(This is a reprint from NewsBred).
It would be a hectic two days for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (June 13-14). The flight detour through Oman and Iran too wouldn’t have helped. Then there is this little matter of bilateral talks with at least five heads of states: Xi Jinping (China), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Hassan Rouhani (Iran), Ashraf Ghani (Afghanistan) and Sooronbay Jeenbekov (Kyrgyzstan) besides the actual SCO Summit.
Modi’s diplomacy in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) isn’t just about his time. It’s also about the long shadow of United States which would follow his every move and not just with China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran—all in US crosshair for one reason or the other. Modi has the image of a tough leader, engaging the world but never aligned to any particular bloc. Much of it would be tested by Friday.
Modi, of course, can’t overlook the probing audience of a billion and a half people in India and Pakistan. There would be photo-ops with Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan. Every nuance of arched eyebrows, warm or cold smile, firm or limp handshake, would be dissected in reams of papers. A hug though is as good as ruled out.
In many ways SCO would be about optics. Its’ stated goal is to fight against the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. But Pakistan would be spared this embarrassment. Our troublesome neighbour is making its debut in SCO since its formal induction in 2017—as is the case with India. This powerful Group of the East has had always China behind the wheels. Modi can enjoy the ride but can’t change the course. China is friends with Pakistan for nothing.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have chosen to embarrass each other on the eve of the 19th SCO Summit. India first sought a free airspace for Modi’s passage to Bishkek. However once it was granted, wisdom prevailed and Modi opted to decline the offer. Pakistan, or its propped-up separatists in Jammu & Kashmir, then killed 5 CRPF jawans in Anantnag on Wednesday. Be ready for some tough pictures from Bishkek.
It isn’t to say that SCO is without merit for India. US needs India for its Asia strategy and by appearing shoulder-to-shoulder with Putin and Xi, Modi would keep Donald Trump sober when the two meet in a fortnight’s time in Osaka for G20 Summit (June 28-29). Modi’s bilateral with Rouhani in Bishkek would further force Trump’s hands. That the host in Osaka would be Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who is outreaching to Iran later this week, is no little matter.
India also needs to have the right thermostat to keep matters with China from running too hot or too cold. Modi’s recent visit to Maldives must have prodded the wounds of China. Bishkek would be a good place to straighten out the ruffled feathers since the two leaders, Modi and XI, are slated for a summit in October, a la Wuhan style.
There is no gain denying India sees a friend in Russia. It was Russia which facilitated the entry of India into SCO which, to begin with, was primarily a Central Asia lobby that needed an axis after Soviet Union exploded in 1991. Modi and Putin aren’t taking any steps back on S400 missiles or their growing defence cooperation and Bishkek would afford the two leaders a moment to align themselves against the evil eye of US.
SCO is as good a moment as any to keep Afghanistan in India’s good books. The mountainous country could be fuming for having been not invited for Modi’s oath ceremony last month. Kabul is insecure for more than one reason—Taliban, fostered by Pakistan, is gaining international currency; and US is vowing a retreat of its armed forces. India has always been an all-weather friend and Bishkek couldn’t have come at a better time.
India also needs access to information and intelligence from the Tashkent-based RATS (Regional Anti Terror Structure). China’s push for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also can’t be allowed a free goal. India also can’t afford to be hemmed in by Pakistan and China on its two flanks. A global economy can’t be known as only a South Asian behemoth. India needs physical access over and above its northern borders into Eurasia and SCO affords an excellent opportunity. A rising India is critical to all big powers and it must keep all its suitors on tenterhooks. A stronger and more empowered Modi by his people would only help.
Sri Lanka, shook to the bone because of terror attacks of Easter Sunday, has asked its people to be without veils. It has upset Indian Express greatly. For two successive days now, it has front page and edits on how it has upset the local Muslim community and that it goes against the fundamental rights. “Why are women being asked to shoulder the burden (of terror attacks)?” the newspaper asks indignantly in its editorial today.
So being freed of veil is a burden for Muslim women. Look at umpteen photos of the 1970s in Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus, Kabul or Cairo (like in the image above and below) and you would see Muslim women in shorts and skirts. Barely anybody had her face covered on those streets. They did their hair, wore skirts above the knees, and often outdid their western sisters. They must be being envied by their daughters today for they had so much freedom.
So what changed? Pretty little. There are still 14 countries which have banned hijab or naqab. It’s not a law for women to veil themselves in Afghanistan. Turkey doesn’t allow it, nor does Syria or Tunisia. Lebanon doesn’t enforce it; Tajikstan is against it. Cameroon, Chad and Gabon etc ban it.
