Begusarai – Has BJP made it a prestige issue?

A thirty two year old is pitched against a senior, seasoned politician in an otherwise non-descript constituency called Begusarai. But it does not seem non-descript at all. Initially, it was RJD’s insistence to not have CPI on its alliance (largely because of this candidate) and now it is because of an interesting battle on cards. The BJP national president had to campaign in this constituency on 24th April. He does not go to each and every constituency and the speakers at the function had to bring back their favourite past time – nation, nationalism, religion – albeit in a hidden tenor but could not refrain from it. Some other star speakers who specialise in the same narrative might follow on. Nobody talked of unemployment, infrastructure, minimum wages, violence again women and so on. Quite naturally, they cannot.

Kanhaiya had other kind of star campaigners – students from nook and corner of India, Javed Akhter, Prakash Raj, Swara Bhaskar and so on. They did not come due to party allegiance but due to the battle that is being waged by Kanhaiya Kumar. He has been made into a symbol of sorts in this fight against the way nation has been run, politics from WhatsApp has been practiced and welfarist institutions have been decimated. One does not know who will win (amidst reports of EVM malfunctions from across country and the effectiveness with which hatred is spread) but it is definitely proving to be a grave concern for BJP for it fears that its candidate may lose to a young turk. BJP is not so concerned at CPI sending another MP to the Parliament but it is concerned at this young man sitting there and blowing apart the rhetoric of the right in the Parliament.

Giriraj Singh did not want to contest from here and had to reluctantly come here – an issue that didn’t make locals very happy. Kanhaiya Kumar, on the other hand, was already in fray for last few months, awaiting a final decision from the party (CPI). The third candidate, Tanvir Hasan, has never won from here and has been a MLC, known to be a quiet person. Begusarai is a prestige seat not so much for Tanvir Hasan or RJD because they do not have to contribute much to the fight against BJP, otherwise they would have not made this a triangular contest putting a candidate without any credentials of anti-right wing struggle against Kanhaiya Kumar who has become a symbol of anti-right struggle today.

The right would go to any extent to ensure that any symbol of resistance against its politics is subdued. The fight for Kanhaiya Kumar is going to be a long one, beyond these elections. The reaction that one gets in Begusarai from the masses cutting across caste and religion is that they would like Kanhaiya Kumar to win and, thereby, shows that the BJP’s prestige seat is not a prestige for the locals. And RJD’s advisors and leaders will never be forgiven for fragmenting a consensus against the right wing politics.

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Afghanistan: Can it emerge out of its Darkness with External Assistance?

Wars have been fought historically to control territories in physical sense as well as in non-physical economic sense. In contemporary times these wars are not doing anything different. They have only acquired different weapons – from military stockpiles to the power of media, which presents to the world what the powers that be want to project. The reality and truth have to be dealt with sceptically because the way media presents it to us has been question many a times. They are constructed; they are partisan; and they are part of a larger project. I was a school going child when the television channels and print media had declared that the whole world in unison wanted a war against Saddam Hussain after he trampled Kuwait under his tanks. It left me thinking if the whole world really wanted the western imperialists to wage this war. I know I did not want and I know many more people did not want this. I also know that a survey was not done across world to ask people what they thought about this invasion by the Western forces. A war, which began with the farcical agenda of restoring democracy, could not do much to that effect even after thousands and thousands died over a period of time. America could neither achieve control over natural resources in Iraq nor could it win the war. It created one after the other new ghosts with missiles, grenades and automatic rifles, which came from nowhere else but from USA itself.

When ISIS took over it began using the same arms, manufactured by 24 countries, that it captured from the Iraqi and other forces[i]. A report by Conflict Armament Research (CAR) said that some weapons bought by the U.S. military in 2015 ended up in the hands of Islamic State fighters within two months. “Under at least two different programs, the U.S. government has supplied weapons to Syrian armed groups, first to fight the Assad regime and then to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against the Islamic State. Some of ISIS’ weapons are also thought to have been pilfered from military stockpiles while others were purchased illicitly”[ii]. We very well know what has happened in case of Afghanistan and who armed whom in its history. Those ghosts from the past are the ones haunting today. Politically, Afghanistan seems to be moving in a direction where the forces that wanted Taliban out and considered it as their enemy have now accepted its presence and inevitability. Taliban is being legitimised or has forced powers to recognise itself[iii]. Obviously, a country like India says it is doing this to promote democracy in Afghanistan as its spokesperson said: “India’s consistent policy has been that such efforts should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled and with participation of the Government of Afghanistan”[iv]. When Gen. Austin Miller, the head of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, said that “this is not going to be won militarily… This is going to a political solution” he was only reinforcing the fact that USA and others had failed to secure even their economic interests and had murdered thousands of people in vain. It was also a reiteration that they must get out of Afghanistan. However, it seems difficult and after the mess that they created over 16 years or so it will become extremely difficult for Afghanistan to come back to any kind of normalcy in near future.

