Wednesday, November 25, 2009

India and Middle East

India Should focus on the Middle East
New Indian Express, 26 November 2009

Despite less popular nomenclature, the Middle East developments have more far-reaching implications for India than commonly recognised. The region normally is noticed for all wrong reasons or only for wrong reasons; terrorism in Israel, Iraq and Algeria; Islamic upsurges in Egypt, Yemen; threats emanating from the Somali pirates to oil supplies from the Persian Gulf; political instability in Lebanon; or the nagging and seemingly endless nuclear controversy over Iran. Occasionally elections get attention in the Indian media.

Yes, the Middle East has its share of problems but it also offers a number of challenges and opportunities. Since the end of the Cold War the world has become complex and New Delhi is still learning to maintain close and friendly ties with countries, which are at competition, if not war, with one another. This is especially true for the Middle East.

No country would be able to remain indifferent to the impending fallout of the eventual American withdrawal from Iraq. Likewise, New Delhi would not be able to pursue closer ties with Tehran without worrying about the US factor. Its newly found bonhomie with Israel would have to factor in the cold winds from Cairo. Its overall energy security calculations would have to consider the growing Chinese presence and competition in the oil-rich Gulf region. It is no accident that Iran has been using the China angle to force India’s hands on the never-ending negotiations over the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Its closer military ties with the Jewish state have a bearing on India’s ties with as diverse a group as Egypt, Iran, Palestinians and of late Turkey.

Besides the geographic proximity and long political interactions, the region is important for a host of reasons. First, the Middle East is India’s prime trading partner. In 2007-08, it accounted for nearly 25 per cent of India’s total trade. Exports to this region stood at over $30 billion while imports stood at close to $72 billion. While the ongoing recession reduced the quantum of trade, the Middle East’s share in India’s overall foreign trade is unlikely to dwindle.

Second, a better picture of the region emerges in the energy sector. The region accounts of bulk of energy imports. Out of the $86 billion energy imports in 2007-08, as much as $58.8 billion came from the hydrocarbon-rich Middle East, with the Gulf region accounting for the lion’s share. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE meet bulk of India’s energy needs. As India’s energy import dependency is expected to reach close to 90 per cent by 2025, the importance of the Middle East will only increase in the coming years.

Third, one need not overemphasise the role played by the expatriate population. Currently there are over four million Indian labourers in the Gulf and even without the hawala channel they contribute substantially to their families back home as well as to the Indian economy.

Fourth, Islam plays an important role in India’s ties with the Middle East. Even though most of the global Muslim population lives outside the region, the Middle East has become synonymous with the term ‘Islamic world’. The latest report by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life identifies India as having the third largest community of Muslims after Indonesia and Pakistan. Any upheavals and progress in the Middle East naturally reverberates worldwide. If al-Qaeda has negative implications, the inter-faith dialogues pursued by Qatar and Saudi Arabia for example highlight the growing awareness in the region for better and nuanced understanding of one another. The Middle East mainstream is still moderate and needs to be befriended and encouraged.

Despite these factors, the Middle East does not figure adequately in India’s foreign policy agenda. The high-profiled visit by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during the Republic Day celebrations in 2006, for example, was not followed up adequately. The reciprocal visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Riyadh is plagued by delays. There is also pending invitations from Israel, Iran and other countries of the region. Singh’s visit to Egypt earlier this year, which subsequently became controversial due to the Sharm el-Sheikh statement, was not a state visit as he was attending the Non-Aligned Summit hosted by President Hosni Mubarak.

The South Asian countries are becoming vital primarily because of the negative consequences. As we have seen, domestic instability and violence in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka often spill over into India. The Middle East on the contrary offers a number of incentives, opportunities and challenges.

Let there be no mistake. India’s great power aspirations will be tested in the Middle East. In the coming years, much of the great power rivalry involving the US, Russia, China and Japan will be fought over this region and its energy resources. The region will inevitably figure in India’s simmering discontent with the Obama administration over issues such as non-proliferation. The real implications of its energy cooperation or potential competition with China will be tested in the Gulf region. The maturity of its foreign policy establishment will be measured by how it handles the India-Israel-Iran and India-Iran-US triangles.

The time has thus come for a serious, nuanced and non-partisan understanding of the Middle East and its complexities. Erstwhile platitudes, historic bonhomie and civilisational rhetoric are important but would be insufficient to handle present dynamics and future challenges. The Middle East Institute @ New Delhi is a small step in this direction.

(The author teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is the honorary director of the Middle East Institute @ New Delhi. This commentary is published in partnership with

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

For Qatar, Small is also Effective



While bigger players squander their goodwill and fortune, the small Emirate is slowly emerging as a diplomatic powerhouse in the Middle East. The conduct of Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in lending his weight to burning issues is a sign of emerging Qatari diplomatic acumen, even while others have burnt their fingers in similar diplomatic ventures. It has become obvious, given President Hosni Mubarak’s ineffective unity talks between Fatah and Hamas, that Egypt has lost its leadership role in the Middle East peace process.

Fortune, however, favors Qatar. In May 2008, the Emir Khalifa brought the warring Lebanese factions to Doha and facilitated a marathon discussion between the pro- and anti-Syrian factions. The Emir stepped in after other influences within the region and the historical links of the French proved insufficient to bridge the gap between the factions. On a few occasions Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, announced an impending settlement only to flounder. Qatar did not have any such pretentions. The warring Lebanese factions left the Emirate with the Doha Accord that ended the political boycott by the Hezbollah-led opposition and, eventually, paved the way for the parliamentary elections held on 7 June 2009. With Saad Hariri abandoning his efforts to form a unity coalition, one should not be surprised at Emir Khalifa’s re-entry onto the Lebanese political scene.

Likewise, when the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan had problems with Hamas and its activities within the country, Qatar stepped in. The deportation of Khalid Mashaal and his colleagues to Doha in November 1999 resolved an impending showdown between the Islamic militants and the Hashemites. The move also enjoyed the tacit backing of Israel, which was at ease with a ‘friendly’ monarch watching over the ‘outside’ leadership of Hamas. The importance of Qatar in regional developments was given a boost in September 2008, when the Syrian president convinced the Arab League to appeal to Qatar to sponsor negotiations between the Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government. Although progress has been minimal, the development highlights the growing diplomatic reach of Qatar.

As part of an effort to cleanse the negative image in the region following the 11 September attacks, Qatar has also taken the lead in initiating and hosting inter-faith dialogue among the Semitic religions, which often involves Jewish religious figures. Doha has also hosted a number of Israeli officials, leaders and commentators.

What makes Qatar acceptable to both sides of the political divide; Israel and Hamas, Hezbollah and Hariri and Iran and the US?

One can look at three possible explanations. One: unlike other regional players, Doha does not have historical baggage, nor does it have any illusions about its regional influence. Although wealthier, it does not resort to chequebook diplomacy to gloss over deep political differences. Above all, it does not have pretentions of being a regional player. Not pressurised to deliver, Qatar is more effective than others.

Second, Qatar maintains open channels of communication with all the major players in the region, a fundamental pre-condition for any mediatory efforts. It has close ties with Syria and, unlike other Arab powers, did not boycott the March 2008 Arab summit in Damascus. This move proved helpful when the Emir sought to mediate between the Syrian-backed Hezbollah and the US-backed Hariri factions. The tension between Riyadh and Damascus, both before and after the Damascus summit, diluted the Saudi ability to resolve the Lebanese stalemate. The same fate awaited Egypt after Mubarak chose to skip Damascus.

Three, in pursuing foreign policy options, Khalifa is not always guided by American preferences and dictates. For example, American displeasure did not prevent him from dealing with Iran. His disagreement with the prevailing international consensus over the nuclear row was exhibited in July 2006: when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1696 that called on Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment, Qatar was the only member to vote against the resolution. Similarly, open communication with Tehran was accompanied by Qatar maintaining a low-level Israeli mission that had been briefly closed following Iranian pressures just days before the Emir hosted the Ninth OIC summit in November 2000.

