Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Delusions of Grandeur Can Lead To Trouble

I have in the past written about Mr. B. Raman, who used to work for the Research and Analysis Wing (“RAW”), India’s external intelligence agency. B. Raman headed RAW’s counter-terrorism division for more than a decade till his retirement in 1994. Presently Mr. B. Raman is the Director of the Institute For Topical Studies in Chennai. B. Raman frequently writes articles for various publications, many of which are available online. B. Raman also has a blog which is a repository of all his recent writings.

Generally I agree with what B. Raman has to say, since his articles contain detailed and accurate analyses of political situations in India’s neighbourhood. However, one of B. Raman’s recent articles titled “After The LTTE, What?” had me very disturbed.

B. Raman starts off by describing the current situation in Sri Lanka and the death throes of the LTTE. He examines Prabhakaran’s personality, his amazing ability to motivate his cadres and fight armies much larger than the LTTE as well as his irrational side which made him kill so many Tamil leaders, not to mention Rajiv Gandhi and Laxman Kadirgamar. B. Raman goes on to say that “the irrational side of Prabhakaran’s personality erased his rational side. His shocking use of the Tamil civilians in order to delay the final end of the counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaign undertaken by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces is driven by this irrational streak in him, which now dominates his personality.” B. Raman concludes that the LTTE “has been defeated beyond recovery.” I have no quarrel with any of these statements. In fact I agree with them wholeheartedly. However, I have a huge problem with all that B. Raman states afterwards.

B. Raman says “After the final death of the LTTE, which is expected any day, what is the future of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause? Would a Requiem for the LTTE also mean a Requiem for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause? Hopefully not.

What is this ‘Tamil cause’ that B. Raman talks about? According to B. Raman it is the “Tamil aspirations for greater political and economic rights in their traditional homeland and for greater human dignity.” This statement makes me slightly uncomfortable. Sri Lankan Tamils are entitled to be treated as equal partners to the Sinhalese. They are entitled to protect and safeguard their language and culture. However the words “greater political and economic rights” have an ominous ring to them. I don’t think Sri Lankan Tamils were ever denied economic rights. What B. Raman says after this confirms my suspicions.

Let us not forget that ever since our independence in 1947, the Bengalis of the then East Pakistan, the Balochs and Sindhis of Pakistan and the Tamils of Sri Lanka have been India’s natural allies. It was this reality which persuaded Indira Gandhi to assist the Bengalis of the then East Pakistan to achieve their independence.

Were the Bengalis of East Pakistan Indian allies ever since 1947? I doubt it. They had just broken off from India in 1947 on religious grounds. They did their best to be good Pakistani citizens, without losing their Bengali identity. When faced with genocide of the worst order, they sought Indian help and broke free from West Pakistan. However, at no stage did the Bengalis of East Pakistan say that they made a mistake in breaking off from India in 1947. India assisted East Pakistan because it suited India to have Pakistan broken up. After Bangladesh was formed, there was no mention of reunification with West Bengal. There are still lots of Bangladeshis who don’t want Bangladesh to be friends with India. I have explained my views on Indo-Bangla relations in greater detail in one of my previous articles.

B. Raman says that “It was sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause at New Delhi when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and in Tamil Nadu, which induced India to take up their cause in the 1980s.” Correct. There was a great deal of sympathy in India for the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle for greater rights. However, I’m not sure if sympathy alone was the reason why India supported the LTTE and other Tamil groups who were carrying out an armed struggle. B. Raman provides a clue as to the real reason why India got involved in Sri Lanka. B. Raman says “There is no reason why India should not pride itself and seek to be the paramount power of the region. To emerge and remain as the paramount power, we need natural allies in the region around us. We should not let the legitimate aspirations of our natural allies---whether they be the Sindhis and Balochs of Pakistan or the Sri Lankan Tamils--- be crushed by a brutal regime--- whether in Islamabad or in Colombo.”

I guess Indira Gandhi decided that India ought to be the paramount power in South Asia. She most probably had advisors like B. Raman who egged her on.

Does B. Raman want India to get involved in the Baloch struggle for freedom? B. Raman says, “Since 1947, the Balochs rose twice in revolt in favour of independence for their homeland. On both occasions, they were defeated by the Pakistani Armed Forces as decisively as the LTTE by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. The Pakistani leadership brutally used the Air Force against the Balochs to crush their freedom struggle. Undaunted by this, the Baloch people, under a new leadership, rose in revolt for a third time two years ago and their third war of independence is still going on.

I guess B. Raman wants to do another Bangladesh in Balochistan. I don’t claim to know much about Balochistan, but I do know that the creation of Bangladesh has not made India’s eastern flank secure. Lots of Indian insurgents have found sanctuary in Bangladesh and continue to do so. No, I am not saying that India should not have helped create Bangladesh. There was a genocide going on in East Pakistan and India’s intervention was very correct, whatever may have been India’s real motive. I just wonder, if Pakistan were to break up into small pieces, won’t the Taliban find it easier to control and take over those small states? I don’t know. I am no intelligence expert, unlike B. Raman.

B. Raman finds parallels between the Sri Lankan victory over the LTTE and the Pakistani victories over the Balochis. He says that “The remarkable victory of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces against the LTTE was partly due to their improved counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism capabilities made possible by Indian assistance in the form of training and sharing of intelligence and partly due to their emulating the Pakistani Armed forces in the brutal use of the Air Force against people whom they portray as their own. Just as the Balochs were defenceless against the brutal Pakistani air strikes, the Sri Lankan Tamils were defenceless against the Sri Lankan air strikes.

I am slightly confused here. Is B. Raman saying that the Sri Lankan Air Force should not have bombed LTTE targets? Is he saying that the Sri Lankan Air Force intentionally bombed civilian targets? I do believe that the Sri Lankan Air Force bombed LTTE’s assets without worrying too much about collateral damage to civilians. However, the Sri Lankans had lost control over northern and north eastern Sri Lanka. Did B. Raman expect them to not use the Sri Lankan Air Force against the LTTE, especially when the LTTE itself used its limited air power against the Lankans?

B. Raman goes on to make a totally incorrect statement, something very unlike B. Raman. He says that “The US has used air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan----but in foreign territory and against foreign nationals. Only three countries in the world have used air strikes in their own territory against their own people---- the Pakistanis against the Balochs, the Russians against the Chechens and the Sri Lankans against the Tamils.” Surely B. Raman remembers what happened in Mizoram on the 4th and 5th of March 1966? Those were the two days when the Indian Air Force bombed Mizoram’s capital city Aizawl. For those unaware of Mizoram’s history, in 1959, Mizoram was in the grip of a famine caused by the flowering of bamboo shoots, something which happens only once every fifty years or so. The famine gave rise to the Mizo National Famine Front, which later became the Mizo National Front under the Pu Laldenga’s leadership. The Mizo National Front started an insurgency for total freedom, after the famine was badly handled by New Delhi and resulted in lots of deaths. Well, to cut a long story short, when India lost all control over Aizawl, the Indian Air Force was sent into to bomb the town. Which it did on the afternoon of 4 March 1966 and more extensively on 5 March 1966. I assume B. Raman is very much aware of this, considering his intelligence background. So, why would he make that very incorrect statement above? I just don’t know.

B. Raman makes it very clear that he doesn’t trust the Sri Lankan authorities to give the Tamils a fair deal. He says (sic) “President Mahinda Rajapakse has repeatedly promised that once the LTTE is defeated, he would be generous in meeting the political aspirations of the Tamils. He gives the impression of being a sincere man, but will the Sinhalese Army with its head bloated by its success against the LTTE allow him to do so? The indicators till now are not encouraging. Many Sri Lankan officers might have been trained in India, but their mindset and their attitude towards the minorities have more in common with those of their Pakistani counterparts than with those of their Indian counterparts. Therein lies the danger that after winning the war against the LTTE, the Government, strongly influenced by a victorious army, might trey to impose a dictated peace on the Tamils.

If the angry Tamils once again look up to India, there is no reason why we should not reciprocate provided a new leadership emerges in the Tamil community and it has drawn the right lessons from the brutalities of the LTTE.

The LTTE is deservedly dying, but long live the Tamil cause.

All of this raises the following questions. Let’s assume that the Sri Lankan Tamils are not given equal rights. Should India get involved in Sri Lanka once more? B. Raman himself has used the word ‘traditional homeland of Tamils.’ In other words, Tamils have lived in Northern and North-Eastern Sri Lanka since time immemorial. They are not Indian nationals or even persons of Indian origin. If that is the case, why should India get too bothered about Sri Lankan Tamil rights? The Sri Lankan Tamils have ties to India on account of shared language and culture, but then, so do the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese are immigrants from places like Kalinga and Magadha in India and they speak a language derived from Sanskrit. Their main religion is one espoused by one of the greatest Indians ever – Shri Gautama Buddha. In any event, why should India care more about Sri Lankan Tamil rights than what India cares about the rights of say, Nepali minorities in Bhutan? Aren’t Nepalis friendly towards India?

Let’s assume that India successfully arm-twists the Lankans into giving more rights to the Tamils, without breaking up Sri Lanka. What happens after that? Will the majority Sinhalese admire India for having done that? Will India be treated as a friend thereafter? What if the Sinhalese decide to get really close with the Chinese? What if the Tamils start another violent movement for independence? Will India continue to support the Tamil cause?

I think India should follow a strict policy of non-intervention in the affairs of its neighbouring countries. This should also mean not raising causes such as the Tamil cause or the Chakma cause or the Balochi cause in international fora, unless the issues involved are something on the lines of what took place in East Bengal (genocide, resulting in the deaths of over 2 million Bengalis).

India may be the Big Brother in the South Asian neighbourhood. However, being Big Brotherhood carries more responsibilities than rights. No country, however small likes to be controlled by another. No country would even like to give the impression that it is controlled by another. India must tread softly in its neighbourhood. A Big Brother who is admired and respected by his younger siblings, rather than feared, will be able to command (and not demand) their loyalty. If Sri Lanka were to feel that India will not meddle in Sri Lankan affairs, it is unlikely to go out of its way to court China.

Thankfully, India’s current official approach to the Sri Lankan issue is much more sensible than it used to be. India is officially staying out of the dispute and unofficially helping the Sri Lankan government with military assistance and training (as penance for the help India mistakenly gave the LTTE?). I should also point out that there are many Indian commentators with an official or Indian army background who take a much more sensible view than the one expressed by B. Raman in this article. Please take a look at this article by Major General Ashok Mehta once the General Officer Commanding (South) of the Indian Peace Keeping Force or this one or this one by Col Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence officer of the Indian Army.

