Category Archives: Politics

Destiny is the mischief child of god!

Guest post by Krishna Mangalam

Sunday, December 6, 1992, at Ayodhya saw an event which launched my career. As a writer.

Only that, a full 25 years later, I have nothing to show as a writer! Not one piece published by any journal. A career launched by a momentous event; one that never really took off the ground, let alone make a mark in people’s mind.

A career that never was.

Rest in peace, thinker! Bury your pen! One that flowed with such flourish, with such wit and verve, over that, and all the later events. A critique of reason. One, which never saw the light of day.

Today, I celebrate the silver jubilee of that event. One that launched a career. One that never took off.

Who will ever say I was a thinker, or, even ever know that I felt and thought deeply — over events that engulfed my people, and my nation.

Who cares for a feckless, forlorn critic, and his critique?

Who cares for an unborn child!

Who cares for the pangs, and the pain, it never felt?

Who knows what joy or despair, what wisdom or folly, it would ever unleash once it came into the world and saw the light of day!

25 years gone, and only a hack!

I was ambitious, but destiny had already carved my role.

“Only a pawn!” it wrote in my lifebook, and I took it lying down.

“OK!” I said. “One day, maybe, you will just change the script!” I said, and smiled and simpered, thinking that destiny would hear.

It did, I am sure; but it did not listen to my soft prayers.

Destiny kept playing footsie, and raised a 100 people all around me, raised them up for all the world to see, and crowned them — “Thinkers, Poets, and Wits !”

I was happy. Happy that my time, too, would come.

Today, I still wait. And smile, and simper!

I no longer write.

I retired my pen and sent it back to its quiver.

You see, I cannot justify the treadmill I put my poor pen through, if there is not even a speck of light to grace on its wet ink.

Who cares for wet ink?

Who gives a thought to inchoate wit and vision, not blessed by the publisher yet!

Now, I am only a hack.

No higher purpose than the cheque at the end of the month.

So, why do I still smile and simper, and bow obsequiously, whenever I think destiny is looking my side of the town?

It is a habit.

Why should I abandon worn and trite habits?

They give me a reason to live.

And, while I live, I smile and simper all the more, whether destiny looks hither or not.

Also, I bow to it, obsequiously, every now and then, for the cheque I get every month end.

Once, I was ambitious. But, never was I an ingrate.

I believe in destiny.

There is little other reason I see in all those men, once fools and men of straw, risen to the ranks of wits, poets, emperors, generals, and statesmen, but for the play of destiny.

I think destiny is the mischief child of god.

A god, who has gone and parked himself in another Universe.

(Krishna Mangalam is a senior journalist with The Times of India)

Ode to Shashi Tharoor

There never was a math as poly

As Shashi Tharoor, gruss Gott and golly:

His mien grave, his accent mysterious

(But cruel voices hiss ‘Another Pistorius!’)

Pay no heed, the calumny is old,

What Shashi touches turns always into gold.

 

A diplomat, writer, now a historian,

His pincered wit is, verily, lobsterian.

Observe him on stage, waving to acolytes,

Fending queries from moss-covered troglodytes;

So far along the curve you can barely keep up

On Shashi’s ideas the Right doth trip up.

 

Master of mots, both bon and juste,

Rivals quail, and fail, and bite the dust.

From Twitter to ‘gram, his triumph is plain,

His typos send us to dictionaries in vain.

Do you have a cause, unchampioned but dear?

He’s the man, parachuting in without fear.

 

A Bill should do it (but the Act will be stuck!)

But brownie points were there to pluck,

And a wedding proposal, also some humour,

But further progress is just a rumour;

Other fields, fallow, untilled beckon

Ideological windmills of number without reckon.

 

The Tharoor’s big foes are Brits — gadzooks!

We’d forgotten those colonial crooks;

Reparations he seeks, and a sorry, to boot,

For Hastings and Wellesley’s orgy of loot.

Their guilt the Brits have repeatedly shown

(‘But Shashi’s forgotten the Peacock Throne!’)

 

The Persians, Burmese, Afghans and Turks

Are aghast: ‘He ignored our genocidal works!’

Or the Japanese, for ’43, ’44, ’45 —

But Tharoor dreams only of ‘mea culpa’ from Clive;

Post-colonial, you see, seeking political renown,

Jewel with a conscience of the Stephenian Crown.

 

We’ve had many PMs, to our great misfortune,

Statesmen and dictators, to realities immune;

To ‘entire pol science’, from a quiet economist

Like doomed puppets in the wind we twist.

Now Tharoor, they say, will take ‘em to the stars;

In which case, goodbye, I’m leaving for Mars.

 

That’s where I’d wanted to end my verse;

But wait, there is something much worse,

In ’02 (Gujarat) I said I would secede

If NaMo to RCR did ever proceed;

It happened, I was stuck in durance vile —

An exit strategy was never my style.

 

So here is an idea, my last play,

And Tharoor can take or toss it away:

Your attempts at academia I’ll still deplore,

But parachute politics I may just ignore,

Get a ‘sorry’ from the Mongols, on a contrite note,

And, Chetta, you may (probably) get my vote.

