Zalmay Khalilzad with Taliban representatives

India Must Remain Involved In US-Taliban Peace Talks

Taliban ended 2019 by kindling hopes of a ceasefire ahead of signing a peace deal with the US. But a few days later they went back on their word, perhaps due to internal differences within the group or for unknown strategic considerations. But whether now, or later in the year, a peace deal is likely to be announced, with or without pre conditions like a cessation of hostilities.

The Taliban has said often enough that fighting will stop only after foreign forces are out of Afghanistan. President Donald Trump would be desperate for an agreement considering that US elections are due this November. What the contours would be is not known, but the Taliban will ensure that they get a large piece of the pie in any political settlement worked out between the Afghan parties.

Also Read: Has Trump Plan Edged India Out Of Afghanistan?

India needs to keep this is mind, and prepare for an eventuality when the Taliban becomes an important part of the Afghan political scene. The good news for India is that Afghanistan has changed drastically since the time the Taliban was in power till 2001. People are no longer in the mood to be cowed down and sacrifice the gains made in the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani years. Womens’ rights have become pivotal as well as democratic principles. Ashraf Ghani’s victory in the presidential elections bears witness to this positive narrative. People came out to exercise their democratic rights during the parliamentary elections in 2018 despite the boycott called and the blood-letting by the Taliban. The same is true of the 2019 presidential polls. Luckily for Ashraf Ghani and by extension India, the President’s decisive victory will make his position stronger during the intra Afghan talks.

India had sent two of its former diplomats to Moscow in 2018 when Russia organized a meeting with representatives of the Taliban. Realising that all regional powers were engaging with the Taliban, and not wanting to be left as a by stander as the peace process seemed to gather momentum, Delhi sent retired diplomats to the meeting. They were tagged as “non-officials’’ keeping in mind India’s reservations about engaging with the Taliban. Both former diplomats later said that they did not get an opportunity to exchange pleasantries with the Taliban representatives at the meet. They just observed from a corner table of the hall. Perhaps that’s true. But it is unlikely that Indians have not been in contact with lower functionaries of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Sure there has been no interaction at the higher levels. By sending two “non-officials’’ to the Moscow meet, New Delhi signaled that it was ready to do business with the Taliban in future.

It is also unlikely that if the Taliban becomes a part of the ruling establishment in Afghanistan, India would be asked to shut down its embassy as happened earlier.

What is evident from the US-Taliban negotiations is that the latter is now perhaps a tad more pragmatic than earlier when Mullah Omar headed the movement. By interacting with the US as well as China, Russia and Iran, besides the Gulf nations, it  is gradually coming to grips with the dynamics of pragmatic power play. The Taliban today though still staunchly wedded to its Islamic ideology is likely to be more practical in governance. The people of Afghanistan, especially in Kabul and other urban centres will not tolerate banning women’s education, a stop to all kinds of music, public beheadings and destruction of Bamiyan Buddha carvings is unlikely to happen. They may all be manifest in the countryside far away from international focus.

The final political settlement will see the Taliban emerge as the main power centre, and be in a position to dictate terms. It is well known that Pakistan, already anxious about India spreading its wings across Afghanistan will certainly try its best through the Taliban to clip Delhi’s wings. Islamabad will use its influence to try to close down some of  the consulates. Besides the main mission on Kabul, Indian consulates are in Kandahar, Mazar-e-sharif, Jalalabad and Herat.

The consulates have been a sore point with the Pakistani establishment and this will certainly be part of the agenda. How much dictation the Taliban will take from Pakistan is also a question. The fiercely independent Afghans are loath to take dictation from others.The Taliban are also aware that ordinary Afghans are happy with India’s developmental work, which have touched their lives. 

Successive Indian governments, starting from the Vajpyee era, through the two terms of Manmohan Singh’s term and now the Narendra Modi government had wisely focused on people to people contacts in Afghanistan. Luckily Pakistan’s opposition to Indian boots on the ground has paid off for New Delhi. By its non-aggressive stance, India has been able to win the hearts and minds of local Afghans. The Taliban are aware of this. In fact last year a Taliban spokesman had said that India can continue with its development works. Whether the leadership of the Taliban are of the same view or it was an off the cuff remark is difficult to gauge.

Delhi’s stand on Afghanistan has so far paid off. It has echoed the elected governments stand and marked out the red lines—that the hard earned democratic values cannot be sacrificed. India’s option is to continue to support the democratic forces in Afghanistan and concentrate as it has always done on development. At the same time whenever possible to be in touch with the Taliban. Not talking to the Taliban should never be an option as they are a part of Afghan society. Keeping in touch with all sections, supporting the democratic government of Ashraf Ghani for now, and working for the people would finally pay dividends.

No one knows when a political solution is worked out, but Delhi will know that Islamabad or rather Rawalpindi will try to use its influence to keep India out. How finally all this pans out is not known, but Delhi needs to keep its ears to the ground.

Hum Dekhenge poem has inspired anti-CAA protesters

‘Hum Dekhenge’ – A Lyrical Ode To Resistance By Faiz

Poets and poetry are boundless and eternal. India’s ongoing turmoil has people, particularly the young, from all classes and communities, giving vent to their anger and aspirations through words and verses, reviving some old and long-forgotten, and creating new ones.

Grannies and mothers with babies in arms braving biting cold have come out in this winter of discontent.

Media last week captured a diminutive Sociology student, Gayatri Borkar, sitting amidst the protestors at Mumbai’s Gateway of India, feverishly churning out copies on an old typewriter of poets old and new — Varun Grover, Nagarjun, Dushyant Kumar and Habib Jaleeb. And Rahat Indori who defiantly asks: “Kisi ke Baap Ka Hindustan Thodi Hi Hai? (Is India anyone’s paternal property?)”.

Among them was “Hum Dekhenge”, the iconic poem of Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’. It is doubtful if this Marathi girl would understand Faiz’s Persianized-Urdu, its words and certainly, their import. But to judge her and thousands protesting for their ignorance would be downright unfair.

Restricted to the Urdu-speaking literate classes, Faiz has returned to India, in a manner of speaking, long after he left for Pakistan and died in 1986. And long after impact of the ideology he espoused has steeply declined. But Faiz, like others, is about sentiment, not substance.

This reminds of Subhas Chandra Bose’s “Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja” of the1940s and “We shall Overcome” Indianized as “Hum Honge Kaamyaab” of the 1970s. Those were different eras in the last century.

Faiz inspired. My interview with him during his last India visit was actually a non-interview. In the 25 minutes or so that we set across, he was on telephone for over 22. Barely one question was answered. When the next visitor came, he waved me off, endearingly: “Oh, yaar kuchhbhi likh dena.” It became a cook-up job.

