Monthly Archives: November 2014

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.


Inspector Ghote Awaits His Movie Moment

Here’s my article which appeared in IBNLive a while ago. Inspector Ghote is such a wonderful creation. No reason we can’t have a movie or series on him here in India:

Byomkesh Bakshi, the well-known Satyanweshi, will shortly be seen on the big screen in two new movies. It was about time Bakshi, who featured in the popular TV series of the 90s, was made into movies, and we hope a series is in the offing. Meanwhile, another iconic detective is yet to get the limelight he deserves: Inspector Ghote, whose stories are just as remarkable as their author.

H R F Keating, the British author who created Inspector Ganesh Ghote of Bombay Police in the 1960s, had never visited India till then. From The Perfect Murder (1964) to Bats Fly Up for Inspector Ghote (1974), Keating wrote nine novels featuring his detective before the author visited India for the first time. Keating was to write 16 more novels, including a short story collection, till 2009.

But Keating’s stories do not lack much just because he hadn’t seen India at first hand. Ganesh Ghote is a mild-mannered detective, but very dogged while on a case. Even more than the corrupt ministers, businessmen, local gangsters and other bad guys that populate Ghote’s world, he has to deal with the biggest villain of them all, India’s bureaucracy. Ghote is frequently saddled with cases, matters and paperwork that sidetrack him from his main job. On other occasions he has to spend more time massaging official egos and ruffled feathers than chasing bad guys.

Through him, his wife Protima and son Ved, the reader sees slices of Indian life captured as few other novelists, Indian or not, have ever managed. The complexities of urban life in Bombay and Calcutta are presented in all their colour and peril.

Keating also has an inimitable eye for two essential – but rare – elements in Indian English fiction. The first is his ear for diction, for accents and constructions, for the peculiar nuances of Indian spoken English. Here’s a seth, confident in his wealth and contempt for his underlings, expansive in his words, flowing in his sentences. There’s a lower-ranked police constable, patient and tolerant but neither naïve nor completely cynical in the crowded Mumbai streets.

Here’s an upper class Indian woman of the 60s and 70s, trying to straddle the gulf between westernised urban life and what passes for Indian values in a rich man’s home. There’s a poor lower caste woman with barely any possessions, lost in every sense of the word. Keating’s prose makes them as audible as a playwright would have.

Keating’s second stroke of genius is his apparently broad knowledge of popular entertainment tropes in India, both in Indian movies and traditional theatre forms. Spoiler alert: Ghote meets an old lower caste woman on a train while going to a village to investigate a local political boss in a murder case. It is only towards the end that the old woman pops back into the story and declares the upper caste politician is not actually upper caste, but (cue music), her missing son from decades earlier. Keating’s characters are so solidly crafted that they seem to be created less for a western audience and more for us, because only someone very familiar with India would identify with these men and women.

Inspector Ghote has acquired a legion of diehard fans over time. Prominent among them is Alexander McCall Smith, creator of such noted series as The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (set in Botswana and simply delightful); 44 Scotland Street and The Sunday Philosophy Club. Smith is such a Ghoteist that he’s written the introduction to a recent reprint of the entire adventures of the good inspector.

In his Feluda mystery, Kailashey Kelenkari (1974) set in Maharashtra, Satyajit Ray brings in a Sub-Inspector Ghote to the plot. Ray being well acquainted with popular literature of the period, it is likely that this was a homage to the original Ghote, who had been around for a decade by then.

While Ganesh Ghote is one of those characters built to be immortal, his world reflects changes in Indian society. Early stories from the 60s and 70s show corrupt seths, class rivalries, old-time gangsters and so on. As the years pass, the villains become less gentlemanly and more menacing, everyday life becomes more bitter and acrimonious (the corrupt politicians stay the same, though). Through all these changes, Ghote soldiers doggedly on, finding his murderers, thieves and smugglers, and bringing a lot of charm and whimsy into what is, after all, a very grim genre.

