Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Ismaili Shias Massacred in Karachi. Iron Hand Promised

Many Ismaili families from Gujrat moved to Karachi after partition. They became part of a prosperous, hard-working community. They kept a low profile. As in any community, everyone could not be rich enough to buy large houses next to the Bhuttos and Zardaris in Clifton. Some of them therefore bought land on the outskirts of town, where it was cheap, and built a housing society there and called it Al-Azhar Gardens.

People moved in 8 years ago and as is the tradition in this particular community, they maintained their colony exceptionally well. Almost everything was available right there. Proud residents boasted about the well designed housing, the community facilities, the cleanliness, the security.
But you still have to get to town to work and go to school and so on. So they ran a shuttle bus service.

Today, the shuttle left Al-Azhar Gardens with 60 or so people on board. Someone else got on at Safoora Chowrangi. Armed men stopped the bus and using 9 mm pistols, systematically shot dead women and children, one by one, at close range. It is said that a few children were spared, or survived by hiding. Or something. The dead include women and the elderly.
Imagine the scene in the bus. The mind boggles, does it not?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Should Pakistan and India Play Cricket?

There is, again, talk of a revival of cricketing ties between Pakistan and India.

As expected, there is also vocal opposition (more so in India than in Pakistan).

It may not happen. I have no idea how likely or unlikely it is at this time. But after seeing some of the heated tweets from Indian nationalists on Twitter, I wanted to put a few thoughts out here so that I have a post I can refer to when needed. So here goes..

1. Extreme Hindutvadis (like all such terms, it is considered unfair etc by many, but we need a label, you can pick your know what I mean) are looking for a Hindu subcontinent, cleansed of Anglo-Saxon and Islamicate influences. Their position obviously brooks no compromise or even co-existence, much less cricket. This is not about them.

2. Extreme Jihadis (ditto about term, etc, plus no equivalence is implied by use of the term extremist in two consecutive paragraphs :) ) are also very clear about what they want and may have a better shot at getting somewhere within a thousand miles of their target. Their position includes no cricket. This is not about them.

3. Indian Nationalists. This is the largest group of Indian objectors (anecdotal...I have no data to back up this claim). Their case seems to be that Pakistan sponsors terrorists who attack India. More specifically, Pakistan shelters (and fails to arrest or convict) terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008. To play cricket while this goes on would be to "send the wrong signal"; Pakistan should be punished, not rewarded, and cricket is a reward.
This post is about them. (there is a fourth group of objectors: Pakistani nationalists who think contact with India will defile the two-nation-theory. Anyway, if GHQ bothers to become "clearly opposed", then discussion is moot. No series will happen in that case. In Pakistan, the lines of authority are clear :) ).

Is it true that a cricket boycott by India punishes Pakistan? and is cricket (at this time) a reward for Pakistan (as opposed to the Pakistani board, who obviously get to make money)? The short answer to both is NO.

America boycotted the Moscow Olympics. etc etc. That is not an apt comparison. Each case is different. In this case, not playing cricket with India is punishment for the board officials (less money), somewhat bad for Pakistani cricket (less international cricket, attention, practice, etc etc), but not at all bad for the Jihadis or their bosses. all. This just makes their case stronger.
Cricket (like trade, tourism and cultural exchange) between India and Pakistan does not strengthen the anti-Indian lobby in Pakistan. It does exactly the opposite. The people in Pakistan who do NOT want a jihadi invasion of India are the ones who are strengthened by these exchanges. This is just an empirical fact. The thing to keep in mind is that Pakistan is in many ways a more competent (pound for pound) adversary than India because the two-nation-theory provides stronger (negative) asabiya than the idea of India (this is not about which idea is stronger or "better". I think India is the stronger idea in the long run, but it's short term battle asabiya is weaker). Trade, travel and cultural exchange with India weakens the two-nation-theory and therefore weakens the one area in which Pakistan is actually stronger than India.
You have to think about this before you get it ;)

By the way, right now, beyond the money angle, it may not be much of a reward for Pakistani cricket either. Defeat on the ground, even humiliation, may be the more likely outcome at this time. Or do Indians lack confidence in their overpaid team?


