Tag Archives | media

Gurukanth Desai is not “of Indian origin”

Suspected British jihadi must have used a Gujarati Hindu name to avoid suspicion

Soon after the British authorities released the names of nine suspected terrorists yesterday, most Indian media reports rushed to tell us [1 2 3 4] without a hint of doubt or uncertainty, that one of them was “of Indian-origin.” Given that there was very little time for them to do background checks, they just assumed that a person going by the name of “Gurukanth Desai” must be a person of Indian origin.

They didn’t even google him up.

If they had, they would have found that Gurukant Desai is actually the name of the lead character in Mani Ratnam’s 2007 movie Guru. Gurukanth is an unusual first name for a person with the surname Desai. Gurukanth Desai is also an unusual name in a list in which the others are Abdul Malik Miah, Omar Sharif Latif, Mohammed Moksudur Rahman Chowdhury, Shah Mohammed Lutfar Rahman, Nazam Hussain, Usman Khan, Mohibur Rahman and Abul Bosher Mohammed Shahjahan.

It should have raised eyebrows and, at the very least, a qualifier indicating that he might be of Indian-origin. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. [The Calcutta Telegraph was an exception]

It turns out—as I pointed out on twitter yesterday—that Gurukanth Desai, 28 years old and a father of three, is Abdul Malik Miah’s brother and of Bangladeshi origin. The Hindu Gujarati name, taken off a Hindi film, was probably adopted to ward off suspicion.

Apart from exposing lazy journalism in India, this episode is yet another indication that Indian embassies and consulates must exercise much greater care while issuing visas to people presumably of Indian-origin.

This is also disturbing because it might make visa applications and travel more difficult for the genuine Gurukanth Desais of the world, not least because it is impossible to prevent jihadis from assuming names like David Coleman Headley or Gurukanth Desai. This case is an argument against profiling based on religion, but where such profiling exists, a Mr Desai or Mr Singh might become a little more suspect. (This is not to say that there cannot be real jihadis of Gujarati Hindu origin, as the case of Dhiren Bharot/Abu Musa al-Hindi tells us. Rather, that such cases are exceptional and very rare.)

Tailpiece: A few years ago, friends of Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London 7/7 bombers, gave their names as “Sanjay Dutt” and “Shahrukh”…and the New York Times reporter didn’t get it.

Comments { 0 }

Look who needs the Indian state!

So “mobile, independent republics” need the protection of a “corporate, Hindu, satellite state” Ha ha!

Others have written about Arundhati Roy’s latest, successful hijacking operation. Her cameo appearance in the service of the cause of Kashmiri Sunni Muslim separatism has transformed the debate from being about Jammu & Kashmir to being about freedom of speech (especially hers). So it is unclear whether the likes of Syed Ali Shah Geelani will invite her to speak at the next seminar they organise.

More seriously, while her remarks have backfired on the cause she ostensibly supports they have wildly succeeded in drawing attention to her—heck, even The Acorn is moved to write about her. But this post is not about her being more than just a rebellious self-promoting intellectual stuntperson. Nor is it about the wrongness of her angry opponents breaking her flower pots.

This post is about the vacuousness of her claims of personally seceding from India and declaring herself a “mobile, independent republic“. The problem with mobile, independent republics is that they don’t last more than as long as it takes to break a flower pot. For all her grandstanding against the Indian state, Ms Roy (well, her husband) “lodged a complaint at the Chanakyapuri police station, following which police personnel were deployed outside the residence.”

The mobile, independent republic couldn’t even protect itself. It (well, its husband) had no choice but to turn to the corrupt, human-rights-abusing, uniform-wearing personnel of “the corporate, Hindu, satellite state.”

But then, the mobile, independent republic has a case history of irony deficiency.

This incident tells you why Arundhati Roy is wrong at the most fundamental level. The Indian state might be imperfect, but presents the best way to protect the rights and freedoms of all its citizens. Its faults must be identified and publicised—not to build a case for its dissolution, but to organise efforts for its improvement.

