Book Review: Last Hope Island

The history of the Second World War continues to offer up new and fascinating details as archives are opened and dying old men occasionally decide to tell the truth before they die (the latter opportunity is now almost gone, the first is still a work in progress). Lynne Olson does a good job here of bringing to light an aspect of that titanic struggle that deserves its own book length treatment: the European exiles who found shelter in Great Britain (the “Last Hope Island” of the title) and the role they played in the war.

These exiles did not always come to England because England had stood by them; The Czechs had been sold out; the Poles, while unlikely to survive in any case, received little or no real help against the Nazis; the Norwegian campaign and Britain’s blunders and betrayals in that saga are already relatively well known (Churchill, responsible for some of the biggest blunders, was lucky to survive them and become PM; that he did survive them also proved fortunate for those who opposed Nazism, since blunders and all, he was still crucial to the survival of Britain and even the eventual liberation of Western Europe). Benelux and the French fell mostly to their own weaknesses, but Britain’s interventions were not without their share of blunders, minor betrayals and other embarrassments. This book reveals all these details, and shows how much of what did survive owed to individual initiatives, chance, and the vicissitudes of fate, and not to the brilliant performance of the British establishment. Though to be fair, the lesson here is not that Britain had a bumbling establishment, but rather how much stupidity and muddle-headedness attends any great war, especially before the kinks are worked out.
The role of the Poles in particular is worth highlighting (and tragic, now that we know what happened to that much-abused nation in the years that followed); it is already relatively well known that Polish pilots played an outsize role in the crucial Battle of Britain, but I did not realize how much resistance they faced before being allowed to play that role; what is less well appreciated, even today, is how critical their role was in the decoding of Enigma, far and away the greatest intelligence coup of the war. The role of the French in Enigma is also highlighted, as is the absolutely critical role they played in jump-starting the Western nuclear program. Continue reading “Book Review: Last Hope Island”

Xi whizz: look at the emperor’s new clothes

Recent op-ed by Niall Ferguson in The Times (of London). A great read. Though I personally do not agree with him all the time (esp. his views on Empire), his credentials on defending European Enlightenment values against all manner of cultural relativism are impeccable.

Westerners who fawn over China’s leader are ignoring three crucial points

An emperor who is a dotard. A population in the grip of opium addiction. An economy held back by bureaucracy and crumbling infrastructure. A culture fixated on past greatness but in fact hopelessly decadent. This was how westerners in the 18th and 19th centuries regarded China. It is how the Chinese (not to mention most Europeans) now regard the United States.

Trumpery, the opioid epidemic, the administrative state, storm-ravaged cities and the fantasy of making America great again — America today cuts a sorry figure, whether you watch CCTV (Chinese state television) or the BBC. Compare and contrast with the way China is portrayed now in western media.

Ever since President Xi Jinping’s triumphant appearance as the defender of free trade and champion of globalisation at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, there has been a striking trend: those commentators most averse to Donald Trump tend to be the most gushing in their praise of his Chinese counterpart.

To The Economist, Xi Jinping is now “the world’s most powerful man”. Xi offers a “long-term view of China’s ambition”, declared the Financial Times last week. “This president has an iron grip on power and a strategy to reach global pre-eminence.” Followed by: “Beijing is gaining confidence that it can mix political control with growth and innovation.” And then: “With no clear successor, the president stands at the beginning of a new era of dominance.”

My old friend Fareed Zakaria of CNN wrote almost rhapsodically about the implications of the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which ended last week: “This party congress made clear that [Xi] is no ordinary leader,” he wrote. “[His] grip on power [is] far more secure than [that of] his immediate predecessors . . . For the rest of his life, Xi and his ideas will dominate the Communist Party of China.”

To the author of The Post-American World, the implications are clear. “These changes are . . . occurring against the backdrop of the total collapse of political and moral authority of the United States in the world,” Zakaria concluded. “China [has] signalled that it now sees itself as the world’s other superpower, positioning itself as the alternative, if not rival, to the United States.”

This point was seemingly lost on President Trump, who on Wednesday tweeted that he had called President Xi “to congratulate him on his extraordinary elevation”.

Xi whizz! But wait a second. We’re supposed to be impressed that, to quote The Economist, Xi Jinping’s “grip on China is tighter than any leader’s since Mao”? Last time I checked — and I did so with the peerless historian of Communist China, Frank Dikotter — Mao was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions in a succession of Mao-made catastrophes: the 1949 revolution, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. If Mao is Xi’s model, China is more likely to become a vast North Korea than a post-American colossus.

So let’s get three things straight about events in Beijing last week. First, the Mao part. Yes, Xi is the first leader since Mao to have his “thought” (sixiang) put into the Chinese constitution while he is still in office. Deng Xiaoping’s “theory” (lilun) was not inserted until after his death. Moreover, in China, “thought” ranks above “theory”.

But what is Xi’s thought exactly? The relevant amendment to the constitution runs to nearly 3,000 words, but in essence it combines the familiar (“socialism with Chinese characteristics”, a euphemism for capitalism since 1982) with new themes introduced by Xi in the past five years: “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation”, “green development”, anti-corruption and the party’s primacy over the military.