Killing Atheists. A Wedge Issue in Bangladesh

Yet another Bangladeshi blogger has been hacked to death. This is the third time in just the last two months that someone has been hacked to death in BD for being an "atheist blogger".

The victims:
1. Ananta Bijoy Das

2. Avijit Roy

3. Washiqur Rahman

Two born Hindu, one Muslim, all three known to be associated with Bangladeshi rationalism and "freethought" and in particular with the freethought blog "Mukto-Mona". 

Someone with more local knowledge can comment about them and add their tributes. I wanted to focus on a more general issue: Why kill these bloggers? As Bond noted, the first time is happenstance, the second time coincidence, but the third time, it's enemy action. This is not just some random Muslim fanatic getting riled up and going to earn his virgins. This is a systematic campaign...and it makes a lot of sense. These killings are a near-perfect "wedge issue" for Bangladeshi Islamists. How does that work?

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Pakistan China Economic Corridor

An excellent and informative post by Ali Minai on

Worth a read.

"The world is full of Great Projects – tall buildings, long bridges, vast highway networks – but very seldom does a single project alter the geography of the world. The Suez Canal and the Panama Canal did this spectacularly, and now another great change in the connectivity of the world is beginning to take shape in Pakistan. The question is whether it will connect more or less than it will disconnect. "

My own first thought is that the logic of "economic geography" may reassert itself in the long run, but in the short term, many "obvious" beneficial connections can be lost in the face of ideological clashes (partition comes to mind), warfare and/or the breakdown of law and order. The "Silk Road" made sense as an economic project, but was intermittently shut down by wars and the collapse of order along it's route. (Its loss of competitiveness to seaborne trade is a separate issue and does not explain various interruptions or the prolonged inability of "Silk Road" countries to take fuller advantage of railways as a way to compete with the sea at least to some extent, until recently). So the crucial question is to what extent the ruling elite in Pakistan (and in other regional hubs) prioritize economics over other things they also hold dear. Just to take two aspects as examples to illustrate what I mean:

1. Assume the Pakistani ruling elite has sufficient control WITHIN Pakistan. They could still risk the corridor because of adventurism abroad. For example, the project of taking Kashmir from India is a project that seems unlikely to succeed without triggering a "corridor-shattering" war; or the urge to dominate Afghanistan may not lead to Pax-Pakistania. What if it just means a violent quagmire with no end in sight. Can the corridor escape that distraction? ..I am not saying it is one or the other. But how much one gets pushed versus the other can still be an issue. The geniuses have been known to get it wrong before. ...will they get it all correct this time (forget the moral issues, human rights etc. , I just mean "can they keep the peace"?) ... I don't think the answer is totally clear yet.

2. The basis on which nation-states are to be stabilized in the region West of the Radcliffe line is still up in the air. Islam? Ethnic solidarity? The mandate of heaven based on better trains and washing machines for all? I don't think the matter is settled (except maybe in Iran, where Persian identity may have roots deep enough to stay upright through storms...but I notice that my pro-Israeli friends seem to have a very real (and very irrational?) animus towards Iran for some reason. Those are powerful enemies to maybe even Iran is not home free. But you see what I mean: with identity so seriously contested (as opposed to non-seriously contested as in Texas versus the US Federal Govt) things may not settle down. Shit may hit fans. That sort of thing.

I remain optimistic :)


Sunday, May 10, 2015

World War One Indian Soldiers Write Home

A very interesting look at the letters Indian soldiers wrote home in World War One.

