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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Blackmail in the name of human rights for all

A controversy centred on the human rights body Amnesty International is raging in Britain and it could be instructive for India. Earlier this month, Gita Sahgal, the head of the organization’s ‘gender unit’, publicly protested against its close association with Moazzam Beg, a British Islamist and former inmate of Guantanamo Bay.

Beg, who had earlier migrated from Birmingham to Kabul because he was inspired by the Taliban, returned to Britain after his release from US custody in 2005. Exploiting the fierce anti-Bush mood in Europe after the invasion of Iraq, an unrepentant Beg founded Cageprisoners to campaign for the release of the remaining Guantanamo prisoners and other detained jihadis. Among those whose cause Beg has taken up are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said to be the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Abu Hamza, the hook-handed mullah facing extradition from Britain to the US, and Abu Qatada, once described as Osama bin Laden’s “European ambassador”.

Gita is a professional activist, having been involved with numerous ‘causes’ over the years. She felt that for Amnesty “to be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.” Her employer didn’t agree, and promptly suspended her. Gita has received considerable media and public support but Amnesty hasn’t dissociated itself from Beg.

To me, this incident involves more than the misjudgment of one reputable human rights body. It is a classic case study of the derailment of the human rights industry — yes, it is an industry — and its takeover by politically-driven activists.

I recall the days when Amnesty was a noble organization campaigning for those who had been jailed for merely holding and expressing contrarian views. It campaigned untiringly for the release of Nelson Mandela, spoke out for the harassed ‘dissidents’ in the Soviet bloc, publicized the ‘prisoners of conscience’ in lesser-known places and even brought hope to those languishing in Indian jails during the Emergency. Its programme of sending Christmas cards to prisoners in South Africa was particularly touching.

Perhaps these campaigns were implicitly political. But an unequivocal stand in favour of democracy and free speech was worth taking, even if it meant being at loggerheads with those who deluded themselves that there could be no injustice in socialist countries.

Those were innocent days but it was clearly understood that ‘bourgeois’ human rights were relevant for those who didn’t have blood on their hands. The generosity of human rights didn’t extend to guerrillas in the umpteen liberation movements and to those in, say Germany’s Baader Meinhof gang, who were smitten by violent delinquency. There were many in the 1960s and 1970s who marched the streets chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” but it was unusual for these Che Guevara-worshipping romantics to think that the war against loathsome Yankee imperialism was a human rights campaign.

A journey that began with expressing solidarity with Mandela and has stretched to embracing a partnership role with the Taliban has seen many strange diversions. For a start, the highly political ‘peace movements’ which mushroomed globally as extensions of Soviet foreign policy have become the template for a new approach to human rights. Its most significant feature is selective indignation. Just as its early practitioners denied the Gulag, today’s human rights-wallahs gloss over the brutalities of Maoists in India, Hamas in Palestine and LTTE in Sri Lanka or, for the matter, the Taliban. The focus is instead on state repression in counter-insurgency and war. The idea is not to press for common humanity to prevail but to use human rights as a political support system.

Second, the human rights business has evolved from being voluntary concerns to becoming well-funded agencies of governance. This shift has meant their generous expansion to cover nearly all aspects of public life. Groups such as Amnesty no longer focus exclusively on prisoners of conscience and victims of unjust laws. Their activities now involve campaigns against mining in Orissa, land acquisition in Bengal and dams in Gujarat. Human rights are fast turning into levers of blackmail against governments and companies. What are essentially political battles have been given a benign masquerade — one guaranteed to melt the impressionable hearts of those Lenin sneeringly called “useful idiots.”

For fanatics like Beg who don’t give a toss for liberal values, supping with the compassionate is a cynical ploy. Ironically, his motives may be the same as those who helped confer respectability on him. Gita was rightly offended. But she must have known all along that a disaster was waiting to happen.

Sunday Times of India, February 28, 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reinvigorating the BJP

India's new opposition leader Nitin Gadkari has a chance to make a fresh start.

By SWAPAN DASGUPTA

Barely 10 months ago, India's elites agonized over the possibility that the general election would produce an unstable and fractious coalition government that would jeopardize the country's economic growth. Today, with a stable government in place and the Congress Party having clearly established its political primacy, Lutyens' Delhi resonates with whispered concern over the absence of a purposeful opposition.

The concern is based on a string of misgivings. The Manmohan Singh government is perceived to have grown utterly complacent. With inflation having crossed 8% and the price of food having registered a sharper increase, there is a feeling that the government is letting matters slide because it doesn't fear political opposition and social unrest. There are fears that political considerations are preventing a robust response to the Maoist threat. Finally, in the aftermath of the Copenhagen summit and the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan, there are concerns that the prime minister is obliging the Obama administration excessively.

