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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mr. Bhagat: Please get off our backs, will you!

By Firdaus Ahmed, The Milli Gazette
Published Online: Sep 25, 2011

Gratuitous advice is better ignored. Nevertheless, the ‘Underage Optimist’, Chetan Bhagat, intellectual icon of Generation Y, needs an answer. His advice for Muslims in his latest column, is, ‘Don’t let them divide and rule any more’. The assumption is that Muslims are permitting ‘them’ to ‘divide and rule’. For ‘them’ to not to rule ‘any more’, his ‘urge’ is that Muslims ‘not commit (their) vote and loyalty to any political party forever’.

His version of ‘vote-bank politics’ is in the minority choosing representatives ‘because he is a symbol of hope for the minority’. To him, ‘Muslim citizens are wooed the most because their community is one of the largest in terms of actual numbers and ‘also as a community they are believed to vote en-bloc’. This does not necessarily get them any dividends, since the representative then kept ‘us busy with the Hindu vs Muslim debate, while they hid the fact that the entire country suffered due to their misgovernance.’

Chetan Bhagat’s seemingly unexceptionable counsel needs to be juxtaposed with his earlier utterances. In earlier columns this year, he had offered public advice, that hindsight suggests may not necessarily have been unsolicited nor innocent, to Mr. Narendra Modi requiring him to make a transition to the national stage. He had praised Modi’s development record, attributing it to Modi’s ‘firmness’ on development. Look and behold, barely six months on and the nation has witnessed the first steps of Mr. Modi to break out of his regional satrapi, Gujarat.

In terminating a fast that has unfortunately for his pains, gone unremarked into history, Modi declined to sport a cap, the cultural marker of a Muslim community, offered by a Muslim follower. The commentary that attended the gesture had it that Mr. Modi did not want to spoil his image favoured by his majority supporters. In effect, there is an even more significant ‘vote-bank’ out there, the Hindu vote. The effort is to get it to vote ‘en-bloc’, an effort that has been on ever since the ‘Optimist’, even if ‘Underage’, has been old enough to know of. Why does this escape Mr. Bhagat’s admiring, though undiscerning, eye?

Chetan’s right for soliciting supporters for his favoured candidate is not in question. For him to employ his not inconsiderable talents and use his Times of India column for the purpose is between him and his maker and the editors of that newspaper. But his bias needs outing.

That he thinks in terms of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ is clear. Note his advice, this time to his co-religionists: ‘We as majority members have to be extra cautious to not hurt the feelings of minorities.’ In other words, the division he rails against is one in his own mind, one that he needs working on when he is not too busy advising others in the Sunday Times.

Rightly, there is a division, but not one between religions, but based on vision for the nation. The Muslims, sensibly are against majoritarian democracy, especially one in which the majority is defined, as Mr. Bhagat has it, by a denominational majority. To prevent this if they are to cast their vote the way they do, it is what usually trounces psephologists, the traditional wisdom of the Indian voter.

In his earlier ‘demystification’ of Mr. Modi, Mr. Bhagat deems him to be at best a pardonable ‘opportunist’. While that may be so, Muslims having had a taste of the ‘opportunism’ of Mr. Modi cannot facilitate it at the national stage by following Mr. Bhagat’s advice, even if it is for the sake of the argument here taken momentarily as well meant and above board.

Mr. Bhagat had once made out Mr. Modi as one who ‘believes in action’. He needs being asked where was this man of action, when Gujarat was burning? Or that it burnt was evidence of his being a man of ‘action’? Should not then Muslims take the evidence seriously, or should they believe his millionaire-writer apologist, Mr. Bhagat? It must be admitted that to his credit Mr. Bhagat admits to an incapacity, writing, ‘i can never fully understand the feelings a minority person goes through.’ But surely that does not prevent him from empathy, the stock of which is known to be more than most others in authors.

However, it must be conceded, Mr. Bhagat is right in his call, ‘my dear Muslim brothers and sisters, you have been had.’ There are several reports that bring this out, the latest being Harsh Mander’s Center for Equity Studies report. This is not necessarily as Mr. Bhagat implies because Muslims have propped up the Congress. Their support has been for those championing the development and secular plank. Mr. Bhagat appears to support without voicing it, a party that is not secular, howsoever strong it may be on development – a questionable proposition in itself once its record in Karnataka is taken on board. Consequently, it cannot benefit from the enlightened vote of Muslims.

