Monday, January 12, 2009

And Then They Came For Lasantha Wickramatunge

Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge was assassinated in broad daylight outside of Colombo last week. SAJA has a helpful round-up of coverage of the event, including some background on Wickramatunge's journalistic record. What stands out is the fact that he has been a consistent dissenting voice in Sri Lankan politics, sharply criticizing the previous government for years. In recent years he had also become a critic of the new government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he had earlier supported. Indeed, Wickramatunge and Rajapaska were until recently rather close friends.

Wickramatunge's assassination is widely believed to have been carried out by forces allied with the government, if not directly sponsored by the government itself. His memorial service, which took place yesterday in Colombo, was attended by thousands of people (see a Flickr photostream of the event here).

This past Sunday, the Sunday Leader, the Sri Lankan newspaper founded by Wickramatunge and his brother, carried a posthumous editorial authored by Wickramatunge himself. It's called, "And Then They Came For Me," and it's written with the understanding that it would only be printed in the event of the author's assassination.

It's a moving statement, which ought to be read by anyone who doubts whether freedom of the press or freedom of speech is, after all, an essential right. Wickramatunge begins by asserting his primary goal as a journalist over the fifteen years he had worked with this newspaper:

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper. (a link)

Though Wickramatunge had been a critic of the government's prosecution of the ongoing war against the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka, he was by no means an apologist for the LTTE (indeed, if I am reading his name correctly, he is ethnically Sinhalese, not Tamil).

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen - and all of the government - cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall. (link)

There's more that I could quote, but perhaps I should just encourage readers to read the editorial themselves.

It's a remarkable statement in many ways, not least because its author seemingly knew what was coming, but continued doing what he was doing all the same. (Bravely or foolishly.) But even more than that, despite the extremity of the situation in which Wickramatunge wrote this editorial, his voice remains calm and reasonable. There is no melodrama there, just a passionate commitment to the journalistic mission of always aspiring to speak the truth, even if no one wants to hear it.

I do not know whether Wickramatunge was right or not when he argued, in the passage I quoted above, that the current military actions in northern Sri Lanka are doomed to failure. Indeed, part of me hopes he is wrong, and that this really is the end of the road for Prabakaran and the LTTE army.

But history and logic suggests that in fact Wickramatunge is likely to be exactly right: you cannot win over the hearts of minds of an enemy in a civil conflict by brutalizing them. Any lasting peace will have to be consensual and negotiated, involving the disarming of the LTTE, but also concessions from the government. (Northern Ireland is the model to try and emulate, I think.)

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Monday, November 10, 2008

In Defense of Sonal Shah [Updated]

[After I posted this, Sonal Shah released a statement distancing herself from the VHP. I was able to verify the statement via another source; for me this puts to rest any questions about her views, and reinforces the argument I make in the following post.]

Last week at Sepia Mutiny Abhi did a post on Sonal Shah, who is working for the Obama transition team. Over the weekend, however, a controversy erupted over Shah, who has worked for the Center for American Progress and (the philanthropic arm of Google), and who has started, with her siblings, a do-good organization called Indicorps.

Vijay Prashad makes some very harsh accusations in an article in Counterpunch, basically suggesting that Sonal Shah is a supporter of a Hindu right organization, the VHP.

The accusations have been widely covered in the Indian media, including The Hindustan Times, TOI, and DNA. Most of those are simply echoing the statements made by Prashad. I have also been getting emails from left-leaning Indian academic friends, who are outraged about Sonal Shah.

I am skeptical about Prashad's accusations. First, I think it's important to keep a little perspective: Sonal Shah has been hired because of her experience with Google.Org, not because of her former affiliation with the VHP-A. She is also not actually working for the "Obama administration" -- she is working on the team that will hire people to work for the Obama administration. If and when she has an official government post, and especially if that post has something to do with policy on India, this kind of scrutiny might be merited. Right now, it is not.

Second, Prashad's accusations against Sonal Shah smell like a smear -- not so different from Sarah Palin saying Barack Obama "pals around with terrorists." I have no idea whether Sonal Shah is secretly sympathetic to the VHP or not. But given that she has not made a public statement in response to Prashad's most recent accusations, we should probably respond to her based on her actions and verified statements. Not on her parents' beliefs (the worst kind of guilt-by-association), not on her past membership in the VHP-A (which is not disputed), and not on what Vijay Prashad says she said at some Desi conference years ago. In this decade, Sonal Shah has clearly been on the right side of things.

Vijay Prashad wants to paint a very particular image of Sonal Shah, as a kind of die-hard Hindu chauvinist, who continues to harbor secret communal hatreds, even if she has not made public statements to that effect, is not formally affiliated with any relevant groups, and has been doing valuable social work with Google.Org and Indicorps. But that is just one narrative. One could easily construct a counter-narrative along these lines: Sonal Shah's parents are in fact supporters of the VHP, and are friends of Narendra Modi. As an ABD growing up in Texas, she had little awareness of the destructive and intolerant nature of Hindu nationalism, and when the opportunity came around to work with VHP-A to raise money for earthquake victims in Gujarat in 2001, she took it. But perhaps, with maturity, and as she took a higher profile role in the organization, she also began to gain an awareness of the costs of affiliation with the VHP, and left to found an organization that does similar work, but with a secular slant.

That second narrative I have presented is admittedly complete speculation. But I put it out there because I think there is as much evidence to support it as there is to support the narrative that Prashad has put out in Counterpunch.

I do not have the time to write more at present; I may come back to this later tonight. In the meanwhile, comments are open for discussion. Read the Prashad essay -- what do you think? Is he being fair? Also, do readers know more about Indicorps? And, finally, if anyone does know Sonal Shah personally, would you vouch for her (or perhaps, for what Prashad is saying about her)?

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Rabbi Shergill Experience

Three years ago, Indian singer-songwriter Rabbi Shergill exploded on the Indian alternative pop scene with "Bulla Ki Jaana," a distinctively spiritual -- and yet extremely catchy -- hit single. The song was unusual because it took the words of the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, and gave them a modern context. And Rabbi Shergill was himself unusual (even in India) to be a turbaned, unshorn Sikh, making a claim on popular music with a sound that has nothing in common, whatsoever, with Bhangra. From my point of view Rabbi has been a welcome presence on many levels -- most of all, I would say, because he seems to aspire to a kind of seriousness and thoughtfulness in the otherwise craptastic landscape of today's filmi music (think "Paisa Paisa" from "Apna Sapna Money Money"; or better yet, don't don't).

After a few years of silence (disregarding, for the moment, his contribution to the film Delhi Heights), Rabbi finally has a follow-up album, Avengi Ja Nahin (which would be "Ayegi Ya Nahin" if the song were in Hindi). The album is available at the Itunes store -- so if you're thinking of getting it, it should be easy enough to resist the temptation to download it illegally off the internets.

The video for the first single, "Avengi Ja Nahin", can be found on YouTube:

I'm personally not that excited about it. The good part is, Rabbi has moved away from his earlier image as a kind of Sufi/Sikh spiritualist, and is here singing about a much more earthly kind of longing (i.e., for a girl). But the bad part is, the song just isn't that exciting.

Fortunately, the rest of the album has some much more provocative material. I'm particularly impressed that Rabbi has taken on some political causes, including a very angry Hindi-language song about communalism, called "Bilquis":

Mera naam Bilqis Yakub Rasool (My name is Bilqis Yakub Rasool)
Mujhse hui bas ek hi bhool (I committed just one mistake)
Ki jab dhhundhhte thhe vo Ram ko (That I stood in their way)
To maen kharhi thhi rah mein (When they were looking for Ram)

Pehle ek ne puchha na mujhe kuchh pata thha (First, one asked me but I knew nothing)
Dujey ko bhi mera yehi javab thha (Then another but my answer was the same)
Fir itno ne puchha ki mera ab saval hai ki (Then so many that now I have a question)

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan the (Where are those who are proud of India)
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain (Where are those who are proud)

For those who hadn't heard of Bilquis Yakub Rasool, here is a description of what happened to her during the massacre in Gujarat in 2002:

Bilqis Yakoob Rasool, herself a victim of gang-rape who lost 14 family members reported: "They started molesting the girls and tore off their clothes. Our naked girls were raped in front of the crowd. They killed Shamin's baby who was two days old. They killed my maternal uncle and my father's sister and her husband too. After raping the women they killed all of them... They killed my baby too. They threw her in the air and she hit a rock. After raping me, one of the men kept a foot on my neck and hit me."

A litany of institutional failures added to the suffering of women like Bilqis Yakoob Rasool and prevented justice being done against their assailants. During the attacks, police stood by or even joined in the violence. When victims tried to file complaints, police often did not record them properly and failed to carry out investigations. In Bilqis Yakoob Rasool's case, police closed the investigation, stating they could not find out who the rapists and murderers were despite the fact that she had named them earlier. Doctors often did not complete medical records accurately. (link)

Also named in the song are Satyendra Dubey, a highway inspector who was killed after he tried to fight corruption, and Shanmughan Manjunath, killed in much the same way.

With songs like this, I see Rabbi as doing for Indian music what singers like Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie have done in the U.S. -- documenting injustice, and telling the story of a society as they see it. It's vital, and necessary.

