By Smita Gupta
As a series of important State elections and then the Lok Sabha election approach, the Congress is being watched for how it plays the secularism card. Over the last three decades, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has purposefully moved to the political centre stage, the Congress has defined its secularism in opposition to the former’s exclusivist ideology. But only too often, it has faltered on the slippery ground of secular practice. Indeed, the party has a history of ideological confusion going back to its opposition, in the mid-1980s, to the Shah Bano verdict to please ‘Muslims’ and permission for the shilanyas at the Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya to please ‘Hindus’ — decisions which cost it ideologically and electorally.
As the Congress has lost ground, its leaders have swung between advocating a middle path and plotting a frontal battle against Hindutva. At his first press conference as Prime Minister in 2004, Manmohan Singh had said, “I am opposed to fundamentalism of all types — whether it is fundamentalism from the Left or fundamentalism from the Right.” His studied neutrality resonated at that time with many in a party grappling with strategies to counter the BJP’s no-holds-barred ideological onslaught. But it had annoyed the Left parties supporting the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government as well as those in the party who wanted it to pursue a more vigorous brand of anti-Hindutva.
Ten years later, when the Congress lost power, senior party leader A.K. Antony had raised questions over the party’s commitment to secularism, saying, “People have lost faith in the secular credentials of the party. They have a feeling that the Congress bats for a few communities, especially minorities.” Mr. Antony stressed that he was referring only to Kerala, but most Congressmen extrapolated it to mean he was referring to the country.
As the BJP flourished, a stream of Congress members shifted allegiance to it. And, over the last four years, with mounting instances of intolerance, including lynching of Muslims and Dalits, cow vigilantism and ‘love jehad’ campaigns, a helpless Congress has looked on, swinging between taking the occasional potshot at the BJP-RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS) and actions that party MP Shashi Tharoor has evocatively described as ‘BJP-lite’.
This confusion was reflected in the party’s stand on former President Pranab Mukherjee’s recent speech to RSS novices at its headquarters in Nagpur. Senior Congressmen had urged him to refuse the RSS’s invitation. After the event, the party’s official response was effusive. Even though Mr. Mukherjee had described RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar as “a great son of Mother India”, the party said his subsequent address had shown the “mirror of truth to the RSS”. A belated invitation was even sent to Mr. Mukherjee to attend the Congress’s iftaar party. In the process, the party embarrassed a large section within its own ranks, even as it sent out a confused signal to the minorities while holding an iftaar party after a gap of two years.
Ironically, a few days after Mr. Mukherjee’s all-things-to-all-ideologies speech in Nagpur, Congress president Rahul Gandhi appeared in a court in Bhiwandi where he is facing a defamation suit for allegedly saying, in a public speech in the run-up to the general election in 2014, that “RSS people” killed Mahatma Gandhi. Mr. Gandhi has also, on his part, framed his battle against the RSS-BJP combine as “ideological” — in line with the party’s official line since the RSS’s formation in 1925, and with the ban imposed on the organisation thrice by different Congress governments at the Centre — after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, during the Emergency, and after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
Meanwhile, privately, several senior party functionaries spoke of their disquiet over the message sent out by Mr. Mukherjee’s visit to the RSS headquarters. But it was left to former Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tiwari to give voice to it. In a series of tweets, he told Mr. Mukherjee, “You were a part of the govt that banned RSS in 1975 & then again in 1992. Don’t you think you should tell us what was evil about RSS then that has become virtuous now?”
Till the mid-1980s, the Congress, as a big tent party that accommodated a large swathe of political opinion and ideologies, managed its ambivalence on secularism because it was electorally strong. Then came the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Shah Bano case in 1985, the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid in 1986, the permission to hold shilanyas for the Ram temple in Ayodhya in 1989, and the failure to protect the Babri Masjid from destruction in 1992 — all under Congress watch. The party’s inability to craft a well-considered strategy to counter the rise of the Hindutva forces ideologically while accommodating the Other Backward Classes, now riding the Mandal wave, saw the party’s electoral footprint shrinking.
If the Congress failed to see the silent inroads the RSS and its many front organisations were making across the country, winning hearts and minds below the radar — especially between 1998 and 2004 when the A.B. Vajpayee government was in power — party leaders succumbed over ground too.
For example, in 2003, Mr. Mukherjee and ShivrajPatil, as members of a parliamentary committee, did not object to the Vajpayee-led BJP government’s decision to install in the Central Hall of Parliament a portrait of Veer Savarkar, who had formulated the concept of Hindutva. An embarrassed Congress, including the then Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed, boycotted the unveiling of the portrait in February 2003. However, Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson Najma Heptulla attended the event, presaging her departure for the BJP the following year.