Therefore, Mr. Bhagat’s parting shot – ‘It is our nation, yours and mine, that has to be made great now. Are you on board?’ – sounds trifle like a Bushism – ‘Either you are with us or against us!’. By that yardstick, Mr. Bhagat needs being told off, ‘We are manifestly not on board!’ For all his ‘audacious’ pains, he deserves the reason: Any unilateral redefinition of India by those he supports is not in the national interest and therefore cannot be endorsed by patriotic Muslims.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Reply for Mr. Narendra Modi

By Firdaus Ahmed

Dear Mr. Modi,

You begin your letter by conflating the ‘government’ and the ‘state’ of Gujarat with yourself. This is a case of double whammy. You can shield yourself behind Gujaratis. Manipulating them thus also helps consolidate them behind you. The ploy is to deter Modi skeptics from tarring them with the same brush they would use to attack you.

The ploy cannot be allowed to work. Indeed, all three, the state, its government and the chief minister at the helm, are culpable to varying degrees. The government of Gujarat can be indicted for its unwillingness to ignore patently illegitimate directions to ‘look the other way’ as mobs incited by majoritarian extremists went on the rampage. It has taken a decade for policemen to finally start standing up for the truth. Second, interpreting the ‘state’ you refer to include people of Gujarat, they are answerable at the very least to their own conscience, and at a stretch, to their fellow countrymen for being manipulated into enabling your second term.

Your reference to the past decade in Gujarat as one of ‘peace’ misinterprets peace. Peace, as theory would have it, is of three types. ‘Negative peace’ comprises absence of direct violence. This is the peace of the grave or peace brought on by fear that obtains in Gujarat. But that is to discount the happenings in the Dangs district, the several ‘encounters’ and unexplained killings, such as that of no less than the former home minister, Pandya.

The second is ‘positive peace’ or absence of structural violence. This stands negated by Muslim ghettoisation, continued existence of displaced persons in camps and the continuing denial of justice. The third, ‘cultural peace’, is freedom of all to join in an inclusive march towards prosperity. Remembering harmony and unity in diversity ten years since its need was most acute is hardly timely.

The timing of your letter suggests panic as the case is now in court. The bombast is diversionary since surely, even if slowly, justice is set to culminate. Is your orchestration of public opinion a measure to influence the court? But there is hope that the courts in Gujarat may yet prove ‘satyamev jayate’, a hope that has been unfortunately been belied so far.

As for your ‘development’ record, firstly, Gujarat has been uniquely poised to benefit from the liberalization that has been ongoing for two decades now by its location, its entrepreneurial citizenry and its pre-existing economic base. This would have happened despite your presence. Secondly, any cohesion and administrative capacity it reflects owes in part to apprehension in the state apparatus and society. Watching the carnage and the blatant manner you have got away with accountability for it, would no doubt inform the common administrators attitude and output. After all, did not the great JRD Tata once remark that in the Emergency, trains were on time. India does not need and can do without the Chinese authoritarian model of development. Lastly, the record on development is to be judged independently of your record during the carnage. Harnessing it to suggest ‘forgive and forget’ is trifle self-serving.

Development is useful from restorative justice point of view that deals with restitution and reconciliation. However, that still leaves the demands of retributive justice, or punishment for transgressions, unaddressed. The ‘sad bhavna’ on display at government expense on Gujarat university grounds by preaching only to the converted is a patently political act and can hardly be called a compensation for an apology or acknowledgement of deficiency.

Your repeated references to the ‘nation’ betray instead that your act is the first volley of an attempted hat trick in Gujarat to prepare for a shift to New Delhi. Be reminded that the ‘nation’, comprising India’s voters, has proven far more sensible than politicians give it credit for.

