What’s going on?
I want to make a short and quick comment about a style of argumentation that I’ve noticed in people from the Indian subcontinent (though not exclusive to them). In addition to verbosity, there tends to be an aggressive hyperbolic emotionality. That’s fine if you want to scream on cable television, but it’s really hot air that doesn’t move a conversation forward.
I’ll bring up the class example with the Mughals.
Muslims in the subcontinent admire the Mughals, on the whole, and take pride in their accomplishments. Whether you think that that pride is warranted or not, it is there, and it makes it difficult for Indian Muslims to evaluate the Mughals with any degree of detachment. The fundamental reality is to a great extent the Mughals were a colonial and alien power that control the subcontinent for centuries. To some extent, they were more foreign than some of the post-Delhi Sultanate Muslim kingdoms. The Mughals imported Turkic warriors and Persian bureaucrats for many centuries, and for decades continued to speak Chagatai Turk among themselves. Up until Aurangzeb, they were keen on conquering their ‘ancestral’ homeland. The Mughals had a racial caste system, and continued to differentiate between the foreign Muslims, and those of native subcontinental stock (arguably native Indian Muslims did better under some of the Delhi Sultanate successor states).
But what about Hindus? Whereas Muslims get very defensive about their “Mughal ancestors,” many Hindus detest them because they were colonial interlopers. I think it is a reasonable assertion, but then Hindus take a step further. Along with their precursors, the Delhi Sultanate the Mughals killed millions and engaged in a campaign of mass rape and murder. Often if the Hindus are talking verbally there is a lot of emotion in their voice, and I wonder if they are going to cry. The reality is the genetics is clear that Hindus have almost no West Asian ancestry, and the fraction of Indian Muslims is quite small. If the Mughals were raping a lot, they were quite sterile.
The reality is it seems to me that though the Mughals synthesized themselves with India, for much of their early and mature period they were more a colonial skein over the substrate of India, the vast majority of which remained loyal to its indigenous religious traditions. This means that their interaction with the natives was mostly a matter of resource extraction, that is, rents.
I don’t know if more discussion with help India resolves its internecine religious fractures. Probably not. But I wish people would comport themselves like they were actually trying to discuss, rather than emotionally screaming at each other.
For a good review, see here at Reason
I dont have a detailed review, just a short note. The book is not a detailed history of gays in Washington (such a book would have to start in the 1790s and would have to include the stories of Black and poor gay people; two groups notably excluded from this book, which is mostly high class elite gossip). This book actually covers the time from the 1930s to the 1990s (though it does begin with a reference to Abraham Lincoln sharing a bed with his male friend, that anecdote is just a hook to start the book with; Kirchick does not actually claim that Lincoln was gay). Prior to the 1930s there were gays in government, but little or no overt discussion of the topic; their sexual preference mostly caused problems from the 1940s to the 1990s, when there was a “lavender scare” that actually exceeded the Red scare in duration. Interestingly this lavender scare was partly driven by closeted gays, including McCarthy’s aide (and Trump’s teacher) Roy Cohn. There was a fear that homosexuals were a security risk because they could potentially be blackmailed, but actual analysis of American spies indicates that very few were gay and none were recruited via blackmail. Still, many lives were destroyed in the course of this scare and the topic remained “hot” until the 1990s, when gay liberation finally took hold and by now we are the point that we have an openly gay transportation secretary (and former presidential candidate) whose main scandal is that he took paternity leave in the middle of a transportation crisis. Though his final conclusion is optimistic (gay liberation is “a magnificent accomplishment of the liberal society, enabled by the fundamentally American concepts of free expression, pluralism, and open inquiry.”) there is a backlash in process (mostly directed against Trans activist over-reach, but likely to catch gays in the dragnet) and the current equilibrium may not be that stable. The notion that gay liberation is an active cause of civilizational decline is not gone (there is an anecdote in the book about the state department security chief commissioning a study of how homosexuality causes civilizational collapse, but the researcher concluded that homosexuality did not in fact cause the collapse of Rome and Greece) and may come back in other guises.
The book is an easy read and is full of interesting stories and characters. If you are interested in American politics and recent history, you will enjoy it.
See the Reason review for more details.
From Dr Hamid Hussain
“We travel not for trafficking alone.
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.”
Eighteenth century India and its neighboring regions were an exotic place for outsiders and not much was known about the geography and people of this large swath of land. An odd traveler or explorer published the details of his perilous journey among strange and alien land and people for the home audience. Arrival of East India Company (EIC) for trade and later territorial expansion brought modern scientific methods of exploration and mapping that filled up the empty spaces on maps.
During military operations, officers collected localized information about terrain, availability of supplies to support troops and animals and information about local population. However, this information was localized and limited to military operation at hand. Knowledge about land and people ruled by EIC rapidly expanded. Over the years, a small group of extraordinary British and native explorers contributed to sciences of geography and anthropology. This was an area where political, administrative, military and spying arts freely intermingled.
In eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, India’s frontiers were changing with territorial expansion of EIC. In these decades, frontier moved from Oudh, Gangetic plains, Sindh and Punjab to Northwestern and Northeastern frontiers. In the context of defense of India, area of British influence also expanded to Tibet, Chinese and Russian Turkistan and Afghanistan. The Royal Geographic Society (RGS) became the patron of the advancement of the field of geography on scientific grounds and published works of explorers of India and its neighborhood.
