Sunday, 27 December 2009

Bring Sarabjit Home

Sarabjit Singh has been sentenced to death and his sentence has been upheld by Pakistan's Supreme Court. Sarabjit has been convicted for carrying out bomb attacks in Pakistan. According to the Pakistanis, Sarabjit is an Indian spy. Sarabjit, on the other hand, claims that he is just a villager who strayed across the border after having had one too many. In the world of espionage, if a diplomat is caught spying, s/he is expelled. Diplomatic immunity is something which non-diplomat spies have. If caught, they are usually disowned and left to their own fate.

There are exceptions of course. Jonathan Pollard was a Jewish man working as an analyst for the American Naval intelligence. Caught spying for Israel, he was sentenced for life and continues to be in prison in the United States. For many years, Israel denied all official ties to him, though Pollard managed to get Israeli citizenship while in prison. However, the High Court of Israel ordered the Israeli government to admit that Pollard was its agent. Ever since then, the Israeli government has been trying to free Pollard, but the US has refused to let him go. Israeli has always done more than most other countries in getting in nationals back home. At present it is bargaining with Hamas over a deal that will see the release of almost a thousand Hamas militants for a single Israeli soldier held by Hamas. Pollard is apparently not very happy with this, but then you can’t please everyone.

Even if India doesn’t concede that Kasab was spying for India, there is no denying that he is an Indian national and nothing prevents India from doing more to get him home. The traditional (and generally speaking, the only way) of obtaining the release of someone in Sarabjit’s position is to exchange him for someone else. India has a mixed record in exchanging prisoners for its people held in custody elsewhere. When Rubaiya Sayeed (daughter of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, India’s first Muslim Home Minister in the V.P. Singh government) was kidnapped by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, India released five militants to secure her release, despite the objections of Farooq Abdullah’s state government. Years later, a BJP led government released three top militants so that the hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane taken to Kandahar would let their hostages go. One of the militants released was Maulana Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammad. However, India hasn’t been able to secure the release of PoWs from the 1971 war who are reportedly still held in Pakistani jails.

I want to see Sarabjit released and sent home to India. I don’t know if he was a spy or just a villager who got drunk and lost his way. The Indian government has made various appeals for his release, but can’t it do more I wonder. Is there any Pakistani national in an Indian jail, one held to be a spy by India and renounced by Pakistan, who can be exchanged for Sarabjit? I don’t know. However, I know that India has custody of a Pakistani national who goes by the name Mohammed Ajmal Amīr Kasāb. Kasab is currently undergoing trial in India for having taken part in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Caught on CCTV, the case against Kasab appears to be an open and shut case and a death sentence seems to be very likely. After initial denials, the Pakistani government has conceded that Kasab is a Pakistani national, but it maintains that no Pakistani agency was involved in the planning or execution of the Mumbai attacks last year.

What would be the reaction if the Indian government offers to exchange Kasab for Sarabjit? The Pakistani government is likely to refuse. Sarabjit the official Indian spy has nothing to do with Kasab the Pakistani freelancer who fought for an Islamic militant organisation which is at war with Pakistan at the moment, Pakistan is likely to say. Kasab himself might not want to be exchanged for Sarabjit. However, just as there are many Indians who would like to see Sarabjit return home, there could be many Pakistanis who like the idea of exchanging Kasab for Sarabjit. Kasab was a pawn in a larger game. I don’t doubt for a moment that he is guilty as charged and deserves no leniency. However, if by giving him up, India could secure Sarabjit’s release, it should, in my opinion, do so immediately without wasting a moment.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Sarabjit is due to be executed soon. There are still a few good people working for his release. If you were to lend your support to his cause, he might still make it home.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Religious Fundamentalists Stick Together Irrespective of their Faith

Two weeks ago, the Right Rev Stephen Venner, retired as the Bishop of Dover and moved to Rochester with his wife Judy.