Since it lost power in 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party, India's principal opposition party, has lost its earlier appeal among the middle classes and the youth. This erosion of support was a consequence of a tired leadership, internal feuding, the pursuit of a policy of blind obstruction to all government initiatives and a failure to check sectarian hotheads identified with its Hindu nationalist ideology. From being a party of conservative Middle India, the BJP ceded its centrist space to the Congress Party. In recent months, it has been paralysed by a failure to counter the appeal of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress heir-apparent.

The national convention of the BJP, held last week in the contrived simplicity of a tented township in Indore, saw the appointment of a new president. The affable 52-year-old Nitin Gadkari, a self-made businessman from Nagpur, endeared himself to the 4,000 delegates with his disarming frankness. He readily admitted the party's lapses—the disagreeable leadership spats and the debilitating effects of cronyism—and promised an internal regime based on fairness and performance. With the party's earlier prime ministerial candidate, the 82-year-old L.K. Advani, elevated to a ceremonial role, Mr. Gadkari promised to induct representatives from the "third and fourth generations" and women into positions of responsibility. Finally, but without saying so too explicitly, Mr. Gadkari sent out a clear signal that the BJP would shun sectarian shrillness to recover its lost centrist space. He offended Hindu hardliners by opposing the regional xenophobic agenda of their Shiv Sena party allies and suggested an out-of-court, political settlement of a 60-year-old case over a site in Ayodhya that Hindus believe is especially sacred but which was also the site of a 16th century mosque.

Bolstering the morale of the faithful is the first step in a program of political revival. To that extent Mr. Gadkari has made a good start and has earned himself considerable goodwill. The more difficult journey involves winning the trust of voters, particularly that generation which never experienced the heady Hindu mobilization of the early 1990s. For the moment, the BJP's focus is on establishing itself as a vigorous but responsible parliamentary opposition. Arun Jaitley, its leader in the Upper House, has already made an impact with his penetrating scrutiny of the government. Sushma Swaraj, its new leader in the Lower House, is expected to complement him with her spirited oratory.

However, galvanizing voters is only a fraction of the task before the BJP. Far more daunting is coping with the challenge of Rahul Gandhi. The young Congress general secretary has based his appeal on nebulous invocations of "youth power" and "modernity"—themes unrelated to the Singh government's performance. Mr. Gandhi's famous name is a big advantage, too. If the BJP has to counter Mr. Gandhi, it has to come up with its own big ideas.

Unfortunately for the BJP, this is the area where confusion persists. It has been subjected to very contradictory political pulls, best personified by the divergent approaches of its two most successful provincial governments. On the one hand is the Shivraj Singh Chauhan-led Madhya Pradesh government that prides itself on its compassionate development and sensitivity to cultural norms. On the other hand is the Narendra Modi-led government in Gujarat which has made rapid economic growth and modernization its signature tune. Although Mr. Modi remains controversial for his alleged complicity in the infamous sectarian killings in 2002, his government is marked for its efficiency and single-minded pursuit of economic growth rather than the advocacy of Hindu nationalism.

Mr. Gadkari's presidential speech in Indore was replete with noble messages: connecting with Village India, reaching out to the last man in the last row and undertaking voluntary work. But it was also lifted by a remarkably clear statement of principle: "The government's duty is confined mainly to strategic planning, legislation of sound laws and their effective enforcement. The actual business of performing economic activities should be left to non-governmental enterprises."

The seeds of an alternative approach to governance exist in the BJP. It is now up to its leadership to nurture them.

Mr. Dasgupta, a Delhi-based political commentator, is a former managing editor of India Today.

Asian Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Why Sena needs to pass a loyalty test

Assuming Islamabad has an equivalent of the committee of the great and good that decides on India’s Republic Day honours, it may find it worthwhile considering something innovative: honouring the Shiv Sena with a Pakistani award. There are few organizations that in recent weeks have done more to foster a spirit of generosity towards Pakistan as has the Sena and its leadership.

The Sena’s services to Pakistan are difficult to surpass. First, it has put Mumbai on par with Peshawar in the global safety index for cricket matches. If it is hazardous for a visiting cricketer to either field near the boundary line or venture into town in Peshawar, the Shiv Sena has made it known that it will not countenance any Australian or Pakistani player in the Mumbai leg of the IPL. Unwittingly or otherwise, the Sena has helped establish political equivalence between India and Pakistan. It has neatly punctured India’s claim to be a cut above the rest in the subcontinent.