Comments { 7 }

The Indira Doctrine is dead

Make way for the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine

Led by the redoubtable Aziz Haniffa some observers are getting more than a little flustered at a senior US official’s remarks about the United States letting China play a bigger role in and around the Indian subcontinent. Speaking at a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration said “”China has an important role. It’s a neighbor of South Asia. And it’s unimaginable that China would not be involved.”

Well, he’s right. He appears to refer to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but even if he were to mean the subcontinent and its neighbourhood, he would not be wrong. Whether you like it or not, China is and will, in the coming years, become a even more influential player in India’s immediate neighbourhood. This will undoubtedly mean that India’s neighbours will attempts to play one against the other, and because India is the status quo power, this will work to India’s relative disadvantage vis-a-vis China.

The Indira Doctrine—which saw the subcontinent as India’s exclusive sphere of influence—died somewhere over the last twenty years. Whatever might be the reasons for its lapse, the objective reality today is that India is a pre-eminent power, but not the sole hegemon, in its immediate neighbourhood. Getting excited over Mr Steinberg’s realist appreciation of the situation is therefore unwarranted.

Should Indian foreign policy attempt to resuscitate the Indira Doctrine? Doing so would be limiting the vision to India’s capabilities and interests to what obtained during Indira Gandhi’s days, would be very challenging, of dubious strategic wisdom and perhaps even unnecessary. Why? Because India is playing in a much bigger playground today. New Delhi needs a Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. If China seeks to gain influence in India’s neighbourhood, India should do the same in China’s neighbourhood and elsewhere. [See East of Singapore and The Asian Balance]

What is interesting about Mr Steinberg’s remarks is that the United States is prepared to engage India on this. “Just as we talk about South Asia with China,” he said, “we talk about East Asia with India…” In fact what is even more interesting is this “We see India as (an) East Asian country. We engage with them on issues like North Korea and the like because we think of the importance that India plays.” This is almost exactly The Acorn’s argument.

Because of geography if not anything else, India’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood will grow in parallel with its own development. It is important, however, to understand the opportunities in the geopolitical environment that allow India to implement the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. At this moment, it is in the United States’ interest to support India in the East Asian balance of power. New Delhi must swing towards this opportunity.

Comments { 9 }

Newspapering over nuclear weapons

Rules won’t make China obey them. Nukes just might.

The Economist declares China v India as the contest of the century. Good. It should help focus minds of international readers on an important issue, because in the coming years they are likely to have to choose sides.

But the 20th century taught the world that blatantly foreseeable conflicts of interest can become increasingly foreseeable wars with unforeseeably dreadful consequences. Relying on prosperity and more democracy in China to sort things out thus seems unwise. Two things need to be done.

First, the slow progress towards a border settlement needs to resume. The main onus here is on China. It has the territory it really wants and has maintained its claim to Arunachal Pradesh only as a bargaining chip. It has, after all, solved intractable boundary quarrels with Russia, Mongolia, Myanmar and Vietnam. Surely it cannot be so difficult to treat with India?

That points to a second, deeper need, one that it took Europe two world wars to come close to solving: emerging Asia’s lack of serious institutions to bolster such deals. [The Economist]

While framing the challenge fairly well, that famously opinionated newspaper ignores the beasts in the basements that are the ones most likely to prevent their masters from coming to blows. We are, of course, referring to nuclear weapons, which I have argued, are the New Himalayas that make direct military conflict between the two giants unlikely. Indeed, it is the shadow of the New Himalayas that contrains China from expanding its extravagant claims to the old Himalayas.

You can see how the absence of direct nuclear deterrence in the Western Pacific has emboldened China to claim almost the entire South China Sea as its own (see the myths that Yang shattered). All the activity in East Asia trying to work out a regional security architecture is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to. Liberal internationalists, of course, will prescribe such hope-based policies. It is unfortunate that a newspaper as bold as the Economist should accept this wishfulness to such an extreme that it entirely ignores nuclear deterrence. It might be that it has to do this, because evoking nuclear weapons would damage its dogmatic and silly insistence that India should give up its arsenal because it is ‘illegitimate’.