Rather than say “long live the Tamil cause,” Indians ought to say “India should never again get involved in the Sri Lankan Tamil cause.”

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Book Review: Singing to the Dead by Caro Ramsay

Caro Ramsay is a new writer on the block who was described as a ‘female Ian Rankin’ after her critically acclaimed first novel ‘Absolution’ was published. I have read a fair number of detective stories and I believe that among contemporary detective fiction writers, Ian Rankin is numero uno. I haven’t read Ramsay’s first novel ‘Absolution’, but after reading ‘Singing to the Dead’, I can say that Ramsay does deserve to be called the ‘female Ian Rankin’. And I am not saying this because both writers are Scottish.

I think it is tougher to review detective fiction than any other form of writing since it is so very important to not give the plot away. What’s the point in reading a detective story if you already know the plot? Not only should the reviewer not even hint at the ending, it is also important to not to give readers (of the review) too much of an idea as to what to expect in the book. On the other hand, by saying too little, the reviewer may fail to convey his impressions and criticisms of the book. One needs to strike just the right balance, not an easy task, so wish me luck.

Unlike Rankin’s Inspector Rebus stories which are set mainly in Edinburgh, ‘Singing to the Dead’ is set in Glasgow. It’s just before Christmas and it’s snowing. The Partickhill police squad has a new boss, who isn’t very popular. Many officers at the squad are down with flu and the ones still on their feet are constantly fighting. At such a delicate time, emergencies erupt. Two boys go missing in quick succession and a series of cyanide poisonings take place. Local lad Rogan O’Neill has returned to Glasgow with his very beautiful Canadian (and pregnant) girlfriend so that the baby can be delivered in Scotland. The squabbling police officers set out (in their own divergent ways) to solve the crimes. And then a third child, the son of one of the policemen, goes missing.

Ramsay’s standout achievement in this novel is that though there are more than a dozen major characters, she manages to dab flesh and blood on each of them. There are good people, bad people and many shades of grey. Ramsay is very effective in showing us various hues of each character and at times, suddenly without much warning, a character’s colour changes from black to white or to grey. Just as in Rankin’s Inspector Rebus stories, the rivalries and petty politics between the detectives is fleshed out in great detail and form a brilliant backdrop to the crimes.

If you like Ian Rankin, especially his Inspector Rebus series, you will like Ramsay’s ‘Singing to the Dead’.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Gurkhas Seek Justice, They Get The Law Instead

Ever since the first Anglo-Nepalese war (1814-1816) when the Nepalese impressed the hells out of the Brits by their sheer grit and bravery, Gurkhas have been recruited into the British army. For the last odd 195 years, Gurkhas have served the British Empire and later the British government in various war zones. They fought against the Sikhs in both the Anglo-Sikh wars in 1846 and 1848. Later when the Bengal Regiment mutinied against the British, leading to the First War of Indian Independence, the Gurkhas (along with the Sikhs) stayed loyal to the British. They also fought for the British Empire in Burma and Afghanistan.

During the First World War, around 200,000 Gurkhas served with the British army, in the killing fields of France and Belgium and in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, suffering around 20,000 casualties and winning over 2,000 gallantry awards. The number of Gurkha soldiers went over 250,000 during the Second World War. Though many a British Indian soldier defected to the Indian National Army, only a handful of Gurkhas deserted the British to fight for the Japanese.

After India’s independence in 1947, four of the ten Gurkha regiments in the British Indian army were transferred to the British army, while the remaining six went to the newly formed Indian army. Post 1947, the British army’s Gurkhas were based in Malaya and later in Hong Kong. They played an important role in crushing the communist insurgency in Malaya and also took part in the Falklands war.

After Hong Kong changed hands in 1997, the Gurkhas began to be stationed in the UK itself. On retirement, Gurkhas would return to Nepal and receive a pension, that was good money in Nepal, though much less than what the average British soldier received on retirement. Currently a Gurkha pensioner in Nepal is paid £173 a month, around three times the pension received by Gurkhas who served in the Indian army.

The Gurkhas are not the only foreigners to serve in the British army. However, they form the biggest chunk of foreign nationals serving the UK. Until the beginning of this century, there were very few foreigners in the British army, other than the Gurkhas. However, a shortage of recruits forced the British army to look to various commonwealth countries for additional manpower. The response was overwhelming. From the West Indies, Fiji and South Africa, foreign nationals responded in large numbers to join the British army. By 2005, there were almost 6,000 foreign nationals, other than Gurkhas, serving in the British army. The number increased to 7,000 in 2007. Since the Gurkhas number around 3,000, this meant that currently 10% of the 100,000-strong British army consists of foreigners. In the last two years, the British army has drastically reduced the intake of non-Gurkha foreigners into the army.

Since 1980, the Home Office has allowed foreign soldiers serving in the British army to settle in the UK under a policy called the Armed Forces Concession. However, Gurkhas have been excluded from the Armed Forces Concession since their terms of service did not provide for settlement in the UK. This position changed in 2004 when the Home Office changed the rules and extended the Armed Forces Concession to Gurkhas who had served in the army after 1997 (when the Gurkhas began to be stationed in the UK itself). Such Gurkhas could apply for settlement in the UK like other foreign soldiers in the British army. Those who retired prior to this date could not settle in the UK, since they had no ‘ties to the UK.’

In 2008, the 26,500 odd ex-Gurkhas receiving a British army pension in Nepal, who had been discharged out of Hong Kong prior to 1997, started a movement called the Gurkha Justice Campaign, for the right to settle in the UK. A review petition was filed in the High Court by five Gurkha veterans (Lance Corporal Gyanendra Rai, Rifleman Deo Prakash Limbu, Corporal Chakra Limbu, Lance Corporal Birendra Shrestha and Rifleman Bhim Gurung) and the widow of a Gurkha veteran (Mrs Gita Mukhiya) challenging the British government’s refusal to grant them entry visas. British actress Joanna Lumley whose father served with the Gurkhas, led the campaign.

In September 2008, the High court ruled that the policy which excluded Gurkhas who served prior to 1997 was unlawful. However, the High court also ruled that the difference in policy towards Gurkhas and other foreign soldiers was not racist. The Home Office was asked to issue new guidance on how applications from Gurkhas who retired before 1997 should be treated.

On 24 April 2009, a new policy was announced by the Home Office. Under the newly announced policy, there is no automatic right to settle in the UK for Gurkhas who retired before 1997. However, those pre-1997 Gurkhas who meet one of five conditions will qualify for UK settlement. The conditions are as follows:

1. Three years continuous residence in the UK during or after service. Gurkhas who quit before 1997 are unlikely to have this since they were based in Hong Kong.

2. Close family in the UK. Again, there will be very few pre-1997 Gurkhas who will have family members in the UK.

3. A bravery award of level one to three. The Gurkhas are brave, but not all soldiers win medals. Also, prior to 1997, there weren’t too many battles in which the UK was involved.

4. Service of 20 years or more in the Gurkha brigade. Only officers are allowed to serve for more than 20 years. Those who don’t make officer grade, are forced to quit earlier.

5. Chronic or long-term medical condition caused or aggravated by military service.

The Home Office’s intention is obviously to make sure that not all of the 26,500 odd ex-Gurkhas receiving British army pensions in Nepal make it to the UK. The UK is in recession and though there is a great deal of public sympathy for the Gurkhas, admitting 26,500 pensioners and their families will definitely cost the British taxpayer. The Home Office has said that the new rules will allow about 4,300 more Gurkhas to settle in the UK, but the Gurkha Justice Campaign has said that not more than 100 Gurkhas will make it through under the new rules.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the Gurkhas, but it is not difficult to understand the British government’s position as well. The Gurkhas are foreigners hired under a contract to serve the UK. The Gurkhas have performed yeoman service, but that does not entitle them to anything more than what their service contracts state. When the pre-1997 Gurkhas were hired, they were never told that they would have the right to settle in the UK. It is true that foreigners other than Gurkhas have got a much better deal, but then contracts are like that. You get what you sign up to and this applies even to very brave soldiers, unless your employer decides to give you a bonus or a little extra. The Gurkhas sought justice, but found the law instead.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Sauce for the Terrorist Goose Isn't Sauce For the Terrorist Gander

The US Department of State has a beautiful and very impressive website. This splendid website has a section which lists out the foreign organizations that are designated by the Secretary of State under the Immigration and Nationality Act to be Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Sixteenth in this list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations, you will find the Hizballah, which the US Department of State has helpfully translated as the ‘Party of God’.

Since the Hizballah is a designated terrorist organisation, it should come as no surprise that on 23 April 2009, a Pakistani immigrant cable operator in New York City named Javed Iqbal was sentenced to almost 6 years in jail for offering his customers Al Manar TV, Hizballah’s TV channel through his Brooklyn-based satellite television company, HDTV Limited. Iqbal’s lawyers tried to argue that Iqbal did not offer Al Manar TV for ideological reasons. The forty-five year old father of five children whose wife is expecting a sixth one, also offered his customers a Christian evangelical channel, a gay and lesbian channel and adult movies. However, the judge bought the prosecutors’ argument that Iqbal was the Hizballah’s man in New York City. When Iqbal was originally arrested in August 2006, his defence lawyers had unsuccessfully tried to argue that he was entitled to distribute channels of his choice by virtue of his right to free speech under the first amendment.

Of course, the Hizballah is not the only foreign terrorist organisation listed by the US Department of State. If you will scroll down the list, you will find another organisation, very similar to the Hizballah, at number twenty six. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which goes by the acronym LTTE, is not much different from the Hizballah. Like the Hizballah, the LTTE also recruits and uses suicide bombers. It doesn’t really care about the civilians it claims to fight for. In one respect the LTTE is much worse than the Hizballah, that is with regard to the use of forcibly recruited child soldiers.

Now that the LTTE is in its death throes, supporters of the LTTE based in western countries have taken to the streets in large numbers to pressurise their national governments to press the Sri Lankan government for a cease fire. In the United States, LTTE’s supporters have held rallies in front of the United Nations Building and elsewhere.

In Canada, supporters of the LTTE have blocked and closed down Ottawa's main Wellington Street, which is the main access road to Parliament Hill. They have been waving the LTTE’s flags.

Something very similar is happening in London, where supporters of the LTTE have been besieging Parliament square for many days now, blocking traffic and making life difficult for commuters.

This is not to say that western nations have not cracked down on those raising funds or procuring weapons for the LTTE. They have.