A “protest poem” against an intolerant military order running in the name of religion, “Hum Dekhenge” has remained the most popular poem in Pakistan’s underground society, and for some very good reasons. But do those reasons apply to the present-day India?

Frequently in exile for protesting oppressive regimes, Faiz had written it in 1979 against military dictator Ziaul Haq. It was promptly banned. All copies were destroyed, till on Faiz’s death in 1986, Iqbal Bano, dressed in a black saree that Zia had outlawed, sang it in a small auditorium in Lahore. It brought the house down with excitement. The police seized all recording of this poem save one that was smuggled out of Pakistan and it is now available on Youtube. It is indeed inspiring.

But can it be adopted in India? The language is alien to most Indians today. Then, Faiz is identified with Communism. Although he belonged to both India and Pakistan, Faiz’s nationality and ideology are anathema to India’s current ruling classes and large sections of populace they have successfully seduced.

There is bound to be hostility to Faiz’s invocation of Islamic symbols and imageries. He was an atheist and his deliberate use of them only infuriated the conservatives. And conservatives, aggressive and intolerant, are ruling all across the world today.

These classes are worried about spread of culture they do not approve of. Saare Jahan Se Achha of Muhammad Iqbal is arguably third-most popular Indian song, both as a lyric and a martial tune, after Jana Gana Mana, the national anthem and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s “Vande Maataram”. Indian conservatives, Hindu and Muslim, have had problems with all three through the long years of the freedom movement and thereafter.

Hum Dekhenge comes in more complex times that are less ideological and more ‘pragmatic’.  They are more difficult judging from the way words “Inquilab’ and “Azadi” that were part and parcel of India’s freedom movement have, ironically, come to mean ‘secession’ and are thus, “anti-India”.    

The extent to which the current ethos has over-whelmed ideas that have been inclusive and pluralist is evident from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, one of the country’s best institution of higher technological learning, forming a committee to judge if “Hum Dekhenge”, sung at a campus rally, has “anti-Indian” content. Elsewhere, the song has been declared “anti-Hindu.”

Writers-poets Gulzar and Javed Akhtar have stressed that a song written against Pakistan’s military junta couldn’t have ‘Indian’ or ‘Hindu’ context.  Javed termed the controversy “absurd and funny”.

The verse that gave offence was: Jab arz-e-khuda ke ka’abe se, sab buut uthwaae jaayenge / Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-haram, masnad pe bithaaye jaayenge / Sab taaj uchhale jaayenge, sab takht giraaye jaayenge/ Bas naam rahega Allah ka… (From the abode of God, when the idols of falsehood will be removed/ When we, the faithful, who have been barred from sacred places, will be seated on a high pedestal/ When crowns will be tossed, when thrones will be brought down, only Allah’s name will remain.)

The objection was to the word “buut” (idol) which was taken as a reference to idols of deities that Hindus worship and to Allah and was therefore, a communal insult. India, it would seem, is not offended by Faiz’s “communalism”, but by his pluralist message in 2020.

Pakistani writer Khaled Ahmed laments India’s “decline into religion” when saner Pakistanis are looking up to an India that they have known and admired for its all-in socio-political ethos.

This reminds of Pakistani poetess, late Fehmida Riaz, who chided Indians with her poem “tum bilkul hum jaise nikle, ab tak kahan they bhai?” (You turned out to be like us, brother. Where were you all this while?)  Will this indignation go unrealized, un-responded in India?

This Pakistani ‘sedition’ is not aimed only at India. A video of students chanting Sarfaroshi ki tamanna at the recent Faiz International Festival in Lahore is on the Internet. The lines were written by Ram Prasad Bismil, who fought and died along with Shaheed Bhagat Singh. This is new India. And perhaps, a new Pakistan (not to be confused with Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan promise).

Let this be said, whatever be the outcome of the protests over the present government’s two controversial moves  — adding to the  accumulated angst on many other issues — this combined muse of the old and the new, even if it falls silent for now, shall revive another day. 

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Kashmir Lockdown, Azadi Slogan Echoes Across India

Kashmir – It’s been more than five months since the Army occupation, armed siege and total lockdown of the Valley of Kashmir. Ladakh, Jammu and Kargil were exceptions and life seemed to be reasonably normal out there, with both Jammu and Ladakh welcoming the scrapping of Article 370 while Kargil strongly resented its new found status of a Union Territory under the direct control of the ruling regime in Delhi.

However, the scrapping of Article 35A remained a bone of contention in all the three regions because there has been widespread fear that powerful ‘outsiders’, industrialists, businessmen and real estate Mafiosi, with connections with the ruling party in Delhi, might enter these areas and buy of huge chunks of residential, commercial, agricultural and forest land, thereby pushing the people out of their own geographical time and space, including their original and inherited homeland. This would, thereby, defeat the very purpose of the exclusive status of the original birth and legitimacy of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, where outsiders were not allowed to buy or usurp land or local property. This was in tune with the inner line permit and similar laws of autonomy as it prevails in most of the North-east states in India.

The resentment was deep even in Jammu and Ladakh which had otherwise celebrated the loss of statehood, the end of dominance of the Kashmir Valley in regional politics and in the legislative assembly, the scrapping of Article 370 and the declaration of the state as a Union territory under the direct command and control of the government in Delhi. The predominantly pro-BJP sections in the Jammu region, which also shares its neighbourhood with Poonch, Doda and Rajouri, which are largely Muslim-dominated, did not care a damn about the concerns of the Muslim population in that region, or in the Valley, nor in the Shia-dominated sensitive border zone of Kargil. Their views were dismissed with contempt and the ‘Hindutva’ card of the central government was celebrated by traders and locals in Jammu with overwhelming pro-BJP sympathies.

That is why it took a while for the bitter realism to sink in that the simultaneous scrapping of Article 35A might indeed spell doom for the locals in the days to come. The assurance of Amit Shah and the Delhi regime that locally owned land will be protected from outsiders seemed as ambivalent as the fact that the loyalist village heads who came for the meeting with the Union home minister in Delhi on September 3, actually were compelled to stay put in sundry Srinagar hotels because they were afraid they will be termed as sold out; they were afraid to face their own angry people back in their villages in the interiors of the Valley.

Amit Shah had then reiterated that “only government land would be used to establish industries, hospitals and educational institutions”. He told a delegation from Jammu and Kashmir, comprising sarpanches and civil society groups that “nobody’s land would be taken away”.

The ambiguity is as stark as the statement made by Amit Shah, pushing the people in these regions into a scenario of dilemma and crisis. What kind of land is he referring to? Government land, agricultural land, commercial land, residential land, forest land? Indeed, only Amit Shah knows what he meant and the people continued to remain on tenterhooks, trapped in a twilight zone.