What’s the problem with squirrels, anyway?

I have the highest regard for all species, barring humans, of course. There are just two other exceptions. I don’t like monkeys because they don’t follow the rules, or know of them but don’t care, which is worse. Predators come at you, and prey run away. Monkeys are not prey, but they not only come at you, they are also not clearly predators, so there is very little you can do except hand over your ice cream and back off. And they hang about in gangs. A traumatic childhood incident comes to mind, but I have talked about it before and mustn’t bore you.

But squirrels, now they are a totally different matter.

They just rush around and look busy, and make you feel guilty for slacking off, even when you aren’t. I don’t understand why they have to act so busy. And when they pass you by, they sometimes stop mid-stride and stare at you like they are some kind of superior beings. I am convinced it is all an act, and they just behave like that to annoy people.

Take parks, for instance. I don’t usually visit them, not in the city where I live, because they are crowded. Once, after several weeks of staying at home, I went out into a park next door. Very beautiful place it was, I remember. I was sitting on a bench when I was ambushed without provocation by a most horrible human infant which had crawled underneath. I don’t know where the fellow came from, or what he had against me, but he bit my ankle. Some of you may remember I had immediately returned home and announced that the Infantocalypse had started and we should head for the hills.

Don’t get taken in. It is up to something

Anyway, the point of this digression, amusing though it may appear to you (it is not to me, or my ankle, because I have been permanently hocked since then) is that parks in my city are hazardous to begin with, so it doesn’t help that there are squirrels running around all the time. They are up to something, I am sure of it. Some kind of infernal conspiracy.

You remember that poem by that fellow we all had to read in school? ‘What is this life, if full of care…’ and so on, that’s how it went. I had found it a ridiculous read back then. It was redundant for me. I was always standing and staring. In fact, people used to think I was slow, which I probably was. Thing is, there is this bit about ‘No time to see, when woods we pass/ Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass’. The reference to nuts would make us boys giggle stupidly, but the bigger point is, the poet clearly doesn’t know what he is talking about. Have you ever seen a squirrel hide anything on the ground? Nope, they hide stuff up in the trees somewhere. Probably giant hoards of stuff. So they are up there, and they watch us all the time, and they act smug.

Back in my college days, I was once sitting in my room at the hall of residence, not attending classes but reading something of great significance. I put down the comic book and looked outside, and there, on the first floor balcony, was a squirrel, staring at me. I immediately went for the (slightly) modified airsoft gun on my desk. Man of action, that’s what I was. I realized the fellow was there to whack the piece of moderately burnt toast I had kept from breakfast.

‘Begone, foul fiend, to the depths of the Abyss from whence you came!’ said I. In my fury I tended to get biblical back then.

‘Begone, you pestilential peanut-procurer! Avast, you areca-acquiring arboreal assassin! You cashew-craving crook! I shall defend my toast to the last breath, preferably yours. And if you say “Nevermore”, I will run away, which I feel too lazy to do,’ I said.

That squirrel just stared at me for a while, and then (I am not making this up) turned a double somersault on the spot and ran away. Why would any decent animal do that? Would you, after staring at someone eating a quiet toast in her home, turn a double somersault just for the heck of it and disappear? What explains this level of d-baggery?

So they are up to something. Some kind of universal plot. We may find out to our peril someday soon. You mark my words. Even now they are running around, passing messages and acting like they know something you don’t.

They haven’t even left mythology alone. So there is this fellow, name of Ratatoskr, from the Norse sagas. Runs up and down the World Tree, carrying news from the serpent Nidhoggr underground to the eagle Vedrfolnir on the top branches. Why does it need to do this? What business is it of this squirrel to be a busybody? Why can’t he leave the eagle and the serpent alone? Doesn’t he have some World Acorns or something to gather?

I understand some of you may have a soft corner for this animal. But remember my warning. They are up to no good. Be on the alert.

How religions work: The Assam example

Critics of Islam write that the religion has been, historically, a vehicle for Arab imperialism, based on two important aspects: the prominence of Mecca and the insistence that the Quran must be studied in Arabic (I do not refer to Islamophobes here, who do not have the patience for even such a partially-nuanced argument). There may be some substance to this, although the rest of Islam, including its history, was created with considerable non-Arab influence.

However, such imperialisms are common to virtually all organized religions. When you have sacred geographies, and scriptural infallibility, you will have belief systems where the believers have to acknowledge the prominence of places and languages not their own. Hinduism is no different.

Suppose you are an old woman in a village in the far eastern part of Assam. All you have known or connected with in your life is your village community and the Brahmaputra, if it is next door. Then one day you die, and if your sons (it’s always sons, isn’t it?) can afford it, they cart your ashes to North India and immerse them in the Ganga, accompanied by hymns in a language you never knew. It is not much different from the Haj, structurally speaking, or rabbis insisting the Judaic Pentateuch can only be understood properly (that is, as Yahweh meant it to be) in Hebrew.