In 1800, three separate surveys were started in India: Revenue, Topographical and Trigonometrical (later named Great Trigonometrical Survey – GTS). In 1878, all three were amalgamated into a single Survey of India. James Rannell (1742-1830), William Lambton (1756-1823), George Everest (1790-1866), Thomas George Montgomerie (1830-1878), Henry Trotter, William Johnson, James Walker, Colonel Frederick Bailey (1882-1967), Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich, Godwin-Austin, Captain Francis Younghusband and others were exceptional individuals. They were driven by a sense of adventure, exploration and duty. They were highly committed individuals willing to suffer extreme hardships in strange and unknown lands. They instilled same spirit among their native assistants. Surveying in frontier areas was a dangerous task as locals correctly concluded that surveying was the steppingstone towards loss of their freedom. There was an Afghan saying that “First comes one Englishman for shikar (hunting), then come two to draw a map, and then comes an army to take your land. So, it is best to kill the first Englishman”. Continue reading The Surveying of India by the British
On this episode of the Brown Pundits Browncast I had a long conversation with Nikunj Trivedi and Pushpita Prasad of the Coalition of Hindus of North America. One of the things we talked extensively about during this podcast is the Carnegie Endowment study Social Realities of Indian Americans: Results From the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey. The survey is rich with data that might surprise (for example, there are as many Bengali speakers as Punjabi speakers in the US, though I suspect this might be due to many ethnic Punjabis putting Hindi down as their mother tongue). But for the purposes of this episode, we were interested in caste identity, and how it relates to Hindus in America.
The Carnegie study takes a shot at the 2018 Equality Labs survey that argues for the pervasiveness of caste discrimination:
A 2018 survey of 1,500 South Asian Americans found that many low-caste members of numerous diaspora communities had endured firsthand experience of caste discrimination. However, the study is not based on a representative sample, raising questions about the generalizability of its findings.
The figure above shows that most Hindu Indian Americans do not live in a caste-homogeneous environment. There are reasons for this. From the text:
Forty-seven percent of Hindu respondents report identifying with a caste, which means the majority (53 percent) said that they do not personally identify with a caste group of any kind. However, there is marked variation by place of birth. Whereas 53 percent of foreign-born Hindu Indian Americans affiliate with a caste group, 34 percent of U.S.-born Hindu Indian Americans do the same.
…Overall, there are 632 respondents in the IAAS sample who belong to the Hindu faith but only 293 who report identifying with a caste group. Of this latter group, the overwhelming majority—83 percent—categorize themselves as General or upper caste. Sixteen percent identify as a member of OBC and 1 percent each identify as Adivasi/Scheduled Tribe (ST) or Dalit/Scheduled Caste (SC).
The latter number, that about 80 percent of Hindu Indian Americans are not OBC, Dalit or Adivasi is exactly what I’ve seen in other data. But perhaps a more important aspect is that large numbers of Hindus in America don’t “affiliate” with a caste group. Some of the American-born individuals may not actually even know their caste group, though the foreign-born ones clearly know their origins as noted in the text:
Figure 21 looks more closely at the caste composition of social networks among Hindus. Seventy-four percent of Hindu respondents who report not identifying with a caste nevertheless know enough to be able to identify the caste identities of their social networks. Only 26 percent of Hindus who do not identify with a caste respond to questions about the caste composition of their social networks by answering “don’t know.” This indicates that even though a large proportion of Hindu respondents say they do not identify with a caste, only a small fraction are unaware of the caste composition of their networks.
What is also striking is how relatively small the differences are between respondents who identify with a caste versus those who do not. While the former report that a slightly higher share of their social network comprises people of the same caste, if one sets aside the “don’t know” responses, the relative differences between caste identifiers and non-identifiers is marginal. For instance, 27 percent of Hindu respondents who identify with a caste report that all or most of their Indian friends share their caste affiliation. Nineteen percent of those who do not identify with a caste group answer similarly. Respondents who acknowledge a caste identity are only slightly more likely to report that some of their social network is made up of people of the same caste (41 percent versus 33 percent for those without a caste identity).
So here is the subtle point: people who do not identify with a caste group nevertheless can often assess whether their social circle is mostly of their caste group or not. The dynamic here is that people are proactively disavowing or denying caste identity personally, but they clearly still know the provenance of their own lineage and that of their friends.
The landscape of caste and America is complex. Nevertheless, today’s social justice activists are trying to reframe it as just another black-white dichotomy, with oppressed Dalits, etc., against oppressive Brahmins.
Finally, we discuss the casual and not-so-casual anti-Hindu comments that are spreading across mainstream discourse. For example, an organization at UC Davis called the Other Collective has said some really bizarre things about Diwali:
In April, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder and executive director of Equality Labs — a nonprofit that advocates for Dalits, or members of the lowest-ranked caste — was scheduled to give a talk to Google News employees for Dalit History Month. But Google employees began spreading disinformation, calling her “Hindu-phobic” and “anti-Hindu” in emails to the company’s leaders, documents posted on Google’s intranet and mailing lists with thousands of employees, according to copies of the documents as well as interviews with Soundararajan and current Google employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about retaliation.
Soundararajan appealed directly to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who comes from an upper-caste family in India, to allow her presentation to go forward. But the talk was canceled, leading some employees to conclude that Google was willfully ignoring caste bias. Tanuja Gupta, a senior manager at Google News who invited Soundararajan to speak, resigned over the incident, according to a copy of her goodbye email posted internally Wednesday and viewed by The Washington Post.
A few points
– This is a big deal in the US right now because a few clueless progressive foundations gave money to Equality Labs. I say clueless because these foundations and granting institutions have zero ability to evaluate the plausibility of systemic caste bias in the US. They probably thought it sounded like a bad thing they should work against, so they funded Equality Labs. Once Equality Labs got its money, it was going to find systemic caste bias, because that’s its raison d’etre.