This promise seemed as vague and meaningless, as the fake claim dished out the government and its propaganda machinery in Srinagar and Delhi that all is normal and hunky dory in the Valley since August 5 and the people of Kashmir are indeed celebrating their new found freedom and integration with India, the military occupation and lockdown notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, in the frozen expanse of Kashmir, with the Army still posted in the large terrain while some of them have been packed off to Assam and the North-east to counter the CAB/NRC protests, some things have not changed. The schools and colleges remain shut, the digital editions of the media are down, the main newspapers are nothing but ‘His Master’s Voice’, tens of thousands of youngsters remain jobless, internet and pre-paid mobile is still down, there have been no classes since August 5, students who sat in the exams just cannot access their results on the internet, the economy is down in the dumps with unprecedented losses allegedly up to the gigantic sum of Rs 18,000 crore, trade, business and transport has shut, thereby impacting the dependent economies of the neighbouring states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab also, tourism is zero, and a general sense of collective phobia and alienation persists.

The most devastating aspect of the siege has been the social-psychological and emotional impact on children and women – post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become an epidemic among 99 per cent of the population. Depression stalks the frozen landscape.

Despite this abysmally pessimistic scenario, certain events and developments seem to have marked a subtle departure in the Valley. One, the ‘civilian curfew’ has been taken off and the shops have opened. Though the economy is down and employment and trade is zero, people are out on the streets, there is mobility, and the area around the famous Dal Lak is back with people, especially when the sun shines. Children, for instance, can meet their friends, and play outside their homes, though internet is severely missed. Similarly, relatives and friends can visit each other, and patients need not be blocked by barricades and armed check-points.

Second, a group of envoys from other nations have visited Jammu and Kashmir, though, predictably, much of the visit has been stage-managed. For instance, BJP leaders have been introduced to them as civil society leaders, etc. However, it did not seem as farcical as the last visit by certain Right-wing European Union leaders organised by certain fly-by-night operators with dubious credentials. The presence of the American ambassador in the latest delegation and the statement from Washington which followed decrying the continued imprisonment of several politicians, including three former chief ministers, has yet again sent a signal which might seem a shift for the restoration of authentic normalcy.

Third, Amit Shah has said in the past that statehood will be restored to Jammu and Kashmir once the situation becomes ‘normal’. Indeed, only he knows when the situation will become normal according to his own genius. However, a recent meeting of the current Lt Governor with former legislators who demanded that statehood should be restored has sent a signal that perhaps the Narendra Modi regime is moving towards a face-saving solution, having been found caught in a Catch-22 scenario of no return. Time will tell if statesmanship and moderation will be used in the Valley, or it will be back to masculine arrogance and the machismo of State repression calling the shots.

The fourth and most significant development is the Supreme Court observing that Internet lockdown should be reviewed and so should the imposition of Section 144, considering that peaceful protest is a fundamental right in India. Indeed, is it a case of case of better late than never, or will it be really be implemented in the days to come outside the rhetoric of national security and the phobia of terrorism, remains a dilemma. Time will tell if Kashmir will really find freedom, peace, justice and democracy in the days to come, even while the nooks and corners of the rest of India is resonating with the slogans of Azadi.

Why Arvind Kejriwal Still Has The Edge In Delhi Polls

As Delhi goes to the polls on February 8, and campaigning by the three main political parties hots up, there is much speculation over who could win this key election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the central government, has been recently bruised by defeats or weak performances in other state elections. It would want to regain its position by winning Delhi. But Delhi’s incumbent Aam Admi Party (AAP) government, currently in its second term, enjoys popularity and is largely not beset by anti-incumbency factors. Many believe, however, that the recent student protests in Delhi, which led to unprecedented violence across the city, particularly in university campuses, will have a bearing on the outcome of the elections.

Delhi is not a full-fledged state. Its government, no matter which party or alliance gets to form it, has limited jurisdiction over its administration. For instance, the state, home to nearly 30 million people, is policed by a force that comes under the central government’s home ministry and not the Delhi government. Likewise, matters relating to the state’s land come under the central government and not the state. The New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), which administers the central part of Delhi, including what is known as Lutyens’ Delhi, is under central government’s authority, while the three other municipal corporations for the rest of the state are governed by elected councillors but has blurred reporting lines—they report to the central government-appointed Lieutenant-Governor but are also partly funded out of the state government’s budgets.

When the government at the Centre and the government of Delhi’s state are politically aligned, the system works better. However, for the past five years, Delhi’s government has been led by the Aam Admi Party (AAP), headed by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, which has been at loggerheads with the central government and the Lieutenant-Governor. The Kejriwal government has been rooting for full statehood for Delhi as it feels, and probably rightly so, that its powers are hobbled by constraints.

During his two tenures—the first one lasted 49 days—Kejriwal has formed governments that have been remarkably transparent and largely untainted by corruption or any other scandals. His schemes, aimed at the poor and lower middle class segments of the population, have included free bus services for women, and reduced electricity and water bills, which have found great favour by ordinary voters. Besides, he has burnished his reputation as a representative of the common man by not eschewing his original activism. Kejriwal’s AAP gained popularity before he won electoral victories by staging protests to back citizens’ needs. Even as a sitting chief minister of Delhi, he has continued to build that image. He sat on a dharna in front of the Lieutenant-Governor’s office when the latter was not clearing files related to some schemes. And he continues to be the rallying point for anti-BJP voters.

It is true, however, that Kejriwal’s party turned in a poor show in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when he failed to win a single seat in Delhi. But in following months, he has recalibrated his position. When the NDA government brought the bill to bifurcate Jammu & Kashmir and scrap Article 370, Kejriwal promptly supported them. Kejriwal’s decision to support abolition of 370 comes from the understanding that in the Lok Sabha polls, a large number of Muslim voters had voted for the Congress. So, if Kejriwal cannot depend on a section of the Muslim vote, he would rather woo the wider Hindu vote-base. It’s a political gambit based on chasing electoral numbers. Whether it will work or not depends on how the BJP woos Delhi’s voters.

While Modi’s popularity among voters remains high, the BJP’s chief ministers can’t take their popularity for granted. This is evident from the string of losses the BJP has suffered in the assembly polls during the past year. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra have not seen continuation of the BJP government. So, at the state level, the BJP looks vulnerable. Moreover, in the forthcoming Delhi elections, the BJP has not anointed anyone as the party’s contender for the chief minister’s post. Many voters will likely see the contest in February as a “Kejriwal vs. Who?” fight. It is likely that they could opt for the sitting chief minister as their preferred choice.

In all of this, the Congress’ position is the most vulnerable. In Delhi, the Congress is disadvantaged as it has no clear face to lead its charge. Its organisational disarray at the national level can also impact its fortunes in the elections. Kejriwal, on the other hand, has been quick to grab any opportunity to create an edge for himself and his party. The questionable conduct of the Delhi Police during the current student protests—in one instance, it entered a university campus and used violence against unarmed protestors; in another, it stood as passive bystanders while hooligans entered and laid siege in another campus and unleashed violence against students.

