Category Archives: Politics

‘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.