By Mosharraf Zaidi
Yes, it has only been fifty days or so. Transformational change always takes much longer. But some of the challenges the new PTI government faces don’t look like they will disappear upon the expiration of the three-month moratorium on criticism that Prime Minister Imran Khan had requested. It may be worth exploring why these problems exist – especially since we know that it isn’t because of corruption.
No one has ever credibly accused the prime minister of being financially corrupt. And no one claims that Shah Mehmood Qureshi, his unwilling but voluble foreign minister, is involved in any kind of corruption. Yet on the foreign policy front, there has been gaffe after gaffe after gaffe. It began with FM Qureshi’s claims about the contents of Indian Prime Minister Modi’s letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan. It continued with a needless quarrel with the United States about what was said by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Prime Minister Imran Khan over the phone in a congratulatory call. It continued with PM Khan’s refusal to take French President Emmanuel Macron’s call. It was topped off by the contested claims, once again, of what was said by US President Donald Trump, to FM Qureshi, during a handshake on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
We already know that PM Khan and FM Qureshi are almost certainly not making these mistakes on purpose; neither has any friends among India’s top-shelf businessmen. We already know that by virtue of his three years as foreign minister in the PPP coalition government, from 2008 to 2011, FM Qureshi is not new to the job or in any way inexperienced. We already know that Pakistan has a competent and capable set of officers in the Foreign Office. And most of all, we know that PM Khan has clear, strong and well-founded ideas about Pakistan’s role in the world. He knows how he wants Pakistan perceived, and why.
Why then do these mistakes keep happening? Before answering, let’s examine some other challenges.
When Jamil Anderlini, the Financial Times’ Asia editor visited Pakistan soon after the new government had taken the reigns, he met with dozens of Pakistanis. Among them were meetings with key government leaders on the economic front. One of those meetings was with Abdul Razak Dawood, one of Imran Khan’s longest standing supporters, friends and advisers – and the de-facto minister for commerce.
Razak Dawood is a product of Columbia University, one of the founders of LUMS, a former commerce minister under chief executive and later president Gen Pervez Musharraf, and among the wealthiest Pakistanis alive. He does not lack experience, does not get rattled by foreigners from prestigious institutions like the Financial Times, does not need lessons on how to deal with the press, and will never be accused of treason or lack of patriotism.
Yet in his conversations with Anderlini and other Financial Times journalists, like veteran Farhan Bokhari, Razak Dawood offered comments about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that seemed to suggest that he had the authority to suspend ongoing projects, and put things on hold whilst the government reviewed the terms of the CPEC deals. This had the consequence of upsetting China, and understandably so. Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa had to conduct urgent diplomacy to assuage China’s understandably upset leaders.
Many countries would love to see Pakistan ‘stand up’ to China. Not because they care about Pakistan or about Pakistan’s future, but because they would love to chip away at one of the most credible, reliable and coherent strategic relationships that China enjoys. In short, the cheerleading for Pakistan standing up to China is about a wider global strategic game. As far as Pakistan is concerned, no country has been a more steadfast partner than Beijing. No matter what issue may exist, federal ministers and advisers should know better than to give statements to the Financial Times or other Western newspapers or publications about the complexities of the Pakistan–China relationship.
So why did Razak Dawood give that statement? And, more importantly, why has he continued to give statements about his personal misgivings with regard to CPEC?
We already know that Mr Dawood is not trying to hurt Pakistan deliberately. We already know that by virtue of his three years as commerce minister in the Musharraf government between 1999 and 2001, he is not new to the job nor in any way inexperienced. We already know that Pakistan has a competent and capable set of officers in the commerce ministry. And most of all, we know that PM Khan has clear, strong and well-founded ideas about Pakistan’s role in the world. He knows how he wants Pakistan perceived, and why.
The question then is why, despite all the clarity, good intentions, experience and competence, do such senior ministers in PM Khan’s cabinet continue to make such grave errors?
Sadly, the answer may be that we need to revisit some of our assumptions. Some of these are hard to argue with. Both Qureshi and Dawood have ample experience. So inexperience is definitely not the answer. I am always keen to assume the best intentions among others. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that either FM Qureshi or Adviser Dawood would ever intentionally hurt Pakistan, or give in to any interests outside of Pakistan. Which leaves only two options for us to re-consider: the clarity of PM Khan’s vision for the country and the competence of the people he has chosen to deliver that vision.