Delhi’s urban youth voters have rallied with student protestors and their collective disposition towards the BJP government has been changing. Urban youth in India have begun viewing the BJP and its recent efforts to change the Citizenship Act as discriminatory actions that go against the fabric of secularism that the Constitution of India guarantees. In Delhi, which has been the hotbed of student protests, this is most pronounced. Willy nilly, this could work to provide further advantage to Kejriwal and his party. Delhi’s youth who form a significant proportion of the electorate could prefer AAP to the BJP or the Congress. And, along with the poor and lower middle class voters, they could steer Kejriwal to a third term in the race for Delhi.

Qassem Soleimani Funeral

Iran And US – Waiting For The Soleimani Effect

There is a sense that Iran’s punitive response to the assassination of Qassem Soleimani may not be the last act of revenge. However, weakened further by its admission of the unfortunate and horrific tragedy of the civilian Ukrainian Airline plane brought down by error, the Iranian regime appears to be on the backfoot.

The United States played its hand with confidence. Trump’s unconventional gamble that broke international norms alarmed powers around the world. Has he gone too far and has he broken a convention that leaders of other countries are not assassinated? In realpolitik all issues of international law become academic, if power gets the result and/or is far too big to be punished. But it is not always as simple as that.

Iran’s does not have the military or financial capability to challenge the US. It missed the boat on nuclear weapons. Unlike North Korea which is protected by its nuclear arms and a powerful benefactor next door, Iran does not have a superstate completely on its side. Moreover, Iran has been adventurist itself thus making it fair game for retaliation.

Having lost the chief architect of its Shia crescent policy in Middle East, will Iran now start to negotiate with its weak hand? This is what Trump has gambled on. But the United States is not quite in the ascendant in the Middle East.

Also Read: Donald Trump, What Is There Not To Like?

The United States has lost in Afghanistan, in Syria and is just hanging on in Iraq by force.  US policy itself appears incoherent. Its approach to the Middle East lacked understanding of the region in 1990s and still does. From cheered liberators it became victims of hate.

That is the weakness of United States that Iran is most likely to exploit. As a weaker military power, it has played a deeper, lateral, asymmetrical and longer game. Iranian conspiracy with planted agents has been considered to have been one of the reasons the US went to war against Iraq. Apparently Iranian trained agents infiltrated US decision making giving the US false evidence that Saddam was building nuclear weapons.

As an immediate expression to the anger and loss of Qassem Soleimani, Iran carried out carefully choreographed attacks sparing US lives. Iranian people may not have been completely satisfied but felt that ‘something’ at least had been done in retaliation. Until that is the Ukraine flight disaster. This has made the regime look blundering, weaker and target of a frustrated People. It is quite often the case that when people feel defeated, they turn on themselves and blame their own leadership for their sense of hopelessness.

The US is not going to leave matters where they are. Neither is it going to negotiate on equal terms. Trump needs a diplomatic victory against Iran to look strong and strategic for the next elections and brush aside the impeachment. Weakened at home, he needs a masculine win to look strong again.

The US will certainly exploit the cracks in the Iranian regime and encourage the people’s frustration by financing a new revolt as in Syria, in the hope that Iran regime will begin to crumble. That gamble is one that is part of a repeating classical script of United States foreign ventures, despite the fact that it rarely succeeds. For instance Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela and now Syria among others, it continues to lift this gameplan off the shelf and have another go in another geopolitical setting. There is usually rarely any original thinking in US policy. And unlike China, USA has not yet quite mastered the art of business without military intervention.

Iran’s Options

The Iran regime is used to revolts. It too works on its tested strategy of crushing opposition through any means. The US no doubt hopes one day either its plan will work or the Iranian regime crackdown will fail through strategy fatigue.

That distraction is not going to stop Iran hitting at US interests. The regime is deft at dealing with its own and external challenges. Its aim will be to oust the United States not only from Iraq, but from most of Middle East. It is likely to foment trouble in some of the pro US Kingdoms without taking direct action. It may even give ISIS a new lease and turn it against the Kingdoms. It will be a difficult one as both ISIS and the Kingdoms are Sunni, pitted against Iran’s Shia resurgence. Nevertheless Iran will not be lost for other ghost allies who want to see US influences further reduced in the region and turn the ISIS Frankenstein against its benefactors.

Iran could also play a more daring but dangerous game that is not beyond its very scheming ability. The Ayatollahs are patient and devious individuals who have long experience of conducting lateral war. It could play a leading stealth role in starting rebellions within the United States and begin its break up. The US is more divided today than any other time in recent history. Neither the black nor the Latino population of US are happy as resurgent white racism threatens them under Trump.

The US is ridden with internal strife. Both China and Iran would like to see the power of US reduced and even consumed by internal tensions. It will be Russia’s icing on the cake for the break-up of the Soviet. It might seem far-fetched but then so was the conspiracy that Iran hatched to get US into war against Iraq, as was the Russian engineering of US election. Both were once unimaginable.

The third reaction from Iran will be its continuing policy of undermining the world’s dependency on dominance of the Dollar and create a different international financial order that can bypass the Dollar as reserve currency. It is something Iran has been engineering but has failed so far. It may escalate its efforts but it is an uphill battle that could be could take decades to have an impact.

The fourth Iranian action may well be a strategic game it has played quite often. It will appear to both negotiate and stall negotiations giving it enough time to build the nuclear weapon it so covets. That will be disastrous for the Middle East as it will kickstart a nuclear race. It is not a situation the world wants to find itself in, given the volatile and infectious appetite for war in the Middle East. On the other hand it might turn out to be the deterrence that Middle East needs to stop its incessant wars.

Matters could turn out differently but it depends on the US. Iran is weakened both militarily and financially. It has hinted a few times that it will negotiate with dignity. The US on the other hand is always tempted by a weaker opponent and go for the kill rather than negotiate.

It seemed at the time of Barack Obama that the US was willing to let matters be and settle with Iran for a prolonged period of moratorium on its nuclear ambition. Unfortunately it is one of the weaknesses of American democracy that leadership has to appear macho. Its leaders need to win a ‘war’ to become political Rambos. Trump needs to have a win without actually going to war now that Congress has tied his hands.  He has rubbished the Obama deal. He has written the script for a conflict that he may not be able to back off from unless he loses power or is impeached.

However, Trump is also the one person who can wriggle out of his own holes without losing face. He may blame Congress for reversal on his position on the nuclear deal and renegotiate with minor tinkering.

Trump’s fall may be the most desired outcome for Iran along with its attempt to acquire a nuclear weapon. The assassination of Soleimani may prove to be expensive both for Trump and for United States if it does not rethink its policy and put further fetters on Trump.