Ram Prasad (Brahmin) to Manik Chand (c/o Sikander Ali, Bamba Debi Bazar, Marwari Water Tank, Bombay)
Kitchener’s Indian Hospital, Brighton
2nd September 1915
And send me fourteen or fifteen tolas of charas, and understand that you must send it so that no one may know. First fill a round tin box full of pickles and then in the middle of that put a smaller round box carefully closed, so that no trace of the pickles can enter. And send a letter to me four days before you send the parcel off. [Letter withheld]

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An Embarrassment at PEN

(Trigger warning: this post includes words and images)

PEN American Center decided to honor the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo with an award for the magazine's courage in standing up for free speech. This is an award for courage in the face of censorship; a free speech award. It was meant to recognize the fact that CH was repeatedly threatened by groups of extremist Muslims who insisted that their particular theological rules must be respected by everyone and no one is allowed to cross their red lines. Even with their lives under threat (and the threats were always serious, not taken as a joke even before they were carried out) CH insisted on their right to satirize and comment on every subject, including the subject of Islam. In response their offices were attacked by armed fanatics and several CH staff were killed, as was one Muslim policeman of Algerian ethnic origin. It must be noted that Islam was not an obsession for CH and was not their main target by any means.

Anyway, the magazine insisted that they had the right to write about Islam in the same way as they wrote about other subjects, and they paid a heavy price. Then, with several colleagues lying dead, the magazine refused to back down and published an intelligent and eminently sane issue to show that they were not cowed. Courage is clearly something they do not lack and PEN American Center decided to honor them for this very straightforward exhibition of devotion to the cause of free speech. A cause that used to be a liberal and progressive cause and which is one of the few ways in which modern democratic society really is superior to other civilizations, past and present.

But everyone did not jump on this "free speech" bandwagon.  A group of writers (including a few real stars like Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey and Junot Diaz) announced that they were boycotting the award ceremony because CH is not a fit candidate for this award. Most writers (even most liberals) refused to join the refuseniks, but there was support, especially within the postmarxist Left. Still, the affair went ahead, though with an air of needless controversy (needless, of course, in my view. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and those writers probably think the controversy was desperately needed). Now that the award has been handed out I decided to put together a few random personal observations and some interesting snippets from the internet:

Friday, May 1, 2015

Trust and Accountability

Excellent advice from Faisal Naqvi

"...But the soldiers of Pakistan serve the citizens of Pakistan. And it is not good for the citizens of Pakistan to fear their soldiers. Just like it is not good for Pakistanis to be riven with internal suspicions and divides. Just like it is not good if the citizens of Pakistan have no idea as to who is killing their own.

I have no reason to doubt the DG ISPR’s sincerity when he condemns the murder of Sabeen Mahmud. At a personal level, I very much doubt that our agencies had anything to do with her death. But in the absence of any independent accountability or trustworthy form of dispute resolution, all we are left with are his words. And words really don’t go that far."

This opaque system of "rule by agencies" is the army's most insidious and harmful gift to Pakistan. The fact that you never know who is in charge, and what they want, and why?

There are fringe conspiracy theorists in EVERY country. Even in the US there are intelligent people who think some secret cabal of trilateralists runs the country. But Pakistan is a good example of what happens when such opaque conspiracies become mainstream AND WITH GOOD CAUSE.

What is happening in Balochistan? who is responsible? in an normal country you would at least ask the CM or the governor or even the Prime Minister and expect an answer. They may lie (they probably lie) but they are the ones on top. People develop ways of interpreting what they are saying. And there really IS some transparency. Many things are exactly as they seem. But in this case, we don't even bother to ask Dr Malik (chief minister Balochistan) or the Prime Minister...and they are not held responsible in any serious way either. "Everyone" knows the army runs Balochistan. But do they? do they run everything or some things? who decides? It is all opaque and everyone has the freedom to cook up their favorite conspiracy theory. Some of them are probably true. But which ones?
We will never know.