It is easy for voters to be seduced by binaries. Vote for me, I will give you jobs (PPP). Vote for me, I will fix electricity, I will build roads (PML-N). Vote for me, I will end corruption (PTI).
Once an election has been delivered, however, a political leader must evolve tactics that allow her or him to deliver a wider agenda than the drawing of the distinction between the good (herself or himself) and the evil (the others).
Could it be that PM Khan does not have a coherent tactical agenda for delivering Naya Pakistan beyond lashing out at his ‘corrupt’ opponents, including the media? This is one possibility that must not be dismissed entirely.
The competence of PM Khan’s team is another reasonable area to consider. Neither FM Qureshi, nor Adviser Dawood, nor indeed any of the richly experienced members of the PTI government, can lay claim to any radical reforms or changes in the past. If these ladies and gentlemen have not been able to deliver change in the past decades, what substantially different environmental factor leads us to assume that they will be able to now? This question should not hamper new entrants to governance, like Asad Umar or Shehryar Afridi – but it is one that must not be dismissed for older, more experienced members of the cabinet and inner circle.
The PTI government is still less than three months old. A major crossroads has been reached with the acceptance that an IMF programme will be necessary. In the post 100-day period, criticism of the government will reach a crescendo. The media will grow increasingly accustomed to the hitherto brilliant tactics of Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry to distract and obfuscate. At that stage, PM Khan will be well served by seeing his own management of affairs, and his own team, with the same critical lens that he has lent to others over the last two decades. Anything less will undermine his own aspirations to make life better for the least privileged Pakistanis. No matter what else happens, that is an agenda worth holding on to.
Embattled Ayodhya’s syncretic past
By JAVED ANAND
The cover title of the book would suggest that even without turning a page we know what it is all about. Since the late 1980s Ayodhya has been lodged into the consciousness of most Indians as a metaphor for growing discord and bloody violence between Hindus and Muslims because of the as yet unsettled Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute. Yes, Valay Singh’s Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord is about the smouldering conflict which continues to hover ominously over the entire country.
However, the book is not just about the long pending dispute over a few acres of land, of Hindu-Muslim, mandir-masjid. The meticulously researched text by the journalist unravels for us the fascinating 3,300-year-old history of this “sleepy city” in north India which for centuries had been considered sacred space not only by the followers of Hinduism but Buddhism, Jainism and Islam as well.
For example, did you know (I did not) that among the Muslims of the region the significance of Ayodhya is not limited to the Babri Masjid which was demolished by Hindutva’s kar sevaks on December 6, 1992, or the fact that even today several dozen mosques dot the city’s landscape? According to the author, “Ayodhya is called Khurd Mecca (mini-Mecca) or ‘Ayodhya Sharif’ [holy Ayodhya] even now?” (p 145).
Or, did you know (I did not) that Nageshwarnath, the oldest temple in Ayodhya, is dedicated not to Ram but to Shiva, that “as in most of the country, Shiva worship preceded the cult of Ram in Ayodhya as well”? Before the Vaishnavas (Ram bhakts) finally emerged victorious in the 18thcentury, “Vaishnavism had to encounter the violent and bloody obstacle of Shaivaism in north India” (p 59). Singh quotes from the biography of one Devmurari (16th century) to record: “’The daily ritual of Shaivas was to kill four Vaishnavas before doing datoon (brushing teeth)’. And on days when they couldn’t find a Vaishnav to kill the Shaivas would make voodoo-like doll-Vaishnavas out of dough and slit their throats.” (p 60).
In other words, long before the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Ayodhya there was the bloody intra-Hindu feud, not to mention the targeting of Buddhists by Hindus earlier. On the other hand, the eruption of the Babri Masjid dispute — for the first time in 1885 — was preceded by long years of Muslim-Hindu accord and the flourishing of a composite culture (Ganga-Jamuni tehjeeb) while the Muslim nawab-kings ruled in the Awadh region, of which Ayodhya was the capital before being shifted to Faizabad nearby and to Lucknowsubsequently.
Singh quotes Lala Sitaram, the first British-era chronicler of Ayodhya’s history who wrote of Nawab Asif-ud-Daulah’s munificence thus: “He was famous for giving large donations. Thousands of rupees were given to Brahmins from the royal treasury. Ayodhya’s Hanumangarhi [much revered temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman] was built during his time and stands as a testimony to his religious good”. (p89)
The decline of the Mughals and the nawab-kings of Awadh following the arrival of the British in India coincided with the deterioration in Hindu-Muslim relations in Ayodhya. It is a widely held view among historians that, “the first recorded Hindu struggle for Ram’s birthplace dates back to 1855”. That’s when Muslims attacked Hindus in retaliation for alleged demolition of a mosque in Hanumangarhi. (p 98).
