As the current political crisis unfolded and one by one the government’s erstwhile allied parties and dissident members chose their path, an anchor on a private channel asked an undecided member of the parliament whether he had made up his mind. The answer came in […]Farrukh writes
(First published on September 12th, 2020) When coronavirus panic struck the world, populist leaders in many countries were averse to shutting down the economy. On the one side there was the myth of strongman mystique, on the other a genuine concern for the financial wellbeing […]Farrukh writes
When coronavirus panic struck the world, populist leaders in many countries were averse to shutting down the economy. On the one side there was the myth of strongman mystique, on the other a genuine concern for the financial wellbeing of an average citizen. For a while, it seemed India’s Modi would go down the same route. There is no dearth of gimmickry in Modi’s India and the culminating point of his requested “Janata curfew” (people’s curfew) where citizens were asked to beat and clang pots and pans from their balconies brought this reality home. The event was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But then something shifted and the government announced the lockdown. And one harsh lockdown it was. It was plain that no homework was done. Millions of economic migrants left stranded had to travel hundreds of miles on foot to their villages. As videos of their suffering trickled in a friend wondered what kind of leader would inflict such misery upon his own people. If the taste of the pudding is in its eating it is plain that these measures did not stop the spread of Covid. The only thing the Indian shutdown hampered was the Indian economy.
But this was not the first time Modi had put his people through such an ordeal. One fine morning, during his first tenure, Modi came up with the bright idea of banning the 500 and the 1,000 rupees notes. Since the entire scheme was hatched in the name of seizing black money, stealth was necessary. Consequently, no one had prior knowledge. Banks had not prepared to keep their ATM machines well supplied. The replacement would take time to be printed. When your economy, mostly rural, depends on hard cash and you delegitimise 82% of the country’s legal tender in circulation this is bound to lead to widespread anguish. India’s bourses fell by 6%, the economy also contracted in the long term. Poor people died waiting in long queues. But there were no consequences for Modi or his government. As if the people of India had simply given up.
Two more examples. Although it is not correct to call Kashmiri people Indian citizens as the Indian union has made its hatred of Kashmiris quite plain, the manner in which the lockdown in the state was imposed on the eve of the abolition of Article 370 highlights a pattern. Come up with a Quixotic plan in the name of national security, impose it without any preparation or wiggle room for the local populace and leave them to their own devices. In Kashmir, the citizens were forced to stay indoors without much provisions or communication. And this shutdown continues in one shape or the other even after over 400 days of its start. What happens to the common man cooped up in his house is not Modi’s concern.
When Assam updated the National Register of Citizens (NRC) some two million (mostly from poor and minority communities) were rendered stateless. At the time it was stated that these people would be provided legal recourse through Foreigners Tribunals. Later it transpired that many ideologically charged xenophobes were being engaged to head the tribunals. But despite that and after over one year of the announcement of the list, those left out have not been provided rejection slips which are mandatory to approach a bench for review. And in the middle came the pandemic and floods. The suffering of the poor and vulnerable is unimaginable. But instead of being moved by their suffering Modi’s home minister had promised he would replicate the model across the country and to enforce a nationwide NRC they also got a Citizen Amendment Act passed from parliament. Again, zero consequences.
Today we know that in comparison to the same quarter last year the Indian economy has shrunk by 23.9% and this contraction would continue for at least six quarters. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 infection rate has surpassed that of Brazil and India is now second after the US. Modi’s so-called muscular policy in Kashmir has heated border disputes with China and Pakistan. His disregard for sentiments of close regional allies like Bangladesh and Afghanistan (evidently because of the NRC and CAA) has alienated the governments and citizens there. His continued bullying has even forced the once only Hindu kingdom in the world (in 2015 it adopted a new secular constitution for which India punished it dearly), Nepal is forced to confront Delhi. So how does one remain in power despite such ineptness and open display of incompetence?
The first answer lies in the nature of the Indian state. Unlike other South Asian countries, the Indian state has always been significantly richer than its people. The fact that there are approximately 1.4 billion citizens means the state treats the poor and the backward as expendables. When some politician throws some morsels at them, he/she expects total worship. In a deeply stratified society, the poor have reconciled to this fate. This callousness is systemic.
But Modi government’s arrogance and propaganda methods can put Goebbels to shame. It now has the Indian media and Supreme Court in its pocket. No other democratic country can boast of the ruling party’s absolute control of major media outlets. Consider how craven the media is when at the time of such huge stories like the economic meltdown, widespread distress and worst relations with all its neighbours, the Indian media is busy magnifying an actor’s suicide and arrest of a woman allegedly involved. When election came, an Indian film actor was found asking Modi how he preferred to eat mangoes instead of substantive questions about policy in a televised interview.
But that’s not all. Only the media cannot get Modi this kind of power. Granted that almost all these media outlets are owned by a few businessmen who have remained chief beneficiaries of Modi’s rule. Granted that during the elections shady financial pipelines were created to ensure Modi’s party gets huge sums both from home and abroad in lieu of campaign finance without much accountability. But even that is not enough.
Many branches of these businesses abroad are fronts or shills for India’s intelligence foreign operations. You may notice that while intelligence agencies around the world including the CIA, Mossad and the ISI often come under discussion in media, there is hardly any mention of India’s premier intel agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), or for that matter any other. When a blind spot of this magnitude emerges, it can mean only either of the two things. First, that the agency in question is totally inept. Untrue. Two, it is deeply entrenched. Remember, Ajit Doval’s “Defensive Offense” speech only months before the 2014 elections? That was a pitch to this powerful community for 10 years of power sharing arrangement. Total support abroad to shape and reshape the world order while letting us do whatever we want at home. The Indian deep state started with trying to make the clash of civilisations thesis a reality. Now it is busy investing heavily in the rise of far-right elements both at home and abroad. Sadly, Indians have been thrown to the wolves in exchange.
(First published on September 5th, 2020) When last week I wrote that two men, Asif Ali Zardari and Shahbaz Sharif, had brought their respective parties to their knees I had little idea that the opposition leader in the National Assembly, who has often taken leave […]Farrukh writes
When last week I wrote that two men, Asif Ali Zardari and Shahbaz Sharif, had brought their respective parties to their knees I had little idea that the opposition leader in the National Assembly, who has often taken leave of absence from the assembly and corruption investigations on health grounds, would brave the long journey to Karachi and meet the former president. But there he was, surrounded by his party colleagues meeting Asif Zardari, who was accompanied by his son Bilawal and the Chief Minister of Sindh among many others.
We do not know what prompted Sharif’s visit to Karachi and what exactly was on the agenda but we have some idea why Zardari would warmly welcome his guests. He and his sister Faryal Talpur, perhaps the only soul closer to his heart than any, are to be indicted in the money laundering case by an accountability court on the 9th of this month. Apparently, self-preservation is the only cause that matters to the opposition’s agenda-setters these days.
Asif Zardari’s whole life is a tragic tale of the pursuit of self-preservation and reductive and diminutive grand designs. Scion of a so-called feudal family gone broke, deficient in sound educational qualifications, with a head full of misplaced notions about how the elite ought to behave in society and spoilt by the company of equally inadequate friends, when he married Benazir Bhutto and she became the prime minister it was clear that he was incapable of telling right from wrong. We hear rumours of a fateful meeting in which Zardari allegedly tried to convince his late wife that with ultra-rich competitors like Nawaz Sharif the only way to survive politically was to indulge in financial corruption. With little evidence to substantiate these rumours, we can treat them merely as apocryphal claims. I bring it up because even though Benazir’s father was accused of many things, financial corruption was not one of them. And if something later shifted in the party’s outlook, he cannot be disassociated from it.
If Zardari was a political liability to Benazir and her party, briefly after her assassination he proved to be the party’s key asset. He assumed leadership of the party, opposed an indefinite delay in the elections, refused to nominate Amin Fahim, the party leader dangerously close to General Musharraf, as PM, worked with Nawaz’s party to remove the former dictator from power and restored the Constitution nearly to its original shape through the 18th Amendment. But then power went to his head. While many claim that he was the first president who willingly returned power to the parliament he never lost the real power. He was simultaneously the head of his party and the country’s president. After the changes brought about by the 18th Amendment a party chief could easily unseat any member of parliament who went against the party’s agenda set by him.
If he was later surrounded by sycophants and yes-men the real stalwarts were regularly ridiculed by the former president. A new elite was rising within the party at the cost of the old policy hands based primarily on its proximity to Zardari. Almost all of them, from Zulfiqar Mirza to Dr Asim, from Uzair Baloch to Sharjeel Memon, would bring great grief to the party. But the most significant growth was of Zardari’s sister Faryal Talpur, who was often shunned by Benazir. Talpur would enter parliament contesting from Benazir’s home seat. When Bilawal returned to the country demanding that he be allowed to contest from the very constituency his aunt and father refused to vacate it. Talpur would travel within Sindh with full presidential protocol.
The generation before us, Zardari’s generation, was often accused of favouring siblings over their own children. In Zardari’s case, it was on full display. The time in power that the former president enjoyed was essentially borrowed in Bilawal’s name. When Benazir was assassinated and Zardari had returned to the country he had promised to act as the regent until Bilawal came of age. You can criticise dynastic politics but if it were a choice between a young man raised and moulded by Benazir and a man who had been her biggest liability throughout her career the matter was a no-brainer. When Bilawal returned to the country after completing his education his regent would not let go of levers of power only because it meant taking power away from his sister and his own ‘friends’. Bilawal was constantly infantilised by his father. As malicious rumours spread about the young leader’s personal life, many were convinced that they could trace them back to Zardari’s own circles.
Perpetual insecurities, a worldview mostly shaped by his prolonged stay in jail, a desire to mimic MQM’s old street tactics and sudden exposure to power which was not earned but accidentally given meant that Zardari would leave little social or political capital for his party in his path of self-aggrandisement. His governance model, egotistic fights, inability to sustain his gains or sacrifices of his predecessors all speak volumes about his ability. The two premiers he chose (Yousuf Raza Gilani and Pervaiz Ashraf), a CM for Sindh (Qaim Ali Shah) and a CM for Balochistan (Aslam Raisani) show he deliberately wanted his party’s governments to look incoherent.
But his gradual poisoning of Bilawal’s career is the real act of sabotage to his party. Today many wonder why a party that was founded in Lahore has lost so badly in Pakistan’s most populous province that it can’t even find good candidates. Many attribute it to the use of the so-called Sindh card. Interestingly, before Zardari entered Benazir’s life there was little mention of this card. The People’s Party was considered a federal party and Sindhi symbols the proud emblems of Pakistaniyat. But before his party left power Zardari used its final days to propose the division of Punjab. This from a party which gesticulates angrily if you ever dare to talk about the need for the creation of an urban Sindh province. Like that would go down well with your voters. If you hold a referendum in Southern Punjab you might be surprised to note that hardly anyone cares. The region is poor because of its extractive feudal elite. The creation of a province would only institutionalise and consolidate that elite’s power. Zardari is loath to the idea of local governments, the only effective way to improve governance and undermine the exploitative elite.
By retaining the party’s power (he and not Bilawal is the party’s head that has a presence in parliament) and constantly undermining Bilawal for narrow self-interest, Zardari has destroyed the potential of a promising party and promising young leader. After the APS Peshawar incident, Bilawal could play an effective role in bringing the focus back to the fight against terror and could have rebuilt his party’s mass appeal. But Zardari quickly pushed him aside to take all the credit which he could not sustain because of his fit of rage after the arrest of Dr Asim. Even today he uses the party’s clout only for personal benefit and will not let go until the party and the career of his son are finished. That’s what’s wrong with the opposition.
(First published on August 29th, 2020) Do you get the feeling that something weird is going on with the two major opposition parties? That whenever they plan to challenge the government, a switch flips and they are found rubber-stamping every treasury bill that comes their […]Farrukh writes
Do you get the feeling that something weird is going on with the two major opposition parties? That whenever they plan to challenge the government, a switch flips and they are found rubber-stamping every treasury bill that comes their way? That they cannot get together to give the government a tough time? That because of this peculiarity, an objective and impartial parliamentary accountability process is dead and a government with a razor-thin majority in the national assembly gets a free reign?
There are two narratives. The ruling party claims that these opposition parties are seeking an NRO (National Reconciliation Ordinance — a defunct law passed by Gen Musharraf’s government meant to provide relief from prosecution to the PPP, the MQM, bureaucrats and businessmen — which since its demise has become a pejorative) and therefore do not want to burn all bridges.
Then there is the narrative of these parties that posits that the military establishment wanted the incumbents to come to power and has therefore used the meta-narrative of accountability to damage their public image and compromised the elections. But then surprisingly these two parties could not even join forces to protest the election results as another switch flipped and they decided to maintain their distance.
What if you were told that it all comes down to the politics of two exceedingly insecure, selfish and vindictive men? That their pursuit of parochial self-interest has compromised the integrity of the dynastic gigantic parties? Before I mention them by name and you stop reading thinking that it might be yet another hatchet job against them let me assure you that this is not the recycled version of old allegations. They are based on my personal observations. The two men in question are Mian Shahbaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari. Let us talk about Shahbaz Sharif this week. Next week we will talk about Zardari.
In 1997, before Nawaz Sharif assumed the office rumours reached us that Shahbaz Sharif had gone to Abbaji (their father Mian Sharif) and said that Nawaz had already been chief minister twice and prime minister once and that he (Shahbaz) deserved to be premier next. We also heard that Mian Sharif had vetoed it and consequently Nawaz Sharif became premier again. As a compromise Shahbaz was installed as Punjab’s chief minister and Pervaiz Elahi, the man promised the job, was asked to function as the speaker of the provincial assembly. I mention this because it underscores a desperate desire to be the country’s chief executive at the expense of own brother. We know a military coup and exile came next. When the exile ended and the PML-N swept Punjab, word had it that Gen Musharraf was not ready to let Shahbaz Sharif become CM again. An interim CM was selected and the younger Sharif worked his friends and family network to change Musharraf’s mind. Consequently, he became the CM. Meanwhile, Chaudhry Nisar became the leader of the opposition at the Centre.
When the party won in 2013, these two men had a secret ambition to become PM. But those ambitions were spoiled when Nawaz Sharif came out of retirement and became premier. Thus, grew an alliance between the two men which would prove fateful.
If you recall the sequence of events, when a year after the elections, the PTI decided to agitate, the then PM sought the help of powerful interlocutors to defuse the tension. As an operation against terrorists was already on the cards and Zarb-e-Azb was soon launched, a message went out to the protesting parties that the country was in a state of war and they should desist from agitation. This would at least have delayed the twin marches for several months had the police under Shahbaz Sharif’s control not moved to remove barriers around Tahir-ul-Qadri’s residence. It was a strange show. TV tickers started flashing at midnight that the police had reached the venue. But the crackdown would not begin until noon next day when enough media men had gathered to air the whole sad incident and Gulu Butt’s vandalism live. People were killed. Since Shahbaz Sharif claimed he had nothing to do with it, you could assume he lost control. But you cannot deny however that the Model Town tragedy paved the way for the PTI-Minhaj twin sit-ins. And the pattern would repeat itself when Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan went for the Faizabad sit-in. Incidentally, Faizabad is right next to Rawalpindi, the last city that comes under the jurisdiction of the Punjab government (then headed by Shahbaz) before the Federal Capital begins. By a curious coincidence, Shahbaz (and not Maryam) was the star performer of the Dawn Leaks. Then we also witnessed the moment when the ex-premier returned home leaving his ailing wife in London and his brother could not reach the airport despite much fanfare.
Is it possible that the former chief minister of Punjab was actively trying to undermine his brother when he was premier? The circumstantial evidence would point to an answer in affirmative. Meanwhile, Shahbaz’s attempts to project himself as a close confidante of the establishment was paving the way for a radical anti-establishment narrative within the party. This and the hyper-activism of an English columnist who was rather close to Zardari than the PML-N led to the radicalisation of the Maryam-led faction of the party and resulted in the shape of Dawn Leaks. From Model Town to sudden disappearance from the scene during the by-election in the then NA-120, Shahbaz doesn’t seem to have left any stone unturned to make it clear that his ambition and not his elder brother’s wellbeing was closer to his heart.
In the 2018 elections, it was payback time. Maryam’s narrative of victimhood, which began the day her picture appeared in the first story about Panama papers, had gained considerable traction by then. Shahbaz did not find support from her faction of the party. This reduced his chances considerably. Then his close friend Chaudhry Nisar also did not help his prospects because he decided to contest elections as an independent candidate and convinced many other party members to defect and contest elections on his chosen election symbol of a jeep. He did not achieve the intended success and ended up compromising Shahbaz’s chances too. A divided house was the primary reason why the PML-N lost in 2018 and Shahbaz’s ambition had a lot to do with it.
Today it is Maryam’s party. Ironically, she is neither in the parliament nor legally qualified to contest the election. Her insistence on blaming the country’s establishment for her ordeals obscures the role her Chacha played in bringing down her father and interestingly strengthens his hand. It is a smart strategy meant to draw attention away from the shortcomings and divisions at home and so far it has worked. But this is about the extent of it. In the past, I have stated that the PML-N’s prospects are dim until this war of succession is over. Let me say it is and Maryam has won. Shahbaz hangs on as a spoiler. But the chances of a revival are still slim until Shahbaz steps aside and Maryam shows she has the wherewithal of transitioning from a tactician to a stateswoman which starts with cleverly moderating her tone.
(First published on August 22nd, 2020) One of my favourite pastimes these days is to see Pakistanis underestimate their country. In a nation given to strong mood swings, this is to be expected. But when the negative perceptions transform into automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) and […]Farrukh writes
One of my favourite pastimes these days is to see Pakistanis underestimate their country. In a nation given to strong mood swings, this is to be expected. But when the negative perceptions transform into automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) and then these ants waylay you of the will to fight, the battle is lost already.
How many times has it happened that we thought that the country would not recover only to be proven wrong? Only six years ago it felt that terrorism would irreversibly consume us. Businesses, defences, schools, hospitals, places of worship, nothing was safe. And then this country ended its denial and fought back. While the fight is still not over, one can see the qualitative improvement in the law and order situation.
Only a couple of months ago when the Covid infections started skyrocketing it felt like the game was over. A country with this staggering level of undocumented or under-documented poverty was finally struck by an incurable and wasting malaise. But today when the infection rate is steadily falling and the number of recoveries (the actual indicator of the situation in the country), we have started breathing again. Precautions are necessary and we are not out of the woods yet but if the current trend holds, we may soon find ourselves under the clear sky.
There are many ways to approach the matter. The trouble with all of them is that as soon you pick one you run the risk of being labelled. If you take pride in the resilience of the country, you are either a jingoist or deluded. If you point out that many things are still broken, you are either an insufferable pessimist or unpatriotic. Praise the government and you are a sycophant. Criticise the government and you are an incorrigible saboteur. So, what is a person to do?
It is imperative not to succumb to the despair spread by the naysayers. But to live in a fool’s paradise isn’t an option either. The closer we get to objectivity the better it is.
The naysayers come in many shades. There are those who wear their hearts on their sleeves, always quick to judge and dismiss. Then there are those who are genuine victims of change. Good, smart people who were caught off guard on the wrong side of the divide. And finally my personal favourite — those who are fully onboard until thrown overboard. One minute everything is perfect, the next everything is broken beyond repair. Utilitarianism has its utility but past its expiration date, it becomes the butt of a million jokes.
Back to business. When the fundamentals of the economy are badly broken due to decades-long misuse and abuse it is hard to see hope. The government may choose to be optimistic but given that the economy actually contracted during the past financial year, the journey ahead is still long and arduous. If there is a reason not to be overly pessimistic it is that in the IMF and China, the country has two guardian angels. One that is determined to guide you. The other that always has your back. Add to it the commitment of the current finance and economics team to implement its agreements in letter and spirit. Together these three factors can bring the economy back from the brink of the precipice. But the biggest challenge is to keep them working in tandem.
