Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Curfewed Night: By Basharat Peer – Book Review

I had read this book immediately after it appeared it print in 2008. Recently I happened to re-read it and found that it has lost none of its authenticity or relevance. A work of non-fiction by Basharat Peer, a journalist who now lives in the US, Curfewed Night is the story of Kashmir, Peer’s Kashmir and, my, my, what a tale it is!

The first dozen odd pages tell us the story of Kashmir prior to commencement of the insurgency in January 1990. Peer’s prose is excellent and his description of life in Kashmir reminded me of a collection of Armenian short stories (“We Of The Mountains”) I had read many, many years ago. Life in the valley was simple, sweet and straight forward. It also reminded me of Kerala a little bit, what with farmers holding government jobs – Peer’s father is the headmaster of a government school and his father a civil servant – working nine to five and taking care of their fields and crops after office hours.

Until the troubles erupted in 1990, Peer tells us that Kashmiris weren’t not too political. They supported the Pakistani cricket team when it played India but otherwise, their political affiliation with either side was lukewarm. Even Peer, the son of a Kashmiri civil servant, cheered for Pakistan. Peer doesn’t explain why this should be so. No, Peer doesn’t question Kashmir’s accession to India – he merely tells us that when Pakistani tribesmen supported by the Pakistani army invaded Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh decided to join India and that Sheikh Abdullah, who was a friend of Nehru, supported the Maharaja.

In the beginning, Peer’s narrative is essentially what he himself saw in those turbulent days rather than a holistic one. Peer is very sympathetic to the Kashmiri freedom movement and dreams of joining the militants. Once again, there are no long drawn (ideological) explanations as to why Peer wants Kashmir to be independent rather than be a part of India. Peer tells us that the militants killed many Pandits and those who survived left the Valley. Many classrooms became half empty. Some of Peer’s friends went off to join the militants and never returned. Peer makes it clear that the Pandits’ departure made him sad, but his support for the militants doesn’t abate as a result.

The average Kashmiri’s support for the insurgency is shown to be tempered with pragmatism. Ordinary people do their best to dissuade militants from attacking convoys near their houses out of fear of having to bear the brunt of the army’s retaliation. Just as in Mirza Waheed’s “The Collaborator”, Peer too shows the Indian army and paramilitary forces as overwhelmingly strong and powerful. Peer doesn’t hesitate to tell us of casualties suffered by the militants, but is silent on the number of soldiers or paramilitary men killed. For example, Peer tells us how once JKLF militants attacked an Indian army convoy that passed by their village. All villagers fled to the neighbouring village before the attack began. No, no one even thought of warning the army, though, before fleeing, they did (unsuccessfully) plead with the militants to attack the convoy elsewhere. Peer and his family returned the next day and they found bullets inside their house. We are not told of the outcome of the attack on the convoy – most probably Peer thought it irrelevant to his story.

One of the best things about Peer’s tale is that he manages to bring out the human side of the militants’. Peer tells us how Asif, a militant, gave up fighting.

'One day our commander told us that we had to attack an army convoy. I picked up my Kalashnikov. We were about to leave and I began shivering. I was too scared and death seemed so real. I left soon after that. My commanders were kind enough to let me go.

If you thought that Curfewed Night is all about violence and anger and hatred, you couldn’t be more wrong. Peer does not fail to see humour even when the talk is of fighting and death.

'One morning a young man from our village who worked in Srinagar gave a speech at the mosque. He grabbed the microphone and shouted, ‘Kabiran kabira!’ The slogan meant, ‘Who is the greatest?’ But no one understood. None of us spoke Arabic. He shouted again and there was silence – then the adolescents in the last row, the backbenchers of faith, began to laugh. Embarrassed, the young man explained that in reply to the slogan, we were supposed to shout ‘Allah o Akbar!’ (God is great.) He shouted again, ‘Kabiran kabira!’ He was answered with a hesitant, awkward ‘Allah o Akbar’. For about a year after, we teased him.'

I don’t mind repeating yet again that Peer writes very well. When Peer wants to elaborate how school students and teenagers idolised militants, he says:

‘Militants wore Kamachi shoes and boys wanted Kamachi shoes. Militants replaced the stones in their rings with pistol bullets and boys replaced the stones in their rings with pistol bullets.'