In short, low profile activities, lesser expectations and, above all, the maintenance of closer ties with all the warring sides has enabled Qatar to play a role far bigger than its size and economic influence would suggest. Small is not only beautiful but, in the case of Qatar, it is also effective.

Monday, August 10, 2009


A hostility affecting the region
The New Indian Express, 11 August 2009,

While their leaders warn of an impending global catastrophe if Iran goes nuclear, the Israeli public is taking a more sanguine view. An opinion poll by Tel Aviv University finds that over 80 per cent feel their personal lives ‘would not be expected to change’ if Iran developed nuclear weapons. Should this enable us to look for an understanding between the Jewish State of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran?

With the war of words flying in both directions, such an entente is almost unthinkable. Since he became president in 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has functioned as if the destruction of Israel is the raison d’être of Iran. He has denied, denounced and belittled the Holocaust in which Jews were slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Organising Holocaust denial events has become his pastime. His quixotic fights with history shames many Iranians. His controversial re-election can only worsen the situation.

Moreover, every now and then Iran announces the successful test firing of missiles. Each test is deadlier than the last and the latest in mid-May was for a missile with an estimated range of 1,200 miles. This not only brings Israel but also southern Europe within Iran’s range.

Israel is equally obsessed with the Islamic republic. The present government blames Tehran for most of its problems with the Arabs and Palestinians. Iranian support for militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas clouds Israel’s ability to examine the root causes of the prolonged Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are Israel’s top foreign policy priority. The recent meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barrack Obama confirms this. Obama was keen to push the two-state solution, while the Likud leader wanted a firmer American commitment on Iran.

It appears that the military option is still on the Israeli table. Despite the technical difficulties and political hurdles, it has not given up the idea of attacking Iran’s nuclear programme. Netanyahu apparently told Obama that Israel would not wait indefinitely for concrete measures to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

When each side perceives the other as the mortal enemy, can one visualise reconciliation? At first glance, such a suggestion would be dismissed as wishful thinking.

Let’s take a second look. Israel and Iran are the only two countries in the greater Middle East that could be classified as regional powers. No one can deny that their policies, actions and rhetoric often have had seismic effects. For better or worse, many countries in the region fear their actions as well as rhetoric.

The other countries are no match for these two. Petro-power and Islamic credentials have not transformed Saudi Arabia into an effective regional power. Likewise, the political aspirations of Egypt are not commensurate with its diplomatic accomplishments. Of late, Cairo has been less effective even on the Palestinian front.

Should a resurgent and perhaps nuclear Iran bring Arab countries closer to Israel? Theoretically yes. Shared security concerns, especially over pro-Iranian militant groups, should bring the Arabs closer to Israel. But this will not happen before a comprehensive peace in the region. The cold peace between Egypt and Israel is between states, not people. The Arab street is not ready for reconciliation with Israel, at least not before Palestinian political aspirations are met. And the Netanyahu government is not ready for a two-state solution. Hence private understanding over Iran is the maximum that Israel can expect from the Arab regimes.

Moreover, for Israel as well as Iran, Washington remains an enigma. Can Obama convert high expectations into concrete policies and tangible results? Will his Iran policy satisfy Israel as well as Iran? Squaring the Israel-Iran-US triangle is easier said than done. The historical baggage and complexities are overwhelming. Thus, the Obama administration is more likely to disappoint than satisfy expectations on both sides.

As a result, Israel and Iran need to plan for an alternate contingency, one that recognises their mutual concerns as well as possible failure of Obama’s Middle East policy. Of late, spearheaded by Cairo, a number of Arab countries are arguing that the nuclear capabilities of Iran as well as Israel are a threat to the region, especially Arabs. Under Amr Moussa the Arab League is not prepared to de-link Iran from Israel’s nuclear capabilities.

These concerns should enable Israel and Iran to re-examine their hostility towards each other. There is a greater convergence of interest between the two than is recognised. One is not suggesting a modern-day Sykes-Picot arrangement where Iran and Israel divide the Middle East into spheres of influence. Even if they dream, neither Iran nor Israel has the imperial wherewithal for such overreach.

Nor can they go back to the days of the Shah when both countries pursued David Ben-Gurion’s policy of peripheral diplomacy. Driven by their mutual concerns over the increasingly revolutionising Arab world, one found the other as an ally. This strategy and their pro-western orientation worked in tandem until the Islamic revolution. Times have changed and Israel is no longer as isolated as it was during the Cold War. It has some friends and more clandestine allies in the Arab world.

Thus, the US-USSR behaviour during the later part of the Cold War offers an interesting model for Israel and Iran. Their mutual animosity did not diminish, public rhetoric against the other continued and each one scrambled for allies in the other’s backyard. This however, did not prevent the US and USSR from reaching broad understanding on critical matters. Israel and Iran are too small to divide the region among themselves, but could reach some broad understanding on issues that affect and undermine their security. It calls for chutzpah, perhaps; but are we not discussing the Middle East?

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Diary Beijing

The New Indian Express, 24 July 2009

Moody machines at airport
It is often impossible to figure out what can ‘pass’ at the security checks. Obviously different countries have different standards. I confronted another problem and the same equipment had its preferences. For my Chinese friends who are fond of Indian food, I carried some species in the carryon baggage, our only luggage during the trip. While packing I did not think carefully and spread them in both bags. One bag with all spices went off smoothly and the other one did not. The machine discovered some ‘banned’ substance and we had to empty it. The security person wont allow us carry the species that had chillies and a larger bottle of cream. We quietly dropped them at the dustbin. Although disappointed, I could not ignore the irony. What happened to the same ‘banned items’ in my other carryon bag that went undetected? Not just the personnel, even the equipment is getting moody?

Airport barometer
The flow of passengers at the airport is an interesting indicator for measuring the economy of the country. While hotel occupancy might tell a different story, the size of the passenger flow shows the trend. This is more valid in countries such as Egypt and Turkey, which relies heavily upon the tourists for economy. Recent political tension over the Gaza war, for example, has adversely affected the flow of Israeli tourists to both these countries. The economic crisis is manifests in many European airports. A few years ago, SARS played havoc when international tourism to China dropped dramatically. The initial impression of the Beijing airport is interesting. Not only were there planeloads of people, there were more foreigners than Chinese. Of course, there were a number of Chinese speakers; the family behind me was Canadian whose kids were trying to read the signs in Chinese. There were far more counters for foreigners but still the non-Chinese queues were longer than the native ones. Perhaps it is a sign that weakening of the dollar has not dampened tourism to China.

Emulate China?
One of the first things one reads in the Chinese media was the report that the government officials in the southern province of Guangdong, often described as an ‘economic powerhouse’ of South China, should disclose all their personal belongings to the public. Through this measure the provincial government hopes to increase transparency among the public, which have become sceptical and disgusted over corruption in high places. Can’t help wonder if those aspiring to emulate China, both on the Left and on the Right in India, would demand our bureaucrats to disclose their personal as well as family belongings?

Ticketless travel
When you board a bus in Beijing a few things are striking. Most public buses are air-conditioned; senior citizens travel free while most young people have monthly tickets. The occasional travellers and tourists are the only ones who need a ticket. Like the West, the buses only have drivers who also double as conductors. But there is a big difference. You drop the money in a box next to the driver and move towards the back. Neither he nor the machine dispenses any ticket. The reason? Passengers discard small tickets in the streets and add to garbage and dirt in the streets. Hence the bus system has dispensed with tickets. So, literally you travel ticketless in Beijing. At the same time, the city is yet to find a way-out for the challenge posed by its smoking population. It is not uncommon to find burned out cigarette buds not just in street corners but also along the major roads.