A particularly frustrating aspect of the economy is the investor class’ refusal to diversify or to investigate. For decades our business class has only invested in a few sectors. From textile to property development the list is very short and depressing. What particularly gets to me is the total lack of research and development (R&D). I would have attributed this absence of R&D to the dearth of exposure or funds but clearly, that is not the case. Pakistan has its fair share of the rich and the well connected. This then is either due to the lack of interest or because of the deeply ingrained habit of risk aversion. In either case, this cannot continue for long. The government is rapidly moving towards establishing Special Economic Zones (SEZs). In order to exploit the opportunity, the private sector will have to invest in the unexplored sectors.
Another method to expand the economic scope is to encourage venture capitalism. Governments after governments introduce youth loan schemes but often sheer dumb luck and not pure merit decides who gets the funds. Take the example of the PM’s youth loan scheme during the previous government’s tenure. Young entrepreneurs from across the country were encouraged to submit their proposals and then balloting decided who would get the cash. Imagine if you had come up with a really very unique idea and my start-up was about good old dairy farming there was a good chance I would beat you to it. That is not how new sectors flourish. You need a host of venture capitalist companies operating under a safe regulatory framework to track down and invest in bright new ideas. The government also needs to incentivise business journalism because our oversaturated media covers crime and politics a lot while there is precious little coverage of business and economics.
In international politics too it is the economy which has proven to be our Achilles’ heel. Our neighbour and chief rival in the region, India, is in very bad shape these days. But since it has been developed as a market for decades it is constantly thrown lifelines by the global business community. Just look at the way Google and Facebook have decided to be a part of Reliance’s Jio project and it has forced other competitors like Amazon to double down with investment. The money India makes is used to buy allies (example: Rafale and other defence procurements) and invests heavily in propaganda abroad to create a divided world (example: the US, Australia and the creation of the Quad). Meanwhile, our telecom industry is characterised by an enthusiasm gap. When we find people like Tania Aidrus who understands how to develop the economy in this direction, we do everything within our power to push them out of the system. Our media and intelligentsia are still consumed by the desire to explore a thousand and one reasons not to establish relations with Israel when we could easily redirect this energy towards better pursuits. Those who underestimate this nation’s potential may want you to believe there is no hope but the truth is in a region coloured by Modi’s fanaticism and ignorance you are dealt a very good hand. There are countless opportunities waiting to be explored and survival has its own moral compass. I agree that we should not live in a fool’s paradise. But opting for a fool’s perdition is not a compulsion either.
(First published on August 15th, 2020) This piece reaches you on August 15 — India’s Independence Day, and a day after Pakistan celebrates its freedom. This piece addresses neither. Not directly at least. It is about Kashmir and how far it is from freedom. It […]Farrukh writes
This piece reaches you on August 15 — India’s Independence Day, and a day after Pakistan celebrates its freedom. This piece addresses neither. Not directly at least. It is about Kashmir and how far it is from freedom. It is also about Pakistan’s response to India’s reckless policies since August last year.
Months before the Indian elections and Pulwama-Balakot chapter, I was asked to host a two-hour show on Kashmir. I further narrowed the scope. It was mainly to be about the BJP government’s plan to dismantle articles 370 and 35(A). While the participants in the show were very accomplished, I particularly felt frustrated by the constant refrain that since Pakistan did not recognise New Delhi’s claims on Kashmir’s accession to India, the said articles were not our headache. Sanu kee?
You will notice that technically they were right. Before August 5, 2019, the Indian Occupied Kashmir was still one of the most militarised regions. Pakistan thoroughly regarded it as an occupied territory. After what India was about to do the Line of Control (LoC) would have the same status. The international nature of the dispute would have remained the same and the status would stay unchanged. If I did not want Modi to win again, it was primarily because I was concerned about the pain and suffering a Modi 2 administration would cause the people of India. An admirable sentiment but pointless in view of the high stakes political poker being played in these parts. Statecraft required a bolder strategy. That India be encouraged to re-elect Modi and that Modi be given enough rope to hang himself and with him India’s entire ruling elite.
And then it happened. India swallowed the bait hook, line, and some. It elected Modi again. Perturbed by Prime Minister Imran Khan, the COAS and the DG ISI’s successful visit to Washington, and President Trump’s gracious offer to mediate, Modi hurriedly moved to recolonise Kashmir and scrap articles 370, 35(A). While many of us saw an assault on India’s special arrangement with its controlled Kashmir coming, we never dreamed Modi would go to this extent. First, the moronic way in which the Indian government amended these laws, making a mockery of the legislative and constitutional procedures. Also absorbing Kashmir as a state into the union was one thing, stripping it of statehood, bifurcating it, and declaring the resulting two parts union territories was a new level of crazy. When you start tripping you usually do not know when to stop. We know BJP is greedy but to put Kashmir’s entire political elite behind bars to try to have the whole thing to yourself is dumber than what you could ever expect.
Now the question was would anyone in Islamabad respond to the new situation? A copout was easy. All you had to do was to say that Pakistan never recognised India’s Article 370 and that was it. For a heart-stopping second, I thought that that was the policy we were about to adopt. But then the PM took a position and thus began a momentous struggle.
Let me come clean here. For the past two decades since I made the personal acquaintance with PM Imran Khan, there have been many moments when I sharply disagreed with his politics. I was opposed to his sit-in in Islamabad and I was openly critical of many other policies. But I do not think I can find fault with his Kashmir policy. In fact, it is one of the reasons I find my decision to endorse him in this space during the 2018 elections vindicated. I will explain it if you let me.
When critics of the current policy speak or write they forget where Pakistan was at, only half a year before Modi’s annexation of Kashmir. The US President had begun 2019 with tweets disparaging Pakistan. Modi had already vowed to isolate Pakistan and because of our own divided house, it seemed to be working. The PM’s above-mentioned July visit did a lot in bringing down temperature in Washington but a long journey to full-scale normalisation lay ahead. As the country found out during the Pulwama-Balakot crisis, the global retreat of the liberal world order meant that even the threat of a nuclear escalation could not jolt the world out of complacency. It was in such a situation that a rich, diplomatically influential India attacked the fundamental rights of the Kashmiri people. India must have thought that its diplomatic voodoo would lead nations to openly endorse the policy. Thanks to Islamabad’s aggressive advocacy they did not. It wasn’t an easy case to make. How could you complain about the cancellation of something that you did not believe in and which did not change the status quo or your position on your side of the LoC? But this government did that. This advocacy laid the foundation of the democratic world’s skepticism towards Modi’s other policies. When the Citizenship Amendment Act was rushed through the parliament India’s diplomatic spin masters left no stone unturned to present it as God’s gift to humanity. A nationwide national register for citizens seemed on the card. But the local and international pushback has stopped all that from happening.
Meanwhile, in Modi’s world, one mistake has led to another. His government’s demand for blind obedience has exposed the sham the Indian parliament, judiciary and media have become. It also exposed the lack of professionalism and moral courage among the leadership of Indian armed forces. One by one India has alienated all SAARC partners. The recent military skirmish with China has sealed the fate of a relationship with great potential and further internationalised the Kashmir dispute. Now there are three state actors directly involved. With the abolition of Article 35(A), the new domicile law and dangerous rhetoric India has permanently alienated all Kashmiris. And Modi’s whimsical if authoritarian economic policies and habit of throwing money at every problem including buying diplomatic favours through expensive defence deals has badly hurt the Indian exchequer. The country’s relationship with the West, despite the rhetoric otherwise, is rapidly becoming transactional in nature. If these are not the fruits of an effective Kashmir and India policy I don’t know what is.
Each ruler has his/her own way of dealing with India. I try not to find fault with any one of them. But our weak position in the comity of nations is not a product of a few years. In a heartbeat, you cannot undo the damage done to your diplomatic standing in the past 73 years. Because of its wealth and diplomatic clout, India has a lot of holding power. It will take a lot of time to expose what is rotten in India. But if you think renaming a highway and forming human chains are no alternative to direct action, Modi’s unannounced private visit to participate in the wedding of a former premier’s granddaughter is not a substitute to this well thought out strategy. Formally sponsoring militancy in Kashmir is the only direct course of action short of war. But there is a broader consensus among almost all shades of life that it is a lose-lose proposition. Let’s not cut the nose to spite the face.
(Note: A typo in the last paragraph which replaced the word ‘broader’ with ‘hoarder’ has been fixed).
(First published on August 8th, 2020) Prescience and foresight are the most fetching attributes of wisdom. Two mundane examples come to one’s mind. The first is of the American television series House of Cards. Before it came to an unseemly end, it highlighted two important trends […]Farrukh writes
Prescience and foresight are the most fetching attributes of wisdom. Two mundane examples come to one’s mind. The first is of the American television series House of Cards. Before it came to an unseemly end, it highlighted two important trends that are now considered a part of the US political reality. The growing influence of Russia in US politics and the abuse of private data to win elections.
The second is that of George Kennan, a deputy head of mission in Moscow who in February 1946 wrote a very long wire (some say 8,000 words long) to the US secretary of state, James Byrnes. Dubbed as the Long Telegram, when the message could not have the desired effect, Kennan contributed an essay to Foreign Affairs in July 1947. Based on his findings, like his Long Telegram, this piece carried under the pseudonym X presented a case for the containment of the USSR. And this time it changed the world as we know it.
On August 5, 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat dressed as a Hindu shaman ready to inaugurate the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. If the ceremony was rich in rituals, the air was also thick with symbolism and memories. For Modi, this was the culmination point of a long journey. A journey that started with a chariot ride in 1992 which led to the demolition of the Babri Mosque right where the temple is to be built. The episode left 2,000, mostly Muslims, dead in communal violence. A Google search of Modi Rath Yatra returns many pictures in which Modi stands like a shadow with LK Advani, the BJP firebrand who led the charge against Babri. That shocking act of sabotage had catapulted BJP into the mainstream. Although Advani never got his heart’s desire to be India’s prime minister, Modi had been brought to power in the 2014 national elections. Modi had then run a campaign on the platform of good governance. For five years there was no improvement in governance. When he ran again in 2019 that promise had been replaced with an appeal to the baser instincts of the masses. Modi’s entire career is paved with the blood and tears of innocent citizens. Ayodhya, Gujarat, Muzaffarnagar, and on. And yet no one saw this coming? There was a long list of powerful endorsements after all. But wait. You have not heard about the symbolism yet.
The construction of a temple where a mosque stood for three centuries has the symbolism of its own. The demolished mosque was named after Emperor Babur, the founder of Mughal rule in India. The Muslim Mughal dynasty was still in power when the British took over India. In a way, this demolition was a revenge for the centuries of Muslim rule. Hindutva activists claim that the mosque was built after demolishing a temple. The claim is so weak that after the demolition of the mosque the case seeking permission to build a temple there could not be settled decades for the want of evidence. No visual proof. No certain evidence. Only circumstantial if emotive arguments. Then Modi came to power and like a chameleon, the Indian Supreme Court changed its colour. If this inauguration ceremony shows total disregard for an embattled minority’s sentiment, it also epitomises the total collapse of the Indian democratic institutions.
But there is more. Usually, Hindu ceremonies are organised according to star charts. But not this one. In choosing August 5 as the inauguration day, the Modi government was conveying a message. One year ago, on this day the Modi government unilaterally terminated the centre’s contract with its disputed if only Muslim state, Kashmir. The abrogation of Articles 370 (the special status clause) and 35(A) (empowerment of the state legislature to define permanent residents) took place in a wholly unconstitutional manner. So flimsy was the constitutional ruse that the craven SC refused to hear the case, lest the whole thing may fall apart. The abolition of Article 35(A) is more sinister. The said article had protected the local population from the onslaught of outsiders in the beautiful state. The abolition has opened the floodgates for outside settlers bringing the local population under pressure. The Modi government has an elaborate plan to turn the local population into a hunted minority by settling non-Muslim outsiders. The message was loud and clear. “Like we are replacing the Babri Mosque with a Hindu temple, we will replace you with Hindutva extremists”.
But the story does not end here either. It is true that Kashmir has gone through hell in the past year. If the picture of a toddler sitting atop the chest of his grandfather killed by the authorities could not open your eyes, nothing would. But the hatred of Modi and his mentors in the RSS is neither limited to the Muslims nor Kashmiris. The political identity of Hindutva has grown in a way that it loathes all three Abrahamic faiths and attempts to appropriate the history and symbols of all pagan religions displaced by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. That is precisely why Savitri Devi was so successful in infusing Political Hinduism with the trappings of Nazism. That is precisely why many neo-Nazis worship Hitler as an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. And that is exactly the reason behind the affinity between India’s Hindutva forces and the white supremacists in the West. After Modi and his cabal are done with India’s Muslims they will go after Christians and other Indian minorities. The Hindutva project also believes in the creation of Akhand Bharat (greater united India) which includes colonising all its South Asian neighbours and converting them to Hinduism. Once they are done with the region they will inevitably go after the Judeo-Christian nations. That is the whole point of aligning with white nationalists throughout the West. That all such nations can be brought down from within. The world is silently empowering the biggest group of Nazi sympathisers just because it is useful in containing socialist China, just like it empowered Hitler in order to contain the USSR.
I once told you that this cabal hated Obama just because of his Muslim middle name. Right now, they are pulling all stops to get Kamala Harris nominated as Biden’s running mate just because her middle name is ‘Devi’.
Incidentally, on August 5 the US Department of Justice announced a reward for anyone who could provide information on foreign interference in the US election. As someone who has constantly been pointing out the obvious, that Trump surrogates Shalabh Kumar and Steve Bannon have been influencing the US elections at the behest of Modi’s government, I sincerely believe I have earned that reward. The stories about the Russian or Chinese interference make little sense when you see how Bannon’s Cambridge Analytica mined data to support a certain outcome and how Salabh Kumar reached out to Trump right in the middle of the Access Hollywood fiasco. Both these factors work when you see how these two men have aligned after the elections and are now actively lobbying for Modi and against China. If you cannot put two and two together then you do not deserve the foresight of those who can.
(First published on August 1st, 2020) If you are a Pakistani fascinated by the country’s history there is a good chance you have been brought up on a controlled diet. There is one narrative that is set by the state. The one that starts with […]Farrukh writes
If you are a Pakistani fascinated by the country’s history there is a good chance you have been brought up on a controlled diet. There is one narrative that is set by the state. The one that starts with Bin Qasim’s attack on Sindh and ends with the countless explanations for the country’s existence. You know that version because it has been scrutinised constantly. But then there is a counter narrative. A meta narrative that emerged in defiance. About the country’s chequered history, it’s civil military imbalance, its misplaced priorities and at times the ridiculousness of its existence. Both these narratives grew in reaction to something and are therefore incapable of doing justice to the very complex reality of this nation’s existence. The beauty of these narratives is that they very effectively hide the real fault lines and centres of power. Let us focus on some of these fault lines to comprehend what is holding us back.
Pakistan’s first fault line is called ideology. You would think that a country with a Muslim population of over 96% would have no trouble on that front but then you would be wrong.
Consider this: On August 11, 1947, only days before the birth of the country, its Founder delivered an illuminating speech on the country’s future promising religious freedom to all citizens amid other things. The speech was heavily censored before release and the audio record of it is still not found. Ask yourself why. Because somebody in the government thought that this speech by the country’s Founding Father contradicted the ideology of Pakistan. Let it sink in. The words of the only man who won you freedom through a democratic and legal struggle were not palatable for somebody who was already interpreting ideology for you.
But what is this ideology? The two-nation theory? Islam as the state religion? The Quaid’s words did not contradict either. The Indian majority that was viewed as a constant threat was nearly packed away into a separate nation. Gone. Done away with. Now the minorities that still lived in the country had opted to stay here. They had a right to expect some reward for their faith. Also, a nation that was founded to escape the majoritarian fanaticism currently on display in India could not subject the minorities it inherited to the same kind of absolutism. Notice I do not bring up the matter of fundamental human rights because in the mid-40s the world was a different place with the vestiges of Nazism and fascism still dividing the global discourse. And the Nazis had already shown the world how minorities could be othered and deprived of all human rights. The fact that real interpretation of Islam had stopped a millennium ago, much before the emergence of modern states, did not help. In fact, Allama Mashriqi’s Nazi-inspired Khaksar Tehreek had attacked and beheaded a member of the Ahmedi community in the formative years of the country. So, an argument existed at the time in support of stripping minorities of all their rights. But Jinnah knew better. And his views were not contradicting either of the two ideologies. But somebody thought they were.
Could it be the permanent ruling class of the country which Hamza Alvi once dubbed as the “salariat” and we now call the bureaucracy? The answer to this would take us to the second fault line. But let us first handle this one. Why Pakistan was created and why the country’s bureaucracy thought that censoring its Founding Father was a good idea were two different things. The first is settled for good by Narendra Modi’s government in India today. The second has shaped how Pakistan has grown to this day. In 1947 the country may not have too many great examples of pluralism to emulate but countless exist since then. This was supposed to be a dialogue between the state and society but a permanent class which co-opted the term ‘ideology’ for its own survival has doubled down on the first raw draft and refuses to budge. From there the interpretation has bled into curriculum books, other institutions of the state and even the Constitution. Until it is allowed to be updated with time, we will stay lost in the jungle. This matter becomes of urgent nature when we take into account what we went through during the War on Terror when a group of Muslim Pakistanis killed around 80,000 co-religionist fellow citizens because of the different interpretations of ideology.
The second fault line is not the civil-military divide, although that too exists to a lesser degree. The second fault line exists between untrained politicians and an experienced bureaucracy. Pakistan is ruled by the latter. No matter who sits atop the greasy pole called the executive, it is invariably the bureaucracy which runs the machinery of governance. That is why General Musharraf could do precious little without the help of his old friend Tariq Aziz. That is why every prime minister’s principal secretary is considered so powerful. When we choose to criticise the men and women at the top we deliberately ignore who actually wields power. The example of the Musharraf era devolution comes to mind. The ruler back then was powerful. The bureaucracy did not approve of the plan to change dynamics at the grassroot level. Who would if it meant losing control on ground? It quietly went along and waited till the time the amendment lost the Sixth Schedule cover and then recaptured the lost space.
You are fascinated by all this talk of reforms. During Nawaz Sharif’s time the then planning minister often spoke about bureaucratic reform. But we did not even see the first draft of the proposals. Now, Dr Ishrat Hussain talks about these reforms. We still await a coherent and comprehensive set of proposals to this effect. An interesting case study in this context is of Daniyal Aziz, the man who knows the weaknesses in the structure by heart. When the Musharraf era ended and the National Reconstruction Bureau headed by Aziz was dismantled, he failed to return to the parliament in the following elections. And when he did somebody had convinced the ruling PML-N that he should be kept away from projects relating to reform and instead be asked to defend the government like an ordinary if aggressive spokesman. The total deconstruction of an able man with the knowledge of all bodies ever buried was to ensue. And where is he now?
Our third fault line is of the feudal mentality. Not feudalism but of the feudal mentality. Feudalism has waned with the natural course of land redistribution over generations, but the feudal mindset still survives. How should the rich and powerful behave is predetermined by society’s powerful elite and that’s why hardly anything ever changes.
There are other fault lines like racial and lingual prejudices and overpopulation but we will return to them another time. For now, we need to find a way to fix the above three or we will not progress an inch.
(First published on July 25th, 2020) NYC Comedian Ryan Long came up with a brilliant video in which two men, one woke one racist are discussing matters pertaining to colour and race. The racist among them announces very proudly that they agree on everything. And […]Farrukh writes
NYC Comedian Ryan Long came up with a brilliant video in which two men, one woke one racist are discussing matters pertaining to colour and race. The racist among them announces very proudly that they agree on everything. And then they launch into their explanations regarding the primacy of the racial identity, their aversion to the dilution of these identities through interracial marriages, and the need to keep their cultural products like food and music separate. They may have different sets of reasons, one bigoted and selfish, other compassionate and cosmopolitan, but the end result is invariably the same. A perfect example of how good people overthink things and end up rewarding the prejudiced with what they so desperately need. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Whiteness is back in sharp focus these days. Borrowing from Yuval Harari’s storytelling metaphor one can say that like any other race it is just another construct. But it is more loaded than many others. For instance, white supremacists associate it with their claims of being a master race and their right to either rule others or to exterminate the rest. Critics associate it with the long history of colonialism, oppression, and hate. But if you look closely, white people are people like any other group or set. And whiteness is just another construct.