Merchant-Ivory did make a movie based on the first Ghote novel, The Perfect Murder, with Naseeruddin Shah as the detective, in 1988. So now that Mumbai filmmakers are rediscovering Indian detective legends, perhaps Inspector Ghote can return to the streets of Mumbai once more. And if someone comes up with a Justice League-like idea of Byomkesh Bakshi, Feluda and Inspector Ghote battling crime together, what a movie it would be.

Imperium Indicum, Or How India Didn’t Rule The World

Here’s my article published by Yahoo Originals on October 8:

A lot has been said against Doordarshan televising Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s Dussehra speech on October 3. The usual critics have questioned this perceived promotion of the Sangh’s ideology. Since every government in the past has permitted its ideologues to use the state-owned channel for broadcasts, there is no reason to oppose it now without being hypocritical. It is the sub-text of his speech, however, that shows how difficult it is for political Hinduism to appropriate Indian history to its ends.

Bhagwat’s speech was mainly a pious rehash of India’s role as guru to a fractured world, that the models followed by the West and the rest were inadequate guides for mankind (as seen, he said, in how the ISIS was created by the venality of the West). This is not a new concept: indeed, the re-moulding of India’s self-image is based on an assumption that Hinduism has the answers to the various crises that face civilizations today. To give him due credit, Bhagwat acknowledged that India has much to learn from the West, but these lessons, predictably, will be along materialistic lines. In cultural, ideological and what passes for spiritual matters, we have, we are told, to only give to other nations.

Now, it is apparent that Bhagwat is more politically astute than the Sangh leadership in the recent past, and he has very little patience for any dabbling in religious matters. We are witnessing a clear iteration of political Hinduism here, an ideology based on re-imagined and revised Indian history.

It is no coincidence that he chose to begin by invoking the spirit of the Chola emperor Rajendra (we assume the First, and not the Third, who presided over the empire’s disintegration). “The Dussehra celebrations this year are special because they mark a thousand years of the reign of Rajendra Chola, who spread Indian culture overseas, particularly in South-east Asia,” he said. Considering that Indian school history textbooks have criminally neglected South Indian history, and empire-builders from the north have been given a larger share of the national consciousness, it is refreshing to hear an eulogic mention of the Cholas.

A part of this, certainly, has to do with the Sangh’s renewed assault on the Tamil regionalist bastion. But it also has to do with political Hinduism’s search for a legitimate international empire.

Appropriation and revision of Indian history is as venerable a Sangh tradition as the Sarsanghchalak’s annual speech. Till recently, it was limited to Hindu figures seen as opponents of Islamic expansion: Shivaji, the Ranas Sangram Singh and Pratap, the Vijaynagar Empire, the Sikhs.

This has lately expanded to more obscure and reimagined ones: Gaidinliu, the 20th century Naga cult leader who the Sangh claims was a Hindu revivalist, and Emperor Hemchandra or Hemu as he is better known, who very briefly ruled from Delhi between the Sur Dynasty and the return of the Mughals in the mid-16th century. Rajendra Chola is now officially part of this second, newer narrative: culture as empire and not just as defensive action in the face of reverses. In short, let’s talk expansion now. The problem here is, historically, cultural influence has not always walked down the aisle with political supremacy, and certainly not Indian culture.

Consider, then, the Cholas. There is much to be learnt from them, because they oversaw India’s only overseas expansion. Between the 9th and the 11th centuries, Chola naval might extended to the Maldives, northern Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Strait of Molucca.

However, this expansion cannot be seen merely through the conventional prism of political control. Most Chola campaigns in South-east Asia involved the capture and control of seaports and harbours, and not of imperial rule further inland. Successful medieval monarchs, regardless of which part of the world you might look at, were more pragmatic than we might give them credit for, and the Cholas were extraordinarily prescient in understanding the nature of the Indian Ocean trade routes, such as the choke-point at Molucca for all China-bound shipping. Controlling the Strait of Molucca, between south-western Malaysia and north-eastern Sumatra was the key to gaining from the sea trade to China.