Borrowing your salutation, ‘Always at your service’,
Firdaus Ahmed

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Please see

An open reply to Modi's open letter

Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat wrote an open letter to citizens of India on 13 September 2011, in it he resolved to fast for three days from, Saturday, the 17th September 2011, starting a movement of "Sadbhavana Mission." Here is a reply to it from a well-wisher of Gujarat.
By Firdaus Ahmed, The Milli Gazette
Published Online: Sep 18, 2011

Dear Mr. Modi,
You open your letter thus – “The unhealthy environment created by the unfounded and false allegations made against me and Government of Gujarat, after 2002 riots, has come to an end. For the past ten years, it has become fashionable to defame me and the state of Gujarat. These elements who could not tolerate any positive development of Gujarat have not left any stone unturned to defame Gujarat.”

Your attempt to conflate the government and the state of Gujarat with yourself is apparent. The opprobrium due to the government and its chief minister in respective measure in their deplorable reaction to the carnage in Gujarat cannot be escaped. The “state” of Gujarat, that presumably refers to fellow Indians belonging there, also have to answer to their collective and individual conscience in so far they have chosen you as their chief minister despite knowledge of your record in the carnage. Therefore, there is no escaping accountability of the three – the state, its government and you – in the Gujarat carnage, misrepresented in the media as “riots”.

The government of Gujarat is to be arraigned for its supine obedience to illegal directions that it restricted its damage control responses after the Godhra incident, the antecedents of which have been willfully misrepresented. The administration and the police required to react with professional zeal. This would have been possible had they had the moral fiber to disregard the directions allowing certain sections to vent their spleen. The second reason for the government’s culpability is in complicity of sections of it in suppressing evidence, propagating false accounts and pursuing justice selectively. These cannot be obscured by pointing to a development record.

The state of Gujarat, that is interpreted here as its citizens, bears the onus of not disciplining you at the elections. The one manner of expressing its displeasure at the events in their home state would have been to exercise their franchise bearing in mind the inadmissibility of the manner of your stewardship of the state during the crisis. Even if the details of your culpability were not as well known then as is now known, the fact that carnage was allowed to be perpetrated and its perpetrators continue in their midst is something that the society needed to have dwelt on while exercising their democratic prerogative. That they did not do so is apparent in their giving you a reprieve and allowing you to chalk up a development record to help paper over your earlier demonstration of incapacity and ill will.

Democracy requires an alert citizenry, one that is sensitive to manipulation attempts. The voters in Gujarat have to answer as to why they have allowed themselves to be misled. This is not to deny their democratic right to cast their vote to who they wish, but to remind them that it is a responsibility they owe themselves and their fellow citizens to cast the vote with due discrimination.

This brings one to your record. That you were in charge of the state when these events were allowed to occur rightly should have led to your tendering your resignation taking moral responsibility. That you did not do so indicates your continuing need to be in a position to address the aftermath, to manipulate evidence. As is well known, you were saved from dismissal since the Centre was being run then by your own party and you had a well wisher as the Union home minister.

As for the development record, questioning its under-gridding drivers is in order. Firstly, Gujarat has been uniquely poised to benefit from the liberalization that has been ongoing for two decades now by its location, its entrepreneurial citizenry and its pre-existing economic base. This would have happened despite your presence or leadership. In fact, the development record stands blemished by the blot on Gujarat that you were principally instrumental in placing on its fair name. Secondly, any cohesion and administrative capacity it reflects owes in part to apprehension in the state apparatus and society.

Watching the carnage and the blatant manner you have got away with accountability for it, would no doubt inform the common man’s attitudes and output. After all, did not someone as important as Tata once remark that in the Emergency trains ran on time. Evaluating means is important to assessing ends. Lastly, the record on development is to be judged independently of your record during the carnage. The “forgive and forget” formula that your letter purveys is trifle self-serving on this score.

The timing of your letter also bears reflection. It bespeaks of a strategic move to move centerstage. The BJP central leadership in disarray and the Congress on the defensive makes it an opportune juncture to make the move. With the next Gujarat elections behind you, you would be in a position to stake a claim for a national profile. While there is no gainsaying that Gujaratis will have to take their own decisions, your attempt at acquiring a national role means that it would require to be purposefully combated.