There is not much here that is Maoist. Take this, for example: “We shall give play to the decisive role of market forces in resource allocation . . . advance extensive, multi-level and institutionalised development of consultative democracy . . . [and] enhance our country’s cultural soft power.” Replace the word “Chinese” with “Swedish” and it wouldn’t look out of place in a Scandinavian social democratic manifesto.

Second, the politics. Is Xi now all-powerful? No. He is primus inter pares on the seven-member standing committee of the politburo. The new line-up of the committee announced last week confirmed this. Li Keqiang, the premier, remained, and Wang Yang and Han Zheng joined, despite — according to students of factions within the Communist Party — being associated with the former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Xi’s close ally Chen Min’er, whom some experts see as a potential successor, was not on the list. Perhaps this was because Xi intends to break with tradition by seeking an additional term after 2022; on the other hand, he respected the existing retirement rules by bidding farewell to anti-corruption “tsar” Wang Qishan.

Third, we still don’t know what Xi will do with his enhanced, though not absolute, authority. Key appointments in economic policy and finance will not be announced until March. Maybe the long-awaited structural reforms and deleveraging will finally arrive next year. Or maybe the vested interests within the state-owned enterprises will once again stave off the day of reckoning.

Two centuries ago, westerners were right that China was stagnating. The Chinese can be forgiven for thinking the same about America today. Yet it is far from clear to me that China in 2017 has anything like the vitality and potential of Britain or the US in 1817. Apart from anything else, what made the English-speaking world so dynamic in those days was its unparalleled economic and political liberty.

Beginning in the late 1970s, China overcame centuries of stagnation precisely because Mao’s successors understood that they had to decentralise the People’s Republic, giving economic if not political power to the people. If western commentators are right, Xi Jinping wants to go in the opposite direction. If the Chinese are lucky, he will turn out to be an enlightened absolutist, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. If they are unlucky, he will be just another emperor who fondly dreamt of controlling a fifth of humanity. Worst case — but also least likely — he’s Mao 2.0.

Maybe, just maybe, the wonders of modern information technology can give totalitarianism a new lease of life, as the big Chinese tech companies Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent make available the personal data of all Chinese netizens to the party. And maybe, thanks to big data, economic planning can now work where previously it failed. But I wouldn’t bet on it. And, to judge by the amount of foreign investment wealthy Chinese are still making in spite of tightened capital controls, neither would they.

Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)


Before I share the notes on CPEC I thought I would share the Achievements of the Punjab Govt.

I attended a round table discussion on CPEC (I believe it stands for China Pakistan Economic Corridor).

A few salient points I gathered from the talk:

(1) there seem to be two routes for CPEC; one via West Punjab, Sindh and the other via KPK/Baluchistan.

(2) the Brits historically conceived as India ending West of the Indus and the start of Central Asia. British strategic planning in what was to become West Pakistan (West of the Indus) was essentially security related; to prevent incursions from the North West. Hence the discordance of railways in inner India and the lack of connectivity in Outer India (West of Indus). British approaches to West Pakistan would later formulate colonial approach to much of Africa (mitigation & mining as opposed to management; as the academic used the shorthand “diamond & slaves approach).

(3.) CPEC is a “black box” at the moment; very little information available on it at the moment. Criticism is also very muted and in fact there are reports of Pakistan societies in the UK being coerced to “shut up” by governmental authorities.

(4.) I raised the point that CPEC could never really be an economic endeavour but is a masquerade for PAK foreign policy. Lahore-Delhi and/or Bombay/Khi Links would generate tremendous eco-cultural several orders of magnitude to CPEC.

I’ll add more points as they come to mind..

New low in civil-military relations in Pakistan

From Dr Hamid Hussain

A brief summary of my response to many questions from non-Pakistanis (but keen observers of the scene) not familiar with background about recent friction in Pakistan. Pakistanis are much more informed about the issue.

“Neither to laugh; nor cry
Just to understand”. Spinoza

Past is Prologue – New Ebb in Civil-Military Relations of Pakistan
Hamid Hussain

“It is difficult to envisage some thirty or forty generals and a smaller number of admirals and air force commanders appointed solely by Providence to be the sole judges of what the nation needs”. The Times, April 6, 1961

In 2017, Pakistan is going through another cycle of severely strained civil-military relations. A certain level of friction in civil military relations is norm in many countries. This is especially true in the case of countries where military has maintained its dominance in national decision-making process. Opinions are so polarized that making a rational argument has become an arduous task. Anyone pointing to deficiencies of civilian leadership and improvement of governance is labelled as sweeping the floor for the military while anyone cautioning military leadership to pause and reflect is labeled as lackey of corrupt politicians and unpatriotic. Continue reading “New low in civil-military relations in Pakistan”

China’s Israel

My friend Ammar wrote up this very informative article for The News on ChinPak relations:

In 1960, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s natty and cocky minister in President Ayub Khan’s cabinet, abstained from voting on, instead of voting against, China’s membership of the United Nations. Using his discretionary powers as head of his country’s delegation to the United Nations in New York, Bhutto, by abstaining, had sent a personal signal to China about his preferred direction for Pakistan’s foreign policy. However, his action elicited strong protest from Washington, Pakistan’s closest ally, and Bhutto’s discretionary powers were revoked by Pakistan’s foreign minister.