But when such structures cause the progressive disintegration of a society, one needs to be concerned.

Sacred stones in Meghalaya

‘Assamese society’ is a problematic term, and much hair has been split, and considerable blood spilt, because it is problematic. Broadly, it consists of people who speak Assamese as their first language. Over the centuries that this society was formed, it has been composed of Hindu caste elements and tribes. Of these, the Brahmins were said to have been descended from families out of Kanyakubja (modern Kannauj).

I will not go so far as to say that in the past this society was one long happy picnic in a still densely forested part of the world. No society has ever been like that, and in India, people never live with each other as much as near each other, in an ersatz community. But there was a semblance of fellow-feeling and not much overt falling out.

Of course there were religious influences from the rest of the country. This included appropriation of indigenous beliefs, and importing of others. The Kamakhya temple, which the scholar Banikanta Kakati concluded was built on an old sacred ground of the Garo tribal goddess ‘Kamekha’, was then fully integrated into the Puranic canon. Vaishnavism arrived in the Middle Ages, and songs were written about the ‘vrinda’ groves of far North India. This too, was inevitable.

For 600 of those years, from 1228 to 1826, and particularly for the last 250 years of this, Assamese society was under the political rule of the Ahoms, of Tai Shan extraction from northeastern Myanmar. They too were eventually Hinduised.

After the British came, however, the resulting Assamese middle class charted a course that I am deeply uncomfortable with. Finding themselves, for the first time in the history of the land, to be politically connected with the rest of India, they dug up the old gotras, the genealogies of their upper caste forebears. They looked west, seeking social legitimacy with the other middle classes of India, themselves composed of the upper castes. And in this process, there was a subterranean fracturing of Assamese society. Caste Assamese began to see themselves as different, as more connected to the great history of Indian (read Hindu) civilization than to their neighbours, the tribes.

Hindu beliefs and practices, rooted as they are in notions of ritual and genealogical purity, make it extremely difficult for truly multicultural, multiethnic social formations to emerge. Adherence to the caste system, or even the pale facsimile of it found in Assam, made it easy for caste Hindus in the 19th century to express disdain for ‘the tribal’, for ‘the hillman’, for the ‘Anarya’. These attitudes were gradually and easily internalized, until the fractures became profound.

And so the Nagas, with who Assamese society, particularly in East Assam, had such intimate connections, were estranged. So were the Garos and Khasis with West Assamese society. But that was just prologue. By the late 20th century, the Bodos asserted their difference, their separateness from Assamese society. A decade later, Misings, Tiwas and Rabhas, who speak Assamese at home, who celebrate Bihu (if a song and a dance can be the ultimate cultural identifier, which it can, in some cases), have periodically expressed intentions of going their separate way. Even the Ahoms, who gave so much to the land and its history, who created its true Golden Age, feel slighted enough to want their own space. This is unprecedented even by Indian standards.

How did Assamese society come to this? At the dawn of British rule, the emerging Assamese middle class had a choice. They could be true to their local heritage, or they could behave true to form and be what Hindu caste-based societies have mostly been: fractious, exclusivist, revisionist social formations that ignore existing realities for a mythic heritage.

Something similar happened in Manipur, although the Meiteis successfully held on to both Krishna and their local god, Pakhangba. But the Hinduisation of Manipur pushed away the tribes around them, a process worsened by the rise of the Meitei middle class during British rule. And therefore, lurking in the back of both the Meitei and Assamese mind has been the question — am I Hindu enough? And if I want to be more Hindu, what needs to be done?

So do not be surprised if the Hindu right makes even more inroads into Assamese society, and these fractures deepen. The process started a long time ago, and was waiting to happen in its current iteration. Because the imperialism inherent in Hindutva is also the imperialism inherent in similar organized religions and religion-based structures.

What the newsroom taught me: Part II — Intellectual commensalism

Ladies and gentlemen, our next exhibit in the newsroom menagerie is the Echeneidae, a family of fish better known as the remora. An interesting fish it is, and I warmly recommend you to study it in some detail. The remora comes with suckers atop its head, by which it latches on to bigger organisms and derives sustenance from them. This sort of relationship is called commensalism in zoology. The larger organism derives neither benefit nor harm from the remora.

The average newsroom tends to have a large number of people with artistic, academic or intellectual inclinations. Several have genuine academic heft, and produce, sometimes in arcane fields, admirable scholarly works. Others write non-fiction, some very well-researched, either on current events or on subjects that bridge the newsroom-academia divide. Both types, as I have seen from personal experience, try their best to reconcile the everyday demands of the newsroom with their respective interests and pursuits. I am very fond of them, but they are rare, and tend to vanish from the newsroom quickly and go somewhere else.

The remora in the newsroom does not belong to these two categories. You will find him usually towards the top of the pecking order. Unlike the snark, you can’t ‘threaten his life with a railway-share’, because he has done well, financially, thank you very much. The remora considers himself an intellectual by virtue of having done well in the newsroom. It is a matter of ticking boxes for him. Top of the pecking order — check. Therefore, scholarship — check. Therefore, books — check.