The album isn't all protest music, however. There is a surprisingly catchy and touching Punjabi song about a failed romance (is it autobiographical? I don't know) with a Pakistani woman, called "Karachi Valie":

Je aunda maen kadey hor (Had I come another time)
Ki mulaqat hundi (Would we have still met)
Je hunda maen changa chor (Had I been a good thief)
Ki jumme-raat hundi (Would tonight have been a ball)

Je aunda jhoothh maenu kehna (If I knew how to lie)
Tan vi ki parda eh si rehna (Would this cover have still remained)
Hijaban vali (O veiled one)

Karachi Valie (O Karachi girl)

And one other song I couldn't help but mention is Rabbi's rendition of a Punjabi folk song, "Pagrhi Sambhal Jatta," which names a long slew of Sikh martyrs, most of whose names I don't recognize (you can see the complete lyrics, in Punjabi and English translation, at the Avengi Ja Nahin website; click on "Music" and then on "Download Lyrics"). In an interview, Rabbi says he wrote his version of this song after an experience in London. I'm not quite sure what to make of the song yet, since I associate these types of "shahidi" songs with much more militant postures than Rabbi Shergill generally makes. (Note: there is also of course 1965 Mohammed Rafi version of "Pagri Sambhal Jatta," which you can listen to here; it's totally different).

From all the various Indian media sites that have done pieces on the new album, I could only find one honest review of the new Rabbi Shergill album, at Rediff. (I do think Samit Bhattacharya is a bit too unforgiving at times. Not every song on this album is highly memorable, but there are several that I find riveting...)

I'd also like to point readers to the Rabbi Shergill fan blog, Rabbism, which seems to be following the new album's release closely.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Fareed Zakaria's Latest: "The Post-American World"

Though I've often disagreed with Fareed Zakaria on specific policy questions, I've always been challenged and interested by his way of thinking about big issues. I found Zakaria's earlier book The Future of Freedom stimulating, if imperfect. Zakaria seems to be especially good at synthesizing complex issues under the umbrella of a signature "big idea," without choking off qualifications or complexities. He still may a little too close to the buzzword-philia of Thomas Friedman for some readers, but in my view Zakaria's book-length arguments are a cut above Friedman's "gee whiz" bromides. (Zakaria's weekly Newsweek columns do not always rise to this bar.)

Zakaria's latest big concept is The Post-American World, a just-released book whose argument he summarizes in a substantial essay in this week's Newsweek. The basic idea is, the world is becoming a place where the U.S. is not a solo superpower, but rather a complex competitive environment with multiple sites of power and influence. Even as China and India ("Chindia"?) rise, it's not clear that the U.S. or Europe will fall; rather, everyone can, potentially, rise together -- or at least, compete together. Zakaria argues that despite hysterical anxieties figured in the mass media regarding the threat of terrorism and economic crisis, the world has rarely been more peaceful -- and that relative peace and stability has created the opportunity for the unprecedented emergence of independent and rapidly expanding market economies in formerly impoverished "Chindia."

There's more to it (read the article), but perhaps that is enough summary for now. There are a couple of passages I thought particularly interesting, which I might put out for discussion. First, on India:

During the 1980s, when I would visit India—where I grew up—most Indians were fascinated by the United States. Their interest, I have to confess, was not in the important power players in Washington or the great intellectuals in Cambridge.

People would often ask me about … Donald Trump. He was the very symbol of the United States—brassy, rich, and modern. He symbolized the feeling that if you wanted to find the biggest and largest anything, you had to look to America. Today, outside of entertainment figures, there is no comparable interest in American personalities. If you wonder why, read India's newspapers or watch its television. There are dozens of Indian businessmen who are now wealthier than the Donald. Indians are obsessed by their own vulgar real estate billionaires. And that newfound interest in their own story is being replicated across much of the world. (link)

This last insight seems dead-on to me, and it's the kind of thing I think Zakaria appreciates precisely because he was raised in India (no matter how many times he says "we" when talking about American foreign policy, he still carries that with him). This is one of the spaces where Zakaria's status as an "Indian-American" is a real asset, as it gives him a simultaneous insider-outsider "double consciousness" -- he has the ability to see things from the American/European point of view, but also know (remembers?) how the man on the street in Bombay or Shanghai is likely to see the world. [Note: I did an earlier post on Zakaria's complex perspective here]

(As a side note -- for the academics in the house, isn't the narrative Zakaria is promoting in the passage above a "pop" version of what postcolonial theorists have been talking about for years -- what Ngugi called "The Decolonization of the Mind"?)

Secondly, another passage, which I think addresses what might be the biggest hindrance to the multi-nodal global society Zakaria is interested in:

The rise of China and India is really just the most obvious manifestation of a rising world. In dozens of big countries, one can see the same set of forces at work—a growing economy, a resurgent society, a vibrant culture, and a rising sense of national pride. That pride can morph into something uglier. For me, this was vividly illustrated a few years ago when I was chatting with a young Chinese executive in an Internet café in Shanghai. He wore Western clothes, spoke fluent English, and was immersed in global pop culture. He was a product of globalization and spoke its language of bridge building and cosmopolitan values. At least, he did so until we began talking about Taiwan, Japan, and even the United States. (We did not discuss Tibet, but I'm sure had we done so, I could have added it to this list.) His responses were filled with passion, bellicosity, and intolerance. I felt as if I were in Germany in 1910, speaking to a young German professional, who would have been equally modern and yet also a staunch nationalist.

As economic fortunes rise, so inevitably does nationalism. Imagine that your country has been poor and marginal for centuries. Finally, things turn around and it becomes a symbol of economic progress and success. You would be proud, and anxious that your people win recognition and respect throughout the world. (link)

Will resurgent nationalism turn out to be the biggest hindrance to the "smooth" globalization Zakaria is talking about? How might this play out? Will there be a new generation of wars, or will it be expressed in subtler ways (like, for instance, what happened with the nuclear deal within the Indian political system). In the Newsweek article at least, Zakaria doesn't really explore the downside of emergent (insurgent?) Chindian nationalisms in depth; perhaps he explores that further in the book.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

'Every Unsavoury Separatist is Gloating': Questions About Kosovo

Via Crooked Timber (and also 3QD), there is a learned critique by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in Indian Express, of the recent "engineering" of independence for Kosovo by western European powers and the U.S.

The key paragraph in the argument for our purposes (i.e., with South Asia in mind) might be the following:

In the 19th century, there was a memorable debate between John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton. John Stuart Mill had argued, in a text that was to become the bible for separatists all over, including Jinnah and Savarkar, that democracy functions best in a mono-ethnic societies. Lord Acton had replied that a consequence of this belief would be bloodletting and migration on an unprecedented scale; it was more important to secure liberal protections than link ethnicity to democracy. It was this link that Woodrow Wilson elevated to a simple-minded defence of self-determination. The result, as Mann demonstrated with great empirical rigour, was that European nation states, 150 years later, were far more ethnically homogenous than they were in the 19th century; most EU countries were more than 85 per cent mono-ethnic. (link)

In his Column in Indian Express, Mehta keeps his focus sharply on Kosovo's status within Europe, and also considers the seeming double standard as the Western powers disregard Russian objections to Kosovo's independence, on the one hand, while they go out of their way to accommodate China's (unconscionable) policy on Taiwan, on the other.

But there is obviously a question for South Asia here as well, and India in particular. Mehta briefly alludes to the history of nationalism in the Indian subcontinent when he invokes Jinnah and Savarkar, but his column raises questions for us as we think about the present too -- specifically the questions over the status of Kashmir and Assam (maybe also Manipur and Nagaland, not to mention Punjab in the 1980s).

The debate between Acton and Mill Mehta invokes isn't so much a "conservative" versus "liberal" debate -- John Stuart Mill is considered one of the architects of the philosophy of liberalism, but in this case his views come out as less "liberal" than Acton's. Mill supports thinking of nations as defined by race/ethnicity, but that approach can reinforce ethno-religious differences, rather than leading to an environment where different communities have equal status in a diverse nation. I tend to favor Acton's approach, except perhaps in cases where minority communities face imminent violence, or genocidal suppression.

(Incidentally, Mehta builds his arguments on an essay called "The Dark Side of Democracy" in New Left Review, by Michael Mann; for those who have subscriptions, you can find the article here.)


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Desis Vote (And, Tooting My Own Horn)

SAMAR Magazine has a new issue up on its website on elections -- both within South Asia and here in the U.S. They have essays on the recent election in Gujarat, the Parliamentary elections in Pakistan, the upcoming elections in Nepal, a piece by an SAFO member, and a piece on the Desi vote in New York. There's also a short essay by myself, on "Skinny Candidates With Funny Names," which brings together points made in several of blog posts on Barack Obama and Bobby Jindal. In the piece I make reference to some Sepia Mutiny comment threads, and I actually quote directly from commenter Neal.

My own piece aside, I would recommend people start with the piece by Ali Najmi on the Desi vote in New York. It's informative, for one thing, and Najmi makes reference to a new organization called Desis Vote, which aims to mobilize participation in the South Asian community.

I would also recommend the piece by Luna Ranjit on the upcoming elections in Nepal. Ranjit explains why the planned elections last year were postponed, and explains why the upcoming elections will be historic for Nepal. In addition to addressing the Maoist question, she talks about some of Nepal's ethnic/tribal problems, with groups such as the Terai.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Obama as a 'Brown' Candidate

I had a moment of Obama-identification when I saw the following anecdote from the Iowa caucuses in the New York Times last night:

The Boyd household, perhaps, is atypical. She supported Mr. Obama, while her husband, Rex, walked into the caucus as a Clinton supporter. Before the final headcount was conducted, she said, he changed his mind and moved over to the Obama corner of the room.

