We really don’t need such a season,
That keeps converting dreams of commons –
Into common cemeteries.
And the system stands immobilised,
Its head hung down its chest,
Like a slave — Gurmeet Bedi in Kathghare mein Mausam The 11 July mayhem in Bombay sent South Block into a paroxysm of panic, and its diplomatic reactions became, perhaps predictably, banal. Blame was summarily laid at the doors of ‘terror camps’ in Pakistan. A planned visit of Indian parliamentarians to a Commonwealth consultation meeting in Islamabad was immediately cancelled. The foreign-secretary-level talks between the two countries have been put on hold. After having survived the Delhi bazaar attack and the Benaras temple attack, the India-Pakistan peace process was finally derailed by what happened to the Bombay trains. General Pervez Musharraf did offer to cooperate in investigating the minutely planned and brutally executed terror attacks, but the fear of public reaction had Prime Minister Manmohan Singh look the other way. It may have been hoping too much for India to accede to such an offer, but it would have been nice, and would have signalled a new level of bilateral relations. Unfortunately, what is known as the ‘composite dialogue’ evidently has yet to deliver a level of mutual confidence to make such a departure possible. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri’s crude attempt to link the blasts to the Kashmir question was of course in extremely bad taste, but everyone in the know in the Subcontinent understands that General Sahib’s Oxbridge FM is a showpiece. He has so little to do that he is prone to venting his frustrations through provocative but meaningless observations. Whenever a blast or attack rocks India, it has also become necessary for Nepal and Bangladesh to brace themselves. And indeed, the post-bombing fallout was immediate as far as Kathmandu was concerned. Two Pakistani nationals camping in the capital were summarily arrested from a local hotel in the dead of the night, allegedly on a tip-off from Indian security agencies. They have since been implicated in a four-year-old RDX-possession case, though their role in the Bombay blasts is unclear. A part of the fallout seems also to have been apportioned to Bangladesh – a key suspect is said to be living in Dhaka. Something as devastating as the Bombay train blasts are also bound to buffet the larger region and parallel conflict arenas. The newly rigid stance of India, as evident in the “zero tolerance” rhetoric of Prime Minister Singh, is bound to impact the Jaffna Tigers. The LTTE’s mea culpa statement over the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi has incensed a section of Indian intelligentsia. They are now being portrayed as an ungrateful lot in the vernacular press, since they attacked one of their main, though surreptitious, benefactors. Hot pursuit may be out of the question for the moment due to geo-strategic complexities and the decisive influence of the Left Front in the Indian ruling coalition, but there is no mistaking a new exasperation – if not belligerence – in statements emanating from New Delhi. The ‘War on Terror’ in Southasia is not as hot as in Beirut, Basra or Baghdad, but the rhetoric of the brawny Bush and brainy Singh are beginning to sound frighteningly similar. What we see is that even gentle sardars will convert to harsh satraps as exigencies of strategy and diplomacy create their own logic. The Bush Effect
Years from now, when academics look back and study the context of Israel’s vicious attacks on the headquarters of the Palestinian government and the housing complexes in Beirut, they will attribute this and other acts of mindless governmental violence to a new trend in the diplomacy of aggression, which has its origins in The Bush Effect (TBE). This phenomenon must have originated in the nuclear-proof bunker where the shaken Texan was packed off to by his Pentagon minders in the wake of 9/11. Panic reaction is the fundamental feature of TBE. A demonstrated disdain for international agreements, domestic laws and diplomatic convention is the second most important aspect of TBE. For a while, everyone who looked brown and ‘Muslim’ was hounded as a suspected terrorist in the Land of the Free. There was never any legal ground for the ceaseless pounding of Afghanistan, and most of the charges against Saddam Hussein were blatant fabrications to justify the occupation of Iraq. But the world could do nothing to stop the marauding Bush-Blair duo. Due to TBE, the emblematic image of the United States of America is no longer the Statue of Liberty. Rather, it is the blindfolded Guantanamo Bay detainee in orange prison garb, being pushed from room to room by the guarding marines. The third dimension of TBE is its extreme, obtuse, black-and-white simplicity: there is no room for ambiguity in the ‘for or against us’ categorisation. Unfortunately, this transforms even disinterested parties into unwilling enemies. Americans can take on Iran, Syria, North Korea and a few others on their own – after all, they (the Americans) spend more on weapons than rest of the world combined. But that is unlikely to make America any safer. It is the unmistakable lesson of history that most empires disintegrate due to becoming over-stretched. But histrionics rather than historicism dictate decisions in regimes under the spell of TBE. Unilateralism is yet another TBE characteristic dreaded by all sensible governments and policymakers on the planet. This is the diplomatic version of the law of the jungle, where the strongest is free to feed on the relatively weak and helpless. The Unilateralism