Hardly a decade after independence from the British, Pakistan, at that time, was firmly entrenched in the Washington camp as a member of anti-Communist blocs such as CENTO and SEATO. On the other hand, India and China, during the 1950s, enjoyed a close relationship as leading anti-colonial and non-aligned states equidistant, politically, from both Washington and Moscow. The winds of change began to blow in 1959 when Tibet crises erupted and led to a full-blown Indo-China war in 1962; it resulted in a humiliating defeat for India and provided an opportunity to Islamabad to improve relations with Beijing.

Six decades after Bhutto’s flirting with the Chinese at New York, the relationship between Pakistan and China has mutated into a reputed “all-weather” friendship; it also shows how strategic interests can successfully trump a bewildering array of cultural, economic, physical and security obstacles. It was the mutual hostility towards India, the common neighbour, which brought Pakistan and China together for the first time; over the decades, China has become Pakistan’s chief diplomatic partner, its main arms supplier, and the most trusted friend to whom it turns at the first whiff of trouble or peril.

Pakistan tried to play China card in 2011 after American raid on Abbottabad to capture Osama bin Laden. It is important to note that China, at that time, rebuffed Pakistan’s efforts and advised Islamabad to mend its relations with Washington.

In the coming decades, with the recently signed US $60 billion economic projects, known as China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China is slated to become the principal financier of economic projects in Pakistan. CPEC has been touted as a game-changer and forms an integral part of China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ strategic vision for the region. Athough China’s relations with India, since the 1962 war, have improved significantly resulting in billions of dollars’ worth of trading deals, Chinese investment and interest in Pakistan’s economic projects form the centre-piece of its confident economic and strategic policy for the whole neighbourhood.

Apart from India, Pakistan’s nuclear programme and its relations with Washington, situation in Afghanistan, war on terror and against militants after 9/11 are other important areas on which Pakistan-China dialogue and cooperation have focused. In the early 1970s, Pakistan played the matchmaker role between Washington and Beijing when China became member of the United Nations and established diplomatic relations with the United States.

China sided with Pakistan during its two wars with India in 1965 and 1971 but did not intervene or open any front with India; Washington discontinued military aid to Pakistan in 1965 and failed to exert any meaningful pressure on Indira Gandhi in 1971 despite then recent and successful diplomatic efforts by Pakistan to bring Washington and Beijing closer to each other.

Pakistan was disappointed by the failure of both Chinese and Americans to come to its rescue in the 1971 war against India; both countries paraded their sympathies without offering much in material support to Pakistan who lost one-fifth of its territory and half its population in this catastrophic war. Pakistan realised the limits of diplomacy or military alliances, when it came to its two allies, and turned towards a strategic deterrent, the nuclear bomb option, to bolster its defense against traditional rival India.

Although China did not intervene during the 1971 war with India, it has emerged as the main arms supplier to Pakistan. More importantly, as Andrew Small argues in his book, it was in the realm of nuclear cooperation that Pakistan-China relationship bound forward and assumed a distinctive character of its own. Andrew Small has written a fascinating and compelling book titled The China-Pakistan Axis — Asia’s New Geopolitics.

Small has worked on Chinese foreign policy and economic issues in a number of capitals across the globe and is presently serving as a Transatlantic Fellow at the George Marshall Fund in Washington D.C. His book crackles with insight and information on topics such as Beijing’s extraordinary and essential support to Pakistan’s nuclear programme and defence planning, their strategic cooperation on India, the United States and Afghanistan, and the implications for counterterrorism efforts.

China, as a matter of its policy, has eschewed military or defense alliance with Pakistan but has whole-heartedly supported its hugger mugger efforts to acquire nuclear capability — the ultimate means of self-defense — and develop or upgrade ballistic missiles system. Pakistan, on its part, has also extended full support to China by readily giving access to western military equipment, including the American missiles which landed in Pakistan or the US Marines’ helicopter that crashed in Abbottabad in 2011 during the raid to capture Osama bin Laden, so that Chinese engineers can copy western military equipment through reverse engineering.

In 1966, a few months after the war with India, when Chinese Premier visited Pakistan he was cheered by jubilant crowds and welcomed by a phalanx of Pakistani officials in Lahore, prompting the US Consul General in the city to bemoan that “Pakistan is lost”. Decades later, China’s military chief General Xiong Guangkai, during his exhaustive parleys with his American counterparts, remarked that Pakistan is China’s Israel. China has also timed its missile sales to Pakistan, Washington noted, as a retaliatory move to US sales of F-16s to Taiwan in 1992.

