Friday, August 29, 2014
Monday, August 25, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
In the coming weeks, both civilian and military policy-makers in Islamabad are certain to mull over one of the most astonishing by-products of its latest spat with New Delhi: the legitimisation of Pakistan’s involvement in the internal affairs of Jammu and Kashmir by a section of India’s public intellectuals.
Whether this extraordinary development points to Pakistan’s success in nurturing Track-2 dialogues or is symptomatic of deeper schisms within India are issues that will be dissected by an otherwise beleaguered Establishment across the Radcliffe Line. Pending a considered assessment, the editorial pages of Indian newspapers will, however, produce many smiling faces in Pakistan.
The outpourings of rage against the Narendra Modi government’s supposed ‘over-reaction’ to the High Commissioner’s meetings with separatist leaders may even convince Pakistani strategists of the need to persevere with the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir. The coming months will definitely witness a concerted Pakistani bid—backed by international do-gooders—to roll back the new red lines drawn by India, perhaps with the use of some explosive pressure points.
In Pakistan, there will even be an understandable temptation to interpret the criticism of the Modi government’s unilateral withdrawal from the Foreign Secretary-level talks as evidence of a weakening of India’s resolve to withstand the war of a “thousand cuts”. That would amount to a grave misreading of India’s internal dynamics.
For a start, it is important to recognise that the decision to withdraw from the dialogue in Islamabad was widely supported within India. The opposition parties had initially taunted the Prime Minister for not acting on his promise to not tolerate any Pakistani transgression. However, once Modi lived up to his image as a no-nonsense leader, the opposition guns fell strangely silent. Indeed, there was the bizarre spectacle of Congress leaders reacting to the event in different voices—one lot participating in the hand wringing and another lot demanding the expulsion of the Pakistan High Commissioner.
The desire to test Modi’s reaction was not confined to the opposition in India. There are indications that the Pakistani Establishment too was anxious to see how far it could push the envelope. It clearly never imagined Modi would react the way he did. There was awareness that Modi was different from Manmohan Singh. But how different? Most important, Pakistan needed to know whether Modi’s neighbourhood thrust would also translate into a variant of I.K. Gujral’s asymmetry doctrine. It’s now apparent it won’t.
Any understanding of a foreign country involves more than poring over press clippings. Presumably, those involved in monitoring India in Pakistan, even if it is for subversive ends, delve deeper. However, the influence of the media, particularly international media, in shaping perceptions can’t be discounted. On this count, the India desks in Islamabad may have been guilty of accepting the rash judgments of Delhi’s foreign media at face value.
The foreign media has traditionally based its assessments of India on received wisdom from the local media and interactions with the type of people who work for international agencies, patronise NGOs and attend literature festivals. During the general election, it demonstrated a deep hostility to the BJP and a partiality for AAP. More to the point, Modi was invariably painted as a deeply ‘polarising’ figure whose victory would put a question mark over India’s future as a plural and tolerant country.
After the election, and once the awkward business of explaining the ‘unexpected’ verdict was done with, there has been a rash of reports—particularly after India said no to the WTO—suggesting widespread disappointment with Modi. The suggestion was that the job of governing India was proving too daunting for the “outsider”. On August 12, for example, the venerable New York Times reported that “this early wave of disenchantment is a reminder that the man India elected this year is, in some ways, a cipher.”
According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary ‘cipher’ means ‘zero’, hardly a description that fits a Prime Minister whose presence in public meetings still evoke frenzy. Yet, when reportage becomes an exercise in affirming prejudices, misjudgements are bound to be recurrent. But then, for some people, any stick to beat Modi will do—even if means giving a helping hand to the patrons of terror and Islamist terrorists.
Sunday Times of India, August 24, 2014
Friday, August 22, 2014
YBy Swapan Dasgupta
Engaging-with-Pakistan has been one of Delhi’s big growth industries over the past 15 years. Apart from domestic investment (both from the public and private sectors), it has attracted generous quantities of Foreign Direct Investment, despite not having much to show by way of tangible returns. As such, its many well-heeled stakeholders feel an understandable anxiety over the Narendra Modi government’s sharp decision to call off a proposed meeting of Foreign Secretaries in Islamabad. It is not that the lack of official cooperation shuts off investments in an illusionary scheme; it merely reduces the number of journeys on the proverbial gravy train.