The focus of this article is not who does and who doesn’t wear veils. The idea is to pin down the narrative and zero on who could be behind these damage-control operations. Why as soon as Muslim jihadists cause violence our newspapers start portraying Muslim community as victims? Why headlines such as “son of a school teacher” start making rounds? (Remember the Pulwama attack: as soon as it happened Lutyens Media started spreading fake stories about Kashmiris in other parts of India being made to flee).
So in Sri Lanka, as soon as the terror strikes happened, our newspapers reported how it was Muslims only who pointed out the terror hideouts to police. How they were helping out the state apparatus. Now for two days the narrative is fixated on Muslim veils as if it is a religious assault. (It’s another matter our newspapers, fed by Communist and Saudi patronage, would never call out China for its ban on Muslim veils).
You wouldn’t be told that it’s a temporary measure in Sri Lanka. That the island nation is under Emergency which automatically means restricted freedom. There won’t be insightful discussions on what drives the ideology of Islamic State (IS) and thousands of rapes they justify in the name of their doctrine. Where are feminist icons? The flagbearers of freedom of choice and expression? Who ask women to fight for freedom and equality even as they tell Muslim women its’ okay to cover their shameful bodies?
You won’t be told of surveys which reveal 99 per cent of Egyptian women report being sexually harassed; that up to 80 sexual assaults occur in a single day. That in Iraq not too long ago there was a proposal to lower to nine the legal age of marriage for girls. That UNICEF estimates more than 125 million crimes of female genital mutilation have been reported from Africa and Arab nations. That immigrant communities to Europe and North America carry such practices with them.
The fact is nowhere in Quran women are asked to cover their bodies completely. While the Quran calls for modest clothing and for women to cover their hair, the holy book doesn’t ask for women to cover their faces.
However, cooked narratives serve up a totally different course on the table. We all have heard that devout Muslims go to paradise but what happens to women? Is there a mention that they too go to paradise?
To go back to my original question why our newspapers compete to replace “Violent Muslim” with “Victim Muslim” narrative? It’s not a one-off thing—there is a pattern. It’s an agenda. Who enforces this agenda? Such agenda could only run on the fuel of funds. Who supplies funds? Who gains by white-washing Islamists/Jihadists crimes? The logical corollary is the Wahabbi doctrinaires. Do they have Left as its accomplice? Or why our Leftists newspapers would peddle in such an agenda?
The smugness on Navjot Singh Sidhu’s face as if Messiah of peace between India and Pakistan, as he made way for Kartarpur across Wagah border, really got my goat up. Surely he knows Imran Khan is just a dummy; that terrorism both for Khalistan and Kashmir (or for Kabul) is our neighbour’s export, that for Vajpayee’s bus initiative we got Kargil. All this is not for India. This is to nurture his own constituency with an eye to be Punjab’s next chief minister. It would all suit Pakistan and Khalistan donors but not India.
But then why blame Sidhu? I read today Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying that Mamata, Akhilesh, Mayawati and Left are ok but not Congress. Mamata, for whom Durga Puja is not a priority and who equates BJP with Taliban; Akhilesh who sees BJP as the biggest danger to democracy; Mayawati who terms Modi as anti-poor; Left’s Sitaram Yechury who calls Modi as the looter of India, are all okay now. All this might win Modi elections. But what about India? What about millions of Hindus who see a threat in these forces and view Modi as their saviour?
Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are making overt gestures to be seen as essentially Hindus. They support the agitation against Supreme Court verdict on Sabrimala; have desisted in backing Sidhu on Kartarpur; Sonia sports a tilak (how ludicrous can it really get) in election rallies; and Rahul Gandhi shows his janau to everyone when none of his previous four generations ever wore it. All this is for political dividends and certainly not India.
Shiv Sena are now agitated on Ram Mandir. Uddhav Thackeray and his army reached all the way to Ayodhya. Till recently, millions of workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, most of whom are Hindus, were anathema to them. Now they can go thousands of miles to support a long-cherished dream of Hindus. The idea is to cut the plank which could help BJP in 2019 elections. Did you really think it was for Hindus or India?
Once in a while we are suffused with hope. Arvind Kejriwal was once such in 2014. He evoked Gandhi; wore muffler and slippers and took on the high and mighty of this land. Now he cartwheels around Mamata and Mayawati. He has made sure if another Kejriwal emerges he would have no chance of gaining people’s affection.
But then who thinks for India? The ones who bring their garbage in the name of newspapers to our verandahs; the police or judiciary who give a damn to our urgency; the bureaucracy who are nothing better than glorified clerks afraid to put signature to anything meaningful; the NGOs most of whom are forward soldiers of foreign funders or the academia who trade pen for cheques?
Do you think you and I care about India? We would crib about thousands of issues in our air-conditioned rooms but never take that one step towards an agency. What did you last do about the filth in your neighourhood? Or the menace of wild dogs who could mount a concerted attack if you step out in pitched darkness? What do we personally do to reduce pollution or energy-usage? The horror that our schools are for our children? Taught by teachers who equate education with their salary slips? When did we last visit a village where 80 per cent of India still lives?