The remora, you see, makes the error of equating an interest in words with an ability to write books, or even tell stories. The error of equating professional success with artistic merit, or proof of latent creative ability. A harmless inference, you may say. Print journalism is mainly toRemora do with words, after all. But there is a considerable difference in the contexts in which words are used. We know so many who are very well-read and have a remarkable vocabulary. Their minds are inclined towards the nature and combinations of letters and words. You can’t beat them at Scrabble any day of the week. But they may not be very good writers.

Yet others may have a considerable amount of independently-derived ideas, or gleanings from several afternoons with Messieurs Camus and Foucault. But they might not be good storytellers. These are disciplines which require different kinds of skill-sets and temperaments. An accountant and an applied mathematician both deal in numbers, but we can’t confuse one for the other. Nor can every competent graphic designer be an abstract artist.

The remora, however, does not make this connection, perhaps because it has not occurred to him, which in turn indicates a somewhat defective capacity for reasoning. Or perhaps the argument I mentioned above is incorrect, and the remora is right in believing he has merit. So he writes his book, and this is where the commensalism bit comes in. With the accumulated power of the newsroom, he can now get the book published, because people know him well. Successful man, must be creative too. He thus channelizes the power of the organization, and his place in the pecking order, to tick another box. This is classic commensalism.

Let us consider a hypothetical scenario. Suppose I write a small book of my own, perhaps a humble novel. Very kicked about it, I then hawk the MS around town, perhaps standing in line at a publisher or two, perhaps hoping somebody would find some merit in the work, and give me a chance. Scores of people live in hope this way. Some get a chance, others, perhaps not. But the remora, he goes straight to the top, and his book comes out. Once again commensalism kicks in, and there is no end of gushing admirers to vindicate his view about the merit of the book. Perhaps the book does have merit. But the playing field, for the people lined up outside the publisher’s, is not equal. So here we have commensalism and class working very well together.

Now, armed with the book, and the vindication, the remora is in a comfortable place indeed, to sit in judgment of others, perhaps even in the newsroom. Now his vindication of others’ tastes or ideas matters. It has always mattered, within the newsroom, but now he has the book to back him up. Now it becomes necessary to seek his intellectual approval, and perhaps engage in intellectual discussions with him. And thus the newsroom carries on.

‘Remora’ in Latin means ‘delay’, because the fish is supposed to act as a hindrance to large vessels. In the world outside the newsroom, the remora is mainly used by fishermen to lure tortoises. So I suppose that is what the remora is, in the larger scheme of things.

Bait.

And by observing him, one learns a lot about the world and the ways of humans.

The ‘I am a Hindu, but…’ argument is flawed

We live in a time when religion is increasingly being debated in the public sphere. Till some years ago, it was hoped by many (I among them) that discussions on faith would be largely relegated to the purely academic sphere, where I for one was perfectly willing to participate. That this has not, and that the discourse on faith in the public sphere would actually become more political in tone, should have occurred to us. Why this has happened, globally, is an interesting question, and will be dealt with separately.

But it has happened, across religions. Faith-based political ideologies now occupy a considerable part of the general discourse. Proponents run the usual gamut, from true believers to the mean of spirit which faith-based systems seem to attract in all historical periods, because there is a good deal of exclusivism attached. The joys of belonging to a select club, let’s say.

It is the opponents of such ideologies that I want to talk about here, specifically a certain type of opponent that I have been wary of, for a while. In India, this is the kind that feels the necessity to preface a critique of Hindutva and its adherents with: ‘I am a Hindu, but…’

Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, syntactically this phrase is problematic for Hinduism, because we will first need to define what Hinduism is, and my blog will become a multi-volume book which will end with me admitting the answer could be anything at all. Doctrinally, being a Hindu could mean any of a wide number of sometimes contradictory positions. Legally, the Supreme Court has very kindly laid down about half-a-dozen qualifiers. We are on no firmer ground in terms of practice, considering the diversity of the practiced faith. Of course, a Hindutva proponent would have a one-line definition of what being a Hindu means, and this is one of the principal flaws with that ideology: the intellectual dishonesty of the simplistic.

Let us just say that when someone writes ‘I am a Hindu, but…’, two possible thoughts are occurring simultaneously to the person. First, being a Hindu is whatever the person thinks it is. In other words, she might be talking about a specific practice, such as not eating cow meat (itself a common practice for others self-identifying, or being identified by the upper castes, as Hindus). Or, she might be referring to being a Hindu from the point of view of refuting a specific argument made by Hindutva proponents. Such as, Hindutva proponents say a good Hindu, or the true kind of Hindu, does not eat beef. The critic might be saying, ‘I am a Hindu in every way, but I eat beef.’ In this case, the prefacing phrase is being used to argue against a specific definition in Hindutva.

My main discomfort with the phrase is that it is not, essentially, an intellectual argument. That is, it seeks greater legitimacy for whatever argument the anti-Hindutva critic might be making by pointing out that she, too, is Hindu. This leads to the corollary: that an argument against Hindutva is more legitimate, or should be seen as such, if it is made by a Hindu.

