. Pranab Mukherjee should remember that age well. He was the principal lieutenant of the man who broke the Bengal Congress, Ajoy Mukherjee, and went on, as head of the Bangla Congress, to become chief minister of the United Front that was sworn in after the 1967 elections. Jyoti Basu was home minister, and for the first time the street lamps of Kolkata were covered in red paper to celebrate the rising of a red sun.

The alliance was unsustainable, because ideology was still alive in the 1960s. The chronic instability of coalition politics brought the Congress back to power in 1971; Pranab Mukherjee moved, deftly, to the centre when Mrs Indira Gandhi split the organization in 1969.

The great game-changer of that decade was the Kolkata riot of 1964, a consequence of violence in East Pakistan and some wildly inflammatory reporting in the Kolkata media. It is often forgotten that Bengal is a Partition province. The CPI(M) won the confidence of Muslims when its cadre mobilized to protect the community in 1964. Biman Bose, now CPI(M) state secretary, was one of the young men who stood at the corner of a Moulali street, daring arsonists and killers to cross the Marxist line. A relationship of over four decades was finally broken when Muslims deserted the CPI(M) in 2009.

The Left emerged out of the chaos and violence that fractured Bengal; as it dissipates, will the vacuum be filled by violence? It is tempting to see the immediate future as a mirror image, with variations, of the 1960s. The Maoists are back, without Mao graffiti on the walls or urban terrorism, but better organized. The images of men and women armed with bows and arrows in Midnapore are eerily reminiscent of the 1960s and early 1970s. They also prove that many parts of our country still live in the bow-and-arrow era.

The battle for Lalgarh (Red Fortress) is both literal and metaphorical. Although they never admitted as much, the CPI(M) and Congress cooperated in the first war against Naxalites, between 1967 and 1973. They are being forced to do so again.

But their political strategies were different. The Congress used state force against Naxalites and thought it had done its job; the CPI(M) finessed the Naxalites politically, through land reform. It is a pity no one remembers Harekrishna Konar and Promode Dasgupta, its architects. They gave food security to the peasant, while Jyoti Basu, as home minister and chief minister, ensured life security. Nandigram is a powerful symbol of departure, because a Left government snatched the peasant's land and then attacked those who protested.

Nature, and political nature, abhors a vacuum. The space vacated by the CPI(M) retreat is being visibly occupied: those who vote are with Mamata Banerjee; those who don't vote in rural Bengal are gravitating around the Maoists. The first category has larger numbers, but fluctuations are a matter of opportunity. Courage and consistency could take Mamata Banerjee to Writers Building, but this alone will not keep her there.

Radical is as radical does, not just as it says it will do. The peasantry, once nourished by Konar, wants the next level of prosperity. This will need phenomenal growth in the agricultural-industrial economy to meet the extraordinary upsurge in aspirations that accompanies generational change. Mamata Banerjee has about a year to prepare for a radical government that will be more than a patchwork of prematurely tired faces. It would also be unwise to forget the game-changer of the 1960s, the riots. Violence is an infectious plague, and demographic tensions always have a fuse in the tail. Bengalis believe that they are not communal. No one is communal, except in that brief moment of madness when the civilized mind crumbles.

The drama of Bengal is full of actors making powerful speeches. We need a plot, very quickly.

Appeared in Times of India - June 21, 2009

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The US Advice on Kashmir is Lunacy

The US Advice on Kashmir is Lunacy
By M J Akbar

If you want to sell arsenic, the kindest way to do so is to disguise it as medicine heavily coated with sugar. There is nothing particularly new about the proposal of an interim balm for the wounds of Kashmir, demilitarization on both sides of the Line of Control. What is novel is the heavy Washington endorsement of this Pakistan-promoted option.

This is not all. Unusually for a senior diplomat of a super power that affects neutrality, US under secretary of state for political affairs, William Burns, chose Delhi as the venue for a message designed to disturb the equanimity of his hosts, when he said, "Any resolution of Kashmir has to take into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people". That must have been music to Islamabad's ears.

Demilitarization sounds so sweetly reasonable, a definitive gesture of de-escalation. The Obama administration is delighted by the prospect of collateral benefit. This would release more Pak troops for the war against Taliban. Pakistan has shifted some brigades from the Indian border, but not from the Line of Control.

