Sunday, April 27, 2014

Himalayan face-off is inevitable

India and China are competing everywhere on earth, from nearby Pakistan to faraway Africa, for natural resources and diplomatic edge. The situation is no different in the rugged terrains of neighbouring Nepal

India and China have a long history of love-hate relations that can be traced to the pre-civilisational era. Colonisation, of course, changed the conventional terms of engagement — especially the Boxer Rebellion in which the Indians fought, along with British forces, against the Chinese revolutionaries. Since then, the Chinese have never really trusted the Indians.

A part of the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat report on the 1962 India-China War clearly establishes the effects of this old Chinese complex. It also details the blunders done by the Indian Armed Forces and the defence establishment.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s heightened sentimentalism, rather his show of statesmanship that caused for the war, have also been exposed. The report is only partially in the public domain; nonetheless, it has given much insight into India-China relations.

Tibet and Kashmir and China’s irritating stand on boundary issues are the focus in journalist Shishir Gupta’s book, The Himalayan Face-off: Chinese Assertion and the Indian Riposte, which says, “Even if bilateral trade between India and China goes beyond $100 billion in the coming years, China’s posture towards India is adversarial and will perhaps remain so in the future, with Beijing viewing New Delhi through the prism of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-exile… A rising China, inflexible on boundary dispute resolution and with strong tentacles across South Asia and beyond, could encroach on India’s strategic space and lead to a potential crisis this decade.”

However, the book doesn’t look into the India-China ‘face-off’ in Nepal. China has turned overtly cunning in Nepal, so as to challenge the traditional comfort characteristic of India-Nepal ties.

China is infusing large amounts of money in Nepal to minimise the warmth New Delhi and Kathmandu have enjoyed through economic cooperation. On the ‘softer’ side, China is missing no chance to slap its cultural load on Nepal.

Hence, the number of Nepalis wanting to learn the Chinese language has seen a dramatic rise in recent years. Still, it will be difficult for China to counter India’s traditional position in Nepal.

Politically, the advent of Maoism in the mid-1990s gave China a big foothold in Nepal. But Maoism in this Himalayan Kingdom has been so diluted that it has almost lost its Chinese soul, especially in the face of the complex conditions produced by local competitive politics.

For many years, Maoists were able to hold on to power because they were pragmatic and flexible in their political programming.

The Maoists in Nepal designed their policies in keeping with the changing political situation of the land. They rose to occupy the highest positions in the country, but in recent years they have lost the sheen after the top Maoist leadership’s dubious stands were exposed and the former insurgents frittered away the credentials to stay on the high moral ground.

China is watching the developments in Nepal closely. The 2013 election has given the new regime a mandate to govern, not rule ruthlessly and without a sense of direction. In this new composition, Maoists are a minimal force.

From a larger geo-strategic point of view, China perceives India to be getting close to the world’s only superpower. Therefore, it has been seeking to encircle India through various advances.

Some may argue that this is perhaps partially an existential tussle caused by China’s continuing complex vis-à-vis India. Perhaps China still sees India as a collaborator of the colonial British Army that plundered Chinese cities.

However, this seems like a ridiculous argument when China, today, is one of the biggest offenders of human rights. It makes little sense as to why China would seek to shape its current engagement with India on the basis of an event that happened over a century ago, and that too under the control of colonialists, not Indians per se.

Still, India and Nepal, in all their diplomatic manoeuvrings towards China, must take into account the complexities of the Middle Kingdom.

Time and again, the Chinese leadership has asserted its belief in co-existence — India has been acknowledging this without giving heart to it, as this country has its own share of complexes, born out of Chinese betrayals that began in 1962. Nepal, with its unique historical position, has rarely had to face-off with either Beijing or New Delhi.

India and China appear to be in a tug of war, with their many unresolved issues. It is difficult to be optimistic about the future, given the incorrigible complexes of both Beijing and New Delhi. The Himalayan face-off is a reality, and it is going to be an enduring one.

India and China are competing everywhere on earth — from nearby Pakistan to faraway Africa — for natural resources and diplomatic edge. The situation is no different in the rugged terrains of Nepal.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Pioneer on April22,2014)

Border benefits

The open border must be a major plank of economic and diplomatic relations between India and Nepal

The open border between India and Nepal has been the vantage point of the two countries' trust-based relationship. But a closer look at this border regime shows a lack of impetus in transforming this unique arrangement for the enhancement of trade relations between the two countries, thus leading to a failure of the border regions to tap into the potential of trade activities.

Gains for both

Many places in the Madhubani district in India's north Bihar share boundaries with Nepal. These places offer immense opportunities to maximise trade and civil cooperation. Sadly, Indian authorities have taken a lacklustre approach in helping build roads and rail infrastructure across the border in Nepal.