This leads us to the compulsion of agreeing that only those arguments made by people within a faith are truly legitimate. That is, ‘I am a Muslim or Christian, and here are the problems I have against Hindutva’ becomes a less significant critique. This in turn runs the risk of compartmentalising the discourse into faith-based positions.

One may say my objection to the phrase is common sense, but if one takes a look around, one finds a large number of people arguing from this essentially emotional ground. As I was informed recently, a certain senior journalist, who is known not to be a practicing Hindu, has made it a point to preface his remarks on Hindutva by clarifying that he is, actually, a regular temple-goer. His internal reasoning might be that this somehow increases the legitimacy of his voice.

A critique of Hindutva should actually be done on purely intellectual grounds. As a former Hindu, I have as much legitimacy in the arguments I make against Hindutva provided my arguments are based on facts, on doctrine, on practices, on the scientific method of understanding history, in this case political history. My critique of Hindutva should be based on an understanding of what their ideologues say, in addition to a proper understanding of both Hindu doctrine and practice. This takes time, and some degree of reading, and a great degree of interaction with believers, but in the end, for any discourse about faith, it is the only intellectually honest one.

To qualify any discourse on faith by seeking legitimacy as a believer is a fatal weakness, and does not stand up to unbiased scrutiny.

What the newsroom taught me: Part I — Class

This month, I celebrated (observed, really) 25 years of writing for newspapers, of which 14 years have been spent full-time in the newsroom. I have had the privilege of being in the field and handling some beats where, at least back then, some meaningful reportage could be done. I have also been fortunate to work with some wonderful editors (therefore the meaningful reportage).

In these years, I have seen the nature, the essence, of the newsroom change. I cannot speak for other countries, but journalism in India is no longer a profession I am comfortable advising young people to join. In these years, too, I have seen systemic faults become more entrenched, more insidious. It is possible these faults exist in other industries too. In journalism, however, they have had a direct impact on the quality of professionals I see around me today.

A former colleague recently informed me that, on being interviewed by HR for a newspaper, she was asked questions about her family. Specifically, what her parents and siblings did. The colleague told me she was assigned points based on her answers. Most big media houses have these algorithms in place to rate the employability of a ‘prospect’. The emergence of these algorithms, incidentally, has paralleled a very suspicious reluctance by senior editors to read resumes thoroughly. Taken together, this means what your family is may actually help you get a job more effectively than your resume.

I have always believed in not talking about my family or background with colleagues or the public. (One may say I make up for this by talking only about my family with my friends, for which, my long overdue apology). I have believed, and was told by my editors at the beginning of my career, about the importance of individual reputation.

Now, picture this. What if I applied to a newspaper or magazine, with my resume (unread) and the HR person, with senior editors present, asks me about personal details. What if my answers were: “My father is a farmer from Chhattisgarh, my mother was a housewife, now deceased, my sister is married to a railway clerk in Kanker (do you know where it is?). I am a Dalit, and it takes generations of high achievers in a family for Dalits to reach a position of equivalent privilege as the upper castes in urban India, so there isn’t anyone from my family in a good job in a big city. I have always topped, and studied on scholarship money. I love words, and I can tell stories. That is me.” The algorithm, you see, will not have much space for me.

Add that to the fact that print publications, and the new media, do not pay much to freshers. So you have to be willing to starve on big-city expense rates till such time as you master newsroom politics, by when you will have forgotten such things as ‘love for words’ and ‘telling stories’ and will be using words like ‘synergy’ and ‘optimisation’. Or you will break and quit. The people who can survive the algorithm and the low wages, obviously, are those for who beginners’ salaries are “pocket money”, as several young people have told me lately.

Therefore what we are left with are generations of people on starvation rations (and thus on the make) or people coming from privilege. There is, inherently, no crime in coming from privilege, if you can walk out of it. Without that freedom, you can’t chronicle the world.

Repeatedly, at every turn, class rears its head in the newsroom. There are phrases such as ‘people like us’, an oxymoron, because there are, actually, no people like us because there is no ‘us’. Ironically, the people ‘not like us’ are those who still read print publications. But not in English, perhaps, so they do not exist.

In the newsroom, presence is important. So guess who has an immediate and identifiable presence regardless of level of seniority — the hypothetical girl from Chhattisgarh with the weird accent but sterling resume (unread), or the girl whose daddy everyone remembers talking to, or who went to your college, or that senior editor’s school?

The class problem is quite apart from the usual nepotism that besets every Indian industry, and there is no need for me to speak about it here, it being axiomatic. Meanwhile, each succeeding generation in the newsroom is increasingly populated by people coming from enormous privilege, either from the national or regional elites. They are systematically groomed and encouraged into positions of authority, and given identifiable voices, and active mentoring.