Self-interest may have blinded Washington to an obvious fallacy in this "reasonable" formulation. In all three major Kashmir conflicts — 1947, 1965 and Kargil — Pakistan has used a two-tier strategy. A surrogate force has served as a first line of offense. The Pakistani term for them has been consistent; they have come in the guise of "freedom fighters". India called them "raiders" in 1947 and 1965, and defines them as terrorists now. This surrogate force has expanded its operations far beyond Kashmir, as the terrorist attacks on Mumbai confirmed.

DMZs (De-Militarized Zones) would guarantee the security of Pakistan and weaken India's defences, since there is no suggestion that terrorist militias are going to be "demilitarized". Should the Indian army leave the Kashmir valley to the mercy of well-organized, finely-trained, generously-financed indiscriminate organisations? India has no corresponding surrogate force, because it is a status-quo power; it makes no claims on any neighbour's territory.

If America wants a DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) in India they will first have to ensure a DTZ (De-Terrorised Zone) in Pakistan.

India and Pakistan may have a common problem in terrorism, but they do not have terrorists in common. Those who have inflicted havoc already in India, and those who intend to do so in future, are safe in their havens in Lahore and Multan and Karachi. Pakistan's ambivalence on terrorism was exposed yet again by the release of Prof Hafeez Mohammad Sayeed, emir of Jamaat ud Dawa, from house arrest on June 6. It needed an official sanction by the UN Security Council to send him into soft detention. The government's duplicity was evident in the frailty of the case against him. The Lahore High Court, which ordered his release, discovered that Pakistan had not even placed al-Qaeda on its list of terrorist organizations.

Islamabad may have taken action against militants in the Frontier who pose a threat to Pakistan, but it continues to mollycoddle those who threaten India.

Islamabad's leverage has risen in Obama's Washington for good reasons. America may have outsourced flat-world, high-tech jobs to soft-power India. But America has outsourced a full-scale Af-Pak war to Pakistan.

Rewards for India come in corporate balance sheets and middle-class jobs. Compensation for Pakistan comes in billions of dollars for the army (as much as $5 billion of which has been diverted, so far, to the purchase of conventional weapons meant primarily for use against India) and much more in aid and soft-loans. Pakistan believes that money is insufficient. It wants the bonus of political rewards. It expects a Pak-US nuclear pact, not because it is in need of fuel for peaceful or martial purposes, but in order to quasi-legitimize its status as a nuclear power. Islamabad also wants some settlement on Kashmir that it can sell to its people as a victory.

Former president Pervez Musharraf may be out of circulation but ideas that jumped out of his box a few years ago are back in play. He has just given an interview to Der Spiegel in which he suggests that India and Pakistan were close to an agreement over his proposals:

"demilitarization of the disputed area, self-governance and a mutual overwatch." Delhi insisted on the conversion of the Line of Control into a formal border, but the thought that the two countries came close has given Washington reason to believe that it can now pressurize Delhi to make some concession, perhaps by agreeing to make the Line of Control "irrelevant" by "opening transit routes".

There is great danger in this "soft border" thesis. How can you have a "soft border" unless both sides recognize it as a border? Moreover, what does the phrase "mutual overwatch" mean? Both would dilute symbols of Indian sovereignty in Kashmir.

Musharraf, who sounds bored by his new routine of bridge with friends at his flat in London, says he is ready to broker a peace deal.

The search for peace might prove to be tougher than starting a war in Kargil.

Appeared in Times of India - June 14, 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009

Some Dangerous Liasons in July

Some Dangerous Liasons in July
By M J Akbar

A turbulent whisper is surging through Washington. Barack Obama wants peace in the life of his first term. He has discovered the magic potion that will kill the roots of two poisonous plants, Palestine and Kashmir. He has told Israel that he wants a definite route map towards an independent Palestine state by July. July is also the month during which Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit the Indian subcontinent. In her baggage will be a war manual for Af-Pak and a peace prescription for Ind-Pak.