– The journalists who are reporting that “rising Hindu nationalist movement that has spread from India through the diaspora has arrived inside Google, according to employees” are clueless, and driven along by self-serving sources or their own biases. This particular reporter, Nitasha Tiku is an Ivy League-educated Indian American who has worked in online media (mostly tech journalism) for over a decade. She, like other Indian American reporters, has the right appearance and familial origins to cover a story like “caste in America’s Indian immigrant communities” in the eyes of her editors. But most of these people are not really culturally fluent enough to understand any of the subtleties or nuances of Indian caste, so they fall back on uncritically relaying their source’s talking points, or platitudes and cliches. These people are American, not Indian.
– Obviously, caste and jati are huge issues in the Indian subcontinent, and they are socially relevant institutions that have an impact on your life course. But that is not the case in the US. Indian Americans do come from caste backgrounds, though only 1% come from Dalit family backgrounds (again, it’s weird saying you are a “Dalit American” so almost no Amerians know what a Dalit is). But many Indian Americans raised in the US are very vague about their caste (with exceptions, if you are an Iyer or Mukherjee you pretty much know), and many of them grew up in predominantly non-Indian social environments. The kinship/jati networks that smooth the social functioning of Indian society doesn’t exist in the US. There are partial exceptions with Gujuratis who run family businesses, but these are a minority, and many of the children of successful Gujurati businesspeople in the US still go into professions where their world is mostly not Indian. What is really going with “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” oriented interrogation of caste in the US is that they want to transpose the black-white model of oppressed and oppressors on a different group so as to organize a “progressive stack rank” of virtue/privilege.
– Though Indian Americans of the 1.5 and 2nd generation are prominent culturally and politically, the vast majority of Indian Americans in the US are immigrants, born and raised in India. Most actually arrived after the year 2000! People like Sundar Pichai or Parag Agrawal are socioculturally quite distinct from Neera Tanden or Kal Pe. Indian American Brahmins and Bainyas who barely have any understanding what this caste identity is may be willing to take on the role of “oppressors” so as to obtain performative self-flaggelation points, but it seems that immigrants, who often struggled to gain a foothold in the American economy and society, are not as eager to engage in this behavior. Especially when they are more aware of the reality of caste and jati in the subcontinent.
– There are nepotistic networks among Indians in tech. I’ve heard multiple people (Indian immigrants) talk about the “Telugu mafia.” But these are not the same as what you would see in India as explicitly related to jati. There are networks connected to schools that everyone went to, or a unicorn that a bunch of early employees cashed out of, etc. It’s the typical thing you see in business in general, where relationships go a long way. But there’s no systemic exclusion of Dalits or lower class people because there are hardly any Dalits in the US, and Indian Amerians are strongly selected for skills, education and higher socioeconomic status in the immigration system. I dislike pointing to prejudice to explain things, but the same sort of dynamics you see in the “Paypal Mafia” when it happens with Indian immigrants seems to be depicted as caste-clannishness by outsiders.
– I am not optimistic that DEI will not include caste in its categories of oppression and marginalization. In 5 years I think it is quite likely that a young white women in HR will be evaluating the caste-jati status of brown-skinned applicants to companies to make sure that the subcontiental employee pool is “diverse.”
“It is like writing history with lightning” was claimed to be the response of Woodrow Wilson the president of United States (from 1913 to 1921) on viewing a special screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Regardless of the fact that the film in question had racial connotations it does say something about the power of the silver screen to narrate the past of a nation punctiliously albeit with a little embellishment here and there. In this particular piece I have attempted to show four main social occurrences in the history of India written as Wilson stated ‘with lightning’ in the silver screen.
The Era of Realisation- Late 1950’s to 70’s
After independence in 1947 the first prime minister observed that the bulk of the nation still relied on agrarian works to feed themselves and hence took measures inspired by the ideology of Socialism which he believed would benefit the farmers most. However, in this case though the underdogs were the agriculturalists, the machines were looked upon with suspicion. But all changed as the 50’s came to an end ushering in the 1960’s. The focus now shifted from agrarian reforms to industrialization due to urbanization gaining more ground as many farmers and rural workers in general realized the limitations of agriculture and advanced towards the city with hopes of earning a living. Also noticeable in the middle of the decade were the technological methods used in the Green Revolution. As more farmers and villagers flocked to the city joining those who were already the underbelly of urbanization the message of socialism reached its most important receiver: The Indian Middle class.
But even the privileged section of the society started getting influenced by socialist ideals. The villainous machines of the preceding decades became the means of earnings for the underdogs as the factories became the driving force for industrialization with the identified have-nots getting employed to work the machines. The laborers in factories became more vocal than before since they had more importance in the said era compared to the farmers (who were lionized in the fifties).
Yet the afflictions remained the same for the have-nots as the oppressors changed from landlords to rich entrepreneurs and the shift to industrialization did not reduce the large gap between rich and poor retaining the same sort of social inequality. To check this inequality or at least reduce them the more cautious and informed workers formed unions with a hierarchy of leaders to counter any injustice brought about by entrepreneurs. Strikes by unions became an expression of dissent by the have-nots who in this context were the factory laborers. The new shift also saw the effects and realities of poverty prevalent nationwide. Now since the union strikes occurred in the urban centers the young urban residents observed the inequalities in their surroundings more thoroughly and some became resolute to apply socialist schemes the government spoke of while becoming disillusioned with the image of their nation simultaneously. The preceding generation of Indians encouraged the youth while having mixed feelings about the disillusionment factor. With this new realization the youngsters were divided into two groups: one group willing to change the prevailing conditions while the other saw the growing consumerism as a way of life. The preceding generation felt the pangs of disappointment as both groups denounced the idealist socialism of the Nehru years creating two extreme poles widened more aggressively in the 1970’s. Veteran director Hrishikesh Mukherjee captured these sentiments in the classic Namak Haram.