From the archive: He saw the light after leaving the Economist; a review of Bill Emmotts’ book.

Comments { 5 }

Pax Indica: Your own private foreign policy

In foreign affairs, unlike the government, civil society can speak the language of values

In today’s Pax Indica column, I call upon individuals, NGOs and media to take a greater interest in foreign affairs:

Over the last few days, before S M Krishna called his counterpart offering help, many of my friends complained that India — that is, the Indian government — had not offered any humanitarian assistance to flood-ravaged Pakistan. ‘Politics’, some said, should be set aside in the face of the enormous tragedy that has befallen the Pakistani people. Others argued that giving aid will change the ‘politics’ itself. For when ordinary Pakistanis see India as among those who helped them during their time of need, hearts and minds will change, undermining the anti-India position of their government.

On the other side were those, like Atanu Dey, who offered the compelling logic that since money is fungible, giving money to the Pakistani government for flood relief is equivalent to giving money to that government to fund cross-border terrorism or build nuclear weapons. Moreover, another argument goes, since the wishes of the Pakistani people are weakly expressed in their government’s policies, changing hearts and minds won’t make the military establishment stop terrorism directed against India.

Wherever you stand on this issue, what you will notice is that people implicitly assume that when it comes to foreign affairs “India” means only the Indian government.

A few years ago, after France passed laws restricting the wearing of turbans, people lobbied the Indian government to intervene on behalf of French Sikhs. The Indian prime minister sent a special envoy to Paris, to “impress upon President Chirac the significance of the turban to the Sikh faith”. The irony of one famously secular state taking up a religious cause with another famously secular state apart, this was an unwarranted interference into the domestic affairs of another democratic republic. And again, when Malaysia’s Tamil minority was out on the streets protesting against discrimination, Dr Singh’s government gave in to public pressure, gratuitously expressed concern over that country’s domestic politics, and received a rebuff.

Now, the Indian government is obliged to protect the lives and interests of its citizens anywhere their blue passports takes them. It has little business taking up cudgels of behalf of people who might be of Indian origin, but are nevertheless citizens of another country. You could say that everyone has a responsibility to protect human rights in authoritarian regimes, but if the other country happens to be a democratic republic with rule of law, what grounds does the government of India have to interfere?

Does this mean Indians should stop caring about what happens around the world? Not quite. It only means that Indians should stop seeing the government has having a monopoly on foreign affairs. There is nothing to stop individuals, NGOs and media from taking an active interest in the world outside India’s borders. There is nothing to stop us from standing up for whatever cause we like. There is nothing to stop us from drawing attention to the plight of the world’s oppressed people, collect funds, mobilise volunteers, build institutions, lobby foreign governments and deliver social services beyond India’s shores.

Sure, we could also persuade the Indian government as part of our activism, but what stops us from getting on with it in spite of the Indian government? A large number of NGOs at home do valuable work despite the government. Why should it be any different abroad?

In fact, it is in India’s national interest for civil society to become a foreign policy player in its own right. Governments are constrained by realpolitik. They follow the grammar of power. Civil society does not have the same constraints. It is free to speak the language of values. The Tibetan struggle, for instance, is one area where India’s overall policy has benefited from citizen activism. Similarly, after the 2005 earthquake, Infosys announced that it would provide Rs 10 million in aid to Pakistan. Many of us donated money for Haiti’s earthquake victim through the Red Cross and through religious institutions. These are, however, isolated and sporadic instances.

We should ask ourselves why India’s civil society is not a significant international player? The primary reason, I would say, might be the mindset that sees the government as the Grand Solver of Problems. As long as this mindset is dominant, lesser hurdles like lack of financial resources, organisational capabilities and channels of action will appear insurmountable. Another reason is our tendency to contemplate our collective navels, for there are innumerable, seemingly intractable problems at home that deserve our attention. “[So] far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned” the historian K M Panikkar noted, “we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance…This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent.”