Why is it in so much focus, you ask? Because academics and the media have been trying to grapple with Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 and explain it with as many theories as they can invent. White distress, white fragility, white privilege, white rage, and so on. Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. But could it be that Donald Trump won not because he was white but because he was perceived for long as a living breathing example of the American dream? That those who voted for a Black president eight and four years ago voted this time for a man with the popular catchphrase “you are fired” as a message? That the candidate chosen to fight Trump had huge and unfortunate baggage that her supporters chose to ignore? That Obama’s failure to shut the racists up, lessen the pain of the working class and put an end to the endless wars was deemed as the betrayal of his campaign promise “yes, we can”? Think about it. It is such a huge promise that you are doomed to fail the moment you make it because then even your best may not be good enough. And it is equal parts saddening and fascinating how as if by default the pundits and the media went directly to whiteness for an explanation. If you are tired of seeing Trump as the subject of every other book that comes out these days just take a step back and see how many books were written on race by serious scholars in the past three and a half years. You will be surprised.
Look, racists exist in every society and they are rightly shunned to the margins. But when serious people start writing about constructs like race you only help mainstreaming them. As a result, many conspiracy theories which did not deserve any attention have been magnified. One such theory is called white genocide and we will return to it later.
Let me first qualify why I think that race is a flawed construct. Should the colour of your skin, your eyes and hair define you? You realise that you had zero choice in the matter. We talk about these colours because they are easily distinguishable but not many others. For instance, what is the colour of your flesh, blood and bones? What is the colour of your brain? Ah, the brain. The racially prejudiced do not ignore the brain. But here they talk about the size, not the function or colour. Why? Because their lack of consistency suits their narratives. Take what suits your claims, dismiss what does not. But inevitably this is your basic “us versus them” spiel. If you invert the argument of the racists and start using the colour of the brain and size and weight of your bodies you might end up creating grounds for slightly funnier prejudices. Tall versus the short, fat versus the lean. But in our broken world, someone could capitalise on that prejudice too.
The basic drives motivating every sentient being on this planet remain the same: to live, to preserve one’s interests, to belong, to stand for something, and to leave a legacy behind. But because social Darwinism is so close to every racist’s heart let us also take a gander at their concept of a utopia. The white nationalists have a minimalist model and a maximalist model. Their minimalist model involves a dedicated land and country for the whites. Now, apart from non-whites who should not be able to set foot on the land? Any woman who does not find men attractive, especially white men, any woman who refuses to bear a child even if it is a product of rape and any woman who cannot for some biological reason is not fertile. Because this essentially is all about birth rates. Also not allowed are children of mixed marriages even if they learn more towards the definition of whiteness and persons with disabilities. So, Hitler’s Nazi Germany basically.
But the story doesn’t end there. This is a starting point not an end in itself. Once you have built a nation you start the good work of waging a war on the rest of the world which either ends with the subjugation or the extermination of non-white or mixed-race people.
Now ask them what happens next. Their answer would essentially be some version of “they lived happily ever after”. But that is not how Darwinism and identity politics work. Even if you exterminate the entire world’s non-white population and settle white people there what happens a few generations later? The people who live in various parts acquire those physical characteristics because of the unique environmental conditions and the genetic mutations in response to them. So basically, what is the point? And what happens when people start discriminating on the basis of other characteristics? It is a slippery slope and an ugly and unintelligent way to address the forces of nature.
Conspiracy theories like white genocide, that the white people are being systemically replaced by non-white individuals, also find traction because of the rise of billionaires from the parts where the white population is surrounded by non-whites. Elon Musk comes from South Africa and Rupert Murdoch from Australia. Slightly more meaningful and rational dialogue between these communities may go a long way in allaying their fears. Anyone standing up for racial harmony hence becomes a hero because even though it is no easy task it is an admirable one. But remember, you cannot deconstruct one racial identity while weaponising another. Trying to hold today’s white people accountable for what their forebearers did centuries ago is as counterproductive as believing that all human beings should not be considered equal. Only empathy and compassion can help us now.
(First published on July 18, 2020) You must have encountered a host of theories in international relations (IR). Realism, idealism, Marxism, constructivism, critical theory, postmodernism, feminism, and on. Realism like many others has given birth to a number of sub-categories. President Trump calls his version […]Farrukh writes
You must have encountered a host of theories in international relations (IR). Realism, idealism, Marxism, constructivism, critical theory, postmodernism, feminism, and on. Realism like many others has given birth to a number of sub-categories. President Trump calls his version principled realism. Let me appropriate an idea from literature to present a new one: magical realism.
In literature, magical realism means a style of writing which presents a realistic picture of the modern world while retaining some elements of magic. Now, even though as a field of inquiry IR has expanded so rapidly that it has outgrown its mother called political science, by claiming to be a science it cannot match the fantasy world of fiction. So, no Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the discipline. The word ‘magical’ in the title magical realism would essentially refer to the tricks and illusions involved in the trade of foreign policymaking that would prematurely convince you that things had settled one way or the other and a certain outcome was all but guaranteed, only to find out that your mind saw what it wanted to see and the emerging reality was far more complex if not altogether different. As we progress in our discussion, I will try to substantiate the notion. But let me first introduce you to the elements that triggered this discussion.
Just in the past few weeks you have witnessed the old international fault lines heating up. China and India literally brawled over their unsettled and disputed border. Two US aircraft carriers carried out drills in the South China Sea. India and Australia inked an agreement concerning ‘Mutual Logistics Support’. The US also did not hold any punches. President Trump announced that Hong Kong would be treated as mainland China bringing an end to its special status. A host of Chinese officials have also been sanctioned. In an evidently related development, the UK announced that it was excluding China’s Huawei from its 5G infrastructure projects. Whereas, Google announced that it was making a huge investment in Indian company Reliance Industries’ Jio platforms to develop local 5G solutions. Is pulse quickening right now?
China has also retaliated with unmeasured quantities. With China you do not know till the last moment what hit you. But from Ladakh and foiling multiple Indian attempts to bring down the Oli government in Nepal to the warming up of ties between Iran and China you can see how it is securing its neighbourhood. India’s boorish policy towards its neighbours dictated by an extremist ideology melting down before our eyes does not help. Nepal’s PM Oli also stated recently that Lord Ram was not from India but from Nepal reminding us all that there is only one Hindu state in the world which is neither India nor India gets along with it. A religious masterstroke if you consider the sentiment on which India’s BJP has been capitalising. But is it official? Are we witnessing the start of a new cold war? Or is it something bigger? The makings of WWIII? Not so fast.
Without undermining the seriousness of these developments let me use two metaphors before fully dissecting the myths and realities of today. Let me first take you to your childhood when the circus came to town and a barren of piece land was instantaneously transformed into a living, breathing wonderland. What a delicious and amazing escalation. You went there to see exotic animals, exotic performances and occasionally some freaks of nature. And then after a few days the circus would pack up and move on leaving behind the same barren piece of land as if nothing ever existed there. Policies are always important but, in an age driven by data, their half-lives have dramatically contracted.
The second metaphor is from Harry Potter when a Horcrux is being destroyed and it puts up a resistance to befuddle your senses and minds just to stop you from doing it. But then it is destroyed with all the shock and awe gone at once. We are in that territory right now.
Sponsored messages from paid figures like Steve Bannon will try to convince you that history repeats itself. It does not. Not at this granular level. The US and China of today are different from the post-WWII US and USSR. Despite brief cooperation, the USSR and US barely knew or trusted each other. The China we witnessed today was partially built by the US. Since then their fortunes are so deeply intertwined that the idea of decoupling, except as a rhetorical device, is laughable. You can get a malignant organ surgically removed from your body but there is no way to separate your skin, flesh, and bone without killing you.
The US has changed drastically before our eyes. After the Cold War the realisation grew that the international influential set up the US had created was now yanking its chain. First phase came in the shape of reinventing the enemy. The clash of civilisations, hostile Al Qaeda, ISIL, Iran, Russia, China. The chain was still being yanked. Cough up if you want to maintain this infrastructure. Then came attempts at correction. Obama failed to bring an end to foreign liabilities and ended up normalising extremists like Modi and opening new frontiers. Finally, another correction in the shape of Trump who took a sledgehammer to the delicate masonry. It was proof of a concept and it worked. Your allies keep whispering that your enemy may win but you take one hard look at the extent of your interests and where interests of others start. Right now, an election is to be won and lost in America and that’s why old rhetoric will not be changed. But after that, no matter who wins will only focus on American interests.
China has also given proof of three concepts in the past few decades: Den Xiaoping’s reforms (aka opening up of China), peaceful rise, and one country two systems (both proof of peaceful coexistence). Despite some recent reverses, there is a lot there for the West to work with. In the end, China has to open up significantly and the West has to work with it.
Now the Horcrux. The world order that we see coming to an end was not shaped by the US or China but India. Three Indian PMs PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh played their cards well. By opening India up, they reshaped the discourse and captured a pivotal space in Western imagination. India gained unprecedented influence there. But it was a clever policy based on plausible deniability. Tell the West its new enemy is China and India is the bulwark against the new peril. Tell China India is actually its ally. Give nothing in writing and get the best of both worlds. Until the current lot came to power, inhaled its own propaganda, made a mess of its economy, and destroyed everything. Now everything is ideological as India transforms into an ugly illiberal democracy, offends China, and expects impractical things from the West. The damage it does to China is temporary. The damage it does to itself by alienating its neighbours is permanent. Enough magical realism for you?
(First published on July 11th, 2020) For someone who spends a remarkable amount of time reading and researching fascist literature, I feel very fortunate this propaganda never appeals to me. To defeat their seduction all you have to do is know where the ciphers are […]Farrukh writes
For someone who spends a remarkable amount of time reading and researching fascist literature, I feel very fortunate this propaganda never appeals to me. To defeat their seduction all you have to do is know where the ciphers are hidden and how to unlock them. When properly unlocked they are revealed as a pitiable heap of wholly odious garbage.
Let me share the names of three authors who have helped me a great deal in building a foundation against such evil ideas. The first author is Karl Popper. Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies painstakingly deconstructs three philosophical works which are repeatedly repurposed to manufacture new forms of fascism and other totalitarian vices. These works are written by three renowned philosophers: Plato, Hegel and Marx. Since Plato is the patient zero of all things fascistic here is a beautiful excerpt from the first volume to describe him.
“Socrates had refused to compromise his personal integrity. Plato, with all his uncompromising canvas-cleaning, was led along a path on which he compromised his integrity with every step he took. He was forced to combat free thought, and the pursuit of truth. He was led to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence.” And there lies the problem. All of this just because he hated democracy.
The second author is Bertrand Russell. A History of Western Philosophy is an absolute gem even if you don’t have time for the rest of his beautifully written works. The third author who was very helpful is Will Durant. Now with his works I took the long route. His 11-volume Story of Civilization was easy to read when I was young and had all the time in the world at my disposal. Mercifully a shortcut is available. His Story of philosophy will happily inoculate you against fascism.
Now to the subject. It never ceases to amaze me how often fascists use the future as a propaganda tool. In their versions of utopia and dystopia, they show people dreams and nightmares that immediately guarantee their loyalty. That is why successful fascists usually are very gifted orators or writers. Show, don’t tell. But what if you were told that today’s Nazi grifters have a more powerful set of future related propaganda tools than the original Nazis. Let us dive into the perverse world of internet-based conspiracy theories to sample some of these.
Have you heard of John Titor? Before I tell you more about him, let me point out that this name stirs an avalanche of debate and controversies on online message boards. And from there the lore has seeped into mainstream social media as well.
The story goes like this. In the year 2000, on online message boards, a series of messages started appearing by someone who introduced himself by the above name and claimed that he was a military time traveller from the year 2036. Initially, the claims attracted the kind of ridicule and disbelief they deserve. But his messages kept coming. And what eventually helped him win over countless supporters was his elaborate knowledge of science and technology involved (he even posted pictures of the purported time machine) and the dark details of the world he claimed to come from. Many scientists later showed how his scientific claims despite being clever did not add up. Within a few months, the messages stopped coming and his followers believed he had returned to his original time. Only his description of the dark future interests us here.
He claimed that in 2004 a civil war breaks out in the US. It continues for 10 years and he joins a shotgun infantry unit at the age of 13. In 2014, a brief nuclear world war between Russia and the US brings an end to this civil war as many US cities are destroyed by Russian nuclear strikes. America breaks down into five pieces and the world becomes peaceful. I couldn’t find any direct reference to race relations but there are hints here and there. Jewish references appeared quite often.
The neo-Nazi fascination with nuclear bombs and the American civil war is not new. America’s intervention in WWII played a decisive role in Hitler’s and Axis powers’ defeat and the US nuclear superiority was the winning argument. Consequently, they have not forgiven either one of them. In many neo-Nazi fantasy fiction works like the Turner Diaries, Russia (or its predecessor USSR) uses nuclear strikes to punish America. In Turner Diaries, often dubbed as the Bible of white nationalism, the white supremacist forces in the near future first seize control of California and then launch nuclear strikes on the USSR, hoping, calculating that Moscow would attack America, not just the breakaway California. And that is precisely what happens.
Since these message boards were usually anonymous no one could locate the whereabouts of the said time traveller. There were claims that his IP address was geolocated in Florida but since early forms of virtual private networks (VPNs) were already in use you can never confirm that. Incidentally, in 2000, the author of white nationalism’s Bible, William Pierce was fiercely occupied in transforming his extremist group the National Alliance into a highly professional organisation so that it could outlast him. He died in 2002. Interestingly, Pierce was a PhD in physics and had left a research job in the aeronautical industry to join the American Nazi Party. Pierce gets occupied with more pressing concerns and Titor disappears from the message board. Pierce dies and we are told Titor sent back a message telling us he would not return.
Now get this. Remember in the past I told you about the alt-right, Boogaloo movement, Nazi-Hindutva connection and many other evils populating the 4chan website? There is another conspiracy theory that originated. It is called QAnon. This group has grown rapidly in number, has spawned a number of lethal sub-theories including the so-called pizzagate scandal, has been covered by media and is dedicated. Former Trump National Security advisor General Michael Flynn was recently videotaped celebrating July 4 by swearing allegiance to QAnon. Q refers to an anonymous poster who claimed to be in the know of things and first appeared on the website in 2017. He talks of a plan to defeat the corrupt elite. His supporters wait for his call to arms. Interestingly this theory has a time travel component too which connects inventor and scientist Nikola Tesla to Trump through his uncle John G Trump. Yes, Tesla to Trump. Q by the way does not refer to any post. It refers to the department of energy’s clearance level. According to the Federation of American Scientists’ website, Q clearance “could have access to nuclear weapons design, manufacture, or use data”.
Now imagine for a second that Pierce is Titor, alt-right is neo-Nazis, Boogaloo movement and QAnon are parts of preparation for the second world war and Q has access to the nuclear controls. Why does it concern us? Because Pierce’s white protagonists do not stop at nuking only the US, Russian and Israeli cities. Once victorious they destroy the entire non-white world including you and I with nuclear strikes.
(First published on July 4th, 2020) When Rachel Maddow published her recent book, Blowout, claiming that Russia in confluence with the oil lobby had conspired to bring Donald Trump to power in revenge for the US punitive measures in response to the annexation of Crimea, I […]Farrukh writes
When Rachel Maddow published her recent book, Blowout, claiming that Russia in confluence with the oil lobby had conspired to bring Donald Trump to power in revenge for the US punitive measures in response to the annexation of Crimea, I had taken an issue with her central premise based on two arguments: timeline and the rise of white nationalists. By the time the annexation of Crimea and the following opprobrium could have policy implications. several developments like the rise of populist leaders like Modi and the strengthening of white nationalist groups were already in motion. I do not think Maddow has done justice to that aspect. But one of her self-confessed admirers, Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, might be of some help.
Bannon believes in dharma and is a fan of the Bhagavad Gita. It is funny how these white nationalists and fringe ideologues take what suits them from the sacred book. For instance, his faith in his own dharma (righteous duty) owes itself to an interaction between Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) and Prince Arjuna. The prince is refusing to fight a war and Vishnu through Krishna reveals his true and imposing form. This is also the source of Oppenheimer’s famous line, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. We will return to Vishnu and the alt-right’s fascination with this deity and his destructive powers. Let us keep our eyes on Bannon for now.
Mumbai-based libertarian writer and podcaster Amit Verma has written a blogpost recollecting his meeting with Bannon and an unnamed woman (most probably Rebekah Mercer) in 2015, in New York, where he was asked if he would be interested in launching Breitbart India. Breitbart, originally a conservative online paper, has become a breeding ground for the alt-right. When Verma refused the offer Bannon told him, “Well, we think that Modi is India’s Reagan”. This is when Bannon had not joined the Trump campaign and barely personally knew the man. It is interesting how everyone who stands in Bannon’s way is destroyed. Bannon wants Andrew Breitbart’s job, he drops dead. Bannon wants Paul Manafort’s job, he is disgraced and forced to resign. He is wary of Roger Ailes stealing his thunder, he drops dead.
Bannon claims he is not a racist or a neo-Nazi but his views resonate with Hitler’s propaganda. Hitler would blame the political elite of Germany which betrayed its countrymen in consonance with global moneyed Jewry. Bannon believes that America’s permanent political elite has betrayed its people in consonance with what he calls the “party of Davos” (international business elite). Like Hitler, he is an accelerationist who wants to bring everything down to build it anew and is renting an 800-year-old monastery in Italy to train gladiators to fight the coming wars at an annual cost of €100,000 per annum from his own pocket. That is where Vishnu the destroyer of the world fits into his narrative.
Speaking of Vishnu and Hitler, I told you two weeks ago that Savitri Devi, a Hindu convert of European origin and of Nazi persuasion, believed that Hitler was an avatar of Vishnu. Savitri Devi’s works have worked as the Rosetta Stone of neo-Nazism and Hindutva connection. Her book, The Lightning and the Sun, led me back to Turner Diaries’ publisher National Vanguard Books and to its recent publisher Counter-Currents. Her book, A Warning to the Hindus, led me to Hindutva philosophy’s founder VD Savarkar whose brother SD Savarkar wrote the foreword of the book. The Nazis believed in the fundamental inequality of humanity but did not have a religious philosophy. Savitri Devi provided them one by deifying Hitler and through effective exploitation of the cast-ist theology of monism. The only problem with this invention is that today’s Nazis neither consider Indians as their equals or Aryans. It is a disaster waiting to happen as we will show you.
Interestingly, the man responsible for bringing Savitri Devi’s work to Counter-Currents is one John Morgan, who before coming to this publishing house, had co-founded another neo-Nazi house Arktos media in Budapest with Swedish white nationalist Daniel Friberg in 2009. In 2010, Arktos moved to India where it remained till (surprise surprise) 2014. During this period Friberg had a frequent truck with the RSS and BJP leaders and explored ways to work with them. Soon, Arktos would start publishing Hindutva books with equal fervour hitherto reserved for white nationalist literature. When in 2016 Morgan and Friberg split and Morgan joined Counter-Currents, Friberg combined forces with white nationalist and one-time Trump supporter Richard Spencer to establish AltRight.com.
The alt-rights online presence needs some closer scrutiny. It is commonly believed it emerged from gaming-related imageboards and websites like 4chan and Reddit. These websites, by the way, are infested with both neo-Nazis and Hindutva extremists. These origins are also important because Bannon in the documentary American Dharma made on his life let slip an illuminating anecdote. He talks about a nobody called Dave who one day dropped dead in his office and nobody, not even his family knew him well. However, in the gaming community, he was known as Ajax. And in a multiplayer game, thousands gathered to pay tribute to Ajax at his funeral. What it tells us is that the real meetings and planning of alt-right activities might be taking place in virtual and possibly gaming space.
