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Shoma Choudhury talks to the CIA & Taliban, more or less

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- two talks from India's THiNK2013 conference, one about the Taliban and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the other a tale of India / Pakistan Partition ]
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Here, Indian journalist Shoma Choudhury interviews Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one time Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and author of the book, My Life with the Taliban, and Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and later Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, during the THiNK2013 conference held at the Grand Hyatt in Goa, in a session titled An Afghan Date: The CIA Talks To The Taliban on November 9th, 2013:

I haven’t found a reference to this event in the New York Times or Washington Post, and the video of the event has been viewed less than 1,250 times — so I hope that if any Zenpundit readers have in fact already viewed it, they will forgive me for posting it here. It seems to me to be a remarkable conversation, not least because of Choudhury’s skillful moderation.

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I only know about this conversation because blog-friend Omar Ali pointed me to the video of a reading of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s account of Partition in his satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh at the same conference. The reader is the actor Naseeruddin Shah whom I admire enormously for his stunning performance as “the common man” in Neeraj Pandey‘s A Wednesday — the story is told as written in Manto’s Urdu, with a principal character who “mutters or shouts a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English” — and most of an English language translation is provided for those like myself who need it, by means of projected background slides.

But that voice, Naseeruddin Shah’s voice!

You can read Toba Tek Singh in Frances Pritchett‘s translation here.

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If these two presentations are anything to go by, the THiNK conference series may be what TED talks could and should have been…

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Raza Rumi: lines drawn & boundaries transcended

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an assassination attempt, a book review -- and a counterpoint of musicians ]
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I have mentioned Raza Rumi only once before on Zenpundit, in Darfur question… and wider Sufi ripples two years ago. This week, however, there was an attempt on his life, and on the 29th, Rumi posted about it on his Jahane Rumi blog:

Finally, I countenanced what I had been dreading for quite some time. Journalists and media houses being under threat is a well-known story in conflict-ridden Pakistan. I had also heard about my name being on a few hit-lists but I thought these were tactics to scare dissenters and independent voices. But this was obviously an incorrect assessment of the situation.

On Friday night, when I had planned to visit Data Darbar after my television show, my car was attacked by “unknown” (a euphemism for lethal terror outfits) assailants. The minute I heard the first bullet, the Darwinian instinct made me duck under and I chose to lie on the back of the car.

This near death experience with bullets flying over me and shattered window glass falling over me reminded me of the way my own country was turning into a laboratory of violence. Worse, that when I saved myself, it was not without a price. A young man, who had been working as my driver for sometime, was almost dead. I stood on a busy road asking for help and not a single car stopped…

As I tweeted when I heard about the attempt, I was distressed to hear of the attack, and wish him well — and Pakistan, too.

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I’ve been a quiet admirer and occasional reader of Rumi’s blog for quite a while now, and am looking forward to reading his book, Delhi By Heart.

The first and final paragraphs from Venki Vembu‘s review of the book confirm me in my wish to do so. They also — and here’s what this post is really all about — show us both the deeply etched lines of division –

In his novel The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh writes of the imagined cartographic lines that divide people in the Indian subcontinent and cleave their souls. Many of these “shadow lines” are etched in bitter, hand-me-down memories and imaginations, and for that reason are rather more indelible than lines on a map, which can perhaps be redrawn over time.

— and the possibility that such lines and boundaries can be overcome, erased, transcended —

Rumi offers this fascinating narrative as a “faint voice that wants to transcend boundaries and borders and reject the ills of jingoism spun by nation-state narratives.” In form and spirit, this unusual travelogue is like a jugal bandhi: songs of bhakti tradition fuse seamlessly with qawwali strains from the Nizamuddin dargah. It is an enchanting illustration of how the divisive shadow lines of history can be erased when hearts and minds are opened to new experiences.

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Finally, for your listening pleasure: an intricate jugalbandhi or musical dialogue between Zakir Hussain on tabla and Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri flute…

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Update on the Ghazwa-e-Hind

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- okay, now Jane's has some detailing on the Ghazwa ]
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When I was eight or nine years old and a schoolboy whose father was a captain in the Royal Navy, a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships was the most desirable — and unattainable — object in the physical world.