War today, as in past, revolves around economy and economic benefits. Unfortunately, for likes of USA or UK they cannot go today and militarily occupy some country as they ran their colonial dreams. Hence, they develop new methods to retain and expand their control. While they spend a lot on military their interest lies in unilaterally deciding how to lead a nation without colonising them in the classic sense. They are colonised today in newer ways – through indirect and direct management of the local democracies and playing a role in the national policy-making and so on.

War means Business: It is not about democracy at all

If one looks at statistics s/he will be tell the amount of money that comes to Afghanistan as foreign aid and the amount that is spent on military operations or towards militarisation of the Afghan society. USA is supposed to have spent a total of around $45 billion in 2018, which is supposed to include “$5 billion for Afghan forces and $13 billion for U.S. forces inside Afghanistan. Much of the rest is for logistical support. Some $780 million goes toward economic aid”[v]. When it comes to spendings, we must not be mistaken that it is being spent on safeguarding people. The weaponry that is used is produced somewhere and wherever it is produced it generates a huge profit there. In other words, a missile, a bomb, a rifle or a tank that is fired or dropped in Afghanistan augments riches of private capital in United states.

The biggest beneficiaries of Pentagon largesse will, as always, be the major defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, which received more than $36 billion in defense-related contracts in fiscal 2015 (the most recent year for which full statistics are available). To put that figure in perspective, Lockheed Martin’s federal contracts are now larger than the budgets of 22 of the 50 states. The top 100 defense contractors received $175 billion from the Pentagon in fiscal year 2015, nearly one-third of the Department of Defense’s entire budget. These numbers will only grow if Trump gets the money he wants to build more ships, planes, tanks, and nuclear weapons[vi].

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) Report of 2018 says that an aid agency like USAID, which has undertaken a project for women in Afghanistan worth $216 million for Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs (Promote), after spending $89.7 million over three years (from 2013 when it was launched) “has not fully assessed the extent to which Promote has improved the status of women in Afghanistan”. Its aim was to improve status of more than 75000 women. Over all, SIGAR’s financial audits have identified more than $414.6 million in questioned costs.

Regarding the anti-narcotics programme of USA SIGAR says that “no counterdrug program undertaken [between 2002–2017] by the United States, its coalition partners, or the Afghan government resulted in lasting reductions in poppy cultivation or opium production.”[vii] One often wonders where does all this money lands, which comes into Afghanistan or is spent on its security (ranging from the purchase of arms and ammunition to employing soldiers or its economic well being).

Creating a New Corrupt Class: Ruling through Proxy

The story of someone like Hikmatullah Shadman, an Afghan trucking-company owner, who earned more than $ 160 million dollars while contracting for the United States military is an example of how an elite formation within the Afghani society has taken place in course of war. His story was that from rags to riches. A person, who went on to become an interpreter for the western forces, got into trucking business as his contacts with them ripened[viii]. The story of Fahim Hashimy, the English language teacher who owned only a bicycle, but after he became interpreter to the American military went on to become a millionaire is only another instance. He went on to own a television company, logistics and construction companies as well as a low-cost domestic airline.[ix]

After the 9/11 attacks, it has been argued that USA was looking for local allies and many of the ex-warlords became obvious choices. The warlords have developed “a mafia-like control of jobs, security services, money, contracts and land”[x]. For instance, Somebody like “Gul Agha Sherzai, the warlord who had retaken the province with the help of the C.I.A. and Special Forces” became the Governor of Kandahar. “…His brother Abdul Raziq was a general in the Afghan Army, in charge of the airport. The Sherzai also controlled lucrative contracts to supply gravel to the American base, and Raziq’s company, Sherzai Construction and Supply, provided trucks to the Americans.” Americans had built an economy on sub-contracting and “Between 2007 and 2014, the U.S. spent eighty-nine billion dollars on contracting in Afghanistan”[xi].