It is interesting to see that while so many LTTE supporters freely proclaim their support for the LTTE and propagate its messages, especially over the internet, a man who distributed Al Manar is sentenced for almost 6 years.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, once an organisation is designated as a terrorist organisation, it is unlawful for any person in the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, to knowingly provide "material support or resources" to such organisation. The Home Office doesn’t officially make a distinction between foreign terrorist organisations which fight US interests and the interests of its allies, like the Hizballah, and terrorist organisations which don’t directly harm US interests, like the LTTE. However, to my mind, it appears that this distinction is the only reason why the LTTE’s supporters in the US and other western countries get off so lightly when compared to supporters of organisations like the Hizballah.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Should India Speak Up for the European Romani?

I heard of the Romani for the first time over a dozen years ago when I was still in college. Term was about to get over and we were all preparing to go home. A friend of mine was packing his bags to leave for Prague where his father, a diplomat, was posted. While we would catch a train or bus to get to our destinations, this chap would fly to Prague. Naturally we were all very jealous and it came as a surprise when my friend told me that Prague is not the nicest places on earth, for an Indian that is.

‘Why is that?’ I asked him.

‘Because Indians tend to get mistaken for Gypsies.’


‘That’s right. There are Gypsies in Prague who look like us.’


‘Yeah! And the Czechs don’t like the Gypsies.’

Apparently my friend was advised carry a book and wear glasses to show that he was educated and not a gypsy.

I didn’t give that conversation further thought till I came to the UK. Gypsies or Travellers are news items in the UK and they routinely hit the front pages, usually for the wrong reasons. Most people in the UK hate Gypsies and Travellers, which terms are used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, Gypsies are people of South Asian origin and Travellers are people of Caucasian stock who follow nomadic ways. However, the pan-European term used for Gypsies of South Asian origin is Romani. In Central and Eastern Europe, they are called the Roma.

Not all modern day Romani look South Asian. Caucasian genes have definitely made a backdoor entry and many Romani have blue eyes and light skin.

Almost all experts agree that the Romani one finds in Europe originated from the Indian sub-continent. There are various theories as to how they got to Europe. One theory is that the Romani are descendants of Indian soldiers defeated by Islamic invaders and taken to Central Asia as slaves. These slaves later migrated to Europe. Another theory is that they are the descendants of nomadic Indian tribes like the Banjara who happened to migrate out of India across the Hindu-Kush. In any event, it is agreed that the Romani left India during the 11th century and slowly made their way through Turkey and Greece into the heartland of Europe. Currently one can find Romani populations in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Romania, Hungary, Germany, the UK etc.

The Romani are mostly Christian, except in Turkey where they follow Islam. Romani values and practices are still that of a pre-industrial era. Joint families and child marriages are common. The various Romani dialects clearly show their South Asian origin. For example, numerals in Romani are strikingly similar to Hindi. Ekh, Duj, Trin, Star, Pandz, Des and Biz are One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Ten and Twenty respectively. If you wanted to say “My name is …” in Romani, you would say “Miro nav si” The Romani did not receive a warm welcome in Europe.

In order to make things easier for themselves, they gave out that they were Egyptians exiled for having harboured infant Jesus. The word ‘Gypsy’ arises out of ‘Aigyptoi’, the Greek word for Egypt. Despite this subterfuge, they were persecuted almost everywhere in Europe. In places like Moldavia and Walachia, the Romani were made slaves. They were at times (wrongly) associated with the Ottoman Empire and treated as Turkish spies.

The Romani have in various European countries been prohibited from owning horses or wagons, something de rigueur for their nomadic lifestyles and forcibly drafted into the army. Use of Romani language and attire was prohibited in Spain in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into mainstream society. Persecution of the Romani did not decrease in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1880, Argentina formally banned the migration of the Romani. The United States followed suit in 1885. Norway (may be with the best of intentions) forcibly took Romani children from their parents and placed them in state institutions so that Romani culture would be eradicated altogether.

Hitler paid special attention to the Romani. They definitely did not fit into his idea of a noble Aryan state and (possibly) a million Romani perished in Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. I wonder if the Indians who still admire Hitler are aware that he killed over a million human beings on account of their South Asian appearance. Even after the second world, the Romani continued to face persecution, especially in Eastern Europe which tried to forcibly assimilate them into mainstream society. Romani language and music were banned in Bulgaria. In Czechoslovakia, many Romani were forcibly sterilised. I find it amazing that all this happened at a time when India was a Soviet ally. Surely the Indian government knew what was going on. Why didn’t someone at least protest?

After many Eastern European countries joined the EU, many Romani from Eastern European countries have tried to migrate to Western Europe along with other East Europeans. The welcome given to the Romani has been a substantially chillier than the less-than-warm welcome given to East Europeans in general. Italy fingerprints all Romani migrants and Romani settlements have been set on fire.

It must be said that the Romani do not show the slightest inclination to give up their nomadic way of living and adopt a mainstream lifestyle. Like any other community, the Romani have their share of pickpockets, thieves, murderers and other criminals. However, unlike other communities, since the Romani do not follow any fixed trade or profession, the entire community is easily stereotyped as a bunch of criminals. The Romani tend to be treated with suspicion by the police and other members of public. Harsh treatment and arbitrary arrests of the Romani tend to be higher than average. When all members of a community are considered to be criminals and nothing good is expected of them, the propensity to turn to crime increases.

All of this raises a very interesting question. Unlike the aborigines of Australia or the Native Americans, the Romani are not natives of Europe. They are immigrants. Are they entitled to the same rights and protections which aborigines and Native Americans have been granted in recent times to carry on with their traditional lifestyles? In a generous and prosperous world where there is enough for everybody, the answer could be a Yes. After all, the Romani have been in Europe for many centuries now. However, in a recession hit world, the answer is most likely to be a sad shake of the head.”

So far the Romani have not (to my knowledge) sought to rekindle their ties to India or any other South Asian country. This is doubtless on account of India’s poverty and the perceived lack of opportunities for new arrivals, vis-à-vis Europe. However, if the Romani continue to face persecution in Europe and if India’s economy does well (relatively), the Romani may (rightly in my opinion) look to India for assistance. If it does, I wonder if Free Market India will lend a helping hand to these poor and long lost people.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A Win-Win Situation for Ahmadinejad and the West

The UN holds a conference on racism in Geneva. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is invited to speak at this conference. A few Jewish students from the Union of Jewish Students in France wearing colourful wigs try to disrupt Ahmadinejad’s speech. They are hustled out.

In typical fashion, Ahmadinejad starts his address with an Islamic prayer. Later he goes on to brand Israel a "cruel and oppressive racist regime". He says the state of Israel was created "on the pretext of Jewish suffering" from the Second World War. As soon as he does that, diplomats from the UK, France, Spain and a few other western countries walk out. Who wins?

I don’t have much sympathy for Ahmadinejad. However, it must be said that he is a politician who holds office after winning a democratic election. He represents the people of Iran. Like any politician, Ahmadinejad will do whatever it takes for him to keep his constituency happy. The Iranian economy is not doing well at all, thanks to oil prices hitting rock bottom. Now, Ahmadinejad manages to look like a hero on TV, standing up to western powers in defence of Palestine.

Later U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issues a statement criticizing Ahmadinejad for having used the conference "to accuse, divide and even incite." Ban Ki-moon says that he had spoken to Ahmadinejad and asked him not to focus on "divisiveness" in his address. Predictably, Ahmadinejad has not heeded Ban Ki-moon’s request.

Ahmadinejad is known for his love and affection towards Israel. It is expected that he will say something nasty and irritating. The Western ambassadors’ walk-out is also planned in advance. I guess their foreign ministers ordered them to do so in order to please Jewish voters in the West.

A true win-win situation for everyone!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

A Follow-Up Letter to the Dalai Lama

Your Holiness,

I hope that you have had the chance to read my previous letter to you.

After posting my missive to you on the internet, something important took place, something totally different from what I had assumed, as a result of which I have penned my second epistle.

If your holiness were to cast your mind back, you may recall that I had ended my first dispatch on the following note.

“If the current economic recession were to continue, China will not be able to provide employment for many of its restless millions. If economic unrest were to spread in China, which now has a vast rich-poor divide, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile might be able to bargain a certain degree of autonomy for itself.”

Your holiness, the economic recession is continuing, but the most affected countries are in the western world. China is also affected, but not to the extent western countries are. More importantly, the chances of civil unrest in China don’t seem to be very high. If anything, western nations look much more vulnerable than China! The reason for this is very simple. China does have a large and young work force which migrated to the cities in large numbers. Many workers are indeed unemployed. China does not offer a safety net consisting of the unemployment dole or retirement pensions, as western countries do. However, because Chinese workers have very low expectations, and because China has benefited from free market economy in the last 30 years, no one in China seems to want to agitate against the state or to turn the clock back. On the contrary, workers in western nations have such high expectations and take so many things for granted that if things get really bad, they are much more likely to revolt. In the case of an internal revolt, China has a tough internal security system which can suppress civil unrest to a large extent, whilst western nations don’t have anything of that sort. Already one hears of managers being held hostage by French and Belgian workers!

The net impact of this development is that the so-called liberal nation states of the world have a lot less leverage over China than ever before. Even before the recession, the developed nations were unwilling to use what little clout they had to force China make concessions over Tibet.

Your holiness, there is no doubt in my mind that the Tibetan community has got a raw deal from China and the rest of the world. However, rather than cry over spilt milk, it is important to make the best of a bad situation and move on. In this context, your holiness, it is important to carry out a ruthless analysis of the Tibetan situation and your position within the Tibetan community and Buddhists worldwide.

Your holiness, I always wondered why the Tibetan cause is not so very important to Buddhists across the world. Why doesn’t the Tibetan struggle mean as much to Buddhists as what the Palestinian struggle means to Muslims? Why aren’t your travails causing Buddhists all over the world, including in China, to rise up in arms if you are the living incarnation of Avalokiteshvara (Ocean of Wisdom), the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas? Why is Sri Lanka, a very devout Buddhist nation, so close to and friendly with your oppressor China?

I don’t claim to be an expert on Buddhism your holiness. However, I did a little bit of reading up and this is what I found. Buddhism has two main branches, the Theravada (or Hinayana) and Mahayana. Theravada is prevalent in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and various other parts of South East Asia. It is called the southern branch of Buddhism. Mahayana is prevalent in China, Japan and various other parts of East Asia. Theravada’s philosophy revolves around original Buddhist texts in Pali. Mahayana is much more liberal and also accepts later works in Sanskrit, in addition to the Pali texts. The Buddhism followed in Tibet is a version of Mahayana. However, it has substantial differences from mainstream Mahayana especially because it has a lot more rituals.