Secondly, the Sena has established the validity of what Pakistan’s politicians and generals have steadfastly maintained after 26/11: that perverted thinking in the Islamic Republic doesn’t emanate from state-sponsorship but from troublesome, yet independent, ‘non-state’ players. Pakistanis can now assert with greater confidence that just as they have their wild lot in Muridke, India has its crazies in Mumbai. True, the devotees of Bal Thackeray rely exclusively on sticks, stones and muscle power, whereas the holy warriors have considerable expertise in armed warfare. But these, many in Islamabad would undoubtedly argue, are niggling matters of detail. What counts is that fanaticism and lunacy aren’t exclusive Pakistani prerogatives.

Finally, by picking on Bollywood’s most exalted star, the Sena has advanced the Pakistanization of India. Shah Rukh Khan isn’t, and has never pretended to be, a political pundit tutored in the nuances of the Great Game along the Radcliffe Line. He is not Aamir Khan who loves a ‘cause’ each day for breakfast. What Shah Rukh has to say about good neighbourliness may be potentially interesting, even incisive. But to suggest that his starry-eyed comment “It (Pakistan) is a great neighbour…We are great neighbours, they are good neighbours. Let us love each other” constitutes an act of devilish treachery for which he must seek forgiveness is incredible. If film stars start being assessed for patriotism—like what Senator Joe McCarthy did in Hollywood to combat communism in the 1950s — India will be perilously close to emulating those in the Pakistan cricket establishment who felt that the religiosity should be a factor in team selection.

In 2006, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board Nasim Ashraf had to inform Captain Inzaman-ul-Huq that “that there should be no pressure on players who don’t pray regularly or any compulsion on them to do it under pressure… I have told him there should be no perception among players that if they don’t pray they will not be in the team…” In 2010, the owners of the Shiv Sena have set a new loyalty test that carries one message: you cannot do business in Mumbai if your hostility to Pakistan isn’t sufficiently robust.

By this logic, Thackeray should have broken off its political relationship with the BJP whose leader wrote a glowing testimonial to Mohammed Ali Jinnah after visiting the mausoleum in Karachi in 2005. Compared to Advani’s ballad, Shah Rukh was guilty of composing a poor ditty. But then, as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used to say, consistency is the virtue of small minds.

The Sena’s role in making Pakistan seem respectable is seminal and immeasurable. It certainly surpasses the goody-goody utterances of the hero of My Name is Khan. But whereas Shah Rukh can at best be faulted for naïve sentimentalism—which in his business of selling dreams is hardly a crime—the Sena’s offence is graver. By virtue of his menacing antics, it has willy-nilly joined many millions of the star’s fans to a cause that was never foremost in their minds.

There are many Indians who are wary of New Delhi’s U-turn on Pakistan, and more so because memories of the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai are still fresh. They can’t empathize with Shah Rukh’s lovey-dovey approach, just as couldn’t identify with those who lit candles on the Wagah border. Yet, even those who advocate a mix of belligerence and benign neglect towards Pakistan have been appalled at the targeting of a star simply because he is innocent of foreign policy and his title is Khan. They have watched in horror the Sena make nationalism disreputable by turning it into thuggery.

If there is to be a loyalty test, it is the Sena that must first establish it is batting for India. As of now, it doesn’t seem all that clear cut.

 

Sunday Times of India, February 14, 2010

Monday, February 8, 2010

Afghanistan and the decline of the West

[I wrote this essay to rationalise my dejection at the way events are unfolding in Afghanistan. It seems to me that the decline of the West is proceeding faster than the emergence of an alternative, wholesome civilisation in Asia. That's good news for China but not India.]

For the past two decades, the conference in Davos has emerged as the annual stock-taking exercise of global capitalism. This year was no different. However, discerning observers detected a subtle but significant change in the mood of the gathering. A columnist for Financial Times described it as the end of the “old Davos consensus”. Underlying the change was the belief that the West had become ‘dysfunctional’, that free trade was no longer entirely beneficial to the powers that had championed it for a century and that the future belonged to Asia, particularly China. “The analytical difficulty,” he noted by way of a caveat, “however, lies in working out which of these trends will have staying power — and which will turn out simply to reflect the ephemeral mood of the moment.”

The caution is warranted. From the time the Comintern detected the “final crisis of capitalism” in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s, obituaries of capitalism have proliferated and competed with those who have, with astonishing certitude, prophesied the end of the world either from a nuclear holocaust or Climate Change. Yet, capitalism has demonstrated resilience and a remarkable ability to renew itself.

The compelling needs to rescue Western civilization — built on the bedrock of capitalism — from itself and the world economy from being subsumed by the robotic mercantilism of China are ideas whose time, unfortunately, have not come. The popular mood in both the United States of America and western Europe is distinctly downbeat — a condition that the combative Pope Benedict XVI has attributed to a moral decay arising from the excesses of secularization. The protectionist populism that President Barack Obama fell back on in his State of Union speech was a reflection of the retreat. More telling, however, were the proceedings of last week’s conference on Afghanistan in London.