And no wonder, the number of alt-right and neo-Nazi inspired groups keeps increasing. A recent group to emerge is called Boogaloo Bois which seems to be preparing for the second civil war. It calls itself libertarian not white nationalist, but the tactics employed are textbook Turner Diaries. What if like Bannon’s this is an attempt to obscure the truth and they all are separated pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that are assembled together whenever a race war and violent overthrow of the system is imminent. Bannon talks against the system, Alex Jones talks against the system and Boogaloo movement does so too. In Turner Diaries, the system is the name of a corrupt Jewish ruling elite that wants to turn whites into a minority. Bannon talks of the coming violent disruption as if it is imminent. Neo-Nazism 101.
One last piece of the puzzle: money. When Access Hollywood tape was leaked, everyone thought Trump’s campaign was over and donors were ditching, who came to his rescue? An Indian billionaire Shalabh Kumar. Is it too much to suggest that instead of America’s deep state the very same people who came to Trump’s rescue might be responsible for the tape’s leak so that they can isolate and have Trump for themselves? This money must have gone to some alt-right groups as well.
If a race war is being planned in America and Europe it cannot be anything for the immigrant population including the Indian expatriates. Here is a quote from Turner Diaries: “They have us vastly outmanned and outgunned, but not one of their leaders is motivated by anything other than self-interest. They are ready to betray the System the instant they can see an advantage in doing so. For now, we mustn’t let them know that they are all inevitably headed for the gallows. Let them think they can make a deal with us and save their necks when the System falls.”
(First published on June 27, 2020) Storytelling is no rocket science. Creativity is not the name of a fruit that grows only on the trees of Narnia. And yet Pakistan has mostly struggled in creativity in recent decades. When everyone is obsessed with politics what […]Farrukh writes
(First published on June 27, 2020)
Storytelling is no rocket science. Creativity is not the name of a fruit that grows only on the trees of Narnia. And yet Pakistan has mostly struggled in creativity in recent decades. When everyone is obsessed with politics what room is left for creativity.
All of the recent debates on creativity are driven by political considerations. Indian movies are very successful in the world, why can’t we make influential movies? Why are we airing Ertugrul on television channels, why can’t we have similar television series made in our own country? Why are our actors working in Indian movies? The real questions are lost somewhere. For instance, do Pakistanis deserve quality entertainment? In a country with around eighty television channels why do we not have a single children’s channel? How do the state and society treat its writers and artists and what do they do to protect them? What is quality entertainment and how do you produce it?
And then there is nostalgia and false equivalency. Pidram sultan bood. My father was a king. Urdu novel Khuda ki basti could have won this, that or the other international prize. If only Faiz had not accepted the Lenin Peace Award, he could have earned the Nobel Prize. Pakistani dramas were once the envy of the region. Our drama serials Waris, Tanhaiyan and Dhoop Kinaray were translated into foreign languages and aired in other countries. But what do we have now?
Then there is an unending stream of defeatist excuses. Why have we stopped writing good novels? Because nobody reads books anymore. Why don’t we make good movies? We don’t have enough cinema houses in the country therefore film production is a small niche market where quality content cannot be guaranteed. Why are we not producing impressive television series? Dude, be grateful that we are producing something. Someday perhaps it will lead to its revival but don’t expect anything great right now.
I am not saying that none of these problems exists. There is no dearth of problems. Whatever creativity remains in the system is hounded out by the censors at Pemra and the film censor board. A couple of years ago I had an encounter with a famous Urdu poetess who until then was known to me as a progressive voice of feminism. I was quickly informed that she had joined Pemra’s content board. Within minutes she had flown into a rage complaining about the sheer vulgarity of Pakistani commercials. The TVC responsible for triggering featured a young man holding a young woman’s hand politely if romantically. That is the worst example of a regressive worldview rubbing off on somebody otherwise very open minded. All I could muster up was the question: would she rather prefer if both protagonists were of the same gender? This earned me the look that one gets when one slaps somebody. I am not surprised then that Pemra spends more time in moral policing than taking notice of small matters of slander, hate speech, depiction of violence, conspiracy theories and open threats and blackmail on TV screens.
I will return to the subject of shame and vulgarity shortly but the moral of the story above was that the impediments in the way of creativity are neither few nor small. But in this age of apps like Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime how can there be no scope for good storytelling? As someone who grew up mostly in smaller cities, how can I forget the successful businesses of bookshops that rented out children’s novels to young lads for a small fee? Truth is if you do not want to do something there are a million excuses but if you want to do something correctly you do not need a single one.
Let us look at it this way. Man is a story loving animal. Without good stories you cannot have any decent cultural product. The movies and dramas you want to sell around the world will not find any buyer if they do not have a decent storyline. That will not happen until there is a thriving market for ideas and stories. That will not happen until writers and artists are not secure. We do not treat our writers and artists well. I have always found apolitical writers, actors and other performers being treated very shabbily. They are underpaid (if at all), their works are often stolen and there is no visible legal recourse against intellectual property theft. No safety net, no functioning writers’ guild, no agents and for sure no respect. Consequently when you meet a writer or an artist you are compelled to ask how they support themselves apart from these hobbies. A country that treats its creative minds so badly will always be trapped below the layers of mediocrity.
Then there is a dearth of decent college and university programmes for creative writers. We have invested heavily in the study of English and Urdu literature but there are precious courses to teach you how to write better creatively. Here and there you might find a few private academies but usually they are cost-prohibitive. With the space for critical thought shrinking in the educational institutions you can see how much hope there is for creative writing.
When the previous government installed columnist and right-wing ideologue Irfan Siddiqui as the PM’s adviser on national history and literary heritage, reports rapidly emerged that the gentleman was more interested in using clout to install Jamaati professors in universities rather than his own portfolio. It was common knowledge and no one even questioned him. And now we complain about the shrinking space for critical thought at campuses.
And now a word on presumed vulgarity on television screens. Which century do you think you are living in? Do you honestly think that anything can be really censored in this day and age with so much technology around? Do you honestly think that the society is so innocent and impressionable that it cannot exercise discretion? If the answer is no then stop stifling the creative impulse. Nobody argues that television content should be totally unregulated. But at least allow enough leeway that reality can be depicted properly. Without clever stories you will never have the culture industry you yearn for.
Let me leave you with a brief interaction between renowned Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder and Qudratullah Shahab, which the latter documented in his biography. When Gen Ayub was consolidating his grip on power, he also imposed restrictions on writers among other things. In those days Hyder met Shahab, then Ayub’s secretary, and asked if ‘barking’ was also banned. When she got an answer in the affirmative she left. Shahab was convinced that that was the moment when Hyder decided to leave Pakistan for good. She died in India in 2007. We cannot repeat such grave mistakes.
(First published on June 20th, 2020)Unchecked renegade ideologies can prove expensive. Usually called into existence by political expediency to meet some short-term goals, these ideologies are soon abandoned. But unlike computer subroutines, they never truly go away. They keep growing in the background, mutating, multiplying […]Farrukh writes
(First published on June 20th, 2020)
Unchecked renegade ideologies can prove expensive. Usually called into existence by political expediency to meet some short-term goals, these ideologies are soon abandoned. But unlike computer subroutines, they never truly go away. They keep growing in the background, mutating, multiplying until we meet them again with their full devastating impact. And by then it is too late.
Take the example of Al Qaeda. Who doesn’t know how it came into being? The desire to defeat the USSR in Afghanistan witnessed huge investment in a fanatical, xenophobic, and often perverted ecosystem of religious militantism by the Western and Arab world. With the Soviet withdrawal and collapse this lethal brand was left behind to simmer and the only man (Zia) who could do anything about dismantling the infrastructure was killed in a plane crash with a long list of insiders. No one else either had an insight or moral courage to confront it. It kept simmering and inventing excuses to hate more people. Finally, 9/11 blew the lid off this lethal mix. But who was the worst victim of this deadly phenomenon? Fellow Muslims.
Nazi Germany is another example of a renegade ideology gone wild. In the early years, Hitler was viewed as the right idea to defeat the USSR. A host of European and American businessmen bankrolled his steady rise. The then German establishment also chipped in. But then what happened? Who was the greatest victim? Germans and Europeans. Renegade ideologies flourish in desolate, broken, polarised, anarchic places going through identity crises. The post-WWI Germany was one. The post-Cold War Muslim world was another. But does a third one come to mind?
We can say that India before independence was another. Before I qualify that assessment, let me tell you of an interesting conversation I came across a few years ago to establish some context. In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, when concerns about the rise of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the so-called alt-right were rife, in the free-flowing stream of Twitter a Western friend shared the screenshot of a social media conversation between a neo-Nazi account and an Indian Hindutva fanatic. The Indian fanatic was suggesting to the neo-Nazi that once his/her organisation had conquered the world, their Aryan brothers would help them rule the world. In response, the Nazi thug curtly said that if the Indians learned their lowly place and behaved the organisation would let them live. This brief conversation, in my view, epitomises the challenge facing humanity right now and rightfully left an indelible mark in my mind.
Let us now go to pre-independence India for some answers. In this space for the past seven years, I have regularly written about various RSS ideologues. Even if you did not know much about Indian history and have been paying attention you must be well acquainted with names like Golwalkar, Hedgewar, Savarkar, and Godse. But have you heard of Hitler’s Priestess? It is highly unlikely that you have. It is a book by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke about one Savitri Devi Mukherjee. Before I introduce the subject let us build a bit of suspense. The said Savitri Devi is quite a cultural and philosophical icon in the neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and other far-right circles. Her book The Lightening and the Sun was published by the same publishing house National Vanguard Books (later National Alliance) whose owner wrote and published the Turner Diaries. Her works keep appearing across the white nationalist ecosystem and some of the alt-right websites like Crosscurrents curate her work as lovingly as they would of Hitler himself.
Born Maximiani Julia Portas of English-Greek-French origin and a PhD in liberal arts, her quest for a hierarchal society, Europe’s Aryan pagan identity, and fondness for Hitler brought her to India in the early 1930s. She learned Indian languages, converted to Hinduism whose caste system she heartily approved of, and became a preacher. Being a preacher of monism and her rejection of the Judeo-Christianity accorded her a unique pulpit with a decisive influence on the Hindu nationalist and revivalist movements like the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha in an India and Hindu community craving for identity. She considered Hitler to be an avatar of Vishnu. Those who are not acquainted with one of three key Hindu deities, Lord Vishnu’s other avatars include Lords Rama and Krishna. Hitler was sent by the providence whose eventual sacrifice would bring an end to the Kali Yuga (the dark age). While Devi, who spied for the Axis powers in the second great war and eventually tied the knot in a ‘chaste marriage’ to a ‘proper’ upper-caste Hindu and an Indian Nazi Asit Krishna Mukherji to avoid deportation is rightly celebrated by the neo-Nazis, surprisingly in India her name is carefully kept out of the mainstream discourse. Perhaps, because she is a secretive symbol of the RSS’s true ambitions. If you come across her name in cultural phenomena like Viacom series Savitri Devi College and Hospital you should know the Hindutva lot is having a cryptic laugh at your expense. Other books like Krish Manjapra’s Age of Entanglement on interactions between the Indian and German cultures do tell you of Devi’s interactions among many other things.
It is evident why she would be such a huge icon in the neo-Nazi lore and Indian far-right may support her in the vain hope of getting an approval in Nazi circles. But as was revealed by an interesting televised interaction between Dr Fareed Zakaria and the white nationalist ideologue Jared Taylor, the alt-right does not see Indians as Aryans. They laugh at the idea. If you have read the Harry Potter books, the relationship at best is that of Lord Voldemort and Wormtail, whose sole purpose is a betrayal of his own, to sacrifice one of his hand for the rebirth of the dark lord and be the abject subject of scorn whilst he is allowed to live.
Indian diaspora is an enterprising community. It integrates well and the second-generation Indian immigrants are the life and blood of Western societies. But through an infusion of new immigrants with Hindutva indoctrination, elaborate funding through Hindu charities, and an alliance with the alt-right, the RSS and its western Hindutva counterparts are trying to hijack the community through blackmailing and emotional manipulation. Whether they are being used as a sacrificial lamb or for something more sinister this seriously puts the community in harm’s way and makes them the subject of double whammy from their own and the alt-right. The Hindutva network’s funding of far-right Hindu groups in the West and their linkages with the alt-right elements are being thoroughly investigated. While you obsess about Russia’s influence, the alt-right ideologues like Stephen Bannon are working as conduits between the two ideologies. The challenge is both to India and the West. If these investigations do not reach their logical conclusion and quickly, you may not even know what turned your world upside down. Perhaps the Indian diaspora needs to start defending itself against the machinations of this Hindu ISIL and to reach out to the authorities for help, as well.
(First published on June 13th, 2020) By the time these lines reach you the federal budget for the fiscal year 2020-21 must have been presented. As I write the total number of Covid-19 cases in the country stands at 125,927 as per the Government of […]Farrukh writes
By the time these lines reach you the federal budget for the fiscal year 2020-21 must have been presented. As I write the total number of Covid-19 cases in the country stands at 125,927 as per the Government of Pakistan’s official portal. Given the current rate of infections, there is little doubt in my mind that the number must have increased further as the ink dries on these pages.
The total number of deaths has reached 2,463. But that number does not frighten me. Not right now at any rate. The number that bothers me a great deal is that of total recoveries which stand at 40,247. In absolute terms, it is not as worrying. The mortality rate is still very low and the recovery rate impressive. But when the total number of recoveries in relation to the total number of infections is taken into consideration, we stand at around 31%. This tells you of two things. One that instead of flattening the curve we have achieved the exact opposite. In short, we are only inches away from an exponential explosion. Two, as the number of existing cases spikes, all hell is breaking loose at hospitals. For instance, I know of some brave young doctors in Lahore who picked up the virus while carrying out their professional responsibilities, had a hard time getting tested, were compelled to self-isolate at home where the infection spread to their entire family unit including minors.
So, at the time of writing this, my expectations for a relief package for the frontline soldiers in this fight against Covid-19 to be announced in the budget speech are a little higher than what is currently being reported. Our doctors, paramedics, and, why, even the janitorial staff working for the medical sector need massive, massive morale and financial boost. Do we have the needed fiscal space? We obviously do not. But then if we have learned anything from examples of the IMF and the US Federal Reserve during the ongoing economic crisis it is that money is what you make of it. Fiscal space can be created if you want, albeit temporarily. In the order of priorities, the next in line are the law enforcement functionaries because intermittently they are being asked to go in harm’s way and enforce lockdowns or Covid-related standing operating procedures. The way numbers are parsed we do not even have an idea how many of them have been infected.
The healthcare sector is clearly in the spotlight right now. The way our systemic vulnerabilities have been exposed merits no further elaboration. The system which has historically received only token investment has been threatening to come to a grinding halt any moment will be further overwhelmed. We know that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in collaboration with the federal and provincial governments is leaving no stone unturned to offer more solutions. But given the scope of the problem there is a need to separate the immediate from the long-term issues. The immediate problem necessitates considerable upgrade in our treatment capacity. But since our limitations are deeply entrenched and systemic, we need a comprehensive and sustainable solution to our healthcare problems too.
It is plain that the healthcare sector is driven by the profit motive. What it does in the private sector will be highlighted shortly, however, even in the public sector where the governments constantly intervene to keep prices in check the said profit motive takes the shape of corrupt practices. When an institution is not profitable and has to rely on handouts from the government, it cannot be asked to be very efficient. The bureaucratic human resource then can exploit the situation by selling hospital beds and other amenities to the highest bidder. In the private sector the push and pull factors decide the cost of services provided. Consequently, the private sector is being accused of offering services at exorbitant prices. The immediate temptation is to aggressively control prices and punish those who do not comply. But given that the existing public sector facilities are wholly inadequate, we do ourselves a huge long-term disservice if we go aggressively after the private sector. This will only drive the investment away from the sector and ensure that it does not grow any further. In the long run, what we need is more openings for private investment in the shape of a comprehensive health insurance policy. This is easier said than done. It is one thing to offer health cards to the most vulnerable in the society, wholly other to come up with a health insurance system that covers all segments of the society and is in sync with our professional and personal lives. This will need a lot of homework, consultations with the IMF, insurance companies, private healthcare providers, employers and may take some time. But the country needs this. Right now, the government is aggressively trying to provide health cover to the very poor. And the rich by virtue of being rich know how to protect themselves. The middle class, however, finds itself at a loss. I know this should not be a consideration for a government that has committed to providing relief to all but this is the key demographic that votes for the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Do not subsidise healthcare for the very rich if you think you don’t have the resources but, at the very least, offer a comprehensive health insurance solution to all citizens of the country.
The government’s chief function is to act as a regulator not a business competitor. The socialist-capitalist hybrid model that we try to put to work in the country only adds to the misery of the people. Because the government is encumbered with providing the direct relief, it is not doing a great job of a regulator. Consequently, we have witnessed one price spike followed by a scandal after another. This task of sifting through these priorities may need a lot of hard work and moral courage but without it we are going nowhere.
Let us return to the issue of Covid spread. We hear the office bearers talk about the expected peak. The problem with the idea of a peak is that it presupposes that there exists a natural occurring statistical ceiling to the spread. That once the infections reach that number the virus will stop spreading on its own. Without sterner mitigation efforts there is no guarantee that such a ceiling would even exist. Of course, the proponents of herd immunity hypothesis claim that that may happen. But even they do not see this happening before the 70-75% of the entire population getting infected. But if their hypothesis is incorrect, like the rest of the presumptions have, what do you think stands in the way of a hundred percent population getting infected? Now consider the number of people most vulnerable to the lethal effects of the virus. That number may look relatively smaller on a piece of paper but it is not in real life.
Right now, the signal appears to be lost in the noise. This signal demands broad-based national consensus and unity in the eye of the approaching storm.
(First published on June 6th, 2020) Those who have known pain and loss intimately do not take pleasure in another person’s misery. That is if they are not broken beyond repair or informed only by superficial analyses of the resentful lot. In Pakistan, we have […]Farrukh writes
Those who have known pain and loss intimately do not take pleasure in another person’s misery. That is if they are not broken beyond repair or informed only by superficial analyses of the resentful lot. In Pakistan, we have stared into the abyss and held its gaze for two decades. We have truly known what it is to suffer, lose and hurt beyond the known range of madness. When the terrorists came for our children, when the earthquakes shook our lives and floods inundated our souls, what kept us going was faith in something bigger than our mortal challenges. And to survive that builds perspective which comes handy in appreciating the suffering of others, not losing the sight of hope and seeing the fundamental goodness in people.
The United States of America is engulfed in yet another crisis. And not a normal one. When the four Minneapolis cops were killing George Floyd, an African American man wrongly accused of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit 20 dollar bill, in broad daylight, they must not have thought that it would provoke such a massive nationwide backlash. For one, and regardless of the racial overtones, the police or the other law enforcement agencies in most parts of the world are known for their heavy-handed tactics. So, at best, the outrage was supposed to be local. Nothing the local police union could not handle. Business as usual then. Except it went nuclear. And why did it go nuclear?
Because a correction was long overdue. In the past four years, the media’s open criticism of Donald Trump as the county’s alleged racist-in-chief has convinced us that America has lost itself to racism. In inhaling these assumptions we forget that we are talking about a nation which waged a civil war against its own kith and kin to end slavery and won. Every contested right there has a long history of heroic struggles behind it. It is easy to think that such a place would surrender to the worst human instincts without a fight but that is not true. I know it because we would not either. Even then there have been moments when our faith in the fundamental good nature of human beings shakes beyond limits.
There are many ways to judge America. Its foreign policy and forever wars offer one place to start. If your homes have been bombed by the US drones or the old normal in your country was dismantled with a promise to build a better future which never materialised like in Iraq, you are unlikely to view America kindly.