Unlike Muslims or Christians, there is no great rivalry between various Buddhist sects, as befits a genuinely peaceful religion. However, other than Tibetan Buddhists, no other sect of Buddhism recognises your holiness as an incarnation of a bodhisattva or an enlightened one! Even within Tibetan Buddhism, there are four schools and your holiness is the head of only one of the four schools, namely the Gelugpa school. For Buddhists outside Tibet, you are just a teacher, one of many Buddhist teachers. Each Buddhist enclave has its own head teacher. For example, in Bhutan, the senior-most Buddhist monk is called the Je Khenbo, who is the highest authority for Bhutanese Buddhists.

In other words, your holiness, you have very little authority or even influence over Buddhists other than Tibetan Buddhists.

Your holiness, when the Chinese took over Tibet, they said that they were rescuing Tibetan serfs from their cruel overlords, who were all Lamas. Your holiness, there was a great deal of truth in what the Chinese said. Tibet was a cruel and feudal society. The Buddhist clergy, the Lamas, controlled most of the land and held Tibetan serfs in bondage. Of course, that did not give China the right to invade Tibet, any more than European countries had the right to conquer and rule the third world. However, it must be remembered that the Chinese revolution has managed to lift more people out of poverty than any other movement in the world. Autocratic China has done more for its poor than democratic India. The point I am making is that even though China has done its best to erase Tibetan culture, in economic terms it has brought prosperity to Tibet. In a way, the Chinese occupation of Tibet can be compared to the British colonisation of India. British rule was a mixed bag and brought many benefits to India, just as it drained away a lot of wealth from India. However, unlike the British in India, the Chinese don’t claim to be inherently and immutably superior to Tibetans. Rather, they claim that Tibetans are Chinese!

The biggest damage being done to Tibet by China is the transplanting of thousands of Han Chinese in Tibet. Further, the Tibet Autonomous Regions includes only half of cultural Tibet and many Tibetans live outside the region. Your holiness, when my initial letter to you was published on the internet, a Chinese blogger pointed out to me the success of the Plantation of Ulster and asked why China shouldn’t do something similar in Tibet. As your holiness knows, the Plantation of Ulster was carried out by the British in the 17th century by transplanting thousands of Scottish Presbyterians in Northern Ireland and settling them on land confiscated from the native Irish. The British created a local population that would always stay loyal to the crown. The Protestant Irish-Scots have stayed true to the British flag as a result of which Northern Ireland remains a part of the UK. In a similar manner, why shouldn’t the plantation of Tibet by Han Chinese work? In my opinion, your holiness, it may very well work. Sad, but true!

Your holiness, in the changed economic climate, with China getting stronger than ever, what can you do to get your community a better deal? I don’t know, your holiness. I don’t really have any bright ideas and I have a feeling that, neither do you.

In my opinion, your holiness, the best thing you can do is to give the overseas Tibetan community something that China can’t give, namely democracy. As I (rather impudently) suggested in my last letter, the political head of the overseas Tibetan community ought to be a democratically elected leader. Just as Europe managed to create a clear distinction between the church and the state, there ought to be a distinction between the Tibetan state and the Tibetan Buddhist clergy headed by you. Yes, your holiness, I am aware that the Tibetan government in exile ( has an elected parliament and a written constitution. But your holiness, everyone knows that real power still rests with you. Of course, this is result of the deep admiration and respect which Tibetans have for you. But it is important that you hand over power to a bunch of secular politicians and allow them to control the reins entirely.

Your holiness, once democracy is firmly entrenched within the overseas Tibetan community, it should be left to the Tibetan community to decide how best the struggle for Tibetan rights ought to be prosecuted. The democratically elected leaders of overseas Tibetans may choose to pursue a struggle for total independence. Or they may choose to negotiate with the Chinese and seek limited autonomy. They may even decide agree to become just another province of China in exchange for cultural freedom. But that decision (tough though it is) is for the Tibetan community to make in a democratic manner as befits the 21st century. It shouldn’t be up to a single individual who owes his position to an organised religion.

Once again, I wish Your Holiness and the people of Tibet all the best for the future.

With warm and sincere regards


Saturday, 18 April 2009

Land Reforms Finally Arrive in Pakistan

I always thought that effecting land reforms in Pakistan was the key to fighting Islamic fundamentalism. After the British vacated the sub-continent, India made a half-hearted attempt to ensure that tillers had some control over land. In a few regions like Kerala and West Bengal, land reforms were reasonably successful. In many places like Bihar, no headway has been made. However, Pakistan did not even make an attempt to redistribute its real estate. All political parties in Pakistan catered to the landed elite. Every prime minister and military dictator who held power in Pakistan has been pro-landlord. Land reforms never had a chance.

Now land reforms seem to be slowly taking off. Unfortunately, they are being implemented by the Taliban!

If only the Yanks could have insisted that Zia-ul-Haq also implement land reforms in addition to fighting the Soviets.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Noriko Calderon's Case - Is the Japanese Immigration Department Unduly Harsh?

Arlan Cruz Calderon and his wife Sarah Calderon illegally migrated to Japan in the early 1990s from their home in the Philippines. Their daughter Noriko was born in Japan. Arlan got himself a job with a construction company and Noriko went to school like any other Japanese girl, until the Calderons were detected in 2006 had deportation proceedings initiated against them.

The Calderons fought the immigration department’s deportation ruling till the last minute. Finally, the inevitable could no longer be avoided. The Calderon’s were asked to leave Japan and under Japanese law they cannot return for five years.

Daughter Noriko, however, was given a choice. She could leave Japan for the Philippines with her parents or she could stay back though she is not a Japanese national. Being born in Japan does not confer automatic citizenship, unless at least one parent is a Japanese national.

Thirteen year old Noriko opted to stay back in Japan and on 15 April 2009, the Calderons arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.

The Calderons’ lawyers collected around 2,000 signatures in support of the Calderons right to stay back. It was argued that Arlan has a stable job and that Noriko can speak only Japanese. The immigration department refused to budge.

The Japanese immigration department’s decision has been attacked by many as cruel and harsh on the Calderons. But is it? Consider this:

1. Noriko is not being forced to stay back. She has the option of going back to Philippines with her parents.

2. Should an illegal immigrant(s) get favourable treatment solely because s/he has a child?

3. Is going back to Philippines the end of the world? Philippines may not be a developed country, but surely people do get by over there.

There is no doubt that Japanese immigration law is very harsh compared to that of other developed countries. In the US, any child born in the US is entitled to US citizenship, irrespective of the status of the child’s parents. This used to be the case in the UK till 1983. Currently, any child born in the UK (even to illegal immigrants) can become a British citizen if the child lives in the UK until the age of 10.

By contrast, Japan does not have any form of amnesty for illegal immigrants. Being born in Japan does not confer citizenship, unless at least one parent is a Japanese national. Therefore, one finds many Japanese residents of foreign descent and nationality, especially Koreans, who have lived in Japan for many generations. Of course, Japan is not the only developed country with such harsh laws.

Swiss immigration laws are almost as harsh. Being born in Switzerland does not entitled one to Swiss nationality at any point. There are many foreign nationals who have lived in Switzerland for their entire lifetimes, who are unable to get Swiss citizenship. Theoretically, anyone who has lived in Switzerland for a dozen years and can speak one of the four Swiss languages can apply for Swiss nationality. A decision is made by the local Canton on the basis of how well the applicant has integrated into Swiss life. Many applicants are rejected. As a result, there are third generation Swiss residents who do not have Swiss nationality. In 2004, a bill was introduced which sought to give automatic Swiss nationality to individuals who have lived in Switzerland for three generations and an easier naturalisation process for the second generation. The bill was rejected, mainly as a result of opposition from the German speaking parts of Switzerland.

Of course, there are very rich countries whose immigration laws are much harsher than Switzerland or Japan. I am referring to the Sheikdoms in the middle-east, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but I wouldn't call them developed countries.

There is no doubt in my mind that Japan’s immigration laws are harsh. However, I don’t think the Japanese immigration department is being unduly harsh on the Calderons or on Noriko.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Democracy Under Stress in Thailand

Thailand is unique among South-East Asian states for having not been a colony of any Western power. The Thais managed to pull it off by playing the English against the French and later the Japanese against the French. Thailand follows the civil law system (as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon common law system) and has a highly respected and well entrenched monarchy. The King is so much respected that any hint of criticism draws a quick backlash. Journalists and even bloggers have received very long jail sentences for tarnishing the image of the monarchy.

Until 1932, Thailand was directly ruled by the King. A military coup resulted in a constitutional monarchy and military rule lasted for an uninterrupted 41 years. Even after that, the Thai military has remained a major power broker in Thailand.

Thailand has always had a sharp divide between the middle-classes and the poor who are concentrated in the north of the country. Traditionally, Thai political parties did not really cater to the poor. All that changed when Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made multi-millionaire and telecoms Mughal floated his own party (Thai Rak Thai or Thais love Thais) and became the prime minister in 2001. Though a very rich man, Thaksin instituted many pro-poor policies, especially pro-farmer policies and consolidated his power base in the north of the country. Thaksin was also successful in cutting red-tape and making the administration much more efficient. It must be added that Thaksin was never a saint and the whiff of corruption was never too far away.

In the 2005 elections, Thai Rak Thai (TRT) did even better than in 2001 and won 60.7%of the popular vote. It got 374 out of 500 parliamentary seats as against its previous tally of 296 seats.

The middle-classes never took the pro-poor Thaksin to heart and towards the end of 2005, large scale street protests erupted in Bangkok over allegations of corruption. The middleclass protestors wore yellow, to symbolise their support for the monarchy (an indirect accusation that Thaksin was anti-monarch). The protests were coordinated by the main opposition party, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) led by its new leader, UK-born, Eton and Oxford educated Abhisit Vejjajiva. Thaksin was accused of a plot to overthrow the monarchy.

In 2006, Thaksin ordered a snap election which the opposition boycotted. In 38 constituencies, the minimum quorum of 20% votes was not available and this resulted in a constitutional crisis. Thaksin was forced to step down, though he continued as a caretaker prime minister.