The year 1885 marked the birth of the legal dispute over Babri Masjid when Mahant Raghubir Das of the Janmasthan temple filed a civil suit in the court of the district sub-judge of Faizabad, seeking an order to construct a temple over the Ramchabutra, a raised platform abutting the Babri Masjid. It is significant that until then there was no claim that Lord Ram’s birthplace was exactly on the spot where the Babri Masjid itself stood. His plea in the lower court, as also subsequent appeals before the district judge and the judicial commissioner of Oudh were rejected.
Ayodhya is a book in two parts. Book 1 begins with the city’s early history and ends with the ‘Indian Rebellion of 1857’ (many call it India’s first war of Independence from the British). Book 2 spans the period post-Independence till date.
In recent decades, local guides in Ayodhya have confidently asserted before visiting Hindu pilgrims that, one, “It has been nine lakh and fifty-six thousand years since Ram left Ayodhya for heaven, taking his subjects who loved him dearly along with him”; and, two, Babur destroyed the Ram temple that stood at his birthplace in 1526 and built a mosque over the ruins using “the blood of 1,76,000 Hindus to prepare the mud mortar”.
Relying on facts instead of myths, Singh informs us that the Babri Masjid premise itself was proclaimed as the actual birthplace of Lord Ram after an idol of Ramlulla “miraculously” appeared within the mosque premises on the night of 22-23 December 1949. On the morning of December 23, the then District Magistrate of Faizabad, K.K.K. Nair, sent a radio message to UP’s chief minister, chief secretary and home secretary that read: “A few Hindus entered Babri Masjid at night when the masjid was deserted and installed a deity there… Police picket of 15 persons was on duty at night but did not apparently act”. (p 189).
This notwithstanding, thanks to political subterfuge with bureaucratic connivance and failure of the judiciary to intervene expeditiously, from then until 1986 the gates of the Babri Masjid remained locked, Muslims were denied the right to offer namaaz inside, but Hindus were permitted to worship Ramlulla from outside the mosque while his idol remained undisturbed within.
Fast forward to 1984, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) elevated what until then was a local dispute to a national platform with the launch of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti. Two years later, in 1986, in a brazen instance of pandering simultaneously to Muslim and Hindu communalism, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government misguidedly chose to balance its appeasement of Muslims in the Shah Bano case by engineering the opening of the gates of the Babri Masjid for Hindus.
As was only to be expected, before long the Sangh Parivar snatched away the “Ayodhya card” from the Congress and used it to the hilt in its bid to political power. The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, under the watch of the BJP government led by Kalyan Singh in UP, the Prime Minister Narasimha Rao-led Congress government at the Centre, and a Supreme Court which failed to read the ominous signs, is part of that sordid story.
Missing conspicuously from Singh’s otherwise meticulously researched account is the report of the Liberhan Commission, which is a searing indictment of the insidious role played by the entire BJP/VHP/RSS leadership, the UP state bureaucracy and the police, and Muslim communal leaders in the brinkmanship that took the Indian republic to the abyss in December 1992. Albeit obliquely, Justice Manmohan Singh even questioned the role of the Supreme Court.
A three-member committee headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court (a Muslim) is currently at work in an attempt at the Supreme Court-mandated effort at mediation to find a resolution to the decades-old dispute. Among the three mediators is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is on record having warned that any obstacle in the building of a Ram temple where the Babri Masjid once stood will only lead to more bloodbath.
There is little in Singh’s book by way of clues to the committee in its effort at solving the complex communal puzzle. But that does not in any away belittle the importance of Singh’s book in unveiling the role of the various institutions of post-Independence “secular India”, the judiciary included, in the unraveling of a Hindu majoritarian agenda, with more than a little help from a communal Muslim leadership.
Kashmir: A land with a rich history is now in turmoil
By INDRANIL BANERJIE
Kashmir’s history, especially its recent past, is viewed by most in the Kashmir valley as one long miserable struggle. Professor Saifuddin Soz, an academic and long-time Congress politician from the valley, is apparently no exception.
Professor Soz in his book argues that Kashmir or, more accurately, the Kashmir Valley, is different from the rest of India because it has its own unique civilisation. He claims “no other region in India possesses such an ancient historical record.”