It is interesting that a discourse has also been built by think tanks about how good Gul Agha Sherzai is as a governor/administrator. A Carnegie paper argues that Governor Gul Agha Sherzai

adopted a newcomer’s strategy of co-opting the tribal leadership at the district and village level through regular consultations and the provision of gifts and favors. He has leveraged these relationships, as well as ties to the U.S. military ground forces, to affirm his authority. In so doing, Sherzai has successfully delivered on a variety of priorities, from counternarcotics and reconstruction to provincial security, without necessarily advancing the cultivation of formal institutions of provincial governance[xii].

He is shown to be a person committed to democracy and allowed popular ideas to be included in his governance. The paper says that

In a democracy, people’s ideas should be collected and this is what the governor is doing. If he had started to implement all projects without considering the priorities of the people, it would have distressed people. It would not have received a positive response. He is not a dictator—he has collected people’s ideas and involved people in the decision-making process.

This runs counter to the way he promoted his own interests as shown above. Some other reports have mentioned that when he was “governor of Kandahar, Sherzai allegedly extorted large amounts of money from civilians at police checkpoints, embezzled reconstruction money, and ran protection rackets for opium traffickers. U.S. officials estimate he has a net worth of $300 million after running Kandahar. He has also been accused of murdering and torturing rivals[xiii].

The informal ways in which American capital was pumping in its money was accompanied by the development of highly corrupt formal institutions. Kabul Bank, which became symbol of “progress and modernisation in the country and held the salaries of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, policemen and government staff paid by international donors including America and Japan” nearly collapsed when a fraud scheme of over $861 million was detected. This money was diverted from the bank to “a clique of beneficiaries including the president’s brother”, a British-funded audit by Kroll found out. With a modus operandi that included 10 airline pilots on the payroll to smuggle vast sums of cash out of the country to Dubai via Kabul airport it made most of its loans to 12 individuals. It is said that “Mahmoud Karzai, the president’s brother, received $30.5 million… Haseen Fahim, a brother of the vice president, also received millions. Both men used loans to buy large shareholdings in the bank. The audit found the chairman, Sher Khan Farnood, and chief executive, Khalilullah Frozi, profited most by keeping two sets of books and fabricating loans to divert money to themselves and their other shareholders”. A lot of money was invested in Dubai’s property bubble[xiv].

How the Picture Emerges

As part of its modern day conquest the Western powers invade Afghanistan, obviously with the rhetoric of saving democracy from the hands of forces they themselves had created. The same powers had created the Frankenstein’s monster that went beyond their control. In fact, America built this monster bit by bit – from training in arm combat to bomb making.

American officials estimate that, from 1985 to 1992, 12,500 foreigners were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and urban guerrilla warfare in Afghan camps the CIA helped to set up[xv].

It was a great day for the guerrillas in 1986 when USA gave them Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and provided an overall support to the Afghan “guerrillas” worth $2 billion. Saudi Arabia matched the American money in a joint account in Washington for missiles. Some Saudi princes on their own also funded these guerrillas. Americans went to the extent of exporting around 700 mules from Tennessee to Afghanistan. China supplied rocket launchers[xvi]. The arms that were supplied to the Mujahideens to fight a left government were subsequently used against the suppliers. Now more arms were to be produced, bought and transported to fight those forces that America had created. Hence, the only contented partner in this whole exercise has been the arms lobby, which never ceased producing bombs and weapons whether to be supplied to the Mujahideens or to the Coalition Forces. The clear winners are the arms manufacturer.

What this whole process in Afghanistan from day one did was to not allow Afghanis decide what they wanted their polity to be like. The photographic documentation of life in Afghanistan in 1960s by Dr William Podlich, a faculty of Arizona State University, revealed it to be a completely different world, at least the urban centres. From there to a situation where death dances everywhere is a world apart. And it is important that we think about whom this dance of death entertains, who foments it and who wants it to continue.

A peculiar economy, which survives on aid has come into existence. This economy is extremely hierarchized along class lines with widening gap between those who have pocketed benefits from the foreign money and those who have been not been able to do so. The wide gap is also on account of absence of any other vocation that could expand the service sector or for that matter manufacturing in the country. One often wonders if there is an intentional design on account of those who have pocketed benefits out of war in Afghanistan to let the economy be as it is. This way it will serve the armament industry and would allow the few to remain in power to do things that they want to.