Guns replace sickles:
As 1970’s kicked off the importance swung back to the farmlands in India due to massive economic loss caused by union strikes and catchphrases like ‘cultivators own the land’ were propagated by the Indira Gandhi-led government. The cultivators as well as the farmlands however were still in pitiful conditions.
Unlike the previous decade the new generation of youngsters from privileged backgrounds felt responsible to change society by violent methods if required. These youngsters fell in love with the thought of uprisings and saw parallels in the conditions of their times with that of colonized India. The Cold War events like the wars in Vietnam and uprisings in Cuba spiced their viewpoints more. To the angry youth the state was now a draconian entity determined to repress its own citizens hence it was time to dissolve it by necessary violence.
Political movements like the satyagraha led by Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar as well as public opposition to the Indira Gandhi administration made those romancing revolutions more intense. Indira Gandhi’s strident response to free speeches and clamping down on her opponents during the imposition of National Emergency was the final straw. The budding but violent pro-peasant movement fermenting in the small village of Naxalbari in West Bengal had its resonance felt in different parts of the nation due to the activities of the said rebels. Unlike the ideal socialists of the 60’s these revolutionaries believed in do or die philosophy and attempted to bring about a total revolution to enforce their own version of ideals. Revolutionaries Mao Zedong, Trotsky, Kanu Sanyal became the role models of the youth in place of Nehru and toiling peasants.
The administration on seeing the intensity of the attacks decided to give an equal violent response. Now the lovers of uprising had a heart attack with the stringent measures administered by the state. And almost all admirers as well as participants of the radical Naxalite movement were punished by the authorities. The end of this saga saw the replacement of the Indira Gandhi government by the Janata Party in the Centre during the 1977 elections as well the beginning of three decade rule of the Left Front in West Bengal. This matter was sensitive for a long period of time but there were few cases of comprehensive documentation done on this barring the ones with heavy political connotations. Same could be said of its visual presentations. However an entertaining yet effective example was seen in 2003 with the release of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi directed by Sudhir Mishra.
Deteriorating Stagnation: 1980’s to 1990’s:
One thing that was always present in the 60’s and 70’s was the involvement of the students as a group of political advocates. From the days of the freedom movement the students have been the most active participants in any political turmoil. The careers of national leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar started as student leaders. But the rise of Sanjay Gandhi during the emergency era in 1970’s changed the concept of youth leadership as he used the youngsters as cronies for the administration. In the aftermath of Sanjay Gandhi’s death and Indira Gandhi’s assassination India had a charismatic young leader in the form of Rajiv Gandhi becoming the youngest Prime Minister of India.
However, unfortunately the perception of youth leadership changed from that of young firebrands to petty power seekers as political parties used them for the sake of expanding their base (there were some exceptions though). Such instances were said to have affected the ‘Student Unions’ in states like West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra often leading to violence in university campuses hampering the functioning of the institutions. The liberalization of the Indian economy as well as changing of ideologies did have its impact on young political leaders but most of these young guns couldn’t match the charisma of their predecessors. Also many dedicated youngsters had to confront their own mentors, many of whom became either disenchanted or authoritarian. According to some social observers the opening up of the economy made the youngsters more materialistic, taking the political zeal away from their psyche.
This new era saw the youngsters in three different avatars: those seeking power by hook or by crook; those running after material benefits; and lastly those willing to become agents of change. One can take a look at Mani Ratnam’s Yuva to see the different shades coming together.
The ever present anti factor:
‘To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction’ Newton’s third law was every bit true in all the three eras mentioned above. There were always forces that consistently rose up against the trend of the era and became a trend by itself. Of all such movements that happened nationwide I have decided to highlight the one established in the nation’s financial as well as entertainment capital Mumbai: the Shiv Sena. Founded on June 19, 1966 by former political caricaturist Bal Keshav Thackeray who stated the party’s avowed intention is to fight the alleged injustice in employment and other matters being faced by the Maharashtrians in Mumbai.
The reason cited for this injustice was the influx into Mumbai of people from other states, amongst whom the Shiv Sena mainly targeted South Indians. Even though this catapulted the Sena into national headlines I believe it was their role as anti-trendsetters that made them unique. During its early years the Shiv Sena was engaged in frequent struggles against the trade unions. Prior to the formation of the Shiv Sena, the Communist Party of India played a dominant role in labour politics in Mumbai. According to journalists of the then era the Shiv Sena was supported by elements inside the Indian National Congress, who hoped that the new organization would be capable of weakening the communist party’s influence on trade unions.
Soon Shiv Sena cadres were involved in a series of violent conflicts with the communist trade union activists. The Sena saw the union and communism as distractions for the disgruntled local Maharashtrians preferring the youngsters to toil and join the authority to gain an efficient and wholesome lifestyle. This sentiment was narrated by Bal Thackeray in his caustic speeches against trade union leaders and socialist hardliners. Though it was Balasaheb Thackeray’s belief that the “people” were supreme, he argued that the institutions of liberal democracy and the administration were engineered against it.
The defense of its interests required direct action: Laws had to be broken. Violence and intimidation were necessary to bring the people’s enemies to heel. “Wake up, wake up, before it is too late,” he would urge his admirers. The educated yet unemployed young men were among the most loyal members of the Sena. It was the triumph of assertive rhetoric over economics. This anger turned local Maharashtrians of Mumbai into angry rebels conflicting with the state machinery. Anything that resembled closely knitted authority like municipalities and trade unions faced the ire of the Shiv Sena. Bal Thackeray’s political rise was fitted together with the cinematic rise of Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man on the silver screen. This trend of angry young men dominated the political as well as cinematic landscape throughout the last years of 1960’s till 1970’s.
