Archive for: September 2015

Islam and Burra Sahibs in 1965 Pakistan.

The Pakistan elite till the mid-Seventies, when Gen Zia led the coup that overthrew Bhutto, was a combination of Islamic tendency and Burra Sahib behaviour.

There is a small but significant question about the 1965 war that no one has asked and, therefore, no one has answered. Why did Pakistan codename the first part of its dual campaign after a small, rocky island off the coast of Spain and still in the possession of Britain? Why was the August 1965 assault, in which Pak-trained fighters posing fraudulently as “Kashmiris” attempted an insurrection in the Valley, called Operation Gibraltar? It seems odd, if not downright idiosyncratic. Except that it was not deception; it had a meaning that would resonate among militants in Pakistan.

Gibraltar begins life in history as the launch-pad of a Muslim Arab victory that changed the history of the world. Like so many Spanish place-names, it is a distortion of Arabic. The island was named by Arabs after Tariq ibn Ziyad defeated the Visigoth king Roderick, and laid the foundations of Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula that would last till the middle of the next millennium. The Arab success was swift and stunning. As the iconic historian Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, if the Arabs had moved west from west instead of turning east, Britain could well have fallen and minarets might have risen instead of spires in Oxford and Cambridge.

I cannot be very certain about the ambitions of General Ayub Khan, who was dictator of Pakistan then, since he was widely considered a realist, but the name certainly reflected the fantasies of his young foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was the principal architect of Pakistan’s invasion of Jammu and Kashmir in 1965. Perhaps Ayub Khan was a realist only in comparison to Bhutto. Even after the comprehensive defeat of Pakistan in 1971, Bhutto was still talking of a thousand-year war with India.

Pakistan activated a two-stage plan in the autumn of 1965. The first, through Operation Gibraltar, was designed as a mirror of 1947-48, when trained irregulars, commanded and accompanied by regulars and officers, were sent to create an alibi uprising. The second stage was called Operation Grand Slam, which was to be conducted by formal troops of the Pak army. After some tense fighting, both were reversed, and Pakistan ended up losing ground across the line and an international reputation for foolhardy failure that it has not quite erased. But is there a clue in the name of the second stage as well?

Yes. Grand Slam is, as everyone knows, a term from bridge: the ultimate contract, and therefore the highest form of victory. By the ceasefire, there was nothing grand left about the mission, and the contract ended in shambles. But the name offers a hint about the mindset.

The Pakistan elite till the mid-Seventies, when General Zia ul Haq led the coup d’etat that overthrew Bhutto, was a combination of Islamic tendency and Burra Sahib behaviour. The bureaucrats and officers were Anglicized children of the British Raj, who ruled the country without much interference from the elected class, who might have brought the flavours and biases of the land into the higher echelons of Karachi, Rawalpindi [which was home to General Headquarters] and Islamabad. This conclave of privilege lived by the rules and etiquette of club life, spoke good English, and considered itself a benevolent necessity that was doing its patriotic duty by keeping the geographical unity of Pakistan intact. It paid occasional homage to Islam, when considered politically expedient, but not much more. Bhutto had the gall to tell the fundamentalists who objected to his preference for whisky, that he was only drinking alcohol and not the people’s blood. This class was socially, culturally and strategically attractive to its mentors in Washington and London, particularly in the Pentagon and Sandhurst.

That Pakistan is gone. It disappeared in stages, rather than overnight. Zia set the course during his long decade; he turned the annihilation of Pakistan in 1971 into a reason for reaffirmation of Islamicization, rather than its abrogation. His successors lost direction as new tides of religious fervour began to envelop the public discourse and then the polity. General Pervez Musharraf tried to reverse this process, but with the weakness of a dilettante. His heart lay in preservation of personal rule, not in bringing the nation back to its senses. He was the Bahadur Shah Zafar of the Grand Slam Sultans. The deluge did not wait for his departure; it came while he was in power.

Delhi has to deal with a radically different power structure in Islamabad. Those who claim office in Pakistan, even by democratic elections, know that survival is possible only through compromise with fundamentalists. That is one of the critical hurdles to any form of a peace process.