The hand wringing by Track-II travellers on English-language TV channels and the finger-wagging articles by members of the so-called strategic community should, ideally, not worry the government unduly. A reading of political history suggests that diplomacy often acquires a life of its own, detached from political realities. A jolt is often necessary to bring the players crashing back to earth.
In his magisterial book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Unionpublished earlier this year, Professor Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University has documented a surprising facet of US policy. Contrary to the gung-ho, ‘we won the Cold War’ proclamations that emanated after the red flag was lowered for the last time in the Kremlin on December 25, 1991, the reality was that the George Bush Administration tried quite hard to preserve the Soviet Union in the face of the pro-independence impulses of the Soviet Republics, notably Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Apart from Defence Secretary Dick Cheney (later Vice President in the George W. Bush dispensation), the senior members of the Bush Administration now saw their old adversary as the only guarantor of stability in the face of an uncertain future.
Ostensibly, the US policy-makers may have been prompted by their concern over the Soviet Union’s nuclear assets. But their conservatism and the reluctance to explore emerging alternatives to an over-centralised Soviet empire crafted by Stalin somehow seems a little more basic: a refusal to liquidate a Cold War-centric business that had been running successfully since 1945. The idea that the US would have to re-orient its diplomacy to factor in the particularities of a dozen or more independent republics seemed too daunting and troublesome. Dealing with a single command centre in Moscow seemed safer and more reassuring. After all, US-Soviet relations had entered a phase of dreary predictability.
Needless to say, these were academic discussions since Washington’s capacity to shape the eventual outcome in Moscow, Kiev, Minsk and the Asian capitals was negligible. The pro-independence feeling were just too strong (particularly in Russia) and the hatred for the Soviet system too deep for any patchwork solutions to take shape. Washington won the Cold War decisively but its role in securing that victory was entirely reactive. The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
Are there lessons for India’s diplomats and policy-makers from this this, relatively unknown chapter of one of the most momentous events of the 20thcentury?
Since last Monday’s decision to call off the visit of the Foreign Secretary to Islamabad, the Modi government has been severely criticised by the ‘strategic community’ for allowing its Pakistan policy to be guided by base populist considerations. The votaries of “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue are, quite predictably, livid. For them, Pakistan is more than a neighbour: it is an infatuation. On a more serious plane, the diplomatic historian Srinath Raghavan has articulated a concern that has also found an echo among ‘pro-democracy’ elements inside Pakistan. “At a time”, wrote Raghavan in an article in The Hindu, “when the civilian government in Pakistan is on the back foot, New Delhi’s digging of its heels will only comfort the military.”
The belief that Pakistan is witnessing another phase of the never-ending tussle between the elected civilian government and the military is, by now, conventional wisdom. The accompanying conviction that New Delhi must do its bit to bolster Pakistan’s democracy and edge out the military that nurtures visceral anti-India sentiments is also deeply ingrained in Delhi’s strategic thinking. Judged from these perspectives, India’s redrawing of the red lines of engagement at a time when the Imran Khan-Tahirul Qadri combine is questioning Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s legitimacy is inopportune.
Even if, for the sake of argument the dubious assumption of a Pakistani civilian government conducting its India policy without military oversight is accepted, a question arises: what is India’s capacity to modify the power equations in Islamabad? The answer is obvious: zero. Whether it was the Lahore bus ride of Atal Behari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh’s Sharm-el-Sheikh capitulation, Pakistan hasn’t moved an inch from its determination to both view bilateral relations through the Kashmir prism and to inflict pain on India wherever possible. Bending over backwards to accommodate a civilian government sounds noble but the returns from such an approach are either negligible or negative. India’s Pakistan policy has to be detached from seasonal variations in Islamabad.