Sixty years on, I’m looking at a 6pp. abridged version of an article in Jane’s Intelligence Review Idownloaded the other day. It is titled Recruitment drive – Islamist groups urge India’s Muslims to join jihad — and I find it’s talking about a topic I feel is easily overlooked — or laughed away — the Ghazwa-e-Hind.

Zen and myself have written about the Ghazwa:

  • One hadith, one plan, one video, and two warnings
  • So many browser tabs, so little time
  • Pakistan’s Strategic Mummery
  • Khorasan to al-Quds and the Ghazwa-e-Hind
  • Early notes on the first issue of the jihadist magazine, Azan
  • Ahrar-ul-Hind, Ghazwa-e-Hind?
  • The topic is compelling, but what Zen calls the “mummery” of its televangelical proponent Zaid Hamid — blog-friend Omar Ali simply calls it “nonsensical” — tends to obscure the potential seriousness of the idea — backed as it is with variants on the “black banners from Khorasan” hadith favored by AQ recruiters in Afghanistan and invoked as far afield as Somalia…

    So when a Jane’s analyst sees fit to mention it, I perk up.

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    Here are the passages from the Jane’s report that mention the Ghazwa:

    The group’s two addresses and Umar’s video have the same Islamic references, citing verses from the Quran and jihadist mythology depicting the “black flag of the Khurasan [a historic reference to parts of Afghanistan and areas of Central Asia]” piercing the heart of India, seemingly indicating that this new anti-India jihadist wave is originating from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The mythology cites an army from Khurasan waging the Ghazwat-ul-Hind (meaning the ‘Battle of India’ in Arabic) – also cited as Ghazwa-e-Hind in Urdu – for the re-establishment of the khilafa (the Islamic caliphate).

    and:

    Jihadist discourse regarding India frequently cites a hadith (a report of the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), stating, “Allah has saved two groups of the Ummah from hellfire; the group that will invade Al-Hind [India] and the group that will be with Isa Ibn-e-Maryam [Jesus] in Damascus.” This seems to be one of the key doctrinal factors behind the renewed jihadist surge against India.

    Proponents of a unified global ummah have long perceived that India, as a geographical and demographical entity, should be part of the khilafa, and Al-Qaeda and other affiliated jihadist organisations fully endorse this view and the Ghazwat ul-Hind concept. The concept is surprisingly unifying when considered across the relevant spectrum of Islamist militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, from transnational jihadists such as Al-Qaeda to nationalist Islamist actors such as the Taliban, Pakistani sectarian groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and Kashmir-centric jihadists such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

    In a March 2010 edition of JeM’s Urdu-language weekly publication Al-Qalam , Pakistani cleric Mufti Asghar Khan Kashmiri claimed that the ongoing Ghazwat ul-Hind (referring to the Kashmiri insurgency) was a continuation of a series of battles begun by the Prophet Muhammad. Senior Harakat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami (HUJI) commander Ilyas Kashmiri vowed in October 2009 to wage Ghazwat ul-Hind against India, before his reported death in an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missile strike in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in June 2011. Similarly, in a February 2011 speech, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) leader Hafiz Muhammad Saeed threatened, “If freedom is not given to the Kashmiris, then we will occupy the whole of India, including Kashmir. We will launch Ghazwa-e-Hind.” The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has also released a number of statements threatening India. In January 2013, then TTP commander Wali-ur-Rehman Mehsud warned that once the group had established an Islamic state under sharia in Pakistan, its focus would turn to India and the establishment of an Islamic state there. One month later, TTP commander Asmatullah Muawiya threatened that Kashmir would become the next battlefield for militants following the scheduled withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

    What Jane’s doesn’t appear to mention that I find significant, is that the Ghazwa-e-Hind spoken of in the ahadith is essentially an “end times” event, taking place simultaneously with the Mahdist army marching from Khorasan to al-Quds…

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    Oh, and believe me, I have made sure a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War II (cheaper than the $1,000 current issue) has made its way into the hands of my younger son…

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    About the Common Man

    Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- a little Bollywood, a little Hollywood, a little classical, a little rock and roll -- and what all that might have to do with Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal ]
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    >> You must be thinking, this not a terrorist but just a common man. I will easily catch him. <<

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    The phrase “the common man” is a common enough phrase anywhere English is spoken. US Vice President Henry A Wallace used it 16 times in a wartime speech here in the US in 1942:

    I say that the century on which we are entering — the century which will come out of this war — can be and must be the century of the common man.