After retirement, the Right Rev Stephen Venner continued his role as the Bishop to the British armed forces, a role he has held since July 2009. After moving to Rochester, Right Rev Stephen Venner put his right foot as well as his left foot into his big, loud mouth.

In an interview with the Telegraph, the Right Rev Stephen Venner said that "the Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other." He added that "there's a large number of things that the Taliban say and stand for which none of us in the West could approve, but simply to say therefore that everything they do is bad is not helping the situation.”

To sum up, the Right Rev Stephen Venner said that we should not demonise the Taliban.

Needless to say, this unexpected support for the Taliban resulted in an outcry. The Right Rev Stephen Venner has been accused of giving comfort and succour to the enemy.

The Nazis were brave and courageous, at least some of them. They were good at organising themselves and from what I remember from reading Paul Kennedy’s ‘Rise and Fall of Great Powers’, even towards the end of the Second World War, the German army was losing only one soldier for every four or five Soviet soldiers they killed. However, it would be disgusting to admire the Nazi’s courage or loyalty to their cause or their organisational skills.

The Taliban are a bad bunch. Period. Their unquestioning loyalty to their brand of Islam is exactly what makes them so bad. It is a quality which should not and cannot be admired.

The Right Rev Stephen Venner’s comments however prove something I have always suspected. Almost all religious leaders without exception like the idea of unquestioning followers. They would like to Talibanise their flock. They would like to have sheep who do as they are ordered to do, people who follow religious edicts to the letter. Let’s admit it, till a century, there were lots of Christians in the West who were as Taliban as their Afghan brethren. There still are lots of Indian Hindus and Christians who are as fanatic about their religion as the Taliban are. The only reason they don’t stoop to murder and mayhem as often is because they won’t get away with it. The Gujarat riots are a case in point. I have heard more than one evangelical Christian and Hindu tell me exactly what the Right Rev Stephen Venner has said: that they admired the Taliban’s conviction and courage and wished they could replicate it within their own religion.

The Right Rev Stephen Venner has proved that there are Taliban in every religion.

The Right Rev Stephen Venner has done the right thing by apologising. Now he must resign.

Monday, 14 December 2009

New Labels for Food from the Occupied Territories

The British Government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has issued new guidance for British supermarkets which says food imported from Israeli occupied territories such as the West Bank should be classified as either "Israeli settlement produce" or "Palestinian produce". Until now, food imports from the West Bank were simply labeled as "Produce of the West Bank", and there was no differentiation between food manufactured by Israeli settlements in the West Bank and food manufactured by Palestinians. The legal basis for this new guidance is that consumers are entitled to be informed of the source or origin of what they buy. Currently there are no Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip – the last of them were dismantled in 2005.

This guidance is not binding, but is likely to be followed by all supermarkets, and it comes after almost an year’s consultation which was started off after Oxfam wrote to Gordon Brown saying that Israeli occupation of the West Bank was resulting in impoverishment of Palestinians and that illegal Israeli settlements sustained themselves through trade. Supermarkets feel that the new guidance will allow consumers make informed choices.

As may be expected, the Israeli government has slammed the new guidance, while Palestinians feel that it doesn’t go far enough - they would like to see produce from Israeli settlements banned.

I feel that the new guidance from DEFRA is a positive development. No, I am not planning to avoid buying food manufactured by Israeli settlements in the West Bank during my next shopping trip. However, as I have mentioned in earlier posts, I firmly believe that Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza strip and East Jerusalem is illegal and Israel ought to withdraw to the pre-1967 boundaries. If Israeli continues to be unwilling to dismantle its settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights for much longer, people like me (who describe themselves as friends of Israel) may be forced to boycott produce from Israeli settlements within the Occupied Territories.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Is Obama Trying to Please the Taliban As Well?

I have blogged about Obama and the situation in Afghanistan many times in the past

My opinion of Obama has always been that he is a man of principles who also likes to avoid causing offence. A man who likes to please as many people as possible.

Obama has now announced a surge of up to 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. Obama has also set an 18 month deadline for the troops to return home.