If you are an African American and you have discovered the vocabulary of racial suffering in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me which has become such a massive cultural phenomenon, you are unlikely to forget your own misery. If you are a white male who hangs out at online message boards like 4chan, 8chan or its latest incarnation 8kun instead of reading serious literature and has an impressionable mind, you might have started believing in harebrained conspiracy theories like the white genocide. And to do that is to suffer needlessly. Other communities can also see themselves as the victim and wallow in self-pity or do something rash. Critics of the US often use the story of native Americans to get back at the country.
A careful study of the history of the United States reveals that in foreign and domestic policies there is no guarantee that the country would not make mistakes. This, after all, is the country which has fought wars with both its rather peaceful neighbours. But sooner or later a correction inevitably sets in. That is precisely why the US foreign policy and security establishment is usually polarised among the interventionist and the isolationist schools of thought. Domestically too, the country has consistently marched in the direction of more inclusion and mending fences. When another crisis breaks out that which Lincoln called “better angels of our nature” in his inaugural address brings people back together. That is not to say there exists no such thing that Dr Arlie Hochschild calls an empathy wall in her Strangers in Their Own Land. Countries with huge populations do have subcultures that are wary, unforgiving or ignorant of others. It does not make them inferior in any way.
Since we are trying to understand the problems America is facing right now there is a remarkable clue in the dying words of George Floyd. In his last sentence “I can’t breathe”, you can see the suffering of a community or an entire nation. Later an autopsy revealed that even though it was not the reason behind his death, Mr Floyd was found Covid-19 positive. That this tragic incident took place right in the middle of a global pandemic and national mitigation efforts, which have rendered more than 42 million people jobless since the lockdown began in the middle of March, must have contributed significantly to the intensity of the reaction. These are frightening, unnerving times for every nation in the world. From the panic buying witnessed at the start of the pandemic to the deplorable looting that accompanied recent protests, you can see a hint of this nervous desperation in everything.
The assumption that Mr Trump won the election because there was a groundswell in racist sentiment among the white Americans is deeply flawed. He won because he deftly used the controversial public service record of his opponent to rob her of the last shreds of credibility. He has been a constant part of America’s popular culture throughout a generation’s lifespan. No one actually thinks he is a racist. A smart, if opportunistic, operative perhaps. But not a racist. His base has some racist elements too but they are almost negligible. There is one fact that should worry him in an election year though. In 2016, Hillary Clinton looked like the most expensive choice. In 2020, owing primarily to his impulse control issues, he seems to have assumed that mantle.
The assumption that black voices do not matter is also patently wrong. Want proof? While its misgivings are not entirely unreal it was the African American community which rescued Mr Biden’s sinking campaign by rallying behind him. Ann Coulter, a conservative pundit and provocateur often accused of anti-immigrant racism who once was the lead member of Mr Trump’s base in 2016, has all but endorsed Keisha Lance Bottoms, the black and phenomenally articulate Mayor of Atlanta, for the position of Mr Biden’s running mate. Think about it.
In conclusion, it is easy to jump to the hasty assumption about that which might be wrong with America. But if you harbour ill will against the country, do not keep your hopes up. Sooner or later it will find its way back and will do so through introspection and dialogue while making amends for its past mistakes. You do not rise the top of the food-chain by being irreparable.
(First published on May 30th, 2020) What happens if China and India go to war? Who wins and who loses in the end? How did we end up here? If a war begins will it suck in the United States and other great powers? The […]Farrukh writes
What happens if China and India go to war? Who wins and who loses in the end? How did we end up here? If a war begins will it suck in the United States and other great powers?
The answer to the first two questions seems fairly easy. The Chinese economy has survived Covid-19 and the country is in a better shape for a long-drawn war. Owing to the Belt and Road Initiative it has increased its circle of influence so much that its supply routes will stay open even during a protracted war. Except for Hong Kong and Xinjiang autonomous regions, the internal cohesion of the country is phenomenal. Militarily, China is already in big league. The dragon is ready to pounce.
The Indian economy’s outlook in comparison is far from sanguine. Six years of voodoo economics, eroding investor confidence and now the fallout of the coronavirus related lockdowns have all destroyed the dreams of becoming an economic powerhouse. The elephant seems to be doing what elephants do. Eat. Militarily, however, it is a different ballgame. It has acquired state of the art defence technology from some of the very best weapons manufacturers in the world. If the forces stay in high spirits, it can inflict some serious damage. But the morale is where things go awry. Indian armed forces were raised as a secular and merit-based system. However, the presence of a Hindutva extremist at the top and the rapid saffronisation of the military brass have seriously compromised the merit system and the secular ethos. Imagine what would have happened if Hitler’s army had Jews and gypsies in it during WWII. Owing to their military training and discipline perhaps they would have fought bravely shoulder to shoulder with their peers but their morale could not be very high. If India were to start a long war with China, initially it could have a unifying effect on the country and draw attention away from the domestic economic mess but in a very short while the internal divisions and economic misery would most likely raise their ugly heads like never before. Although the Indian ruling elite may think so (and populists are notorious for their myopia), this is not a good time for a war.
So, is it certain then? Is China going to beat India? Let us not get ahead of ourselves. Wars between nuclear rivals, if they do take place at all, would not result in clear victories. You can say that of the two India might lose more. If you can see one clear loser emerging out of the conflict it is the region. This is the most populated region in the world with a staggering level of poverty. It is in the interest of the region and the world beyond to ensure that a war between the two Asian countries never starts. The more likely scenario is that both sides may blow hot and cold, the status quo remains and from time to time skirmishes take place.
That is an outcome that India may favour. Why? Because it fits nicely with India’s attempts to sell Huntington’s clash of civilisation propaganda. If a war with political Islam and China is inevitable then India, being the West’s frontline soldier, is seen to be doing a nice thing poking the dragon in the eye. Except that is not how things will go. The world is tired of Huntington’s vile concoction. While the West’s frustration with China is quite evident, it no longer views India as the safe democratic bet it was once considered. So, except for the proverbial slap on China’s wrist and occasional angry outbursts, this strategy is hardly going to get a more coherent response.
We know that skirmishes are taking place in the eastern Ladakh at the Line of Actual Control but that is not the whole story. Between what went down in Doklam three years ago and what is happening now around Daulat Beg Oldie and Galwan River, there has been a dramatic shift in how China views India. Beijing for a long time has viewed India as a trade partner and potential strategic ally. This optimism survived the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) between the US and India which seemed targeted at China and the renaming of the Pacific Command. But in the past couple of years China has seen with growing concern what it considers constant Indian sponsorship of anti-Beijing propaganda.
Meanwhile, in New Delhi’s policy choices one mistake has led to another. The decision to scrap Article 370, bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir and absorb Ladakh as a separate union territory has delegitimised the international de facto arrangement based on the status quo. As India has inhaled its own official propaganda it has sought to consolidate its position in Ladakh with more infrastructure and aggressive posture. This has irked China. The Indian government is already having a hard time maintaining the muscular image that it sells domestically. When it had claimed of carrying out surgical strikes in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, I had told you that this would create an unending domestic appetite for more outrageous acts. It was followed by the demonetisation debacle. And today there is no end to the series of unfortunate events.
Angering China and Pakistan may look like a page out of Huntington’s playbook. But a lot does not. Doklam incident took place because India does not want China to have anything to do with Bhutan. And the Bhutanese people are not chuffed about the idea that they are not allowed to let China open an embassy in their country. India is not crazy about Sri Lanka’s new government. It had demolished Bangladeshi goodwill because of the NRC exercise in Assam. Nepal is the only Hindu state in the world. You would think a Hindutva government would maintain a great relationship with Kathmandu. But alas, no! Twice during its rule the incumbent Indian government has made life difficult for the people of Nepal. And then it accuses China of meddling in its sphere of influence. How can you blame anyone else if one by one you gift wrap and hand over each country to China? Consequently, the allies India has are all virtual allies. They sit outside the region and will not participate in a war against China.
Perhaps, this is a timely wake up call. A change in posture is in order. A country at war with itself and its neighbours cannot progress much. India needs to take a step back and de-escalate the situation with China. PM Modi needs to seek counsel of experts and ensure that they express their opinion freely. Word has it that he trusts the judgment of his National Security Adviser and Minister for External Affairs. Perhaps they may give him some sane counsel. Revival of SAARC and a push for regional peace may go a long way in damage control.
(First published on May 23rd, 2020) Covid-19 has badly shaken our world. You cannot name a single walk of life which has not been adversely affected by the pandemic. The world economy right now is like Schrödinger’s cat. We don’t know whether it is dead […]Farrukh writes
Covid-19 has badly shaken our world. You cannot name a single walk of life which has not been adversely affected by the pandemic. The world economy right now is like Schrödinger’s cat. We don’t know whether it is dead or alive right now. As lockdowns in many parts continue to suspend economic activity and states around the world divert a substantial portion of their GDPs to relief activities, we are unsure how badly the world economy is impacted. Are we looking at another global economic depression? Or as the economic activity limps back to normal the pent-up demand will revive the economy with a bang? Only time will tell.
But obituaries are already being written. There are those who desperately twist facts to project it as a failure of capitalism. Communist China’s effectiveness to contain the domestic fallout of the virus is being presented as the proof of a better alternative. Then there are others who nit-pick on the Chinese response and claim that the state’s control on the flow of information means we do not know the full picture. They further argue that the fact that the infection has spread to the entire world shows that there was either unprecedented ineptness on display (official version) or there was an elaborate conspiracy to bring down the Western dominated economic order so that in the end China is left unharmed (unofficial version). The Economist meanwhile is saying goodbye to globalisation.
The paranoia about a Thucydides’ trap gets a new lease on life when Western pundits look at the resumption of economic activity in China and the remarkable infrastructure it is building around the world through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The US State Department has already resumed the exercise of raising questions about the financial transparency of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) arrangements and we have also seen the rebuttals by the Chinese embassy in Pakistan. But the bickering has begun and it seems unlikely to end soon in an election year.
And conspiracy theories have grown steadily. Some of these reek of malice and deliberate sabotage. As I have pointed out in the same space earlier there are pundits who encourage people to get infected voluntarily to see if they’d survive the infection. There are others who spin an elaborate yarn involving the liberal elites, international institutions, deep states and billionaires like Bill Gates. When other competitors like Elon Musk have impulse control problems, this was to be expected. But the sad result is an ugly mix of half-hearted policies, further infections, unbecoming threats, allegations and justifications. The world could not be a more broken place.
In the midst of this messy pandemonium let us take a gander at the facts and trends we know so far. We know the infection is still spreading. People are dying as a result. The virus seems to be mutating and the Indian strain is said to be more virulent than the Chinese one. Warmer weather so far has not affected its spread. Experts who have made their views public seem confident that the virus did not come from a lab and mother nature is fully capable of coming up with something as lethal as this.
Now a look at the global economy. It is true that due to lockdowns and closed borders globalisation has suffered a catastrophic shock. But then much before the outbreak of Covid-19, The Economist was already complaining about its decline and calling it “slowbalisation”. In February last year, I had written a piece called “Mellowbalisation”, pointing out that communication and exchange of ideas between countries was continuing unabated. The pandemic might have impacted international communications for now but once lockdowns are removed this trend is unlikely to continue. The talk of self-reliant economies sustaining complete supply chains seems just a talk. There are advantages of an integrated global economy that are unlikely to disappear.
An unfortunate habit of economic experts since the 2008 economic crash is to see a great depression in every economic crisis. The 2008 global financial crisis, as the name explains it, was essentially a product of shoddy banking practices. That is not the case today. If you want to compare the ongoing crisis with the Great Depression of the past century then you will have to compare the prevailing circumstances with what was going on back then. Right now, we are neither witnessing a collapse in demand nor a monetary failure. The US Federal Reserve and the IMF have risen to the challenge. Even if the solution is printing more money (dollars in the US and special drawing rights, SDRs, in case of the IMF) it is working. So both the Keynesian and monetarist explanations for the Great Depression do not fit the current circumstances. The collapse of the West-led capitalist order is not imminent. Unlike 1930s capitalism today has many instruments to come to its rescue. But that doesn’t mean everything is hunky dory.
Let us then locate the source of real economic pain. Capital and demand are likely to survive. This is the crisis of labour. Nothing can expose the vulnerabilities of a workforce better than a global pandemic. Where factories are ready to produce and consumers await finished goods but the worker is either ill or prone to a disease and therefore cannot come to work. What happens then? If this is a global crisis the employers will wait for a while. But what happens if the crisis continues indefinitely? They turn to automation. Human labour needs rest time, sick leaves, weekly offs, bathroom and meal breaks, money for maintenance and retirement and even then might function at suboptimal level. Machines don’t.
This is no victory of the communist model. Far from it. Communism thrives on the promise of empowering the working class. How can it survive if there is no working class left? In fact, for the countries with huge populations and bustling middle classes like China and India, this is a disaster of unprecedented proportions. Those who think that Bill Gates wants to control the population by installing chips in their bodies through a vaccine should know if he were truly evil all he needed to do was to sit back and let coronavirus defeat the global workforce. The population then would have no future left.
If you are sceptical about automation taking all your jobs kindly read up on how deep learning based on neural networks is progressing. Human body is limited by its design. Evolution of machines is fast and has no limits. Unlike the first shockwave of the Covid-19 impact which exposed the labour’s vulnerabilities, the second shockwave replacing it with machines will not be swift. But it will be irreversible. Dismiss it as alarmism all you want but it is closer than you think. Occam’s razor tells us as much.
(First published on May 16, 2020) Deconstruct this. The authorities are gradually relaxing the lockdown restrictions. This was to be expected. How long can a society suspend its economics and shutter its businesses? Not indefinitely. But when the threat is so widespread, self-evident and every […]Farrukh writes
Deconstruct this. The authorities are gradually relaxing the lockdown restrictions. This was to be expected. How long can a society suspend its economics and shutter its businesses? Not indefinitely. But when the threat is so widespread, self-evident and every day marks a new spike in the spread of the virus you expect some measure of common sense to prevail. The purpose of any lockdown or restrictions is to ensure the safety of the citizens. Therefore, when the restrictions are withdrawn you would expect the said citizen to be circumspect, careful, conscientious. That, however, doesn’t seem to be happening. Newspapers, television channels, and social media all keep sharing one troubling picture after another. No regard for the government’s guidelines. No regard for one’s own safety. Or for those who are most vulnerable to the disease.
But why? This is not an academic question. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, many of us have spent months formulating and delivering public messages carefully woven into the day to day political commentaries and debates. Pakistan now has more news channels than viewers. An exaggeration, of course. But it sure feels like that many. And all these channels have been focusing invariably on the same issues. Hence, ignorance of the subject is not the likely source of the mayhem we are witnessing these days.
So, what is it? Resilience? Denial? Deathwish? Remember the days when terrorist attacks were commonplace and after every attack, you would witness life swiftly returning to normal. Our media would call it resilience. I called it denial. A few cynics called it a deathwish. But none of that explains why it took the country 16 years to build consensus against the common enemy that had spared no one. And a fleeting consensus too. Could it be defiance? Defiance of the state and its authority? Of course.
The culture of defiance exists in the country. It has been around since the colonial days before the birth of the country. To borrow a term from Acemoglu and Robinson’s seminal work on failure of nations, people do not relate happily with the extractive, exploitative systems. Extractive? But how? Has the government not just disbursed a huge amount in relief? The colonial setup was exploitative but why confuse it with our own democratically evolved or at least owned institutions?
Because you and I are talking about two different realities. There are ways to prove that democracy is a farce in this country and no government exists where it counts. Do you want to try?
Of course, I am not alluding to the apocryphal narrative about stolen elections and hybrid systems. In fact, that narrative is the problem. It keeps you from looking under the hood. Where the real problem lies buried far deeper than the reach of polemics. It is easier to prove that democracy is a farce. How? But simply pointing out that none of the major political parties holds regular internal elections. That these parties are run by fiat. There is no internal mechanism to hold their leaders accountable. Of course, the party’s leader would, from time to time, introduce a quasi accountability process within the party but only to punish the dissenters.
The second part is more difficult to qualify. Pakistan has a constitution. This Constitution details the structure, functioning and the system of governance. After the 18th Amendment, the second tier of governance, the province, was further empowered. But while our media keeps obsessing about the federal and the provincial governments that is not the level where the common citizen lives. Your citizen lives on the ground floor. There we do not have any representative government.
Let me qualify this point a bit further. If you pay heed to the stories that grow from our culture, from the folklore to our once beloved TV shows like Sona Chandi, the symbol of authority was always local. The numberdar, the mimber, the councillors, these were the people you would call to help get out of the tight spots. But whenever we had a democratic government, provinces refused to devolve power to the local level. Every single time. This was convenient. The provincial leader would gather revenues from the local level without listening to the locals bickering, through a mix of modern and ancient bureaucracy. Modern — commissioners and policemen. Ancient? Patwaris and qanungos. Taxation without any local representation. The literal essence of an extractive system.
The self image of the provincial governments is amazing. They view themselves as the crusaders against the corrosive powers of a unitary system. But in reality they only usurp power from the only level that matters.
Now, let us for a second think that instead of the prime minister and the chief ministers giving televised speeches, your chosen local representative who lived next door was constantly informing you about the threats posed by the novel coronavirus and how it can be defeated. Do you think the impact would have been the same? Of course not. We are missing out on this great opportunity because we don’t have a government. We don’t have a government where it counts. Where a chosen representative lives among his constituents and is immediately answerable to them.
But that doesn’t mean other factors are not playing a part. Greed, hubris, ignorance and stupidity all play a role in how people are toying with their lives immediately after lockdowns. But the people who could influence their behaviour and effect a change are not playing their part. The clergymen have made it clear they would not close shops for just anyone and would not influence anyone’s behaviour especially when it is not about collecting funds.
Our vernacular press has also made it clear that it has no interest in educating us about simple scientific solutions. Where is the fun in that? Instead it would give us the most shockingly uninformed conspiracy theories imaginable.
Can any of this be fixed? I am not holding my breath. Nor should you. It takes countries a long time to start acting like a nation. We are simply not there yet. Sadly, it means we will keep prolonging our ordeals by our own mistakes. They say smart people learn from other people’s mistakes. But then perhaps we are not as smart. If you consider yourself among the gifted please do your part and try convincing people that social distancing measures are in their own best interest. Otherwise angels are very unlikely to descend from the heaven just to enforce a smart lockdown.
(First published on May 09, 2020) Pakistan is not the first country that comes to mind when you discuss Covid-19. The infection numbers are still relatively low here. The novel coronavirus related deaths are almost negligible. However, with a limited capacity to test it is […]Farrukh writes
Pakistan is not the first country that comes to mind when you discuss Covid-19. The infection numbers are still relatively low here. The novel coronavirus related deaths are almost negligible. However, with a limited capacity to test it is hard to ascertain the true extent of the spread. A compounding factor is an even more limited capability to treat extreme cases. When the virus started spreading authorities disclosed that the total number of ventilators available in the country to cater to the needs of approximately 210 million people was 2,200, out of which 1,100 could not be redeployed for the purpose.
Mercifully the number of available ventilators and other facilities is growing due to the government’s coordinated efforts and the support of the country’s various allies. But if you are shocked by the scarce number of health-related equipment perhaps you have not been paying attention to the flawed policies of the post-colonial states. Decades of bad governance, corruption, and skewed priorities have ensured that most post-colonial states do not have the healthcare infrastructure needed to meet such an enormous challenge. In neighbouring India, with a massive defence expenditure, healthcare services are only marginally better. Misgovernance of this proportion creates unfortunate, painful, and paradoxical choices. For instance, with a massive population living below the line of basic subsistence, should the people be allowed to die of the coronavirus or of hunger? The entire lockdown debate in these parts revolves around this dilemma. Pakistan opted for a lenient lockdown, whereas India went with the tougher option. Sadly, the outcome in both countries is far from encouraging.
