By Swapan Dasgupta
It is unlikely that too many Nehruvians or even those that view India’s former Prime Minister with a sceptical eye will, during the year-long commemoration of his 125th year of birth, care to stress the colossal importance of the Spanish Civil War in the making of the man. As someone who had an insatiable appetite for contemporary fashion—be it political, sartorial and aesthetic—Jawaharlal Nehru was totally sold on the entire romanticism surrounding the battle of the Republicans against General Franco.
In the heady atmosphere of the 1930s where the quest for defining ideologies that would reshape the world was unceasing, the Spanish Civil War became the stuff of both politics and poetry. It was more than just a battle against the Falangists and the traditional order. To the trend-setting arbiters of political fashion, which included a disproportionate number of British intellectuals (but not British voters), Spain became a metaphor for radicalism. George Orwell’s writings have disabused us of the so-called idealism behind the Republican side. It now transpires that both sides were equally guilty of being manipulated and used as proxies by other European powers: Stalin shamelessly (and quite brutally) moulded the priorities of the Republican army and Hitler used support for covert as a laboratory for his weapons of war.
To be fair, Nehru may not have been aware of the ugly underside of this great romantic struggle—his ability to cull information and his indignation was always selective. What inspired him to join hands with Stalinists in the League against Imperialism and other dodgy bodies was the example of the International Brigade—the volunteer army of concerned citizens from other European countries that fought alongside their Spanish comrades.
In the mythology of the European Left, a decisive influence on Nehru, there was a halo over the International Brigade. It is estimated that somewhere close to 35,000 non-Spaniards were initiated into the International Brigades and about as much as one-fifth of the volunteers died in the Civil War. The high casualties were on account of the complete lack of training and poor military strategies. When Franco finally prevailed, the surviving foreign volunteers returned to their homes. Some ended up dispirited, others became hardened Communist cadres and a third lot became the “useful idiots” that Lenin believed were so important in the spread of his ideas.
Some eight decades later, the Spanish Civil War is distant memory and with the deaths of Franco and Salazar, democracy has returned to the Iberian Peninsula. However, there is one facet of the Spanish legacy that has endured: the belief that national boundaries are no barriers in fighting the good fight. Internationalism was always a catchword of the Marxist Left, to be used expediently: Fidel Castro used it to despatch an inconvenient Che Guevara to Bolivia to spread the revolution. But it wasn’t confined to the Left alone. In recent times, the principle of internationalism was resurrected by Pakistan, with financial backing from the United States, to create an Islamic mujahedeen to wage jihad against the Soviet infidels in Afghanistan for a decade. It was a classic case of ideological blowback.
A momentum, especially one laced with adventure, romance and a touch of fanaticism, once created cannot be plugged by command. Pakistan deliberately allowed the ‘international’ remnants of the Afghan jihad to spill over into Kashmir. Throughout the mid-1990s, it was fairly routine for India’s forces to discover an international community of jihadis waging war for Kashmir’s “liberation”. Apart from Pakistanis, they included Arabs, Sudanese and Asian Britons.
Today, this perverse legacy of the Spanish Civil War has come to haunt the whole world. I am, of course, referring to the international warriors that buy one-way tickets to Turkey and then disappear from the gaze of their families to become both cannon fodder and valuable operatives for the grandiose Caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. According to one estimate, foreigners make up as much as 20 per cent of the ISIS army and they are drawn from more than 100 countries.
The cases of bored, football-loving Muslim teenagers living in some nondescript town of northern England suddenly upping and joining the ISIS and, in many cases, getting themselves killed have received widespread media attention. The cases of their Indian counterparts have been relatively less documented—perhaps understandably. What they add to is the undeniable reality of ISIS exercising a perverted but at the same time emotional appeal to a section of Muslim youth.
It is an international phenomenon—a reason why the East Asian leaders meeting in Myanmar have devoted so much attention to it. However, what remains understated are the two contributory factors for ISIS’s macabre appeal—and it has nothing to do with either Palestine or national boundaries of the Levant.
First, the radicalisation of Muslim youth is being organised by a set of very determined and motivated religious preachers. Their efforts are being complemented by internet networks reminiscent of a Fredrick Forsyth novel. Both these have to be tackled with relentless vigour and even mercilessly.
Second, the ISIS army depends substantially on kidnapping, extortion and oil for finances. But there are whispers emanating from intelligence communities of the covert involvement of at least one state in the Gulf. Choking off this financial lifeline is a must and can only happen if all the big powers act in concert.
The importance of the ISIS is not confined to a corner of West Asia. It has the potential of having a multiplier effect throughout the world, including India.
No wonder it is prudent to realise which facets of any great life is worth de-romanticising.
Sunday Pioneer, November 16, 2014