Objectives Resolution: Logical Culmination or Building Block?

The creation of Pakistan was a culmination of the ‘Indian Muslim National Project’ that was started by Muslim Elites primarily based in UP. It was bound to be a country where religion took center stage in the political arena. Led by a charismatic, populist British lawyer, All India Muslim League was a hotchpotch of landed gentry and titled aristocracy. The Second World War paved the way for an early exit by the British and handed a historic chance to Indian leaders to decide their destiny. It is difficult to predict if a ‘United India’ would have survived for some time in the absence of British interlocutors since fratricide and ethnic cleansing in Potohar had started much before the actual partition. The Muslim Elite (Ashraf) that founded Pakistan decided that the country would be an ideological state, the ideology was chosen to be Islam. Not because the elite overwhelmingly consisted of Islamists (with a few exceptions) but because religion is an easy way to manipulate people. The Khilafat movement had provided a glimpse of what mixing religion and politics could achieve and Muslim Leaguers were well-aware of its power, which is why they used the ‘Islam in Danger’ card during the 1945 election.

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The Man on Mao’s Right..

The Man on Mao’s Right” is the memoir of Ji Chaozhu, a Chinese diplomat who worked as an interpreter for several decades before being promoted to more substantive positions, ending his career as China’s ambassador to Great Britain and a stint as undersecretary general of the UN. His personal story in intertwined with many important events in modern Chinese history, from the Japanese invasion and a peripheral role in the communist’s rise to power (his older brother was a confidant of Zhu Enlai and more or less a Chinese communist agent in the United States), to the Korean war, the early decades of Chinese communism, the Great Leap Forward, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the fall of the Gang of Four and the rise of post-Maoist China under Deng Xiaoping.

Ji went to school in Manhattan and was a scholarship student at Harvard before most of the family moved back to China to help Chairman Mao build the new China. He is a Chinese patriot and a thoroughgoing Confucian Mandarin at heart, who managed to retain these ideals through decades of purges and ideological twists and turns in China, so he is not inclined to kick up controversy and cross the party’s red lines even in his old age. The memoir seems honest and frank enough when it comes to his personal life, but the politics and political commentary are filtered through a lifetime of extreme care and awareness of what words can mean and what limits are to be kept in mind. He may have exactly these beliefs and attitudes, or he may think these are the beliefs and attitudes he considers safe to share. Either way, opinions that the CCP now considers safe are freely shared, those that could upset the CCP apparently never entered Ji’s head. That’s just how it is in this book.

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What’s the fuss about dog meat?

Fellow blogger Omar Ali’s recent post on the perils of Orientalism uses the example of an Orientalist’s apologia for the rather uncharitable views on dogs (as filthy animals etc) prevalent in Muslim societies. The Yale professor in question concludes thus:

Knowing this past not only gives us a fuller picture of the most ubiquitous nonhuman animal we welcome in our midst, but it also helps us to understand how our histories with other animals have shaped our current world.

which got me thinking about how parochial the world-view of some Westerners can be.

The lychee and dog-meat festival in the Southern Chinese city of Yulin went ahead as planned last month, in spite of all the brouhaha and rumours of a ban on social and news media both within and especially outside China. The sheer lack of compunction that characterises the Chinese regime is rather well known, so I am not surprised in the least. However, the unease of Western commentators at this Chinese practice is quite obvious and surprising coming from a culture that considers anything from sheep to horses rather kosher. Consider this piece in the latest Economist issue that I read just yesterday on my commute home, which ascribes the popularity of the event to criminality and treats trade in dog-meat at par with drug trafficking!

The “animal love” that is rather partial to the members of the Canis family is a deep-seated Western fad, rather akin to the cow-craze in India. I recall a conversation with a potential (elderly English) landlady many years ago in London, who asked me if I hated dogs. I said I didn’t and added that I’m indifferent to them. That was enough to visibly rile her up! She could fathom people disliking dogs (or liking them, as she obviously did) but an expression of indifference to such “ubiquitous nonhuman animal” was absolutely beyond her tolerance. I can only imagine how she’d have responded if a Chinese tenant in my place had innocently let slip that he found dogs tasty 🙂

I am not quite sure why the dog is such a holy cow for Western (or Westernized) animal lovers. Is it more of a mammal than a cow, or a goat, or a pig? I can understand Indian (including Hindu) aversion to the idea of eating dogs, which takes after the unclean status of dogs in the Islamic world. The same holds for Hindu aversion to pigs too – again an internalised Islamic fad – with a clear religious pathology behind it. But it is hard for me to comprehend how a Brit or an Italian could gobble up finely minced offal cuts of a pig (raised and slaughtered for its meat) packed in the entrails of that very animal for breakfast and yet find the idea of dog steak on a plate emetic.