Bhagwat’s reference to the Cholas was as prologue to what he sees as India’s natural role as guiding light to the world. This conflation of political dominance with cultural influence, impressive as it sounds, is clearly not the case with the Cholas. For Indic civilization had already been internalized in South-East Asia by then.

Here’s an instance: in 1025, the Khmer Empire in today’s Cambodia asked the Cholas for help against the Tambralinga kingdom in Malaysia, and their allies the Srivijaya city-state of today’s Sumatra. These are not merely Indic-sounding names: the Khmers were Shaivites, as were the Cholas, while their enemies were Mahayana Buddhists, although this was an incidental cause to a mainly economic conflict. Southeast Asia had thoroughly internalized Indian culture, language and religious systems for nearly seven hundred years by then. The extent of cultural and diplomatic relationships these kingdoms and empires inherited is impressive by any standard: the Srivijayans had even financed a monastery or two at Nalanda, which was under the Palas.

A lot of India’s overseas influence in these maritime civilizations was because of Tamil seamanship and mercantile influence in the centuries preceding the rise of the Cholas. For their part, Rajendra Chola’s dynasty encouraged the increased sophistication of Tamil merchant guilds like the Ayyavole. One wishes these achievements were mentioned more in our school textbooks.

In short, the Cholas did not market Indian culture to South-East Asia, nor did they bring a form ofpax Indica on the back of their impressive blue-water navies. To conflate political expansion with cultural influence is, for one, to ignore South India’s role in the preceding centuries in spreading Indian culture overseas through non-military means.

Equally important, this re-imagined correlation between “soft” and “hard” power is more applicable to Western colonial interventions or, even more accurately, to Islamic expansion. In the colonial period, naval or land-based supremacy went in conjunction with culture, political systems and commerce. Islamic expansion, meanwhile, was predicated on the nature of the religion itself, where political supremacy was – and is – intimately connected with faith and all the cultural values of peninsular Arabia.

India’s cultural legacy, or what little of it remains in South-east Asia, does not work that way. Nor should it. Chola campaigns had only marginal long-term impact even next door, in Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese Buddhism became a rallying point and a political force afterwards, or in the Maldives, whose Buddhist traditions would soon be subsumed to Islam. It was only in places where Indic culture was most strongly internalized before the Cholas that Hinduism or Buddhism survived against Islam, such as in Thailand or Cambodia, while Srivijayan Buddhist Sumatra is just a trace of memory.

By attempting to connect Indian culture with the subcontinent’s only successful naval expansion project, of course, Bhagwat was trying to add to the discourse emerging today, trying to add a patina of conquest to the traditional received wisdom of Indian cultural superiority. After all, cultural lessons are great as heritage; they must certainly be better if they are seen to be accompanied by real might, real navies, exciting stories of conquest. The reduction of Indian culture’s presence in the region by seven hundred years seems a trivial trade-off.

So, why be concerned about a nifty bit of historical revisionism? Indian ideologues from the Left and the Right do it all the time, after all. But it is of importance. The idea of culture-as-empire is a heady narcotic, particularly today when Indians seek to define their country’s role in terms and analogies borrowed from other systems and structures. It is no coincidence that political Hinduism’s attempt at homogenizing the multiple strands of Indian culture or religious texts into a single acceptable narrative mirrors the limited horizons of Islamic polity. The difference is, Islamic polity has always been constrained by its religious limitations and predatory instincts. Indic cultural traditions have not.

A lot of talk has been expended on India’s soft power today and Bollywood’s dubious increased reach in the West. Leaving apart the few takers for the exotic and the unusual, or the intrepid seekers of a romantic transcendence in mysterious India, the question of this country’s relevance to the rest of the world needs to be answered by meeting the world on mutually understandable terms, through universal languages like commerce, science and literature.

Seeking Indian cultural glory through empire, or re-imagining Indian history through modern notions is, therefore, a contradictory task. On the one hand, ideologues run the risk of politicizing a way of life that has been resolutely apolitical for most of its history. For another, as seen in the Chola example, we might end up ignoring the far deeper roots of India in the neighbourhood, roots that were spread long before empires contested over them.