This, though, is changing, as economic growth increases disposable incomes and as we come to be better informed by the world’s media. That begs the question: why is it that we are only informed by the world’s media? Isn’t it a grand lack of imagination that hundreds of our TV news channels fight for ratings by covering essentially the same domestic stories, only differentiating themselves using ever higher decibel levels? Isn’t it ironic that it is the likes of Qatar’s Al Jazeera and China’s CCTV-4 that challenge the Western media’s hold on the grand narrative? As Indian civil society takes a greater interest in the world, one or more Indian international TV news channels will be invaluable.

So forget about New Delhi’s offer and Islamabad’s response. Think about the enormous human tragedy that is unfolding across our north-western borders. Then think of the political consequences, not least the real risk that the disaster will end up strengthening the bad guys. Think also of the hapless people in Balochistan, where the Pakistani government has banned international relief agencies from operating. You might find some factors more important than others, depending on your personal values, beliefs and hopes. Then do what you think is appropriate.

Comments { 3 }

Letter to the Jakarta Post

Regarding the situation in Jammu & Kashmir

An edited version of the following letter was published in Indonesia’s Jakarta Post today:

Sir,

I refer to the article by Laura Schuurmans in the Jakarta Post dated 12 August 2010.

Ms Schuurman’s makes a specious argument linking the situation in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir to the spread of extremism across South Asia. The fact of the matter is that Jammu & Kashmir is a victim of Pakistan’s dangerous policy of using radical Islamist militants as a tool of state policy right from 1947. In other words Pakistan’s cynical manipulation of religion predates the Kashmir ‘dispute’. Secondly, as borne out by numerous statements by leaders of Pakistan-based militant organisations like Hafeez Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the extremists’ goal is not limited to the liberation of Kashmir, but extends to the dismemberment of a India, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation which is very similar to Indonesia.

In fact, while Ms Schuurman regurgitates the Goebbelsian language about troop numbers and ‘repression’ of the people in Jammu & Kashmir, she neglects to mention that despite bloodshed of the last two decades, including the ethnic cleansing of the Hindu minorities in 1989-90, the Indian government has respected the special status given to Jammu & Kashmir state. Your readers might be surprised to know that Indian citizens cannot migrate to the state, cannot purchase land and property there and face hurdles in marrying their Kashmiri counterparts. The state not only enjoys greater political and economic freedom than Pakistani administered Kashmir, and indeed Pakistan itself, but is also the second largest recipient of fiscal transfers (per capita) from the federal government.

This is not to deny that proxy war and insurgency has not created an affective divide between Kashmiris and the Indian state. But the idea of India is big enough to bridge this gap, as indeed has been happening since 2002. Chemotherapy is painful and hurts the body, but it is necessary to treat the underlying cancer which is fatal. Despite the Ms Schuurmans’ flawed arguments, I am sure that of all the people in the region, Indonesians will appreciate the challenges of governing a diverse, deeply religious yet plural society.

Comments { 2 }

Why have one Afghanistan

…when you can have two?

The call for the partitioning of Afghanistan is not new. In December 2003, for instance, Randall Parker of the ParaPundit blog argued that “(it) would be less trouble in the long run if Afghanistan was just split up with the Pashtuns getting their own country while the other groups either form a single country for a few separate countries. The other groups could even take pieces of Afghanistan and merge them with their ethnic brothers who speak the same languages and have much the same cultures in bordering northern countries.”

Yet, despite ethnic heterogeneity, foreign invasions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan state, the people of Afghanistan have a strong sense of nationhood. So while partitioning the country might have its attractions for geopolitical strategists, it is unlikely that the Afghan people will countenance such a project.

So what should we make of the recent debate that started after Robert Blackwill, one of the most astute American strategists, called for a de facto partition of Afghanistan?