A very senior journalist once told me about how new entrants are assigned responsibilities. “If someone is good at grammar and such, we assign her to the desk. If someone can write well, we make her a features writer. Those who can run around, we make reporters.” This is the exact quote. So if you take a look around, most reporters will be of two kinds. The small-town ‘dispensable’ willing to run around at low wages, or the big-city upper class youngster, probably related to a senior journalist or bureaucrat, whose connections open doors, at least at the beginning. And for some beats, it is very difficult for young reporters to open doors unless they are well-greased by power equations.

In the newsroom, class has always existed. It is just that now, it has become overtly malignant.

‘Shwaya, shwaya’: Gabriel Allon, Toynbee and Islam

As I have mentioned earlier, there have been very few espionage novels after the Cold War that can match the narrative scale or philosophical depth of what came before them. A promising exception could be Daniel Silva, who has been writing for a while. His creation, the art restorer and Mossad assassin Gabriel Allon, debuted in 2000 with ‘The Kill Artist’. A product of Israel’s 1970s Munich reprisals, Allon and the world he inhabits has evolved perceptibly in scale. In the past few years, the series has directly referred to events in the Middle-East and Europe.

In ‘The Black Widow’ (2016), a terror attack in Paris causes Allon, reluctantly in line to head the Mossad, to launch an operation. He recruits Natalie Mizrahi, a doctor born to French Jewish emigres, to masquerade as a French Muslim, Leila Hadawi, and get recruited by the Islamic State. Silva does what we have fruitlessly expected authors to do for a while, and takes the story to Raqqa, Syria, with a notable stopover at Molenbeek in Belgium, familiar to us after the attacks of 2015.

Silva falters occasionally, such as with the nom de guerre of the terror mastermind, a certain ‘Saladin’. I suppose I could write a separate post on the Silva the black widowfamiliarity of the 12th century Ayyubid general to the European consciousness. Saladin recurs as a name for Middle-Eastern characters in thrillers, notably in Stephen Hunter’s ‘The Second Saladin’ (1982). In ‘The Black Widow’, however, it strikes a false note. It is unlikely that a senior Islamic State functionary, trusted by ‘the Leader’ to boot, would go to war with the West under the name of a medieval Kurd.

Much before the scene shifts to Syria, however, while talking about the need for Israeli intervention in that country, Allon asks Natalie if she is familiar with Arnold Toynbee’s theory about history’s two pivot points — the Central Asian Oxus-Jaxartes basin, and the Syria-Palestine axis. Silva’s unsaid inference, to which I agree, is the IS, and now the post-IS Middle-East require intervention by world powers and neighbours. The degree of intervention needs, of course, to be individually determined. For Allon it is a single directed anti-terror op.

Apart from the welcome attempt at a theoretical underpinning to contemporary espionage, Silva’s choice of Toynbee, and quoted by a Mossad man, is interesting. In his multi-volume ‘A Study of History’, Toynbee examines 19 ‘major’ civilisations (incidentally, dividing Indian civilisations into ‘Indic’ and ‘Hindu’), four ‘abortive’ and an equal number of ‘arrested’ civilisations. But he also refers to ‘fossil’ societies, born of religious discrimination, classifying Judaic culture as one of them, a part of the abortive Syriac civilization. Considering the re-appraisal of Syriac culture in the intervening decades, there might be some substance to this, but in the 1950s Toynbee was suspected of anti-semitism over this classification, and it remains problematic.

But Toynbee also examined the nature of Islamic society’s reaction to the West in his time, from the late 19th century to the 1930s. In his essay, ‘Islam, the West and the Future’, published in ‘Civilisation on Trial’ (1948), he writes:

“Whenever one civilized society finds itself in this dangerous situation vis-a-vis another, there are two alternative ways open to it of responding to the challenge; and we can see obvious examples of both these types of response in the reaction of Islam to Western pressure today.”

Drawing a parallel between Jewish reaction to Roman imperialism and Islamic response to the West, Toynbee continues: “The ‘Zealot’ is the man who takes refuge from the unknown in the familiar; and when he joins battle with a stranger who practises superior tactics and employs formidable newfangled weapons, and finds himself getting the worst of the encounter, he responds by practising his own traditional art of war with abnormally scrupulous exactitude.”

The Jewish (not to mention Samaritan) response to Rome has been extensively documented, and its connection to the rise of Islam is being researched as we speak. A large part of the Western understanding of Islamic fundamentalism also revolves around the reaction theory. This, in my view, is a trifle simplistic, because it does not take into account the nature of a culture which reacts in just such a manner to the Other, and not in a different way. That is, why are some cultures more, shall we say, designed to take the zealotry option? How did Japanese society, to cite an example, accommodate its still-thriving xenophobia and ultra-nationalism with capitalism and Western dominance? These questions apart, Toynbee’s theories, a lot of which have still not been completely discarded, are a useful entrepot to understanding Islamic societies’ response to the West.

That an espionage fiction writer has made the effort to include this politico-historiographical tidbit is commendable. I expect Silva to theorise further on contemporary politics in forthcoming Allon books, of which the sequel to ‘The Black Widow’, titled ‘House of Spies’ was released this year.