In September 2006, the pro-middle class military staged a coup when Thaksin was overseas. The Junta that took over power banned TRT on the grounds of corruption and drafted a new constitution which is supposed to be harsher on corruption and politicians with vested interests (read Thaksin). Despite all that, when elections were held in December 2007, the opposition PAD could not come to power. The People’s Power Party (PPPP), a front for the banned TRT, won the elections. The PPP formed a government in January 2008 and in February 2008 Thaksin returned to Thailand.

Soon however, the yellow-clad Bangkok middle-class protestors returned to the streets to lead widespread protests against the PPP. Government buildings were occupied, trains were disrupted and even Bangkok airport was not spared. The government was paralysed and not allowed to function.

The street protestors (organised by the opposition PAD) wanted to replace democracy with a system where not every adult can vote and certain sections of society alone have the right to nominate representatives to Parliament. Not for them a democracy where the poor from the north would have a say in government!

Thaksin and the TRT continued to be plagued by corruption charges, especially the charge that they paid money for votes and tried to bribe Supreme Court judges hearing corruption charges against Thaksin. In the summer of 2008, Thaksin went to Beijing for the Summer Olympics and did not return. Instead he went to the UK and sought asylum.

Towards the end of 2008, several government M.Ps joined the opposition PAD. The military is supposed to have forced or coerced them to do so. In December 2008, the PAD had sufficient numbers to be able to form the government. Abhisit Vejjajiva became the prime minister on 15 December 2008.

In the last week of March 2009, taking a page from PAD supporters, Thaksin’s supporters from the north, dressed in red to symbolise their support for democracy, jammed the streets of Bangkok, trying to paralyse Vijjejiva’s government, doing to the PAD what the yellow-clad PAD supporters had earlier done to TRT and PPP when they held power. A summit of Asian leaders in Thailand had to be cancelled after anti-government protesters broke into the venue in the resort of Pattaya. The poor protestors in red wanted Abhisit Vejjajiva to stand down from office and hold elections, calling him a puppet of the military. However, after 3 weeks of protests, the army was successful in forcing the protestors off the streets.

In a sense, the temporary failure of the redshirts (as opposed to the success of the yellow shirts during the agitation against Thaksin’s government a couple of years ago) clearly exposes the army’s bias. The military did almost nothing when confronted by the yellow shirts, but was strict and firm towards the red shirts.

My sympathies are instinctively with the red-clad protestors from the poor villages in the north who are fighting for democracy. I am sure the protestors will return to the streets pretty soon. It is surprising to see that in the 21st century, a large section of the Thai middle-class is willing to violently agitate to turn the clock back and rein in democracy. Thaksin is no saint, but he is no more corrupt than the average Thai politician. I hope that he is able to return to Thailand and form a pro-poor government as he so richly deserves.

Monday, 13 April 2009

How can we fight Islamic Fundamentalism?

George Bush’s War of Terror wasn’t meant to take very long, even though the ‘mission’ was the total destruction of ‘evil’, ‘evil’ being equated interchangeably with Islamic Fundamentalism, the Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, the Baath Party and the Taliban. When the fighting dragged on a little longer than expected, it was given out that total victory was just around the corner.

Now that we have Obama in the White House and Obama being one of those nice, I-Will-Always-Say-The-Right-Thing sort of chaps, the sound bytes floating around are very different. There is talk of making peace with Islamic fundamentalists wherever they agree to live and let live. Just as the passion for casting Iraq and Afghanistan in the western mould has dimmed, we are told by various commentators and columnists that there is nothing wrong in letting Islamic hardliners control areas which have traditionally followed Islamic laws and practices.

In Iraq, the coalition troops have started making preparations to depart, with the British already on their way out. Iraq is slowly being painted as a success, though I wonder what sort of success it is to replace the secular Baathists with a Shiite party that has close ties to Tehran. In Afghanistan, the coalition troops have proved to be not much different or even nicer than the Soviet forces who were there from 1979 to 1989. Hind helicopters have been replaced by unmanned drones, but nothing else has really changed. Having made all the mistakes that the Reds made, the Americans and their friends are wondering if the tactics that worked in Iraq can be used in Afghanistan. In all probability they cannot since Afghanistan is a very different kettle of fish.

In both countries, the search for ‘moderate Taliban’ goes on.

Pakistan has gone a step ahead and struck a deal with the Taliban in Swat much against the wishes of the Yanks and other western powers giving the Taliban sway over that region. Even though western diplomats are seriously pondering how they can make peace with the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, they disapprove of Pakistan taking an apparently easy way out by making peace with the ‘not-so-moderate’ Taliban. They contend that peace deals merely allow the Taliban hardliners to buy time. I do think that this western point of view has some merit in it. Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan isn’t ‘lost’ territory and can’t be given up to fundamentalists in the faint hope that they will not use Pakistani territory to launch attacks a la 9/11. More importantly, the loss of Pakistan to the Taliban will be a devastating blow to not only the western world, but to the whole world.

As if they were determined to prove western fears to be true, the Taliban has not been content with merely getting authority over Swat. Baitullah Mesud’s men have been setting up parallel courts instead of just taking over the existing judicial infrastructure and painting it a Shariah green. The alternative Islamic courts being set up in Swat have been awarding punishments, as is to be expected, in accordance with the Shariah. A few days ago, a video of an young girl being flogged by the Taliban was widely circulated, disabusing anyone of any secret notions of a gentle Taliban.

To be honest, when I started writing this article, I titled it, Can We Live with the Taliban? That was over fifteen days ago and since then I have changed direction. The video of the seventeen-year old girl being flogged was the proverbial last straw. There can be no doubt in the mind of any sane person who has seen that video that the Taliban must be fought until they are defeated. If only we could believe that the Taliban would be content with control over their traditional heartlands! But no, there is no guarantee of that sort. There never was any. Here’s a beautiful article by Jawahara Saidullah on this point.

How can we fight Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban? Should democratic governments resort to tactics that are as dirty and violent as that used by the Taliban? This question brings to my mind the image of a mud-wrestling match between a man and a pig. The man assumes that he will win since he is stronger than the pig and he can and is willing to get as dirty and muddy as the pig. However he loses out in the end, because unlike the man, the pig actually enjoys getting muddy and dirty. The dirtier it becomes, the more the pig enjoys the wrestling match. The same is the case when fighting Islamic fundamentalists. The more vicious the tactics become, the more the Taliban seem to enjoy it. After all, martyrdom takes them straight to heaven and into the arms of 72 virgins.

To fight Islamic fundamentalism, one needs to understand the combination of causes that have facilitated the rapid expansion of Islamic fundamentalism beyond its traditional heartlands. In my opinion the main reason is the sense of injustice felt by the common Muslim on the street. They have been constantly told by their preachers and their rulers that the rest of the world has conspired to cheat them of Palestine, a land that was under Muslim domination for well over 1,000 years. They are told that the oil wealth of the middle-eastern states belongs to the entire Ummah, but they see little evidence of it in their daily lives. They have corrupt rulers who are propped up and kept in power by western countries for their own selfish reasons. As a result they have little say in their own governments. Amidst all these injustices arrive the fundamentalists who have a panacea for all of the Ummah’s problems. Islamic fundamentalists are (they don’t just appear to be) much more dedicated, selfless and democratic than the powers they seek to replace in countries like Pakistan and Egypt. So what if the fundamentalists preach a very puritanical and harsh form of Islam? When the fundamentalists practice what they preach and promise the earth (and heaven), they win more than a few supporters.

I don’t think that the core of Islamic fundamentalism is substantially bigger or denser than the fundamentalist core in other religions. There have been periods when Islam was the epitome of enlightenment and Christianity was wallowing in darkness. Currently, circumstances have conspired to enable Islamic fundamentalism to spread its wings and attract a greater percentage of followers that what one finds in other faiths.

The biggest handicap faced by the forces fighting Islamic fundamentalists is that they are bogged down by too many vested interests. Very little is being done to staunch the flow of funds from private donors in wealthy nations like Saudi Arabia to fundamentalist causes. The donations given may not be meant for direct terrorism per se, but sponsoring the spread of the Wahhabi form of Islam does make it easy for fundamentalists to make converts. Nothing is being done to force US client states like Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Kuwait to usher in real democracy. And most importantly, no American leader will even consider whispering to Israel that it might be a good idea to vacate the occupied territories and create a viable Palestinian state!

Further US policy continues to be very short-sighted. Take the case of Pakistan for example. It was used as a tool to fight soviet forces. Dictators like Zia-ul-haq and Musharaff were tolerated and even helped to stay in power. After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Asif Zardari was preferred over Nawaz Sharif solely because Sharif is unlikely to toe the American line as compliantly as Zardari. The USA didn’t seem to mind the fact that Zardari had little intention of reinstating the deposed judges or that in the long run, Sharif is a much better bet for stability in Pakistan.

I believe that rather than look for moderate Taliban, the rest of the world ought to look for and support democratic groups among Muslims irrespective of whether they are moderate or fundamentalist. Further, undemocratic groups like the various royal families of the Middle East, should not have any support, irrespective of whether they are fundamentalist or they patronise the casinos of Monte Carlo and Macao.

I don’t think there can be a quick fix solution to the problem of Islamic fundamentalism. In the short term, Islamic fundamentalism should be treated as a serious law and order problem. In one of my previous posts, I had argued that even the suspension of civil rights may be justified in places like Swat, if the alternative is to lose control of such region altogether. I continue to hold that view.

As long term goals, it is necessary to address the Palestinian issue and bring democracy (even a fundamentalist version of it) in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern states if violent Islamic fundamentalism is to be contained. Since the Al Qaeda is Sunni, it is tempting to say that the Shiites should be played against the Sunnis, but I don’t think such a strategy will work in the long run. What’s more, Bahrain’s rulers must be persuaded to grant the majority Shia more rights and ultimately become a democracy, which will result in a transfer of power from the ruling Sunnis to the oppressed Shia. Spreading democracy and addressing genuine global Islamic grievances like the Palestinian issue are the only way by which Islamic fundamentalism can ultimately be defeated.

Questions for the Protesting LTTE Supporters

Tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil supporters of the LTTE have been protesting in various western capitals, calling for western governments to force the Sri Lankan government to declare a permanent ceasefire. The protestors claim that the lives of many thousands of civilians trapped in the no-fire zone in the northern Vanni jungle are at risk and that a permanent ceasefire is absolutely vital to save those civilian lives. That such a ceasefire will also enable the LTTE to recover from the recent debacles and regroup, is not mentioned, though it is understood by all.

I have the following questions for the protestors:

Why aren’t the protestors calling on the LTTE to allow the trapped civilians to leave? Isn’t the LTTE much more guilty (than the Sri Lankan government) of putting those civilians at risk by holding on to them and using them as human shields?