Politicians, media, judiciary, policy, bureaucracy, civil society and we as individuals are all too many words and too little action. It can’t work; it won’t work. India is stretching itself thin. Almost 18 per cent of world’s humanity is sitting on a volcano of lies and manipulation. The righteous impotence of me right vs.you wrong; your religion vs. my religion; those charlatans who take past quotes out of context and plaster the edit pages; the newspapers who pass on socialites and film actresses as our new Plato and Socrates. Writers have a role if they are impartial and neutral and appeal to reason or logic. Not when it is sold to someone else’s good. As readers we must take the pen out of their hands and give them shovels to dig their own graves.
Indians now need to be real stakeholders if India is to survive. We need to look at issues both personal and impersonal though the line is often blurred. Personal would involve making our politicians, judiciary, police, media, bureaucracy accountable. Impersonal would mean larger issues such as those of farmers, joblessness etc.. We need citizens’ charters who audit our institutions like accounting firms do to their clients. We need to force our way into decisions our politicians take or the decisions our judiciary delays—for all other reasons except to the benefit of a common man. We need to show them our anger is no longer limited to our drawing rooms. Trust me, we the faceless would have the attention of thousands of eyes and cameras if we stop them at their gates and demand an answer. Our inertia is our weakness and the only strength they have.
India can go wrong any moment. It could be an ecological disaster or a hostile nuclear-armed neighbourhood. It could be the lava of a largely young nation which frustrated at lack of jobs or coma of our judiciary could bury us all under a thick carpet of violence and breakdown. We surely can’t leave it to our politicians and professors.
Russia secured a huge diplomatic victory when it got Taliban to turn up at a meeting on Afghanistan, attended by no less than a dozen countries, in Moscow last Friday.
This was the first time Taliban were face to face with the other side, the government-appointed Afghanistan High Peace Council, in the “Moscow Format” multilateral meeting which lasted less than three hours and was only aimed at kick-starting peace talks.
This was an acknowledgment that Taliban are stronger now than at anytime since 2001 when they faced the wrath of United States who took out the revenge on them for hosting Al Qaeda, the group blamed for 9/11 attacks.
Taliban, who were in power in Afghanistan between 1996-2001, have clawed back to the extent that they now control almost half of Afghanistan and deadly attacks on the Kabul government in recent times—whom they consider to be a US puppet—are at an unprecedented level now.
The Kabul government is in control in only 55% of 407 districts while the rest is largely under Taliban control or influence. Taliban is in no mood to hold direct talks with the Kabul government and stressed they would only hold talks with the US till an agreement on withdrawal of foreign military presence is decided.
The Taliban and US have met twice in July and October this year in order to break through the impasse. In the “Moscow Format” meeting, US turned up as an observer after skipping its first edition last year.
No less than 28,529 Afghan soldiers have been killed since 2015 alone and Taliban’s growing might have forced United States to hold meetings with them in Qatar this year.
Despite over a decade of presence in Afghanistan, United States has achieved little and citizens, caught in the crossfire between Afghan government and Taliban, with US raining bombs and missiles from the sky, have nowhere to go, resigning themselves and their next generation to death any moment.
It’s a horrific situation and a threat to world stability, as Russia perceives Afghanistan could turn out to be a breeding ground for Islamic State (IS) terrorists, planted at the behest of United States, which could wreak havoc in Central Asia and threaten its own backyard.
Russia, historically a foe of Taliban, has tactically succeeded brilliantly in having countries as diverse as Pakistan to India to China to attend the “Moscow Format” meeting.
The Chinese delegate found the Taliban’s demand for withdrawal of troops as reasonable. The Pakistani delegation, seated next to Taliban officials whom they promote openly, stressed the road to peace was a long one. India had sent two non-officials who only observed and didn’t make any statements.
India has close ties with the Afghan government while Pakistan, as said, doesn’t hold itself back in promoting Taliban.
Iran and Russia declared the need for American troops to leave Afghanistan.
Afghan and Taliban delegations were amiable during lunch and tea breaks and acknowledged each other at the table.
Taliban’s resurgence of recent years is a new phase of Afghanistan conundrum. On one hand, it highlights the failure of United States on all fronts—diplomatic, political and militarily, not to speak of turning the country into a heroin/opium/drug supplying outpost to the world which, according to estimates, is now the third biggest of all trades, barring oil and gas, albeit an illegal one.
The newly-appointed American general in charge of US and NATO operations, Gen. Austin Scott Miller recently conceded to NBC News that Afghan war can not be won militarily. “This is not going to be won militarily,” Gen. Miller said, “This is going to be a political situation.”