Mughals in miniature: The perils of medieval reinforcements for contemporary debates

(Medieval Indian history is not my area of specialization. The only connection Mughal history has to anything I have researched in is the very tenuous Mongol heritage. What follows is not me speaking as a historian, but mainly as a political commentator)

The Mughals are back in the news, after the earlier fracas about Maharana Pratap versus Akbar. While the Right tries to erase the Mughals from history, Left-liberals have sprung to the defence of Babur’s line. I’m happy to see Audrey Truschke’s book on Aurangzeb being mentioned. A re-appraisal of Aurangzeb, and a demolition of some dearly-held myths, was long overdue, and I hope those on the Right do us the courtesy of reading it.

I am not a big admirer of the Mughals, or the way the early Mughals viewed themselves: as inheritors of Chinggis, an unfounded claim. This is not personal. The Assam campaigns of the 17th century, between us, have also been conveniently re-interpreted by the Right as a defensive war by Hindus against Muslim invaders. That the general of the Mughal land army was the Rajput Ram Singh is ignored. That the admiral (who met with a sticky end) was Munawwar Khan, quite possibly an Afghan, is doubly ignored. That among the indigenous armies who fought them were animist Nagas, too, is ignored.

Because not ignoring them would compel one to take into account the complexities of politics in the Middle Ages. The idea that the Mughals’ wars of expansion were not religious conflicts does not go too well with the Right’s version of history. It ignores the Hindus who worked very well with the Mughals. It ignores the subaltern allies of the Mughals’ opponents too, like the Bhils who supplied such excellent weapons to Maharana Pratap. We are all familiar with the dearly-held generalisations not based on actual evidence.

Mughal contribution to Indian society was immense, beginning with the administrative structure. This too, has been mentioned elsewhere. However, I am uncomfortable with the way in which the current debate is shaping up, where, to defend the Mughals from unfounded charges from the Right, we might be building them up into something they are not. Whitewashing is something both sides of the divide have been guilty of, and this time appears no different.

To begin with, Babur never intended to set himself up here, and Samarkand never lost its emotional primacy for him. Second, the true period of Mughal dominance, I believe, needs revision. The Mughal era truly begins with Akbar, and ends with the death of Aurangzeb, a total of 151 years. Of the four Great Mughals within this period, Jahangir benefited greatly from the momentum of Akbar’s reign. If he had been in a situation like Humayun, Jahangir’s career would have doubtless been different. So the contributions of Akbar, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb were what make the dynasty significant. Again, Mughal collapse after Aurangzeb was due to economic and administrative over-reach, not some great religious reprisal, which has been covered very well by late medieval specialists.

Now, if you leave apart the great architecture (a lot of which owes its influence to Central Asian forms), and paintings (derived from existing folk traditions), it is the Mughal administrative machinery that recommends this period for any student of history. This system was not created out of whole cloth by Akbar, but gradually evolved, borrowing a lot from their contemporary Iranians, and incorporating existing systems of the Turks and Afghans. So if one recommends that Mughal history be studied by school children, and it should be, these connections must also be adequately explained. No empire creates systems and structures in isolation. So while trying to defend Akbar from the Right, we are in danger of turning him and his descendants into some kind of medieval superheroes. This, too, is just as unfair as the claims of the Right.

The Mughals carved a place for themselves with technological supremacy. They were fortunate to have someone like Akbar, who realized that the only way to run a large empire in the subcontinent was to be inclusive. They lost their way because such lessons can’t be inherited, they can only be understood and internalized at an individual level.

But, overall, the Mughals were just like any other medieval dynasty, and must be studied as they were. We can’t afford to bring them in as reinforcements for a contemporary political debate. What we should be defending today are democracy (based on ideology, not birth-based majorities), freedom of speech, gender and caste equality, secularism (that is, the excising of religion from the public sphere), freedom of economic mobility, scientific temper, primacy of law and an equivalent freedom to change laws to reflect changing societies. None of these were started by the Mughals, and have nothing to do with medieval societies. We must, repeatedly, mention this. This country as it exists owes itself to a different intellectual and humanist tradition.

The Mughals must not be removed from school or college textbooks. Neither should the small nations that fought them. Nor should the Lodhis, Tughlaqs or Sayyids. Personally speaking, I would be delighted if the books also mentioned the Bhils, or, introduced, to north Indian children, the Cholas. Any move by the Right to ‘sanitise’ history must be opposed. But let us not make the Mughals into something admirable. They were absolute monarchs ruling a bountiful land, and successful at it. But they passed. I am glad they did. The society we are trying to defend, a far better one, needs other kinds of reinforcements.

Afghanistan: India Needs to Engage for the Long Term

And here’s a piece about India’s Afghan policy after the US withdraws. The mistakes of the past need not be repeated, but one suspects they will be:

The May 23 terror attack on the Indian consulate at Herat in western Afghanistan underlines one matter above all: time is running out for India to decide whether it will step up its engagement with the troubled country, and to what extent.