Yet that may all be irrelevant speculation as another rogue actor joins the game. Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, desperate to regain some international respect after his disastrous few years that began with an ill-fated visit to India, has started a belligerent rhetoric prodding the West to take a hardline approach. It is often the unexpected that lays waste the best laid plans. Trudeau, it seems, may be the new Blair. An apparent evangelic liberal with a perverse appetite for war and pontificatory lectures to the world. It is not Boris and the British war machine that the world needs to watch but the new-born Liberal Party whose leader has so far been a damp squid, now willing to turn hawkish.

There is the other unknown, the actions of Israel. Its democracy seems to throw up leaders who can be ever more aggressive towards the neighbours than the previous one. Its actions on Iran may be the aberrant that lights the fuse in Middle East. Qassem Soleimani’s shadow may last much longer than anticipated beyond the grave.

Modi Govt Has Dented India’s Image Abroad

When External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, a seasoned diplomat who understands America well, declined to meet a US Congressional delegation that included an Indian-origin member critical of India’s current Kashmir policy, eyebrows were raised. Besides Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and a National Register of Citizens (NRC) that are widely perceived as discriminatory have painted a negative picture of India abroad.   

Signals are unmistakable. United States Ambassador to India, Ken Justor, has removed from his official web account pictures of him visiting different religious shrines. Diplomats posted in New Delhi do not speak on record but they convey their ‘concerns’ privately. Their classified reports sent back home couldn’t be positive.

Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, although a friend of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and foreign minister of Bangladesh, India’s friendliest neighbour, recently postponed their visits. Dhaka is having to do diplomatic fire-fighting to prevent domestic fallout. While foreign governments are silently monitoring, some of their lawmakers, representative bodies and the media are vocal.

For many weeks, protests over the two laws are raging across the country and not just in the winter-hit North; in cities and not just the university campus where they are accused by the Modi Government and its voluble political and ‘cultural’ arms as housing “urban Naxals”. The government says these protests are engineered by disgruntled political parties and groups of Left-liberals and “anti-nationals” who are “pro-Pakistan”, having an agenda to “break” (tukde-tukde is the term).

The reality is quite different. Violence which has hit many a university campus, critics say, is officially sponsored. Only, the government does not want to acknowledge it. Over 25 protestors have died. Unsurprisingly, the world sees it as a Hindu-Muslim conflict. Nothing draws international attention to a country more than a religious conflict.

Some of the government’s political allies and members of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are, after supporting it have, quite opportunistically, done a U-turn.

The government has been assuring foreign governments that its actions, taken and those intended, are its “internal matter”. But widespread protests indicate that concerns persist.  Being a democracy, shutting out the Internet in parts of the country in this information age, legislating and acting without conducting due processes and marshalling of evidence before declaring chunks of population as “illegal immigrants”, even if they came from neighbouring countries, cannot exactly be seen as “internal”.

More so, because far from being a hush-hush exercise, it is part of a high decibel public discourse. The government’s credibility is being seriously questioned. Its aggressive, even toxic justification, calling supposed illegal migrants ‘termites’ and its policy’s critics ‘traitors’ has worsened things.     

Worst, perhaps, is enacting CAA to accord unsolicited citizenship to people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. If it is meant to undo ‘injustice’ done to them during 1947 Partition, as the official argument goes, why Afghanistan, not really a part of the British Empire, and where India has invested billions to earn goodwill, is included? Why Buddhist majority Sri Lanka, the Maldives with near-total Muslim population, Hindu majority Nepal are excluded remains unexplained. Why a number of communities with microscopic or zero populations in those countries like Jains and Zoroastrians, are included? It is obvious, by process of elimination, why Muslims are not.

Asking people of other countries to become Indian citizens casts aspersions and is an affront to their sovereignty. Two questions arise. One, have those people sought Indian citizenship and two, what has been done about those who have sought and are already in India?           

The Modi Government with over four years left to renew its current popular mandate is firmly in saddle. But the restiveness at home has certainly hit its popularity abroad. What message an expelled foreign student on university exchange scholarship and a Norwegian woman tourist asked to leave for participating in protests carry back? 

Leaving out political shenanigans, the issues coming to fore are how the world looks at India. Since its Independence, it has been comfortable with an India that, despite all its flaws, is pluralist, tolerant of its great diversities and essentially democratic and federal, where rule of law by and large has prevailed. Indeed, progress following economic reforms of the 1990s, democratic values, culture and the positive role of the diaspora have defined India’s image so far.

Pakistan figuring in India’s political discourse has had many debilitating effects. It has revived the “two-nation” theory – treating Hindus and Muslims as separate ‘nations’ that India had rejected right from the beginning. But this has been Home Minister Amit Shah’s principal justification for enacting the twin laws.

The Hindutva fervour has made India seem a mirror image of Pakistan. Ordinary Indians seem like Pakistan-haters and by implication, wary, suspicious and even hostile to fellow-Muslims. Despite recurring sectarian violence that is mostly politically inspired, this has not been India’s record.   

The tragedy is that Modi Government’s own development agenda has been overtaken by the political one. This is compounded by an economic slowdown, a halved GDP, dip in rural spending, increasing evidence of joblessness and farm distress. Most of the political agenda that it is in haste to implement is strongly divisive and two together have contributed to its current image abroad.

Many Indians reject this as foreign ‘interference’ in internal matters. But being democratic, India is not water-tight. There is no absolute freedom, be it political or economic on how religious, ethnic and other minorities are treated in a country. Support to this thinking comes from some European scholars who are mesmerized by Hinduism but are unable to distinguish it from the political agenda currently sought to be thrust. Sadly, many Indians have also fallen victims f this.       

Some of the Modi Government’s own achievements during its first term (2014-2019) are being undone on the diplomatic. Modi’s close rapport with Trump, including “Howdy Modi” has not prevented Congressional censures, the US from trying to block crucial defence purchases, restricting visa facilities, pressurising on “buy more” of American goods and getting India into the US-China trade crosshair. Rapport with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have fetched investment pledges. But that has not stopped the two royalties from holding a Kashmir conference to boost Pakistan’s standpoint. The personal rapport that Modi has painstakingly struck with many a world leader has its limits.

Ditto, the diaspora. They respond to the Indian situation because the governments in the countries they live treat them accordingly. The admiring crowds that thronged Madison Square Garden and Wembley are silent. After Shinzo Age postponed his India visit, a small group was shown supporting the controversial laws in Tokyo. You wonder for whose benefit these expensive shows of solidarity are staged. Politicizing diaspora, even assuming many are Modi admirers, has its limits too.

Granted that we are living in a world — societies down to individuals and families — that is getting divided, if the birthplace of Yoga does not have peace for its own citizens, its plans to become “vishwaguru” (teacher to the world) carry little relevance.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

How Nirbhaya Convicts Will Be Hanged In Tihar Jail

Four rapists, who were on Tuesday issued a black warrant by a Delhi court for brutally raping and murdering a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, are expected to be hanged according to directives prescribed under the Delhi Prison Rules, 2018.