In 2010, former Congress general secretary JanardanDwivedi welcomed the controversial Allahabad High Court judgment in the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi case: “Congress has held that the controversy should either be solved through talks or the verdict of the court should be accepted. The court has given the verdict. We should all welcome the judgment.”
A few days later, an embarrassed Congress Working Committee (CWC) stressed that the court verdict did not condone the demolition of the mosque, adding: “The Indian National Congress respects the judicial process with regard to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. However, we must now await the final decision of the Supreme Court as and when the appeal is filed.”
More recently, during last year’s Gujarat elections, Mr. Gandhi visited a string of Hindu temples, even referring to himself as a “Shiv bhakt”, and permitted a party spokesperson to describe him as a “Janeudhari Brahmin”, sending out a confused signal to Dalits, OBCs and Muslims.
Today, the Congress believes it can take on the BJP electorally through a carefully crafted coalition in 2019. But will that be enough to preserve India’s social fabric? For if the party continues to lack the will or conviction or, indeed, the intellectual bandwidth to fight the BJP ideologically, India’s liberal democracy will remain under threat.
China’s brutal crackdown on the Uighur Muslims
By Jen Kirbyjen
China was sharply criticized for its mass detention of members of the Muslim Uighur community at a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting on Tuesday — but the country pushed back, saying that the condemnation was politically motivated.
Western governments, including those in Europe, the United States, and Canada, had the harshest words for China. The United States chargé d’affaires Mark Cassayre demanded that China “abolish all forms of arbitrary detention” for Uighurs and other Muslims minorities, and that China release the “possibly millions” of individuals detained there.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng dismissed these and other comments as “politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases.”
China has detained as many as 1 million Uighurs in so-called “re-educationcenters” and forced them to undergo psychological indoctrination programs — like studying communist propaganda and giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese authorities have also reportedly used waterboarding and other forms of torture on the ethnic minority.
Xinjiang, where about 10 million Uighurs and a few other Muslim minorities live, is an autonomous region in China’s northwest that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. It has been under Chinese control since 1949, when the communist People’s Republic of China was established.
Uighurs speak their own language — an Asian Turkic language similar to Uzbek — and most practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Some activists, including those who seek independence from China, refer to the region as East Turkestan.
Once situated along the ancient Silk Road trading route, Xinjiang is oil- and resource-rich. As it developed along with the rest of China, the region attracted more Han Chinese, a migration encouraged by the Chinese government.
But that demographic shift inflamed ethnic tensions, especially within some of the larger cities. In 2009, for example, riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, after Uighurs protested their treatment by the government and the Han majority. About 200 people were killed and hundreds injured during the unrest.
The Chinese government, however, blamed the protests on violent separatist groups — a tactic it would continue to use against the Uighurs and other religious and ethnic minorities across China.
Xinjiang is also a major logistics hub of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure project along the old Silk Road meant to boost China’s economic and political influence around the world. Xinjiang’s increasing importance to China’s global aspirations is likely a major reason Beijing is tightening its grip.
All of which means China has increasingly tried to draw Xinjiang into its orbit, starting with a crackdown in 2009 following riots in the region and leading up to the implementation of repressive policies in 2016 and 2017 that have curbed religious freedom and increased surveillance of the minority population, often under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.
The Chinese government justifies its clampdown on the Uighurs and Muslim minorities by saying it’s trying to eradicate extremism and separatist groups. But while attacks, some violent, by Uighur separatists have occurred in recent years, there’s little evidence of any cohesive separatist movement — with jihadist roots or otherwise — that could challenge the Chinese government, experts tell me.
China’s crackdown on the Uighurs is part of a policy of “de-extremification.” It’s generated repressive policies, from the banning of certain Muslim names for babies to chilling reports of torture and political indoctrination in so-called “reeducation” camps where hundreds of thousands have been detained.
Communist China has a dark history with reeducation camps, combining hard labor with indoctrination to the party line. According to research by Adrian Zenz, a leading scholar on China’s policies toward the Uighurs, Chinese officials began using dedicated camps in Xinjiang around 2014 — around the same time that China blamed a series of terrorist attacks on radical Uighur separatists.
China escalated pressure on Muslim minorities through 2017, slowly chipping away at their rights with the passage of religious regulations and a counterterrorism law, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a pro-Uighur group based in Washington, DC.
In 2016, Xinjiang also got a new leader: a powerful Communist Party boss named Chen Quanguo, whose previous job was restoring order and control to the restive region of Tibet. Chen has a reputation as a strongman and is something of a specialist in ethnic crackdowns.