Strategically, Beijing views Pakistan as a counter-balance to India but at the same time wants Pakistan-US relations to be robust as this places limits on the scope of US-India relations. It also means that Pakistan does not become an issue of tension in US-China ties and more importantly does not impact Sino-Pakistan security ties due to Washington’s pressure or sanctions.

After the Lal Masjid incident in 2007, terrorism in Pakistan assumed menacing proportions till Pakistan army cleared the militants from FATA and Swat following a series of failed agreements. China, as a matter of policy, has advised Pakistan to control and combat militancy which is a threat to both Pakistan’s society and state and can potentially derail Chinese growing investment in Pakistan’s economic projects.

More importantly, Pakistan has become the most dangerous overseas location for Chinese workers. China may have been sympathetic to the blowback argument used by Pakistan’s officials in the past to justify its reluctance to move decisively against militants but as China’s stake in Pakistan’s economy expands, Pakistan’s security apparatus will likely come under increasing Chinese pressure to step up its anti-militants drive.

On Afghanistan, a stable settlement, which also includes reconciliation with Taliban, is the preferred option for China who does not want Afghanistan to become a safe haven for Uygur militants, actively operating in China’s provinces, or descend into chaos so that it becomes a threat to China’s growing interests in the region. It is not in China’s interest that Washington should walk away immediately leaving Afghanistan without a workable solution and at the mercy of militants.

Despite military cooperation with Pakistan over the decades, China, during the Kargil war in 1999, coordinated its efforts with Washington and prodded Pakistan to de-escalate the situation by pulling back its forces from the theatre of war. However, in 2002, following attack on Indian Parliament, and later in 2008, in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks, China, in coordination with Washington and other Western capitals, exerted pressure on India to bring down the temperature as the situation had become quite tense and febrile on both occasions.

Small forcefully avers that if the US approach to India over the last decade has been one of de-hyphenation from Pakistan, China’s has been one of re-hyphenation. In response to US-India nuclear power deal, China has signed up new nuclear power plant agreements with Pakistan. China is heavily involved in developing Gwadar, Pakistan’s deep water port off the Balochistan coast. In 2015, Pakistan and China signed a US $5 billion deal for sale of eight Chinese submarines to Pakistan, making it the largest Chinese defense deal to date and facilitating Pakistan’s nuclear capability in the shape of sea-based deterrent.

There is a consensus on the side of Pakistan’s both civilian and military leadership to sign up to CPEC. If Pakistan’s relations with China were unaffected by Bhutto’s hanging in 1979, despite Chinese efforts to save him, it is quite certain that Pakistan-China relationship is not hostage to any political or military leader’s presence on the scene or staying in power of any specific political party in Pakistan.

Pakistan tried to play China card in 2011 after American raid on Abbottabad to capture Osama bin Laden. It is important to note that China, at that time, rebuffed Pakistan’s efforts and advised Islamabad to mend its relations with Washington. In the past, China has made limits of its support clear to Islamabad on different occasions. However, as Small argues, China’s increased investment and involvement, during the last decade, in Pakistan’s economic landscape and security deals might have changed the nature and calculus of Sino-Pakistan relationship.

China will increasingly defend Pakistan in face of future American pressure but at the same time will exert more pressure of its own to steer Pakistan towards a path which is economically beneficial but will place constraints on the free hand that Pakistan’s military and civilian elite has hitherto enjoyed in their decision-making.

Muslim aggression

We were walking the little doggo (who is mA a cutie & constantly admired) down the road and we crossed this Muslim couple. The couple got so anxious that the husband barked out “save your Dog.”

Now I have no idea what that actually meant except that he was a recent immigrant judging from his grasp of the language & dress. 

What did shock me was his hubris; the fact that as a recent immigrant he found no need to understand the societal mores of a dog-loving society. 

I’ve constantly seen this with hijabi Muslims that as soon as they see the doggo they start going into a panic. I blame lefty WASP liberals who make no attempt to encourage this angry population to integrate into the mainstream.

Indian “Secularism”

The BJP government has been in power at the federal level in India since 2014, and in various Indian states, e.g. Gujarat, for much longer. While BJP, like most national-level parties in India, is a broad church representing the entire spectrum of views from just Right-of-Centre to fringe Far Right bigotry, it seems (to me at least) that the Far Right has definitely been gaining ground. This is visible through a lot of what’s said explicitly or dog-whistled by various persons of consequence in the party. Besides, there’s an obvious attempt being made to influence ostensibly non-political institutions like the academia, cultural bodies, research funding agencies etc which directly/indirectly depend on the Government for funding and/or management.

The use of institutions for political gain is unfortunately not a new thing in India. This is an art perfected by the previous Congress governments, under whom, entire central university departments, the University Grants Commission (of which my Dad has many horror stories to recount!), historical and cultural research centres, scientific and industrial research centres, even the national archives were veritable arms of state propaganda and political power-play in true socialist fashion! Anyone can tell you that a country where even mathematics is politicized is fairly screwed up – yet that has been the condition of India for a very long time. And the rot really started setting in under the patron saint of Indian autocracy, Indira Gandhi, who subverted many institutions into instruments for projecting the ruling Government’s influence and narrative. Her rule was characterized by extreme nepotism – the main beneficiaries being the old and influential Kashmiri Pandit khandaan (families) of the erstwhile Moghal belt related to Nehrus, the Dhars, Haksars, Kaws, Razdans, Kauls and Katjus, who played a major part in running the country through the 70s and most of 80s.