 Btw, my own theory of what drove us mad in the first place:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Middle East Musings on New Pundits

I do more writing on New Pundits now but I thought I would point to three recent posts of mine dealing with the geopolitics in the region:

The Ghost of the Persian Empire will Own the Middle East: The ghost of geopolitics means that the only true counterweight to Iran is not Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Israel (The Sunni-Semitic axis Egypt doesn’t even figure, as it’s geopolitically so dependent on Israel post Aswan Dam) but Turkey. However Anatolia is ultimately a bridge to the West and Turkey’s highland configuration point towards Istanbul and that land bridge.

The “Iran deal” signals Persia’s return to Geopolitical Preeminence: The Iranians, like their closely related kin the Indians, are an Aryan people who settled on the hugely strategic Iranian plateau. Unlike the Indians upon conquest (or a few centuries after) the Iranians gave up their hugely influential native born faith, Zoroastrianism, to embrace Islam and consequently the hugely Iranian inflected Shi’ite faith. Of course Islam can properly be conceived of a fine line between the more orthodox (and less theologically innovative) Sunni practises, which adhere most closely to the original Arabian teachings, and the far more syncretic Ismaili cluster, in which 12ver Shi’ite Islam falls in the middle.

How Pakistan and Turkey must play the crisis in the Middle East: Now far more interesting, in that it is much contestable, about what is Pakistan. I would argue Pakistan is the Mughal Empire successor state reimagined (even if partially) on the Indus River Valley System. This linkage survived 1971’s breakup and to put it succinctly Pakistan looks to Akbar, its arch rival fratricidal twin India looks to Asoka.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Arab-Pakistani Security Cooperation

From Dr Hamid Hussain:

        Pakistan and Arab World:  Security Cooperation

Hamid Hussain

 The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests.  If they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late”.  Reinhold Niebuhr

 There is long history of security relations between Pakistan and several Arab countries.  In 1970s and 80s, many Arab countries flushed with oil money bought state of the art equipment but local population lacked technical skills.  A number of Pakistan army and air force personnel were deputed to several countries including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.  A much smaller number of naval officers also served in UAE training local naval forces.  The numbers and duration of deployment varied from less than a dozen to few thousand and from few weeks to several years.  The main role of Pakistani officers was in training local security forces although they also manned complicated equipment such as radars. 

Pakistan sometimes got into difficulties in view of squabbles among Arab countries as well as internal strife in some of these countries.  Pakistani troop presence in Saudi Arabia though very small put it at odds with Egypt.  Saudi Arabia and Egypt were supporting opposing parties in the civil war in Yemen.  This continued till Anwar Sadat got off the ship of Arab socialism and took a turn towards the right side of the curve.  In 1980s, in the context of Iran-Iraq war, presence of Pakistani troops in Saudi Arabia put Pakistan at odds with Tehran. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Slouching Towards Mecca?

Mark Lilla has a review of Michel Houellbecq's new book at the New York Review of Books.

Final paragraph:
"For all Houellebecq’s knowingness about contemporary culture—the way we love, the way we work, the way we die—the focus in his novels is always on the historical longue durée. He appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of immigration or the European Union or globalization. Those are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God. Who remains as remote and as silent as ever."

Michel Houellbecq's own interview about his book was good
Why did you do it?
For several reasons, I’d say. First of all, I think, it’s my job, though I don’t care for that word. I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western. As an exile you don’t take much of an interest in anything, really, neither your society of origin nor the place you live—and besides, Ireland is a slightly odd case. I think the second reason is that my atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with. In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.
Personally, I think it doesnt matter. In fact, I have a cheerfuly optimistic pessimistic alternative: Whatever happens, some people will understand the technology and use it better> They will be the ones on top (even if they themselves are consumed by loneliness and unhappiness)...precariously and viciously balanced on top of vast mountains of bodies and civil wars... and masses of unhappy struggling infighting desperately envious Muslims who have no clue they are the ones that are supposed to be so close to submission and true happiness.
So there...
Photo by Sylvain Bourmeau