Increased surveillance and police presence accompanied his move to Xinjiang, including his “grid management” policing system. As the Economist reported, “authorities divide each city into squares, with about 500 people. Every square has a police station that keeps tabs on the inhabitants. So, in rural areas, does every village.”
Security checkpoints where residents must scan identification cards were set up at train stations and on roads into and out of towns. Authorities have reportedly used facial recognition technology to track residents’ movements. Police confiscate phones to download the information contained on them to scan through later. Police have also confiscated passports to prevent Uighurs from traveling abroad.
Some of the targeted “de-extremification” restrictions gained coverage in the West, including a ban on certain Muslim names for babies and another on long beards and veils. The government also made it illegal to not watch state television and to not send children to government schools. The government reportedly tried to promote drinking and smoking, because people who didn’t drink or smoke — like devout Muslims — were deemed suspicious.
Chinese officials have justified these policies as necessary to counter religious radicalization and extremism, but critics say they are meant to curtail Islamic traditions and practices.
The Chinese government is “trying to expunge ethnonational characteristics from the people,” James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University, told me. “They’re not trying to drive them out of the country; they’re trying to hold them in.”
“The ultimate goal, the ultimate issue that the Chinese state is targeting [is] the cultural practices and beliefs of Muslim groups,” he added.
“Re-education camps” — or training camps, as the Chinese have called them — are perhaps the most sinister pillar of this de-extremification policy. Experts estimate as many as 2 million people have disappeared into these camps at some point, with about 1 million currently being held.
The Chinese government first denied these camps even existed. When confronted about them at the United Nations in August, officials claimed they were for the “assistance and education” of minor criminals. China’s state-run media has dismissed the reports of detention camps as Western media “baselessly criticizing China’s human rights.”
Ensuring Afghan peace
By Imtiyaz Alam
Pakistan has intensified its pressure on the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government. There were also (conflicting) reports that a senior Afghan Taliban leader had been arrested ahead of the visit of US Special Representative ZalmayKhalilzad and Lisa Curtis, who looks after South and Central Asian affairs in the National Security Council.
The question is: will the Taliban agree to be a part of a broad-based government of reconciliation or would they rather wait for the US troop drawdown and then try and recapture Kabul?
The most decisive factor, however, is President Trump’s impatience with the unwinnable wars against the imperial imperatives of the US establishment, its military-media establishment in particular. His defence secretary Jim Mattis resigned and his National Security Advisor John Bolton defied him on his decision to withdraw from Syria. This as the US federal government is facing a partial shutdown, special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is hanging on Trump’s head and the Congress is weighing the prospects of his impeachment.
Followed by Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, it was indicated that half of the 14,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan may be withdrawn. America’s Nato allies are faced with their own crises – British Prime Minister Theresa May has lost the vote on Brexit and French President Macron is bogged down under street agitation. In the words of former British MP George Galloway: “The old world is dying; the new one cannot be born. If we are not careful we will soon be alive in the time of monsters”.
Given this volatile situation of the Western powers, and encouraged by their advances against a tottering Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul, the Taliban are inclined to toughen their negotiating position. Under pressure from Pakistan, Saudi Arab and United Arab Emirates, some progress was reported in the last three sessions of negotiation between the US and the Taliban, at Abu Dhabi in particular.
But, after getting signs of US withdrawal, the Taliban cancelled the round that was to take place in Qatar. They reportedly did so on issues of agenda; they wanted to discuss the withdrawal timeline, release of prisoners and lifting of travel sanctions on their leaders. But they refused to sit with the Afghan government for reconciliation and to discuss the future setup of a broad-based government. The Taliban seem to be in a similar mindset as their predecessors, the Afghan Mujahideen, who after the Geneva Accord of 1988 and withdrawal of Soviet forces refused to enter into a settlement – under the auspices of the UN – with President Najeebullah’s regime. This led to an internecine conflict after the fall of the leftist government in 1992.
According to a research carried out by the BBC in January 2018, the Taliban were active in 70 percent of Afghanistan or were in control of 14 districts. They could not, however, make any spectacular advancement after the drawdown of over 100,000 troops in 2014. The over 350,000 strong Afghan National Army, despite defections and heavy casualties, was able to restrain the Taliban from taking over any major city. If the US airpower, military and financial backing continues, the Taliban won’t be able to run over Kabul.
