“Southasia needs a Southasian union”

Tariq Ali, editor of the New Left Review, is a leading intellectual and a veteran political activist. A forceful critic of imperialism, religious fundamentalism and, in recent times, the 'war on terror', Ali has sought to expose structures of power and dominance. He has written over a dozen books including, Can Pakistan survive, The Nehrus and the Gandhis, Pakistan: Military Rule or People's Power, The Clash of Fundamentalism, Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq.

The grandson of a prominent politician of Punjab, Ali became interested in public issues early in life. Banned from participating in student politics in the 1960s by the Pakistani military dictatorship, he moved to Britain to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. His interest in political activism grew and, in 1965, he was elected the president of the Oxford University Students' Union. Three years later, Ali led a massive protest march in central London to oppose the American intervention in Vietnam.

With his continuing opposition to global imperialism, Ali remains the most prominent figure of the anti-war movement in Britain. He is the vice-president of the Stop the War Coalition, whose call for protests prior to the Iraq invasion saw more than one and half million people on the streets of London. This was the biggest demonstration in the history of Britain.

Ali's recent book Rough Music: Blair/Bombs/Baghdad/London/Terror was written in response to the political crisis in Britain following the Iraq war and the July terror attacks in London. With three of the four bombers of Pakistani descent, Britain's 1.6 million Muslims, of which two-thirds are of Southasian origin, have increasingly become the focus of political discourse with their loyalties under the scanner.

Tariq Ali spoke to Subindra Bogati at his London residence about a range of issues including repercussions of the London bombings, the Iraq war and resistance, Iran, and the Kashmir issue.

Persons of Pakistani descent are believed to have been involved in the London bombings. What will be the repercussion on Islam and Muslims of Southasian origin?
Well, I don't think the London bombings have too much to do with Islam. They were carried out by young Muslims. As one of the suspects who was arrested in Italy confessed, when they were thinking about actions like this, they were not reading the Holy Quran or theology but were watching the tapes of what Americans had done to the Iraqi town of Fallujah. And they were watching the deaths of innocents in Iraq brought about as a result of the British and American occupation in Iraq. That is what motivated them.

Everyone knows the London bombings were a direct result of Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Blair's re-election in Britain made these young people completely desperate and crazy. They carried out this act of senseless carnage to show their anger and ended up taking the lives of many innocent civilians as well as their own.

In fact, the bombings are a reflection of poor living conditions, a sense of alienation among people, and a State which does not create a strong social safety net for most of its poor people whether they are Muslims, Christians or black or white or brown. Islam is not the issue here.

After 9/11 and the London bombings, some Western commentators and scholars are arguing that Islam as a religion is fundamentalist.
The notion that there is a problem within Islam, I find unacceptable. The real problem is with groups that the US worked with, bred and cared for, and broke with after the first Gulf War. Of course, I totally disagree with Osama Bin Laden and others like him. You have to study what they say. And what they say is their fight with United States began after America sent troops to occupy Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. That is when the problem began. So, it is a political problem. They use Islamic theology and Islamic teachings as a mask to fulfill their political aims.

How will the violent and non-violent resistance in Iraq affect the future of the US occupation?
First and foremost, it is the armed resistance that has made the occupation untenable. If there had been no resistance to the occupation of a sovereign independent Arab country, the West would have got a big victory and probably gone on to invade other countries, or used the occupation of Iraq as a pressure mechanism to bring about regime change elsewhere. That has failed. Then, you have growing political resistance by trade unionists, by ordinary people who don't like the occupation and who also want to bring an end to the violence.

People in the Western media talk about a specific situation where Shias and Sunnis are trying to divide Iraq into narrow religious ethnic groups. But it is important to remember that the Shia community in Iraq, which is very large and comprises 60 to 65 per cent of the population, has always been divided politically. They don't agree with each other. One faction of the Shias is manipulated by Tehran and does their bidding, while you have other large groups of Shias who are independent-minded and call themselves Iraqi nationalists. In my opinion, once foreign troops are withdrawn, we will be able to gauge the strength of different factions of Iraq.

My big fear is that the Kurdish tribal leaders will sell themselves out, which they have done so often in the past. Iraqi Kurdistan would then, effectively become an Israeli-American protectorate used as a base to exercise and exert pressure in the region.

There is a fear that if the troops are withdrawn, there will be a civil war in Iraq.
I don't accept this. The foreign troops are creating these conditions. The longer they stay, the worse the situation will become.

Would you speculate that the US is gearing up for an assault on Iran?
I don't think the US can invade Iran and if it does, it would suffer a big defeat. Firstly, the Iranian army is not like the Iraqi army, which was weakened by years of sanctions. It has a strong fighting force. Secondly, an American invasion of Iran would stir up Iranian nationalism and even the people who are at the moment depoliticised would find this unacceptable. Thirdly, the US simply doesn't have enough troops on the ground to invade a second country because volunteers to the American army have completely dried up. If they want to invade another country, they will have to introduce conscription, something that will be unacceptable to the people of the United States. Fourthly, I doubt the US Congress would go along with another war.