In an overnight e-mail, she offered an explanation.

“Rex went to Clinton and I wore a Obama sticker. As people milled and talked, he changed before the count as he heard people stating they could not vote for someone with a last name like Obama. One said, ‘He needs to stay in Chicago and take care of his family.’

“Rex came over to Obama, where he heard not one negative bit of talk. He felt they both stand for pretty much the same ideas, but our leader needs to be positive and Obama puts that feeling out there. That is important in this world.” (link)

There goes that 'funny' name again. Obama has joked about it at times in his stump speeches, but here it seems like it might really be a liability for him after all. For someone to say "I couldn't vote for someone named Obama" is to my eye code: it's a way of saying "I couldn't vote for someone foreign."

The problem of the funny name, and the association it carries with foreignness, as has been discussed many times at Sepia Mutiny, is a characteristic most South Asians share with Mr. Barack Obama. (He has a nickname, by the way -- "Barry" -- though he has admirably chosen not to campaign on it... yet).

This little anecdote is a reminder that this campaign is still, in some sense, a referendum on race and, more broadly, "difference." Clearly, some voters (even supposedly less race-minded Democrats) really aren't ready for a black candidate, or a "different" candidate -- but as, in the anecdote above, there are also an equal number of voters who are drawn to Obama for precisely the reason that others are prejudiced against him.

Obama's difference obviously isn't exactly the same as that which many South Asian American dcontend with, of course: he's Christian, and many of us are not (though it's worth pointing out again that he doesn't have a Christian name). He's also visually and culturally identifiable to most Americans as "black," while Desis often have the problem of looking merely foreign and unplaceable. (In his second gubernatorial campaign in Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, as I've discussed, found a formula to get around this, but since it entailed positioning himself in some cases against the interests of African Americans, I don't think it's a formula I would encourage others to emulate.)

Obama assiduously avoids making the campaign about race in his speeches and debates (except for the obligatory references to Selma, which even white candidates make), though I think he finds coded ways to address some of voters' doubts about his difference after all. Take the opening of his recent victory speech in Iowa:

"You know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.

But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. (link)

When he started out this paragraph, I could have sworn he was going to say that "this day" is the day a black man overwhelmingly won a primary caucus in a state that is 95% white. But in fact, the punchline is something much more neutral: it's the day people "come together around a common purpsoe." Those first few phrases are in some sense code, but Obama knows better than to directly play the "racial vindication" card.

He does something similar at the end of the speech, when he talks about "red" and "blue":

To end the political strategy that's been all about division, and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.

Because that's how we'll win in November, and that's how we'll finally meet the challenges that we face as a nation.

We are choosing hope over fear.

We're choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.


(Obama sure is a master at vague but potentially inspiring language!)When Obama talks about bringing together "red states and blue state" and "unity over division," it's hard for me not to think that he's again using a kind of code, what he really means is, he'll bring together a coalition of of white voters and non-white voters.

Obama seems to have found a method to invoke race, and hint at his own racial difference, without making it a "problem" for white voters. (We'll see if he can remain as subtle after running up against the Clinton "firewall" in New Hampshire...)


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Zakaria on Obama, Identity

Ruchira sent me a link to a recent Newsweek column by Fareed Zakaria, and it seems like it could use a comment box. Zakaria says he likes Obama, surprisingly, because of "identity." It's surprising because, as Zakaria himself admits, he's not one for identity politics:

Obama's argument is about more than identity. He was intelligent and prescient about the costs of the Iraq War. But he says that his judgment was formed by his experience as a boy with a Kenyan father—and later an Indonesian stepfather—who spent four years growing up in Indonesia, and who lived in the multicultural swirl of Hawaii.

I never thought I'd agree with Obama. I've spent my life acquiring formal expertise on foreign policy. I've got fancy degrees, have run research projects, taught in colleges and graduate schools, edited a foreign-affairs journal, advised politicians and businessmen, written columns and cover stories, and traveled hundreds of thousands of miles all over the world. I've never thought of my identity as any kind of qualification. I've never written an article that contains the phrase "As an Indian-American ..." or "As a person of color ..."

But when I think about what is truly distinctive about the way I look at the world, about the advantage that I may have over others in understanding foreign affairs, it is that I know what it means not to be an American. I know intimately the attraction, the repulsion, the hopes, the disappointments that the other 95 percent of humanity feels when thinking about this country. I know it because for a good part of my life, I wasn't an American. I was the outsider, growing up 8,000 miles away from the centers of power, being shaped by forces over which my country had no control. (link)

Zakaria's approach to "identity" is in some sense negative. He wouldn't argue that Obama is better because he's black, or mixed-race, or part-African, etc. But he will argue that Obama has enough of a personal, experiential link to the world outside of U.S. borders (non-U.S.) that it will benefit his judgment.

One could argue that the key distinction here is "experience" vs. "identity," and that it's "experience" of the non-U.S. we're talking about really, not "identity." But the way Zakaria phrases it (and from some of the other points he makes in the column) I sense that he's talking about something much more visceral than what one might learn on a semester abroad in college. Perhaps he really does mean "identity" -- as in, a set of immutable attributes -- not "experience." What do you think?


Friday, December 07, 2007

Follow-up on Romney (Muslims & Religion in US Politics)

Last week several commenters at Sepia Mutiny criticized my post on Mitt Romney's "Muslims in the cabinet" comments. Romney's apparent gaffe quickly faded from the headlines, but Romney's recent speech on his idea of the role of religion in politics might be a good opportunity to briefly revisit my earlier post, and take a look at some issues with Romney's attitude to religion in politics that come from directly from Romney's statements "on the record."

First, on the previous post. In hindsight, I regret not taking seriously the people other than Mansoor Ijaz who say they heard Romney say he would rule out people of Muslim faith from his cabinet. At the time I wrote the post, there were two witnesses saying that; by the following day there were three. All three individuals work for one libertarian magazine based in Nevada, which does pose a concern (that is to say, it's possible they're part of a right-wing anti-Romney movement).

That said, four witnesses (including Mansoor Ijaz, who in my view is not very credible) is enough: Romney probably did say (at least once, possibly twice) "Not likely" when asked whether he would have Muslims in his presumptive cabinet. The biggest problem with that statement, of course, is that it's discriminatory. And those of us who aren't Muslims should be equally concerned: if he's not having any Muslims in his cabinet, he's probably not having any Hindus or Sikhs or Jains either.

Another unfortunate aspect of Romney's statement is that it reveals his seeming lack of awareness of people from a Muslim background who might in fact be qualified for certain cabinet posts. One such person is the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN -- one of the few high-level Bush political appointments that hasn't been a total flop.

In the end, I do not think the Romney "Muslims" gaffe is a significant political event, partly because it seems no one caught it on video, which means Romney has "plausible deniability" (damn you, deniability!). Pressed on the question by the media, Romney finesses it, and argues that what he meant was that he wouldn't have Muslims in his cabinet just to placate critics of America in the Muslim world. That explanation works just fine with the mainstream media.

Still, Romney's recent speech on religion probably isn't going to win him many Muslim friends:

"I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life's blessings. (link)

Muslims have "Frequent prayers" -- that's the best he could come up with? Oy, vey. (I think Jews might also be a bit troubled that his praise of Judaism is for its ancientness, a quality which has sometimes been invoked by anti-Semites. It's also untrue that the religion is unchanged; ever hear of Reform or Conservative Judaism? But I digress.)

Of course, what's really wrong with Romney's speech, beyond that absurd paragraph, is the way he completely flip flops on secularism.

At the beginning of the speech Romney says:

"Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for President, not a Catholic running for President. Like him, I am an American running for President. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.

"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin. (link)

But by the end he says:

"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust. (link)

He's perilously close to a direct contradiction in these two statements, and is only saved by a slight distinction between the idea of "politics" (where he says religion does not play a direct role) and the idea of the "public square" (where he says it should).

(Romney also conveniently overlooks the fact that "Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance -- which, it should be mentioned, was not written by the "founders"! -- fairly recently.)

To continue:

"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'

"Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?

"They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united. (link)

Romney wants to have it both ways: he wants to be respected by the main stream of American voters despite his belonging to a small religious minority. But he also wants to insist on the importance of keeping God in the political picture, and seemingly fudges over the fact that his concept of "God" is surely not the same as a Catholic's, or a Jew's, or a Buddhist's. (And he doesn't give a thought for what all this means to those Americans who do not believe in God at all.) The rhetoric is slippery: at the very moment when it seems he's going overboard with religion, he turns around, and describes American values in secular terms ("equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty").

In short: on religion, Romney is like a wet seal on icy pavement. (He reminds one, more than a little, of John Kerry.)

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The Kucinich India Connection

The Washington Post has a rather odd profile of Congressman Dennis Kucinich and his wife, Elizabeth. It's essentially an account of how a 61 year old midwestern Congressman with political views considerably left of the American mainstream (and, yes, a history of spotting UFOs) got together with a 30 year old British woman who, in the reporter's words, "looks like Botticelli's Venus, only with clothes on."

It's a bit weird that people are paying all this attention to Elizabeth Kucinich's looks, rather than her husband's political views. The WaPo piece acknowledges the oddity of the hype (including the bit that ran on The Daily Show a few weeks ago), but in some ways this piece adds to the gossip-fest instead of moving past it.