Since the official number of deaths remains significantly low, this has given rise to countless conjectures. The people in the West are traditionally more vulnerable to the common flu. In South Asia the reported number of flu-related deaths is negligible or so, the proponents of these theories maintain. Therefore, Pakistan’s decision to opt for a lockdown, albeit reluctantly, was deeply flawed, the argument goes.
A lot can be written and said about these theories, but the truth is nothing can be said with confidence about the unprecedented Covid-19 crisis. The virus is new and in the presence of an inadequate healthcare system, the reporting mechanism remains deeply untrustworthy. In such a situation the data available is not reliable enough to form a verifiable hypothesis. Fortunately, governments get a brilliant lifeline in the shape of the expertise and knowledge offered by the World Health Organization. And the government of Pakistan has reportedly been working closely with WHO.
This is where further complications enter the scene. Lockdowns of this proportion are not just unparalleled, they are highly painful and deeply unpopular. As businesses lose their value and working men and women spend more time cooped up indoors this is bound to have a heavy toll on the society psychologically as well as financially. Even the most commonly recommended mitigation measures like social distancing, use of masks, and avoiding handshakes fail to win support. The use of disposable masks has two big challenges. First, for the poor they are cost-prohibitive. Second, in the rising temperature, they cause a lot of discomfort to anyone living without air conditioning. So, the popular sentiment is gradually swinging in favour of ending the lockdown even without adequate precautions.
And then this part of the world is very receptive to conspiracy theories. In the early days of the lockdown, a video emerged featuring a former diplomat, the country’s former permanent representative to the United Nations no less, in which he made wild claims about the virus being an Israeli invention and provision of its vaccine made conditional to recognising the Jewish state. To substantiate his claims, he even read out what he claimed were the patent numbers of both the virus and the vaccine. Fortunately, a commentator had the presence of mind to look these numbers up only to find out that they had nothing to do with either.
As the crisis has grown, such theories have grown wilder. One particularly dangerous theory is about Bill Gates — the businessman turned philanthropist. The content of the theory is too absurd to narrate here. However, since it casts aspersions on Mr Gates’ efforts to find a vaccine for Covid-19 you should know how damaging the outcome can be. Pakistan has struggled for years with its polio problem. The Gates Foundation is a critical partner in the fight against the virus. If this theory mixes with the polio vaccine-related paranoia already existing in the society, it would mean generations of polio-affected individuals. The outcome, therefore, could be an unmitigated disaster.
The myths about genetic immunity aside, Pakistan’s vulnerabilities are such that when Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation for the first time after assuming office, in his televised speech he had to display the brain scans of two children — one of a regular healthy child and the other of a poor child stunted due to inadequate nutrition. These issues have not gone away. With a huge chunk of the population living in poverty, imagine the outcome if individuals with weak bodies were left alone to fight the virus.
With vulnerabilities such as these, the common people and experts in these countries look towards the developed world for leadership and guidance. In recent days many of us have watched with horror as the disagreements about Covid-19 have been weaponised and the debates have transformed into culture wars. What has ensued is an unending series of unsubstantiated claims and conspiracy theories. I hope I have already made it clear how devastating the effects of such unsubstantiated claims can be. A debate based less on emotions and more on empirical evidence can go a long way in helping the world fight this threat. We all are in it together. The broken healthcare system in the developing world is not anybody else’s fault and no one asks for the freedom of speech to be curtailed. But irresponsible statements and unsubstantiated hypotheses may prove more lethal than Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, and Fukushima put together. Billions of lives are at stake right now. In the war against the virus the scientific method is our best ally. If we use it well, we might be able to defeat this common enemy sooner than is expected. But if we are reckless with facts, spread unsubstantiated theories and disinformation on purpose in pursuit of our narrow and short-sighted personal interests, we may end up jeopardising more lives than we can think of. Seriously, no one would want that much blood on one’s hands. Pray, think about it.
(First published on May 2nd, 2020) The First World War was raging when the German authorities struck gold in a clever idea. If they could send Vladimir Lenin and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership, mostly in exile in Switzerland, back to Russia, it could […]Farrukh writes
The First World War was raging when the German authorities struck gold in a clever idea. If they could send Vladimir Lenin and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership, mostly in exile in Switzerland, back to Russia, it could weaken the Russian war effort. Russia had fought bravely but trouble had already begun in the country as a consequence of the loss of life and property during the war. The czar had abdicated and a provisional government was struggling to contain the unrest. Hence, 32 Bolshevik leaders including Lenin and his wife were put in a sealed carriage and smuggled into Russia. As the country transformed into the Soviet Union it dropped out of the war. While in the short term the clever plan had worked, it could not save Germany from defeat and humiliation at the end of the war in the long run. As the country plunged into chaos, for the Soviets it was payback time. The national socialists or the Nazis rose to prominence in reaction to the Soviet attempts to install a communist government in the country.
The success of Lenin and his associates permanently fixed the nature of communism for the world and doomed it to eventual failure. Had a slightly more flexible and democratic faction, say like the Mensheviks, taken over in Leningrad and Moscow, history would have been considerably different. The rigidity and expansionism of the Soviet authoritarianism in trying to install its exact replica in Germany, elsewhere alienated many like-minded potential allies, made some serious enemies, and created a blind spot for the far-right in the eyes of Western powers which made Hitler’s rise and the Second World War possible. And as we were to learn by the end of the Cold War, it all amounted to nothing in the end.
Meaningful change comes incrementally, with great conviction and patience. The churlish absolutism of Marxist-Leninist thought obscured the fact that there were smart people around from the very start whose flexible approach could have made the socialist brand far more effective. In the end the purpose of ideologies driven by the desire for equality is not to create oligopolies, meaningless authoritarian structures, or prefer form over substance. The purpose is to improve the human condition. But rigidity and absolutism brought the socialist movements in conflict with Western democracy. Just think of a world where the socialist movements and the West were not in conflict but engaged in a dialogue. Imagine how that could have made a far better world possible for all of us. A world where the poor did not have to suffer and yet we all kept our private properties, freedoms and free will.
If you have read the writings of Karl Marx with an open mind, you can never deny that the man was a genius. But that is the problem with geniuses. They make you want to believe that no genius will come after them. That their word is the law and there is only one pathway to emancipation: theirs. How can that be true though? Has human evolution or the evolution of mind stopped? Why should ideas stop growing then? Or grow only in one direction? Two groups have shown why growth is important. Our Chinese friends have manifested that even little doses of flexibility and tweaking can go a long way in ensuring longevity and stability of the system. The second group is the Frankfurt school. In this space I have mentioned Habermas twice. That his communication theories could be the next logical evolutionary step for the socialist thought.
In any case, for every person with a socialist, progressive bent of mind, the days and years following the fall of the Berlin Wall were very painful. You spent your entire life building your identity and one fine morning it all is gone. How do you come back from that? Consequently, it was bedlam. As the people of the former Soviet bloc went through hell, progressives elsewhere did their own things. Some decided to join NGOs, later to be dubbed as traitors to the cause by some fellow progressives. Some seamlessly turned to religion when aging helped. Political parties in electoral democracies had a far more challenging task of reinventing themselves. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for instance had to position itself as a liberal party with the manifest overtones of moderation and secularism. Politicians with intellectual depth like Aitzaz Ahsan and Raza Rabbani helped. In the UK, the Labour became the new Labour. In India, Congress shifted gears and opened the economy to private and foreign investment. While their collective identity crisis might have taken them in different directions, the left’s foot soldiers could not change their spots for a long time. One such spot involved their impatience and lack of emotional intelligence. It took a generational shift for the old wounds to dissipate. But the spots are still there. If you find someone otherwise moderate with a propensity for exploding, you have found yourself an old and exhausted Marxist.
As the economic disparity grows today fresh proof is emerging that ideas seldom die. We are witnessing a revival of socialist worldview among the younger generation. You can attribute a lot of this to Bernie Sanders’ effective campaigns. Like-minded politicians elsewhere helped. But don’t let this resurgence fool you. The brand recognition of old Marxism is nowhere near it was three decades ago. Then these movements for revival are still being driven by the old guard like Bernie. This could easily be a flash in the pan. And then there is the problem with the strategy. The existing my way or the highway approach is oddly reminiscent of the communism of the early 20th century. The problem with that brand was that it made peace with the idea of suffering humanity as an acceptable cost in order to get what it wanted. If you want to create a proletarian utopia first let the people get abused by the exploiting class. Right? Only that it will not work now. Why? Because the exploiters are far more powerful now. And the new breed of Nazis that may emerge in the meantime could destroy whatever remains functioning. Also, since the old communist jargon is rooted in the suffering of the working class, a class which might not be working for long due to automation, this strategy takes you nowhere.
Perhaps one day the progressives will have enough brand recognition to effect meaningful change. But for now, they seem to destroy their natural habitat and allies in liberal parties like the Democratic Party, the Congress party, the PPP, and so on. Over a hundred years of historical experience could not cure them of this tragic flaw.
(First published on April 25th, 2020) Democracy around the world is in turmoil. The ongoing turbulence can be attributed to only one global disaster. As many democratically elected leaders around the world keep underplaying the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, and some do so […]Farrukh writes
Democracy around the world is in turmoil. The ongoing turbulence can be attributed to only one global disaster. As many democratically elected leaders around the world keep underplaying the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, and some do so even as their own countries go through hell, democracy’s brand is on sharp decline.
Capitalism is facing a set of existential challenges of its own. The first is the erosion of value that we often call money due to the lockdowns around the world and the unfortunate oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. The second challenge is of the failure to come up with a sustainable solution to end Covid-19. No vaccine, no therapy, no other confirmed cure. Where medicine did not work, social distancing should have. But when it came to the provision of personal protective equipment the free world was found running around like headless chickens. Ladies and gentlemen we are talking about facemasks, rubber gloves and minor protective gear here. What happened to the installed production capacity to serve billions? And finally, tired of prolonged shutdowns, businesses (especially the big ones) are leaning on the authorities to resume the economic activity without much preparation. When you tell them people could die as a result you get a shrug and parroted reply that people die in any case.
This last bit is very crucial because it hurts capitalism’s brand irreversibly. What is more, the first ones to fall in the struggle to do its bidding are its own staunch supporters. The ones who would go out and risk their lives for its ever-changing ideology. Imagine your own army being destroyed as a direct consequence of your decisions, while your detractors sit in their secure, cozy bunkers, popping the bubbly and laughing at your plight. No matter what the purveyors of the sponsored ideologies tell you, capitalism doesn’t do ideology. Ideology is capitalism’s Achilles heel. If you accept that the contest of ideas is over and there is one fixed set of principles that will guide you forever the whole idea of a capitalist competition is gone. Capitalism’s challengers believe in ideology. The moment capitalism adheres to an ideology it ceases to be capitalism.
Over the years capitalism has taken great pains to show you that it actually cares. The whole idea of corporate social responsibility did not will itself into existence out of nowhere. When capitalism felt that it was failing to keep up with the public expectations in a democracy it invested heavily in image management. Already under severe stress due to growing disparity among the rich and the poor, this image will not survive if the workforce and the consumers go out unprotected and succumb to Covid-19. It is an open invitation to communism that the West had claimed to defeat decisively in late 1980s. Perhaps the threat of communism is the reason why some folks reached back into the dark recesses of time and brought back pre-WWII Germany’s model of defiance to our century. When communists were becoming a nuisance, national socialism managed to stop it in its tracks as long as Hitler lived. But Hitler’s was not an open society, was it? Brand definitely disappearing then. Right?
Free speech is another virtue of an open society. Let us take a look at how it is being treated in free societies these days. Even before Covid-19, even before the 2016 election shocker, the mind numbing interpretations of free speech could give you a massive coronary. In 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, the court decided only “reasonable restrictions” on individual, corporate, and group contributions to candidates were allowed and limits on campaign spending were not constitutional as placed “substantial and direct restrictions” on protected political expression. In 2010 whatever restrictions on corporate funding of election campaigns existed were also thrown out in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission when the court decided that free speech was an essential component of a free society and it could not be curbed only because the speaker was a corporation. Wrap your head around it. With such a generous interpretation of free speech one wonders why any international terrorist group or drug cartel did not approach the court with the prayer that its work also fell under the purview of protected free speech. You get the picture.
In recent years we are seeing further weaponisation of free speech. Racist diatribes in the name of free speech are now commonplace. Hate speech is very frequently and proudly presented as a proof that free speech is protected in your country. The purpose of this discussion is not to tell you what is and what is not free speech. Only that such liberal definitions only adversely affect the proof of the concept in the eyes of someone who is on the receiving end. As the brand suffers, the resulting chaos also presents an administrative challenge for the democratic governments. Consequently their brand suffers too.
In recent days, you must have noticed an uptick in the propaganda campaign against Microsoft’s founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. Reason? Because he is among the only few billionaires who have shown active interest in helping resolve the crisis on a global scale. Regardless of their content and without any verifiable proof these conspiracy theories are tailored in a fashion that your mind would easily customise the details in accordance with your own climate. It serves us best to activate the spam filters of our minds here. Do not shoot down the exceptions out there to redeem the image of their community. Another such exception is New Zealand’s Premier Jacinda Ardern. Acting decisively in the nick of time she has managed so far to shield her country from a major catastrophe. And she did so not by reinventing the wheel but by paying heed in time to the wise counsel of the experts around the world. The world leaders who now openly disagree with the WHO’s advice most likely slept through the time when action could contain the problem. If the above mentioned exceptions do not become a rule free society’s brand might be extinct in a few years.
Why? Because there are other models which are working visibly better. Look at China. Its controlled model offered far more resources to the state to control the Covid menace. Open societies cannot become today’s China. But their best examples have already been identified above. If these societies do not act soon they are gone. In the world of new democracies the damage is already done. The seduction of populism compromised the chances of any meaningful action. If the virus is not killed by the summer heat and no cure is found, in a month or two, many will fall like ninepins. Who will stop them from falling then?
(First published on April 18th, 2020) During the lockdown, mostly cooped up in the house, I finally managed to finish the TV series that I have been trying to for a while. The Man in The High Castle. Loosely based on Philip K Dick’s novel of […]Farrukh writes
During the lockdown, mostly cooped up in the house, I finally managed to finish the TV series that I have been trying to for a while. The Man in The High Castle. Loosely based on Philip K Dick’s novel of the same name, it is a dystopian take on what would have happened had the Axis powers won the Second World War, and Germany and Japan had divided the United States into three parts — one for each and one neutral zone. The author was a genius — albeit a bit disturbed — in his own right. But the production values and brilliant acting makes it worth watching. Where I struggled, however, was the exceptionally painful nature of dystopia in which people toiled to survive under the dominant strain of the political evils whose resurgence threatens our century. And the ugliness of the racism dominated authoritarianism. For instance, without much warning we are once told that the ashes suspended in the air are of the crippled, the sick and the elderly who are regularly killed and burnt. But I am glad that I watched it.
What stands out in the series is how ordinary people can make do with any form of government just to make the two ends meet. The common, non-confrontational, family men and women. This habit of making peace with any circumstance, no matter how unsavoury, ensures that life goes on but without a reset. When the reset comes, it is plain that the only thing that stood in its way was fear itself. The fear that robs us of the desire to ask for more, to seek our own perfection and the perfection of the world around us. This series takes an interesting turn when the world dominated by the Nazis tries to invade and change parallel realities with different outcomes — for example our own world.
Since 2016, I have heard many friends joke that we are trapped in a different and more morose reality where Nazism, racism and fanaticism are not regarded as almost forgotten nightmares from the past but active threats. In this space I have continuously theorised on what might be contributing to these changes. Mainstreaming of societies where inequality is culturally sanctioned — like India? The desire of presumed US rivals like China and Russia, and perhaps not so presumed like India, to witness the decline of the West through sponsored seeds of discord, confusion and disarray so that they can eventually rise? The clash of the civilisations between Islam and the West as a thesis and the contradictions of Huntington, its progenitor, who ended up defining American identity as that of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants or WASPs as they are often called? Or the rise of the new breed of ultra-rich capitalists and their Ayn Rand inspired libertarian political allies who see governments as the enemy and free enterprise the only hero on the block? As is evident the members of this alliance have shown readiness to befriend any element, no matter how extreme, just to see their dogmatic and reductive worldview put into practice. Many libertarians, after all, cohabit happily with the racist alt-right in the loosely knit coalition that is often referred to as Trump’s base. The theorising continues. Regardless of whether one or all of these elements contributed to this mix, the outcome is getting deadlier by the day.
The ongoing global Covid-19 crisis has made humanity a target practice for the elements mentioned above. It is an inextricable part of human nature to yearn for the old normal. To demand return to how things were before the lockdowns. Consequently, they would turn to any alternative explanation that is out there. And in the same climate the cost of a prolonged shutdown is becoming too high for governments and businesses. The gradual dismantling of the lockdown was then to be expected. But the situation becomes dangerous when the desire for the old normal meets the impulse to justify the opening up of the economy in an environment full of dodgy characters. For instance the alt-right proponents of “peaceful ethnic cleansing” like Richard Spencer wouldn’t mind if members of the vulnerable minorities succumb en masse to Covid-19. Likewise, there are many among the hyper-capitalists who may see the depopulation of a significant chunk of the poor and the elderly not as a part of the problem but of the solution.
Consequently, the alt-right and some among the libertarian circles have mounted an aggressive campaign to promote what is called herd immunity. Based on past pandemics, they argue that if a significant segment of the healthy population gets infected the virus stops infecting the most vulnerable. It has worked in the past they say. And then they marshal the support of obscure scientists, doctors and experts to make their point. Sounds reasonable, right? Except it isn’t. The virus is very new, very lethal and hard to understand. Only six months ago most of the world did not even know that it existed. We do not know the length of the period of a recovered patient’s immunity, frequency of flare-ups and generally the long-term behaviour of the virus. And thanks to a constant propaganda campaign of another segment of the conservatives who want you to believe that the virus was genetically engineered, you realise the number of unknown variables keeps increasing. This then is another leap of faith and the one not supported by the mainstream medical position championed by the WHO and most governments. Perhaps that is why, and not because of hiding information on China, the Trump administration was compelled by its far-right allies to cut the funding for the WHO.
Consider another variable. With no vaccine in sight the proponents of herd immunity believe that it will take somewhere between 50 to 70% infections among the population to reach the level where the virus stops infecting the vulnerable. Given the above-mentioned variables we don’t know how long that will take. And until we get there it will be Italy, New York and Spain everywhere every day. Sounds a lot like eugenics. Acceptable cost? I don’t think so.
So, what is the alternative. The lockdowns cannot go on indefinitely? The best solution is to keep listening to the advice of the WHO and the mainstream experts as we relax the lockdowns. Keep social distancing, take necessary precautions, develop a healthy amount of skepticism for the outliers and hope for a vaccine or a breakthrough to soon emerge.
As for the nations who are still treating this situation as a zero-sum game, it is imperative to remember we are in the same boat. The pandemic has changed the dynamics of the world politics like everything else. About time we realise we are one race faced by a common enemy. The West will have to work with China and Russia, Israel and the Arab world with Iran, Pakistan with India. Without that this boat will sink sooner than we fear.
(First published on April 11th, 2020) Crises bring out the best and the worst among us. The ongoing double whammy does nothing less. On one side it has exposed the poverty of our healthcare system. Who would have known that a country of over 200 […]Farrukh writes
Crises bring out the best and the worst among us. The ongoing double whammy does nothing less. On one side it has exposed the poverty of our healthcare system. Who would have known that a country of over 200 million had only 2,200 ventilators, half of which could not be put to use during a serious healthcare crisis? As someone who saw a loved one die because of the absence of a ventilator, I find it unforgivable on any given day, doubly so during a debilitating pandemic. On the other side we also witnessed the widespread concern for the poor and the needy.
It will probably remain a mystery to me that in a country where there is no dearth of charity and benevolence, why is it that critical, lifesaving items disappear during national emergencies. First, masks started disappearing. One day when I requested an old acquaintance at a medical store for a few masks so that I could function in congested spaces, he disappeared behind the counter for a long time and emerged with a heavily taped thick brown envelope. Within this envelope were three ordinary masks. The reason for this precaution? The fear that other customers would demand a few also. The ones given to me came from the shopkeeper’s own ration. In any case, that is the story of disappearing masks.