All the US can do in Iran is a surgical bombing strike against the Iranian nuclear reactor. And that would stir up further anger across the region, for people will see the double standards – why is Israel allowed to have nuclear weapons but not Iran?

There is an additional point. Without Iranian support, the US could not have occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iranian mullahs did not oppose the US intervention in the region. Their people in Iraq and Afghanistan collaborated with the Americans. So, an invasion of Iran would surely unscramble Iraq and Afghanistan.

How have you taken the Indian vote in the IAEA against Iran?
I think the Indian political and business elite, or important sections of it, is on its knees before the American empire. We know there are differences within the Indian government. Natwar Singh has been sacked because he is the one hostile to the Iraq war; he was the one who was in favor of Iran. Manmohan Singh is a weak political leader and in thrall of Western financial institutions.

The fact that India is going in this direction is extremely disturbing because it could play such a big role with its independence. It is very unfortunate that the Americans think they can use India and Southasia as a region against China when the need arises. In my opinion, all the Southasian countries should refuse to play this role, one that has been played by Pakistan for most of its existence. When India starts to do this as well, one feels a deep sense of shame.

Do you buy the argument that identity is playing an important role in making Southasia a troubled zone?
I don't think it is a question of identity. I think it is essentially a question of big political errors and how to come to terms with them. We see the unfinished business of the partition of India. That is what Kashmir is. We have to try and find a way of solving this problem in a way that is in the interest of Kashmiris. I don't really care what Delhi or Islamabad think. We must seek what the Kashmiri people want. Do they have the right to determine their own future or not, that is the question. No one cares about them and this is the most ignored struggle in the world.

What can be a peaceful and negotiated settlement to the Kashmir issue?
The solution to Kashmir is a unified autonomous Kashmir. They don't want their own army or anything like that. They don't want to be an independent state. They just want to be left alone. The best way is to leave them alone within the framework of a Southasian union, with Pakistan and India as guarantors of autonomy, and China too if necessary. One has to think in these broad terms and outgrow the situation created in 1947.

It is said that the Kashmir issue is being hijacked by a jehadi agenda.
I don't think so. The jehadis were basically armed and funded by the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). When they want to stop the tap, the funds and arms will stop. They can stop the whole thing and we have seen this happening when they tried it.

Jehadi Islamists are created by states. Without the support of a state, they cannot exist. The Saudi state supported them, then the Pakistani state supported them in Afghanistan and in Kashmir, and the American state supported them in Afghanistan.

India has a long-term strategy, which is to incorporate Kashmir and make it a part of India against the will of the population. India must stop behaving like a colonial power in Kashmir and the brutality, rapes, and killings must end. The Pakistanis have no long-term strategy at all. All they think about is their own interest not that of Kashmiris. Kashmiris do not want to be pawns of either New Delhi or Islamabad. This became very clear yet again after the recent earthquake. When people of both sides tried to meet each other, thePakistani troops opened fire on them.

The recent SAARC summit in Dhaka agreed to include China as an observer. There are discussions about including China in SAARC while Afghanistan has already been made a full-fledged member. What is your opinion on this?
Including China in a Southasian union is foolish. China is also a state power. There is a Chinese commonwealth, which includes Taiwan and all these places. You can trade with them; a strong Southasian union, of course, would be friendly with China. A link between the Southasian Union and China would create the largest economic entity in the world. So, I am in favor of that but I think we should not fall in the trap of the European Union which has overly expanded itself to an extent that it has become irrelevant as a politically entity. I would like the Southasian union to be not just an economic union but also a political entity acting in the interest of the people of Southasia. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, it should, of course, be part of a Southasian union, provided it is not occupied by foreign troops. So, certainly Afghanistan, but China no.

How do you see the Southasia of the future?
I have been arguing for some time now that what we need in Southasia is a Southasian union, based loosely on the model of the European Union. Such a union should include free movement across borders, free trade with each other, cultural contacts and a Commission of Southasia. This centralised Commission, where views of all countries are reflected through their representatives, would then deal with other parts of the world as a collective unit in the interest of Southasia. This union will include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and possibly Burma if it wanted to.

It would be possible to solve the two intractable problems of Southasia – Kashmir and the Tamil region in Sri Lanka – within the Southasian union in a manner that would not challenge the sovereignty of each country but would nonetheless create a larger entity in the region. Within this framework, Kashmir and the Tamil region could be given their autonomy, guaranteed by all the powers of the Southasian union.

This is also in the interest of the business elites of the region because what they want is peace leading to prosperity. But it is something that is prevented from happening by strong vested interests in all the countries. In Pakistan, for example, if the army agreed to this, it would reduce its own power because the first fallout of such a framework would be a reduction in the scale of military expenditures, a reduction in their crazy spending on nuclear weapons, and the creation of a society in which something is done for the poor.

When I was in Pakistan recently following the earthquake, it was completely impossible for me to understand the nature of the regime which can't rush to the help of its people even though it wants to. In other words, Pakistan has never created the social infrastructure in ordinary times to help the poor. So, how could we expect to do this in times of crisis? It can be done and it would be easy to do it, in my opinion, by creating a framework of a Southasian Union where countries reduce or cut down on military expenditures and invest resources elsewhere.

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