The style of the writing does get on my nerves at times:

He says: It was an ordinary day in May 2005. There he was, Dennis Kucinich, congressman, twice divorced, looking for love, as always. He was on the floor of the House, doing ordinary congressman things.

"Tell her about the morning," Elizabeth says helpfully.

"Ooh! That's right!" Kucinich says. Here's the amazing part. (Things involving Elizabeth generally tend to be amazing.) That very morning, believe it or not, guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who teaches peace through meditation and rhythmic breathing, had come to town. Dennis and Ravi have known each other for a long time. Ravi asked about Dennis's love life. Dennis said he was still looking for that special someone.

"And his response was, 'Stop looking and then she will appear,'" Dennis says. "And I said, 'Okay, I'm going to stop looking.' I said that. And that afternoon -- "

"I walked through the office door," Elizabeth finishes. (link)

On the one hand, this reads like political coverage as filtered through Danielle Steel ("looking for love... and doing ordinary congressman things" ?! Is this the same Washington Post E.J. Dionne writes for?).

On the other hand, if the Kuciniches really do say stuff like this in public, it's a bit hard to truly feel sorry for them.

There's more India a bit further on:

Her first inkling that Kucinich might be different from the run-of-the-mill congressman was the presence of two Indian nuns from the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University in Kucinich's reception room. She chatted with the nuns about India and felt herself being "opened" up by the conversation.

Then she and Zarlenga were called into Kucinich's office.

Dennis watched the young woman's eyes. First they went to a bust of Gandhi sitting on his bookshelf. Then they went to a picture given to him by the Hindu nuns -- a burst of brightness against an orange background meant to depict "conscious light." Then her eyes went to his.

"That was it," Dennis says now. "One, two, three." He knew.

"As soon as I met him I knew my life had changed," Elizabeth says. "I knew that he was my husband."

On the couch, they lean in for a kiss. (link)

Cho... Chweet.

Seriously, though -- what do you make of the role of these smatterings of Hindu spirituality in the Kucinich Romance? Does this apparently sincere interest in a certain Hippie-fied version of Hinduism lead you to like the Kuciniches more or less?

One does eventually learn some interesting things about Kucinich in the Washington Post piece (veganism, Crohn's disease, high school football...), but not without being subjected to more gushy commentary from the reporter about hot Elizabeth and her pierced tongue:

The world can be cynical, which is all the more reason why a long-shot presidential candidate must be pure and unwavering in his faith, must be unmoved by the vagaries of the public and the media -- by its interest in the superficial, in things like height and tongue studs.

"It's pathetic," Elizabeth says of the nation's fascination with her piercing. "I really wish people would -- "

She stops.

"Actually, it works okay with the young people," she says. She says some time back she was out in Los Angeles, visiting an organization that works with at-risk youth and former gang members.

"This young lad was taking me around, Hispanic chap. And he was really nervous," she says. "We just, like, chatted initially, and at some point I laughed and he said, 'Oh my God, you've got a tongue ring! That's so cool! I'm going to get everyone to vote for your husband!'"

"Ha!" says Dennis Kucinich, looking amazed.

The happiest presidential candidate laughs and laughs. (link)

(...and the reader squirms and squirms.)


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Taslima Nasreen: A Roundup

The Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen (about whom I've written before) has become the center of controversy again following anti-Taslima riots in Calcutta over the past few days. Exactly why the riots focused on her is a bit of a mystery, since the incident follows a new violent incident at Nandigram (about which I've also written before). At any rate, some Muslim groups are also demanding that Nasreen's Indian visa be canceled (she's applied for Indian citizenship; her current visa expires in February 2008), and she seems to have yet again become a bit of a political football.

Since the riots, the Communist government of West Bengal apparently bundled her up in a Burqa (!) and got her out of the state, "for her own protection." (She's now in Delhi, after first being sent to Rajasthan, a state governed by the BJP.) The state government has also refused to issue a statement in defense of Taslima, fueling the claims of critics on both the left and right that the Left is pandering (yes, "pandering" again) to demands made by some members of the Muslim minority.

The writer Mahashweta Devi's statement sums up my own views quite well:

This is why at this critical juncture it is crucial to articulate a Left position that is simultaneously against forcible land acquisition in Nandigram and for the right of Taslima Nasreen to live, write and speak freely in India. (link)

Ritu Menon in the Indian Express gives a long list of outrages to freedom of artistic expression in India in recent years:

These days, one could be forgiven for thinking that the only people whose freedom of expression the state is willing to protect are those who resort to violence in the name of religion — Hindu, Muslim or Christian. (Let’s not forget what happened in progressive Kerala when Mary Roy tried to stage ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ at her school. Or when cinema halls screened The Da Vinci Code.) Indeed, not only does it protect their freedom of expression, it looks like it also protects their freedom to criminally assault and violate. Not a single perpetrator of such violence has been apprehended and punished in the last decade or more that has seen an alarming rise in such street or mob censorship. Not in the case of Deepa Mehta’s film; not in the attack on Ajeet Cour’s Academy of Fine Arts in Delhi; not in M.F. Husain’s case; not in the violation of the Bhandarkar Institute; not at MS University in Baroda; not in the assault on Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad this August. I could list many, many more. (link)

I was unaware of some of those, in fact.

In Dawn, Jawed Naqvi quotes a book on Nasrin and feminism, which compares her to the great rebel poet Nazrul Islam:

The foreword to the book, "Taslima Nasrin and the issue of feminism", by the two Chowdhurys was written by Prof Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, the former vice-chancellor of Dhaka's Jahangirnagar University. "To my mind, more important than Nasrin's stature as a writer is her role as a rebel which makes her appear as a latter day Nazrul Islam," he says.

"The rage and the fury turned against her by her irate critics reminds one of a similar onslaught directed against the rebel poet in the twenties. More than half a century separates the two, but the society, despite some advance of the status of women, has not changed much. The forces opposed to change and progress, far from yielding the ground, have still kept their fort secure against progress; have in fact gained in striking power. While Nazrul never had to flee his country, Nasrin was forced to do so." (link)

Barkha Dutt plays up the irony of Taslima's being asked (forced?) to put on a Burqa as she was escorted out of the state:

As ironies go, it probably doesn't get any better than this. A panic-stricken Marxist government bundling up a feminist Muslim writer in the swathes of a protective black burqa and parceling her off to a state ruled by the BJP -- a party that the Left would otherwise have you believe is full of religious bigots.

The veil on her head must have caused Taslima Nasreen almost as much discomfort as the goons hunting her down. She once famously took on the 'freedom of choice' school of India's Muslim intelligentsia by writing that "covering a woman's head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn't work". She's always argued that whether or not Islam sanctifies the purdah is not the point. A shroud designed to throttle a woman's sexuality, she says, must be stripped off irrespective. In a signed piece in the Outlook called 'Let's Burn the Burqa', Nasreen took on liberal activists like Shabana Azmi (who has enraged enough mad mullahs herself to know exactly what it feels like) for playing too safe on the veil.(link)

Saugata Roy, in the Times of India, gives an insider perspective on the "Fall & Fall of Buddha" -- which refers to the growing willingness of both the Chief Minister (Buddhadeb Bhattacharya) and the Communist Party of West Bengal in general, to compromise on basic principles. Roy mentions that in the 1980s, the CPI(M) did condemn Rajiv Gandhi's overturning of the Supreme Court's decision on Shah Bano. But no more:

The role reversal didn't come in a day. It began the day when the CM banned Nasreen's novel Dwikhandita on grounds that some of its passages (pg 49-50) contained some "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any group by insulting its religion or religious belief." What's worse is Buddha banned its printing at the behest of some city 'intellectuals' close to him. This was the first assault on a writer's freedom in the post-Emergency period. Later, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court lifted the ban.

But the court order was not enough to repair the damage. The government move dug up old issues and left tongues wagging. Soon thereafter, Hindu fundamentalists questioned M F Hussain's paintings on Saraswati. Some moved the court against Sunil Gangyopadhyay's autobiographical novel Ardhek Jiban, where he recounted how his first sexual arousal was after he saw an exquisite Saraswati idol. All this while, the Marxist intellectuals kept mum lest they hurt religious sentiments. And when fundamentalists took the Taslima to the streets, they were at a loss. Or else, why should Left Front chairman Biman Bose lose his senses and say that Taslima should leave the state for the sake of peace? Or, senior CPM leaders like West Bengal Assembly Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim say that Taslima was becoming a threat to peace? Even worse, former police commissioner Prasun Mukherjee - now in the dog house for his alleged role in the Rizwanur death - went to Taslima's Kolkata residence and put pressure on her to leave the state. This was before last week's violence in Kolkata. But still, the timing is important. Mukherjee went to
Taslima's place when the government went on the back foot after the Nandigram carnage.

But the Marxists themselves? Perhaps unknown to himself, Buddha has been steadily losing his admirers. There was a time — just a few months ago, really — when not just the peasantry and workers but the Bengali middle class swore by him. Today leftist intellectuals like Sumit Sarkar, liberal activists like Medha Patkar are deadly opposed to him and his government. The Bengali middle class, for whom Buddha represented a modernizing force, is today deeply disappointed with him. One thing after another has added to the popular disenchantment. First, there was the government's high-handed handling of Nandigram, then came the Rizwanur case in which the state apparatus seems to have been used and abused to thwart two young lovers, and now the government's capitulation in the Taslima affair before Muslim fundamentalists. (no link to TOI; sorry)

And finally, Taslima Nasreen herself speaks, asking that her situation not be made into a political issue:

Taslima Nasreen is happy her plight has been highlighted, but the author-in-hiding says she does not want to become a victim of politics. She has been told that she could become an issue for the BJP against the Congress and the CPM in the Gujarat elections.