I cannot think of anyone in our country who would miss Bhutto, but spare a thought for Ayub Khan and his predecessors. It is no surprise that the General understood war much better than his arrogant civilian deputy.


M J Akbar
An article by:
M J Akbar

There is fire in facts; Congress will get burnt.

Why did Congress use its grip on power to curtain the truth about Netaji? Why did Congress order surveillance over Netaji’s family? What was Congress afraid of?

Last week, West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took an important step towards resolving this enigma by releasing 64 files in the possession of the state government. It is too early to comment on content, as I have not had access to it. But there is good reason to discuss the mystery: why did Congress and its allies use their continued grip on power to curtain the truth about Netaji? Why did Congress order sustained surveillance over Netaji’s family for decades? What was Congress afraid of?The alleged death of our iconic hero, Subhas Chandra Bose, more familiarly known as “Netaji”, in an air crash in 1945 remains, to adapt his contemporary Winston Churchill’s phrase, a classic “enigma wrapped in a mystery”. The official narrative, accepted all too easily by the first Indian government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, claiming instant death, was challenged almost immediately. For seven decades now, doubt has disturbed the conscience of India.

Congress has never answered such questions, so speculation is inevitable. People believe that Nehru collaborated with foreign powers to keep an alive Netaji out of the country. There could have been many reasons for this. In popular discourse, the reason is not complicated: Netaji was the only leader who could have displaced Nehru and Congress from power in a general election, perhaps as early as in 1957, and probably certainly by 1962. This raises an interesting thought. The 1962 general elections took place before the war with China. Would China have provoked a war with India if Netaji had been Prime Minister? But that is another story.

If Netaji was deliberately kept out of India, then where was he? He could not have been hidden; he could only have been imprisoned. Where?

We might have clearer indication from the Bengal files, but, according to some members of the Bose family, one extremely sensitive file — or, more plainly, papers that contained truth unpalatable to Congress — was destroyed in 1972 when Siddhartha Shankar Ray was Congress Chief Minister of Bengal and Mrs Indira Gandhi was Congress Prime Minister of India. If correct, then this destruction of evidence was done at the specific command of Mrs Gandhi, for Ray was famous for craven obedience.

There is, however, another clue, which, surprisingly, has not been pursued with any seriousness. The Left Front, dominated by the two important Communist parties of the country, CPI(M) and CPI, ruled Bengal for three and a half decades before Mamata Banerjee. Two Marxist Chief Ministers, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, had supreme power. Why did they hide the Bose files? Congress CMs would obviously have to protect their partisan interest. But the Marxists were vehemently opposed to Congress. What prevented them from revealing the Bose files?

According to some members of the Bose family, one sensitive file – papers that contained truth unpalatable to Congress – was destroyed when Indira Gandhi was PM.

One constituent of the Left Front was the Forward Bloc, a party started by Bose. Its flag bears the famous Bose logo, of a leaping tiger. The Forward Bloc has consistently rejected the position that Netaji died in 1945, and acted as a pressure group both within the administration in Bengal and from its limited space in Parliament for declassification of all secret Bose files, whether in Calcutta or Delhi. The Congress response was to project the Forward Bloc as a bunch of weird romanticists at best, or marginal and irrelevant at worst. But why did the Communists collaborate with Congress over Bose?

Who were the Marxists protecting? Were they protecting the Soviet Union’s role in this disturbing episode from our history? We know that Nehru’s IB shared information on Netaji with British intelligence agencies. Does this mean Bose was kept in British custody after 1945? No: Britain is a democracy, and British law would have compelled the British government to prosecute. It only suggests that Nehru probably kept the British informed.

Netaji could not have been in Japan, which fell to America, either; or China, where Chairman Mao Zedong would certainly not have played any pro-British games after he seized power in 1948. So where was Netaji, if he was alive? No answer yet, maybe; but enough questions. Was Netaji imprisoned in Stalin’s Russia? Officially, CPI(M) remains a Stalinist party.

In the current television debates on the Bose files, Marxists have been noticeable by their absence despite the fact that passions in Bengal are far higher than anywhere else in the country, and Bengal is where Communists must revive if they are to survive at all.