It has been confirmed by some of the fleeing civilians that the LTTE has forcibly recruited many of the trapped civilians, including children, and forced them to fight the Sri Lankan army. The LTTE is merely continuing with its long term history of such forcible recruitment. Doesn’t this fact make a bit of difference to the protestors?

How would the protestors feel if their own children were forcibly recruited by the LTTE to fight the Sri Lankan government? After all, didn’t those protestors opt to leave Sri Lanka for the West rather than stay back and join the LTTE?

Are the protestors willing to give any form of assurance to their host (western) governments that if the Sri Lankan government were to agree to a long term ceasefire they will stop sending funds to the LTTE’s coffers?

Are the protestors willing to point out to their host governments the LTTE front men in their midst who carry out extortion, blackmail and other crimes in order to raise money for the LTTE?

And finally, why should those protestors have such a big problem if peace were to return to Sri Lanka? Is it because once the LTTE is wiped out and peace returns to Sri Lanka, the cottage industry of raising funds for the LTTE will also be wiped out and those fund raisers will lose their main source of livelihood? Is it because many of the protestors who are ‘refugees’ in the West may have to return to Sri Lanka?

Saturday, 11 April 2009

British Visas for Foreign Students – The Hidden Politics

Recently the British Police carried out a series of raids in Manchester, Liverpool and Clitheroe and arrested 12 suspects of whom 11 are of Pakistani origin. It turned out that many of the arrested suspects had entered the UK on student visas, exploiting the UK’s supposedly ‘lax’ student visa rules. Very soon after, the British Home Office issued a statement to the effect that student visa checks in Pakistan had been tightened in the fortnight prior to these arrests by taking fingerprints from all student applicants and checking if they have a police record in Pakistan. I am not sure how much effect this measure will have. For one, Pakistani police records are unlikely to have a comprehensive list of all militants and potential militants. Secondly, many student-militants may not have a criminal record at all.

Following the arrests and the subsequent furore, Pakistan's high commissioner to the UK, Wajid Shamsul Hasan suggested that the UK should allow the Pakistani security and intelligence services to vet applicants for student visas. I am not sure what Mr. Hasan’s proposal means in light of the British Home Office statement that since the last fortnight all student applicants are having their fingerprints taken and checked against Pakistani police records. If Mr. Hasan’s offer of help is accepted, I hope Pakistani students don’t end up having to bribe Pakistani security officials to ensure that their security clearances are given in time.

For many British educational institutions, foreign students from outside the European Union (EU) are an important source of revenue, since they pay substantially higher fees than local and EU-based students. Though most foreign students arrive in the UK for masters’ courses, a substantial number of them are undergraduates and even school students. It is not only elite institutions like Cambridge, Oxford and the London School of Economics which have large numbers of foreign students. Even universities low down in the pecking order and polytechnics admit non-EU students by the hundreds. At the bottom of this chain are the bogus colleges that act enrol foreign students, collect fees from them and allow them to enter the UK and work illegally while on a student visa. British educational institutions which depend on foreign students have always lobbied for an increase in the number of visas given to foreign students and a smoother student visa issuing process.

Britain on one hand wants to attract foreign students to the UK and enable British educational institutions to compete with institutions in the US, Australia and New Zealand in the war for rich international students paying fees way above local rates. On the other, the British government does not want the foreign students graduating from British universities to get jobs which would otherwise go to British nationals. For this reason, British employers cannot obtain a work permit for a foreign employee if that position can be filled by a British or other EU national.

The main criterion used by foreign students to assess the value of their UK degree is its value in the British job market. To address this issue, the British government instituted the Science & Engineering Graduates Scheme (SEGS) in October 2004. Under SEGS, post graduate students in a specified number of disciplines were allowed to stay on and work in the UK for up to 12 months after graduating from a British institution, without the need for a work permit. From 1 May 2007, the SEGS scheme was replaced by the International Graduates Scheme (IGS). Unlike SEGS, the IGS applied to international students from all disciplines who completed a degree from a British institution. The IGS has now been replaced by the Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) Migrant scheme, which allows students to stay on in the UK for two years after graduation and work, provided they obtain 75 points for their academic qualifications and work experience under a scoring table that is a vital cog in the newly instituted points based system for migrants to the UK.

The sad fact faced by international students in the UK is that after graduation most of them fail to find employment commensurate with their qualifications, with an employer who is willing to obtain a regular work permit for them. What has instead become common is for students to obtain a visa at their own expense under the IGS or Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) Migrant scheme, work in a position not appropriate for their achievements and abilities, and leave at the end of their visa or stay on as illegal immigrants.

In the light of the recent arrests, the argument for facilitating even easier access to British universities for foreign students is likely to flounder. Even before these arrests were made, the British government had required British educational institutions to register with the UK Border Agency before they are allowed to sponsor international students under the student tier (tier 4) of Britain's tough new points-based system. Of the more than 2,100 universities, independent schools and colleges that applied to accept international students, around 460 institutions were rejected.

Visa checks carried out by the British High Commission in Pakistan can only serve a very limited purpose. Visa checks can screen out applicants with fake degrees and bogus documents. They cannot screen out a genuine student who has the right qualifications and a militant or fundamentalist mind. The home office authorities are most probably well aware of this fact. Nevertheless, there is likely to be an increase in the number of student visa applications rejected by the British High Commission in Islamabad and Deputy High Commission in Karachi. Indian student applicants too may be affected since Jihadi elements can be found in India as well and fake passports and bogus documents can be obtained just as easily in India as in Pakistan.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Are Meera Sanyal and Captain Gopinath Doing the Right Thing?

Meera Sanyal, the head honcho of ABN Amro’s India branch, has taken time off work in order to stand for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections from Mumbai South Parliamentary constituency as an independent candidate. Apparently the plan of action is that if Sanyal wins, she will quit her job and dedicate herself fulltime to being a politician.

One thousand kilometres away from Meera Sanyal, Captain Gopinath, the man behind India's low-cost airline Air Deccan which sold out to Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher, is also making preparations to take on the might of established political parties as an independent candidate in Bangalore.

Both candidates have positioned themselves as clean outsiders who will speak up for the common man and make a difference. But will they, I wonder?

The Parliamentary form of government which India follows ensures that the party or coalition with the largest number of M.Ps calls all the shots. Such party or coalition will not only elect the Prime Minister, but will also be able to propel its candidate into the Rashtrapathi Bhavan when the Presidential elections take place. The system of issuing whips, sanctified by law and parliamentary protocol does not allow M.Ps to vote across party lines. In order words, an independent M.P. will not be able to make much difference on his own or her own, other than to may be ask a few pointed questions in Parliament.

This situation begs the following question. If a socially committed individual like Sanyal or Capt. Gopinath wants to enter politics and make a difference, what should he or she do?

The State Legislative Assemblies are miniature forms of the Central Parliament and a lone ranger M.L.A (Member of Legislative Assembly) cannot hope to accomplish much. Should Sanyal and Capt. Gopinath have joined a political party they found to be the least abominable and tried to change the system? The sad fact is that, in the current political scenario, reaching a position within a leading political party where one can make a difference is no easy task and usually requires the aspirant to cut a few corners. By the time one makes it to a position of power, one is corrupted by and is a part of the system that one set out to change.

Should Sanyal or Capt. Gopinath have tried to make a difference at the local level? Unfortunately, despite so much talk of decentralisation, the most powerful person in any city’s administrative set up is the Municipal Commissioner, a position filled by a senior bureaucrat appointed by the state government. In Mumbai, the chief of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation goes by the honorific ‘Mayor of Mumbai.’ This is a largely ceremonial post and does not carry any real powers. The Mayor is elected from among the corporators elected to the Municipal Council by various ‘wards’. Even these elections are fought on a party basis and in that sense are not particularly different from elections to the central Parliament or the Legislative Assemblies.

Something I find very disturbing about Sanyal and Captain Gopinath’s election campaigns is the inbuilt assumption that Sanyal and Captain Gopinath are superior to the candidates fielded by the established political parties. There can be no doubt that Sanyal and Capt. Gopinath have not been corrupted by the Indian political system yet. However, there is no guarantee that they will continue to be so clean if they are placed in positions of power. Further it cannot be said that their respective corporate experiences at ABN Amro or Air Deccan have equipped Sanyal or Capt. Gopinath to be able politicians. History is replete with examples of businessmen who took to politics and came a cropper. Politics is a totally different kettle of fish from running a business. If Sanyal or Capt. Gopinath were to land quasi-bureaucratic or quasi-administrative positions, they might do justice to such posts. However, it is very unlikely that the winning political party will hand over a plum post to an independent M.P. It looks even more unlikely that Sanyal or Capt. Gopinath will manage to make it to Parliament in the first place.

How to Throw a Shoe, Miss and Make Money

Jarnail Singh, a journalist, threw a shoe at P. Chidambaran, the Indian Home Minister in protest at the Indian government’s inaction towards those guilty of the anti-Sikh riots and killings after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Initial reports said that Chidambaram ducked the throw and then told the security men (without losing his composure) to deal with Jarnail Singh gently, following which Singh was let off with just an admonition.

My admiration for Chidambaram went up by many notches since I had no idea that he was as athletic as Bush who also managed to successfully duck in time when two shoes were hurled at him during a press conference, by Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi.

However I changed my opinion after I saw this video which shows Jarnail Singh sitting in the front row facing Chidambaram and make an underarm throw which looks as if it was intended to miss. Jarnail Singh’s throw is nowhere as ferocious or powerful as that of Muntadar al-Zeidi.

No, I’m not blaming Jarnail Singh for missing, for if he had hit the target, he would not be a free man today. The Shiromani Akalai Dal has awarded Jarnail Singh Two Hundred Thousand Rupees for this daring act.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Over 3000 Murders and Not a Single Murderer Has Been Punished

On 31 October 1984, two of Indira Gandhi’s body guards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh assassinated her using their service weapons as Gandhi was walking through the gardens of her official residence, on her way to be interviewed for an Irish television documentary. The assassination was in retaliation for the storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian army, an event which horrified India’s Sikh community and even caused many Sikh soldiers to desert en masse. A mini-pogrom was carried out against the Sikh community following Gandhi’s assassination and over 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone. Rajiv Gandhi who took over from Indira Gandhi unashamedly declared that ‘when a big tree falls, the ground shakes!’