Since the death sentence was awarded to the convicts named Pawan, Akshay, Vinay and Mukesh years ago, the issuance of black warrant or death warrant by the court merely confirmed the date and time of their hanging.

More than seven years after the horrendous act was committed, the rapists are now scheduled to be executed on January 22 at 7 am in New Delhi’s Tihar jail. What procedure will the prison authorities follow to hang the rapists?

Firstly, they will be kept in isolation cells until the date of their execution. According to the manual, if desired by the prisoner, jail authorities have to inform their relatives and facilitate their last meeting.

The convict facing the gallows is also allowed to prepare his will.

Days before the execution is slated to be carried out, the Superintendent of the prison will inspect the gallows and the rope which is to be put around their neck for execution.

The official is also entrusted to see if the rope, made of either cotton yarn or manila, is carefully tested.

“As a rule, a dummy or a bag of sand weighing 1 and 1/2 times the weight of the prisoner to be hanged and dropped between 1.83 and 2.44 meters will afford a safe test of the rope,” the rules states.

The rules also go into great detail about the weight of the prisoner and the corresponding height from which he should be hanged.

For example, if a prisoner weighs less than 45.360 kilograms, he should be given a drop of 2.44 meters so that the rope does not break during the execution. “If he weighs more than 90.720 kilograms, a drop should be of 1.830 meters.”

The extreme limits of 1.83 meters and 2.44 meters are adhered to as per the physical peculiarity of the prisoner. Wax or butter is also applied to soften the ropes.

The rope for the execution of Parliament attack case convict Afzal Guru in February 2013 was brought from Bihar’s Buxar jail.

The prison rules also categorically mention that the execution should take place early in the morning before it gets bright.

The prison rules state that Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, medical officer-in-charge and a resident medical officer should be present at all executions. If so desired by the person to be hanged, a priest of his faith is allowed to be present at the place of hanging.

No other person, especially relatives of the prisoner, should be allowed to witness the execution. The jail authorities may, however, permit social scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, etc. to conduct the research there.

On the morning of the execution, the Superintendent has to make sure if any communication is awaiting him regarding the execution. He should then visit the prisoner in his cell and get any document requiring his attestation, such as a will, signed by him.

Next, the hands of the prisoner are pinioned behind the backs after which he is escorted to the scaffold guarded by the head warder and six warders, two walking in front, two behind and two holding arms.

On arrival of the prisoner near the scaffold, the Superintendent confirms his identity to the Magistrate. He then reads the warrant to the prisoner in a language he understands.

A cotton cap, with a flap, is then put on the face just before he is taken to the gallows-enclosures.

The prisoner should not be allowed to see the gallows. According to the manual, after entering the gallows, “the prisoner shall mount the scaffold and be placed directly under the beam to which the rope is attached, the warder still holding him by the arms”.

The executioner then straps the prisoner’s legs tightly together and adjusts the noose around his neck. The Hangman is paid by the government of Delhi for the execution of each prisoner. The person to execute the four convicts in the Nirbhaya rape case is being brought from Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district.

Subsequently, the Superintendent should make sure that the rope around the neck of the prisoner is adjusted properly and the knot is placed in a proper position.

“The warders holding the prisoner’s arms shall now withdraw and at a signal from the Superintendent, the executioner shall draw the bolt”

The operations should be done simultaneously and as quick as possible. “On completion of all these operations, the Superintendent shall give a signal, on which the executioner in-charge shall push the lever to release the trap-door,” the manual stated.

When the trap-door is opened, the prisoner falls through and dies. After the execution, the body remains suspended for half an hour before being taken down or until the Resident Medical Officer has certified that “the life is extinct”.

The Supreme Court in Shatrughan Chauhan judgment in January 2014 made it mandatory to conduct a post-mortem after the hanging.

It is then disposed of according to the requirement of the religion the deceased belong to.

The body can also be handed over to the relatives if they give an undertaking that they will not make a public demonstration of the cremation of the executed prisoner.

“The body of the executed prisoner shall be taken out of the prisoner with solemnity. A municipal hearse or ambulance shall be used for the transportation of the body to the cremation or burial ground,” the rules state.

New CDS Has A Dual-Hatted Role & Multiple Challenges

Amidst so much ongoing controversy and toxic debate in India, one decision of the Narendra Modi Government to receive universal welcome is that of the appointment of the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) at the top of three pyramids of the armed forces.  

Appointed to the post is General Bipin Rawat, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, YSM, SM, VSM, ADC. Age 61 and commissioned in 1978, his three-year tenure as the 27th Chief of Army Staff concluded over the year-end.   

His appointment fits into the current dispensation’s muscular approach to security-related issues. Some of it has stridently entered the political arena and public discourse (read Pakistan), dividing people, but also capturing popular imagination.

But that does not diminish the CDS’ importance as a reform in management of military affairs at the top and for the vital military-civil synergy.

India was the only large democracy without a single-point military advisor with all P5 countries having one, till Modi announced the intent during his Independence Day speech in August 2019. His government stands out, like the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government did, for taking long-pending security related decisions on which the past Congress-led governments were extremely cautious. After years of debating, the Vajpayee regime had appointed a National Security Advisor. Today the NSA has Cabinet rank in the government.

The status of the CDS, of course, will be below that. He will be heading a new Department of Military Affairs within the Ministry of Defence. As the name indicates, it is envisaged as the principal focal point for military affairs within the civilian set-up.

This has been long awaited by the military, albeit with silent reservations in its top echelons, depending upon individual and institutional preferences. But this military super-boss should certainly cause deep consternation among the civil servants.

On Independence, India inherited British-trained military forces whose top officials took orders from civilians who in turn enforced what London desired. The new leadership, concerned about the role the military was playing post the World War II, particularly in Asia and in its immediate neighbourhood, consciously enforced civilian supremacy. As a result, India became a democracy, howsoever chaotic, while the military seized power for long years in the next decade or so, in Pakistan, Myanmar, Indonesia and elsewhere. 

Also Read: We Stay Away From Politics: CDS Rawat

This political supremacy and civilian control over the military in India has, in effect, meant overriding powers for the bureaucrats who have kept the military way down in parity. The CDS’ appointment tweaks this arrangement a bit, gently introducing into the room a man in uniform. At the same time, the CDS has been assigned no command function, which means the three Services Chiefs are free to run the day-to-day affairs.

By assigning the CDS a key role in planning, procurement, tri-service institutions, defence diplomacy and quality assurance, the government could simultaneously unleash a host of critical reforms that have been unheard of until now.

