The South Asia Channel Watching Kunduz Collapse From the Sidelines

2 October 2015

The fall of Kunduz jeopardizes Pakistan’s quest for internal stability.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (C) inspects the indigenously manufactured surveillance drone at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra, some 65 km west of Islamabad on December 18, 2013, as Pakistani air chief Tahir Rafique Butt (R) and army chief Raheel Sharif (L) look on. Pakistan on December 18 launched  production of a new version of a combat aircraft featuring upgraded avionics and weapons system. The plane, to be called Block-II JF-17, will be manufactured at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex west of Islamabad, which has so far produced 50 older-model Block-I JF-17s for the air force. AFP PHOTO/Aamir QURESHI        (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, the Taliban have overrun Kunduz, the first major city to suffer such fate in over a decade. While there will be obvious security and policy ramifications for Afghanistan and the United States, what will it mean for Pakistan?

For Pakistan, the fall of Kunduz means that its quest for internal stability could be in jeopardy. Pakistan has to use its leverage over the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table. Pakistani Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has once again called for restarting the Afghan reconciliation process for the security of the region and added that the Chinese investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor could be shared with Afghanistan. Gen. Sharif’s suggestion can only materialize once the Taliban are contained and the Afghan government is strengthened.

There is a consensus among most experts that if the Taliban’s power grows in Pakistan’s neighborhood, it could exacerbate Pakistan’s internal security problems. Pakistani Taliban, currently fleeing to Afghanistan due to the military’s clean-up operations, will find support from their Afghan counterparts. The Afghan Taliban might not support the Pakistani Taliban or fight alongside them, but they will let the Pakistani Taliban regroup on Afghan soil in order to mount attacks within Pakistan which will come back to haunt Pakistan. (more…)

Why fanatics of today would not have spared Kabir

29 September 2015

The murders of rationalists and threats to writers, negate what was achieved through centuries of cross-cultural exchange and intellectually robust reformist movements.

  • “Friend
  • You had one life
  • And you blew it”

Encountering Kabir in Ithaca, a small town in upstate New York, was an unreal experience. The occasion was a reading of new translations of the 15th century mystic bard by the eminent Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. This slim collection entitled “Songs of Kabir” has been published by the New York Review of Books. At the homey Buffalo Street Books, Mehrotra recited some of his own powerful poems before he turned to Kabir.

This is not the first translation. For years, Tagore’s translations have been popular. In recent years,  Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, Vinay Dharwadker, and many others have attempted to interpret these poems in myriad styles. Mehrotra explained how the performers, who sing Kabir’s songs in their regional dialects and present his profound ideas for their particular audiences, inspired him. In a similar manner, he had treated Kabir’s verse as a modern poet. The result of Mehrotra’s endeavors is delightful as it retains the essence of the poetry, makes it accessible with the right level of punch for the contemporary reader. For instance, note the directness here: (more…)

Political Princes: Struggles of Rahul Gandhi and Bilawal Bhutto

23 September 2015

Rahul Gandhi is the heir-apparent to the oldest political party of India and the face of a dynasty that ruled the country for over 40 years. (Photo: Reuters)

Two days ago, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, scion of the legendary Bhuttos, celebrated his 27th birthday. His party workers – also known as jiyalas (the impassioned followers) celebrated the day with much fanfare.

Is Bilawal a future player in Pakistan’s politics? Is he relevant to an overwhelming young population of Pakistan? These are questions that have been debated endlessly in Pakistan.

More than 60% of Pakistan’s population can be categorised as youth. At the outset, Bilawal has age on his side; many say he exudes charisma like his mother and can engage with Pakistani youth. Yet, there are sceptics and their numbers have grown in a rapidly urbanising Pakistan.

Bilawal’s Political Journey

Bilawal’s entry into politics was no less dramatic than Benazir Bhutto’s and at a very young age. Benazir wanted to be a diplomat or a journalist but her father’s incarceration in the 1977 coup led the 24-year-old woman to lead the resistance against the military junta headed by Gen Zia-ul-Haq.