For its commercial and political implications, the Chabahar Port deal with Iran marks the finest achievement yet of Narendra Modi’s global engagements.
The commercial implications are obvious—India was hemmed in by Pakistan’s intransigence to refuse direct trade between India and Afghanistan and China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) vision had the potential to clamp manacles on India’s ankles.
In one stroke, India has freed itself from the curfew and it could now entertain visions of trade and infrastructure links with Middle East and Central Asia and still further with Russia and Europe.
Let’s take up the bare details before we look at the wider implications and how Pakistan, China and United States, the other key players in the region, would react to it—Afghanistan, as we know from the history of Hindu Kush in the colonial times, is a prized land. So far it was its geographical location but now is the promise of immense mineral wealth which, according to Geological Survey of United States, could be worth as much as $1 trillion, due to its iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium potential.
Afghanistan, unfortunately, has always attracted predators who couldn’t care less about the welfare of Afghan people; who could go to any length to destabilize it in order to retain a degree of control over the cursed land. United States, on one pretext or another, stays put in the name of eliminating terrorism while, as everybody knows, promoting the same in cohort with Saudi Arabia, and not long ago, Pakistan.
The birth of modern terrorism occurred in the wake of Soviet Union’s departure from Afghanistan as United States planted mujahideens, with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia providing men, resources and ground support. The country was soon in chaos, split between war lords of one camp or other, and the lure of illicit heroin trade, which by a conservative estimate is second only to oil and gas in volume, has kept them involved. They aren’t going to leave the country in our lifetimes.
Afghanistan thus has every reason to distrust Pakistan—after all its bête noire Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar were traced there—and by inference United States. It sure receives significant infrastructural aid from China but so tied are the fortunes of the Middle Kingdom with Pakistan that Kabul can’t ignore the political implications.
India has diligently nurtured its ties with Afghanistan. Since 2001, it has provided Afghanistan with $2 billion development assistance. In December last year, Modi inaugurated Afghan parliament built on India’s aid of 90 million dollars. It has contributed $300 million on Salma dam and hydroelectric power plant at Herat which Modi is expected to inaugurate next month. In 2009, India had built a 217-km highway costing $100 million that links Zaranj with Delaram, located on Afghanistan-Iran border. From there, the local road connects to Chabahar.
India has always worried over its energy supply, most of which emanates from the Middle East. It receives 57 percent of its crude oil from the Middle East which would only increase manifolds in the coming years. Saudi Arabia is its biggest supplier but knowing the close equation between the Arab kingdom and Pakistan, India has always been keen to get Iran on its side. The latter, for this very reason—after all the Middle East conundrum is largely a tussle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for dominance in Muslim world—seeks a natural affinity with India. Both nations have close cultural and historical ties. Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century.
Chabahar is located on the Gulf of Oman, just 80km away from Gwadar which is the cornerstone of China’s pivot to Pakistan. Chabahar is just 299km east of world’s most critical passageway for oil tankers, the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran urgently wants this port to work as 85 percent of its seaborne traffic is managed by its Bandar Abbas port in the Strait of Hormuz. However, this port can only handle 100,000-metric ton ships. Large ships first offload at the Jebel Ali port in the United Arab Emirates en route to Iran. In contrast, Chabhar is a deep-water port and could process large ships. Chabahar would also allow both India and Iran to access large parts of Africa, Asia, Arabia and Australasia.
India has so far committed $500 million on the Chabahar project. It’s also assisting the 500-km rail link between Chabahar-Zahedan-Zaranj. The free trade zone of Chabahar could also encourage investment by its industries in urea, smelter and aluminium etc. In 2012, India had already used the port to transport a 100,000 metric ton shipment of wheat to Afghanistan.
According to the JV plans, India will develop two berths in Chabahar, one to handle container traffic and the other a multi-purpose cargo terminal. The MoU includes the sea-land access route to Afghanistan. India has plans to build a road-railroad network from Chabahar to Milak in Iran which in turn would link up the Indian-built 223-km Zaranj-Delaram road in Afghanistan.
India has also allayed worries on Iran’s part over its pending $6.5 billion payment. It has begun the process of payment in Euros, as requested by Turkey’s Halkbank. A cash-strapped Iran urgently needs investment and repayment of dues.
It’s a win-win all situation for all three nations. Both India and Iran are surrounded by hostile powers; both need avenues to grow. Afghanistan would finally be able to access the Indian Ocean.
Don’t expect United States to sit and watch this alignment of India-Afghanistan-Iran to take shape. Already we hear of encroachment of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. US could again find a reason to impose sanctions on Iran. India too remains handicapped by its financial and regulatory hurdles.
But such is the opportunity in front of India, Afghanistan and Iran that one expects Chabahar Port to be a reality soon enough. There sure would be hurdles and interventions, but the three must stand together for their own good.