Past records show that the idea of creation of such a post goes back seven decades to Lord Mountbatten, India’s last British Viceroy. As Army Chief, General KV Krishna Rao had advanced creation of the post of CDS in 1982.

It was formally envisaged after the Kargil war in 1999, but was put on the back-burner, despite authorities recommending the need for creating a post for a single command centre in matters of warfare and nuclear weaponry.

The Kargil Review Committee, Report of Task Force on National Security (Naresh Chandra Committee), and the Committee of Experts on Enhancing Capability and Rebalance Defence Expenditure (General Shekatkar Committee) had chalked out a strategy for higher defence management.

In 2017, intelligence and security officials and analysts had said that the absence of a CDS was hampering India’s combat capabilities. With an ongoing proxy war with Pakistan and a stand-off with China on Doklam plateau, many security officials said a single chain of command was imperative to strengthen India’s collective defence might.

About the CDS’ positioning, veteran security analyst Commodore (rtd.) Ranjit observes: “History needs to be heeded as access to the Prime Minister in India as head of the Cabinet matters as India runs on Cabinet Control. President is Commander-in-Chief only formally. The PM retains the real power.” Hence, personality of the Chief matters.”

He recalls: “In 1971 General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw set a bench mark as the Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) to act like a CDS with direct access to the Defence Minister and Prime Minister. This instilled confidence and ensured effective preparations for the impending war that followed in 1971. It took months to get the machinery going for that victory, something we ought not to forget.”

But Manekshaw did not make it to the CDS post. He “almost became CDS but then IAF Chief ACM Pratap Lal had objected (as per Lal’s autobiography).”

Rai offers another recall: “When the Navy Chief, Admiral S M Nanda was told by the Defence Secretary on phone that Manekshaw was going to be the CDS, he remarked, ‘make any one anything as long as you do not remove a star from me’, or words to that effect.” Years later, Admiral Sushil Kumar could not become the CDS due to the Air Chief’s objection.

Indeed, several Chiefs of one Service or the other have objected to having a super-boss. If the Army is oldest and many times larger than the Navy and the Air Force, goes the argument, the latter two are more technical in tune with modern times and in no way less in strategic terms. 

The Modi Government has ignored/over-ridden such a possibility. But issues could arise in the future. To avoid such situations, Rai strongly recommends, “the CDS will have to bring in Jointness and many challenges will then ease in his big task of tri-Service training and procurement and operations.”

As an aspiring regional power jointmanship is the way forward for India, like the United States, China, the UK and Australia. It may not be easy since the Services Chiefs have had no experience of working under a single, unified command. On the other hand, given the way the system works in India, there is fear that this may end up as another layer, like an onion peel in the multilayered and often opaque decision-making apparatus.

While the Department and the Defence Ministry shall remain intact in its original form, the CDS will be the single-point advisor to the Defence Minister. But that the three Service Chiefs will continue to remain advisors to the Defence Minister about their own Services seems contradictory.

As Lt. Gen. (rtd.) Prakash Menon puts it, in essence, the CDS “is dual-hatted and will have to adjudge contentious issues initially at the inter-service level as Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC-COSC), and thereafter as CDS at the departmental level.”

This “dual-hatting” is better explained by the need for the CDS to act as a bridge between the political leadership and the military instrument, which has to encompass the shaping of the military through long term plans that are guided politically.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Citizenship Law And Justice For All!

The blood in Uttar Pradesh has still not dried. At least 22 people have died in various towns of this state, even as clashes continue. The police in a bizarre argument has said that the people killed, died because of the crossfire within protesters. Only the UP Police can give such an argument even while media reports say they allegedly went inside homes of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar at midnight, beat up residents, including women and children, broke whatever they saw including refrigerators, TVs and washing machines, and stole money. Despite the police denial, there is visual evidence to prove how law enforcement agents became lawless goons loaded with a communal bias. After all, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had called for ‘revenge’. That the Prime Minister, the Home Minister are backing Yogi is also without doubt.

Will the people of Uttar Pradesh get justice?

In 1984, media reporters, including this writer, were on the spot in the State-sponsored killings of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere, master-minded by Congress goons and politicians, especially in Delhi. The mediapersons covered on foot bloody lanes and bylanes in east and west Delhi, witnessed the burnt out homes with the smell of kerosene.  

Also Read: Deconstructing India’s New Citizenship Law

When a big tree falls, the earth will shake, said Rajiv Gandhi, then. The Congress ran a diabolical and sinister anti-Sikh campaign after Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her own bodyguards. The Congress won by a huge margin in the next national polls. The BJP got two seats in the Lok Sabha. It took more than three decades to put Sajjan Kumar in jail. After god knows how many commissions of enquiry.

How did the Sikhs feel then? Did they get justice? No.

Ask the Muslims of Hashimpura, Maliana and Meerut in Uttar Pradesh about 1987 violence. Taken out with their hands up in the lanes of their colonies, with guns pointing at them, scores were shot in cold blood by a communal Provincial Armed Constabulary in mafia/Nazi execution style, their bodies dumped in the Hindon river. It was a Congress regime at the Centre and the state.

Did they, their relatives, the survivors, the community, get justice? No.

Not till date, after 33 years. And what was the message to the Muslims by a so-called secular regime? Trust, you know, you were, you are, you will be, always, second class citizens of independent, modern India, though you willfully chose a secular democratic State, not a theocratic State.

Did the secular Indian society get justice in the protracted Babri Masjid demolition issue which was trapped in the labyrinths of the judicial process for decades? Who led the demolition as a public spectacle under a BJP regime in Lucknow, who were the leaders who were openly celebrating the demolition in Ayodhya, while Indian and foreign journalists were getting bashed up by the Bajrang Dal activists? Who led the Somnath-to-Ayodhya regime with the slogan: Mandir wahin Banayenge?

Was anyone held responsible for the riots that followed and killed scores across the damned Indian landscape?

Did anyone get punished for the killings of Muslims in Bombay in the macabre winter of 1992-93, despite the meticulously documented Sri Krishna Commission Report? Did the Congress, NCP, BJP, Shiv Sena regime implement the report?

I will skip the details about the 2002 barbaric, State-sponsored genocide in Gujarat under the helm of Narendra Modi. Mediapersons reported the genocide in great details and even after 2002 kept digging and documenting. We waited for justice after the macabre gang-rapes and killings, the people burnt alive as a public spectacle, and the fake encounters that followed. Not one, a series of fake encounters. Mission Assassination Modi – they were called.

Did the mass murderers get punished? Did the fake encounter specialists get punished? Did the Muslims of Gujarat get justice? No.

Till date, almost four months after 8 million people in Kashmir, under military occupation, await justice from the highest court. In Assam, almost 19 lakh Indians, mostly Hindus, tribals, Gorkhas and indigenous communities, apart from Muslims, have been left out of the National Register of Citizens and condemned allegedly as foreigners or ‘doubtful voters’ – will they get justice? Undoubtedly, no.