After about sixty pages on militancy in Kashmir, Peer starts telling us of how he moved to Delhi, studied at the Aligarh Muslim University and later Delhi University and then found employment as a journalist. After the shift to Delhi, I started to understand Peer a lot better. Suddenly, he became someone like me, someone I could understand, even relate to, in certain respects.

The attack on the Indian Parliament made life difficult for Peer on account of his Kashmiri origin. Unable to find a Landlord who would agree to have a Kashmiri Muslim tenant, Peer considered leaving Delhi, until a kindly Kashmiri Pandit landlady gave him a roof over his head. Peer devotes a number of pages to the Syed Geelani story pursuant to the attack on the Indian parliament. Geelani was convicted by the trial court under POTA solely on the basis of a semi-coherent two and a half minute phone call made on the day after the attack. Later the Delhi High Court acquitted Geelani, quite rightly in my opinion.

Once Peer decided to tell Kashmir’s story, he went out of his way to meet victims of torture by Indian security forces, displaced Pandits and even Indian soldiers - to find out their point of view. He succeeds admirably with regard to torture victims and Pandits, but I thought his effort with Indian army men was not very impressive.

Curfewed Night is a slim volume, it does not exceed 250 pages, but is crammed with information about Kashmir. There are stories of funerals of militants, of militants switching sides and joining the Kukka Parray, of (failed) attempts by fundamentalists like Asiya Andrabi to impose a Saudi style of Islam in Kashmir and how much it takes to bribe minor bureaucrats and policemen so that relatives of innocent people killed in the violence can get some compensation. Peer also throws in bits of Kashmir’s history here and there and one gets to know of its Buddhist heritage and how it became a part of the Mughal Empire.

The only factual error I could find was when Peer tells his readers that ‘Kashmir was the largest of the approximately five hundred princely states under British sovereignty as of 1947’ Wiki tells me that it was Hyderabad. Kashmir came in at number two. In these matters, I trust Wiki more than Peer.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

“The Most Dangerous Place”, by Imtiaz Gul – Book Review

Veteran Pakistani reporter Imtiaz Gul is also an executive director at the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. Gul’s book The Most Dangerous Place was first published by Penguin in early 2010 and as a paperback in 2011. Pakistan and Afghanistan have been in the global limelight for many years, for all the wrong reasons, and any book which focuses on the badlands of Pakistan is likely to become outdated very quickly, since there is so much happening every day in that part of the world. Maybe it is for this reason that The Most Dangerous Place comes with a preface, a preface to the paperback edition and an epilogue, each of which seeks to catch up with new developments and place the book in context.

Gul is a reporter and one of the first things that hits you even before you cross page 30 is that The Most Dangerous Place is almost entirely a compilation of past reports and quotations from various players with Gul almost never taking a stand or expressing an opinion of his own – until he gets to the last chapter, “Who Funds the Militants”. If one ignores the near total absence of the author’s opinions and views, one can get a blow by blow account of how, starting from the period just before the Soviet’s invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan got enmeshed in Jihadi politics, and fighting, which was at times between various Mujahidin factions, and ended up as the most dangerous place on earth.

As if to compensate for the absence of any analyses till then, the last chapter is packed with theories (most of them quotes given by others) and Gul finally expresses an opinion or two. Who funds the militants? Gul examines various possibilities. Are militants funded by the proceeds of cultivating poppy? Is the Frontier Corps also a culprit? Does the timber mafia have a hand in funding the Pakistani Taliban? What role do Islamic charities and the Hawala system play in funding insurgents? Do the Americans fund the Taliban? Gul does not rule out this possibility. Gul quotes Brigadier Mehmood Shah, a former security secretary for FATA who suggests that the Americans might be trying to co-opt some of the militants into their operational strategy and fix Al Qaeda from within. Is it Saudi Arabia? Not the Government of Saudi Arabia, Gul seems to say, though private individuals and parties based in Saudi Arabia could be funding the Pakistani Taliban.