As the 1980’s ushered in and disruptive student politics was taking over, the Sena supremo decided to play defense. But this defense was not to create ideal student leaders as that move did not succeed in the preceding decades but to counter it with the belief that this disruptive system is fit for the privileged section. The underdogs must become more vigilant and ensure that their interests are not exploited by the misguided leadership of privileged students. If necessary resort to ‘goondagiri’ the Senapati opined. It was easily said and done: the students from a certain strata of society came together with the struggling ones in the underbelly of society and acted as a barricade to the inflow of any kind of student movement into their midst. Instead through rowdiness they marked their territory and the unemployed youth became a type of guardian as well as a bully of his area. This was captured in starring actors like Jackie Shroff, Nana Patekar, Anil Kapoor among others donning the role of a popular young vandal. As the economy liberalized the hold of the Sena on Mumbai stayed strong as Bal Thackeray further fortified his role as the sole guardian of the disadvantaged residents of Mumbai carrying out what he felt was correct for them wheedling the government apparatus as he saw fit becoming a definite ‘parallel government’.
- Purandhare,V(2012).‘The rise & fall of SHIV SENA’. Third edition. Mumbai. Roli Books Private limited
- Virdi,J(2003). The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History. Second edition. Rutgers University Press.
- Rediff Movies (2005, April 15th ). Hazaaron Khwaishein is overwhelming. Retrieved 13th February 2013 from http://www.rediff.com/movies/2005/apr/15hazaaron.htm.
- Prasad, M. M (2000). Ideology of the Hindi film: a historical construction. Oxford University Press
- Shekhar,M. (2006). Bombay talkies: 2004-2005. Frog Books.
- Times of India (2012). With Bal Thackeray’s death, are Shiv Sena’s best days over? Retrieved 13th February 2013 from : http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-11-20/edit-page/35204690_1_shiv-sena-uddhav-bal-thackeray.
Note: This is an old essay written during the writer’s time in college and has been published in his personal blog also(click here).
A few months old, but worth a read.
From Dr Hamid Hussain
“A friend is someone who tells you the truth; not someone who believes in you”. Late King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz.
I usually do review of army chief’s tenure. I do critical part when chief is in uniform and things done right when he hangs his boots. This is the first part. I know that this kind of work makes many officers uncomfortable but as they say ‘it is a dirty job; but somebody got to do it”.
غرور جاں کو مرے یار بیچ دیتے ہیں
قبا کی حرص میں دستار بیچ دیتے ہیں
یہ لوگ کیا ہیں کہ دو چار خواہشوں کے لیے
تمام عمر کا پندار بیچ دیتے ہیں
(TRANSLATION OF THE URDU COUPLETS: My friends sell their pride; To acquire a robe they sell their head covering. Who are these who for a few wishes; Sell an entire life’s treasure of self-respect)
General Qamar Javed Bajwa
General Qamar Javed Bajwa is in the last year of his extended six years tenure as Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). Army is the most powerful institution of the country and COAS works behind the scenes and influence important policy decisions. This has been a preferred option for the institution to avoid controversy and even accepted by all major political forces of the country. This is a critical review of General Bajwa’s tenure in the context of his political role and running of the army.
General Bajwa was appointed COAS in November 2016 at a time of strained civil-military relations. General Bajwa inherited the institutional decision of political engineering project of actively supporting a third force under the leadership of Imran Khan. This project was later called a ‘hybrid regime’ as it involved active participation of the army in the political process rather than constitutional role of active support of a duly elected civilian government. This became a slippery slope and institution got entangled in political mud fights. There were two major reasons.
First, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan is a thin majority government supported by allies who were brought into the tent by the army by incentives or arm twisting. Second, Imran Khan was unable to switch from the role of an opposition leader to a head of the government. This had a negative impact on his relations with his allies as well as day to day governance. Army had to step in several times to tackle internal governance as well as some foreign policy issues. In this General Bajwa had full support of his senior brass. However, the negative fallout was that the institution became controversial for such an overt political role.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif in his speeches started to name senior army officers that was unprecedented and resulted in embarrassment. This combined with deficient performance of the government and serious economic crisis resulted in criticism of the army. This perception resulted in blaming of the army even in cases where government was using civilian levers to gag opposition and try to rig some by-elections. Army is overly concerned about its public image, and this made senior brass very uneasy.
In the summer of 2019, I became aware that General Bajwa was positioning himself for an extension. I am against extension of tenures of senior army officers as it seriously erodes professionalism of the army and creates friction among senior brass. My view is based on the sordid history of extension business in Pakistan army. In my view, three years tenure of Chief is a blessing and best instrument to safeguard institutional interest as new Chief can sweep the slate clean and start over again. Tinkering with it by extension has seen reputations ruined and institution badly bruised. At that time, I wrote following and shared with some officers:
“2019 looks more like 2007. General Pervez Mussharraf had come under criticism from different quarters of society and in the process army’s reputation was sullied. Change of command provided an exit. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani slowly consolidated his command by sidelining old guard and then convincing all players that army has turned a page. The possible exit for the army is change of command in November 2019. However, personal interests of three key players; Prime Minister Imran Khan, army chief General Bajwa and Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (DGISI) Faiz Hamid now converge where extension of General Bajwa is being seriously considered. A three-year extension will serve all three parties. Bajwa to enjoy few more years of private jet and being the expert gamekeeper at the national park. Imran Khan will be seriously thinking about giving him an extension to make sure that an unknown factor does not come into equation. Imran is faced with enormous challenges. However, he has not been able to put his house in order. Rising economic woes and diverse opposition groups coming closer can cause many headaches. Having army brass in his corner is important to weather any storm. He would prefer to continue with known entity than venture into unchartered territory. In case of three years extension, Faiz will be among top contenders in 2022. After 18-24 months as DGISI, Bajwa can appoint him Corps Commander to make him eligible for the top slot. I am not in favor of any extension but especially in case of Bajwa, negative fallout for the army is manifold. Army is seen no more as a neutral body and extreme polarization of Pakistani polity is now directly affecting army as an institution.”