Crossing chaos
For a country that prides itself on order and discipline, crossing the roads is a nightmare in Beijing. The traffic lights are heavily loaded against the pedestrian who get only a few seconds to cross the broad, normally six lanes, roads. Both young and old could not make it to the other side without being harassed by the vehicles that use the free right option. Special lanes for bicycles only make matters worse.

Lonely at the Wall
The Great Wall literally caters to different tastes. First time visitors prefer the popular tourist site at Badaling which is also the most developed and easily accessible. Naturalists prefer Mutianyu section with its lush green surrounding. This time around we opted for the undeveloped Ba Dao Kou section that demands trekking along the woods. Most sections of the Wall are dilapidated, could not find a single complete step and at times the Wall was literally unstable. It is impossible to pass beyond a few hundred metres that too with great difficulty. But once on top, the whole surrounding area is breathtaking. What more, we four were the only ones on the Wall as much as our eyes could see.

Astronauts on ground
That was how they looked. With only their eyes visible, that too behind goggles, they were completely covered in white protective clothing. Why did our plane skip the aerobridge in the new Beijing Capital International Airport? The Chinese officials are not satisfied with the passengers’ declaration that they have no signs of Swine Flu. A medical team boarded the plane and focusing their hand-held pistol-like equipment towards the forehead, they measured the body temperature of about 300 passengers. It took less than 15 minutes. Their efforts were not futile as a Chinese passenger had some symptoms and was quickly taken away in the waiting ambulance.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

India-Israel friendship

The Singapore-based Middle East Institute just carried my short paper on The Friendship With Israel: India Squares the Circle. If interested you can find the full text click here

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tamils in Sri Lanka

The Problem is ethnic, not just Tamil

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 18 June 2009

ONLY history can judge the true contribution of Vellupillai Prabhakaran to the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. Has he put the problems of the ethnic minority on the world map a la Yasser Arafat or squandered the opportunity by wanton disregard for human lives? Such an assessment would be made not only by his followers, supporters and sympathisers but also by the wider international community, Tamils and non-Tamils alike. One thing is for sure. The Tamil problem as it is defined for the past three decades will not be the same. To be effective it has to be viewed, understood and above all presented differently. Packaging, if you prefer.

First and foremost, the Tamils of Sri Lanka need to re-examine their reliance upon Tamils across the Palk Strait. When push comes to shove, they were let down. Not by the larger Indian state as some would like to believe but by the leaders of Tamil Nadu. Chief minister M Karunanidhi personifies this trend. A few days after LTTE accepted the death of its leaders, he urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to treat Sri Lanka ‘as a special case’ where non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country could not be applied. This was only after he concluded cabinet deals for his family.

Others are no better. During the election campaign how many buried their past and took refuge under Eelam agenda? All were prepared to ‘sacrifice’ their lives but not their hunger for power. Both DMK and AIADMK leaders used NSA against pro-LTTE leaders because it served their interests. Thus any emerging Lankan leadership from the present trauma would have to take a hardnosed approach to the track record of Tamil politicians in India, their politicking and their limitations. It is time they buried the notion that the Tamils across the Strait could provide deliverance.

Second, the inglorious defeat of Vaiko sends a strong message. The Lankan problem is an important emotional issue for the people of Tamil Nadu but it is not a critical issue. At the end of the day, it is battle in another state. It is time, the Lankan Tamils recognised this. A greater Tamil nation is a cultural identity that encompasses Tamils living in different parts of the world. Making them into a political nation is vastly different.

Let’s say that the Tamil Nadu government reintroduces the entertainment tax with the purpose of transferring that revenue towards the welfare of the Lankan Tamils. Will Kollywood organise a welcome rally? One per cent VAT for the same purpose would evoke public outcry. Will the youth who were in the forefront of many pro-Eelam agitations accept a ten rupee increase in the monthly bus passes? In short the leaders have conditioned the population into symbolism and rhetoric and forgotten the core issues. They are primarily concerned with the electoral gains to be made and play up the Sri Lankan problem.

Three, there has to be introspection. The LTTE failed not because of its military weakness or lack of support but primarily due to its short-sighted approach towards the struggle. If Prabhakaran failed to put the Tamil problem on the world map like Mr. Palestine, who should be blamed? Despite all the violence against Israel and its civilian population, under Arafat the Palestinian national movement strived for internal unity. The emergence of Hamas indicated his failure but Arafat bribed, cajoled, reasoned, blackmailed and at times intimidated his opponents and rivals. Physical elimination of rival factions was not his style.

Let’s admit. The LTTE chief was Arafat’s antithesis. How many Tamil political personalities, leaders and civilians populations were literally eliminated by the LTTE? Those who disagreed became traitors and were eliminated. New leadership would have to come to terms with black phase, own up and unequivocally distance itself. Likewise, before denouncing the Lankan government for targeting civilians, Tamil groups must admit that they were no better. In the name of fighting for the Tamil cause how many civilians, Tamils and Sinhalese alike, were killed by LTTE and various other groups. Every single civilian life is sacrosanct.

Finally, the problem needs to be redefined. It is not a just Tamil problem but a larger problem of majority intolerance. While the Tamil diaspora would continue to be a major source of support, the problem has to be taken to a higher level. Sri Lanka says it is a democracy, so let’s judge it by democratic standards. Are there laws and norms to reflect this democratic commitment? What is the number of Tamils in the bureaucracy, military, educational institutions, student communities and other sectors? Not poster boys but substantial representation. Does the judiciary uphold social justice or ratify state-sponsored discrimination? Sri Lanka relies heavily on international aid, assistance and cooperation and is vulnerable. China can step in and compensate Indian refusal for military supplies but Colombo needs the wider world which is more sensitive to minority issues.

Such an approach will also enable non-Tamil Indians to see the Sri Lankan problem differently. By playing up the Tamil card, the problem became parochial and narrow. Today it is Tamils of Lanka and tomorrow it can be another minority in another country.

It is an ethnic problem and not a Tamil problem. By expanding the scope, the Tamils of Sri Lanka will acquire more and genuine friends. Will the phoenix emerge from the ashes?

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Close encounter

A loss not that significant

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 26 May 2009

Many of them lost their families, property, nationality, identity and dreams. Simply put everything they had or aspired for. I only lost a few photos. Not my life, passport, money or not even my camera. The person only took off the memory chip but returned my camera. I lost a few pictures took earlier in the day. What I lost can be replaced with a few euros.

But what was my crime? I took some picture of the Sri Lankan Tamils who were protesting in lush green lawn in front the headquarters of Air France along the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris.

As I was walking from the Home des Invalides a group of protestors caught my attention. When I got closer, I recognised that about hundred Tamils were protesting against the Sri Lankan government. Through their slogans in French, they were drawing the attention of the international community. There were a number of horrific pictures that reminded the passers-by of the brutality of the conflict back home. Only the previous day the Lankan government had announced that LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran has been killed. Were the protesters mourning his death or they were merely protesting the atrocities? No clue.

I took a few snaps. Then I noticed a poster of Mahatma Gandhi on the lamppost. The Mahatma was not holding his usual long walking stick but rather an inverse AK-47. I could not ignore the irony of the poster and wanted to take a picture. The black flag that was also tied to the same lamppost was fluttering and blocked the view. I wanted both Mahatma and AK-47 in one frame. This took a little more time and caught the attention of the protestors.

As I was moving away, a few young men came towards me and asked something in French. When I expressed in inability, they switched to English: “Which newspapers?” asked one. “Where are you from” another followed. The third one came to the point, “Why were you taking photos. “Others joined in the chorus. I said it is a public place and hence. Then one of them asked me to show the pictures. When I did, he snatched the camera. “I will delete the pictures, if you want” I struggled. Meanwhile someone was saying, ‘Passport, passport, Take it.” The shorter one who snatched my camera was more daring. In a fraction of second took he off the memory card and returned the camera and said: “Now, you can go.”