Here is some good news for Hillary Clinton. The Kashmir problem has already been solved.
It was solved on January 1, 1948, the day India and Pakistan froze their troops along a Cease Fire Line recognized by the United Nations. In 1972, through the Shimla Agreement, they renamed this the 'Line of Control'. There are few international pacts that have stood the test of so much turmoil. This one has been tested by war in all its forms, regular and irregular. Pakistan tried to change the map of Kashmir in 1965. In January 1966 it sheepishly reaffirmed its relevance at Tashkent when India and Pakistan exchanged territories won and lost across the Cease Fire Line in the battles of 1965.

Six decades of conflict have not shifted six inches of grass from one side to the other. Six more decades of furious sabre-rattling or squalid impotence will not change the geography either. Hillary Clinton could sort it all out in the minute it takes India and Pakistan to affix their signatures to a document converting de facto into de jure, and declaring this Line an international border. Punjab and Bengal were slashed; Kashmir will become the third major province to be formally divided, and the ashes of 1947 can finally be interred with the bones of Partition.

India is ready to accept this reality. Pakistan might need persuasion. It has to be told that there is nothing to be gained by the complications of discussion, and everything to achieve through clarity.

What about the aspirations of independence widely attributed to Kashmiris? This is a chimera. The terms of British departure in 1947 were unambiguous. No part of the British empire or its surrogate dependencies, the princely states, was offered independence. The list of those who flirted with the possibility is long: Jodhpur, Junagadh, Travancore-Cochin, Hyderabad, Baluchistan, Swat, to name only those states that come readily to mind. Hassan Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sarat Chandra Bose thought an independent, united Bengal would be a splendid idea. Pakistan did not arm and send tribal raiders towards Srinagar in October 1947 in order to create an independent Kashmir. Karachi wanted to absorb the Muslim-majority valley into Pakistan. It began to promote independence only when its dreams of acquisition were aborted by the intervention of the Indian Army. These are cold facts, and 60 years of heavy breathing by Kashmiris have not boiled them into a different concoction.

Pakistan could have opted for a peaceful resolution in 1947 and 1948. The final status of Jammu and Kashmir had been kept in abeyance. Nehru, in a note to Lord Mountbatten, suggested that talks could begin after the spring thaw of 1948. It is possible that Pakistan might have gained a shade more territory through a negotiated partition of Kashmir than it did through violence. But history does not offer premiums for stupidity. The sensible thing to do now would be to close this hideously expensive chapter on the page where history left its bookmark.

It is common knowledge that Washington acutely wants the next round of Indo-Pak talks to be between the chiefs of the two armies, rather than the heads of the two governments. There is a substantive challenge, from terrorists and ideologically motivated theocratic groups like the Taliban, to the stability of the region between Kabul and Delhi. This can best be met by cooperation between Indian and Pakistani forces. That will not happen until the warriors are tired of war without objectives. India does not want any parcel of land inside Pak-Occupied Kashmir. Pakistan cannot get a yard of what India holds. So what is the conflict about except a self-destructive ego?

The elimination of war, even were it to come about, is not synonymous with the arrival of cooperation. It will take time before India and Pakistan fully appreciate how much they can mean to each other. Trade, the true lubricant of prosperity, is susceptible to more factors than Islamic identity. Dread of India's industrial power and capital will need to be carefully eased through sedatives. Terrorists who hate everything India stands for will not disappear quietly into a soft sunset. But nothing could be potentially worse than two nuclear nations trapped by intrinsic virulence on the one side and contemptuous indifference on the other.

The obvious can stare you in the face, but you must also have the vision to recognize it. Hillary Clinton would do well to pack some specially-powered spectacles in her handbag. They would make a good present for her friends in Islamabad.

Appeared in Times of India - June 08, 2009

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Thank you for the Nildus Speech, Mr President

Byline by M J Akbar: Thank you for the Nildus Speech, Mr President

Dear Brother-Husain,

I am certain about two things. I am a Muslim, and I live in this world. Now the uncertainties begin. On 4 June you gave what was heavily advertised as a major speech to the “Muslim world”. Does that mean that while every Christian believes in the divinity of Jesus, he can be legitimately and widely varied in his political interests, but Muslims must have both Allah and politics in common?

As an Indian Muslim I belong to the second largest Muslim community in the world. I also live, proudly, as an equal, in India, a nation that contains the largest Hindu community in the world. Do you think I have the same political views as my fellow Muslims in Pakistan or Bangladesh or Nepal? You did mention that there are around six million Muslims in America. Were you speaking to them, or on their behalf, in Cairo? But for the accidents of life, you could have been an American Muslim, a Kenyan Muslim or an Indonesian Muslim. Would the same speech serve for all three?