Anecdotal evidence, and there is a lot of it, says that the killings in Delhi were co-ordinated by local Congress leaders who arranged for bus-loads of thugs to be sent to Sikh localities to carry out the killings. Two rumours made the rounds – that train-loads of Hindu dead bodies had arrived from Punjab and that Sikhs had poisoned drinking water in Delhi. Of the various local Congress leaders allegedly involved in the pogrom, three stand out, namely Messrs Sajjan Kumar, HKL Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler.

A one-man commission headed by Justice G T Nanavati Commission indicted Sajjan Kumar, and Jagdish Tytler in 2005. Justice Nanavati also said that the government was at fault for not having called in the army in good time. At that time, Jagdish Tytler was in the Union Cabinet and had to resign. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated the Congress promise that those responsible for the killings would be punished. Following the indictment, a CBI inquiry was instituted against Tytler. In 2007, the CBI applied to a trial court for closing the case against Tytler, citing the lack of evidence against him. Thankfully the trial court did not agree. Instead, it directed the CBI to carry out further investigations. On 28 March 2009, the CBI submitted its final report to the trial court. When the CBI’s report was taken up by the court on 2 April 2009, just a day after All Fools Day, it was revealed that the CBI has found no evidence against Tytler. The matter is now pending in the Karkardooma court where it has been posted for further hearings on 28 April 2009. Since the CBI has given a clean chit to Tytler, it is very unlikely that the Karkardooma court will pass a verdict against him.

It is possible that Tytler is innocent and the CBI might be right in letting him off the hook. After all, India has a legal system that is geared to ensure that the innocent are never punished even if the guilty get off scot-free. What is unacceptable is that despite over 3000 deaths in Delhi alone, not a single person has been punished. This year is the 25th anniversary of the anti-Sikh pogrom and the chances of the killers being brought to book look very slim. I wonder how Prime Minister Manmohan Singh carries on with this disgusting record on his conscience.

Monday, 6 April 2009

The Baath Party Is On Its Way Back

On the last day of last year, I had written this post pleading that the Baath Party be allowed to survive, that Iraq and the rest of the Arab World needs the Baath Party.

Now, this Newsweek article reports that the Baath Party is on its way back. Wonderful! What else can I say?

The devalued Prime Minister of a devalued Government

Here’s a brilliant speech in the European Parliament by Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP for the South East of England. Hannan is also the author of ‘The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain’ which I reviewed some months ago.

Hannan does an excellent job attacking Gordon Brown and this speech has been very popular on YouTube. However, other than using a lot of clichéd phrases, he does not bother to explain how the Conservatives would do or could do any better in the current depressed economy.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Do Beards Create Taliban? The Indian Supreme Court Thinks So

Mohammad Saleem, a 16 year old Muslim student studying at the Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School in the Bidisha district of Madhya Pradesh petitioned the Indian Supreme Court that he be allowed to sport a beard, contrary to his school’s rules. On 30 March 2009, the Supreme Court dismissed Saleem’s petition and upheld the ruling of the Madhya Pradesh High Court which had ruled that Saleem has no right to wear a beard if forbidden by his school rules.

On behalf of the entire division bench of the Supreme Court, Justice Markandeya Katju commented as follows: “We should strike a balance between rights and personal beliefs. We cannot overstretch secularism. We don't want to have Talibans in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say that she wants to wear a burqa, can we allow it?”

With due respect to the Supreme Court, I don’t really think that a beard makes a Taliban out of a student. Justice Katju’s harsh and seemingly thoughtless comments have (rightly in my opinion) drawn widespread condemnation. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling is basically correct in that the fundamental right to practice one’s religion guaranteed by the Indian constitution does not mean that one can flout a private school’s dress code, however arbitrary that dress code may be. According to Saleem’s petition, his school allowed Sikh students to have beards and wear turbans but, in his case, had insisted that he be clean-shaven.

The Supreme Court pointed out that Saleem is free to join a different school, one which allows students to keep a beard. Saleem’s case was not helped by the fact that his lawyer, Mr. Khan (a retired Judge) did not have a beard. It’s not an easy task for a clean-shaven Muslim lawyer to convince a bunch of judges that growing a beard is absolutely essential for a practising Muslim! The argument that Sikhs are usually allowed to grow beards and wear turbans also did not cut much ice with the Lordships. The fact that the school in question is a ‘minority-run’ institution enjoying constitutional protection from governmental interference was a factor in the judges deciding not to override the school’s rules.

In my opinion, whether or not Muslim students should be permitted by schools and colleges to wear a burqa or a beard is a matter of policy to be decided by the legislature. In the absence of the legislature setting out a clear-cut policy, the judiciary was forced to rule whether the constitutional right to practice a religion of one’s choice can be interpreted to give school students the right to sprout facial hair on their lower mandibles.

A few months ago, the Indian Supreme Court had upheld a government directive which prohibited beards in the Indian Air Force on the grounds that religious attire can be divisive. Until then, airmen were allowed to wear beards if permitted by a superior officer. The ban on beards does not apply to Sikhs, who are also allowed to wear turbans. The Indian government’s stand was that growing a beard is not fundamental to Islam, while beards and turbans are de rigueur for Sikhism.

The clash between the right to dress in accordance with one’s religious practices and dress codes imposed by schools, colleges, armed forces, corporates etc. is not something new. Five year ago France caused a furore when it banned all religious symbols in schools, since the French rules were thought to be mainly targeted at Muslim students wearing the hijab. Caught in the crosshairs were French Sikhs who found themselves unable to wear their turbans. A few years ago, British Airways prevented an employee from wearing a visibly present cross at work.

In my opinion, in the Indian context, an issue which is rarely discussed in these discourses is the need to re-integrate Muslims into the national mainstream. I use the word ‘re-integrate’ since Muslims once formed the mainstream of Indian society.

Until 1857 when many parts of what is now independent India rose up in revolt against the British, Muslims had a literacy rate that was as high as or even exceeded that of other communities. Sub-continental Muslims were no less progressive than other communities they lived side by side with. After the 1857 revolt was put down, the British crown took over from the East India Company and instituted various reforms, especially in the field of education. Muslims were considered by the British to have provided the ideological underpinning for the revolt which sought to bring back Mughal rule, for which punitive measures were imposed on many Muslim nawabs and landlords. The net result of the reforms and the repression was that Islamic community in India (with notable exceptions like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan) went into decline. Many Muslim landlords lost their landholdings, which were transferred to those who stood by the British during the mutiny. Literacy rates plummeted, especially after Urdu was supplanted by English and Hindi (written in the Devanagari script). The social and economic backwardness in which Indian Muslims found themselves has proved to be a fertile breeding ground for all sorts of evils ranging from terrorism to oppression of women.

It is very much possible that pursuant to this Supreme Court ruling, many private schools which had hitherto permitted Muslim students to wear beards will now refuse them permission to do so. Soon orthodox Muslim students will be forced to study only in government run schools or schools run by Muslim organisations. If there are no suitable schools close to their homes, many such students will stay at home. It can be argued that if a student wishes to grow a beard or wear a hijab and stay at home, the government owes him or her nothing. However, an illiterate youngster is likely to create more social problems. His or her children are also likely to be illiterate. On the other hand if the government were to take a policy decision to the effect that beards and Islamic attire must be permitted by all schools, colleges and other organisations, including the armed forces (just as in the case of Sikhs), many orthodox Muslims will join the national mainstream. The rate of integration will be higher for the second generation of Muslims. In my opinion, it is high time the central government and various state governments in India took a farsighted view and set out such a policy decision in concrete. It should not be left to the judiciary to do the legislature’s job.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Why Aren’t India and Bangladesh the Best of Friends?

Before I did the research that forms the basis of this article, I used to wonder why India and Bangladesh aren’t the closest of friends. Consider this: India was responsible for the creation of Bangladesh. If Indian troops hadn’t invaded East Pakistan in defence of the Mukti Bahini, it is very unlikely that Pakistan would have allowed its eastern wing to break free. India lost around 2500 soldiers in the course of the 1971 war. Around 2 million Bengalis were killed and a couple of hundred thousand Bengali women raped by Pakistani soldiers in the events leading to Bangladeshi independence. Despite all this, Bangladesh seems to be at least as much friendly with Pakistan as it is with India!

One of the reasons for this frosty state of affairs on India’s eastern borders used to be the dispute over sharing of the waters of the Ganges. This dispute has now been resolved with the signing of a treaty in 1996. At present Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League is in power in Bangladesh and traditionally, the Awami League has been much closer to India than the other major political party, Begum Khalida Zia’s Bangladesh National Party. However, despite a friendly government being in power in Dhaka, there has been no change in popular perception in each country of the other. The average Bangladeshi doesn’t seem to like India all that much and the common man on Indian streets doesn’t give two hoots about Bangladesh. Why is this so?

In my opinion, there are various reasons for this state of affairs.

To start with, Indians tend to (wrongly) assume that because East Pakistan revolted against West Pakistani domination, it has given up its aspiration to be an Islamic country. Bangladesh is doubtless proud of its Bengali culture, but it never gave up its Islamic character either. Consider these facts: Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, the father of the Bangladeshi nation, was a member of the All India Muslim Students Federation since 1940. Mujib-ur Rahman was very close to Huseyn Suhrawardy, a leading member of the Bengal Muslim League, who worked actively for the cause of Pakistan. Mujib-ur Rahman was based in Kolkata in 1946, working under Suhrawardy’s guidance, when the Muslim League organised Direct Action Day, leading to large scale communal violence and deaths.

The East Pakistani fight against West Pakistani and especially Punjabi domination commenced soon after Pakistan’s independence when Jinnah announced that Urdu would be the national language for the whole of Pakistan. Mujib-ur Rahman led the Muslim Students League as it launched an East Pakistan wide agitation. Ever since then, Mujib-ur Rahman and other East Pakistani politicians were at loggerheads with politicians from West Pakistan. Their quarrel over the language issue was accentuated manifold when West Pakistani politicians tried every ruse in the book to prevent Bengali leaders from holding positions of power at the national level, not an easy task since East Pakistan had a larger population than West Pakistan.

In order to offset East Pakistan’s electoral strength, all four provinces in West Pakistan, namely Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, were sought to be treated as a single political unit. When East Pakistani politicians such as Khawaja Nazimuddin, Muhammad Ali Bogra and Huseyn Suhrawardy become Prime Ministers of Pakistan, they did not stay in power for long before they were deposed by the President, backed by Pakistan’s powerful Punjabi-Pakhtun dominated military.