Bilawal Bhutto Zardari speaks with a photograph of his mother, Benazir Bhutto, in the background. (Photo: Reuters)

Bilawal was anointed as the successor to his mother when she was assassinated in December 2007. According to Benazir’s will, since Bilawal was a student at Oxford University, his father stepped in as the co-chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The widower, since then, has firmly held his grip over the party.

During the past seven years, young Bilawal has completed his studies at Oxford and has made his foray into the politics of Pakistan. In 2012, he made a formal debut by addressing jiyalas on the fifth anniversary of his mother’s death. He was passionate and rhetorical like the Bhuttos, stating that there were two kinds of political groupings in Pakistan: “those on the right path and those on the path of lies”. This also refers to the battle of Kerbala (where Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain was killed by the then-Muslim ruler’s army). Kerbala is a mythical sense of vindication for battling against ‘evil’ (read: the entrenched establishment) and not being afraid to make sacrifices.

PPP’s Crashing Defeat and Bilawal’s Hiatus

In the 2013 elections, the PPP was routed in almost all of Pakistan except the province of Sindh. Insiders say that Bilawal was not happy with the election arrangements or the way campaigning was undertaken. He spoke at various places via videotaped messages but the Pakistani voters – not unlike their Indian counterparts – prefer the physical proximity of their leader. In short, Bilawal could not make any impact on the electioneering.

PPP’s crashing defeat came in the wake of public opinion that had swelled against the Zardari administration (2008-2013) and the plain fact that most of its leaders and cadres could not freely campaign due to threats by Islamic extremists.

Other than the Awami National Party (ANP), a successor of Bacha Khan’s movement, the PPP paid a heavy price for its position on extremism. From Benazir Bhutto to Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, its top leadership remained under threat. A cruel metaphor of this climate was the abduction of the son of former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani by Islamic militants. He remains in their custody to date.


Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (R) walks with his father, Asif Ali Zardari, during the fifth anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s death at the Bhutto family mausoleum on December 27, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

In 2014, Bilawal started to take charge of the party. In October of that year, he addressed a large rally in Karachi where he declared, “I am Bhutto” and took a strong anti-Taliban line. Alongside, he also criticised the Muttihada Qaumi Movement (MQM), a popular party of Mohajirs (refugees from India) in urban Sindh. The MQM reacted and reportedly Bilawal’s father chided him for alienating allies of PPP in Sindh where it still leads the provincial government.

Bilawal also shuffled party officials and very soon got into trouble with the pragmatic politics of Zardari who is known to be a power-player rather than a populist politician. He left the country for some time and his former-President father, in a public event, said that he needed more grooming to mature into a politician.

Bilawal is back in active politics as the father has fallen foul of the military establishment and is currently based in Dubai.

The Rise of the Middle Class in Pakistan and India

In the past two decades, Pakistan has undergone, among other upheaval, unprecedented levels of urbanisation. Some estimate that more than half the country lives in ‘urban conditions’ where the orbit of politics comprises services such as education, health and security.

Pakistan’s aspirational middle classes view the old (and dynastic) framework of politics as redundant. What matters primarily is economic development, infrastructure, jobs and services.

This is not all too different from India, where the rise of a middle class ethos has led to an increased premium on ‘governance’ and eliminating corruption from the local tiers of the state.

Rahul Gandhi: The Reluctant Prince

Across the border, Rahul Gandhi is the heir-apparent in the oldest political party of India and the face of a dynasty that ruled the country for over 40 years. Rahul joined politics in 2004 under the guidance of his mother, the head of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi.

In January 2013, he was made Vice President of the party and in this role he led Congress into the 2014 national elections. As a leader, he failed to inspire the voters and Congress was badly defeated. Its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won a landslide victory invoking the promise of economic prosperity and better governance.


Sonia Gandhi (L) pays tribute at her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s memorial as Rahul Gandhi watches on the 21st anniversary of the former Prime Minister’s death on May 21, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Rahul’s critics call him a ‘reluctant prince’ who shies away from responsibilities. Even in a television interview, he blurted out that he was leading the party because of his birth, not due to ambition.

Reports of differences between Rahul and Sonia Gandhi have emerged in the Indian media. Their different outlook reportedly is related to the plans to revive the party.