A feature of the beleaguered capitalist consensus was the constant willingness to fly the flag, and uphold the ‘free world’. The notion of the ‘civilising mission’ and the ‘White Man’s burden’ may well be the subjects of unconcealed denigration in today’s post-colonial world but they also reflected a muddled desire to save the world from the forces of ‘darkness’ — whether they appeared in the form of the Mahdi in Sudan or the Führer in Germany. One of the enduring contributions of post-war statesmen such as Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Konrad Adenauer, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, to name but a few, was to stubbornly refuse to accept the permanence of the Iron Curtain. Without their uncompromising faith in the superiority and universality of the ‘free world’, the ‘evil empire’ wouldn’t have crumbled and China wouldn’t have re-defined its destiny by embracing a variant of the market economy.

Another beleaguered feature of the ‘old consensus’ was the spirit of service and sacrifice. The West dominated the world for three centuries not merely on the strength of its ability to innovate and improve but because economic muscle was unceasingly complemented by the sense of a larger mission. Generations of schoolchildren were brought up on stirring tales of the heroism of General Wolfe, Dr Livingstone, Gordon “Pasha” and Lord Kitchener in places far away from home. What Rudyard Kipling called the “White Man’s burden” was indubitably an anthem of racial superiority but it was also a celebration of the spirit of adventure, enterprise and emotional commitment to a decent and enlightened world. Over the decades, the Empire project of the Victorians has been modified and its rough edges blunted by contemporary sensitivities such as national sovereignty, human rights, racial equality and, above all, justice. But it’s important to grasp the simple truth that globalization didn’t begin with the Bretton Woods agreement; its roots go much, much deeper.

The sense of outrage against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts that triggered the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11 was shaped by impulses that were moulded by history. Long before moral relativism sought to end the hierarchy of moral codes, there were simple notions of what constituted ‘right’ and what was clearly ‘wrong’. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan violated all the moral codes. The sheer magnitude of the 9/11 attacks, particularly the killing of civilians in New York, would have inevitably invited retaliation. But the military campaign assumed the character of a “good war” — an Obama phrase to distinguish it from the ‘bad war’ in Iraq —because the Taliban stood for a social order and a way of life that were completely at odds with even the most permissive values.

The rationale of the Afghan war wasn’t one of colonizing Afghanistan to facilitate the easy availability of watermelons, dried fruits and exquisitely hand-crafted carpets. Nor was the military expedition dictated by the need to ensure the passage of pipelines that would link the gas fields of Central Asia to the energy-hungry markets of India. The Taliban regime fell below the base line of acceptable human conduct. It was on par with Idi Amin’s Uganda and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Worse, the regime wasn’t content to remain a ghetto of darkness. It consciously sought to emerge as a springboard for a dogma-based expansion to the wider neighbourhood and even beyond; it was committed to the expansion of evil. Today, there is an attempt to distinguish between the orthodoxy and fundamentalism of the Taliban and the promotion of global terrorism by al Qaida. In actual fact, the distinction was purely notional.

That the war in Afghanistan hasn’t gone according to initial calculations is indisputable. After an initial period of retreat, the Taliban has successfully regrouped, capitalizing on the shortcomings of the Hamid Karzai regime and the ham-handedness of the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces. The recovery has been facilitated by a Pakistan anxious to recover its ‘strategic depth’ vis-à-vis India. The arduous war has also sapped Western morale and prompted the conclusion that the conflict is unwinnable. Confronted with its own sense of decline, the West has lost the will to undertake its ‘civilizing mission’. It now wants to get the hell out of the godforsaken land and hope for the best. The London conference marked the first Act of the disengagement drama and both the Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan have realized it gleefully.

The London conference signals an important point in what Churchill may have called the “end of the beginning”. The centre of gravity of global capitalism has been shifting eastwards towards India, China and Southeast Asia. Yet, the drift hasn’t been accompanied by an orderly transfer of heritage. India is still resolving its own confusions to have any meaningful global vision; and China’s perspectives lack humanity and enlightenment. It’s this impasse that has created the conditions for the rise of Islamism as an alternative system that is implacably hostile to everything the human race has achieved so far.

In 1992, the Islamists notched up their first success when, with the backing of the US, they defeated a declining Soviet Union. Today, and with every passing day, Islamism senses the impending humiliation of a declining West in Afghanistan. The triumphalism of victories over two superpowers and two very different systems is certain to be heady. Hitler didn’t stop after gobbling up Austria and Czechoslovakia; for Islamism, a victory in Afghanistan is certain to make the whole world a very dangerous place. It’s this larger foreboding that escaped the attention of a retreating West in London last week.

The Telegraph, February 5, 2010