All this happened in under a minute and right in the heart of Paris and in the middle of the day. Scores of people were walking all over the place. Since others surrounded me, none could have noticed what was happening there. I was not the only one who was taking pictures of the protestors. The protest was held only to highlight the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and hence taking pictures should not be an offence, let alone a violation of privacy.

The LTTE flag in the lawn clearly indicated that the protestors were sympathisers of the Tigers. Why were young men afraid of me taking photos of a public demonstration in a western capital? Maybe not all the protesters were refugees. Perhaps there were some cadre or potential cadre among them and that they would not like to be captured in camera. I have no idea.

But what happened to scores of others, mostly white tourists who were guilty of the same crime. I was the only tourist with sub-continent features in the area and so it was easier for them to bounce me and take away the photos. Wish those young men had the same courage towards white tourists who were clicking at the protest, both before and after I was intimidated. Perhaps skin colour sets limits to bravado.

Unable to decide the next move, I walked ahead and sat on a bench on the other side of the river and looked back at had happened. Not a pleasant thing but I could have lost much more. I decided to walk back along the same route. To avoid further unpleasantness I opted for the other side of the broad road. As I was passing-by, the few men who took away my picture moments ago were staring at me from the other side. I looked back at them.

A lone police car was nearby and I passed on quietly.

But for my own sake and inner peace, I needed to go there. So the next I was there and took pictures that I could not do the previous day. The day was bright and sunny, and the scene was much better and the golden statures atop the pillars across the Seine River were glittering under the sun.

That day also there was a demonstration but on a smaller scale. Maybe I went a little earlier. From afar I noticed many tourists who were taking pictures of the protest. But this time I decided to keep a safe distance and walked a street parallel to the main road. Of course no photos also. Why the same mistake twice?

Photos I took the previous day were for my personal use. Except for one or two close friends. Who has the interest let alone patience to look at amateurish pictures of exotic Paris? They would have remained in my hard disc only to be forgotten soon. Thanks to the lost memory card, the missing pictures are carved in stone. I gained more than I lost. I don’t have the photo but what I saw will go with me to my grave: Mahatma Gandhi holding an AK-47 in the heat of Paris.

For web link click here

Friday, May 22, 2009

Paris Diary

Diary Paris

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 22 May 2009
Not a single white hawker

Sunday morning. Weather was a bit cold and occasionally drizzling. Many locals and foreigners already queued up below the Eiffel Tower. As with any other tourist sites, scores of vendors were selling or trying to sell souvenirs. With most costing just a euro, how many they will sell or make at the end of the day? One thing was striking. There were Africans, Arabs, South Asians, East Europeans or anyone one can possibly think of. In two hours of wandering there I did not find a single white hawker at the Tower.

Why be different
Jay walking. Both French and tourists are in perfect harmony in jay walking. Right in the heart of the city hordes of people are crisscrossing the busy streets while traffic signals warn them not to. They have stretched pedestrians first to new heights. After waiting at a couple of crossings, I quietly decided to join the main stream. Who likes to declare oneself to be an outsider?

Clouds of smoke
The Parisians are fond of smoking and most restaurants have no restrictions on smoking. Like many other western capitals that have tough anti-smoking laws, front gates of multi-story buildings are occupied by people hanging for a quick dose of nicotine. But the departure lounge at the Charles de Gaulle airport takes the cake. Denied of smoking inside, both those who arrived and cab drivers who were there to pick up passengers converted the open area into a smoking zone. With heavy clouds hanging over the airport, passive smoking was unavoidable.

Cafés aplenty
Eating out is of the Parisian culture, leisure or even lifestyle. Cafés at the street corners spread out dozens of rattan chairs and entice customers. Sipping a drink and watching the moving crowd is not just relaxing but gives you a peep into daily Parisian life. Unfortunately the weather decided to conspire against me and I had to settle for sit down service at enclosed cafés.

Graffiti landscape
Perhaps they are the signs of the riots that rocked Paris in late 2005. Or the new landscape in western capitals. Paris also has its share of graffiti. They are not confined to underground or rundown downtowns. A few pickup vans were painted in graffiti not just in French but also English, Russian and even Arabic. A beautiful glass door of designer apparel was not spared either. Another Rolex showroom reflected this. It had price tags of over two-dozen latest watches but not one was on display. Another graffiti along the scenic Seine River claimed: Israel criminel. As I was taking a picture a bus passed by. A travel company was aggressively selling package tours to Tel Aviv at €299.

Well-fed pigeons
If the healthy, well-fed and big pigeons at the Norte Dame Church are an indication, recession has not touched Paris. Cafés are full; long queues in the two nearby movie multiplexes; malls are open, though not many customers; major designers have not shut shops, at least not in the heart of Paris. Tourist sites are full of people. They speak all languages one can possibly recognise. Thanks to Nicholas Sarkozy and his charm offensive, Americans appeared to have stormed Paris and you see, hear them and smile at them all over. There are no empty buildings at the heart of Paris. Compare this with Washington. There are many ‘Available for Rent’ displays just a few blocks from the White House. But everything in Paris is not rosy. There are a few immigrants scavenging for leftover food in dustbins. An odd family, with their entire wealth, one unwieldy torn suitcase and a couple of large polythene bags, was resting on a bench; just a few yards from the Eiffel. The most breathtaking scene next to harsh realities of life.

The Indian connection
Paris without politics? Those clamouring for the Indo-Pakistan friendship would be delighted to find many Restaurant Indien Pakistanis. I was happy that at last somewhere people were less bothered about politics. This was until my French friend let out the business secret. All are run by Pakistanis but they needed to add India to attract customers. There were a few Tamil shops along the way, selling the DVDs of the latest blockbuster Ayan. My friend informed me that Tamil community in Paris is largely from Lanka and not to be confused with Indian Tamils. As I passed through a dozen of Tamils were holding a protest vigil at one of the crossing. This was a couple of days before the Sri Lankan government announced the death of LTTE chief Prabhakaran and none could have missed the prominent LTTE flag.

For the web link click here

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pope visit

Pope's visit upsets more than it pleases

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 18 May 2009

A missed opportunity. That was how the otherwise sober Left-leaning Israeli daily Ha’aretz depicted Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It found fault with the pontiff for not uttering sorry for what had happened in Europe six decades ago. For centuries the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people were tense at best. The role played by the Vatican during the World War II continues to cloud the relations between the two. Many have accused Pope Pius XII of turning a blind eye towards the Holocaust.

There is also some personal grudge against Pope Benedict. His alleged membership in Hitler Youth was raised even before Joseph Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy in April 2005. His recent decision to reinstate a Holocaust denier as bishop only made matters worse. Indeed some media commentators in Israel were fond of referring to the pope by his previous name than as Pope Benedict. Thus many were expecting that the pope would express a formal remorse, both officially and personally.

For its part, Israel was keen that recent tensions in the region would not impede the pontiff from visiting the region. Against the background of international criticisms and condemnation over the recent Gaza war, Israel needed this visit and positive media coverage. The unchartered waters with the new Obama administration in the US meant that Israel needed some positive equation with the pope.

However as the Israeli daily editorially lamented: ‘The thorough preparations for his visit to Israel, the complex traffic and security arrangements, and the millions of shekels that were earmarked for his hospitality, evaporated as if they did not exist thanks to a speech that was missing one word — sorry’.

Many Palestinian Christians were angry over the exclusion of Gaza from the itinerary of the pope. Such a visit would have shown Vatican’s sympathy and support for the people who underwent one of the traumatic periods in their history. With much of the Gaza Strip still in ruins, the papal visit would have sent a powerful political message to the international community and reminded them of the plight of the Palestinians.