Bilawal faces the same dilemma: He is an idealist and fired by the imagination of his mother who, by all accounts, was a relentless fighter. Both, however, have to pander to the old guard, some of which is discredited due to allegations of corruption among other things.

In Indian politics, where leaders make it to the top in their senior years, 43-year-old Rahul has a long innings ahead. But that would mean he reinvents the Congress and makes it relevant to the rapidly changing electorate and its expectations.

Rahul Has Better Chances Than Bilawal

When it comes to political mobilisation, Rahul has a better chance than Bilawal. Rahul does not face the kind of stark threat that Bilawal faces. The Indian state, with all its weaknesses, keeps a strong grip on power. In Pakistan, the state is struggling to regain the powers it had outsourced to militias.

For both widowers – Zardari and Sonia – their children are the ultimate trump card in the game of dynastic politics. But both may lose their clout if the sons take over completely.

Newer political forces in India and Pakistan have attracted a large number of followers. Both, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, play up the corruption of the old school politicians. Also, the cult of a strongman, a messiah resonates in both countries. Modi will change India’s destiny, his supporters argue. This is not too different from the conservative middle class that views a ‘clean’ and ‘God-fearing’ Imran Khan as the best choice.

The appeal of dynastic parties seems to be fading. Nawaz Sharif, the incumbent Prime Minister with a strong economic agenda, would have been Modi’s counterpart but Sharif’s politics has veered to the centre. Compared to Imran Khan, whose party rules the northwestern KP province along with an Islamist party, Sharif and his party appear to be moderate.


India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif before the start of their bilateral meeting in New Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)

The future trajectories of Rahul and Bilawal are unclear.

A recent poll by PEW suggests that Rahul Gandhi may have earned a few plus points over the last year. But the Congress will not be able to fire up the imagination of the electorate unless it comes up with a relevant program.

Bilawal was also praised for his strong statements on extremism but to many young people, he is seen as advancing the cause of a dynasty that was given too many chances – and each time it failed to deliver.

Benazir Bhutto (L) shakes hands with Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on November 25, 2001. (Photo: Reuters)

Benazir Bhutto (L) shakes hands with Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on November 25, 2001. (Photo: Reuters)

Despite the odds, dynastic politics is not going away soon either in India or Pakistan. Both societies, organised around the ‘family’ and its mythical values, are conservative and patrilineal. A full-scale overthrow of the dynastic model requires long term transformations –demographic, economic and social – that India and Pakistan have only recently commenced.

In the short term, both scions need to get rid of some of their uncles, re-craft their party programmes and rebuild the cadres.

Rahul may have a better chance of achieving that.

Bridging the Divides: Muslims in Europe

11 September 2015
Praying Imam

Praying Imam

Islam is ‘incompatible’ with Western civilization is what we hear at the start of a new film Journey into Europe that looks at the much-hyped dilemma in much of Western Europe. The film deals with cascading phases of recent history: From the inclusive times of Muslim Spain to Ottoman Empire; and from the colonization to twentieth century immigration of Muslims into European lands. This film comes at a time when Islamophobia as a political and cultural attitude is on the rise; and Muslim extremists are asserting their political power and dictating domestic agenda in many parts of the world. Caught between these two extremes are the majority of Muslims, who, while united by their faith, are neither a monolith nor hold uniform views about organized religion or its political dimensions. The diversity within Muslims is an oft-ignored reality. Even more invisible is the variegated history of Islam and its adherents.


This is why Journey into Europe — a handiwork of Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University — is both important and relevant to the current crises brewing across European countries. A Pew Research Center study tells us Western countries with significant Muslim populations are getting worried. Since 2011, the general population that is ‘very concerned’ about Islamic extremism has increased. For instance, after the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staffers, two-thirds in France are ‘very concerned,’ 29% more than the 2011 poll. In Spain, 61% are very worried about the extremist threat; and roughly half in Italy (53%) and UK (52%) and 46% of Germans are apprehensive. Their worries have increased in the past few years. (more…)

Be mature guys; there’s a lot at stake in India, Pak

23 August 2015

nawaz modi

The much-hyped talks between the National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan have been called off.