He believes that ever since Independence, the Government of India has wronged Kashmir and this is the reason why the Valley continues to be shaken by an armed uprising. The professor’s Kashmir narrative is not incorrect; New Delhi has indeed often and consistently been obtuse in its dealings with Kashmir. However, the very real and compelling reasons that have often prompted Indian leaders to take hard, and apparently wrong decisions are also not adequately appreciated.
For instance, much is made of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to imprison Kashmir’s most popular political leader, Sheikh Abdullah, in 1953. What are often left unexplained are the reasons behind Nehru’s seemingly undemocratic decision.
The counterview is that Nehru; once a great supporter of Abdullah, felt betrayed after it was known that he was secretly conspiring with the CIA to create an independent Kashmir. The so-called “Kashmir Conspiracy Case” slapped against Abdullah and his collaborators are a fascinating but often glossed over chapter in Kashmir’s slippery history.
In other words, it would be unfair to hold New Delhi responsible for every problem that has beset Kashmir in its recent history. Professor Soz’s narrative fortunately is far from being one-sided and is perhaps one of the best expositions of Kashmir’s history that has emerged in recent times.
Professor Soz is a mild, thoughtful figure who genuinely wishes for the best for Kashmir as well as for India and it is in this context that his work needs to be taken seriously and read carefully.
Especially relevant is the last section of the book where the author offers a roadmap for the future. “I have lived through the years of turmoil in Kashmir, always considering myself to be part of the life of Kashmiris”, writes the author. “I had got elected to the Lok Sabha in a by-election in June 1983 and since then I invested time to understand the life and times of Kashmiris.”
The author lists 10 points that need to be taken up in order to move towards a resolution of the unending crisis in Kashmir. These need to be perused with great care by all those who would like a solution to the problem.
Professor Soz himself maintains: “My dispassionate assessment is that a credible discussion and dialogue without any pre-conditions can be meaningfully initiated by the emissaries of the union of India directly with the Hurriyat. The dialogue and discussion with other political parties and groups could then follow successfully.”
Where one could differ with Professor Soz is in his understanding of Indian nationalism. Professor Soz’s basic assertion that “Kashmir has the unique distinction of being a civilisation on its own” and is one of the oldest in history is unexceptionable. However, it is equally true that India is made up of several civilisations that are equally unique and thousands of years old.
The Tamil, Telugu, Kalinga, Bengali and other civilisations all have histories that go back several millennia. They too have rich, unique cultures with their individual ethos, language and traditions. Being part of India does not require them to submerge or lose their unique identities.
Professor Soz, like many of his ilk, appears to have completely missed the fundamental precept on which Indian nationalism stands. For, the Indian state is not based on civilisational homogeneity but on diversity. Its people have come together to form a single nation state not because they all have the same history or ethos. They have come together because of the belief that diverse people can coexist and prosper irrespective of history, language, religion or culture.
India, like the highly successful nation state, the United States of America, is not based on cultural or racial unity unlike most other nations in the world, which are dominated by one kind of people. Indians do not even look alike; they have varied histories and legends going back many centuries; their diets are unbelievably diverse and so on.
Yet over the decades they have come to live together and despite aberrations learned to celebrate their diversity. Despite all its shortcomings and myriad problems, India has emerged as one of the most successful nations in the world with a quintessentially liberal ethos and open institutions.
The India concept was perhaps best elucidated by Novelist Salman Rushdie, who wrote: “Churchill said India wasn’t a nation, just an ‘abstraction’. John Kenneth Galbraith, more affectionately and more memorably, described it as a ‘functioning anarchy’. Both of them, in my view, underestimated the strength of the India-idea. It may be the most innovative national philosophy to have emerged in the post-colonial period. It deserves to be celebrated because it is an idea that has enemies, within India as well as outside her frontiers, and to celebrate it is also to defend it against its foes.”
Need one say anything more?
Blood-splattered birth of a nation
By PATRALEKHA CHATTERJEE
But some images remain seared into my memory. Like the famous picture of the surrender of December 16, 1971 which showed General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, in charge of the Eastern Command of the Pakistan Army, publicly surrendering to the Indian Army’s Lieutenant Jagjit Singh Aurora. That clip played in every cinema theatre across India. I also have vivid memories of eagerly listening to the savagely witty news updates from Chorompotro (Extreme Letter), a popular underground radio show in Bengali. While Bangladeshi civilians battled Pakistani armed forces, the radio talk show host shared his humorous takes about the discomforts of the Pakistani forces and the victories of Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters).