Secondly, all the evidence suggests that Pakistan is experiencing a profound existential crisis. Apart from normal democratic turbulence, it has been affected by different schisms: Shia versus Sunni, state versus jihadi Islam and Centre versus states. The very “idea of Pakistan” has been changing over time and the existing elites are being constantly challenged by elements that draw inspiration from wild, antediluvian ideas. Despite the all-pervasive fear of the shadowy ISI, the writ of the Pakistan state does not run uniformly.
For India to cling on to an idea of Pakistan as a member of a once undivided family is exhilarating for those for whom life is one big mushaira with generous helping of kebab. The reality may less appetising. Since geography can’t be altered India will have to engage with Pakistan. But let’s do so with eyes wide open and without any illusion that our magnanimity will lead to an onrush of brotherhood. An approach centred on benign neglect may be in order till the time Pakistan sorts itself out first.
Asian Age, August 22, 2014
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Friday, August 15, 2014
Last month saw the publication of the English translation of the diaries of the French writer, Jean Guéhenno, among the most authentic accounts of Paris under German occupation. It is easy to understand why Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944, enjoys cult status in France. Guéhenno was one of the towering figures of the quiet intellectual resistance to the new dispensation. He didn’t pick up a gun and join the Resistance but he refused to publish as long as the army of occupation was in place. “I am going to bury myself in silence,” he wrote in his private journal. “I will take refuge in my real country. My country, my France, is a France that cannot be invaded.”
Guéhenno’s private resistance is unquestionably important in demonstrating that the national will cannot be broken by a catastrophic military defeat. It bolsters the mythology that built up around Charles De Gaulle and the Resistance and serves to negate the alternative National Revolution of Marshal Pétain and his collaborationist Vichy regime.
Yet, Guéhenno’s diaries don’t quite live up to the larger political project. The writer no doubt filled his diary with his voyages of intellectual discovery and re-discovery that lifted his spirits in gloomy times. However, what may strike the reader is the vitriol poured on fellow intellectuals and “mediocre” journalists engaged in ‘collaboration’. Guéhenno seems obsessed with debunking the Vichy regime.
By contrast, the Germans get a perfunctory look in, and are mentioned in passing as the overbearing “guests”. They are about as remote as individual Britons were in Nirad Chaudhury’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a life-tale centred on undivided Bengal. As an idea, Nazism dominated Guéhenno’s consciousness, just as an interest in Western civilization never left Chaudhury. But in the end, occupation — minus some of the lived irritants, such as food shortages, lack of heating and the despair over the unending execution of “communists” — comes across as an abstraction.
This blurred image of the real adversary seems significant. Whether in occupied France or colonial India, the day-to-day dealings and confrontations (both real and symbolic) were with the forces of collaboration. It would seem that those who believed that France suffered a humiliation in 1940 on account of the moral decay of the Third Republic were far more numerous and influential than is admitted. In hindsight, Pétain and Laval may seem pathetic and despicable boot-lickers. However, as a re-look at the film clips of the time suggests, their popular acceptance after the reality of military defeat had sunk in was far more widespread than the history books would have us believe.
On February 24, 1941, for example, Guéhenno went with a friend to see the inaugural rally of Rassemblement National Populaire, a body claiming to be both ‘European’ and ‘socialist’ and urging even greater collaboration between France and Germany. The gathering, the diarist was forced to admit, wasn’t exclusively from the “particularly low order”: “There were five or six thousand people in Salle Wagram. Not one worker. The great majority was composed of shopkeepers, clerks, office-workers, and pseudo-intellectuals… The common species of frenzied petty bourgeois in shiny cotton oversleeves was the only species represented.”
What is relevant is not Guéhenno’s distaste for the collaborators but his observation that the treacherous lot actually represented a definite social constituency. This grudging admission is at odds with the stereotype — particularly in films — of the typical collaborator being either a sadistic policeman or someone from the dregs of society. Indeed, what really angered the likes of Guéhenno was the extent of intellectual support for the Vichy regime. This is something that France has never been able to come to terms with since it violated a notion of French enlightenment.