What is of concern amidst all this is that innocent people get caught in this design of the western powers and local entrenched interests, which according to some are also ethnic in nature. The recent instances of Hazara villages being attacked by the Taliban is a point in the case[xvii]. Some scholars are of the view that Ashraf Ghani has very intentionally cracked down on the non-pashtun militias which have been trying to protect themselves against the Taliban because he intends to “legitimize the Taliban as a Pashtun nationalist force through ethnonationalist politics” in order to “expand his base among the radical Pashtuns” so as to muster “more votes in the next election”[xviii]. No doubt Hazaras have been at the receiving end in this conflict but the ethnic question will have to be understood in its complexity and not simply as a conflict between different ethnicities. The recent offensive against the Hazaras has been seen as an effort by Taliban to wrest those regions and put them under their control[xix] and given the past history of how Taliban thinks and what it did to them during 1996-2001 rule it will be disastrous for this community. There have been efforts to construct some idea of a Afghan nation-state and the consistent rhetoric regarding the same laced with some cocktail of democratic practices such as elections and so on are proving contradictory to what is happening on the ground. A democratic politics ought to shun away warlords, contractors and middlemen from the playground and make it an egalitarian, equal opportunity system in the best possible way so that each and every ethnicity, class and gender could participate in the building of a democratic nation. The recognition of Taliban as a political force to negotiate with is a major hurdle in that direction because such a political force feeds on conservative, sectarian and narrow vision of a world, where others (such as particular ethnicities, women in general and subversive ideas) must remain subservient to their vision and practice. Such a politics rather than being democratic would foster aggression, violence and intolerance and that would impede the process of making of the new nation. The nation cannot shun its history, it cannot teach historical amnesia but that is what Afghanistan of today is doing by manipulating their textbooks, which are funded by Americans and Indians alike. You cannot hide Hitler from children, rather tell them what historical conditions produce a Hitler and teach them to work towards not creating those conditions. That is how you shun such a tendency. Afghanistan seems to doing the opposite. It is a massive pedagogical and intellectual failure supported by those powers that believe that the nation should never get out of the peril in which it is trapped.

Endnotes

[i] https://www.amnesty.org.uk/how-isis-islamic-state-isil-got-its-weapons-iraq-syria

[ii] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/isis-weapons-arsenal-included-some-purchased-u-s-government-n829201

[iii] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-russia-support-afghan-led-afghan-owned-peace-process-deputy-nsa/articleshow/66621195.cms

[iv] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/11/afghan-peace-conference-india-shares-table-taliban-181109092419577.html

[v] https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2018/02/07/pentagon-afghan-war-costing-us-45-billion-per-year/

[vi] https://www.thenation.com/article/we-are-spending-a-trillion-on-war-and-we-need-to-own-up-to-it/

[vii] https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2018-10-30qr.pdf

[viii] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/07/the-man-who-made-millions-off-the-afghan-war

[ix] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32008567

[x] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/the-warlords-casting-a-shadow-over-afghanistan-1682660.html

[xi] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/07/the-man-who-made-millions-off-the-afghan-war

[xii] https://carnegieendowment.org/files/warlords_as_bureaucrats.pdf

[xiii]https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/news/2009/10/26/6734/profiles-of-afghan-power-brokers/

[xiv] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/9706093/Kabul-Bank-diverted-540-million-to-group-of-12-in-massive-fraud.html

[xv] https://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/jan/17/yemen.islam

[xvi] https://www.nytimes.com/1988/04/18/world/arming-afghan-guerrillas-a-huge-effort-led-by-us.html

[xvii] https://thediplomat.com/2018/11/a-new-turn-in-the-talibans-war-hazarajat-under-siege/

[xviii] ibid

[xix] https://www.rferl.org/a/afghan-taliban-wants-what-it-hasn-t-been-able-to-hold-hazara-regions/29598848.html

South Asian-ness and Institution Building Across Borders

The recent overtures by India to strengthen neighbourly relations across South Asia have been noted as the hallmark of its foreign relations. Analysts would differ, and not unreasonably, that it is also due to the geopolitics of the region where non-Indian business ‘intrusion’ has been increasing. There is a general hype to this new attitude from India, which is an apparent departure from the patron-client relationship. The Nepali politicians seemed to be hailing Indian Prime Minister’s ‘efforts’ in unison cutting across political lines. But can this building up of a composite and cogent South Asia happen without developing institutional mechanisms that foster deep rooted sharing of intellectual processes across the region? It is only through such a complementing process of institutionalising dialogue across South Asian countries that a more organic evolution of relationships can be imagined. This is a protracted process compared to the signing and conduct of business relations. However, this would contribute to bolstering of business relations in the long run as well if one so wishes.