A dog isn’t anymore angelic than a pig and, who knows, probably dogs taste better. I don’t think the Chinese (or indeed anyone else) should limit their gastronomic repertoire just because some Westerners find it off-putting. If the animal-lovers are doing it out of a genuine moral duty, isn’t saving the poor cows of this world from the abattoir an equally noble endeavour? If so, they ought to be supporting Indian beef-bans too (akin to the ban on commercial sale and consumption of dog meat in the US and various European countries), i.e. unless they do not mind being called specieists. Knee-jerk reactions on dog-meat are reminiscent of the loony Hindutva fringe, who are wont to get their knickers in a twist every time someone mentions the b-word. To their credit though, caninophiles haven’t lynched a Chinese person, at least not yet.

My advice to all the caninophiles of the world: like any other domesticated animal, your pet’s species is edible too .. get over it! Now how about some Dalmatian kebab with lychees?

Brexit: the oxymoronic democratic referendum

Being a foreign-born Londoner and one who has sold his soul to the big bad world of finance, the momentous decision of the British electorate to leave the EU has personal resonance. Therefore, I have been meaning to pen my thoughts on Brexit for some time.

The run-up to the Brexit process rent the country into two politically (and sometimes personally) antagonistic camps – the Leavers (buccaneering “Brexiteers” to the latter) who wanted UK to leave the EU and Remainers (“Remoaners” to the former) who wanted to stay. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the referendum pitted brother against brother, friend against friend and neighbour against neighbour. Leave and Remain campaigns saw a lot of familiar dog-whistling about immigrants, fanciful promises of redirecting EU transfer payments to the UK National Health Service painted on buses, lofty talks of Independence from the Eurocratic elite, facetious (and patronizing) arguments about EU being a civilizing force etc. Where one fell on the Leave-Remain axis was, rather unsurprisingly, correlated to family income distribution, age and rural-urban background. Typically, older people hard of means hailing from small towns were the implacable Brexiteers, as opposed to Remoaning younger city crowd in well-paying jobs. However, out of these three main explanatory factors, age was by far the strongest determinant: even the city-dwelling, indubitably middle-class, older folk tend to be Brexiteers. As the adage goes, Brexit was a gigantic fuck-you! from the grand-dads and grannies.

The Brexit referendum itself was a political gamble by the ruling Tories, led by David Cameron. The decision to hold the In-Out referendum was primarily Cameron’s, widely advertised as a Tory election promise. Cameron’s intention was to use the Remain result (famous last words!) as a giant UK-sized stick to beat the traditional Eurosceptics in his party with. However, the Brexit referendum decision was also endorsed by other political parties, notably UKIP (UK Independence Party), a party of right-wing fruitcakes in Cameron’s own words. The decision to hold the public referendum was arrived at in a rather slapdash fashion, with very little understanding of the public mood, no recourse to a stronger two-thirds majority (as any Constitutional change normally requires, esp. one of this magnitude) and no forethought or planning about the political cataclysm an Out (Brexit) vote would unleash.

The nominal objective of the Brexit referendum was to leave the EU, which essentially meant moving out of the European Council-Commission-Parliament triumvirate and removing the European Court of Justice as the supreme law-making body for the UK. For the uninitiated, the EU law originates from the European Commission, essentially a cabal of bureaucrats drawn from the upper echelons of the civil services – one from each of the 28 member states – that is paid to think European. Any draft directive initiated by the Commission is then debated by the rather emasculated European Parliament, consisting of MEPs elected on a proportional representation basis in constituencies throughout the EU. The number of constituencies (and therefore the number of MEPs) per country is notoriously not proportional to the population of the country. The degressive proportional system leads to perverse outcomes such as the vote of one Luxembourgish or Maltese worth those of over 10 Brits or Germans. It is essentially the same recipe that led to Trump becoming President in spite of a smaller vote share and the last we saw such perversity in our own neck of the woods was Pakistan’s so-called Parity Scheme in the long build up to Bangladesh Liberation. Finally, the Council comprises the heads of member states and the bureaucrat-in-chief a.k.a. President of the Commission. It is meant to provide guidance to the bureaucrats of the Commission and make strategic executive decisions in times of crisis, and throw lavish dinner parties in the meanwhile. The obvious democratic deficit, seriously bloated bureaucracy and other systemic flaws of the EU model are not unknown to European leadership either.