Precisely for the same reasons, the pope avoided not only the Gaza Strip but also Ramallah. Going there without laying a wreath at the mausoleum of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would have been politically untenable. But doing so would be equally controversial. Hence, the Pope’s meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas was fixed at the Presidential Palace in Bethlehem. Likewise, he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not in Jerusalem but in the Franciscan convent of Nazareth.

Since both parties claim Jerusalem to be their capitals, the pope avoided meeting both the prime ministers in the City of Peace. The Vatican is perhaps sending a subtle message to both the contenders: Don’t count us out.

Politics however is inevitable. The more the pope tried to make his trip a ‘Pilgrimage to the Holy Land’ the more it becomes political. The inter-faith dialogue at the Notre Dame Centre is a classic example. Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, head of the Palestinian Sharia Court used the occasion to list out ‘the crimes of the Jewish State’ and of ‘slaughtering’ women, children and the elderly. Only a moment earlier, the pontiff pleaded the followers of the three religions: “Can we then make spaces — oases of peace and profound reflection — where god’s voice can be heard anew, where his truth can be discovered within the universality of reason, where every individual, regardless of dwelling, or ethnic group, or political hue, or religious belief, can be respected as a person, as a fellow human being?” However, al-Tamimi’s remarks resulted in the pope walking out of the meeting.

The prolonged Jordanian-Palestinian tussle took a religious turn during the pontiff’s visit to the Kingdom before he arrived in Jerusalem. The pope blessed the foundation laying ceremony for Latin and Greek Melkite Churches at Bethany, beyond River Jordan. According to Christian theology, this is where John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ and preached.

The pope’s visit to Bethany is seen by many as recognition of Jordanian claims to the true site of baptism and thereby undermining long-held Palestinian claim that baptism took place at Qasr al Yahud in the West Bank. Indeed during his visit to the region in 2000 the previous pope addressed a mass in Bethany but settled for a brief stopover at the Palestinian site. This time around, al-Yahud did not figure in the pope’s itinerary.

Even the Jordanian leg was not without problems. Some Muslim leaders were unhappy over the pope’s earlier remarks in 2006 when he quoted a medieval text that depicted some of Prophet Mohammed’s teachings as ‘evil and inhuman’ especially, the Prophet’s ‘command to spread by the sword the faith.’

Even the Catholics have their own problems with the pope though they are rarely aired in public. The Christians are a vanishing tribe in the Middle East. Demographically they are a minority in towns such as Bethlehem and Nazareth. In the past many have lamented that only Christmas brings cheers and Christians to Bethlehem.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has adversely affected the Christians in Israel and in the Palestinian areas. The Christian Arabs in Israel are only marginally better off than their Muslim counterparts. Over the years, Christians have vanished from many small villages in Israel. The classic example is Abu Ghosh, a small Arab town at the outskirts of Jerusalem; is has a historic church dating back to the Crusader period but no Christian community, except the priest and nuns.

Known for his theological background, Pope Benedict is not aware of the problems of the faithful. Like many of his predecessors, he has to navigate rather carefully. Openly exhibiting his concerns over would only cause more problems for the followers.

Thus different religious groups and communities viewed the papal visit differently. In a region accustomed to zero-sum approach to politics, even a religious pilgrimage ends up being a political contest between different faiths. Thus long after the pope returns to Vatican, the parties would continue to argue over their respective gains and losses.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Elections 2009

The Excitement of Voting for the first time in 47 years,

The New Indian Express, (Chennai), 11 May 2009, Monday

Over the years, one has acquired the indifference that plagues middle class Indians. They are eloquent on the virtues of democracy and its importance as the only political option for an inherently diverse nation

FIRST time voter at 47? Not a pleasant thought, one must confess. Is there an escape from harsh facts? This is despite my political baptism following a cautious warning from my mother.

Only the previous night Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared internal emergency. Don’t talk politics, my mother said and woke up the political animal inside me. Since then commented on many elections and offered unsolicited political advice but never voted in the elections.

So the excitement was real. Was there at the nearby polling booth more than half an hour before voting began.

There were more security personnel than voters. Definitely no queues.

Only one political party had organised their polling agents while members of another party were just arriving when I came out the booth.

For over two decades, on the election day I was at the wrong time or wrong place. If both were right, then my chaotic planning or sheer un-preparedness kept me away. Skipped many elections, Lok Sabha as well as state Assembly elections. Both in Tamil Nadu and later in New Delhi. There was a perennial conflict of interest between the place where I am registered a voter and place of my presence on the election day.

This was in contrast to my experience in Israel. By sheer accident since July 1988 I found myself in Israel on many election days. Eagerly watched many unfolding dramas and was there in Jerusalem just a few days before Ariel Sharon was elected as prime minister in February 2001. The most memorable was the first direct election for prime minister held in May 1996. Peacefully went to bed after exit polls gave a clear edge to Labour leader Shimon Peres. When I woke up in the morning I was greeted by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu on the TV screen. The Oslo process was buried among the ruins of the Labour party.

Over the years, one has acquired the indifference that plagues middle class Indians. They are eloquent on the virtues of democracy and its importance as the only political option for an inherently diverse Indian nation. Their theme song? Larger and more diverse than Europe the Indian survival rests on democracy. This commitment is rarely translated into concrete action. They never voted with their feet. Like many members of my tribe, I am guilty of electing bad people by not voting. Minor foresight and planning could have synchronised the seemingly endless conflict between polling date and residence. If both were right, then systemic problems of India came handy. Not finding one’s name in the voters’ list is not uncommon among many serious people.

How often one hears: My name is in my hometown. That is after living for many years in New Delhi. For them a few minutes of paperwork are a ‘waste’ of time.

With voters’ list just a click away, netizens like me, are the worst offenders.

True the system is inefficient. After searching various lists put out by the chief electoral officer of the capital, I eventually found my name. Not surprisingly it was bifurcated; Kumar Swamy and not Kumaraswamy. But it was there. The joy was boundless.

The excitement of voting was palpable and I checked out a few of friends, colleagues and long acquaintances. None have voted and most could not. Either they are out of town or their names are missing in the voters’ list. In the end my vote might not make any difference. It won’t materially affect the condition of the teeming millions. Or worse, before long I might regret my choice.

As I walked back from the polling booth, the feeling was strange but real.

A sense of lightness. Next time around when I use words such as elections, democracy or accountability, they would be less hallow than yesterday.

At least for myself.

(The writer teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

India and Gaza crisis

March 2008 issue of MERIA Journal carries a brief commentary on India's approach towards the Gaza crisis. For the full text click here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Assertive Women of the Middle East

Assertive women of the Middle East

New Indian Express (Chennai) 12 Feb 2009 03:01:00 AM IST

“REAL change within Hamas will happen only when a woman heads the militant Islamic group,” observed a young Japanese diplomat in Tokyo. In her assessment this is essential if the Palestinian leadership were to make a sober assessment of the Gaza crisis. If happens, this would be unprecedented and revolutionary, not just for the Palestinians but also for other Islamic movements in the region.

Women in the Islamic countries have generally opted to stay on the margins of politics. Besides supporting their fathers, husbands and sons in their nationalist causes, they avoided direct participation, especially from the leadership contests. The traditional conservative nature of the Islamic society and family obligations precluded their active role in the political arena.

Women however are not new to political struggles in the Middle East.

Many Palestinian women have taken up arms against Israel. During the heydays of the Fidayeen, Palestinian women were in the forefront to highlight their plight to the international community.

In August 1969, for example, Leila Khalid became the first woman hijacker when she and her colleagues commandeered a TWA plane bound for Athens from Rome. When the peacemaking became the buzzword following the Oslo process, Hanan Ashrawi became the most familiar Palestinian face for the western audience.