Kathmandu, too, has surprisingly failed to show interest. Nepal has no rail network beyond a symbolic and outdated small stretch between Jaynagar in Madhubani and Janakpur in Dhanusha district in Nepal. Telecom and postal cooperation, which has great potential to foster civic ties, is also missing.

These shortcomings indicate a flawed approach to border talks between the two countries. There seems to be a clear and sharp disdain for tapping economic opportunities and while delving on this issue, the geographical spread has to go further—to other parts of north Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttarakhand.

The federal structure of India restricts the states' authority and action when it comes to international matters. So it is imperative that New Delhi and Kathmandu be serious about these issues, which are currently being handled half-heartedly without any vision. It is time for India and Nepal to go beyond formal barriers and translate rhetoric into action.

Nepal has emerged as a more confident nation amidst the democratic transition. Nepalis today no longer see the monarchy as an option. This is a welcome development in the country, where, until recently, political authority was seen as inseparable from the royalty. Historic political upturns have tested the country in many ways. But amidst many setbacks, Nepal has emerged as a forward-looking modern nation. These developments have close bearing on Nepal's relations with India.

Potential gains

Yet, in recent years most high-level Nepali delegations visiting Delhi have been ignoring the potential of trade relations between the two countries. It is surprising when even a prime minister-led delegation prioritises rudimentary concerns over core issues.

Take as an example the fact that India is the world's largest milk producer. It reached this position through early adaptation of technology and impressive cooperative movements, not through keeping high numbers of cattle alone. Nepal is a milk deficit country but its plains are conducive for a white revolution. So it should seek India's overall expertise and try to create a success story like that of Amul in Gujarat.

The power sector is another area where the passive stances of both countries are harming their economic interests. There is an immense potential for cooperation—especially in hydroelectric production and transmission. Sadly, India's industrial chambers—the Confederation of Indian Industries, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India—have not been able to move beyond tokenism in furthering multi-sphere trade cooperation with their counterpart in Nepal—the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Most delegations have wasted much time and energy signing Memorandums of Understanding without observing the feasibility of new projects. Treaties between these two countries need immediate revision. Trade or diplomatic negotiations in 2014 cannot be handled by the policies of bygone eras. New Delhi has a lot to do on this regard and it must do so for the mutual interest of both countries.

Border problems

As India faces the constant threat of terror attacks, safeguarding its open border with Nepal is high on its to-do-list. Time and again, Nepal has closely cooperated with Indian security agencies in cracking down on terror outfits, most recently the Indian Mujahideen network. But there are many problems along the border that must be addressed by both sides.

Illegal trade is rampant as official vigilance is not up to the mark. This administrative failure could make Nepal a parking lot for terror activities, as India is the most targeted country by both international and homegrown terror outfits in the whole of South Asia. India cannot afford to overlook this aspect, so it has to guard its borders with greater sensitivity. Nepal also has a shared interest here. The border, therefore, should be made a major plank of India-Nepal diplomatic negotiations.

Next month, a new government will be formed in India. The new prime minister should start a new beginning by visiting Nepal before flying to distant locations. India must show this courtesy to its closest ally, which has not been given its due in the past—especially if we recall the Indian PMs' lack of interest in visiting Kathmandu. That unusual shortcoming has shadowed even the good intentions shown.

To make trade and diplomacy work fairly, India and Nepal should move beyond tokenism and enter a new phase of cooperation. Nepal should not preclude itself of benefiting from India's economic rise and India should not miss the opportunity to further cooperation with a politically stable Nepal.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on April29,2014)

The downstream of Indian democracy

Book Review: Non-fiction/Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy by Simon Denyer, Bloomsbury, 440pp; Rs599 (Paperback)

Denyer captures our nation’s inverted spiral from a rapidly aspiring country to a land of dejected sentiments

The common and uncontested perception is that the foreign correspondents stay in merry state with privileged dining, wining and roving spree into their assigned territories and usually write predictably crappy pieces, mostly passable.

However, there are exceptions and Simon Denyer has been proving it ever since his stint in India as the bureau chief of Washington Post—through his reports, public speaking sessions and avidly watching this truly wonderful and complex democracy.

Not in distant memory, his Washington Post piece on the weak show of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went viral and that was not an exaggerated phenomenon.

This book under review is the extension of Denyer’s keenly watched downward trajectory of India—from a rapidly aspiring nation to a land of dejected sentiments.

As the book recounts, India has travelled a long way in the last decade. But that exciting boom time is on wane now with slew of deformities haunting the core of system—corruption, populist politics, indecisiveness, policy paralysis are but few of them, counted time and again.

Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy is an outcome of extensive field research and Denyer’s interest in knowing about the changing India, which is infact a quite challenging task to accomplish.

But he does it successfully, as his book is written in conformity with the mass sentiment and never appears like an out of touch commentary.

From rising economic story of the last decade, to a survivor of global economic meltdown to being in self-defeating mode—the book sees India in natural continuance and without slapping any negative tag that would make the readers believe in any ‘fallen from grace story’.

The book is what India is today. There is not much to argue as we all know the politics in India has seen in recent years: a shady bonhomie amongst cronies with commercial interests.

It is continuing or perhaps growing: so various chapters of the book tend to justify their compartmentalised existence. Crony capitalism, dynasty politics, fall and fall of institutions, and, above all, the question mark put on the functioning of the prime minister’s office, which resulted in the easy passage of scams and tainted dignitaries – all these have changed the India story.

In its underbelly lie the forgotten issues like poverty, alarming shortage of employment, recklessness of policy maneuvering and immediately punishable corporate plundering of resources.

These result in sagging sentiments—and with the general elections in progress, voters still have no choice to opt for a party with different and better policy inclinations.

Rather, they would be voting based on frivolous opinion or opium of badly maligned birth identities. The end result would not be ven remotely progressive. This element has vanished long back from our political turf, with politicians enjoying contradictory existence.

This book has covered the mass outrage of people following the brutal gang rape and murder of Nirbhaya and also the movements against corruption.

Denyer puts that in proper context: how the suffering masses with lack of basic facilities and unwavering scams mobilise to register an unprecedented protest against the ruling authority in Delhi. Later as Aam Aadmi Party comes into existence with brief but noticeable success in Delhi, hope floats, briefly.

Sadly, this reactionary party born out of people’s desperation at existing political functioning hasn’t been able to forward coherent views about its own role or politics at large. Its ‘failure’ might result to greater desperation for citizens and Indian democracy.

In patches, this book showcases how initial good works by the two-term UPA government lost its sheen in last few years, with dramatic rise in scams coming to light and failure of governance to cure those maladies.

Indian democracy in peril is really not different from a rogue elephant—who has impressive size but no command over itself. That is an unsustainable condition, which should not be allowed to go on.

Unlike the recent books written with a ‘betrayal or sycophancy syndrome’, Denyer’s departs from those easy alternatives. The readers would judge it by the pages, where a passionate account of India by a restless journalist exudes maturity and sense of purpose.

This should be an essential read for all, who believe both in the idea of India and its countless weaknesses as well.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Millennium Post on April27,2014)

We all must have a very-very deep sense of history

Kamila Shamsie is the author of five acclaimed novels: In the City by the Sea; Kartography(both shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize); Salt and Saffron; Broken Verses; and Burnt Shadows, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and has been translated into more than twenty languages.

Three of her novels have received awards from Pakistan’s Academy of Letters. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2013 was named a Granta Best of Young British Novelist. She grew up in Karachi and now lives in London.

Recently she was in New Delhi for the launch of her latest novel, A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury Publications)—here she spoke with Atul K Thakur, about her new book and love for fiction writing—writing in subcontinent and beyond, the place of history in modern time and how the western hype of their tradition and literature keeping heightened misinterpretation around. The edited excerpts of the interview are:

Tell us about your new book: A God in Every Stone? What made you writing on undivided India, struggling against the empire in early 20th century?

For first time, I went to Peshawar two years back—then, I did not know it well. Those days, things were in very bad shape in Pakistan—that seemed wrong to me. I came to read a piece in DAWN about an archeological initiative to shave the monuments—and as

I was always interested in history, I drawn towards it.In Pakistan, women started taking part in archeological activities—when in India that was unheard off. This is an interesting reality.

I do value history and when it is retold in fiction, it creates greater sense. And I tried to absorb the importance of empathy—thus the book bears that and came out.

This book has in center a powerful story of friendship, injustice, love and betrayal—it travails across the globe, into the heart of empires fallen and conquered, reminding us that we all have our place in the chaos of history and that so much of what is lost will not be forgotten.

What exactly the discovery of Temple of Zeus is for Vivian Rose Spencer?

She is a young woman who has lived a very sheltered life—that particular moment of discovery comes to her like first breeze of independence. It is like you do something significant for first time in life and get a sense of discovery. In that discovery, she lives her personal existence—outside the comfort of empire and roving in alien lands with unusual quest.

The call of adventure and the ecstasy of love—all are the better part of fantasy or near about reality?

Yes, a sort of fantasy—as she is very young and has sheltered existence. It is good to be 21 and full with idealism—expectations getting more matured with the time.