A section of the armed resistance is, however, over-confident that as soon as the US decides to withdraw its remaining troops, the Kabul government, which it dubs as ‘puppets’, will imminently collapse. But what they are forgetting is that the US, its Nato allies and other powers, including Russia and China, do not trust their verbal or written pledges to not make Afghanistan an epicentre of international terrorism or a base for Al-Qaeda or Daesh type outfits. At the moment, the talks are stuck due to the Taliban’s stance and their refusal to engage with the Afghan government for reconciliation and power-sharing and the kind of guarantees and terms the US is demanding in exchange for the ‘disengagement’ of foreign troops.
The US envoy’s visit to Islamabad is preceded by those of the governor of the Tabuk province of Saudi Arabia and the Afghan president’s special envoy Umar Daudzai. In the current scenario of financial vulnerability, Pakistan is under many obligations and pressures from Saudi Arabia and the UAE who would also like to see Islamabad play a role in getting the Taliban to join the reconciliation process being brokered by the US. The bailout packages are the kind of crucial leverages that the US allies in the region are likely to apply to keep Pakistan on board. The US envoy’s four-nation visit took him to Beijing and Delhi where he met with the Indian external affairs minister and others. Former Afghan president Karzai was also in New Delhi to persuade India to play a greater role to balance what Assistant Secretary General of Nato Alejandro Alvargonzalez called “the most important role” of Pakistan. It seems the newfound US-Pak nexus has excluded India from playing any crucial role in the settlement of the Afghanistan imbroglio.
What is interesting to note, according to highly placed sources, is that the US is zeroing on two demands: two US military bases and firm guarantees to not allow the use of Afghan soil for international terrorism. Those involved with the process have revealed to the press that the Taliban seemed to be flexible about American military presence in exchange for crucial concessions. These behind-the-scene developments led to the whirlwind tour of Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to Russia and China which would be reluctant to allow permanent US military bases in Afghanistan. The Trump administration is in a hurry and wants to arbiter an “intra-Afghan political settlement” with the help of Pakistan. If it doesn’t happen by the mid of this year, Trump might lose his patience and decide to leave Afghanistan as he is doing in Syria – leaving it to Russia, China and other regional countries to play a decisive role. He has already tweeted out wondering why Russia, China, Pakistan and India don’t play a greater role than America.
In these conflicting moves and amidst the diverse machinations of so many players, there are three possible scenarios: first, the US, Pakistan, China and Russia together bring together all Afghan stakeholders for a broad-based government of reconciliation; second, President Trump suddenly withdraws troops from Afghanistan – leaving it at the mercy of yet another bloody civil war; third, the Taliban wait for the US troop withdrawal and take over Kabul with the help of other regional powers not ready to tolerate US permanent military bases in Afghanistan.
Given these scenarios, Pakistan must weigh its options very carefully. After waiting for this moment for so long and at a very exorbitant cost, it must ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t enter another phase of destabilisation as had happened after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1988 and the fall of Dr Najeebullah’s government in 1992. It must play its role in getting the Taliban to join the reconciliation process for a broad-based government that includes all stakeholders and is backed by the international community for a post-war reconstruction of Afghanistan. Bringing the Taliban back into power in Kabul might be tempting for some, but it would be disastrous for Pakistan’s future as a modern democratic state. If we want South Asia and Central Asia to become an economically connected region, then there is no option but a durable settlement of the conflict and the reconstruction of an Afghanistan that preserves its unity and respects Pakistan’s territorial integrity and legitimate national interests.
Most vulnerable in these scenarios is the Afghan government. If it is keen to reconcile with the Taliban and wants Pakistan to play a role in that, it will have to abandon its half-clever tactics of playing Delhi against Islamabad. New Delhi must also forget to use Afghanistan and its soil as a second rear-front against Pakistan. The choices are limited for all the players and they should not play their ambitious designs at the cost of others.
South Asian Success under Ice
By Ashraf Jehangir Qazi
When Narendra Modi was elected prime minister, he invited his counterparts from all the SAARC countries, including Nawaz Sharif from Pakistan, to his inauguration. There was, accordingly, considerable excitement in Pakistan, especially as Modi’s association with the Gujarat killings of 2002 and his alleged Pakistan-baiting led many Pakistanis to respond to his election with apprehension. Nevertheless, there was scepticism as to whether Pakistan could fit into India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
Sure enough, the cautious optimism soon gave way to the usual rancorous blame game and mutually exclusive narratives that have alienated the two countries from each other and frozen their relationship in a state of ‘no war, no peace’. Over the decades, there have been short-lived thaws in the relationship. But the ice between the two countries is so deep that nothing less than ‘climate change’ (figuratively and actually) can have the energy and momentum to melt it enough to open up a new prospect in the relationship. Facing the real possibility of a shared and calamitous fate might concentrate the minds of decision-makers in both countries.