of Bush implies that all creatures are equal, but that one of them is more equal than all others – and is thus empowered to ignore anything and everything on the basis of perceived self-interest, from the Kyoto Protocol to the International Court of Justice and every other international agreement or institution that may stand in the way of America the Good. The last but not least noteworthy aspect of TBE is its unpredictability. The Bush Effect can strike at any moment, anywhere, and without any warning – like the remote-controlled drones that land unbeknownst in the centre of Beirut and the villages of the NWFP. The US ‘War on Terror’ has no spatial or time dimension; it is endless by definition. Such a war cannot be sustained without the unflinching support of a significant section of the population; and even as his popularity meter dives, Bush has been able to maintain bipartisan consensus for his Wild West adventures. No country, with the possible exception of American protégé Israel, gives such a carte blanche to its chief executive to wage a war that has no likelihood of demonstrable victory. Nobody in Southasia thinks that this model of aggressive counter-terrorism can succeed in one of the most diverse societies of the world. That is, nobody but Narendra Modi, who is much more to the Bush model than Manmohan Singh. The Modi Factor Some of the most prominent victims of 7/11 in Bombay were rich diamond merchants of the Gujarati community, who habitually travel in First Class compartments on the commuter trains. Never known for exercising restraint, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Krishna Advani immediately dispatched Modi to Bombay. The diabolical director of the post-Godhra massacre subsequently mesmerised his fawning followers in the BJP and Rastriya Swayamsebak Sangh (RSS) with the merits of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), the drawbacks of due process of law, and the advantages of the politics of revenge. In the West, Bush personifies American exceptionalism, a trait not uncommon even among relatively liberal citizens of the United States. Deep-seated insecurities of a country built upon the confiscated continent of an exterminated population are what have given rise to an alarmism that makes some Americans blindly justify everything their state does, including the Abu Ghraib misconduct, the Mai Lai massacre, the aggression in Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq – take your pick. Antagonism of certain middle-class Indians seems to be fuelled by a similar guilt, but one of a different provenance. Some of this guilt would come from not having participated in Independence struggles, of having been supporters of Indira Gandhi’s dreaded Emergency regime, of defending the Narmada project devastation, of merely being ostentatious consumers in a dirt-poor country. Perhaps all of this makes this particular section of the middle class feel highly insecure, and there is no dearth of scare-mongers to feed on their anxieties. Modi manipulated these fears and rose as undisputed messiah of Apnu Gujarat, agavun Gujarat (Our Gujarat, Unique Gujarat). Modi is the messiah of communal exceptionalism inspired by TBE. But its roots exist in all other Southasian societies. Collaborators of the Pakistan Army in Bangladesh are perhaps progenitors of militant Islamism, in a country built upon the idea of cultural rather than communal identity. Old associates of King Mahendra were the prime movers of King Gyanendra’s regressive experiments in Nepal. Beneficiaries of military munificence in Pakistan have repeatedly thwarted all moves of democratisation in that country. The depopulation policies of the ruling dynasty in Thimphu were probably a direct result of its implication in the suppression of all subjects: the pushing out of the Lhotshampa increasingly appears like an act of compensation for the sprawling Drukpa network of cousins, in-laws and sundry other lackeys. Lhotshampas were doing well and giving inferiority complexes to royal relatives. Potential challengers had to be forced out to keep the dynastic domination intact. Just as fear begets aggression, paranoia gives rise to ferociousness and violence. The problem with TBE and its TMF offshoot is that these tendencies will further exacerbate an already tense communal environment in the Subcontinent. The Southasian response to acts of terror – and the bombings in Bombay were unjustifiable, indefensible, reprehensible and condemnable acts of pure terror – needs to be much more nuanced. What is required is a two-pronged approach: creating public opinion against fear, and strengthening institutional capabilities of countering rather than fighting terror. The paranoid are by nature edgy, ready to hit or strike back in an unpredictable way. Gandhi considered it a moral rather than political problem, and suggested the path of Satyagraha to cure the social malaise. No matter how trite and simplistic it may sound to some, it must be repeated: Satyagraha is the only long-term solution to social violence. For the medium term, the media must use its muscle to create public opinion against all transgressions of accepted behaviour. The short-term answer lies in patient and painstaking investigation, and prosecution of those found guilty of committing such heinous crimes against humanity. Knee-jerk reactions, pronouncements of not kneeling before terror, and make-believe arrests in the country and elsewhere have no meaning. Gandhi’s land must come up with a better alternative than to succumb to The Bush Effect.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).