Over the years the European Union has created a financial and economic ecosystem too. This includes, primarily, the European Economic Area (EEA) within which any individual can have visa-free access, seek employment and do business without restrictions or tariffs, a Eurozone i.e. the region where Euro is legal tender (largely isomorphic with the EEA, with UK as the notable exception) and a Eurosystem of banking and finance under the aegis of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt – the lender of last resort for the Eurozone. The complex network of these institutions (other than the Eurozone which the UK is anyway out of) is what the Brexit referendum sought to sever the UK from permanently.

Before coming to the nub of this blog post – i.e. whether the Brexit decision was the right choice – I would like to briefly discuss the nature of democracy, which I think is critical in informing the debate around Brexit. [I was initially planning to cover this question in some detail here, but I realized that it’s important enough to need a blog post of its own. So I will be brief and ask you watch this space for a soon upcoming blog post on Democracy.]

Democracy is in its essence an error-correction mechanism. In political terms, it’s a system to remove bad leaders without violence, not a system to elect good ones per se. This may initially seem like a trivial statement, but I urge readers to take a moment to mull it over. This definition of democracy was first mooted by Karl Popper in his seminal work on The Open Society and its Enemies coincidentally published in the same year the Third Reich fell, yet still remains rather poorly understood. What the true will of the people is, or whether such a thing even exists, is of little importance or consequence in a democratic setup. What’s more important is how the system is designed to use that will expressed via the ballot box to ensure terrible leaders (autocrats, revanchists, communists, religious-fascists and other forms of political-utopia seekers generally) can be removed non-violently before it’s too late. The better any electoral system translates the swing in public sentiment into gain/loss of power, the better it is for hedging against downside political risk. It can be argued that First Past the Post tends to do this better than all such systems currently in existence.

Another corollary of this definition of democracy is the nature and function of whom we elect to power. The primary function of chosen representatives (not delegates) isn’t carrying out what some vaguely-defined popular will delegates to them, anymore than it is an airline pilot’s job to fly the plane on passengers’ instructions. Nonetheless a certain class of politicians, the populists (e.g. Messrs Kejriwal, Farage and Trump), take the silly idea of the will-of-the-people too seriously and are perfectly happy to crowd-source solutions to intricate questions of constitutional law and political organization. Such exercises of popular “decision-making”, the kind that animates a populist’s wet dreams, are called referendums. Referendums are therefore (rather paradoxically) antidemocratic, because they confound the whole point of the exercise of seeking votes from people.

The political brinksmanship behind the In-Out referendum decision, dog-whistling of the Brexiteer populists, oligarchical nature of the EU Commission (fancy continental version of a village panchayat or tribal jirga), democratic deficit of the EU Parliamentary system and the sheer pointlessness of putting Constitutional changes to popular vote makes the Brexit story look like a farcical plot from The Thick of It rather than real life. But it is very real and it happened, even after several prognostications by leading opinion-makers of British society that the actual Brexit decision was too radical to come to pass. Brexit and the political drama in its aftermath has also inspired creative fiction, which has essentially been critical of the decision.

My personal take on Brexit is that it’s a terrible means to a good end. Referendums like Brexit and Indyref (the one before on Scottish Independence) have created a terrible precedent in UK’s political culture to settle debates by popular voting. It encourages rank populism, incentivises escaping responsibility/blame in politicians by outsourcing important decisions to the prevailing whims and fancies of the public and diminishes the historically constructive role of the Parliament. Nonetheless, Brexit did save the UK from an undemocratic (and frankly dangerous) Eurocracy. Europe’s democratic politics is still in its infancy. E.g. most countries of Continental Europe have not had a long experience of democracy – half of Germany became a proper democracy in the 50s and the second half in the 90s, Spain and Portugal in 70s and 80s, Italy in the 50s, France in roughly 1890s and the less said of Eastern Europe the better – compared to UK’s Bill of Rights of 1689 that made the Parliament sovereign. As many Europeans themselves will grudgingly admit (perhaps after a pint or two), the British invented the modern concept of Parliamentary Democracy. Therefore, the British ought to be justifiably protective of their superior political culture against its slow dilution by the ever paternalistic EU. In conclusion, the normative last word on Brexit is a function of how consequentialist one is prepared to be – to follow Gandhi’s example or Kautilya’s. I chickened out and chose the former when voting Remain.