How many people has Obama tried to please with his decision, which was so long in arriving at?

The citizens of America, who have long since lost the appetite for war in Afghanistan. However, many Americans would like to win before they leave.

Obama most probably feels the military will be happy. Enough soldiers while in Afghanistan and a definite deadline for coming back.

What about the Afghans themselves. They know that they will be left to the tender mercies of the Taliban in 18 months time. Of course, if the surge is so successful in wiping out the Taliban, they needn’t worry, but will it? And more to the point, considering the US track record in Afghanistan, will Afghans start cooperating even now in the hope that the US will be successful before they leave.

I am sure that the Taliban and the ISI will be happy. They only need to lie low and let the Americans think they have won and they will be free to take over the country in the summer of 2011. Will the Taliban and the ISI be able to work together once more, considering the campaign being waged against the Pakistani Taliban? Well, politics makes strange bedfellows and Islamic fundamentalists are no exception to this rule. There is no reason why the ISI and the Taliban can’t work together again.

The Soviet experience in Afghanistan shows that a powerful Afghan ruler with sufficient backing can hold Afghanistan and keep the Mujahideen at bay. The Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in early 1989. However, they kept up the flow of weapons and money to Afghanistan. Until 2001, Najibullah managed to hold off the Mujahideen. The siege of Jalalabad in the fall of 1989 was defeated. It was only after the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 that supplies to Kabul stopped and Najibullah had to throw in the towel. Can Karzai do what Najib did two decades ago? I hope so.

I had once blogged that Obama will interfere in Kashmir very soon.

Here’s an interesting article by Ishaan Tharoor in the Time on the same point. Tharoor however, doesn’t mention the K word.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Is AKP’s Rule Good For Turkey?

Recently, I ran into a charming ‘Young Turk’ at a London pub who told me that she couldn’t stand the AKP which was in her opinion ‘anti-Turkey’ and ‘anti-women.’ This interesting comment forced me to read up on Turkey.

The modern Turkish state is the successor to the Ottoman Empire which was totally wiped out during the First World War. The Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Pasha was staunchly secular and (at least on paper) a Parliamentary democracy, though Turkey had a single party system till around 1946 and long stretches of military rule after that. After the Second World War, it morphed into an US ally and during the cold war, was a leading player within NATO. The war with Greece over Cyprus did nothing to dislodge Turkey from NATO or its pro-US position.

The Turkish military has also played a special role in safeguarding Turkish secularism. This is understandable since Kemal Pasha was a distinguished military officer.

The Turkish form of secularism was, until recently, almost dictatorial in style. It was initiated by the Ataturk who banned beards, fez, veils and traditional clothing within government buildings and other public areas, forcing Turks to switch to western clothes. Even the tradition Turkish alphabet, based on the Perso-Arabic script was replaced with the Latin script. The Ottoman had a reasonably good record for treatment of Jews and under Ataturk, Turkey even provided sanctuary for Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and Germany. After Israel came into being, Turkey developed friendly ties with it, unlike other Arab and Islamic states.

I was told by the charming ‘Young Turk’ I met that immediately after the EU was formed, Turkey refused an early invitation to join. That was when the EU was just a free trade zone rather than a political grouping. Later when Turkey started to show great enthusiasm in joining the EU, it received a lacklustre response from Germany, France and some of the more recent Eastern European entrants. For many Europeans, especially those in continental Europe, Turkey reminds them of the Ottoman Empire that once came up to the gates of Vienna and ruled over most of southern Europe. What such opponents fail to remember is that before the Ottoman Empire came into being, the land that is now Turkey was for over a thousand years, until the late fifteen century, a part of the Byzantine Empire, which was formed out of the eastern parts of the Roman Empire. Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey was once known as Constantinople, and was the capital of the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.

In the 1980s, a specific ban on head scarves was imposed by the military government which feared a return to Islamic values.

On the plus side Turkey has a liberal society where its women are educated and most of the ills plaguing other Islamic societies are absent. On the flip side, human rights have been a casualty. Minorities such as Kurds who refuse to integrate (by calling themselves mountain Turks) are persecuted and many Turks cannot even wear the clothes of their choice!