At near the age of 30, it is hard to get away from naïve issues—but when one reaches to around 40, the perceptions get shaped through realistic considerations. There might be exceptions, as it is truly hard to be perfect with the perceptions—it fluctuates.

What made you finding another locale, thousands of miles away where a twenty-year old Pathan, Qayyum Gul is learning about brotherhood and loyalty in the British Indian army?

I became interested in the story of Indian soldiers fighting in the world war—and also in the history of freedom movement. The book recalls Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan in great deal—he was called Frontier Gandhi, and as the book is centered on that geography where he worked tirelessly—we see in character Najeeb, a staunch follower of him.

I have chosen to write this novel in post-colonial narrative—so I have particularly found the space for a stretch of subcontinental history( 1910-1940), badly affected with the British Empire.

Nevertheless, this is not the lone reason of making the novel spread into the odd geographies—there is strong personal angle of the protagonists, which necessitated it to further the story from two distant poles.

Both Lahore and Delhi have deeply imagined society—with their old structures and monuments, the city dwellers must ask themselves, how to imagine your cities? Like in imagining Karachi—it felt learning this city. Every city has its own characters—with modern cities, I have hedgy experience. We all must have a very-very deep sense of history.

How perfect is the mysterious long trail of Viv for her beloved? Why A God in Every Stone carries us across the globe, into the heart of empires, almost fallen and conquered?

She is very young, meeting Turkish Man and then they separated. Love story is not to be tested—it’s a romance in very beginning. She has liberty to be with her imagination. A very young naïve women but the book ended with decisive changes.

She believes in empire—English men are superior—their places are in better side of the history. She is a girl of empire, still she recognises empire is damaging. But she changes, the moment she knows the world.

Massacres in Peshawar in 1930’s—made strong disillusionment from the empire. Besides, non-cooperation movement and the world wars made British Empire defensive in stances.

Peshawar was full with events in those periods—and in general, North West frontier has a long history of receiving invasion and instability. Its history is replete with the interventions of Empires, including Ottoman Empire.

Beyond the construct of this novel—how you see our place in the chaos of history and that so much of what is lost will not be forgotten?

I don’t know how to see the chaos in history. It is very hard to assess the time people living in.

You have written acclaimed novels: Burnt Shadows, In the City by the Sea, Kartography, Salt Saffron and Broken Verses—do you write usually for the imagined readers or they come to your writings, and thus you write?

This will sound very self-centered in saying I write for myself—readers come to the novel from diverse locations and tastes.

What makes you dedicated for fictional narrative? At some point of time, will you be also writing a non-fiction book?

I love writing novel. I write for Guardian/Guernica among the other publications—mostly prose and non-fiction but in long term project, fiction writing is my natural forte. I believe, short stories are unfairly under-valued—people still wants to read novel. It’s not declining.

I am recalling your conversation with Pankaj Mishra, about the absence of political anger in western literature and why we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn the writers like, Mo Yan—what made you comfortable for taking position on this?

It was my actual position. I was asked by Guernica to write on it. Pankaj has already written on it—and he has written important books. There is big mismatch on this in western world. Not surprising, if remarkable books from the US is in short supply.

The western part of the world or even China has to address the anger in writing with care and better sensitivity—in absence of that, it is not possible to expect genuine expressions routed through the books.

May we know the answer of your own question asked to Pankaj Mishra: You say fiction comes from a different side of the brain than politics, but doesn’t an overtly political novel demand we engage both sides of the brain at once?

It does—often people have problem with the political norms. They disagree—some people think novel should be essentially written like nice and pleasant story.

This is impossible to achieve—the consciousness for politics very much stays in fiction writing as well. However the degree of reliance on it varies on the personal capacity and choice of a writer.

What is your take on new English writings in India and Pakistan?

Indian English writing is doing very well in non-fiction category—we see many remarkable books have been in recent years by Indian writers. And with fiction writing too, India has lot to offer—from Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh to Kiran Desai, there are many names to be recalled.

Pakistan has seen a very impressive rise in writers, writing standard literary fiction about their troubled land. Nadeem Aslam is an extraordinary writer—he takes his writing very seriously. Mohammed Hanif is so good being fiery and serious.

Usma Aslam Khan is another serious writer, who is writing incredibly beautiful about the Pakistani landscapes. Jamil Ahmad has written an important book on Baluchistan. Mohsin Ahmad has written impressive novels. We can add more names here.

In the Indian subcontinent, this is high creative time—where the history is being reread and retold, with sense of urgency to know the spent time, with rational angle. This is indeed a welcome development.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Rising Kashmir on April21,2014)