    His words, in turn, inspired Aaron Copland to write his Fanfare for the Common Man:

    And from there, Emerson, Lake and Palmer took up the baton…

    But all that is hometown news, and it’s an away match I want to draw your attention to again today — specifically the upcoming Indian elections.

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    It is instructive that Narendra Modi, PM candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), portrays himself as a “common man” on the header of his official Twitter feed:

    — especially since his intriguing rival, Arvind Kejriwal, is head of the Aam Aadmi (literally: Common Man) Party (AAP) — and is also widelt represented as “a common man in politics”:

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    The phrase “the common man” is a common enough phrase, to be sure. But there’s one more thing you might want to know… It is a phrase which may carry even more freight in India.

    It is the way the common man / terrorist describes himself in the extraordinary 2008 film, A Wednesday — currently streaming on Netflix — in which police commissioner Prakash Rathod (Anupam Kher) recalls his encounter with the “common man” (Naseeruddin Shah). Here’s the way the common man explains himself:

    I am someone who is afraid to get into a bus or a train these days. I am someone whose wife thinks is going to war … while I am actually going to my work. She is afraid that I may not return. She calls up every two hours. To find if I had my tea. To find if I have lunched. Actually she wants to find out whether I am still alive. I am someone who sometimes gets stuck in the rain or in the blasts.

    I am someone who suspects the person carrying a rosary. I am also the one who is afraid to grow his beard and wear a cap. If I buy a shop I am afraid to choose a name as someone might see the name and burn it during the riots. No matter which two parties are fighting, I am the first one to get killed.

    You must have seen a crowd. Choose a person from it. I am that person. I am just the stupid common man…

    By my count, the phrase “common man” occurs 14 times in the subtitles, and sometimes but not always in English on the soundtrack — and “the common man” is the name goiven to Naseeruddin Shah’s character in the final credits.

    And finally, a remake of the movie with Ben Kingsley playing Naseeruddin Shah’s role — set in Colombo, Sri Lanka rather than Mumbai, India — has recently been released, under the title A Common Man. Not that anyone in India seems to like it better than Neeraj Pandey‘s brilliant original…

    Correlation — or causation?

    It would be hard to say whether Henry Wallace’s speech, or Aaron Copland’s Fanfare, or Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s rock-out, or Neeraj Pandey‘s movie, or Chandran Rutnam’s knock-off for that matter, were in the minds of Modi and Kejriwal’s “minders” when they picked their slogans…

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    The AAP is the explicitly political offshoot of Anna Hazare‘s highly-regarded but apolitical India Against Corruption movement. Here’s the “clean sweep” AAP’s manifesto:

    For the past two years millions of common Indians came out on streets to fight against the biggest evil in our country today – corruption. This people’s anti-corruption movement has exposed the ugly and greedy face of our politicians. No political party in India today works for the common man’s needs. The Janlokpal Movement was a call to all the politicians of India to listen to the common man’s plea. For almost 2 years we tried every single way available to plead our cause to the government – peaceful protesting, courting arrest, indefinite fasting, several rounds of negotiations with the ruling government – we tried everything possible to convince the government to form a strong anti-corruption law. But despite the huge wave of public support in favour of a strong anti-corruption law, all political parties cheated the people of India and deliberately sabotaged the Janlokpal Bill. The time for peaceful fasts and protests is gone. This is the time for action. Since most political parties are corrupt, greedy and thick skinned, it’s time to bring political power back into the people’s hands. We are not saying that every single politician is corrupt and greedy. There are many good intentioned people in politics today who want to work honestly for the people of India. But the current system of polity does not allow honest politicians to function. We are also not claiming that every single person who joins our party will be hundred percent honest. We are saying that it is the system that has become very corrupt and needs to be changed immediately. Our aim in entering politics is not to come to power; we have entered politics to change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics forever. So that no matter who comes to power in the future, the system is strong enough to withstand corruption at any level of governance.

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    Henry Wallace presumably had the likes of Hitler and Mussolini – but not, apparently, Stalin – in his sights when he said “it is easy for demagogues to arise and prostitute the mind of the common man to their own base ends”.