The nepotism, corruption and utterly hollowed-out state of India’s public institutions headed by the ruling party’s yes-men contributed in many ways to the strong disestablishmentarian politics of the 70s and 80s in India – Janata Party & Jai Prakash Narayan‘s movement – in turn spawning off the modern day Rashtriya Janata Dal of Laloo Prasad, Samajvadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its RSS affiliations. These parties rode on the popular mandates against the Congress and when in power at either state/central levels, used exactly the same sorts of networks Congress (I) had created precedents for to project their own influence and narrative. The current BJP-led dispensation is not doing anything new or radical on the Indian political scene that the “secular” Congressis did not do. They are replacing Congressi stooges by Hindutva ideologues, using the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to go after the sort the opposition had patronized and have subverted institutions in the same Indira-esque fashion but under the saffron banner this time. In fact, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy is quite brazen about this deliberate “correction” of institutions that he is executing for the BJP (including settling personal scores against the likes of Amartya Sen). This interview is a must see:

Of the many institutions/ideals of Western Enlightenment that animate the Indian Constitution, none has been so comprehensively dragged through mud by Indians as Secularism. From its lofty origins in the French Revolution, Indians have reduced it to mere euphemism for Muslim vote-bank politics and Mullah appeasement, one of the many cynical tools used by Indian politicians to keep hold of power. The infamous Shah Bano case under Rajiv Gandhi’s government is a watershed in the state’s use of “secularism” to further oppress the oppressed to get in the good books of a few regressive Mullahs (and hope they ask their congregations for votes).

The patronizing attitude of the Indian state towards Muslim citizens is a symptom of a wider malaise inherited from the British colonial state, of treating communities as the units of a nation state (and managing their conflicting interests as statecraft), rather than a model of governance based on rights and freedoms of citizens. So, for example, the manner in which the modern Indian state (or even Indian media) deals with the views of a woman who happens to be Muslim is to tag her as “Muslim” and then proceed to respond to her views by using received wisdom on how to deal with Muslims. It is akin to outsourcing all thinking to a colonial era manual on Muslim sensibilities and reducing every individual, suitably tagged, to that outmoded (and patronizing by design) community calculus. The fact that the citizen is a thinking individual with Constitutional freedoms and ideas of her own – which may be completely outside of the narrow confines of how the State thinks Muslims would/should react – is almost immaterial. That is the reason why a state which professes to be a modern Constitutional democracy, tolerated something as regressive as triple talaq for its citizens for as long as it did.

The manual has had a few updates courtesy Nehru since the original British blueprint, due to the creation of Pakistan and the predicament (N Indian) Muslims who stayed behind found themselves in. So, in the immediate aftermath of the Partition riots (more like genocide, actually!) of Muslims in North India, the Nehruvian Consensus took shape as an unwritten government policy to treat Muslims with kid gloves. This meant turning the gaze away from outdated social practices among Muslims, even while Hindu society was undergoing tremendous top-down social engineering (cf. Reservations). This was a well-intentioned, if doomed, policy by early Congress governments to nurture a Muslim middle-class to regain their importance in the politics of North India. However, its effect was exactly the reverse: it increased the importance of Muslim clergy (Deobandis, Jamiat Ulema-e Hind etc) who frequently assumed the role of interlocutors between Delhi and the vast Muslim population of the hinterland, and emboldened the Hindu Right who identified Secularism as partiality to and appeasement of (similarly demented) Islamic religious practices while their own Hindu version (caste-system, widow remarriage, cow fetishization etc) was being proscribed. The frustration of the Hindu Right with such policies led to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by an RSS ideologue, starting an ideological war that continues unabated to this day.

The virus of cultural relativism at work here is not just limited to Muslims alone and neither is the dismal state of Muslim society its worst manifestation. Indian government has condoned the practice of ritual murder of children by tribal populations in the name of preserving communities (as opposed to upholding human rights), with the head of an Indian Government organisation even referring to possible arrest of baby murderers as “mishandling”:

The pace of change worries specialists like S. A. Awaradi, the director of the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research Institute, who describes the tribe as “our human heritage.”

“This has been a self-sufficient civilization for thousands of years,” Mr. Awaradi said. “By mishandling, you are creating a blunder of civilization.”