As mentioned in our article, the new government in Delhi will have to tackle the Afghanistan-Pakistan matter whether it wants to or not, and today’s attack will just make the clock tick faster. The Pakistan Prime Minister is also faced with a dilemma regarding the invitation to Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. If he accepts, it will be, at least for public consumption, a rebuke to the hawks of Pakistan’s military and the ISI. The Herat attack is thus a message to India by the Pakistan establishment not to forget who pulls the Taliban’s strings in that country.

India is not a part of the US-led ISAF which has been trying to normalise Afghanistan since 2002, but Indian interests have been attacked consistently over the years. In 2008, the Indian Embassy in Kabul was car bombed, with 58 deaths including an Indian defense attaché, supposed to be a primary target for insurgents. In 2009, the embassy was bombed again, and 17 people died. The group behind it, the Haqqani Network, is seen as particularly close to the ISI. A year later, Indian civilians were targeted in guesthouses, and nearly a dozen were killed. This time the perpetrators, according to Afghan intelligence, were from the LeT.

 

The question is: should the Indian government step up its intervention in Afghanistan? There are several reasons to support this.

Ever since the days of the anti-Soviet insurgency, India’s Afghan policy has been diffident at best and ambivalent at worst. The Afghan national consciousness never forgot that India’s engagement, which was at a high in the 1970s, petered off when long-time friend USSR invaded Afghanistan. After the end of the Cold War, India was presented an opportunity to both make amends with the Afghans and pursue an afghanistan-2014-300x200unprecedented opportunity: make a diplomatic breakout in the newly independent republics of Central Asia.

This was frittered away as Pakistan backed the Taliban to the hilt, and barring a few weapon and medicine shipments, and some intelligence inputs to Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir, India did not make a decisive intervention as the country tore itself to pieces. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex was virtually running the Talib-overrun parts of Afghanistan.

After 9/11, the American response showed where India had erred: NATO provided massive logistics support to the Tajiks (although Massoud had been assassinated just two days before 9/11) and the Taliban was routed. In theory, that is. What was to be a new beginning has since been bogged down by dogged insurgency.

As things stand today, it is not just a crucial period for India, with a new regime about to assume power, but also for Afghanistan. The ISAF is winding up, but the future looks spectacularly gloomy. In a 2012 Pentagon report on the future of Afghanistan, the process of transition to a stable government in Kabul expressed the hope that the Karzai regime could manage more or less on its own by the end of 2014.

However, the twin threats of low-level Taliban inroads into the vast Afghan hinterland, and poppy cultivation by locals, have never been successfully tackled in the two years since. With a practically non-existent economy and rural infrastructure, impoverished Afghans have been taking to poppy cultivation in greater numbers, filling warlords’ and Taliban coffers with drug money. In the 2012 report, only a handful of provinces were listed as on their way to ‘transitioning’ – Pentagonspeak for transfer of administration to a fully Afghan authority.

The Pentagon report of the year following, 2013, is not for the queasy. The regions in transition are still limited to central Afghanistan. Herat, where the latest attack took place, is partly in transition and mostly dominated by insurgents. The Taliban continues to make inroads and the Afghan government is, to use a term common in similar circumstances, beleaguered.

As things stand, the West can’t increase its military and economic engagement there, and an annexure to the 2012 report adds that at current rates of expenditure, the Afghan government will be spending one and half times its total annual income on defense alone for the next decade. There will be no space for any constructive efforts by the Afghans on their own, even if they have the political will to seek this.

In these circumstances, Pakistan will try to regain its lost hold on the country, through its numerous proxies. The two Pentagon reports are very clear that these proxies – The Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin – will continue to scale up their attacks on interests opposed to themselves and Pakistan. India is, naturally, on top of the list.

The new regime in Delhi will therefore have to either abandon Afghanistan entirely after this year, or increase its presence. Mere economic support will not be enough: businesses, construction workers, humanitarian aid groups are all convenient soft targets without a security apparatus to back this up. As a beginning, India needs to rope in the ethnic minorities of Afghanistan, beginning with the Tajiks and Uzbeks. This has cross-border ramifications.

Tajikistan has been friendly towards India, and the Uzbeks wouldn’t mind a helping hand since they have come under pressure of Islamist groups beginning with the Taliban’s attempt at exporting Chechen fighters to their south in the late 90s.

It is therefore apparent that India needs to commit to Afghanistan for the long term. This will have the twin effect of limiting Pakistan’s machinations, and also making a diplomatic breakout into Central Asia. India has for long harboured ambitions of expanding into that region, which would be a crucial countermove to China’s maneouvres in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, India has never pursued this idea beyond a vague level.

The present is as good a time as any to make friends in the region and assure all the players, friends and enemies alike, that we are there to stay. Unlike the West, this will not cause a kneejerk nationalist response in Central Asian Islamic society. The Iranians have been friendly as well, and have no reason to be close to Pakistan, who they view as a Saudi client.

As at every other period in the region’s history, this is a time for frantic diplomacy and economic investment, backed by security doctrines which will factor a future Afghanistan left to its own devices by the West. The last time this happened, the Taliban filled the vacuum and Pakistan scored. It is about time for a re-match.