“I do not want any more twists to my tale of woes. Please do not give political colour to my plight. I do not want to be a victim of politics. And I do not want anybody to do politics with me,” an anguished Taslima told HT on Monday over the telephone. (link)

It's a fair request -- unfortunately, it's already too late. Politics, one might say, has "been done."

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Language-Based States (Guha Chapter 9)

[Part of an ongoing series on Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's entry can be found here. Next week, we will look at Chapter 10, "The Conquest of Nature," on India's approach to development and the modernization of agriculture.]

Guha's Chapter 9, "Redrawing the Map," is about the early phase in the movement to establish language-based states, with particular emphasis on the south (the creation of Andhra Pradesh out of what was formerly the state of Madras), the status of Bombay vis a vis Maharashtra, and the delineation of Punjab.

As Guha points out, though reorganizing states according to language was part of the Congress plank from the 1930s, after Independence/Partition, both Nehru and Sardar Patel were strongly opposed to rushing into any reorganization of states, especially if there was a danger that such reorganizations could lead to the destabilization of the union. The logic behind this hesitation was understandable and quite sound: if the idea of "India" could be broken along the lines of religion, why not also language?

The first new state to be created along the lines of language was Andhra Pradesh, and this was largely due to the hunger strike of Gandhian activist and Telugu leader Potti Sriramulu, who is another one of those great, largely forgotten (well, forgotten outside of Andhra Pradesh at least) "characters" from post-independence Indian history who probably should be better known than he is:

Sriramulu was born in Madras in 1901, and studied sanitary engineering before taking a job with the railroads. In 1928 he suffered a double tragedy, when his wife died along with their newborn child. Two years later he resigned his position to join the Salt Satyagraha. Later, he spent some time at Gandhi's Sabarmati ashram. Later still, he spent eighteen months in jail as part of the individual Satyagraha campaign of 1940-41. . . .

Gandhi did regard Sriramulu with affection but also, it must be said, with a certain exasperation. On 25 November 1946 the disciple had beugn a fast unto death to demand the opening of all temples in Madras province to untouchables. Other congressmen, their minds more focused on the impending freedom of India, urged him to desist. . . .

Potti Sriramulu had called off that fast of 1946 at Gandhi's insistence. But in 1952 he Mahatma was dead; and in any case, Andhra meant more to Sriramulu than the untouchables once had. This fast he would carry out till the end, or until the government of India relented.

Potti Sriramulu died of his hunger strike on December 15, 1952. Three days later, Nehru announced that the formation of the state of Andhra out of the eleven Telugu-speaking districts of Madras.

Of course, with Andhra the reorganization was just beginning. Three years later, the national States Reorganization Committee announced a number of other changes. In the south, the job was easy, as there were four clear language regions (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam) that could be allocated their own states.

In Bombay, the situation was more complicated, as the Marathi-speakers in Bombay comprised a plurality (43%) but not a majority of the city's residents as of 1955. Moreover, the economically dominant ethnic communities of Bombay -- especially Gujaratis -- strongly resisted the idea of making Bombay part of a Marathi-speaking state. However, following growing unrest and a series of "language riots" (memorably described in Rushdie's Midnight's Children), this merger eventually did happen in 1960, as Bombay was declared the capital of the new state of Maharashtra. (Suketu Mehta's book, Maximum City, has a lot more on how language and ethnicity politics have evolved in Bombay over the years -- warts and all.)

This Guha chapter doesn't detail how things would play out later in Punjab, where the Sikhs' early demand for a Punjabi-language state was denied by the States Reorganization Committee in 1955. (Sikhs have always anecdotally blamed this failure on the census of 1951, where Punjabi-speaking Hindus by and large described their primary language as "Hindi," confusing matters greatly.) When reorganization eventually did occur in Punjab in 1966, it caused lots of other problems, some of which would lead to a resurgent Akali movement, and eventually to the rise of Sikh separatism in the 1970s.

Partly as a result of what happened in Punjab (and we'll get to that in a few chapters), Guha's rather easy acceptance the language reorganization movements seems a bit glib to me:

When it began, the movement for linguistic states generated deep apprehensions among the nationalist elite. They feared it would lead to the balkanization of India, to the creation of many more Pakistans. 'Any attempt at redrawing the map of India on the linguistic basis,' wrote the Times of India in February 1952, 'would only give the long awaited opportunity to the reactionary forces to come into the open and assert themselves. That will lay an axe to the very root of India's integrity.'

In retrospect, however, linguistic reorganization seems rather to have consolidated the unity of India. True, the artifacts that have resulted, such as Bangalore's Vidhan Souda, are not to everybody's taste. And there have been some serious conflicts between states over the sharing of river waters. However, on the whole the creation of linguistic states has acted as a largely constructive channel for provincial pride. It has proved quite feasible to be peaceably Kannadiga, or Tamil, or Oriya--as well as contentedly Indian. (207-208)

Guha's premise that language-based politics works somewhat differently from the politics of religious communalism seems right to me. The latter seems inevitably divisive (and almost always destructive), while the former seems to have had several positive benefits (especially as it has led to support for regional literatures and the arts). And it's also clear that the reorganization along linguistic lines didn't lead to what was feared, "the creation of many more Pakistans."

But isn't it still true that the language-based politics that led to the creation of new states starting in the 1950s has also led state governments to certain excesses along linguistic/ethnic lines? Two such excesses might include the renaming of Bombay as 'Mumbai', and the recent renaming of Bangalore as 'Bengluru'. I'm also concerned about the language-based "reservations" that exist in some states, favoring the dominant ethno-linguistic community over other ethnic groups (though I admit I am not a specialist on this latter issue). Now that the states have been permanently established, is the perpetuation of language-based politics really that benign?

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Non-Aligned Nehru (Guha Chapter 8)

[Part of an ongoing series on Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's entry can be found here. Next week we will look at Chapter 9, "Redrawing the Boundaries," on the Language Movements of the 1950s]

With 20-20 hindsight, many people criticize Nehru today for pursuing a foreign policy oriented to "nonalignment" -- that is, independence from both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Here is one of Nehru's most famous statements articulating that policy, from a speech given at Columbia University:

"The main objectives of that policy are: the pursuit of peace, not through alignment with any major power or group of powers but through an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue, the liberation of subject peoples, the maintenance of freedom, both national and individual, the elimination of racial discrimination and the elimination of want, disease and ignorance, which afflict the greater part of the world's population."

The idealism in that statement is admirable, and still worth thinking about, even if the world order has changed dramatically since Nehru first uttered these words. The idea of taking an "independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue" is one I personally strive for as a writer, and may be something that would in my view serve as a helpful corrective to many partisan ideologues -- on both the left and the right -- who tend to only see the world through one particular ideological filter or the other.

Ideals aside, Nehru's government did make some serious mistakes in foreign policy in the first few years. One of the significant failures Guha mentions in this chapter involved an inconsistency in the response to two international crises: 1) Anglo-French military action in response to Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 (the Suez Crisis), and 2) the Soviet invasion of Hungary following an anti-Communist uprising, also in 1956 (the Hungarian Revolution). India publicly condemned the first act of aggression by western powers, but not the second, which today seems like a clear indication that India was leaning towards the Soviets more than it let on.

Guha suggests there were some internal differences between Nehru and the famous leftist Krishna Menon, who represented India at the U.N., over the Hungary question. Nehru publicly defended Menon's abstention at the U.N. on the resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but privately he was deeply upset about the invasion. Part of the problem here might have been Nehru's lack of clarity over the correct course to take, but certainly Krishna Menon's independent streak must have been a factor as well.

A similar kind of diplomatic confusion was present in India's relationship with China starting in 1950. Here, the Indian ambassador to China, K.N. Panikkar (who is also very well-known as a historian), seems to have fatally misread Mao Zedong and the personality of Chinese communism:

In May 1950 Panikkar was granted an interview with Mao Zedong, and came away greatly impressed. Mao's face, he recalled later, was 'pleasant and benevolent and the look in his eyes is kindly.' There 'is no cruelty or hardness either in his eyes or in the expression of his mouth. In fact he gave me the impression of a philosophical mind, a little dreamy but absolutely sure of itself.' The Chinese leader had 'experienced many hardships and endured tremendous sufferings,' yet 'his face showed no signs of bitterness, cruelty, or sorrow.' Mao reminded Panikkar of his own boss, Nehru, for 'both are men of action with dreamy, idealistic temperaments,' and both 'may be considered humanists in the broadest sense of the term.' (176)

And here is Guha's explanation of the failure:

This would be laughable if it were not so serious. Intellectuals have always been strangely fascinated by powerful men; George Bernard Shaw wrote about Lenin in much the same terms. Yet Shaw was an unaffiliated writer, responsible only to himself. Panikkar was the official representative of his government. What he said and believed would carry considerable weight. And here he was representing one of history's most ruthless dictators as dreamy, soft, and poetic. (176)

I think Guha has it right on here -- and as a side note, this observation about intellectuals who misread charismatic leaders is intriguing. (Are there other examples you can think of?)