The least worst option for the United States, Mr Blackwill contends, is to give the south to the Taliban, and concentrate on holding and building the north and the east of Afghanistan. This will not only turn the Pakistani military establishment’s dream of “strategic depth” into the nightmare of Pashtun nationalism, but also upset the tenuous ethnic balance in Pakistan by weakening Punjabi dominance. At a time when the conventional wisdom in Washington is to prevent the collapse of Pakistan, this is heretical. However, since this is also a time when the Obama administration is looking for ways out of the mess it is in—not least in terms of domestic politics—heresies might stand the best chance of gaining acceptance.

Mr Blackwill has already succeeded in exposing the weaknesses in the arguments of his critics. Ahmed Rashid points out that partition won’t be popular with Afghans (as if a Taliban takeover will be) and otherwise points to the bloodiness that accompanies a redrawing of borders (as if the status quo is bloodless). The “only solution” according to him, “is dialogue between the genuine Taliban leadership, Kabul and Washington for a power-sharing deal at both the centre and in the provinces.” This, from the man who wrote the book about the genuine Taliban leadership!

Chimaya Gharekhan and Karl Inderfurth reject the partition proposal and propose, instead, that “the solution lies in less or zero interference, not more, and certainly not military intervention, in Afghanistan’s affairs.” That is a very good idea. The question is how? The authors propose “that someone, preferably the Secretary-General of the United Nations, should engage in a diplomatic exercise to hold talks with all the parties and states concerned to establish a consensus, however defined, on arriving at a compact of mutual non-intervention and non-interference among all of Afghanistan’s neighbours.”

Now this might sound convincing if you are an optimist with faith in the United Nations, but the authors are silent about just why the Pakistani military establishment will play along? Pakistan might even sign such a treaty if the price is right, but if the force of US arms didn’t prevent the Pakistani army from interfering in Afghanistan, a piece of paper and the UN Secretary General’s platitudes are, to put it mildly, less likely to.

Perhaps the best critique of Mr Blackwill’s proposal comes from Pratap Bhanu Mehta. He charges the strategic establishments with hubris where “the relations between intention and action, ends and means, instruments and goals, costs and benefits seem to all be obscured by the self-satisfaction that we are at least making a next move.” His case for caution is well-made: that India “should not be tempted into actions whose consequences it cannot control.”

However, this injunction must be balanced against the concern that India should not be lulled into inactions whose consequences, likewise, it cannot control. What ultimately is likely decide the issue is the nature of the strategic cultures. Washington, with its action bias, ends up suffering the consequences of its action. New Delhi, with its (in)action bias, ends up suffering not only the consequences of its own inaction, but also the consequences of the actions of others.

For now, the call for the partition of Afghanistan, as both K Subrahmanyam and Mr Mehta note, is likely a shot across the bow, a warning for General Ashfaq Kayani. Even so, New Delhi would do well to prepare for such an outcome too.

Comments { 9 }

Obama wasn’t there. Kayani was.

Despite the Wikileaks documents, US policy on Pakistan is unlikely to change

The immediate response by President Barack Obama’s media managers to the release of thousands of war logs has been to blame the Bush administration. “The period of time covered in these documents (January 2004-December 2009)” the White House says “is before the President announced his new strategy. Some of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the President ordered a three month policy review and a change in strategy.” As the latest release—and perhaps a more damning future one—by Wikileaks works its way through the US political system, Mr Obama will have to do a lot better than that. (Yes, yes, another speech full of high rhetoric is on the cards.)

However as my INI colleague pointed out this morning, that period includes General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani’s entire tenure as ISI chief. As Tunku Varadarajan writes in the Daily Beast

Much of the latest involvement in the Afghan insurgency by the ISI—Pakistan’s military intelligence—happened on Gen. Kayani’s watch, when he was the head of the ISI. That very same man, Kayani, whose agency lovingly breastfed the Taliban, and who was later elevated to chief of army staff, has just been granted a three-year extension by Pakistan’s civilian government. It boggles the mind that this duplicitous underminer of the U.S. war effort is now General David Petraeus’ direct interlocutor. Petraeus will need to navigate a labyrinth of misinformation and half-truths, accompanied by typically unctuous protestations that Pakistan is doing everything it can to help us in the war against al Qaeda. [Daily Beast]

This is not really news. But now that the ISI’s skulduggery has the international media’s attention, it will be much harder for US officials to pretend that Gen Kayani smells of roses. Here’s something to think about—what if Wikileaks had delivered their scoop before his term was extended? Here’s something else to think about—there was time until November this year to announce the extension of his term.