It is clear that the recent thaw in bilateral relations was illusionary as the hardened positions of the respective states remain unchanged and a greater level of distrust was reflected in the recent days.

The major roadblock came in the wake of Pakistan’s desire to engage with Kashmiri separatist leaders in New Delhi. This was unacceptable to India, that wanted the talks to be terrorism-centric.

Issues on the table

The Ufa declaration did not preclude Kashmir, but did highlight that the talks will focus on “all issues connected with terrorism.”

Exactly a year ago the Indian government called off its Foreign Secretary’s visit to Islamabad when Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Delhi met a group of Kashmiri separatists.

This is a pattern set by the Modi administration: Look tough, act tough when it comes to Pakistan.

The Indian position on Pakistanis talking to Hurriyat and other Kashmiri representatives is intriguing as it was a routine in the past.

Even during the time of the previous BJP government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, General Musharraf met them during his 2001 India visit. (more…)

Negotiating Freedom of Expression

23 July 2015

The unresolved debate on freedom of expression was reignited when Islamic militants killed 14 staffers of French magazine Charlie Hebdo last January, ostensibly for the cartoons that offended Muslim sentiments. Earlier this year, two secular bloggers were hacked to death in Bangladesh. In other countries such as Russia and Iran, writers and journalists languish in prisons on similar charges. The intersection of faith, politics, and history has influenced the global debates on the “limits” to freedom. In June, the Center for International Media Assistance, in collaboration with Media Diversity Institute, held a panel discussion on the limitations on the state of media in multicultural societies. An all-women panel, a rarity in itself, included Razia Iqbal (BBC), Courtney C. Radsch (CPJ), Milica Pesic (MDI), and a well-known academic Verica Rupar.

Negotiating freedom of expression and respect for diversity is a delicate balancing act. The current crisis – of “Western” values versus Islamic teachings – is far beyond the problem of media ethics. Razia Iqbal at CIMA raised crucial questions about the social responsibility of journalists. For instance, is freedom of expression sacred, or is it a subjective construct located in the context of every country? The responses were spirited. Some felt that freedom of expression was linked to other rights such as privacy; and therefore it ought to be viewed in a subjective context. Panelists agreed that freedom of expression was a universal right, but that under certain circumstances, limitations were understandable. Journalists have to act in public interest, as they give voice to and act as public watchdogs on behalf of society. Therefore, media persons have to exercise discretion in deciding what to print or broadcast. That is at the core of the idea of “social responsibility.”

Should journalists practice self-censorship and stay away from certain issues in multicultural societies? One panelist noted that journalism does not exist outside the boundaries of a given society; thus, it should reflect the inherent multiculturalism of a particular context. But this leads to self-censorship. The case of Egypt, among others, is instructive, as unprecedented self-censorship is taking place there due to the pressures exerted by the state and lack of legal protection available to journalists. Multiculturalism entails respect for free speech and the availability of public space to enable diverse groups to air their views. Violence changes this dynamic—perhaps for good. This is why Charlie Hebdo’s editor has announced that the magazine will no longer publish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.


Why India, Pakistan treat their Nobel laureates shamefully

21 July 2015

There is a common thread – of undervaluing our achievers; and looking at ideas, values and contributions from the jaundiced lens of partisan politics.

Amartya sen

In the early 1990s, as students of development economics we were told that Amartya Sen, an Indian, had contributed path-breaking insights into welfare economics. We learnt how he had shown the world that relative poverty mattered and that famines were not caused by a scarcity of food. Sen has added a new set of theories to philosophy and economics. By placing human concerns as central, his work on famines, poverty, gender inequality and political liberalism has altered the way development is viewed across the globe. In my practice of international development for the next two decades, Sen’s continuing contributions deeply informed my work.

Much of this South Asian pride melts away as I follow news and views in Indian media especially the unregulated space in social media. Sen is a villain. And his villainy is related to his unsparing comments about Narendara Modi prior to the 2014 Indian elections. Sen created a little disruption in post-Congress-fatigued India that was hankering for change. He referred to the “organised violence” against a minority community in 2002 and considered Modi’s record in office, as chief minister of Gujarat “terrible”.


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