Within the Indian administration, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at least did see the danger posed by the Chinese, and in November 1950 -- just after the Chinese invaded and annexed Tibet -- he wrote Nehru a strongly-worded letter to that effect. In hindsight, Sardar Patel's letter seems incredibly prescient, as it anticipates in some sense the Sino-Indian war of 1962, as well as some of the secessionist movements that continue to plague India along its northeastern border to this very day. The letter is posted in its entirety here, and it is well worth reading. Following are some long extracts:

The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intention. My own feeling is that at a crucial period they managed to instill into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means. There can be no doubt that during the period covered by this correspondence the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet. The final action of the Chinese, in my judgement, is little short of perfidy. The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence. From the latest position, it appears that we shall not be able to rescue the Dalai Lama. Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions. As the External Affairs Ministry remarked in one of their telegrams, there was a lack of firmness and unnecessary apology in one or two representations that he made to the Chinese Government on our behalf. It is impossible to imagine any sensible person believing in the so-called threat to China from Anglo-American machinations in Tibet. Therefore, if the Chinese put faith in this, they must have distrusted us so completely as to have taken us as tools or stooges of Anglo-American diplomacy or strategy. This feeling, if genuinely entertained by the Chinese in spite of your direct approaches to them, indicates that even though we regard ourselves as the friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends. (link)

One of the really tragic consequences of the Indian failure to read Chinese intentions correctly at this point is the impact it would have on Tibet and its ancient culture -- which would later be marked by the Chinese for forcible merger into the mainstream of China. It's not India's fault, of course -- it is China's fault -- but one does wonder if things might have played out differently had Nehru played his cards differently, or if someone other than K.N. Panikkar had been ambassador at the time.

More from Sardar Patel's letter:

In the background of this, we have to consider what new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we knew it, and the expansion of China almost up to our gates. Throughout history we have seldom been worried about our north-east frontier. The Himalayas have been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the north. We had a friendly Tibet which gave us no trouble. The Chinese were divided. . . . China is no longer divided. It is united and strong. All along the Himalayas in the north and north-east, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to the Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of the potential trouble between China and ourselves.Recent and bitter history also tells us that Communism is no shield against imperialism and that the communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other. Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include the important part of Assam. They have their ambitions in Burma also. Burma has the added difficulty that it has no McMahon Line round which to build up even the semblance of an agreement. Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie concealed racial, national or historical claims. The danger from the north and north-east, therefore, becomes both communist and imperialist. (link)

And finally, Patel assesses the potential impact on the various border regions, all of whom are in some sense in a gray area ethnically and nationally with regards to China and India:

Let us also consider the political conditions on this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern and north-eastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal areas in Assam. From the point of view of communication, there are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is almost an unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There, too, our outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of these areas with us is by no means close and intimate. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices. During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had been in touch with them, but their influence was in no way friendly to India or Indians. In Sikkim, there was political ferment some time ago. It is quite possible that discontent is smouldering there. Bhutan is comparatively quiet, but its affinity with Tibetans would be a handicap. Nepal has a weak oligarchic regime based almost entirely on force: it is in conflict with a turbulent element of the population as well as with enlightened ideas of the modern age. In these circumstances, to make people alive to the new danger or to make them defensively strong is a very difficult task indeed and that difficulty can be got over only by enlightened firmness, strength and a clear line of policy. (link)

From earlier posts on Guha's book, I know there are many readers who feel frustrated with Nehru's foreign policy errors from the 1950s and 60s. To some extent I'm inclined to be forgiving; things were happening very fast, and there really was no historical precedent for what Mao did with Communist China. Some of Nehru's close associates from the Nationalist movement (i.e., Krishna Menon) were oriented to Marxism/Communism as part of their anti-Imperialist intellectual orientation.

Sardar Patel, on the other hand, was able to reverse the prevalent orthodoxy, and see -- clearly and, as we now know, correctly -- that Communism could potentially be as ruthlessly "Imperial" an ideology as European colonialism itself. In effect, he was one of the few politicians of his era who was actually able to perform in practice ("an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue") the values that Nehru preached in his speeches.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

In Defense of Substantive Democracy

This post is a response of sorts to Abhi's thought-provoking comments at Sepia Mutiny on Musharraf's State of Emergency, and what he sees as the possible benefits of dictatorship in certain limited conditions. Abhi's post, as I read it, was a thought experiment, not necessarily a political program -- and this is a somewhat speculative thought experiment as well (these ideas are not set in stone). There is some value in the general idea that democracy before stability is not always the best thing for a country, and in the particular claim that Pakistan's democratic institutions have been severely weakened by years and years of misrule (going back to the Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif days; Musharraf did not start this with his 1999 coup).

That said, I'm not ready to give up faith in liberal democracy, and I think it could still happen in Pakistan. As for how to get there, there are probably only two or three paths, none of them easy. One is a popular uprising that would probably turn pretty ugly in the short run -- think of the bloody riots in Karachi this past summer, only magnified. If successful, mass protests/riots ould be followed by a military coup and a provisional dictatorship, and then by open elections, if the coup was carried out by the right person. (There could also be more violence during the elections, and possibly more trouble/instability even after they occur.) The other is something accidental, which could be anything. Perhaps a new leadership emerges (Imran Khan, by the way, has managed to escape from house arrest), or perhaps something unforeseen happens to/with Musharraf that leaves a power vacuum? Perhaps both? Who knows. Either way, in my view there is no question that what is necessary if democracy is to have a chance in Pakistan is for Musharraf to go.

Another possibility to speculate on is what might happen if either the Bush administration or (more likely) its successor withheld military and economic aid to pressure Musharraf to cancel this State of Emergency. Here I'm really not sure what the ramifications would be for Musharraf. It might be symbolically bad on the international stage, but would it really hurt him all that much domestically? Here I'm really not sure.

I should also say that I disagree with the calculus, which is widely prevalent amongst American TV "pundits" right now, that Musharraf needs to stay because America needs him for its "War on Terror." There may or may not be any truth in this (as has been pointed out, Musharraf's net contribution to fighting terrorism is highly debatable), but what I keep thinking is that at this moment it's not America's interests that I'm concerned about, it's the Pakistani people, who deserve good, transparent governance. It's the Pakistani people who deserve a free press (not blackouts of private news channels), the right to peacefully dissent, and the right to organize politically -- who deserve, in short, substantive democracy.

Substantive democracy is not just democratic elections; it requires a whole range of institutions that provide meaningful checks and balances on power. Executive authority (a president or a dictator) needs to be subject to legislative and judicial challenges. The prospect of a newly revitalized Pakistan Supreme Court was a really hopeful sign this past spring and summer, and I'm deeply disappointed that Musharraf decided he wouldn't let Iftikar Chaudhry and co. determine his fate. (At least he hasn't succeeded in stopping Chaudhry from talking to the Press, though that will probably happen soon.)

In the U.S. case, the best current example of checks and balances on executive authority are the Congressional investigations of numerous questionable actions by the Bush Administration. Another is the tradition of the "Special Prosecutor," which was instrumental in bringing down Nixon (though it was abused, in my view, with Bill Clinton). What Nawaz Sharif's corrupt regime needed was something akin to a special prosecutor; what it got instead was a takeover by General Musharraf.

India, the "world's largest democracy" isn't perfect on this score either, by the way. I was reminded of this most recently watching the Tehelka videos relating to Gujarat. As I said in my earlier (quickie) post, I don't think the videos give enough evidence by themselves to take down Modi, but they quite definitely show that the entire system of state government in Gujarat -- ministers, police, judges, lawyers -- colluded in allowing those bloody "three days of whatever you want" (as Modi allegedly said) to happen. The checks and balances were not there, and it took intervention from the Center to bring the violence to a halt. (Incidentally, I thought Raghu Karnad's comments on Gujarat and the Tehelka exposé were pretty compelling: here and here.)

My point is this: elections are necessary for democracy to occur, but they aren't sufficient for democracy to sustain itself. What Musharraf should have done, if he really cared about transitioning to democracy, was, first of all, let the Supreme Court rule on whether the recent Presidential election was valid. Secondly, he needed to give up his uniform (though admittedly, that should have happened first). Thirdly, Parliamentary elections.

But other things are necessary too: the opposition political parties have been weakened by years of dictatorship and corrupt leadership. It will take time for new leaders to emerge (Benazir, why not just stay in Dubai? You could buy the Pakistan plot at Palm Jumeirah...), and for the party organizations to become strong and self-sustaining.

Sepoy at Chapati Mystery has a poem in Urdu by Habib Jalib that summarizes my feelings on a more emotional level:

Jackbooted State

If the Watchman had not helped the Dacoit
Today our feet wouldn’t be in chains, our victory not defeat
Wrap your turbans around your neck, crawl on your bellies
Once on top, it is hard to bring down, the jackbooted state. (link)

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Quoted Briefly in the Washington Post (more Jindal)

This time, I'm proud to have contributed some thoughts to what I think is a really well done piece on the Indian community's reaction to Bobby Jindal in the Washington Post:

Whatever their views, "absolutely everybody is talking about this," said Amardeep Singh, an English professor at Lehigh University and a contributor to Sepia Mutiny, one of several blogs serving South Asians that hosted discussions on the topic last week.

"It's a soul-searching moment because it raises all these questions about identity and the kind of public profile that Indian Americans have to cut in order to succeed in American life," Singh said.