Those childhood memories came back in a flash as I read Nadeem Zaman’s In the Time of the Others. Zaman, who was born in Dhaka, and grew up there and in Chicago, uses the format of fiction to give us the multiple sides of the story and the backstory of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. This is his first novel.
Everyone is familiar with the big story of 1971 – the horrific repression of Bengali citizens in what was then East Pakistan by the military regime in (West) Pakistan, the battle for freedom led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the Awami League, the killings of Bengali civilians, rapes of women and the millions of refugees who poured into India through the eastern border, triggering a military confrontation between India and Pakistan. That blood-soaked, gut-wrenching big story which took such a massive human toll had a happy ending. Bangladesh became an independent nation. And it was among independent India’s most triumphant moments.
Zaman tells the small stories that swirl around that big story.
The novel is a compelling fictionalised account of the lived experiences of a whole galaxy of characters from all sides. The more academically-inclined would perhaps read the book as a treatise on identity and culture, the making of a postcolonial nation state from Bengali nationalism to Bangladeshi sovereignty. To me, the book’s power lies in the many truths it seeks to convey about the monumental, historic event of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 through compelling and nuanced stories.
Zaman’s cast of characters are human beings, not cardboard heroes and villains, with their human frailties, caught in the crossfire of conflict, upheaval and violence.
There is no one central figure. But someone through whose lens the story is largely told is Imtiaz Khan, who arrives at his uncle’s house in Dhaka, for what he imagines will be a short visit to sort out an inheritance issue. It’s a personal matter. But within days of his arrival, the military regime of then West Pakistan declares a crackdown on Dhaka. Civilians are killed in cold blood, and young, feisty fighters from the Mukti Bahini take refuge in the home of Khan’s uncle and aunt. Khan is sucked into the whirlpool of a narrative over which he has little control.
On the other side, there is Faizal Shaukat, a young captain in the Pakistan army, a military man of pedigreed stock, who finds himself conflicted on many occasions, which starts affecting his domestic life. His superior Major Pervez Shahbaz is a more predictable character, cast in a classic, villainous mould.
Interesting though peripheral characters in the novel include Helen and Walter, a journalist couple from the United States who get a ringside view of the momentous events; and Sam Truman, a member of the diplomatic corps.
What really resonated with this reviewer are the internal stories of conflict playing alongside the big story of violence and upheaval.
What does a ‘war’ do to a relationship between husband and wife? A telling example is the conversation between the Pakistan Army captain Fazal Shaukat and his wife Umbreen.
The following passage leapt out. “How many people have you killed, Fazal? Have you raped women? Did you watch your soldiers rape them?” The shoe dropped from his hand. “You are a drunkard and a slut.” Shaukat’s trembling had him spent in seconds. He sank onto the bed. Umbreen’s clenched fist next to his head, inches away. She wanted to ask him how many lowered heads he had looked at in the same position, at his feet, begging for mercy, before sending bullets into them.”
Even Helen and Walter get punchy lines. They spar with each other on whether the Mukti Bahini can be compared to the Vietcong. To Walter, the Vietcong is nothing more than “a bunch of Communist thugs. Murderers.” He is horrified at the suggestion that they have anything similar to the Mukti Bahini. “The Vietcong wants the US out of Vietnam; it is seen as an occupying force and they want them out, the same as here,” quips Helen.
The other interesting character is Suleiman Mubarak, a Bihari judge, who empathises with the Bangladeshi cause but is viewed with suspicion owing to his non-Bengali heritage and is killed by Mukti Bahini soldiers the day Dhaka was liberated.
It’s a sharp contrast to the camaraderie between the Indian and Pakistani military officers, even as Niazi signs the surrender document. Niazi had reportedly refused to lay down arms at the feet of the Mukti Bahini. A decorated officer of the Pakistani Army bowing in defeat to a Bengali guerrilla force was not a humiliation Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi was prepared to take to his grave…” the author writes wryly.
The novel is full of these contrasts — between the loud violence and death on the streets and the minds of the characters caught in a maelstrom.
Zaman’s novel deep-dives into the minds of each of his characters, exploring their motivations and anxieties. But it does not shun the raw violence of the events on the ground.
As the author describes in unsentimental detail the Dhaka University killings, the savageries on ordinary civilians, the torture sites, even a brothel where captured women are kept as sex slaves, the effects on the minds of both perpetrators and victims are finely etched.
The storyline is taut; the plot never flags. I finished the book, 300-plus pages long, in one sitting.