BJP’s founding animus for all things Islamic means that, at least on face-value, they are against the cynical use of “secularism” to shield Mullahs and other regressive religious bodies from 21st century moral scrutiny. However, that goodwill for the Muslim downtrodden is ill-motivated, as the Hindutva movement is essentially revanchist in nature. It is a sad denouement of Indian liberalism that they have ceded moral high ground to the Hindutvavadis, when it comes to rights of the weak or minorities within Muslims. Hindutva movement itself was borne out of a deep-seated insecurity about the medieval Muslim rule in India, and the desire to reestablish continuity of modern-day India to some (frequently imaginary) pre-Islamic India of milk and honey. As the famous Bollywood movie song (sung by the Punjabi King Puru, just before he had his arse handed to him by Alexander) goes:

jahaN Dal-Dal per soney ki chiRiyaN karteeN haiN basera, voh bharat desh hai mera, voh Bharat desh hai mera.

Trans: Where on every (tree) branch sparrows-of-gold nest, 
that Bharata nation is mine, that Bharata nation is mine.

To the Hindutva movement Indo-Islamic art, architecture, music, dress, names, even Arabic/Farsi/Turkic loanwords in Indian languages and, above all, the existence of hundreds of millions of Muslims in India are inconvenient reminders of India’s indelible Islamic past. These facts are hard to swallow for a dyed-in-the-wool Hindutva fanatic and a daily reminder of the centuries of perceived humiliation of Hindus and their culture at the hands of successful Muslim invaders. Therefore Hindu Right has a tendency to distort/efface history taught in schools, discriminate in research funding for the study of specific periods of Indian history or display outright unwillingness for upkeep, maintenance or promotion of historical sites that do not gel with the government’s idea of what ought to be preserved. While Central Board school history syllabus in India has been largely spared of the Hindutva bile at least for now, the project has been on-going in state-level school boards (school education in India is not a Central Government responsibility) for a while. E.g. Maharashtra school board textbooks focus on history of relatively insignificant early Maratha kings to the point that Moghals seem little more than an occasional irritant in local politics, as opposed to overlords of the whole of Deccan. The latest controversy on UP Government’s decision to not include Taj Mahal in its tourism sites booklet is another case in point, a high-water mark in the rising tide of Hindutva politics. In terms of ideological bent, therefore, Hindutva ideologues, both old (like V D Savarkar) and new, totally concur with the views of Muslim nationalists like Jinnah, articulated beautifully in his historic Lahore address to the Muslim League:

The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature[s]. They neither intermarry nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects [=perspectives?] on life, and of life, are different. It is quite clear that Hindus and Mussalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history. They have different epics, their heroes are different, and different episode[s]. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other, and likewise their victories and defeats overlap. To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent, and final. destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state.

While the pro-BJP swing seen in India since 2014 actually had as much to do with anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress as Modi’s personal charisma and good PR of selling vikas (economic development) to the masses, it has inevitably led to strengthening of the cultural Hindutva core of the BJP. So, besides economic experimentation (not bad or ill-motivated in itself; though consequences are arguable) we also have the rise of cow-protection politics – an old pet project of the Hindu Right. The best example of this is Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where the BJP government has instituted a gauseva (lit. cow service) board, funded by taxpayers’ money of course. Besides the usual cow welfare monitoring, the board apparently issues advisory notices. The latest one is for women to switch to natural cow products for beauty treatment and claims gaumutra (lit. cow urine) can cure 108 (why not 110?) diseases including AIDS and cancer. Consider this gem, which is meant as advice to Gujarati women to turn them into “cleopatras”:

For healthy, glowing skin like Egyptian queen Cleopatra, use panchgavya, which is a concoction of cow urine, dung, milk, curd and clarified butter.

Gaumutra will remove dark circles, black spots and pimples. Use of panchgavya will give you long-lasting beauty.

We want women to understand the benefits of using cow milk, urine and dung to beautify themselves instead of damaging their skin by using chemicals.

While many may laugh off the above example as just a local idiosyncrasy, there is unfortunately a pattern to this growing government involvement with pseudo-Science that is deeply worrying and dangerous. Not to mention, cow fetishization has murderous social repercussions too: cow-protection vigilante violence, mob lynching, attacks on businesses etc.

But are these fears legitimate? As the argument goes, any Hindutva dream of converting India to a Hindu Shuddhsthan (land of the pure) modelled on Islamic Pakistan, only much larger and way more powerful, has to contend with the rough and tumble of Indian reality: the quotidian shoddiness of Indian bureaucracy, the general lack of civic duty within every mohalla (let alone pan-Indian paroxysms of patriotism which Hindu Right would like to engender), the deep-seated social cleavages of Hindu society, plurality of beliefs in the broad church of Hinduism, linguistic and racial divides (if caste weren’t enough already), the rise of an affluent and fairly Westernized middle-class that looks down on attitudes described above, and (most importantly of all) the Indian democratic setup.

Most of these frictions in India are rather obvious for a country of the size and population of India, yet they should not be taken for granted as a natural bulwark against authoritarian rule. Aggressive-nationalism is a very effective social meme (especially in combination with a pervasive victimhood complex) and its effect on human societies (esp. one as religious as India) must not be underestimated. In India, Hindutva ideology has also successfully managed to co-opt symbols of the Indian Republic, notably the flag and the Constitution as quasi-Hindu icons – the same symbols their ideological Jan Sangh forebears hated:

In an editorial published in the RSS mouthpiece, the Organiser, on the eve of India’s independence, the Sangh opposed the tricolour flag, declaring that “it never be respected and owned by the Hindus”. “The word three”, the editorial went on explain, “is in itself an evil, and a flag having three colours will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country.”