    Unpopular he undoubtedly was — in one poll to find the “least approved man in America” only Lucky Luciano beat him — but this particular warning continues to be applicable today.

    And okay then, for your listening pleasure, here they are: Emerson, Lake and Palmer…

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    March 17th: Holi Festival “of colors”

    Monday, March 17th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- my favorite Indian festival -- and also Modi, the Indian PM candidate whose visitor's visa for the US was revoked by State a decade ago on the grounds of "violating religious freedom" ]
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    It may be the world’s most playful festival — Holi, the Festival of Colors, is celebrated today, March 17, in India and around the world.

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    The equipment required for play is simple enough: colored powders.

    These powders can be thrown at people dry, watered down and tossed at them in balloons, or sprayed from squirt-guns…

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    In each case, the result it the same — brightly-colored people.

    And why?

    The symbolism of the colors of Holi Festival is that the devotees are “drenched in the colors of devotion” to God, in memory of the brother and sister devotees Holika and Prahlad, who refused to worship their father King Hiranyakashipu as God, although ordered to do so on pain of death.

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    And then there’s Narendra Modi.

    Modi is currently running for Lok Sabha on the BJP ticket from Varanasi — the holiest city in India — and will become PM in the event of a BJP win. The elections, in the world’s largest democracy, are scheduled to run for 36 days starting April 5th.

    Blog-friend Patricia Lee Sharpe offers some background on Whirledview:

    Raze Mosques, Ban Books, Exile Artists

    Although some of Modi’s predecessors have played down the religious angle and stressed free market economics to broaden the party’s appeal, the B.J.P. nevertheless adheres to a militantly nationalist ideology based on a (this part is almost funny) Victorian re-interpretation of Hinduism known as Hindutva, and the party belongs to the same political family (aka parivar) as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S.). As the Hindustan Times says, “Few are convinced that the R.S.S. has no role in B.J.P. politics.”

    In its early days R.S.S. members donned khaki, marched around and provided intimidation services for the Hindu Mahasabha and other Hindu nationalists in the manner of coeval Brown and Black Shirts in pre-World War II Europe. It was banned in 1948, after an over-zealous member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for being too tolerant of Muslims and too reformist visà-vis Hinduism, as in treating “untouchables” like fellow human beings. Reactivated as a “cultural” organization, with a leadership overlapping that of the superficially benign B.J.P., the R.S.S. in 1992 recruited a mob to raze the centuries-old Babri mosque in Ayodya, alleging it had been built over the ruins of a temple to the Hindu man-god Rama. Eventually, the courts intervened, dispatching teams of archaeologists to excavate for evidence of Ram’s temple. In the end, with the mosque destroyed and lacking the least sign of a temple, the judges split the difference: Hindus and Muslims get to use court-allocated portions of the disputed site. Naturally, neither side is happy.

    Moving forward to 2013, Hindutva sympathizers have been responsible for the Indian High Court’s decision to ban a book by an eminent American Sanskrit scholar on the grounds that its erudite version of a polycentric Hinduism shaped by a multitude of Vedic and non-Vedic traditions might hurt the feelings of some Hindus. As a result, naturally, sales of the ebook version have soared, but fears of violence, if not a justification for the decision, were also not totally unfounded. There were angry demonstrations over attempts to sell Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which was banned to spare Muslim sensibilities.

    And here’s a truly sad case of triumphal, puritanical Hindu communalism: death threats forced M.H. Hussein, India’s most acclaimed modern painter—if you want a Hussein, think in terms of seven figures in U.S. dollars at Sotheby’s—to spend his last days in exile. His “crime”? He, a secular, perhaps even heretical Muslim, had dared to paint some Hindu goddesses veiled (at best) diaphanously. Anyone familiar with the buxom, bare-bosomed devis on Indian temples would have to ask: how else would anyone paint a Hindu goddess? But no one has ever accused religious fundamentalists, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, of sophisticated cultural criticism.

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    Modi himself invites you to send e-greetings for Holi Festival on his website:

    The joyful occasion of Holi can also be celebrated by sending an egreeting to your near and dear ones. You may do this by visiting the official website of Shri Narendra Modi and sending a personalized e-greeting, along with an audio message by Shri Narendra Modi.

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