Comments { 6 }

Message from Home

The home ministry finally has a spokesman. But there’s a long way to go

In an op-ed in the Indian Express in October 2009, Sushant K Singh and I had called for the government to “release accurate and factual information to the public with unprecedented timeliness. In this age of inexpensive technology and connectivity, there is no excuse for the home ministry to be unable to release reports, photographs and video footage from the field. Paying for advertisements in the national media will only take it so far—unless the UPA government implements a sophisticated public communication strategy, it will find its political will sapped by the Naxalite propaganda machine.”

Out of the seas the home secretary churned comes a spot of nectar. It took the controversy created by G K Pillai’s comments about the ISI’s role in the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai for the Indian government to act on this. The home ministry has appointed a spokesman who will “interact with journalists at a specified time daily.” That’s a good move—but it must be backed by the spokesman being supported by staff competent in public communications and new media. While the spokesman can meet journalists on a daily basis, his department must work round the clock putting out authoritative official versions of facts out there.

The external affairs ministry’s public diplomacy division recently got onto Twitter. Home should follow.

Comments { 3 }

What G K Pillai achieved

Highlighting the futility of engaging Pakistan’s civilian officials is a good thing

“(People) on the Indian side need to ask” writes Siddharth Varadarajan in The Hindu “what the home secretary hoped to achieve by saying the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate of the Pakistan army had been involved in 26/11 “from the beginning till the end.”” To Mr Varadarajan it is neither the outrageousness of the Pakistani negotiating line nor the obnoxiousness of the Pakistani foreign minister’s behaviour that is the problem—it is India’s refusal to set aside Pakistan’s complicity and stonewalling on 26/11 and “indulge Pakistan’s desire for official talks on Kashmir, Siachen and other ‘core issues'”.

It is generally a good thing that the Indian media has the space to present alternative viewpoints. That said, Mr Varadarajan’s criticism has a fundamental flaw. It is no longer tenable—as he contends—that talking to the motley bunch of smug, self-important men who occupy offices in Islamabad will somehow strengthen the “civilian government” of Pakistan. There was a time between the time when the PPP’s election victory in early 2008 and the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 when the argument would have made sense. But 26/11 was an effective coup against the Asif Ali Zardari’s seemingly conciliatory policies [See Kayani wins this round]. Since then it is the Pakistani army that controls the foreign & security policies—as evidenced by the fact that the United States directly deals with General Kayani on these subjects.

In the face of this reality, is Mr Varadarajan seriously saying that handing an odd, inconsequential lollipop to Shah Mahmood Qureshi will so much as make a dent in the military establishment’s hold on power? As a corollary, is strengthening Pakistan’s civilian government so much in India’s interests as to make substantive concessions on bilateral issues? Clearly, not.

Therein lies the answer to Mr Varadarajan’s question on what G K Pillai’s remarks achieved. Unless it is Mr Varadarajan’s case that talks between India & Pakistan must be held while keeping the Indian citizen in the dark, then Mr Pillai’s revelation had the important effect of tempering expectations. Had he remained silent on this vital bit of information, he would have been unfair to the External Affairs Minister who would have been expected to get Pakistan’s impotent civilian officials to take on people connected to the ISI. [See Please change the channel]

The genuineness of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s commitment to leave a legacy of improved relations with Pakistan is without doubt. The problem is he does not have a counterpart on the other side who shares the same vision. Given this objective reality, Dr Singh should pause and put his project in cold storage. For him to move forward in the face of a firmly entrenched military-jihadi complex is likely to result in an entirely different sort of legacy…one that he wouldn’t want to be associated with.

Comments { 29 }