Then came the moment when we learned that sanitisers could be useful in protecting us from the virus. Next thing you know they had disappeared from the shelves. Mercifully by that time the government had taken cognisance of the matter and hence sanitisers started returning to the market. But that also meant you had to be circumspect. Fake sanitisers were proliferating the market and the local administration had to carry out raids to discourage their use.
Then came the moment when the United States President mentioned the possible advantages of using chloroquine in combating the coronavirus. That acted as a dog whistle for our hoarders and profiteers. The next day the cheap anti-malaria drug had disappeared from the market. One day when I consulted an owner of a pharmaceutical manufacturing company to check the availability of various medicines and equipment, I was told that one strip of chloroquine which usually sells for less than Rs100 could now be obtained in the federal capital as a special favour for Rs11,000. I do not exaggerate. The infrared temperature gun was now available at the price of Rs22,000. The more you asked the more perplexing the prices became. And this is the story of the federal capital where the writ of the government is supposed to be the strongest. You can imagine what went on elsewhere. I am sure the prices have stabilised since then as the government has doubled down on price control. But not before exposing the greed in the society which did not hesitate to play with lives for a little extra profit.
If that was one aspect exposed, here is another piece of the puzzle. Piety. I have never seen governments urging people this vociferously to stay away from Friday congregations for their own good. The President of Pakistan even sat down with clerics to convince them that this was need of the hour. An edict came out which fell short of the pledge to momentarily shut down mosques to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The mosques would stay open but only a few people would participate in the prayers. But the next Friday I noticed that the mosque next to my home was packed with worshippers. Consider this. There are no holier mosques for a Muslim than those in Makkah and Medina. The congregations had been stopped there to stop the spread of the virus. But in Pakistan this was unconceivable. The Sindh government took a tougher stand. Consequently, two policemen were roughed up in Karachi when they went to remind a local community that Friday congregations were banned during the lockdown.
Now let us talk about the poor. Like the 2010 floods, the ongoing crisis has exposed the mind-numbing levels of poverty in the society. People who go hungry if they do not earn a daily wage were bound to suffer. That is one reason why there was reluctance in imposing a stricter lockdown. To be honest, you cannot call it a lockdown if the roads are open for a common man’s movement. But that was the reason behind the reluctance. And the government has done a good job in handing out cash to the most vulnerable in the society. But the other day a video was circulated on social media by the son of a former president and a landlord. This gentleman, a politician himself, was almost crying about suffering humanity, grinding poverty and the possibility of a popular uprising. And this reminded me of the day when I had visited his village during his father’s life and was agonised by the widespread poverty and subhuman treatment of the poor there. Irony is lost in this republic.
As the crisis grows nobody knows where it will take us. This is not an average, everyday shock to the system. Since the lockdown could not be enforced as rigidly as was needed and the window of opportunity to contain the spread has all but passed the governments will have to gradually ease the restrictions and normal life will resume. How could you not when the entire world resumes its business? Consequently, the workforce which returns to jobs will be at a high risk of catching the infection. Even if the weather-related conjecture about the spread of the disease proves correct the virus will not truly go away. The economy which was already struggling to survive before the pandemic will find it even harder to do so in the time of a global recession.
In these troubling times we need three things: unity of purpose, decisiveness and moral courage. Sadly, all three elude us to this day. There cannot be a bigger motivation than survival. If a direct threat to this has not been able to unite us, I do not know what else will.
Since the current crisis has exposed so many fault lines in our society the only way to survive is to seek a reset. That will happen when we all can overcome our differences. Without unity and strategy we are only sleep walking towards an existential disaster.
(First published on April 4th, 2020) Mankind is failing. On the face of it, a microscopic bug has brought it on its knees. But that is only half of the story. In these uncertain times when we all struggle to see some hope, it is […]Farrukh writes
Mankind is failing. On the face of it, a microscopic bug has brought it on its knees. But that is only half of the story. In these uncertain times when we all struggle to see some hope, it is clear that our collective mental faculty is invested heavily in creating more divisions instead of uniting against an enemy that should have been vanquished weeks ago. With no certified cure in sight, the novel coronavirus has once again proven that we are where we are because we never learn. Our disunity is our downfall and that is precisely why we keep sinking like a stone.
The news must have reached you. The total number of Covid-19 infections around the world has crossed one million. And that is just among the people we have tested. You cannot be sure how many others are carrying the bug without symptoms. And there is no way to accurately predict how many will die by the time it all ends. In the United States alone the current projections stand somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths. The right-wing media tries to underplay this number by informing us how many die every year of flu, drug overdose and obesity alone in the US. But, guess what? These deaths may occur in addition to those numbers. And to say, “phew, see how successful we are because we managed to restrict the total casualties to these numbers”, is remarkably blasé. The US still remains the world’s sole superpower. When it struggles what chance does any other nation have?
And what was the ask? For individuals: stay safe, practise social distancing, wash your hands regularly and show compassion. Basic stuff. So simple that a child of six could do it without much hassle. But we won’t. This is too much for our wild nature. We are not born to be locked up in our cages.
For governments? Shun your narrow-minded disagreements and work for a common solution. One vaccine to cure every patient. But that too will not happen. Far easier than working together is to blame. To invent a new enemy. But what happens to the real enemy which is so small it cannot be seen with the naked eye? In this terse reminder nature had given a simple test. Know thy enemy and thyself. And so far, mankind has failed this simple test. It refuses to see what is killing human beings and to the novel coronavirus all human beings are equal. Equally useful hosts. So what happens in reality? Politicians do politics. Profiteers make profit. Grave-diggers dig graves. And countries blame each other for the mess. If the coronavirus was self aware it would be laughing by now.
I have lost count of how many times in this space I have argued that the challenges of this age necessitate that we break free of the Cold War mentality straitjacket. I know writers far better than me are constantly arguing the same wherever they can. But it falls on deaf ears. Why wouldn’t it? If mankind starts functioning as one tribe what will become of the warmongers, pundits, wonks and creatures of hate who constantly profit from conflicts? Perhaps, mankind is worthy of redemption. But so far it has produced little evidence.
Do you honestly think that in these times of mutual distrust China, Russia and America can combine their research to find a cure? Unlikely. And then there is the matter of big businesses keeping an eye out for a possible breakthrough so that they can immediately patent it, stop its generic use and convert the misery of millions into profit worth billions of dollars. And as suffering grows, anticipation builds and world fails to unite to find a cure, the prophets of doom and destruction grow in number. Circumstances quite similar to these had given rise to some of the worst trends in history — Nazism and fascism. And remember, if such elements emerge again, they will have access to tools and weapons that the villains of our past could not even dream of.
As the fear compounds here are some rules employed by hatemongers around the world to make that possible.
Rule 1: blame the victim. From the countries which first encountered the virus to people falling ill — stigmatise everyone.
Rule 2: blame the other. You have been trying to other this or that community so here is your golden chance. Especially if it is a minority community. Far right in the US would blame the Chinese minority. Shias in Pakistan and Muslim Tableeghi Jamaat in India. Forget what the majority does. Blame the minority.
Rule 3: take selfishness to new levels. So what if people die arguing that only the fittest survive? In other words, that they deserved to die. It matters little what happens to humanity, you would have earned your retainer. Some conservatives in the West are actually actively encouraging people to get voluntary infection to prove this hypothesis.
Rule 4: obscure the true knowledge. Question science, threaten scientists, undermine genuine research, make fun of those who can help. Following their advice may help people lessen their pain and then may stop listening to charlatans hence they should be undermined at all cost. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is now receiving threats for his straight talk.
Rule 5: lie through your teeth. Spin. Spread conspiracy theories. Blame everything under the sun. Lie so vigorously that people start seeing your detractors or targets as the real enemy. You will rise in fame and your enemy will go through hell.
Rule 6: delay meaningful action.
Together all these methods will bring us down. The victory of the worst among us will ensures the downfall of all.
I have no doubt in my mind that despite severe and avoidable damage to humanity, state, society and economy mankind will be able to survive the bolt from the blue called Covid-19. The economy is down due to no fault of its own and may recover at the first sight of hope. Institutions still have the capacity to absorb such a big shock. But it may not survive the next one.
If you have not noticed, diseases are getting stronger. But consider the shocks we know are waiting out there, biding their time. Technological unemployment caused by automation and Artificial Intelligence. Decaying climate which may seriously jeopardise agriculture and life. And natural or induced human mutations which may make inequality permanent. They will arrive sooner than you know. And when humanity does not rise to the challenge history will not be kind.
(First published on March 28th, 2020) The novel coronavirus outbreak threatens to permanently alter the way we live. With the ever-increasing number of infections, only a small proportion of the total population being tested and a significant number of casualties, caution can evidently not be […]Farrukh writes
The novel coronavirus outbreak threatens to permanently alter the way we live. With the ever-increasing number of infections, only a small proportion of the total population being tested and a significant number of casualties, caution can evidently not be thrown to the wind. That is why governments around the world are being compelled by circumstances to impose partial or complete lockdowns. The key reason for this drastic step is the reckless attitude of citizens who seem oblivious to repeated warnings. Many confront reality only after being infected.
The fact that we still know precious little about the said virus which appears to be a recent mutation does not help. Scientists are still unsure whether it can remain airborne and we have seen contradictory claims by various studies. The findings discussed at the first-ever “virtual Grand Rounds” at Massachusetts General Hospital, are alarming to say the least. The clinical challenges that were highlighted include transmission before symptoms, biphasic illness where symptoms remain mild for some time and then situation takes a turn for the worse, transmissions in hospital and prolonged viral shedding. These alone build a strong case for precaution. And since no vaccine has been invented and no breakthrough is in sight, you can rest assured that social distancing and eventual confinement to your homes remain the best options. Flattening the curve and breaking the chain may go a long way in gaining enough time to find a cure at best and helping governments build capacity to do justice to the dire cases at the very least. Hence, even if your government has not imposed a full-fledged lockdown, you should know that it is just a matter of time before that happens. In this climate of uncertainty, you can see how tense people already are. It is very important to keep your wits about in this age of public anxiety.
But mental health becomes a serious concern when you are in a state of lockdown, confined to your living quarters. Kids who are accustomed to going to schools in this time of the year seldom get comfortable with the idea of staying in one place for such long intervals. When they get jittery parents often lose their cool. And that is not all. Adults are hit the hardest. Their usual privileges like mobility, social lives, entertainment, exercise and professional lives, all are compromised. Therefore, there is a serious chance of mental decay or harm. Sadly, our media’s obsession with politics ensures that such finer details are rarely paid the heed they deserve. And when the authorities are preoccupied with the chores of everyday firefighting there is very little chance that they would take out time to focus on these matters. So, the public message is usually an incoherent mix of alarm, aspirational words and the desire to avoid mass panic.
It might help to remind yourself why you are confined to your home. You have only one life and nothing is worth losing it. Then you are also protecting your loved ones. Since almost everyone possesses a cell phone these days, keeping the phone number of a qualified shrink may always come handy in case of severe depression. If you have a smartphone with data connection, you can always have a video call with family and friends through a videocall app. You will be surprised how many people forget that their phones have this feature. If you can do neither then perhaps you need some hacks. To find some I consulted a few very accomplished experts. Here is what you can do.
The most important thing is to ensure that you and your loved ones keep their minds occupied. An idle mind can encounter many problems ranging from boredom and frustration to severe depression. The first thing experts advise is to shield yourselves from the mental stress caused by distressing news. In a gloomy climate unless the media decides to invent happy stories it is bound to report more disturbing news. While information is essential to survive a prolonged lockdown, there is no need to binge watch news channels. Watching news reports twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, should suffice. If you must watch television, find something entertaining, light and funny to watch. Like sitcoms perhaps. If you like more intense content, then there is no dearth of serious drama on entertainment channels or streaming services. Or finish that book you have been planning to read for a long time. And then another. Listen to good music. If you are religious and avoid music, listen to something religious. There is melody there too. Take up a hobby. If you are not in self-quarantine play games with your kids. If you have a pet pay more attention to it. If you like cooking or gardening indulge yourself. Give yourself small goals and find joy in accomplishing them. If you have pending office work finish it. Document what you do. Write a blog, publish a video online. Nothing heavy. Mild, happy stuff. And while you are at home don’t be a slob. Get up and work out regularly. All of this will keep you from going stir crazy. On social media stay away from divisive political debates. Hang out with people and in online groups that are fun.
And whatever you do please do not succumb to conspiracy theories. Traumatic times are usually not easy for everyone to handle. Many give in to the temptation of seeing a conspiracy behind everything. Two common trends these days: claiming that the coronavirus was produced in a lab and seeing it all as a conspiracy against your religion or country. Remember, propaganda wars are going on between nations that want their opponents to be blamed for the outbreak. There is no point in falling for this. This trend of spreading rumours and conspiracy theories started with 9/11 and has worsened with every passing day. In recent days you must have seen countless videos ranging from Saddam using the word corona in his Arabic testimony to many documentary clips claiming that the virus and its probable cure have existed for many years. One former ambassador to the UN has even listed some patents linked to an alleged coronavirus. Interestingly, from astronomy to anatomy, the word “corona” has many meanings. And coronavirus is the name of a class of viruses. The current one is called the novel coronavirus. These conspiracy theories usually have many moving parts, many variables and details. The fact that one or two verifiable bits are added doesn’t change the whole unverified body of the theory. In the current case please remember that nature is fully capable of producing something as lethal as this virus and far worse. Stick to the verifiable mainstream explanations. Conspiracy theories at times can be deadlier than all viruses put together.
Stay safe and sane. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones.
(First published on March 21st, 2020) As the United States was bracing itself for an impact and the US President and many conservative pundits were still comparing the coronavirus to influenza, Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host with a long history of racist remarks, broke […]Farrukh writes
As the United States was bracing itself for an impact and the US President and many conservative pundits were still comparing the coronavirus to influenza, Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host with a long history of racist remarks, broke ranks with the army of Trump surrogates and insisted that it was a far bigger challenge than influenza. He pointed out that one in a thousand dies of influenza, however, the mortality rate in case of Covid-19 was over 3%. The liberal media which forgives a person’s past excesses the moment he or she criticises Trump did the same in this case. The clip of Mr Carlson went viral in the liberal and anti-Trump circles. It took people some time to notice what they were redistributing. The sole purpose of Mr Carlson’s disagreement with President Trump was not to highlight the seriousness of the challenge of what he referred to as the “Chinese coronavirus”. It was a calculated risk. Disagree with Trump when he fails to see a situation through the prism of racism and force him to change his position. When the stock markets started crashing and the true extent of the disease was known, the US President started calling it the Chinese virus. When asked about the change he stated that the name indicated the place of the virus’ origin and not any underlying racism. Mr Trump also complained that China did not warn America of the virulence of the disease in time.
On the Chinese side too, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian recently shared some claims on Twitter that the virus in fact did not originate in China but was first encountered in the US. This caused an outrage in the liberal media circles including CNN. Make a mental note of all names given above and the ones to follow because we will return to them for some context. For now, however, notice that the blame game regarding the matter is not new. As the virus was wreaking havoc in China, Tom Cotton, the junior US Senator from Arkansas and Trump administration’s one time favourite for the post of Director CIA, claimed that the virus had not originated in the wet market of Wuhan as originally believed but was essentially a bioweapon that had escaped from the lab. Cotton is a neocon. China in turn had blamed the Western media for blowing the coronavirus crisis out of proportion in order to stigmatise the country. This strand of dissatisfaction with the US media came to a head when a few days ago Chinese authorities expelled a few US journalists from the country.
What does it tell you? That success has many fathers and failure is an orphan? That the US-China “cold war” is beginning to heat up? That in these testing times and in an election year the US President has to bow to the wishes of his “base” and adopt a hawkish posture? That the hawks among the Chinese officials will pay back in kind? Actually, all of the above and more. If you have been paying heed to recent developments, the Chinese American community is reporting an uptick in incidents of intolerance directed at its members in the US. Similarly, articles are constantly appearing in the conservative pushing for the US-China decoupling.
President Trump’s frustration is understandable. It is true that he did not get a heads-up in time, was practically blindsided, and was forced to look either woefully oblivious or insensitive to the gravity of the situation. That, when coupled with the ongoing economic crisis, seems to weaken his hand in an election year. This much is true. But since the Chinese situation was unravelling on live television and the authorities there were struggling to contain the problem there is very little chance that the US official circles were ignorant of the scope of the problem. Was this information withheld from the US President then? It is hard to say because President Trump is known to attach little importance to the intelligence community’s presidential daily briefings. But the problem doesn’t stop here. In 2018, his administration had dismantled a key component of global health infrastructure left behind by the Obama administration, namely the pandemic directorate in the National Security Council which was supposed to act as an early warning system against such threats. Similarly, the Trump administration has been cutting down on its financial contributions to the UN, weakening the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ability to play its role proactively.
Now you can blame President Trump for most of this but that is not where the true blame lies. He won the 2016 elections capitalising on a widespread libertarian sentiment. The so-called Tea Party was a vocal advocate for a smaller government and even smaller government spending. One man who exploited this movement to his own end is former Breitbart executive Stephen Bannon. When he joined the Trump administration, he popularised the idea of the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. Mr Bannon, along with Senator Cotton and Erik Prince, the former head of erstwhile Blackwater and brother of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos, represent a consortium of privateers who have been fighting to privatise America’s foreign, intelligence and defence policies for personal profit. They are aided by US politicians like Dana Rohrabacher and former speaker Newt Gingrich and various foreign countries ranging from India (particularly in Bannon’s case), Israel (Stephen Miller, another powerful White House employee watches over Benjamin Netanyahu’s interests) and the UAE (where Erik Prince now lives). And behind them all firmly stands Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. In case you have not noticed, Mr Murdoch’s network has been setting the US agenda since the early days of Bush junior’s administration. Even when conservatives were out of power, Mr Murdoch, an Aussie known for his radical views on Muslims and China, found a way to force the Obama administration’s hand. He, like all above, is an Indophile.
So far President Trump’s economic performance has been his winning argument. However, as the markets tumble and the US prepares for another slowdown, partly because of the Covid-19 scare and partly because of the oil price war between two of his favourite nations — Russia and Saudi Arabia — this argument dims in an election year. Consequently, he is forced to rely on the malicious advice of the people who contributed to the current problem. But he does not need to. If the past decade belonged to right-wing libertarians, this one sees a leftward turn in the public sentiment. His years in power show he is singularly capable of rebuilding the economy, developing a working relationship with China and winning again in November with aplomb. He should shun the bad advice of the racist malcontent. The liberal media also needs to have mercy on itself and stop being used so brazenly. China also needs to avoid a collision. The world economy cannot afford a China-US decoupling.
(First published on March 14, 2020) Have you ever seen anything that threatens to destroy the fabric of every society and yet has the potential to build an airtight case for unconditional global cooperation? The global outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to accomplish both. […]Farrukh writes
Have you ever seen anything that threatens to destroy the fabric of every society and yet has the potential to build an airtight case for unconditional global cooperation? The global outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to accomplish both. Around the world, people are being told by the authorities not to shake hands, to avoid public gatherings, to wash their hands with the ferocity of a germophobe and the most difficult of them all — to stop touching their faces. While it has been suggested that a namaste or a Jinnah salute may help you avoid a handshake, these things are easier said than done. People simply do not function that way. I have found people offering a handshake more vigorously after the outbreak. Avoiding public gatherings is an even more difficult proposition. Schools, workplaces, markets, family functions — how many places can you avoid? You may try to avoid them, but they are in no mood to avoid you. As various notables and celebrities catch the virus panic keeps growing. Both denial and panic do not get you too far. Everyone dies one day and not everyone will die because of this disease. But as they say, prevention is better than cure, which in this case does not exist so far.