The onset of Hamas-led militant attacks against Israel also attracted a few women to take the path of suicide bombing. In January 2004 Reem Salah Riashi became the first woman Hamas member to carry out a suicide attack when she blew herself up at the Erez checkpoint on the Israel-Gaza border.

Wider support for such operations influenced some women of the mainstream Fatah to carry out similar operations against Israel.

Such trends can also be found in Iraq where a significant number of suicide attacks against the American forces and civilian populations were carried out by women. In November 2005 an Iraqi woman joined her husband in carrying out a deadly attack at the Radisson Hotel in Amman. While 57 persons were killed in the attack, the malfunctioning of her weapons prevented Sajida from carrying out the operation and she was arrested on the spot along with her explosive vest.

At the same time, one could also notice a different trend in the Islamic world. Women are increasingly becoming more assertive and less apolitical.

Closer home, for over two-decades the political landscape of Bangladesh has been shaped by the intense rivalry and contest between two women — Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia. In similar vein Benazir Bhutto dominated the politics of Pakistan until her assassination in December 2007. Many in the West viewed the junior Bhutto as the liberal face of Islam and a possible model for other Islamic societies. Like their male counter-parts in South Asia, their political prominence and progress are closely linked to dynastic politics but their political domination has been palpable.

One could notice similar trends in the Islamic countries of the Middle East. In June 1993 Turkey elected Tansu Ciller as its first woman prime minister.
Though she was forced out of power, her election marked a distinct paradigm shift in the region. If other countries did not follow the Turks, it was because democracy is not a popular political model in the Middle East.

However, there are some noticeable shifts. Queen Noor of Jordan occupied a prominent role during the later years of King Hussein’s reign. This trend is continuing. Queen Rania, the wife of King Abdullah-II, garners wider public space within Jordan and has been making a number of diplomatic visits abroad. This holds true for Asma, the British-born wife of Syrian President Basher al-Assad who had moved away from the invisible role traditionally played by the spouses of Arab leaders.

The Egyptian first lady is not far behind either. Though a generation older than her counterparts, Suzanne Mubarak has a visible and active public life. Many see her as the most powerful person after the President.

Women are making progress on the diplomatic front as well. In May last year, the ruler of Bahrain appointed Houda Nonoo as his ambassador to Washington. Besides being a woman, she is also a Jewish and her appointment was warmly received in the West.

While nominating a woman to the most important diplomat position in the country raised many eyebrows in the region, she being Jewish also signalled a radical shift in the region’s attitude towards its minority population.

Seasoned observers in the region feel that even in conservative monarchies, women are no longer mute spectators.

The women in many Arab royal families are increasingly emerging as important power centres. They are expected to play a pivotal role in future succession battles. Mawzah, the spouse of the Qatari emir, is seen as the most powerful person after the emir. The public profile of the Queen Lalla Salamah of Morocco is on the rise. Similarly the daughters of the rulers of Qatar and Morocco are even seen by some as possible successors. Republican regimes in the Middle East are equally moving forward. Aicha, the daughter of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi could be a possible contender for power.

It is safe to assume that powerful women play a critical role even in the highly conservative House of al-Saud.

Thus, monarchical and republican societies have opened up the space at the top for women. Their role is increasingly visible and in some cases would be crucial for future political transition. Those contending for power would no longer be able to ignore powerful women within the palace. The Arab princess’ would decide many succession battles.

While women have carried out a number of militant activities, their involvement in the running of groups is conspicuous by their absence. Prominent movements in Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah continue to be dominated by men. Even though women have taken part in various militant activities and terrorism, the top leadership continues to be a men-only club.

My Japanese interlocutor hopes that a radical change at the top in favour or woman is critical for meaningful progress.

When women are increasingly breaking the glass ceiling in other parts of Middle East, can the militant groups remain indifferent? So far there is none on the horizon who can take the mantel of the Hamas leadership. Who knows what’s in store for tomorrow.

(Prof P R Kumaraswamy teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Two-State Problem

The two-state problem
New Indian Express, 30 January 2009,First Published : 30 Jan 2009 01:52:00

Two-state solution. This is universally recognised as the only realistic and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All other ideas are non-starters.

Surprisingly the two-state formula is more than six decades old but always eluded mutual endorsement and hence remained unfulfilled. Of late, we have a new problem.

Thanks to the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict the two-state formula is assuming dangerous interpretations. Unless resolved quickly this would have a debilitating impact upon the future of the Palestinians.

In November 1947, the international community, represented by the newly formed United Nations, proposed the formation of independent Jewish and Arab states as the solution for the future of Palestine. It was not an ideal solution but more workable than any other idea floated at that time, including India’s lopsided federal formula.

Egged on by the neighbouring Arab countries, the Palestinian leadership did not even consider the partition idea. They underestimated the Jewish longing for sovereignty and the resolve to realise their nationalist aspirations and overestimated the strength and political unity of the neighbouring Arab states.

So confident were they that they never visualised a double disaster; emergence of a Jewish state and Arab schism over Palestine.

Those parts of Palestinian captured by the Arab armies in 1948 came under the control of Egypt and Jordan. The latter annexed the West Bank while the Gaza Strip remained under the military control of Egypt. The Palestinian experiment to form an independent Arab state in the Gaza Strip ended bitterly. Most Palestinians do not wish to be reminded of the all Palestine government proclaimed in October 1948.

Before long the two-state solution of the UN ended. For long the Arabs and Palestinians were demanding a Palestinian state in place of Israel. Their struggle for ‘liberation’ was confined to the territories that made up Israel. The June war of 1967 and the Israeli occupation saw the disappearance of Palestine from Arab control. As the revised charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) demanded, the whole of Palestine, including the state of Israel, had to be liberated from the control of the Zionist ‘usurper.’ It was only after the first intifada that broke out in December 1987 that the Palestinian leadership, especially its charismatic leader Yasser Arafat, formally recognised the two-state option.

For the Palestinians Israel, which based its formation on the UN partition plan, moved in the opposite direction. Having been used to the political, economic and strategic advantages offered by the occupied territories, it hardened its stand and adopted an unsympathetic attitude towards similar demands of the Palestinian. Both Labour and Likud parties opposed the formation of an independent Palestinian entity west of the Jordan River. The fears of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan about Palestinian independence suited Israel well.

The intensification of the Palestinian uprising and international endorsement of the political rights of the Palestinians eventually forced a large segment of the Israeli population to re-examine the traditional view regarding the national rights of the Palestinians. Even though a twostate solution was not explicitly stated, many Israelis gradually recognised that the end result of the Oslo process would be the emergence of an independent Palestinian entity, if not a state in the occupied territories. Even a hardliner like Ariel Sharon was forced to recognise that a Palestinian state was inevitable.

Thus, more and more people both within and outside the Middle East recognised that the only solution would be the two-state option.

The peaceful co-existence of Israel and an independent Palestinian state emerged as the only solution to the vexed problem.

When the world was moving towards this direction, things went horribly wrong within Palestinian society. For Hamas, the militant Islamic movement, Palestine is an Islamic property whose unity should not be abandoned and ceded to non-Islamic control. The Hamas-Fatah differences are severe and deep-rooted. Having recognised the Jewish state through the Oslo process, the mainstream Fatah has a serious territorial dispute with Israel whereas Hamas has irreconcilable differences over Israel’s very existence.

Thus the Islamic militant movement opened a twin front. At one level, it fought Israel, the occupied power and launched some of the deadliest suicide attacks within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. At another level, it challenged the Palestinian Authority and the leadership of Arafat for pursuing a peace process that it saw as anti-Islamic. Hamas went back to the traditional position and advocated the onestate solution: a Palestinian state that encompasses the whole of Mandate Palestine including the State of Israel. This stand and the violent campaign that accompanied were partly responsible for the peace process coming to a grinding halt.