Muslims live not only in different cultures and geo-political spaces, but also under different Constitutions. Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim nation, does not believe in a state religion. Pakistan, the second largest, became the world’s first Islamic republic. There are kings and autocrats and elected heads of government in the “Muslim world”, and one category that can only be described as “immoveable object” unopposed by any irresistible force. Many Muslims live on the margins. Not many seem aware of this fact, and it is possible that none of your speechwriters pointed it out, but 10% of the Russian population is Muslim. Islam came to that vast Eurasian region around the same time as the Christian church. Do Russian Muslims belong to the same “Muslim world” as Indonesians and Moroccans? The Chinese keep their Muslim-majority province, Xinjiang, a sort of closely guarded state secret, frightened that Islam might jump up and bite off Communism’s ear. Which world do these Muslims belong to? And what about the chaps in Britain, who probably went over on the assumption that Britain was still Great. Or the French Muslims, whose ears are still ringing with the famous Sarkozy diktat: “Off with their headscarves!” Where would you place them? In Above-Saharan Africa?

At one point you were kind enough to suggest that “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam”. But no sane person ever accused America of being at war with Islam. America would have to be a theocracy, with Inquisition as its preferred domestic policy, and conversion as the principal instrument of foreign affairs, to declare war on Islam. I hope you will not accuse me of being pedantic, in the sense of calling a toothache a gum-ache. The conflation of Islam and Muslims is precisely the kind of misconception that encourages pre-nation-state fantasies like the revival of a Caliphate. One might add that while every Muslim was deeply committed to his faith, political disputes among Muslims began with the election of the very first Caliph, Hadrat Abu Bakr. Muslims see themselves as a brotherhood, not a nation-hood. If Islam is sufficient glue for nationalism, why would Arabs be living in 22 countries? That should have been obvious while you were snacking on Arab cookies and Islamic lemonade in Cairo.

“Islam and the West” is another phrase wandering through a dialectic shaped within the Queen of Alice’s Wonderland. Islam is a faith; the West is geography. How do you construct a relationship between faith and geography? You can have a debate on Islam and Christianity, or indeed between the West and West Asia, or the West and South Asia, or South East Asia. There is a past and a future to discuss. “Islam and the West” is straight out of 19th century Orientalism, laden with a subtext that is best left to warmongers. Peace requires a different idiom.

We understood your problem as you weaved through political and rhetorical swamps, because your predecessor managed to achieve what the mightiest of Muslim rulers failed to do – unite Muslims, albeit against him, rather than for something. But every Muslim does not need a homily on democracy. Muslims of Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India, who add up to nearly half the Muslim population, are not democracy-deficit.

The appropriate venue for a speech on Islam would have been Mecca, Medina or Jerusalem. But the first two cities are barred to non-Muslims or apostates; and the third would have been too toxic for an American President.

Cairo was the perfect podium for the speech that we did hear, since your true theme was not the “Muslim world” but the region between the Nile and the Indus, which I have, elsewhere, called the “Arc of Turbulence”. Those searching for a convenient caption for the Cairo oration might want to call it the “Nildus Speech”.

For the citizens of this region between Egypt and Pakistan, and particularly for Muslims, this was a brilliant gleam in the gloom to which they have become accustomed. Its great merit was justice and fairness, virtues that are repeatedly exalted in the Holy Quran. You did not deny Palestine its rights because you wanted to preserve what Israel has acquired. Of course you will be criticised for being even-handed, but you have survived worse.

It was extremely important that a President of the United States quoted the Quran’s unequivocal condemnation of terrorism, through a verse that is particularly beautiful. This will go a long way to correct the propaganda unleashed by those who controlled the White House and influenced media before you.

There was one element of your speech that did address almost the whole of the Muslim world: your stark, unambiguous condemnation of gender bias, one of the besetting sins of the “Muslim world”. If Muslims do not eliminate gender bias, they will not be permitted into the 20th century: who is going to send them an invitation to join the 21st? Barack Obama has offered the key, but it is up to Muslims to open the door.