It is a good thing too. The loss of faith should energise the political struggle. Because, it is the non-violent political struggle which will liberate us from our masters’ masculine arrogance and disregard for all institutions, including the Indian Constitution. Can we have faith in the courts in contemporary times? That is the widespread question right now across the spectrum which had always believed in the judicial process, especially the Supreme Court.

However, the peaceful political resistance and mass movement must do what it must, as a political struggle, and not seek judicial intervention which might effectively kill the movement. And it is a struggle which is secular. Everywhere, in Assam and the Northeast, as much as all over India now, from Kurnool in Andhra to Nuh in Mewat, from Mumbai to Kolkata. It has spread and taught the masculine arrogance of the current regime a good lesson.

But there is a remote possibility of justice, especially when it is political struggle for justice. But who will turn the tide? A mass movement, in synthesis with theory and praxis, led by the young. A peaceful, non-violent, united mass movement – as it is now happening across the Indian landscape, as a rainbow revolution. Yes, led by the young.

There is no defeat in a movement. All movements are victorious, for they create a spiral of new movements and ideas and adventures and literature and cinema, counter-culture and knowledge systems. They create new scaffoldings of resistance and barricades.

That is why an idea cannot be killed. That is why Bhagat Singh and his comrades, as much as Babasaheb Ambedkar, or even Lenin and Che and Fidel, can never die. Nor will Gramsci. Nor will the Mahatma.

There is hope in a non-violent, Gandhian, mass upsurge. ‘Don’t be silent, Don’t be violent’ – as the current slogan says, among an extraordinary repertoire of brilliant slogans. Like a hundred flowers blooming, and one hundred new sublime schools of thought.

Bangladesh – A Long And Firm March Towards Prosperity

Preparing to hug the half-century milestone, Bangladesh this month celebrated with aplomb its 49th Bijoy Divas or the Victory Day. On that day in 1971, over 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered to the Joint Command of India and Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini forces, permanently altering the world map.

That slice of history may mean many things to many people today. But to succeeding generations of those who went through political turmoil followed by ten months of organised violence, and ending in a decisive military victory, remains and shall remain forever an extraordinary moment.

The parade marking the occasion showed a confident Bangladesh. Military hardware was proudly displayed on the ground and in the sky. That combined with floats and tableaux of projects, programmes and achievements made for an impressive show.

Indian veterans led by Lt. Gen. (rtd.) R S Kadian marched and so did a contingent and band of the National Cadet Corps (NCC). It struck Muhammad Iqbal’s musical note, “Saare Jahan Se Achha,” that harks back to an undivided South Asia.

Bangladesh has assigned itself a two-year tryst by which time it will complete 50 years of independence. It wants the world to notice its rise from being dubbed the “international basket case” in initial years to become, at annual 8.5 percent gross domestic product (GDP) rise, one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Putting its cheap work force to good use and with many plus points that have eluded most others among the least-developed countries (LDCs), Bangladesh has all the makings of a developing nation. Out of the food scarcity rut, it is diversifying farm and industrial output and even exporting surplus.

It aims to leap into the cyber-digital era with come-hither calls to anyone who cares to respond.  With its good debt servicing record, Bangladesh is an attractive investor’s destination. Both regional giants, China and India, are wooing and being wooed.

At independence, over 90 percent of its annual budget was foreign-financed. Two decades later, it was 70 percent and was 50 percent a decade back when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned to power.

The figure has now reversed. Ninety-two percent of the budget is being funded internally. Booming garment exports, some to marquee global brands and remittances from its 10 million working abroad contribute generously.

Bangladesh has long seen itself as a bridge between South and south-east Asia. With Cox’s Bazaar beach and Royal Bengal Tigers in the Sundarban, its tourism pitch is rising. People are warm and hospitable. But much needs done to improve infrastructure.

Many of Bangladesh’s human development indicators are better than others in the region. The economy is already the best-performing in South Asia, outdoing in proportional terms larger neighbour India and certainly, Pakistan, from which it violently separated.

Due to this past, Pakistan’s image remains negative in official and much of the popular discourse. India figures high despite the current concerns over two Indian laws with bearing on its east and northeast that encase Bangladesh. If persisted, they could have political fallout.

Sheikh Hasina cherishes India ties and has diligently worked to nurture them. For one, she has ended Indian militants’ run. She appreciates India’s contribution to Liberation and thereafter. She is trying hard to keep the current political and diplomatic discourse triggered by Indian laws, to the bare-minimum, so far. This reflects self-confidence and maturing of a nation of 165 million people.

There are other signs of a young nation with young people having the highest proportion in South Asia of women in every field. Farms and garment factories are ample proof of that. Exuberant crew members want to get photographed with passengers as part of the PR effort as more and more privately run airlines fly passengers in and out.

On political front, Hasina remains firm on punishing killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s foremost leader and her father in a 1975 military-led coup, and most of her family. The West is critical of the process employed and the Islamic world is unhappy. But both can’t ignore Bangladesh.   

Ethos of the Bengali language stir of the 1950s and the freedom movement remains strong in the face of religious extremists. When these forces inflicted violence in 2013, Muslims and Hindus together fought back at Dhaka’s Shahbag Avenue. This conflict remains a constant challenge.

Bangladesh is, uniquely both. An Islamic nation that, thanks to its culture, is also broadly secular. (Secularism as basic principle remains part of its Constitution). The society as a whole remains conservative, respectful of elders and displays overt religiosity.

This complex amalgamation ensures co-existence and diversity. With that comes a high measure of political stability, due principally to Hasina’s continuance in office for a third consecutive term. She looms large over the country’s horizon. Forbes’ ranks her 29th among the world’s most powerful woman.

As investors get attracted, she has forced Western governments to ignore her hard line on political opponents, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami. Her arch rival and two-term former premier, Begun Khaleda Zia, is ailing, ageing and denied bail, currently imprisoned for graft.

There are negative indicators, too, when it comes to transparency, sanitation, ease of doing business and media freedom that, as in the rest of South Asia, should hopefully improve with longer spells of political stability.

Contradictions seemingly persist and are growing with changes in other spheres. The pristine riverine scape of the boatman and his folk songs as one read in Tagore and Nazrul literature is slowly yielding place to increasing urbanization.

A provincial capital at Independence, Dhaka has become unbearably chaotic with 24×7 traffic snarls around high-rise buildings. As bridges and fly-overs struggle to make movement faster, a rapid mass transport system now under construction shall continue to add to the chaos, till it is completed.

These are but brief, broad-brush impressions, of one who has witnessed Bangladesh for over 45 years. Handicapped by inadequate knowledge, of language in particular, they are compensated, hopefully, by best wishes for bright future for its people.

The writer recently visited Bangladesh at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com