Emboldened by the spectacular electoral victory in January 2006 Hamas went a step further. The formation of the Hamasled government was followed by a series of internal tensions. This culminated in the militant takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in June 2007. The open challenge exposed deep-seated internal divisions.

Not many would have forgotten that masked Hamas militants were stamping over the portraits of Yasser Arafat. That fellow Palestinians could be so disrespectful to someone who single-handedly put the Palestinian cause on the world map cannot be forgotten so easily; unless one suffers from selective amnesia.

Israel capitalised on this putsch and enforced a political boycott accompanied by strong economic sanctions and siege. Before the US and European powers followed in isolating the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The Palestine Authority was not far behind and appointed a separate political arrangement for the West Bank. A statein- making is burdened with two prime ministers; Salam Fayyad for the West Bank and Ismail Haniya for the Gaza Strip. Nothing could be more ridiculous than this.

Even if political niceties prevented many Arab and Islamic leaders from deriding this development, the consequences are obvious.

It made a mockery of the two-state solution. Much of the international community, including most of the Arab and Islamic countries, recognise the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority while the support for Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip comes exclusively from the governments of Syria and Iran.

The Hamas-Fatah differences have become more obvious after the Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip where nearly a thousand Palestinians were killed. Despite clarion calls for a third intifada, echoed by a section of the Indian media, the West Bank is relatively quiet. The residents of the West Bank could not be accused of being a traitor or collaborator.

Thus tragically the actions of Hamas have given a new and sinister meaning to the two-state solution. Two-state does not mean two Palestinian states co-existing in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Time someone told Hamas this.

For the web link please click here

Friday, January 23, 2009

India and the Gaza crisis

Conflict in the Middle East: Indias tightrope walk

By P R Kumaraswamy
Deccan Herald, 24 January 2009, Saturday

India expressed its willingness to recognise the complex Middle East realities by refusing to join the anti-Israeli chorus.

Pin-pricks! That was how a colleague described the barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip that were pounding Israel. While having no qualms about depicting the Israeli response as ‘disproportionate and brutal’, the academic carefully skirted any reference to the Qassam rockets which precipitated the recent round of violence. Those who are unfamiliar with the Middle East realities might be wondering why Israel was using such a massive force against unarmed Palestinians especially when it was at the receiving end of international criticism and condemnations.

These ‘pin-pricks’ did not cause much human casualties. Not that their launchers did not want to kill but they did. Effective early warning systems and organised safety mechanism saved scores of lives in Israel.

But why dismiss the Qassam rockets as pin-pricks? Admitting that rockets were launched against Israeli civilians would weaken the case against Israel. Such a one-sided understanding of the Middle East is not unusual to mainstream Indian intellectuals. They choose to ignore the relative quiet of the West Bank. How come over two million residents of the West Bank remain mute spectators? Are they all collaborators?

India’s response to the latest battle was curious, to say the least. There were political pressures. President of the Indian Union Muslim League Panakkad Muhammedali Shihab Thangal demanded the resignation of his party’s representative E Ahamed from the Union cabinet. For his part, the Minister of State for External Affairs maintained that he would follow “the government’s view” which he felt strongly condemned Israel for its action.

This intellectual one-sidedness is in contrast to the tightrope walk done by the Indian government. This time around it had been more nuanced than the second Lebanon war that broke out 2006. In its first statement issued within hours after the hostilities began, the Indian government ‘condemned’ the Hezbollah whose abduction of two Israeli soldiers precipitated the crisis. This balance quickly disappeared thanks to domestic pressures from the Left and widespread support within the Arab street for the Islamic militants.

In its first statement, the Indian government admitted that it was “aware of the immediate cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks particularly against targets in southern Israel.” In later pronouncements, however, it accused Israel of using “disproportionate force” and “indiscriminate force” which were “unwarranted and condemnable”. Since the conflict erupted on December 27, the Indian government came out with as many as five official statements on the Gaza crisis.

In a statement issued following Israel’s ground offensive, it demanded “an immediate end to military action by all concerned,” an indirect reference to Hamas. A few days later it described the Israeli offer of a three-hour cease fire as ineffective because “nearly three-fourths of the Gaza population” was without electricity and food. Welcoming the peace initiatives of Egypt and France, it hoped for an early end to the plight of the people of Gaza Strip and an early resumption of the peace process.

Through these statements, India expressed its willingness to recognise the complex Middle East realities than in the past. One could fathom a few possible explanations for the Indian refusal to join the anti-Israeli chorus.
The crisis over the Gaza Strip highlighted the internal schism within the Palestinian society. The West Bank was relatively quiet and tranquil when the Gaza Strip was literally on fire. Obviously, the Fatah and Hamas are not in sync over the Gaza crisis. This naturally calls for a measure of caution and balance. Going overboard may garner media headlines but is disastrous as a national policy.

As far as India is concerned there is only one Palestinian Authority, the one that is headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Without saying it in so many words, it has not recognised the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Due to security concerns in August 2003, more than a year before Arafat’s death, the office of the Indian mission representative was shifted from the Gaza city to Ramallah. Thus, New Delhi cannot ignore the implications of Abbas’ not so subtle criticisms of Hamas for the current round of violence.

Furthermore, the Left is weaker than in the post. Their withdrawal of support to UPA government has considerably undermined their influence. Ever since the formation of the UPA government, the Left had been demanding a ‘course correction’ in India’s Israel policy. Recognising that the termination of relations was impossible, the Left parties had been calling for an end to military-security ties with the Jewish State. Much to their consternation and disappointment, the UPA enhanced the level of security ties with Israel. The launching of an Israeli spy satellite in January 2008 was a case in point.

Echoing the calls by Hamas leaders for the Palestinians to rise against Israel, some Indian media pundits talked of the third Palestinian intifada. In their eagerness to condemn Israel, they conveniently ignored the situation in the West Bank. How to square up the violence in Gaza Strip with total indifference of the West Bank Palestinians? Were the latter merely collaborators or have fundamental differences with Hamas over Palestinian destiny? Why get into uncomfortable intricacies. So is the Indian government’s nuanced approach.

(The writer teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Israel model for India

The Israeli model - Learn but observe the differences

January 18, 2009 | RSS

In recent weeks, many have drawn parallels between the Israel's ongoing war against the Hamas and the Indian response to Pakistan over the Mumbai terror attacks. For some, India has more valid grounds for an aggressive response than Israel; and for others Israel is a far too controversial and unsavoury model. But there are those who wish and demand that the Indian government emulates Israel in dealing with Pakistan.

Not many countries and societies endorsed the Israeli action, especially the death of hundreds of Palestinians. India is not an exception in deploring Israel.

However, the political disapproval of the Israel's policy towards the Palestinians should not prevent the professionals from examining Israel's experiences. Not learning from the successes and failures of others is often costlier.

At the same time, if India were to adopt an Israel-type strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan, a number of crucial issues have to be recognized and sorted out.

1. Israel is able to pursue an aggressive strategy against the Islamic militants primarily because of the unqualified support of the Bush administration. Whether it gave an official approval or merely signalled its understanding, the US support is crucial. Without it the massive operation would not have happened. Can India secure such a support from the US or any other power or a constellation of powers for an aggressive counter-terrorism strategy against Pakistan?

2. Likewise, thanks to the American support, Israel has managed to ward off any punitive measures by the UN Security Council. Does India enjoy such a guarantee if the friends of Pakistan were to lobby for international sanctions against it?

3. Mounting international criticism has not prevented the Israeli leaders from pursuing a course of action that they consider vital for the security of their citizens. They are prepared to stand to the widespread international disapprovals, large-scale protest rallies and adverse coverage by the international media. Do the Indian leaders have the stomach to withstand massive public demonstrations in different parts of the world?