Imran Khan announced three years extension and General Bajwa lost all moral authority. In my interaction with dozens of officers of all ranks, I have not found even one who supports extension of tenure. Off course, they cannot express their views publicly. Ironically, General Bajwa was able to rally his institution when Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa entertained the petition that challenged General Bajwa’s extension (it was disposed of asking government to just legislate it). Now, even those who disagreed in principle, fully supported General Bajwa to make sure that no one can challenge army’s pre-eminence.
General Bajwa’s decisions about promotions and postings followed the normal process and he did not deviate from the norms. Two areas raised eyebrows in the army circles. One was picking some Major Generals from obscure and sidelined posts, promoting them to three-star rank and giving them prized postings. This was viewed as an attempt to give an impression of personal favor and hence adding ‘smiling nodders’ at ‘the long table of the knights.’ Second was promoting and giving prized postings to officers from his alma mater Baloch Regiment. The list includes four Lieutenant Generals; all with prized postings including three to be the top contenders to succeed him in 2022. There is also a lengthy list of Balochi Major Generals given prized command, staff and instructional appointments that improves their profile for further promotion. It is important to note that all these officers are qualified for promotions. However, competition is very tough from Brigadier and upwards ranks and posting; a sole prerogative of Chief can give edge to the officer.
In 2019, promotions of two officers; Faiz Hamid and Asif Ghafoor to lieutenant general rank created problems for the institution. During review process of promotions, I strongly advised against promotion of both officers. This was not about qualification of the officers but due to negative fallout for the institution. Faiz Hamid served as Director General of Counterintelligence (CI) directorate. Internal security wing of CI manages political tasks of the army. Spooks are successful only when they are not seen and heard. Hamid was extremely careless and against all norms, tried to do everything with his own hands. At that time, I wrote that “ Faiz Hamid has managed political tasks of the institution and his promotion may create potential problems if some damaging information becomes public while he is still serving at a senior position.”
I was referring to the information that at that time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was accusing him of encouraging defection from Pakistan Muslim League ranks during 2018 elections but only privately to close associates and not publicly. In November 2017, a religious party blocked major highway to Islamabad for several days paralyzing the capital. Army negotiated a settlement between the government and protest leaders that was dubbed by many as abject surrender of government authority. The last sentence of the agreement clearly stated that this agreement was reached due to the efforts of army chief and his team. Faiz Hamid signed that document on behalf of the army. In early summer of 2021, I wrote about this phenomenon and its negative impact on the institution that “ I’m strongly against senior officers doing everything with their own hands. Many controversies could have been easily avoided if junior officers or in case of ISI retired contract officers were given such tasks (i.e., Faiz Hamid signing the TLP contract, DG Rangers handing money to protestors; a task which a Havildar could have easily done). In case of problem, retired/junior officer can be eased out with less negative fallout for the army. Chief is partly to blame for this mindset as he is meeting everyone and his cousin. He should have assigned such tasks to a junior officer to represent GHQ.”
About Ghafoor, I wrote “Asif Ghafoor has been the public face of the army and as Director General Inter Services Public Relations (DGISPR), he was conveying message of the army brass to the country. In this capacity, he became the public face of many controversies during civil military relations crisis of 2017-18. He was simply a messenger, but his elevation will be bad optics.”
My view was that as there are only about two dozen Lieutenant Generals therefore their promotion will create problems about accommodating them to low profile postings. I suggested that after supersession, both can be rewarded by giving them a lucrative post-retirement position in army-controlled corporations. When I became aware that General Bajwa has decided to promote both officers, I thought the middle ground to prevent negative fallout for the institution would be to give them second or third tier staff postings away from the limelight. Appointment of Hamid as Adjutant General (AG) and Ghafoor as Inspector General Communications & Information Technology (IG C & IT) looked like a safe bet. However, few months later when Hamid was appointed Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (DGISI), I concluded that General Bajwa has taken the institution into the mud puddle. In view of the role of DGCI in Pakistani context, elevation of DGCI as DGISI usually does not bode well for the concerned officer as well as the institution. Recent example of Lieutenant General Zaheer Ul Islam was the case in point.
Army suffered a serious setback when what is talked in hushed voices in drawing rooms is now discussed publicly. General Bajwa and Hamid’s name came up in opposition rallies, senior officers discussed in the mainstream media and ridiculed on social media. Army was blamed for the dismal performance of the government and army was forced to retrace its steps to go back to the drawing board.
Chief informed Imran that after three years of unqualified support, army will now take away the training wheels and move into its own lane. This was in early summer of 2021 when I became aware of it. I thought that this will lead to gradual divergence of path of Imran Khan and General Bajwa. I had been advocating that it was in institutional interest to step back and shared with many officers. One senior retired officer with fingers on the pulse of the events responded that “The reason that I think your advice to step back on matters like Justice Isa is not likely to be taken is because the institution, especially its head, has dug itself too deep in the hole. Probably a clash between IK and QJB (you have alluded to it) might cut the Gordian Knot.”