“But in our constitution, there is no mention of that unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat… To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”

To be fair, India is not alone in this quasi-religious use of national symbols. American Right (e.g. Tea Party activists) also tend to apotheosize the Founding Fathers of the USA and the American Flag arouses similar devotional feeling. This is not entirely a negative thing (if kept in check) as patriotic idiocy is useful for the functioning of democracy and often such useful idiots make the best attack dogs protecting the same Constitutional values that obviate them. What keeps such people in check, however, is a solid institutional framework (judiciary, policing etc) that can enforce the rule of law and a social contract of abjuring the use of violence for political gain. These institutional and social checks are present in the United States but largely missing in India.

Therefore, I find the oft-touted Indian diversity argument to be quite parochial and really no match for genuine Hindu authoritarianism. Think about what the Pakistan movement could achieve by mobilizing opinion around religion with far fewer people and lesser resources. A politically unhindered Hindu Right is capable of just as much of a transformation within India – in spite of all the aforementioned social frictions. A rudderless opposition does not help matters either.

My own opinion on what can really save India from a terrible Hindu utopia is an unassuming, almost technical, feature of Indian electoral democracy: the first-past-the-post system that makes the fate of political leaders extremely sensitive to swings of public opinion. Note that the current BJP government only had 31% of the Indian voteshare, with Congress at 19.3%. This means just 5.9% swing of BJP voters to Congress would decimate BJP seats throughout the country’s constituencies. Obviously this mere technicality is contingent on a democratic culture, where the mandate is accepted by political parties and peaceful power transitions can occur. Obviously no body can predict the future, but if India’s post-Independence record is any indication whatsoever, I can safely wager Indians (for all their terrible shortcomings) manage that very well indeed!

Review: Hell! No Saints in Paradise

AK Asif’s debut novel mixes dystopian science fiction, sufism, politics, humor and Salafist Islam to create a stunning and unexpected joy-ride through post-apocalyptic Pakistan in 2050. Of course it is no longer called Pakistan (there being no P in Arabic), it is now called Al-Bakistan, and it is ruled by a Khalifa who established law and order after the proletariat rose in revolt and decapitated the ruling elite in a paroxysm of rioting and holy war a few years earlier.

Continue reading “Review: Hell! No Saints in Paradise”

Race is not just skin color

“The southern Indians resemble the Ethiopians a good deal, and, are black of countenance, and their hair black also, only they are not as snub-nosed or so woolly-haired as the Ethiopians; but the northern Indians are most like the Egyptians in appearance.”

– Arrian

I might almost say that the same animals are to be found in India as in Aethiopia and Egypt, and that the Indian rivers have all the other river animals except the hippopotamus, although Onesicritus says that the hippopotamus is also to be found in India. As for the people of India, those in the south are like the Aethiopians in colour, although they are like the rest in respect to countenance and hair (for on account of the humidity of the air their hair does not curl), whereas those in the north are like the Egyptians.


The plot above is from Genetic Evidence for the Convergent Evolution of Light Skin in Europeans and East Asians. It’s a 2007 paper. For those of you not versed in genetics, 10 years is like the difference between the First Age and Third Age on Middle Earth. For those of you not versed in Tolkien, 10 years is like the difference between Gupta India and Maratha India? I think?

Basically, the authors looked around the regions of the genome of loci known to be implicated in pigmentation variation in 2007, which mostly started from differences between Europeans and Africans. In the plot above you see pairwise genetic distances visualized in a neighbor-joining tree. The populations are:

SA = Asians, IM = Island Melanesians, WA = West Africans, EU = Europeans, EA = East Asians, and NA = Native Americans

What you see is that pigmentation loci are not phylogenetically very informative. Because of ascertainment bias in discovery Europeans are an out-group on many of the genes. But overall you see that the trees generated by a relationship on pigmentation genes do not conform to what we’d expect, where Africans are an outgroup to non-Africans. This is not surprising, as any given locus is not too phylogenetically informative. Additionally, pigmentation is a trait where selection has likely changed allele frequencies a lot, so it’s not a very good trait to look at to determine evolutionary relationships.

A white actress?

I bring this up because The New York Times and other publications are reporting on a new paper in Science, Loci associated with skin pigmentation identified in African populations, with headlines like Genes for Skin Color Rebut Dated Notions of Race, Researchers Say.

The Science paper is very interesting because it helps to make up for the long-term ascertainment bias in the literature, whereby European differences from other groups helped to discover pigmentation loci of interest. The big topline result is that there’s a lot of extant variation within Africans, and much of it is very old, pre-dating modern humans by hundreds of thousands of years, implying long-term balancing selection to maintain polymorphism.

Here’s a quote from The New York Times piece:

For centuries, skin color has held powerful social meaning — a defining characteristic of race, and a starting point for racism.