Since an army of experts around the world is doing its best to keep you abreast of the development and precious little is still known about the virus, I will not bore you with the known facts. What gets to me, however, is the emergence of cottage industries of expertise in our communities, on social media and in the WhatsApp groups. One caller in my show suggested that we should eat spicy food to kill the virus. Another gentleman suggested the exact opposite. They were not really chuffed when reminded that it is not our place to popularise such myths without scientific evidence or clinical trials. One thing that I do not contest is the usefulness of prayers. No matter what your faith is, remembering your Maker generally has a calming and humbling effect. So, there I do not argue against it. I just remind people of what the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) once said: Have faith in God but tie your camel. Take physical precautions and pray it helps.
As for the need for a global collective response, in this very space, I have incessantly argued that our petty international rivalries and conflicts obscure the challenges of the times we live in. We may allow the ghost of Huntington to still try to divide us into ill-conceived “civilisations” but by virtue of being made of fundamentally the same brick and mortar (read flesh and bones), we belong to a single civilisation. The colour of our skin, eyes and hair might be different and we may speak in different tongues, but the colour of our blood remains the same and so does our basic biochemistry. As mankind excels in the scientific discovery and technological advancement new demons are bound to be unleashed. From climate decay, genetic modification to artificial intelligence, there are many variables whose full impact we are still unable to compute. So, what do we do? Pick fights and kill each other or build a broader, global coalition and find ways to work in harmony? I favour the latter.
Let us face it. The age we are in is really very frightening. Everything once considered unique and proprietary about human existence is at risk now. Our homes, our bodies and our minds. In the West, the source of the most consequential policies, an unfortunate alliance of the religious right and corporate greed has led to a sad twist in our fate. Conservative pundits remind the people that this world is ephemeral and to enter the kingdom of heaven you should detest the pinkos and climate Nazis. Meanwhile, big businesses get away with murder in their neighbourhoods. The biggest misperception that causes climate denial owing to selfishness is that you can somehow harm planet Earth. You cannot. Mother Earth is like a self-repairing supercomputer. It knows how to heal itself. But when it does, unpredictable changes like ice ages come killing life on the planet. It has its own schedule. What you are doing is sealing your own fate, not of Earth.
Similarly, the ability to tamper with our base code, our genome can permanently alter the shape of human society. Today you discriminate against others because they have darker skin or a different skin tone than yours (oh, how shallow!). What happens when genetically modified designer human beings live among you subjecting you to the same prejudice? Scientists are already messing with the genes of other creatures. Consider the endless number of variables and think of what can go wrong. Similarly, our half-baked but relatively superior medical techniques may save many lives today but the genetic mutations in the microbes causing diseases due to this exposure are creating more virulent and enduring strains of diseases and superbugs. Astoundingly, even with such technological advancement mankind has not been able to find a cure for AIDS. Whenever we hear about a potential breakthrough it suddenly disappears from the public discourse. Perhaps, corporate greed is at play here too. Why invest in cheap one-time cures when you can sell expensive cocktails for your entire lives. This calls for accountability. An accountability process that is not at the cost of the inherent ingenuity of the capitalist model.
And then comes man’s last fortress — his mind. For long we have prided ourselves on being smarter than the creatures around us. But that fortress also is under attack. By the creation of its own device. Given that Artificial Intelligence (AI) functions primarily on the same principle of neural networks of our own mind, and it has no upper limit in expansion, we may find ourselves out of depth soon. Even if it doesn’t rise to the science fiction proportions it can easily take all our jobs. How does the civilisation remain civilised then? None of these challenges are a figment of anyone’s overactive imagination. These changes are taking place as you read these lines.
Concerns like these remind you of the efficacy of global consciousness, of collective security. Since the biggest bottlenecks in the way of such progress, the populist leaders with a reductionist worldview, refuse to change, they keep exposing themselves. Modi ends up destroying half of his capital when Trump is in town. Netanyahu’s refusal to bow out makes a mockery of his country’s political system. And the untimely oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia brings global markets tumbling down. In such a situation you realise that today might be difficult but tomorrow promises great hope. The leaders of tomorrow need to invest in a leadership style that combines heart and mind.
(First published on March 7th, 2020) Russia’s powerful President Vladimir Putin recently gave an annual state of the nation address. Whenever he speaks he creates news. That is proof of power and influence he wields in our times. This time too, his speech was followed […]Farrukh writes
Russia’s powerful President Vladimir Putin recently gave an annual state of the nation address. Whenever he speaks he creates news. That is proof of power and influence he wields in our times. This time too, his speech was followed by an en bloc resignation of the Russian cabinet. But that is small potatoes compared to the broader thrust of his speech. It was about falling birth rates in Russia. You are well within your rights to ask why it is such big news. The answer is because it conforms to a very serious pattern. If you have been paying attention to the discussions and debates on various fora ranging from very formal to extremely unconventional like Western gaming message boards like 4chan and 8chan since 2014, you will notice a surge in the racial panic surrounding birth rates and the median age of natives and immigrants in the West. It was as if someone had planted a new impulse in the mix. The Western media and reports published by high-powered commissions like the Mueller Report have already traced the origins of these debates to various Russian intelligence sources. But if you have been paying heed to the Russian discourse, you will notice that there too this matter came in a sharp focus only recently. It is not as if Russia was infected by a racist bug that got out in the 2016 election cycle.
I say racist because some recent lone wolf white supremacist terror attacks have used the falling white birth rates as an excuse. The Christchurch shooter published a manifesto online before carrying out the heinous crime. It is about the very same thing. Likewise, whenever a similar attack takes place, you notice a similar discussion surfacing.
Personally, I felt that the Christchurch attack was a dead giveaway. When someone attacks a Muslim mosque full of brown immigrants in a city called ‘Christchurch’ with a white population of over 83%, higher than New Zealand’s national average, they are not seriously not trying to hide the impulse behind the attack: they want Huntington’s clash of civilisations to look as real as possible. Great. So now we have two variables, not one to figure out what is going on. Birth rates and the clash of civilisations. If you factor in the two you might be able to locate the source of the outbreak of the ongoing racist illness.
Let me be candid. It was pretty odd to hear the Russian President using a talking point that continues to divide and harm the world. As a dedicated former communist intelligence officer, it is highly unlikely that Putin would have believed in the racial myth. His programming and training wouldn’t allow for such a worldview to survive. Unless he got the bug from the same source recently which is infecting other parts of the world. That would make him a victim, not a source. But then what is the source?
In recent years, attention has been drawn to controversial far-right figures like Renaud Camus. His conspiracy theory called the “Great Replacement” says that with the connivance of the Western elite, the white population of France and Europe is systematically being replaced with the Muslims of Asia and Africa. Now, Camus’ work might be new but the white genocide theories have existed for a long time. What he did is very interesting. Given that before him such theories were primarily popularised by neo-Nazis who made the Jewish population a target. For instance, William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries puts them at the top of the conspiracy food chain. Camus removed the community from his theory. That is why so many conservative Jewish thinkers have risen to his defence. And we know it was a part of Netanyahu’s strategy to stoke anti-Muslim fear in Europe to find allies among the far right. But it does not end here. People like Jean Raspail had made a point of including Indians as a threat. Camus leaves them out as well.
I would have forgotten about Putin’s speech had it not been for a curious headline, “Trump Says Modi Cited Rise in Muslim Population as Testament to Religious Freedom in India”. Yes, Muslims are free because they can still procreate. In fact, this assertion is not new. When the 2002 Gujarat violence took place and Muslim victims had to flee to relief campaigns, Modi reportedly stood in front of such a camp during his election campaign and claimed that these camps were child-making factories. He got elected. The far-right RSS ideologues have constantly complained about the Muslim birth rate and the need to incentivise the birth rate of Hindus. The debate which existed only on the fringes of the Western consciousness was already being mainstreamed in India owing to the rise of the RSS’ political wing, the BJP. Then what a strange coincidence it is that right when Modi seized control of India’s massive and powerful state machinery, the racist conspiracy theories hitherto confined to the Western far-right fringes went mainstream.
Recently a report by EU Disinfo Lab, a Brussels-based NGO, uncovered a pro-India coordinated network of 265 websites and fake think-tanks operating from 65 countries peddling mostly the same kind of propaganda material that you generally ascribe to the Russian sources. The Modi government’s alliance with the European far-right groups was recently on display when a host of far-right European MEPs went to India and its Occupied Kashmir after the abrogation of articles 370 and 35(A) in the erstwhile state. If you start connecting the dots you start seeing a pattern. India is one of the few places where the debate about birth rates and firm faith in the imminent clash of civilisation converge. The problem now is that the Pandora box of racism that was opened has unleashed the demons which refuse to be controlled. If the assumption before this proliferation was that the recently mainstreamed hate groups would spare the Indian and the Israeli diaspora, this proved nothing short of a delusion. The Western racist ideologies stand atop the bedrock of the Nazi and xenophobic worldview. Whatever looks different to them is deemed alien and worth abolishing. Consequently, anti-Semitic violence has dramatically increased. Likewise, people of Indian origin have also been targeted by these groups. And why would they not be? They look and sound like Muslims.
In India it is also clear that this disease has spread unbelievably quickly. One would not have expected such massive violence in Delhi during President Trump’s visit. In the Indian far right’s colosseum of hate only the most hateful rise. That is why Modi’s second term is marked by an unending series of outrages.
(First published on February 29th, 2020) It is official. India has arrived at the worst place possible in its history. The proof of the pudding became evident during President Donald Trump’s 36-hour long visit to India. The visit, which began with great gusto and fanfare, […]Farrukh writes
It is official. India has arrived at the worst place possible in its history. The proof of the pudding became evident during President Donald Trump’s 36-hour long visit to India. The visit, which began with great gusto and fanfare, was practically sidelined by the communal violence that broke out in India’s capital, New Delhi. The city had recently rejected Modi’s party in the union territory’s elections. When the results were announced, Sudhir Chaudhry, an anchor and a blue-eyed boy of Modi’s party and its first CDS, had the choicest things to say about the residents of the city; that they are selfish, greedy and lethargic. Selfish and greedy because they preferred better governance and free services over Modi’s particular brand of hyper-nationalism. Lethargic because many of Modi’s well-wishers had stood his party up on the election booth. Evidently, anger among Modi’s minions was quite palpable. And then there was the disquiet about protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). A sizeable chunk of these protesters is of elderly Muslim women, affectionately called Naanis and Daadis (grandmothers). Now it was clear that these Muslims had still not realised what a great gift the Modi administration had continued to grant them — the one above all — the right to life. What an ungrateful bunch then! They had even decided to camp on the streets to protest. As often happens with any fascist government, this was a source of great outrage. Somebody had to teach them a lesson.
Call it riots or systematic pogrom; this was a long time coming. Two months at the very least. But none of us saw that this would happen right when President Trump was on his way to New Delhi from Ahmedabad — the site of the last major systematic pogrom. It was as if there was a message in this violence. “Don’t pontificate to us. We have the right to hurt our subjects if we so wish and there is nothing you can do about it.” It had been made clear by the US administration that Trump would bring up the matter pertaining to religious freedoms during the bilateral summit. So, this message would come handy. And this had an added benefit for the junta. Once Trump was gone it could claim through optics that Trump was on board. The international press, always in search of more dirt on Trump, would lap it up. That happened too. But if the reports that reached this scribe are correct, this did not sit well with the visiting US President who made his displeasure known during the meetings. When asked for proof to qualify this assertion, I was told that the Indian National Security Adviser (NSA) did not go to the victims of violence and give his word of honour that their lives would be protected just out of the goodness of his heart.
Trump was there to get more business for his countrymen and he managed to do so. That would explain his reluctance to confront the Indian government in public. Consider this: one leader travels over 8,000 miles to ensure more prosperity for his people, the other doles out huge wads of cash to ensure the world and the visiting dignitary do not object to his mistreatment of his own people. And they have the gall to compare Trump and Modi!
Last week, in this space I told you that the Indian government was trying its best to avoid a joint interactive session with the press to ensure Trump did not repeat his offer of mediation on Kashmir in Modi’s presence. This proved correct and New Delhi got its way. But that did not stop Trump from going to the US Embassy and addressing the media there. He even repeated his offer. You should have seen the looks on the faces of those anchors sympathetic to Modi’s worldview. Somewhere in his talk was a reference to the Delhi violence too. This may damage India’s long-term credibility with the man. Remember, no matter how rich you are, if you have infinite ambition like Modi’s cabal does, money to silence people always runs out. The law of diminishing returns.
Let us now return to the Delhi violence. Thanks to the courageous field reporters who went after the truth like moths and also courtesy citizen journalists, a truckload of footage has emerged. There are videos of Delhi Police, which reports to Modi’s Home Minister Amit Shah, destroying the CCTV cameras as the violence went on. Then there are the clips of men, some visibly Muslim, being brutally thrashed by the RSS goons. But one video got to me like nothing else did. A family with women and children is trapped on its roof as the ruling party’s arsonists set the building on fire. The helpless whimpers of kids and the bloodlust of those who would perpetrate such a heinous crime kept flashing before me as I drove back home late at night after spending considerable time on television discussing the Delhi carnage. At one point I had to pull up because the burden of grief was insuperable. I sat there, in the middle of nowhere, until I regained composure.
The problem is not of Muslims (for some reason now being referred to by the Indian right wing as Mohammedans) or of Hindus. It is about human beings and the dramatic level of self-harm witnessed in a polity as vibrant and diverse as India. For decades, the RSS and the BJP have used Pavlovian conditioning to radicalise the more volatile among the majority community and intimidate the moderates and the pacifists. And it just got its wish. Consequently, the country has been reduced to a shell of its former self. This bloodlust will not stop at one community. First Muslims, then Christians, Dalits, and Sikhs — this disease will grow until it has enveloped the entire spectrum.
One example may suffice to highlight the damage done to the institutions. As the violence went on, one brave judge of the Delhi High Court took a courageous stand late at night. Within a day he had been posted out. The erosion of the Indian institutions is complete. The Constitution, the judiciary, the parliament, the media and the executive, one by one, all have been compromised. But do you know what happens when this is done? Since you use jingoism to get there, the path is cleared for intervention by one department that is generally known for its patriotism, discipline — and particularly in the Indian case, secularism — the Indian army. I know it is unheard of. But here is the thing. When you empower one side so much and then allow power vacuums to emerge, the intervention becomes only a matter of time. Perhaps, it may not happen today or tomorrow. But mark my words: it will happen sooner than later and perhaps not for the right reasons.
(First published on February 22, 2020) President Donald Trump’s upcoming India visit is an unparalleled feat of remarkable optics and symbolism. He lands in the country on February 24. From Sardar Vallabhbhai Airport in Ahmedabad on their 22km road trip to the Motera Stadium, he […]Farrukh writes
President Donald Trump’s upcoming India visit is an unparalleled feat of remarkable optics and symbolism. He lands in the country on February 24. From Sardar Vallabhbhai Airport in Ahmedabad on their 22km road trip to the Motera Stadium, he will have a brief stopover at the Sabarmati Ashram (one of the many residences of Mohandas Gandhi) where Narendra Modi and Trump will pay tribute to India’s founding father who was killed by an RSS fanatic, Nathuram Godse, for the alleged crime of “emasculating Hindus, turning them effeminate” and protesting in support of Pakistan and communal unity. Modi’s own party member and terror-accused Pragya Thakur publicly called Godse a patriot. At Sabarmati Ashram, a sketch of Gandhi, a book on his life and a spinning wheel will be presented to the visiting US President. Then they will leave for the stadium where a star-studded event called “Namaste Trump” will welcome him.
The journey is also significant because recently, media reports emerged stating that the Gujarat government, as part of its beautification drive ahead of the Trump visit, had built a four-foot-high wall to hide Ahmedabad’s slums. I know your mind will immediately single out the word ‘wall’. The irony is not lost here. Trump won the 2016 election on the promise of building a wall on the Mexican border after all. But the operative part here is not the wall but the slum. India is very touchy about its poverty and often complains about foreign tourists taking too many pictures of slums. Never mind movies like Slumdog Millionaire, because they win more awards for India — something the country is obsessed with.
The slums are important because they negate the myth of Modi’s Gujarat model. Before the 2014 elections, we were told that Modi was to replicate this model of great governance and poverty alleviation in Gujarat across India. Well, building walls around slums is one way of alleviating poverty… or the poor. But slums in Ahmedabad are also significant because that is where the city keeps its Muslim population displaced by the Modi-supervised 2002 violence that left over 2,000 Muslims dead. That was 2002. This is 2020. Like religious extremism elsewhere, the communal violence in India often masks material motivations. The 2002 violence, for instance, forced many affluent Muslims to flee for their lives leaving behind their wealth and property to be grabbed by the majority community. The displaced were to settle on the outer edge of Ahmedabad. In 2013-14 in the run-up to the general elections which brought Modi to power at the centre, reports emerged about what these slum dwellers had to endure. The grounds adjacent to these slums were used as a dumping ground for the toxic industrial waste. As per the reports, Muslim and poor kids had developed deformities because of the toxicity. But never mind you. Gujarat was shining and the industrial waste belonged next to the “human waste”. Godse would be pleased. Toxic majoritarian masculinity regained. Modi then was the exact opposite of what Gandhi represented to Godse. The effeminate and the masculine are important because a controversial booklet distributed at a Congress retreat claimed that Godse had a homosexual relationship with Savarkar, the founder of Hindutva ideology.
From Ahmedabad, the US President will leave for Agra, accompanied by his beautiful wife who is also a former supermodel, where the universal symbol of love built by a Muslim king as a posthumous tribute to his beloved wife, Taj Mahal, stands tall. Agra is in UP, India’s most populous state. The state is now ruled by the street rat turned Hindu monk whose rise to prominence is attributed to heading a Hindu gang and public statements calling for the abduction of 100 Muslim girls if one Hindu girl marries a Muslim man. One of his allies even stated in his presence that it was correct to rape dead Muslim women. This bloke, Ajay Bisht, who calls himself Yogi Adityanath, also believes that Mother Theresa was part of a conspiracy to convert India to Christianity. It will be really intriguing to see if he joins Trump for a 45-minute stay at the Taj Mahal. Bisht is from Modi’s party, which for a long time has vowed to raze the Taj Mahal to the ground for the singular crime of being built by a Muslim.
The US President and the First Lady’s engagements the next day are all in Delhi, a city whose election Modi’s party recently lost for the third term. The infrastructure that will be showed off to the First Family is also an accomplishment of the Aam Aadmi Party government of Delhi. Here, too, a tribute will be paid to India’s founder. Delhi was recently in the news because of the violence perpetrated by Modi’s allied young hooligans and Delhi Police, which is under Modi’s Interior minister Amit Shah, against the students of JNU and Jamia Millia. Although there is a photo-op in the schedule and an interaction with the business leaders at the US Embassy, absent from the list is a joint interaction with the media. Word has it that the Indian officials were worried that if any journalist asked Trump about Kashmir, he could repeat his offer to mediate, which the Modi administration would construe as significant loss of face. Meanwhile, the shrieks of children abducted and tortured by the Indian security apparatus in another beautiful place converted into a slum — Kashmir will be kept away from the visiting delegation’s ears by an invisible wall of impunity.
Given that the itinerary and the engagements are fixed with mutual consent, which means that the visitors have a say in the matter, you can notice that our American friends have gone out of the way to choose secular symbols of India for the visit. However, you can also see how this entire exercise is undermined by the changed character of the host nation. Another interesting thing that stands out is that the visit ends on February 25 and not a day later. It is clear that the Modi administration wanted Trump in town on the first anniversary of the Balakot attack, but somewhere common decency prevailed and despite this close brush, that date was omitted from the schedule.
President Trump has his reasons to visit India and Modi has his reasons to host him. But the US President visits India at a time when his country’s economy is at one of its highest while India, under Modi, is witnessing one of its worst economic performances in recent years. I know both leaders have been compared in the past. But this fact speaks volumes about their different leadership style.