Meanwhile, India’s neighbourhood policy appears to have met with a mixed bag of success and setbacks. Afghanistan and Bangladesh appear to be success stories while Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives have been relatively problematic. Relations with Pakistan remain where they were. The emergence of China in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean has been a complicating factor for India as it has increased the range of options for its smaller neighbours who, by and large, neighbour India without neighbouring each other. However, India’s rapidly developing strategic and security ties with the US have to some extent alleviated India’s China problem.
India’s relations with China are not as frigid, immobile and hostile as they have been with Pakistan. Its annual bilateral trade with China is approaching $100 billion, which is several times that of Pakistan’s trade with China, although the CPEC could bring about a dramatic increase. Moreover, China does not wish to push India, nor does India wish to be pushed completely into the arms of the US, whose strategic priorities keep shifting—often quite arbitrarily.
China has been keen to associate India with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, if India is to be a ‘junior partner’ of any superpower, it would prefer the US to China, especially in view of its own great-power ambitions in the so-called Indo-Pacific region. China, moreover, relies on its cooperation with Pakistan—including CPEC—as well as its developing connectivity-based relations with other SAARC members to counter India’s great power aspirations, or hegemony, in the region.
China’s sponsorship of both BRI and CPEC, however, is motivated by broader strategic considerations, especially the emerging 21st century Great Game or Cold War between the US and its permanent or contingent allies on the one hand, and China and Russia and their contingent or permanent allies on the other.
China-India ties are not immobile— bilateral trade is $100 billion. And India doesn’t want to be pushed into the arms of the US either.
In view of this, India’s neighbourhood policy is a work-in-progress. It’s a complicated, uncertain and unpredictable process made dangerous by the ever present prospect of conflict which can escalate disastrously. The state of India-Pakistan relations, the end-game in Afghanistan, and the success or failure in developing regional cooperation to combat the existential challenges of climate change will determine whether South Asia collapses in chaos or becomes a 21st century success story. While opportunistic posturing and rhetoric will always inform election campaigns, Prime Minister Modi and his political rivals might usefully keep these considerations in mind, especially in view of India’s responsibilities as the major power in South Asia and a possible global power in the future.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is finding his feet as a national leader. But he has made clear he wants a new relationship with India and Afghanistan, as well as an improved relationship with the US, because he requires a more stable and friendlier neighbourhood and international environment in which to build a transformed Pakistan—Naya Pakistan. There is, of course, the widespread impression that Imran Khan is beholden to and constrained by the Pakistan military/intelligence establishment which is seen in India to be hostile to any breakthrough in relations in the absence of a Kashmir settlement.
The prime minister and the army chief in Pakistan actually do not insist on such strong linkage, although in keeping with Pakistan’s position they do see the stalemate over Kashmir as well as the human rights situation there as stumbling blocks to a normalisation of relations with India. There is also the widely held view in Pakistan that India is not interested in an improvement in relations with Pakistan and seeks only to isolate and weaken it. India, of course, insists that “dialogue and terrorism cannot proceed together” and sees elected heads of government in Pakistan as more or less unable to bring about any lasting improvement in the prevailing situation because civil-military relations are not governed by civilian supremacy.
One result of this impasse is the zero-sum game India and Pakistan play with each other in Afghanistan. This constitutes a major impediment in the way of progress towards political compromise and reconciliation, the withdrawal of foreign troops, and peaceful reconstruction and rehabilitation in Afghanistan after 40 years of devastation. An improved India-Pakistan relationship could significantly contribute to bringing peace to a traumatised people. It could do the same for the people of Jammu and Kashmir if some of the interim understandings reached in previous back-channel conversations can be taken up.
Can the Kartarpur initiative initiate something in this regard? The general view is that this cannot happen till after the general elections in India in May 2019. The more ‘expert’ view is that while it is welcome, the Kartarpur initiative itself cannot generate sufficient momentum and energy to melt the ice. What is required is a willingness of opinion- and decision-makers in both countries to situate India-Pakistan relations in a broader and more urgent context. If this happens, the Indian election campaign need not be a credible reason to delay taking a range of confidence and security building measures, including policy statements by the leadership in both countries that do not exclude the respective concerns of each other.
The World Bank has reckoned that India-Pakistan trade could quickly reach around $40 billion a year. Imagine the knock-on effects of such a development. Given the seminal changes taking place around the globe and the changing priorities and interests of a younger generation of Indians and Pakistanis, what has hitherto proved to be impossible need not remain so.