One way of doing this whole process is to organise an intellectual ambience that encapsulates this organic-ity and functions with the principle kernel that knowledge is non-hierarchical (which will start with the premise that in the process of knowing there is no hierarchy of knowledge) and always contestable. Taking off from this premise it can be a possible project to explore the commonalities, challenges and possibilities across South Asian countries. Once this happens as a common initiative of countries across the region, expressing their willingness to embark on a path that will of revelations narrowed and restricted by the boundaries of nation-state, it will open up possibilities for a dialogic South Asia. This intellectual project, whatever be its history or intention, got initiated in form of one institution – South Asian University. Though diverse institutions of SAARC have existed but an university compared to institutions such as SAARC Cultural Centre etc., involve a completely different process of ethos building – moving beyond bureaucratic detailing into the realm of much open and liberal intellectual sphere. However, amidst the recent emphasis on neighbourliness it does not seem to be occupy the same place of significance as many other issues as the zeal and enthusiasm on this front seem to lack.

Imagine a Bangladeshi, Nepali, Sri Lankan and Indian sociologist sitting together and deliberating on what should be taught as part of a Sociology post-graduate programme. This exercise takes place even on themes which otherwise seem irreconcilable, for instance, the identity question in Sri Lanka or questions of indigeneity, violence and religion in South Asian context. The same situation might come up while discussing regionalism and nationalism in classroom or in seminar halls. While deciding on curriculum and pedagogy it is also fiercely debated as to how can the courses represent the South Asian context transcending the narrow confines of national sociologies. This was inconceivable four years back and it is a reality in South Asian University, an initiative of the SAARC. Debates within departments such as sociology have seen such moments quite often.

When there are efforts being made to explore the South Asian neighbourliness an institution like SAU provides the platform where the possibilities of a dialogic South Asian ethos can be experimented. The MEA website tells us how unique is this experiment especially as an effort to bring together the different countries concretely – as students and teachers who make the rhetoric of South Asian cooperation a reality in flesh and blood. How far this happens and what can be the conditions to further concretise this, though, remain an issue but as an experiment this has been a major step in re-imagining South Asia in recent past.

The way this university was conceptualised it was kept in mind how the balance of power in administrative matters could be maintained. For instance, it’s rule no. 06 states that “the President will identify up to three Professors working in the University for appointment as Vice-Presidents. Subject to the availability of suitable candidates, the Vice-Presidential candidate should be from SAARC Member States other than that of the President”. Rules mention that the President and the Vice-President of the university should come from different countries. Similarly, the students should ideally come from across South Asia and the Indian students must not dominate the composition because of its sheer physical location in New Delhi. This, as a sociologist, compels one to engage with the challenges of teaching and researching in a situation where the Bangladeshi student brings fresh insights from his location and debates. Even when I think as a pure intellectual endeavour the University opens new possibilities to understand and analyse the South Asian societies, for instance, the identity question with the Afghani, Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan students in a classroom becomes a learning experience for any faculty from any part of South Asia who get exposed the complexities of a subject matter.

Commonalities and absence of dialogue

The South Asian societies share great amount of similarities – ranging from their economies to the social structures and the challenges confronting their societies. Whether it is the changes experienced by the social structures over different points of time under influence of variety of factors or the emergence of new forms of mass resistances or the challenges posed by religious sectarianism a dialogue across the region has been absent. Pakistani scholars working on Hindu temples in Pakistan or historians working on evolution of the region or sociologists grappling with similar issues across region are never institutionally brought together by the states. An effort that transcends the frequent political skirmishes between countries and establishes platforms of sharing would add to bringing out the vast amount of knowledge generated in the region.

This requires a concerted effort that transcends the national frontiers and academia is one such space, which can do that easily. It would create a dialogue that is bereft of enmities and sectarian prejudices. While at one level through research it generates tangible possibilities through pedagogical practices It makes the whole process organic. It evolves as a natural process rather than as a forced practice. In a classroom the academic engagement, in fact, does precisely this when it asks students from different countries to share, analyse and debate the issues that confronts their societies. From classrooms to the hostel rooms to cafeterias it creates a context for a dialogic South Asian ethos.

When students from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India share a room in the hostel, when they deal with questions that may have different national interpretations but they discuss it amicably within the classroom or when they celebrate each other’s independence days it ceases to be a mere pedagogical issue. It rather becomes an organic intellectual process that would produce minds engaged with the South Asian realities.

To have an atmosphere of South Asian-ness the states will have to sensitively get into institution buildings of kind that goes beyond the mere bureaucratic sharing of officials and rhetorical cultural exchanges or business cooperations. It can be done only through imagining a situation where national boundaries become porous and insignificant and when people across these borders start to locate themselves as organic constituents of any agenda, dream or programme. These will also be processes that bring together people to share the developments, concerns and hopes within this region.