Later, army also sent reconciliation messages to two major opposition parties. These overtures rattled Imran Khan who saw this move as army brass undermining his rule. In the fall of 2021, friction between Imran Khan and General Bajwa on appointment of DGISI quickly turned into a rapidly widening gulf. I was completely baffled by this action of Imran Khan that made absolutely no sense. It was all downhill from that point. Now, army must keep a close eye on Imran Khan as he is mercurial and can throw a wrench in the machine causing new headaches.
General Bajwa periodically meets with a select group of journalists and social media activists. Most participants hold sympathetic view about the army that is fine. However, same group is also publicly denouncing opposition politicians and dissident judges and journalists. They may be expressing their personal views, but it is viewed as being done at the behest of the army and gives the impression of General Bajwa directing this crusade. These meetings are private and non-attributable. However, leaks start literally within minutes after the meeting as participants want to show off their connection with the fountain of power of Pakistan. When General Bajwa’s appointment was announced in the winter of 2016, he met few journalists and told them that he was looking forward to more interactions in the future. Some of us familiar with this terrain, cautioned against these interactions as such conversations quickly leak and make Chief controversial.
Full time involvement of COAS with political engineering meant that there was little time for other key areas. General Bajwa was unable to chart a new path in Baluchistan. Focus was only on throwing more bodies at the problem. Securing key centers and communications is an important task, but it needs to be complemented by engaging population and finding political solution including addressing forced disappearances and extra judicial killings. Alienation of Balochs is now almost complete affecting all segments of Baloch society.
More importantly, he mishandled the Pushtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) issue and in the process missing a chance of shaping post-conflict environment of the battle areas of former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). PTM is a grass root movement and by publicly and directly confronting it, army lost a large segment of tribal society that was its natural ally. Direct public confrontation emanating from General Bajwa and DGISPR was a case of poor judgement. This was despite the advice of caution by some senior retired Pushtun officers when General Bajwa invited them for a discussion on this subject. In my view absence of Pushtun officers at important higher command and intelligence posts contributed to mishandling of this issue.
A new element of management of higher judiciary called by some senior armed forces officers as ‘new frontier’ has dragged the army into new controversy and in the process earned the ire of some segments of the judiciary and a large segment of lawyer community. This was completely avoidable, but anger trumped the better sense. Justice Qazi Faiz Isa passed some remarks in his judgment against Faiz Hamid that had no practical implications. In few weeks, this would have faded away from the memory. However, army brass decided to retaliate against Justice Isa compounding the initial folly. The result of this futile exercise is that some justices are passing remarks in their judgements that embarrass defense establishment. This is more to show to the public that they are independent. The real threat is that Justice Isa may take his sweet revenge in time when he becomes Chief Justice in 2023. If Hamid is selected as army chief, then there is a clear and present danger of direct clash between army chief and Chief Justice.
I became aware of possibility of army’s potential clash with higher judiciary when after some negative remarks, there was talk of filing a reference to Supreme Judicial Council against Justice Gulzar Ahmad and Justice Isa. Sane voices at Judge Advocate General (JAG) branch warned against these moves. Unfortunately, anger of DGISI rather than a well thought out plan was the driving force. I strongly advocated against opening this front as this was unchartered waters. In fact, I argued that army will need the help of judiciary to solve the thorny issue of internment centers and forced disappearances. I recommended that now with a friendly government, a high-level coordination committee with members from government, army and judiciary should work for a framework of legislative and judicial measures to resolve the issue of people in military custody. General Bajwa asked Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa for help in this matter, but it was too late as army had already picked a fight with higher judiciary. Judiciary was divided by this time and Justice Khosa did not want to leave his office with allegation of working as handmaid of the army. He excused himself by stating that this will cause a constitutional crisis.
General Bajwa is in the lame duck last lap of his tenure and there is truly little that he can do that can shape the environment. He can do limited actions to provide room for his successor. As momentum is building up against Imran Khan to bring down his government, there is lot of uncertainty regarding his moves that can directly impact the army senior brass. Dangling the carrot of another extension to General Bajwa or early announcement of his successor to make Bajwa a lame duck chief are two possibilities. In view of deep mistrust and now clearly visible of anger of Imran against General Bajwa makes first possibility less likely. Early announcement of new Chief eight months before the retirement of General Bajwa will put a lot of strain on senior brass. The nuclear option is sacking of General Bajwa that will result in a crisis.
Earlier my view was that sometime in the summer, General Bajwa should move Hamid from Peshawar based XI Corps and park him in the sideline to complete his tenure. This will effectively take him out of the race as he will not meet the new criteria of command of a Corps for one calendar year. In view of rapidly changing scenario, it will be prudent to move Hamid sooner rather than later. Ghafoor can be kept at his current post to complete his tenure. Keeping Hamid at his current post and giving Ghafoor a high-profile command or staff appointment will add new uncertainties and complicate things for his successor.
In my view, policies adopted by the army as an institution in the last few years has unwittingly brought the institution into a dead-end street. The major risk is that in the dead-end street, one is an easy target for snipers. Army’s pre-eminence is accepted by everyone in the country, and it was able to achieve its objectives without taking direct control. It was ankle deep in politics and that was manageable as one only had to change the boots and keep uniform clean. Marching right into the mud of the political pig pen was not a smart move as mud has splashed all over the uniform. Now, uniform needs to be changed and washed. This will be the challenge for the next Chief.
10 February 2022
After reading SL Bhyrappa’s Parva I wanted to read more from the man. I started with Saartha after a friend recommended it. Review of Parva.