Right Hand Path Orientalism vs Left Hand Path Orientalism

A few days ago, Razib posted a piece about “Castes of Mind” that discussed Historian Nicholas Dirk’s book that argued that the Indian caste system as it exists may be (mostly) a colonial creation. I have not read Dirk’s book, but it is my impression (from hearing about it) that it is not superficial and has useful information and perspectives in it. Still, what less informed readers take from it, or what residue remains in the Zeitgeist from that book, is a tendency to blame evil British colonialism for whatever is worst about the caste situation in India. In that sense, it has joined the long (and growing) list of “Right Hand Path Orientalism” pieces, written by Western scholars eager to exculpate orientals when it comes to practices that are not in line with current fashions and opinions (as opposed to old fashioned “left hand path Orientalism”, which was much better informed (and far more useful), but frequently racist). Currently the most favored (and sometimes unwilling) recipients of this largess are Muslims, some of whose cultural and religious practices are now considered passe, but since the RightHandPath orientalists do not wish to “blame” Muslims for these views and practices, they prefer to find some way to blame colonialism, capitalism or some other aspect of modernity.  A trivial but truly outstanding example is this astoundingly ignorant and illogical (but extremely well-meaning) piece  about dogs and Islam. 

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Headwinds Ahead : The Growing Divergence Between Truth and Productivity?

Throughout Human history, Productivity has required an understanding of nature, whether it meant predicting the seasons for agriculture or navigating the seas for trade through astronomy or curing diseases through medicine. European societies gained a huge advantage over other societies by creating incentives for exploration of ideas by institutionalizing patent & copy right laws in the late medieval period and eventually by enshrining the notion of free speech.

Productivity leaped ahead in these societies, which promoted a culture of intellectual exploration of ideas. And never has there been a society where a scientist like Einstein gained a degree of popularity transcending his own time to become the visual cognate to the word “genius”. All this gave a great boost to the social status of many scientists in these societies. And in the 20th century people across the world are now familiar with the name ‘Einstein’. Meanwhile, the establishment of awards to scientists has been an annual affair for over a century by the prestigious Nobel committee. However, the nature of progress itself thus far should not reassure us with regards to the future.

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Clarifying Two Misconceptions

First up, I want to admit that I been a harsh critic of Pakistan Army’s interference in political matters, their gross inefficiency during all the wars that they fought (and lost), their myopic worldview and land grabbing in the garb of ‘National Security’. However, I believe that two very common misconceptions about our army need to be addressed.

  1. While talking about General Zia, an Islamist dictator who ruled Pakistan for eleven years (1977-88), many people refer to his role in the ‘Black September’ events from 1970. If you try to look this up on the internet, there are conflicting stories about his involvement. What we know for sure is that he was stationed in Jordan as part of a military training mission (Read here) sent by Pakistan in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israel war. The Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Amman at the time was Mr. Tayyab Siddiqui. According to an article he wrote in 2010, (Read here)

“Following the June 1967 military debacle, the Arabs requested Pakistan for military training. Pakistan sent training contingents to Syria, Jordan and Iraq.”

In August-September 1970, the Palestinians, aided by the Syrians, revolted against the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. During the battle, the Commanding Officer (CO) of a Jordanian infantry unit deserted. King Hussain asked Brigadier Zia to take charge of that unit temporarily. Zia sought permission from the embassy where Mr. Siddiqui established contact with Secretary Defence, Mr. Ghiasuddin. Ghias’s comments are the most cringe-worthy issue in this whole affair. He cabled Amman that

“We had [performed] Istikhara, Hashmite Kingdom’s star is ascendant. Go ahead. Follow king’s commands.”