You are democratically empowered to take a try. But this nation cannot afford to allow people to take charge of its destiny who have not paid a price for their past actions of omission or commission. That it has done so earlier such as in case of Mr. Advani, is no reason for it to err a second time. In his case, it was a mosque that was demolished for which he owed primary responsibility. To say that crowds he mobilised went out of control is only self-exculpatory. Likewise, the mobs that went wild in Gujarat were yours to control. The allegation you need to face up to is that you not merely failed to control them, but set them about their task by restraining the only force that could have prevented this, the police. They exacted a price of Gujaratis in lives. This is clearly greater a case for accountability than that of Mr. Advani.

Your references to the “nation” testify that the battle set to culminate in 2014 has been kicked off by you. Be mindful that India’s voters have proven far more sensible than their politicians give them credit for. They will surely teach you a lesson that your supporters in Gujarat have so far prevented you from receiving. That is, in case the courts do not do so earlier. After all, the case in the sessions court has only just begun; despite your obfuscation in giving the impression of closure at beginning your letter.

As the popular line goes: ‘picture abhi baki hai mere dost’. You will no doubt find, quite as you tweeted, that indeed, “God is Great!”

A friend of Gujarat

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Shall we imprison everyone?

11 September 2011 - A recent op-ed in the Times of India, "No More Chasing Shadows" (9 September), has the head of 'a group on C4ISRT (Command, Control, Communications and Computers Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaisance and Targeting) in South Asia' casting the net of prospective terrorists wider, but not wide enough to possibly net the likely suspects.

He considers the public stereotype of the terrorist as a 'desperately poor, illiterate, uneducated, rural-based or ghetto-based, religious fanatic, a single young man in his late teens or early twenties' as inadequate. 'Madrassa students from poor families' are no longer the usual suspects. Instead, he alights on those who 'have no criminal records; are usually highly educated professionals such as engineers, doctors and architects; are usually married men with children; and have never displayed any religious extremism.'

As I read all this I got a feeling he's describing me. He goes on to say, chillingly for me as I read on, that they come from 'upper middle class families and exhibit only moderate religious behaviour.' According to him, I am now half way down to becoming a 'terror activist'. Casting his net to include both the 'poor, illiterate' and the 'rich, educated', he leaves out the non-existent 'poor, educated' and 'rich, uneducated'. Perhaps he'll include them in the dragnet over the next two blasts. Muslim women, Ishrat Jahan notwithstanding, have got away unscathed.

He goes on to enlighten us, 'Most of them joined the SIMI or HuJI only a few weeks earlier, and their families, colleagues, and close friends had detected no indications of their having done so.' To him, 'Even their families and friends would have no inkling of their having been recruited...'. This means that you don't really know if I have joined up or not as yet. You will only know when I commit my first terror act which to him will be the 'first illegal or immoral act which they have ever committed.' Apparently, elsewhere it has taken but 'three weeks' for the likes of me to 'carry out a terror attack to avenge the perceived discrimination.'

Luckily, my employers have not 'discriminated' against me professionally nor have I been 'denied entry in social circles commensurate' with my education. Thankfully, I have no reason to be a terrorist, on this score at least. That is a relief. But, not for long though.


As an educated middle class Muslim, I have often had to hear, 'Stand up and speak out!' I was required to speak out against the usurpation of my religion by fanatics and condemn terrorism. I now choose to follow the advice. I begin by emulating SR 'Epiglottis' Khan, "I am not a terrorist!" I venture further than my brief, "Nor are my co-religionists!" Let me explain why.

By his cryptic designation, Prasad appears to be a denizen of the shadowy, intelligence world. His world view is perhaps widely held in the intelligence community. On that score it needs dissection.

He quotes profusely from the 'Band of Boys' theory of Marc Sageman, 'a forensic psychiatrist who has worked for the CIA in Pakistan and Afghanistan.' He also approvingly points to the UK police's surveillance of congregations in mosques. Clearly, great gains have been made by Mr. Chidambaram's trips overseas in terms of emulating homeland security measures elsewhere, as indeed they must. But how far are the conditions there replicated in India and corresponding counter measures import worthy?