4. Israel was able to launch an aggressive campaign because of its vast and at times unparalleled intelligence base. For example, it struck nearly 50 targets in the Gaza Strip within the first few minutes of the air campaign. As of now, real-time intelligence and successful surgical strikes are possible only in Bollywood movies. Actionable intelligence still remains a pipe dream and would be so for a long time.

5. Israel could launch its war because Hamas is a non-state actor that controls only a part of the Palestinian territories. The internal schism between the mainstream Fatah and the militant Islamic group came out clearly during the current crisis. While over a thousand Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip, the Fatah-dominated West Bank remains relatively tranquil. This crucial divide has partly enabled Israel to pursue its military option. This is not the case in Pakistan. Despite all the internal tensions and acrimony, 'neutrality' over an Indian action is not an option for any Pakistani group. As highlighted by the recent statements, even jihadi groups opposed to the military crackdown would rally behind the Pakistani flag.

6. The military arsenal of Hamas is rather limited and largely consists of short range rockets. Its widely-published threats of turning the Gaza Strip in to a volcano if Israel were to launch a ground offensive has not materialized. There are signs of fatigue and internal divisions within its ranks. Pakistan is entirely different story. It is not a paper tiger but a nuclear power. Even the BJP-led NDA government refused to cross the LoC during the Kargil war, notwithstanding its past hard-line statements. Thus a militant counter-terrorism strategy against Pakistan is no longer the last option, unless one is prepared for thousands of civilian deaths on both sides.

7. Since mid-2005, the Hamas has launched over 5,000 rockets against Israel and despite the ongoing crisis, rockets continue to fall into Israel. Some had landed almost 40 km deep inside Israel. Yet, the major population and economic centres are beyond the range of Hamas rockets. This is not so for India. A number of critical economic targets are within the range of a Pakistani counter-offensive. This would mean large-scale destruction of economic assets accompanied by unacceptable human casualties.

8. Despite the accuracy of its military machine, Israel could not escape causing civilian deaths. Various human rights organisations agree that a bulk of the Palestinians who were killed in the Gaza Strip were civilians. Likewise, India would not be able to escape from a large scale 'collateral damage' which would have unbearable political consequences.

9. So far the campaign against Hamas enjoys widespread domestic support within Israel. Months of insecurity against rockets has made the wider public to rally around the government. Democratic societies cannot launch a war without such a strong backing of its citizens. Would there be a strong internal support within India for a war against Pakistan over Mumbai attacks?

10. Ultimately military campaign alone will not stop the Hamas violence. Israel has been seeking to end the rocket attacks by forcing Hamas to accept a ceasefire from a position of weakness. In the process Israel has squandered considerable international understanding and sympathy. Likewise, a military campaign will not end Pakistan's support for terrorism against India. At best it could make such a policy a costly enterprise, not just for Pakistan but also for India.

Above all, military successes rarely ensure political victory. The Middle East had many such examples. In 1956, for example, Israel won the Suez war but handed over the leadership of the Arab world to President Gamal Abdul Nasser. President George Bush (Sr.) won the Kuwait war but lost his re-election bid in 1992. His son quickly overthrow of the Saddam Hussein in 2003 only to find himself in the Iraqi quagmire. Thus even if it achieves the impossible 'victory' over Hamas, Israel's search for peace would be settled only in the negotiating table. Likewise, any realistic end to terrorism in South Asia rests on Pakistan's cooperation and not its defeat, even if that were possible.

Thus war is still an option. But look before you fire.

(18.01.2009 - P.R. Kumaraswamy is a professor of West Asia studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at ) (IANS)

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Hamas must get real

New Indian Express carries my peice on the ongoing crisis in the Gaza Strip. For full text click here.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Gaza War

Israel's end game in Gaza

What are Israel's goals? The overthrow of the Hamas government is often mentioned as a potential long-term objective...

Even by West Asia standards, the scale of the Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip and the magnitude of casualties are astounding. Ever since Israel launched the ‘Operation Cast Lead’ two days after Christmas, close to 400 Palestinians have been killed and over a thousand injured. In the retaliatory attacks by the Hamas four Israelis were killed, including a Druze soldier and an Arab citizen. With an immediate ceasefire not in sight the casualties are bound to increase.

Prolonged rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip not only tested Israel’s deterrence but also have generated widespread domestic anger. With the Knesset elections just weeks away, Israeli politicians compete with one other as strong on security. The dwindling popularity of the Labour Party had put additional pressures upon Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

What are Israel’s goals? The overthrow of the Hamas government is often mentioned as a potential long-term objective. It is colourful and might even be popular to talk of ending the militant control. At least in private many Fatah would like see such an outcome as a sweet revenge for the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007.

To accomplish this far-reaching goal Israel would have to opt for, as Barak put it, boots on the ground. Israel cannot accomplish this without a full-scale ground offensive and the re-occupation of the Gaza Strip. There are signs in that direction. So far the army has called up about 9,000 reserve soldiers. This is one of the largest mobilisations in recent years. A large number tanks and artillery are stationed around the Gaza Strip. These make a ground offensive an extreme possibility.

At the same time, Israeli leaders know the pitfalls of such an option. Pin-pointed operations and smaller incursions are more successful than a large-scale ground offensive. Hamas definitely has an upper hand in any conventional urban guerrilla war situation. In 1982 Israel needed days to reach Beirut but took more than quarter of a century to get out of Lebanon. The American experience is no better and before long the fall of Baghdad turned into an Iraqi quagmire. Hence, Barak would have to carefully weigh the pros and cons.

This means that Israel’s campaign would largely be aerial raids accompanied by naval bombardments. That nearly 50 sites were attacked within the first few minutes of the campaign indicates that it had planned the offensive long and hard. The aerial offensive has its advantages. It can benefit from Israel’s technological superiority and minimise army casualties.

The aerial campaign has its limits. The Gaza Strip is not a continent. The total area of this impoverished and most crowded place on earth is only 360 square km. The city of Bangalore, in contrasts, spans over 690 sq km. Therefore, even if it targets every known site associated with Hamas, before long Israel will run out of military targets.

Despite the technological advances, aerial campaign comes with a price: civilian casualties. Even if unintended, air raids against a crowded place like the Gaza city invariably kill a number of innocent bystanders. According the UN and other agencies, nearly a fourth of all those Palestinians killed so far are women and children. Civilian deaths are always emotional and potentially damaging to Israel. Already there are protest rallies in various western capitals and cities and they would only increase if the conflict prolongs.

Some Israeli estimates suggest that that only 220 out of 390 killed were members of Hamas. It is unclear if Israel distinguishes between members and militants of Hamas. With the Hamas leadership largely remaining underground, it is unclear if there are any political casualties.

The scale and intensity of destruction would suggest that the military potential of Hamas has been considerably reduced and not eliminated. That Hamas could launch longer range rockets into Israel, with some of them reaching 40 km, highlight its military potential. It is down but not out. Green and not white flag still flies in Gaza.

Thus, Israel would not be able to prevent the rocket attacks only by its military campaign. The massive deaths and devastation might persuade the Hamas to re-examine its strategy and seek a political understanding and renew the ceasefire. The maximum that Israel could expect from this campaign is this: a militarily weakened Hamas would be more willing for a political understanding.

At the same time, Israel also would have to accommodate some of the demands of the Hamas. They are also Palestinian demands. It would have end the siege of the Gaza Strip and stop its periodic military incursions into the Gaza Strip.

As one commentator reminded the Israelis, since the October war of 1973, each time Israel fought a war, the defence minister lost his job. The last one was Amir Peretz who led Israel into the disastrous second Lebanon war in 2006. If Barak were to avoid joining that company, he would require tangible results and a quick end to the military campaign.

To accomplish this, whether he likes or not, Barak would need a helping hand from the Hamas. That is the irony of West Asia.

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(The writer teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)