Silence, of course, is far better strategy in such a dilemma than the bluster which Congress has adopted. One Congress spokesperson, in an amazing tongue-twister, actually argued that these long years of intense Intelligence Bureau watch over of Netaji’s family, and seven decades of double-talk over files, amounted to mere “surveillance” instead of “snooping”. But the time of such silly semantics is getting over. There is enough fire left in these facts, and someone will get burnt.


M J Akbar
An article by:
M J Akbar

A debate between sentiment and logic in Bihar

Bihar’s youth are voting heavily for logic. They will be the biggest losers if things remain what they are. Their lives are at stake. Their future is linked to the state’s economy.

The Bihar Assembly election has become a powerful debate between sectarian sentiment and economic logic. The bookends of sentiment, caste and community, are familiar. What is the logic?

Everyone agrees that this election is about development. Development is impossible without good governance. Good governance needs stability. Evidence proves that Nitish Kumar cannot possibly lead a stable government. He has cobbled an opportunistic mismatch with Lalu Prasad Yadav and Congress, with a history of mutual character assassination and barely concealed resentments at both the personal and base-support levels. The BJP-led NDA is evidently on firmer ground, and gives more reason to believe that it is ready to govern. QED: Quod erat demonstrandum, or proof through demonstration.

Voters are responding hugely to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s consistent message of “development for all”, backed by specific schemes aimed at the development of Bihar. The “Bihar Package” was a game-changer because it burst the old and stale bubble of caste and creed as the critical variants in electoral preference. Roads do not have a caste. Electricity does not have a creed. Poverty does not have a religion. National initiatives like the Jan Dhan Yojana and insurance initiatives aimed at social security for the impoverished add to the demonstration effect.

Bihar’s youth are voting heavily for logic. This is not surprising. They will, after all, be the biggest losers if things remain what they are. Their lives are at stake. Their future is linked to the state’s economy. For those born between 1990 and 1995, five years add up to a quarter or fifth of their lives. The next five years are also the most crucial part of their future, for this is when job-anxiety will peak. If Narendra Modi is their lodestar it is because he speaks the language that they want to hear. Even rebels — in-house heartburn cases who thought they could bully their way to preferment — have begun to concede that the youth vote in Bihar has shifted overwhelmingly towards Narendra Modi. The young have created a new demographic, which is beginning to register on some, but not all, opinion polls. In comparison, Lalu Prasad Yadav is stuck in a mental and oratorical groove that has not changed in a quarter century. The jaded phrases, jokes and mannerisms echo through a canyon of lost time. His humour is as flat and heavy as bread without yeast.

The only comic role in this election drama is being played by pseudo-liberals desperate to revive, through occasional op-eds and drawing room conversation, the fading relevance of

caste and creed simply because their standard-bearers have nothing else in the armoury of ideas. They are insisting that Bihar remains where it was two decades ago, only because Narendra Modi is fighting these elections on the basis of economic logic.

It is not as if the old parameters are totally dead; but they are no longer decisive. Their market has shrunk. The mainstream is shifting. A shrinking stream tends to consolidate around the bank on the far side. This is another phenomenon we will witness in this election.

Moreover, the absence of credibility at the core always encourages fragmentation at the edges. Voters that Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav took for granted on the assumption that they would never go to the BJP, are now travelling away from them in the other direction. In other words, their core voters do not believe in the leadership of Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar anymore, and hence seek other leaders. No one purchases an illusion. The process will intensify as we get closer to polling day. Even the AAP mascot Arvind Kejriwal, who grandly volunteered to campaign for Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav has now discovered that he has better things to do.

Obviously, my view on the Bihar elections will be treated as partisan, and as a member of a political party I am ipso facto partisan. All you have to do is take a trip to Bihar and see the churn for yourself; or, more accurately, hear the churn. Indian democracy is famous for the silent voter. Bihar this time is quite vocal. No one shouts, for there is no need to; voices are generally raised in either excitement or anger, and the public mood is cool. People know what they want, and are waiting to express their preference when the ballot opens. The mood is not argumentative but calm.

What is exciting is a status reversal that may reflect something deeper than the possibility of a mere change of government. The debate is no longer being controlled by the hierarchic elder. It is being shaped by the young. The young are tired of gimmicks. They want a life.


M J Akbar
An article by:
M J Akbar