Saartha is a tale of a Brahmana sent on a mission by his king under the pretext of finding more about the various trade caravan routes with a Saartha (caravan). The protagonist Naga-Bhatta is the first person narrator for the entire book. The novel is primarily a journey of self realization of Naga-Bhatta – dealing with a varied range of emotions from anger, infidelity, love to melancholy and despondency. Naga-Bhatta travels from his hometown in Central India to North Indian plains – particularly Mathura, from Mathura to Kannauj and Kannauj to Magadha, Magadha to Mahismati before embarking upon a journey to Arab ruled Multan before coming back to Mathura. Though a lot of characters come and go in the novel, the ones who leave a mark as personalities apart from Nagabhatta are Pratihara Senapati JaySingh and actress and Yogini Chandrika. Other than that, the author also brings the real life historic personalities to life in fantastic and powerful manner. – Mandana Misra, Kumarila Bhatta, Bharati Devi (Misra) and epoch changing Adi-Shankaracharya. Apart from that, the author deals with the intellectual fights – especially between Sramanas (especially Bauddhas) and the followers of the Vaidika Dharma (Vedic Hindus). Bhyrappa manages critical about aspects of both the traditions even though the narration is that of a Vaidika Brahmana.
The storytelling is top notch and visually perfect. The dialogues are extremely effective and powerful. But where the author excels like in Parva is bringing to life a real world from a time long gone. What is more – he manages to do it with the Zeitgeist of the story in mind – not our own. The author doesn’t want to be politically correct or use his zeitgeist as a lens to observe the events of the tale. As the narration is that of a moderately patriarchal 8th century Brahmana, he doesn’t try to bring up the hypocrisy of his position – wherein the protagonist has no qualms about his (attempted) infidelity while he cannot digest his wife’s betrayal so much that it derails his life – filing him up with despondency and emptiness. Its in moments like these that the brilliance of the author comes through.
Throughout the narrative we are come across various spiritual paths available to the thinkers and philosophers in Ancient India – namely the Karma Kanda focused Vaidika Mimansa path, the Mahayana Bauddha path, the Yoga path, the Tantrik path, and finally Shankara’s Advaita. How the Naga-Bhatta grabbles with these paths and how he finds his Karma at the end is essentially the story of novel, Alchemist like tale with huge dollops of sophisticated philosophy and realism. What is fascinating about this book is that unlike Parva (Mahabharat) this book deals with and uses supernatural powers not just as sidenotes but for important parts of the story arc. Also the author’s grasp over Sanskrit is just spectacular, and like in Parva he has created couplets here and there as per the plot demand.
the Polemic and the Philosophy: (Spoilers ahead)
While the story of Saartha works on various levels, I doubt if that was the main purpose of the book. The author uses the character arc of Naga-Bhatta around which the tapestry of 8th Century India is painted, and its this tapestry that works more than the story. In the beginning we are introduced to the conflicts and divergences between Vaidika and Bauddha traditions, while noting the important changes which were occurring in the Bauddha tradition during this time. Some scholars have pointed to these changes (adopting of Puranic deities and tales) which made the Bauddha traditions loose its differentiating USP. The portrayal of Drama as a means of spread of devotional traditions of Rama and Krishna is fantastic. The mechanisms of Yoga and especially Tantra are very well explored. The flirtation of Naga-Bhatta with Buddhism, his abandoning of Vaidika traditions and coming back are not only explained convincingly, but readers also given a peak into the potential origins of the Maithuna images (erotic coupling images) which adorn the Khajurao temples.
The first climax of the book – based on the hagiography of Shankara- deals with the encounter of Adi-Shankara with the Guru of Naga-Bhatta – Mandana Misra, and though Mandana Misra is said to lose that encounter personally as I reader I couldn’t follow the logic of it. Similarly the peek into the life of Kumarila Bhatta – the Mimansika who is said to have defeated the Buddhists before Shankara left me unsatisfied. However one has to note that maybe that was the desire of the author, who clearly seems to favor the Vaidika Mimansikas (minus some orthodoxy).
The final climax of the book is about the confrontation with Islam. This part felt slightly caricaturish but still captured some of the salient reasons for Islamic incursions into the subcontinent. The tripartite struggle of Palas, Prathirahas and Rashtrakutas, the Hindu insularity and naivety & superstition and various other reasons come forth during the climax. The book ends on a very sour note, but that wasn’t surprising, as Bhyrappa is no bollywood screenwriter (who make Padvawat and Panipat appear as victories of Hindus (maybe even Prithviraj)).
Incidentally the History podcast Brownpundits have been producing was covering the same time period which Saartha covers. I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in history, philosophy or even self discovery – Saartha works very well on all these fronts.
Personally as an agnostic I have wondered why have I never been attracted to the philosophy of Buddha whereas I have always been attracted by the philosophies’ Vaidika and Puranic Dharma. Bhyarappa was able to give me the answer in one sentence “Can you imagine Buddha saying what Krishna says (on Kurukshetra) ?”
Another Browncast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!
In this episode Maneesh and Gaurav chat with Jay and Omar Ali and they discuss North Indian politics and power struggles for a vast period from 700 CE to 1200 CE. We touch upon the origins of the Imperial Pratiharas and Palas and discuss the tripartrite struggle for domination of Kannauj between the 3 great kingdoms of Indian subcontinent while a storm brewed up in the west. We also talk about the earlier Arab invasions of Sindh and Punjab and the later Turkic invasions by the Ghaznavids and Ghurids which laid the foundation of Islamicate rule in India.
We will cover the Cultural changes of this period in another episode.
Another Map of the era
Some Links to stuff discussed in this episode:
Al Beruni, Kitab ul Hind https://www.academia.edu/45077160/Al_birunis_Kitab_Ul_hind
Al Baladhuri: Early Islamic Conquests. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338318331_Arab_Conquests_and_Early_Islamic_Historiography_The_Futuh_al-Buldan_of_al-Baladhuri