Is there an Indian hand behind the Pakistani Taliban? No, Gul doesn’t rubbish this possibility, though it sounded ridiculous to my ears. Rather, he puts forth a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that there could be some truth behind this allegation. For example, after the Kandahar hijacking, an Indian security official is reported to have told Gul – “we will absorb what you have done to us, but can you absorb what we might do to you?” Gul quotes from Baitullah Mehsud’s aides who mention offers of alleged assistance from India. Gul doesn’t straight out say that he believes India is funding the Taliban in Pakistan – that would be too ludicrous. He does however try to build a case for this theory.

Is the ISI in cahoots with the militants in Pakistan? This is one theory which Gul categorically dismisses as silly – even this dismissal is done in a roundabout manner. Do please read this interesting book to know more about these theories and Gul’s views on them.

One of the good things about The Most Dangerous Place is that is has a number of trivia on the Taliban. We hear an explanation given by the Taliban to a potential suicide bomber who wanted to know why the Taliban never attacked Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries which shelter American troops. The answer is that “We receive funds from Arab countries, therefore we cannot carry out any attack there, and if we commit any wrong there, they will stop supply of funds to us. But Jihad in Pakistan and Afghanistan is lawful, even the Saudis believe so.

There is a description of how the University of Nebraska, which had an association with Afghanistan ever since 1975, when its Afghan Centre linked up with Kabul University was tasked by the CIA in the early 1980s with producing new textbooks that would help inspire the Afghans to “jihad” against “infidel Soviets.” This message made its way into the pages of primary school textbooks in forms like this alphabet song:

A [is for] Allah. Allah is one
B [is for] Father (baba). Father goes to the mosque
D [is for] Religion (din). Our religion is Islam. The Russians are the enemies of the religion of Islam.
J [is for] Jihad. Jihad is an obligation. My mom went on jihad. My brother gave water to the Mujahidin.
P [is for] Five (panj). Islam has five pillars
V [is for] Nation (vatn). Our nation is Afghanistan. The Mujahidin made our nation famous. Our Muslim people are defeating the communists. The Mujahidin are making the dear country free.
Z [is for] Good news (muzhdih). The Mujahidin missiles rain down like dew on the Russians. My brother gave me the good news that the Russians in our country will taste defeat.

The lessons for older students were more explicit: one fourth-grade mathematics question asks students to use a bullet’s speed and its total distance travelled to calculate the elapsed time before its strikes its Russian target in the forehead.

In 2002, the Afghan Center at the University of Nebraska was approved to begin a fourteen-month, $6.4 million co-operative agreement with USAID, designed to assist in the opening of primary and secondary schools in Afghanistan by printing and distributing textbooks in Dari and Pashtu. An elederly Afghan teacher scribbles in a register, “we are now removing what we inserted into these books twenty years ago.

Some of the best things about this book are its two appendices which has profiles of a number of Pakistani militants and militant organisations. For someone like me who is very much interested in knowing more about Pakistani militants and their groupings, this book serves as a treasure trove of information. A veritable encyclopaedia it is! Also, Gul’s descriptions of events such as the Kaloosha incident where scores of South Waziristan Scouts were killed and details of the fighting that took place in Swat, especially the tactics used by the Pakistani army in recapturing lost terrain and driving out the Taliban, are excellent.

Now that Osama bin Laden has been located and killed, every time I read a book on the Pakistani Taliban that was published prior to his killing, I look for theories on bin Laden’s location or predictions for his capture. Gul tells us that “Bajaur’s proximity to Kunar fuels suspicions that Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri may be hiding in the area.” A few pages later, this theory is mentioned again. In the first paragraph of the original preface, Gul quotes Barack Obama who mentions bin Laden’s name as he elaborated how the Af-Pak border is the most dangerous place on earth. Towards the end of the first chapter, Gul tells us that “back in the 1980s, Osama bin Laden had also found sanctuary on the fringes of Miranshah in North Waziristan, the tribal agency that borders the eastern Afghan province of Khost.’ There are a few references to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar as well. In his epilogue, Gul says that “it is unlikely that Pakistan will go after the most wanted leaders of Al Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban, such as Mullah Omar or Gulbuddin Hekmetyar.” Right! Pakistan didn’t, but the United States did. In all probability Gul was as surprised as anyone else when bin Laden was located and killed in Abbottabad, not far from the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad where Gul works.