The reason for dwelling at length on the four-year experience of France on the day India celebrates its 67th Independence Day is actually a little perverse. Every nation, particularly one that achieved self-government after a prolonged struggle, needs an ‘official’ history that is bequeathed to future generations. For India, the discourse is one of sporadic but unending struggles against British rule that reached its culmination with the mass movements under Mahatma Gandhi. Earlier, the script permitted little deviation. Today, however, the Gandhian movements are seen to be complemented by other struggles, notably the revolutionary nationalism of the likes of Bhagat Singh, the endeavours of Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA, and lesser-known ‘subaltern’ insurrections. From Siraj-ud-Daula, Tipu Sultan and Nana Saheb to Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, Independence Day is dedicated to their collective memory.
This is exactly as it should be. Nations live by stories that are handed down through the generations. These permit embellishments and even exaggerations. But, even in a land exposed to the myriad convoluted plots of the Mahabharat, caveats and awkward details are often seen to be needless and unduly confusing. This search for twitter-like simplicity and certitudes may explain why one facet of history has been blotted out: the phenomenon of loyalism.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the British Empire in India would not have lasted for as long as it did without the active — and sometimes enthusiastic — collaboration of Indians. There were never enough Europeans to maintain control over far-flung areas. French citizens who remained in their posts as policemen, magistrates, tax collectors and teachers, serviced Germany’s occupation of France. Likewise, Indians serviced the Britishraj, including its formidable army. Indeed, until the late-1930s, the larger belief in the endurance of British rule remained intact in the minds of most Indians. All attempts by the Congress to create a parallel authority came to nought. The structures of administrative control, including the loyalty of the army, remained firmly intact till 1947 and were inherited in totality by the successor regime.
This phenomenon demands explanation. The loyalty of Indians wasn’t secured by coercion alone. Had force been the only motivation for adherence to British rule, the character of India’s freedom struggle would have been very different and may even have resembled the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya or the armed struggle in Southern Africa. A Gandhi would have been irrelevant had India experienced, say, Portugese rule.
There was a large measure of ideological acceptance of British rule in India, especially after 1858, when the rulers chose to insulate indigenous society from experiments with Western modernity. For Hindu communities accustomed to varying degrees of subordination under the Sultanate, the Moghuls and their successors, self-government seemed too abstract and unrealizable. Unlike many Muslim communities that saw in British rule a loss of power, ‘Hindu’ India didn’t attach a premium to political power. Many prominent Hindus, particularly in Bengal, even saw British rule as liberation from the dark ages. Demolishing this political fatalism, in fact, made Gandhi’s achievements all the more significant. He was more than a Hindu leader but he motivated Hindus to break out of their defensive social ghettos, encounter public life and challenge authority. Most important, he did it without mounting a military challenge.
Political choice is born of circumstances. In France, collaboration remained intact from the armistice of June 1940 till the D-Day landings four years later when Germany’s final defeat seemed inevitable. France was liberated by a military re-conquest and loyalties were again re-negotiated. The French who cheered Pétain in 1940 embraced De Gaulle in 1944. Subsequently, the unhappy Vichy chapter became a subject of national denial.
National histories don’t permit awkward moments. This is as true of India as it is for France. After all, in similar situations, how many Frenchmen could honestly say they would have resisted Vichy? And how many Indians would have disavowed Queen Victoria for an uncertain future?
Independence and freedom are never inherent. They always need a context.
The Telegraph, August 15, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
A glance at the writings of India’s public intellectuals may well reveal a curious phenomenon. Whereas many are likely to view 1947 as point of departure between ‘history’ and ‘modern’ India, there are others who prefer to distinguish between the Raj and the Republic. Some of the usage may well be stylistic but the choice also suggests a hierarchy of values—between nationalism and republican values.
To the irreverent cosmopolitan, January 26 easily prevails over August 15. Republic Day always seems more glamorous: the weather is more agreeable, the pageantry is spectacular and the announcement of the Padma awards invariably adds an extra zing to the President’s ‘At home’. By contrast, the a humid Independence Day is excessively focussed on the Prime Minister’s Red Fort speech that, judging by the past, has usually left the nation underwhelmed. If the parade on Rajpath on an overcast winter morning is obligatory viewing, the Red Fort speech is often eminently worth a miss.