“If you ask somebody on the street, ‘What are the main differences between races?,’ they’re going to say skin color,” said Sarah A. Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania.

The widespread distribution of these genes and their persistence over millenniums show that the old color lines are essentially meaningless, the scientists said. The research “dispels a biological concept of race,” Dr. Tishkoff said.

I can go along with all the sentences more or less except the last. Skin is the largest organ we have, and it’s pretty salient. West Asian Muslims regularly referred to Indians as “black” (early Islamic Arabs referred to the people of Sindh as “black crows”). They defined themselves as white (though contrasted their own olive complexion with ruddy Europeans). The Chinese referred to themselves as white, and Southeast Asians, such as the inhabitants of the ancient Cambodian kingdom of Funan, as black. Among South Asians, skin color is also very salient. During the period when Pakistan included a western and eastern half the West Pakistanis were known to refer to the Bengalis as blacks, while East Pakistanis who went to study in the West, like my father, were surprised that not all Pakistanis were white like Ayub Khan.

Sharon Muthu, Indian American actress

But racial perception and categorization are not identical with skin color. The ancients knew this intuitively, as the quotes from Arrian and Strabo above suggest. They were aware that South Asians were dark-skinned, but those in the north were lighter than those in the south, and that those in the south resembled Africans in the range of their complexion. But, they also knew that it was not difficult to distinguish a South Asian from an African in most cases, because South Asians have different hair forms and to some extent facial features, from Africans.

I know this myself personally. Living in almost white areas of the United States for most of my childhood I encountered some racism. My skin tone is within the range of African Americans. But when it came to racial slurs I was usually called “sand nigger”, or more sometimes “camel jockey.” Please note that the modifier sand. Even racists understood to distinguish people of similar hues who were clearly physically distinctive.

Conversely, African Americans did not usually recognize me as African American. Living in the Pacific Northwest there aren’t many non-whites. It’s also very rainy. Sometimes when I was wearing my Columbia jacket with hood black men walking from the other direction on the sidewalk would start to nod at me, assuming I was black. But mid-way through the nod as they approached me they recognized that despite my brown color I was not African American and would stop the motion and switch to a manner of distanced politeness as opposed to informal warmth.*

Finally, I also had East Asian friends who were very light-skinned. As light-skinned as any white person of Southern European heritage. That did not prevent racists from calling them “chinks” or (more rarely) “gooks.” These racists were seeing beyond the skin color.

If ancient authors from 2,000 years ago understood that race is more than skin color, and if genuine bigots understand race is more than skin color, I fail to understand why so often the public discourse in the United States acts as if race is just skin color. We know it’s not so.

The reason I’m posting this on Brown Pundits is that the focus on skin color made sense to me growing up in the United States, but as someone of South Asian ancestry I also knew it was not sufficient as a classifier. I knew when I was probably around five. Many South Asians see a huge range in skin color within their immediate families. That is, empirically the fact that there were large effect QTLs segregating within South Asians is obvious to any South Asian who grew up around South Asians.**

My mother is of light brown complexion. My father is of dark brown complexion. My mother’s complexion is fair enough that she is usually assumed to be Latina if she doesn’t speak (her accent is clearly South Asian), and in cases has been misjudged to be Southern European. My father, like his mother, is in contrast on the darker side. Their Bengali friends would joke that they were an interracial relationship.

My father’s father was very light skinned, and his mother was very dark skinned. Some of his siblings were dark, some of them were light, and some of them were between. One of my father’s brothers is basically a doppelganger of my father, except he is lighter skinned.

And yet there was never a question that both my parents were ethnically Bengali. They were both people with deep roots in Comilla in eastern Bengal. Now that I have their genotypes I can tell you that my parents are genetically clearly from the same region of Bengal; they cluster together even compared to other Bangladeshis. In fact, my father is more Indo-Aryan (every so slightly) shifted than my mother. I suspect it is through his mother, whose father was born into a family of recently converted Brahmins. It is clear that skin color is not predicting phylogeny in this case, and I am sure many South Asians intuitively grasp this because of the variation in complexion they see across their families, who are usually from the same sub-ethnic group in any case.***

A multiracial United States is going to be more complex world than the situation before 1965, when America’s racial consciousness was partitioned between black and white (notwithstanding Native Americans, Hispanos and other Latinos in the Southwest, and a residual of Asian Americans). But sometimes I feel the intellectual and cultural elite of this nation is stuck in the paradigm of 1964.

* I have a friend from Kerala in South India who has talked about being mistaken for being Ethiopian.

** I am the only South Asian my daughter has grown up around, and her complexion is far closer to her mother’s than my own. She did have a difficult time distinguishing me from black males in her early years because to her my dark-skin is very salient. When her mother asked her to give reasons why African American males might look different from her father, she immediately clued in on the hair and facial features.

*** Black Americans and Middle Easterners, and a whole host of other groups where pigmentation loci segregation in appreciable frequencies, can all see that differences in skin color do not necessarily denote differences in race, since there is so much intra-familial variation.