The intelligence agencies can be likened to someone who has lost his car keys in the dark and proceeds to look for them under the light of the lamp post only. While no effort needs to be spared in getting terrorists to book, this is applicable for terrorists of any hue. The problem is in assuming the blasts that have taken place as having the minority's signature. This is true only to an extent. A proportion of blasts can now be irrefutably attributed to majoritarian extremists of the Abhinav Bharat variety. It may be worth investigation if the Abhinav Bharat is merely the tip of the iceberg, with its underwater mass perhaps stretching into the state and its intelligence agencies.

There are several blasts yet unexplained. These include the horrendous ones in metropolitan cities of 2008. The holes in the Batla House encounter story do not lend confidence to close these cases currently attributed to Aqil and his Azamgarh cohort, now largely eliminated. The pre CWG shooting of Taiwanese tourists, the High Court blast of earlier this year and now the latest, the nineteenth, blast in Delhi, cannot necessarily be ascribed as minority perpetrated violence. In other words, the net needs to be cast wider. Why?

The 2008 blasts were in the run up to national elections. The narrative sought could have been that the UPA was 'soft' on terror because of vote bank concerns. Likewise, this time round, the Supreme Court mandated investigations in the Gujarat carnage case are set to culminate soon. There is disarray in the right wing mainstream. The Anna agitation provided a momentary respite. It is perhaps reckoned that it is time to get back to the main story.

In other words, a crime has been committed, a motive exists. Evidence must then be sought. There is a case for setting the NIA to look for the keys where they are as likely to be found as anywhere else. The government, in not owning up to a strategy, makes Digvijay Singh appear a maverick.

Prasad is right in demanding 'original innovative thinking on part of India's intelligence agencies', but wrong in pointing them towards an 'appreciation of the psychology of urban Indian Muslim professionals.' That he does so stinks of an attempt to put the intelligence agencies off the smell. The purpose, now easier to discern, is to intimidate into silence engaged Muslim voices pointing out that the emperor is without clothes.

With this piece of propaganda occupying prime place in a leading national daily, it can be irrefutably said that the fringe has gone mainstream. At such junctures, Niemoeller's phrase comes readily to mind, 'Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.' They've now passed the secular Muslims, so secular Hindus must be next!

By Firdaus Ahmed

In a first, the NIA has been launched from the very outset to probe a bomb blast at the Delhi High Court. It has earlier been grafted onto cases already being pursued by the police. In yet another useful precedent, the government has been careful not to point fingers prematurely. These two suggest an improvement in India’s response to terrorism, even if yet another blast is a case of one too many.

As is usual by now, ‘informed’ analysts are taking it upon themselves to dwell on the helpful pointers in the email purportedly received from the perpetrators. The HUJI has apparently claimed responsibility, with the blasts intended to force the release Afzal Guru from death row. With newspapers carrying the identity kit portrait of a bearded suspect with upper lip clean shaven, the know-all analysts rest their case.

But the government’s initial caution bespeaks of a wider set of suspects. By its two acts the government has broadcast that the net cast will be much wider. It will hopefully include majoritarian terrorists, even as the HUJI angle is pursued to its logical conclusion. The implication is that there is more to the Abhinav Bharat case than out in the open.

It is lazy analysis and worse crime forensics to assume that emails from unidentified sources serve as evidence of culpability. For one, an earlier email for instance had the sender identifying himself as al Arbi, corruption of al Arabi, quite like the current one does. Al Arabi incidentally was a renowned sufi. Second, arrest of a cyber café owner in in Kishtwar suggests a link to Kashmir, the email could be merely to take advantage of the occasion to press home the case for Afzal Guru. Third, that the emails have incendiary content against the majority could equally indicate a desire for deepening the rift, an aim that saffron extremists mirror. Any creative writer can put together such emails.

Questions surrounding the Batla House encounter make the explanation of the blasts in the cosmopolitan cities in 2008 unpersuasive. The blasts that did not occur in Surat remain unexplained. Perpetrators of the blast of May this year in the court premises and those involved in the drive by shooting of the Taiwanese tourists prior to the CWG remain unknown.

One nationalism inspired anchor asked if vote bank politics holds back the government. He is right in sensing that it does, but wrong in his unstated understanding, an understanding seemingly widely shared with his viewers and therefore left unstated, that it is the minority vote at stake. Instead, the government’s reticence stems from its inability and unwillingness to beard the majoritarian terrorist in his den. That would cost it credibility with the majority, misled for over a decade of media fanned minority baiting. The decade since 9/11 formed the perfect backdrop for the campaign.