It is not merely the choreography of ‘official’ Independence Day that needs repair. What could be far more consequential are the reasons why, in the mind of an influential section of India, the Republic is a notch above the nation.
For a start, it is intriguing why the Republic should be shorthand for post-Independence India. After all, Britain isn’t always described as ‘monarchical’ Britain for added emphasis and neither is any political prefix used before the US. In the old days, it was always “Nazi” Germany, “Communist” China and, more recently, “Islamic” Iran. In highlighting its republican credentials, some of the chroniclers of the ‘idea of India’ are certainly placing the country in dodgy company of states that flaunt official ideologies.
Some parallels are, of course, not so toxic. Germany has discovered something called “constitutional patriotism”—a conceptual jugglery that seeks to separate the present from a troubled past. The idea appeals to post-national Indians.
These are asides. In the Indian context, the over-emphasis on the Constitution as the arbiter of national identity hints at the importance attached to state and authority. For the custodians of the Republic, a plasticine Constitution isn’t what symbolises Republic Day. The object of worship is state power.
The choice of the Asokan lions by Jawaharlal Nehru to epitomise sovereign authority was inspired. The resurrected icon conveyed an imperial-like authority and blessed the Indian state with gravitas. A powerful symbol of the Mauryas was an appropriate replacement for the Crown over the King-Emperor’s head.
A facet of British rule that appealed to Indians was its ‘ornamentalism’. The more imperial-minded of Britain’s representatives in India—Lord Wellesley and Lord Curzon in particular—took exceptional care to create monuments to power and authority. Even Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy entrusted with the job of unravelling the Empire, purposely made his first public appearance in full ceremonial regalia, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Republic Day is centred on this celebration of the spectacular. It is above all a celebration of the state by the state.
The contrast with August 15 couldn’t have been starker. Going by the calendar of the freedom movement, Independence Day should have fallen on January 26, not August 15. It was on that day in 1930 that the Congress adopted the Purna Swaraj resolution and put an end to all British hopes of retaining India as a self-governing dominion. Unfortunately, Mountbatten’s haste and Clement Atlee’s helplessness ruined old calculations. Nevertheless, despite this seasonal departures, August 15 has turned out the way January 26 was originally conceived—an occasion that commemorates democratic vibrancy, historical memory and the functioning anarchy of politics.
Not everything, however, has turned out the way it was conceived in 1930. The nationalist leaders chanted Vande Mataram while unfurling the tricolour; today, perhaps as an unspoken tribute to Subhas Bose’s INA, we chant Jai Hind. For a few, Vande Mataram’s associations are insufficiently secular. In 1930, even Jawaharlal Nehru wore the ubiquitous dhoti. He discarded it altogether after Independence and ‘modern’ India took that as the cue to mock the dhotiwallah. Nehru’s sartorial preferences became the ‘national dress.’ Finally, unlike the past when I-Day was spontaneous and improvised, Nehru made the ramparts of the Red Fort the permanent venue for the big speech. He was again prompted by symbolism. Red Fort stood for the sovereign authority of the Mughal badshah, even when actual control of the territories had passed to others. For independent India, the Red Fort came to epitomise the sovereignty of Delhi and, by extension, the unity of India.
Yet, there was one facet of national life that was defied the intrusions of the new Republic: popular memory. Despite many attempts to impose some order into India’s myriad past, there remains a fundamental gulf between ‘history’ and memory. The sanitised version sees Independence as a seamless journey from darkness to light. But that’s not how most Indians recall narrations of the past by grandparents and elders.
These stories are a mixed bag. There are tales of heroism peppered with the exaggerations of time; some are curious stories of, say, a kindly zamindar or a benevolent English District Magistrate, that defy stereotypes; and others are tales dotted with chronological silences. The past, as seen through the prism of August 15, is about all these experiences--family experiences that zigzag across political faultlines.
That is why there is something very special about August 15 that goes well beyond the Red Fort speech and the Manoj Kumar films on TV. This was the day the disparate expressions of hope and even despondency coalesced into an expression of nationhood. Independence was (and is) about the people’s own visions of the achche din. Together they add up something more potent and substantive than the philosophy of the Republic.
Hindustan Times, August 15, 2014