As for himself, Singh, 33, who was born in New York and raised in Washington's Maryland suburbs, confessed to deep ambivalence. As someone who tried to fit in during college by taking the nickname Deep but who has since tried to resurrect his given first name, Singh is pained that the first Indian American to win a governorship did so using the name Bobby. But Singh is also certain that Louisiana voters were under no illusions about Jindal's ancestry. (link)

She also has some great quotes from our blog-friend Maitri.

One small clarification I should have made to Ms. Aizenman -- a lot of people still call me 'Deep'. But I'm 'Amardeep' in public and in print.

I talked about some of these naming issues in a short essay I wrote awhile ago (before the blog) on naming in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. (Note to self: expand that piece & turn it into something publishable already!)

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Briefly Quoted in "Outlook" (regarding Jindal)

There's a brief quote from me in the Indian news magazine Outlook, regarding Governor-elect Bobby Jindal:

"But Bobby is a conservative Republican, and most Indian Americans aren't, so there are a lot of mixed feelings about him," says Toby Chaudhuri, IALI spokesman. "It is hard to accept him when you scratch the surface. He has proved Indian Americans can achieve great things, but he doesn't represent our community." The ambivalence over Jindal was evident from comments posted on blogs including, which is devoted to the South Asian diaspora. Prof Amardeep Singh of Lehigh University, near Philadelphia, monitored responses to his post on Jindal's victory. Most people recognise its significance, but worry about the role of religion in Jindal's campaign, his name change, and his poor connect with the Black community in Louisiana. Only conservative Indians are enthusiastic about Jindal; the liberals are either apathetic or hostile. "If I was in Louisiana, I wouldn't vote for him," says Singh. "I disagree with him too strongly."(link)

Oh well. What's funny about being misquoted in this particular instance is that it wasn't even a spoken quote to begin with -- the reporter was simply quoting my blog post on Jindal from last week! (I actually wrote "If I lived in Louisiana," and obviously I didn't make that particular grammatical error.)

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

China Mieville, not a fan of Libertarianism

Via 3QD, China Miéville has a biting critique of libertarianism in In These Times. It's an excerpt from a forthcoming book:

Libertarianism is by no means a unified movement. As many of its advocates proudly stress, it comprises a taxonomy of bickering branches—minarchists, objectivists, paleo- and neolibertarians, agorists, et various al.—just like a real social theory. Claiming a lineage with post-Enlightenment classical liberalism, as well as in some cases with the resoundingly portentous blatherings of Ayn Rand, all of its variants are characterized, to differing degrees, by fervent, even cultish, faith in what is quaintly termed the “free” market, and extreme antipathy to that vaguely conceived bogeyman, “the state,” with its regulatory and fiscal powers.

Above all, they recast their most banal avarice—the disinclination to pay tax—as a principled blow for political freedom. Not content with existing offshore tax shelters, multimillionaires and property developers have aspired to build their own. For each such rare project that sees (usually brief) life, there are many unfettered by actual existence, such as Laissez-Faire City, a proposed offshore tax haven inspired by a particularly crass and gung-ho libertarianism, that generated press interest in the mid-’90s only to collapse in infighting and bad blood; or New Utopia, an intended sea-based libertarian micro-nation in the Caribbean that degenerated with breathtaking predictability into nonexistence and scandal. . . .

A parable from seasteading’s past goes some way in explaining. In 1971, millionaire property developer Michael Oliver attempted to establish the Republic of Minerva on a small South Pacific sand atoll. It was soon off-handedly annexed by Tonga, and, in a traumatic actualized metaphor, allowed to dissolve back into the sea. To defeat the predatory outreach of nations and tides, it is clearly not enough to be offshore: True freedom floats. (link)

Though he is indeed merciless in slicing up libertarianism for dinner, Miéville is nevertheless interested in one of the recurring leitmotifs in much libertarian thought -- the idea that true liberty must inevitably be landless, stateless, and therefore possibly afloat (in outer space, or at sea -- same thing). The idea of the "floating utopia" is one he explored in his novel The Scar, which I briefly attempted to interpret here. In Miéville's rendering, of course, a lived utopia is always going to be perilously close to its opposite.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Torn About Bobby Jindal

I should start by saying this: I know, if I lived in Louisiana, that I wouldn't vote for Bobby Jindal. I just disagree with him too strongly on the social issues -- intelligent design and abortion rights, for starters -- to let my sense of ethnic loyalty get the better of me.

But I can't help but be somewhat torn when I see photos like this:


The rest of the very interesting New York Times profile explains what this represents: Jindal is slowly winning over the rural white voters in northern Louisiana, staunch Republicans (can anyone say David Duke?) who couldn't bring themselves to vote for him when he ran for governor four years ago. He's also learning how to avoid giving the impression that he is an overachieving policy wonk (which he undoubtedly is), so as to better connect with ordinary Louisianans.

For me, Jindal's growing success at this (again, encapsulated in the photo above) taps into an anxiety I myself have had as a child of immigrants -- who became the first (and only) person in my extended family to earn a Ph.D. Even if your tastes and cultural values are profoundly "Americanized," as mine are, there remains a sense that you don't quite "fit," which tends to be exacerbated (for me, especially) every time some a-hole on South Street (in Philly) mutters something about "there goes Bin Laden" when I walk down the street. Part of the anxiety comes from the ignorance and xenophobia of some Americans, but a good part of it comes from myself, an internalized sense of remaining not-quite-pukka despite everything.

If Jindal wins, his victory will suggest to me he's somehow overcome both sides of the immigrant's anxiety syndrome: the part that comes from others' mistrust, and also the part that comes from himself -- his own sense of being something different, something other than a "normal" American, or in this case, a representative Louisianan. If he wins, I won't cheer, but I will, I expect, quietly feel a certain sense of pride at his accomplishment despite my strong disagreement with his kind of politics. Not just because he's a fellow desi -- it's actually more complex than that. Rather, the pride will be because he's a fellow desi who's evidently achieved, after a struggle, something I've long aspired to do: shake that dude's hand.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Noah Feldman on U.S. Policy in Pakistan

The question comes up again and again when I talk to friends and colleagues about U.S. foreign policy. The question is most urgent when discussing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but equally valid when the topic is the Indo-U.S. Nuclear deal, or even what is happening right now in Myanmar.

The question is this: is the U.S. acting in ways that are true to the credo of supporting and spreading democracy around the world, or does it merely do this when it is clearly in its own interests? Is present-day U.S. foreign policy governed by a "realist" philosophy (do what you have to do) or an "idealist" one (spread democracy)?

Noah Feldman has a think piece on this in a recent New York Times Magazine, where he gives special attention to the situation in Pakistan. To begin with, this is how Feldman frames the question:

As ideal and slogan, though, the creed of exporting democracy differs from the creed of expanding empire in one important respect: When we fail to follow it, we look hypocritical. An empire that extends itself selectively is just being prudent about its own limitations. A republic that supports democratization selectively is another matter. President Bush’s recent speech to the United Nations, in which he assailed seven repressive regimes, was worthy of applause — but it also opened the door to the fair criticism that he was silent about the dozens of places where the United States colludes with dictators of varying degrees of nastiness. (link)

The obvious examples of "realist" collusion are Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where the U.S. hasn't pressured for democratization, since in these cases more "democracy" might mean more anti-American Islamists. Regarding Burma/Myanmar, President Bush recently took a strong stance of condemnation, but in Feldman's view this may not be especially convincing:

The problem is that our support for dictators in some countries tends to undermine our ability to encourage democracy elsewhere, because it sends the message that we may change our tune the moment an immediate interest alters our calculations. The monks of Yangon have put their lives on the line; if our embrace of their cause is conditional on, say, our not needing any favors from the ruling junta this week, why should they trust us? Double standards are not merely hypocritical, but something much worse in international affairs: ineffective. (link)

In Feldman's analysis, the U.S. support for Pervez Musharraf is a little trickier.

Feldman actually sees the recent presidential election in Pakistan, and Musharraf's pledge to resign as Chief of Staff of the Army, as signs that democracy is working:

Under these circumstances, the best option is to pursue a chastened version of the democratization doctrine — one that makes no exceptions for friends while also recognizing that building durable institutions may do more good than holding snap elections. In Pakistan, the Supreme Court, buoyed by the national association of lawyers, pressured Musharraf into promising to resign his powerful position as army chief of staff and demilitarize the presidency. That kind of bravery deserves our support — especially because it reminds us that strong and functioning institutions are the preconditions to successful democracy; without them, elections may actually make things worse. (link)

Feldman doesn't get very specific about the various ways Musharraf has suppressed the voices of his political opponents in recent weeks, and doesn't mention the fact that the opposition parties in last week's presidential elections abstained their votes (admittedly, the fact that they merely abstained, rather than walk out, was a kind of victory of Musharraf).

Rather, the focus is on the institutions -- and Feldman does seem to have a point that the Supreme Court has emerged as one viable counterweight to Musharraf's executive authority. Institutions like a free media (which Pakistan has), an independent legislature (which it doesn't have, at present), courts, and political parties are in some ways as important as elections when thinking about what makes a real, sustainable democracy. (Fareed Zakaria makes much the same point in his book, The Future of Freedom)

Still, I'm not sure I can agree with Feldman's characterization of Musharraf's actions as "brave" -- nor do I think that the ongoing U.S. support for Musharraf's government is a good thing. A great deal will depend on whether Musharraf's resignation from the Army is real or just a sybmolic show (as I put it in an earlier post, a mere "change of clothes"), and also on what happens if and when a newly constituted Pakistani Parliament acts in ways that Musharraf doesn't like.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dear President [...]