The government is rightly circumspect, but on the right track. Its noose, with a little help from the Supreme Court, is closing in on an opposition stalwart. The extreme right, with subterranean linkages with the political right, is mobilising silently to thwart it. Behind the current attack can be read once again a diversionary gambit; now that Mr. Anna Hazare is back in Ralegaon Siddhi.

The popular narrative is flawed. It carries little conviction with the minority community. This is itself evidence of the inter-community distance opened up over the last three decades, index of the success of the as yet unidentified standard bearers of Hindutva’s challenge to secular culture. The government, run by center-right party cannot, as the well worn cliché will have it, ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’. It needs taking the opportunity offered by the investigations to open up India’s violent recent past to a ‘warts and all’ scrutiny. This will fetch it votes of the non-denominational secular majority.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 36, Dated 10 Sep 2011

Dear General, Please Stay Out Of Politics

In these politically charged times, Army chief VK Singh’s comments on civilian issues could hurt democracy

By Firdaus Ahmed

ARMY CHIEF VK Singh’s comment on the state of the nation as equivalent to “daldal” (morass) comes as no surprise. The remarks were part of his take on social activist Anna Hazare’s high-voltage agitation against corruption. As a citizen, Singh has every right to an opinion. As a member of the defence services, the right to voicing it is curtailed considerably. As army chief, it is much less so, particularly on politically charged issues and especially so in politically charged times as now.

That the army chief is currently in a tussle with the defence ministry over the controversy surrounding his date of birth makes his remarks mistimed. The decision of the ministry has been in favour of the earlier date of birth, resulting in Singh having to retire next year. The adjutant general has reportedly asked the ministry for the reason. Therefore his comments cannot but be read with his personal predicament as backdrop.

More importantly, the chief has laid himself open to questions from a different angle in his take: “Interesting in terms of how we are witnessing the power of democracy, the power of the people.” The democratic protests that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has attracted, both in Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeast, have not displaced the army from its position on the continuance of the Act. The fast of Irom Sharmila is into its second decade, to little avail. The move on dilution of AFSPA’s ‘draconian’ provisions has become a political football between the ministries of home, defence and law, since the army refuses to budge. Clearly, it appears that the democratic sensibilities of the chief are only selectively aroused.

To the chief’s credit is his own record on tackling corruption. That he has identified himself closely with curbing it within the ranks can be seen in his remarks on taking over the baton, “We will focus attention on improving internal health.” In his previous billet at Kolkata, he had taken action in the infamous Sukhna land scam. The graver Adarsh Housing Society scam, involving politicians and bureaucrats, has since scarred his predecessor’s name. Therefore, his desire to personally provide ballast to the national focus on the issue is understandable.

For the military as an institution, the message is loud and clear. A series of scandals has dented its image. Because it expends 10-15 per cent of public monies, being untainted is more than an issue in ethics — it is one of combat effectiveness. Singh is only echoing what he once said, “Until the time our internal health is good, we would not be able to fight the external threats.”

However, the immanent issue is one of civil-military relations. The fragility of our democratic polity, currently fully on display, suggests greater exercise of circumspection on part of the brass. Any overt overstepping of the line of deference rightly calls for a formal check by the minister. The brass is already reportedly under a ‘gag’ to curb its tendency to snipe at the bureaucracy, which in their mind’s eye runs the government. The problem with this is that it further weakens the credibility of the government, showing it up as ‘weak’. This redounds to increase the relative power of the army internally. This may not be in the best democratic interest.

As it is, democratic good health in terms of Parliament’s authority to legislate autonomously is under challenge. That the occasion has enabled a diversionary rallying of conservative formations behind the agitation indicates that the democratic upsurge is equally political as civil society-rooted. The military as an institution is in danger of an unwitting alliance with the conservative forces. Because it has weight in prestige, the army’s position can be misappropriated by forces it has little comprehension of, being politically naïve. Democratic good health can do without gratuitous buffeting of civil-military relations at this juncture.