In the 1970 elections, when Mujib-ur Rahman and his Awami League (originally founded by Huseyn Suhrawardy) won a majority of the parliamentary seats, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto proposed that Pakistan should have two Prime Ministers, one for each wing! When Mujib-ur Rahman refused, he was imprisoned and marital law was declared. The Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight with the intention of teaching Bengalis a harsh lesson they wouldn’t forget easily. Politicians don’t like to lose power, especially just after they have legitimately won an election. Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman’s declaration of independence was smuggled out to Chittagong and read over the radio by Major Zia-ur Rahman. The rest is history. The day Mujib-ur Rahman made the declaration of independence (26 March 1971) is treated as Bangladesh’s independence day, though it was not until 16 December 1971 that Bangladesh was actually liberated from Pakistani troops.

Would East Pakistan have revolted against West Pakistan if Bengalis were allowed to hold office after wining elections? I don’t think so. Mere imposition of Urdu as the national language would not have made East Pakistanis break off from their co-religionists in the West. Even in 1965 when India and Pakistan went to war, East Pakistan stood fast with West Pakistan though they complained that the Pakistani army was not present in strength in East Pakistan to defend it in case of an attack by India.

It must not be forgotten that even when the Pakistani army was systematically murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians, many thousands of Bengalis collaborated with the Pakistani army. Doubtless such people were fired by their Islamic zeal, which made them want Pakistan to remain unified as a single Islamic nation.

Bangladesh’s Islamic nature started to reassert itself soon after independence. After a brief ban for suspected collaboration with Pakistani forces, the Islamic Academy was revived. Bangladesh sought membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Islamic Development Bank. In 1974, less than 3 years after independence, Mujib-ur Rahman made a trip to Lahore to attend an OIC conference and patch up ties with Pakistan. After Zia-ur Rahman came to power, Bangladesh moved much further into the Islamic camp.

Even now, Bangladesh has an Islamic fundamentalist base which fights for stronger ties with Pakistan and other Islamic states, rather than with India. In my opinion, it is wrong to assume that this core group of Islamic fundamentalists is something new. Bangladesh always had this hardcore chunk, for without them, East Bengal would not have voted to break off from West Bengal and the rest of India.

A fact which is easily forgotten when discussing the deaths of around 2 million Bengalis as a result of the Pakistani army pogrom is that a disproportionate number of the victims were Hindus. Most surviving family members of the victims fled to India as refugees. Currently Hindus account for around 10% of Bangladesh’s population, as opposed to around 28% in 1941 and approximately 15% before the Pakistani army pogrom. I am not for a moment suggesting that Bengali Muslims did not suffer under the Pakistani army. They did and most of the rebels who formed the Mukti Bahini were Muslims. However the present day population of Bangladesh doesn’t have among them as many victims and families of victims as such a large-scale genocide would otherwise have warranted. This is one reason why Bangladesh has been able to largely forgive Pakistan and not press for reparations or compensation.

Indians assume that Bangladeshis will be eternally grateful to India for its intervention in Bangladesh, which led to Bangladeshi independence. I feel that it ought to be the other way around. India ought to be grateful to Bangladesh for giving India a chance to split its arch rival Pakistan into two pieces! As a result of Indians assuming that Bangladesh has chosen to be just a Bengali nation that will intrinsically be friendly towards India, rather than an Islamic-Bengali state (which is what Bangladesh is), Indians expect a lot from Bangladesh without putting in the necessary effort. For example, Indians are disappointed when Bangladesh doesn’t crackdown on insurgents from India’s north-east sheltering there, even though India hasn’t exactly been ladling out favours to Bangladesh after its creation.

I feel it is very important that Indians realise they should not take Bangladesh for granted. Instead, for every favour India seeks from Bangladesh, India must be willing to pay back in double measure. India needs to fill Bangladeshi media with sound bytes about how deeply India cares for friendship with Bangladesh. India could provide scholarships for Bangladeshi students to study in India. It could be made easy for Bangladeshi commodities (like jute) and goods (like garments) to be sold in India. Leaders from Bangladesh, irrespective of the party they belong to, should be invited to India and treated with honour and respect.

Instead of treating all Bangladeshi leaders impartially and well, India has been taking sides in what’s called the ‘Battle of the Begums’. For those unfamiliar with the rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khalida Zia, let me briefly summarise the reasons for the animosity between these two great leaders.

Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. Post independence, after a brief honeymoon period, Mujib-ur Rahman became more and more autocratic. In January 1975 he declared himself to be the absolute ruler of Bangladesh and President for Life. In August 1975, a few army officers staged a coup and took over power. They killed Mujib-ur Rahman and all his family members who were present in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina was in Germany at that time and so, she escaped death. She stayed in exile for 6 years and returned to Bangladesh in 1981 as head of the Awami League, when Bangladesh was under General Ershad. Democracy was reinstated in Bangladesh only in 1991 and in 1996, Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League came to power.

Begun Khalida Zia (who heads the Bangladesh National Party) is the widow of Zia-ur Rahman, the army officer who had read Mujib-ur Rahman’s call for independence over the radio. Though a Bengali, Zia-ur Rahman grew up in West Pakistan and joined the Pakistani army, winning various awards and decorations for gallantry during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. The Pakistani army had very few Bengalis, especially in the non-administrative officer class, and Zia-ur Rahman was in a small minority. When Mujib-ur Rahman gave the call for Bengalis to rise up against oppression by West Pakistan, Zia-ur Rahman was one of the Bengali army officers who answered his call. Zia-ur Rahman distinguished himself during the Bangladeshi war of independence.

After Mujib-ur Rahman was deposed in a coup, there was a series of counter coups and Zia-ur Rahman became the Chief Martial Law administrator of Bangladesh and later its 6th President. Zia-ur Rahman founded the Bangladesh National Party. One of the things Zia-ur Rahman did after coming to power was to pardon many of those involved in the coup that overthrew and killed Mujib-ur Rahman. It has never been proved if Zia-ur Rahman himself was involved in that coup. Zia-ur Rahman reversed many of Mujib-ur Rahman’s policies. Whilst Mujib-ur Rahman was a socialist, Zia-ur Rahman promoted the private sector. Zia-ur Rahman moved Bangladesh away from the Soviet Union and started to develop close ties with the USA and later China. Bangladeshi demands for reparations and compensation from Pakistan were dropped. Many individuals accused of collaborating with Pakistan during the war of independence were rehabilitated. Close ties were forged with Saudi Arabia and other Islamic states. The constitution was amended to give it an Islamic slant. Zia-ur Rahman talked of a Bangladeshi identity rather than a Bengali one, seeking to integrate various minorities such as the Chakmas and Urdu speaking Biharis. He ruthlessly crushed all political opposition and in 1981, he was murdered by a group of army officers.

Unlike Mujib-ur Rahman who was dogged by allegations of nepotism and corruption, Zia-ur Rahman was known as Mr. Clean, even among his enemies. All his actions seem to have been motivated by a love for Bangladesh and ideology, rather than any personal vested interest.

As it would be obvious to anyone, the Indian establishment considers Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League to be much more India friendly than Khaleda Zia and the Bangladesh National Party. Most Bangladeshis believe that India does its best to keep the Awami League in power. The net result is that even when the Awami League is in power, there is not much warmth towards India from the average Bangladeshi.

In my opinion, India should not take sides in the Battle of the Begums. Even though it is unlikely that Begum Khaleda Zia and the BNP will ever be as friendly towards India as Sheikh Hasina and the BNP, India ought to treat both the ladies and their respective parties the same. Even more importantly, the average Bangladeshi on the street should not get the impression that India is partial towards one party. Not only should India be impartial, India must also be seen to be impartial. Currently, an Awami League victory in the elections is treated as a victory for India and a victory for the BNP is treated as a victory for Pakistan. Islamic fundamentalists inimical to India have an incentive in undermining the Awami League. It is even possible that the recent mutiny by soldiers of the Bangladesh Rifles was instigated by Islamic fundamentalists who feel that by making Bangladesh unstable when the Awami League is in power, they are sending a message to India.

Another reason for the average Bangladeshi on the street to hate India is India’s treatment of Bangladeshi immigrants. As we all know, immigrant inflows and outflows are dictated largely by supply and demand. Poverty stricken Bangladesh has a large number of people willing to work very hard just to make enough to eat two square meals a day. India, despite its poverty and other problems, has many areas where an individual willing to work hard can make an honest living. And so a large number of Bangladeshis cross the border illegally to live and work in India.

India doesn’t have a system of giving work permits to unskilled workers from anywhere in the world, except to people from Nepal (who don’t need a work permit). However, India’s borders, especially its eastern borders are porous and India doesn’t have the sophisticated technology needed to prevent the inflow from Bangladesh. To be honest, not a single country in the world has been able to put a total stop to immigration.

Once the Bangladeshis are inside India, having run the gauntlet of corrupt border security forces and cops, they are at risk of deportation at any time if they are caught. One assumes that these illegal immigrants develop no love for India during their stay in this country. In various parts of India’s north-east, immigration from Bangladesh has taken place over many decades, even prior to independence. It is common for many landlords in Assam and Tripura to lease out their lands to hardworking Bangladeshi immigrants and take from them a part of the crop as rent. Many such immigrants have Indian ID cards and therefore have voting rights.

Since (as mentioned earlier) Bangladesh has always had a component of fundamentalist Muslims, it is only fair to assume that some of the illegal immigrants to India are fundamentalist Muslims. Not all fundamentalist Muslims are terrorists, or even supporters of terrorism, but some of the Bangladeshi immigrants in India are capable of causing trouble. I have no idea what percentage such people comprise. I assume it is not very large.

To be very honest, there is no clear-cut answer to the problem of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. In my opinion (and this is only an opinion), rather than having an outright ban on illegal immigrants, India should permit a fixed number of workers from Bangladesh to work in India on fixed-term, renewable, work permits. Work permits should be issued through employers or labour contractors who must shoulder some of the responsibility for the migrants once they are in India. Those given work permits will have their finger-prints and DNA on file and I assume it will be relatively easy to keep a tab on their whereabouts.

Legal immigrants have an incentive to be law abiding, irrespective of their personal ideology. Also, they will not be able to obtain fake Indian ID and vote in Indian elections. Regulating Bangladeshi immigration, rather than banning it outright, will also generate some goodwill towards India. It is very possible that some of those who come to India on work permits may indulge in acts that are harmful towards India. However, such individuals will not be stopped from entering India even if there is no work permit scheme in place.

As long as religion plays a major role in the life of the average Bangladeshi and the common Indian on the street, I don’t think Indo-Bangla ties will get warmer beyond a point. One could say the same for Indo-Pakistani relations, but that’s for another post.