The backlash against fanatic secularism started in the 1980s. It gathered momentum after the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002. The AKP was formed mostly by former members of the Fazilet Partisi or Virtue Party which had been banned in 2001 for its non-secular nature. Led by an ethnic Georgian, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who used to be the Mayor of Istanbul and has served a brief jail term on account of his political beliefs, the AKP has sort of moved the clock back for Turkey. Some call it a return to the medieval past. Others say that Turkey is seeking to reclaim its Ottoman glory.

With roots in Islam and having values far removed from Ataturk’s fanatic secularism, Turkish policies have undergone a sea change under the AKP. The ban on headscarves in universities has been eased, by giving university students permission to wear traditional headscarves tied loosely under the chin. It was successfully argued by the AKP that not allowing students wearing the headscarf to enter schools and universities prevents them from having access to education. The ban on covering the head continues to be in force in other public buildings.

The AKP has moved Turkish policy towards its Kurdish minority and the Kurdish Freedom movement from confrontation to conciliation. Relations with former enemies Greece and Armenia have improved. Arab and Islamic neighbours such as Iran, Iraq and Syria have become friends of Turkey. The drive to join the EU has cooled down, though Turkey is formally still in the game. Ties with Israel are still warm, but it is noteworthy that Turkey did not take part in the invasion of Iraq, though it provided refuelling facilities to the US. A month ago, Turkey cancelled planned military exercises with Israel and scheduled joint training with Syria. Soon after, Prime Minister Erdogan led a 200 strong delegation for a state visit to Iran. The economy has grown under AKP’s rule. As the USA’s influence in the middle-east recedes, it looks as if Turkey is stepping in to fill the vacuum.

However, for many Turks, especially for the armed forces and those living in big cities, the AKP is the devil incarnate. It represents a return to feudalism of the Ottoman times. They fear the AKP and feel that the AKP is likely to take Turkey into fundamentalist territory. According to the lady I met recently, and I sympathise with her opinion, there is a high possibility that moderate Islamic rule will slide towards Islamic fundamentalism.

Pakistan is a very good example of how moderate Islam can slide towards fundamentalist Islam. Founded by Jinnah to be a sanctuary for Muslims with the intention of being a moderate state that would permit civil liberties for everyone, Pakistan is unable to ensure equal treatment for women of its other religious minorities. Will Turkey go Pakistan’s way? Or will it evolve into a benign regional power than other countries in the region can look up to, a country where everyone has the right to practice his or her religion, where women has the same rights as men, where diversity is respected, where Kurds, Georgians, Armenians and other minorities are able to cherish their languages and cultural heritage and still be considered loyal Turks? I hope the latter turns out to be true.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Not Everything About Dubai Was Bad

Enough has been written about the Dubai bubble, how its crash was imminent, how it was a mirage and how its dream sank in a sea of debt. Yes, Sultan Mahtoum and his merry men did go overboard in building hotels and islands and resorts. However, it should not be forgotten that Dubai has been the only corner in the Arab world other than Lebanon which was willing to accept change and modernity. In Dubai, women can work and can even drive to work. Liquor is available to those who wanted it. There are churches and temples in Dubai as well as a private synagogue. Of course, this liberalism was allowed so that expats would make Dubai their home. Also, this permissiveness does not cover the thousands of unskilled construction workers and maid servants who are exploited as much as in any other dark corner of the world.

The point I am trying to make it that Dubai stood for change in more ways than one and not all of it was bad. Now that Dubai is having its nose rubbed in the desert sand, I wonder what price it will have to pay to be bailed out by big brother Abu Dhabi. Will it have to give up control over its crown jewels such as the Emirates? Will Abu Dhabi insist that the Dubai don a purdah once more and take away the rights they have now. I hope not, but Shakespeare’s explanation of how ‘the good is oft interred with the bones’ keeps ringing in my head.