Well, you did it again, President [...]

Your opponents are flummoxed, perhaps even a little humiliated after your latest political demonstration. They thought they had you in a tight spot, but you played your cards carefully, and you showed everyone you know how to use your authority. You used your people well. Yes, you say, you're a little diminished now, but who wouldn't be, after so many years in charge of a large and fractious country?

You certainly know the art of political self-preservation, and you have a talent for putting on a show. You have little interest in democracy, but you have always known how to use the media when it suits you, and the latest incident is no exception. Your opponents call you all kinds of names, but they have always underestimated your talent.

Of course, there are the courts. The lawyers and judges will come after you and your friends -- they have been doing so already -- and you may lose a few important allies along the way. Necessary sacrifices! And yet in the end, judges merely wear robes, and their words of condemnation do not carry force by themselves. (Judges can also easily be replaced, as you have shown.) Justice, in short, is merely a word, a debating point for powerless intellectuals like myself. Unqualified, absolute Power -- that is where you deal.

It comes down to this: you have the support of the military, and the military is everything. The needs of security and the projection of strength carry great emotional force for most citizens. The fact that you have weakened your country's democratic institutions does not particularly worry you. It is doubtful that your citizens will demand their return; democracy can always be sacrificed in the name of security, can it not? The simmering resentment of the masses, in all except extreme cases, can be managed, can it not? (That is what tear gas is for.)

You may win this round -- indeed, by quieting your opponents, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. You may or may not stay in power much longer yourself, but you have a good chance of seeing a friendly successor continue your policies. If you are as smart as you have seemed to be thus far, you will avoid the disgrace that ended the careers of many of your predecessors.

History, however, will still judge you. It will always be there, staring back at the waste of these years, casting an unblinking eye on the mess you've made.

[Which President, of which country?]


Monday, August 13, 2007

Will the U.S. India Nuclear Deal Get Nuked?

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is facing the threat of a mutiny from the left parties in his coalition government over the recently-finalized -- but still not finally approved -- U.S.-India nuclear deal, also known as the "123 Agreement."

As he addressed Parliament today, some members of Left parties staged a walk-out, while others made so much noise that MPs who actually wanted to hear what was said had to use their translation headphones. On the right, the BJP has also been critical of the deal, though I tend to think it's more because of political opportunism than anything else: one gets the feeling they wish they'd pulled this off.

Thus far, the Congress Party hasn't seemed seriously concerned about a collapse of the government; no one is yet talking about votes of no-confidence, mid-term polls, or rejiggering the deal to make critics happy.

Are the Communists and others on the left bluffing when they say they will walk away from the Coalition government over this? I tend to think so, though I could be wrong. Indian politics -- with the combination of regional and caste parties in addition to the left/right axis -- is often so complicated, it makes the U.S. system seem laughably simple. Still the Times has a certain wry tone in its summary of where the opposition is coming from:

At one point in Mr, Singh’s speech, the Left parties, which provide crucial support to his Congress-led coalition government, walked out of the house. The Left has opposed the nuclear accord with the United States since it was announced, less over the specific provisions of the accord than over the general principle of closer ties to America.

“We do not share the optimism that India can become a great power with the help of the United States,” Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said on Saturday. (link)

(This is where I sniff in Prakash Karat's general direction.)

For those who have kind of let the whole U.S.-India nuclear deal slip past them in recent months, Siddharth Varadarajan has a good point-by-point summary of the agreement here. And the full text of the agreement, released by the U.S. State Department, is here.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

A Good Critique of Obama's Speech

A couple of days ago I did a brief blog post about Obama's speech on terrorism over at Sepia Mutiny. The speech has since been widely criticized, but the best takedown of Obama's misguided approach to Pakistan must be Sepoy's, at Chapati Mystery. It's a long post, but this part is especially good:

One should remind Barack Obama, and the US Congress which just passed such a conditional bill, that Pakistan is, in clear and evident fact, fighting a war in Waziristan - with scores of military casualties seemingly every day. One can also remind him that since the Lal Masjid stand off - July 3rd - there have been a dozen suicide bombings across Pakistan killing over 200 civilians - almost keeping pace with Baghdad. One can further remind him that Pakistan has indeed allowed US military strikes on its sovereign territory, even with questionable intelligence. On November 10, 2006, US missiles hit a madrasa in Bajaur aimed at killing the elusive No. 2 of Al Qaeda but managed mainly to kill children. They must all be casualties of Pakistan’s soft focus in the war on terrorism.

To be crystal clear, Obama suggests that a country that is a sovereign nation and ally, that has full nuclear capability, has the ability to carry out nuclear attacks, has the ability to give nuclear technologies to the card-carrying-member-of-the-Axis-of-Evil-next-door Iran, has an unpopular dictator supported and maintained by the United States, has deployed 100,000 troops across its North Western borders, has suffered thousands of casualties - army and civilians - carrying out the Global War on Terror, has seen its cities and deserts flood with the detritus from the forgotten war going on in Afghanistan, but has nonetheless maintained complete compliance by killing and capturing many key members of the Al Qaeda ... should be invaded. (link)

I think the salient critique of Sepoy's argument here might be that while all this may be true, there is a legitimate concern that elements in Pakistan's military and intelligence organizations may be playing a double game specifically with regards to Al Qaeda.

Still, I'm in agreement with Sepoy by and large. My earlier enthusiasm for Obama is starting to fade...

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Obama Campaign Goes the Xenophobic Route

[UPDATE: Obama has now distanced himself from this memo. See Sepia Mutiny]

Today's New York Times has a story about the Clintons' recent financial disclosures, and their decision to liquidate all their stock holdings. Fine; makes sense.

But what's really remarkable about this story is the questionable anonymous memo issued by the Obama campaign in response to the Clinton disclosures. The memo amounts to an attempt to smear Clinton as being too friendly to India, and is laced with xenophobic sentiments and insinuations. It starts with the title of the memo itself: "HILLARY CLINTON (D-PUNJAB)’S PERSONAL FINANCIAL AND POLITICAL TIES TO INDIA."

And it goes downhill from there. Obama's campaign memo (read the whole thing) accuses the Clintons of a number of things:

1) They start out by stating that the Clintons own stock in an Indian company called "Easy Bill," which is actually just a company that allows Indians to automate their bill payments. This is not a BPO type company, but a service for Indians within India, so one wonders why is this even included.

2) They then go after the Clintons for accepting speaking fees from Cisco (this is Bill) and campaign donations from Cisco employees (Hillary). Cisco may be more guilty than many software companies of dumping its U.S. based workforce in favor of cheaper Indian engineers in the early 2000s, but it's nevertheless the case that U.S. high tech job market is in pretty good shape again overall -- outsourcing hasn't created the apocalypse that was feared. This is a little bit strange: I doubt that many Americans think of Cisco as an evil outsourcer.

3) They seem to find fault with Clinton's relationship with the hotel tycoon Sant Singh Chatwal. Chatwal has organized two big fundraisers for her, netting a total of $1 million in donations. Chatwal also started "Indian Americans for Hillary 2008," which ought not to be an issue (doesn't Obama have South Asians for Obama hosted on his campaign website?). The Obama campaign's memo underlines Chatwal's various legal difficulties, general financial shadiness, and pending court cases, to make it all look like some kind of shady back-room deal. This accusation seems strange to me, since the fundraisers are completely legit, even if Chatwal himself is in trouble.

4) Finally, they quote Lou "Keep Em Out" Dobbs several times, as he mocked Hillary in 2004 for saying that "outsourcing cuts both ways" (as in, it creates some American jobs as well as sending others overseas). In fact, though her particular example of "10 new jobs in Buffalo" was a bit weak, Hillary was right about this: companies like TCS are opening up a number of U.S. offices, and more generally, the greater efficiency enabled by BPO helps keep American companies competitive on a global scale, and has, in my view, actually helped the U.S. economy. (All of Hillary's quotes about "outsourcing cutting both ways" are from the 2004 campaign season, incidentally.)

So now the question is, how aware was Obama personally of the contents of this "anonymous" memo? If Obama doesn't distance himself from the memo immediately, this macaca is going to be sending his moolah to "Hillary Clinton, D-Punjab."

[UPDATE: Obama has now distanced himself from this memo. See Sepia Mutiny]

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

A brief quote from me -- in the Times of India

An old blog post by me was quoted in a recent Times of India article on the outgoing Indian President, APJ Abdul Kalam.

The TOI didn't email me to ask if I had any recent comment, nor did it notify me it was using a quote. It also doesn't specify that the quote in question is actually from a blog post, not from a live source.

Still, the Times of India does have a lot of readers!

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

"Blogger Authenticity" vs. Presidential Campaigning

Amanda Marcotte left Pandagon to be the head blogger for the John Edwards presidential campaign. But now she's being attacked by right-wing bloggers for snarky comments she'd made earlier on the Catholic church; here is her carefully-worded (and laudable) response to the current blog-tempest in a blog-teapot. (I actually thought she was in the wrong on the whole "Burqa" blogspat issue, but that was a whole 'nother can of worms.)

The paragraph that caught my eye in the Time Magazine article on the pheneomenon was this one:

But bottling the lightning of blogger authenticity is not easy. Many blogosphere activists suspect anyone signing on with a campaign of selling out. And in the era of drum-tight message control, campaigns are not inclined to tolerate the independence bloggers need to maintain their credibility. (link)

Wait, do bloggers still have authenticity?

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