In Ambassador Siddiqui’s words:

“That the foreign and defence policy of Pakistan was formulated not on a dispassionate analysis of the situation but on the dubious religious invocation still amazes me”.

Zia took temporary charge of the unit but before any fighting could take place, the Syrians withdrew and the offensive ended. Later on, Zia developed contacts with Palestinian leadership and was not accused of being the ‘Butcher of Palestinians’ by any Palestinian fighter. In fact, Yasser Arafat visited Pakistan three times during Zia’s regime.

2. You might have seen a picture of a soldier inspecting a Bengali man’s Dhoti, from 1971. That is provided as a proof that Army folks there used to inspect Bengali men’s genitals to decide if they were Muslim or not (based on circumcision status). While the Pakistan Army indulged in some of the worst atrocities against the Bengalis, this picture is not a valid evidence.

This picture was taken by Indian photographer Kishor Parekh. In an interview, his son Swapan Parekh mentioned that it was a photograph of Indian army personnel checking the [Bengali] collaborators for weapons. The caption in Kishor Parekh’s book validates this backstory.

Aryan Migration and its Discontents

The debate about the origins of the “Aryans” and their arrival in India has flared up again, this time triggered by new genetic findings that appear to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that large numbers of Indo-Europeans herders migrated into the Indian subcontinent about 4000 or so years ago.  Razib Khan (one of the best informed and unbiased bloggers on this topic) has written in detail about this topic in several posts, the most recent of which is here. I am not going to go into the genetics or the details, I just wanted to recap the story in very simple layperson outline and focus mostly on some of the politics around this topic. My basic argument is that the Hindutvadi reaction to the political uses of “Aryan Invasion Theory” is relatively justified, but opting to take a stand against population genetics and common sense in the form of a relatively recently concocted (and very unlikely) “Out of India” (OIT) theory is an unfortunate and self-defeating mistake.

The Indo-Europeans who migrated into India were one of several migratory stream that, between 4000-2000 BCE, spread in all directions out of the Pontic Steppe (what is now Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia, North and North-East of the Black Sea). They were cattle herding, horse breeding steppe dwellers who, like practically all other human populations, were themselves a product of the layers of human settlement and migration that have woven the intricate net of human racial groups since the first emergence of modern humans in Africa. They were also a very successful, capable and warlike people who had developed light, fast, spoke-wheeled chariots (and possibly, the composite bow) that were the wonder weapon of their time.

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The Qatar Crisis

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Qatar’s Dilemma
“Everyone is critical of the flaws of others, but blind to their own.” Arab Proverb

On June 05, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and also placed land and air embargo. This move came as a surprise to many as this immediately followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s high profile visit to Saudi Arabia where most heads of Muslim countries gathered. The simmering differences between Qatar and its Arab neighbors reached the boiling point resulting in the June shock therapy.
Qatar is a small country but in the last two decades it has gradually shown its presence on the international diplomatic scene. Qatar began its foreign policy as a broker of negotiations and mediator of conflicts. This combined with softer image of involvement in humanitarian and cultural interactions increased its profile and earned genuine respect. However, in the last few years, it got directly involved in armed conflicts resulting in negative fallout. Continue reading “The Qatar Crisis”

The pork episode of Master of None

The Aerogram has a piece out, Bacon & (Un)Belief: Religion & American Secularism in Master of None, which reviews The Master of None episode about religion. I kind of agree that it was a little unbelievable in relation to his cousin, and how quickly he became a porkoholic (I don’t think pork is superior to chicken, but that’s a matter of taste).

That being said I think it is important to note a personal aspect of Aziz Ansari’s relationship to religion. Here’s a correction to an article in The New York Times profiling Aziz:

In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.

Aziz Ansari does not define himself from what I can tell as a bad or liberal Muslim. He says he’s not religious. He happens to be a guy who is an atheist, a very negatively viewed group, who is from a Muslim background, a very negatively viewed group. That is one way we have a lot in common.

Also, I had a bacon experience very similar to Aziz. Though in my case it was at a friend’s house where they were Hindus from West Bengal, and my friend was having bacon. My mom came over and I had a piece of bacon in my mouth. She was a little chagrined. She said I’m not supposed to eat pork products and not to do it again.

In general I still don’t eat much pork and ham. But I really love bacon, and have no problem with pork sausages.