Racism New and Old (2006)

Racism New and Old

Subroto Roy

Editorial page, The Statesman September 8, 2006

When Iraqi Sunni terrorists killed 11 Pakistani and three Indian Shia pilgrims on the same bus to Karbala the other day, they did not check passports or wait to hear discourses from their victims about the validity of Jinnah’s Two-Nations Theory or the RSS’s views on Akhand Bharat and Bharat-Mata. All Indians and Pakistanis of whatever religion are pretty much “Hindis” to the average Arab. If Pakistanis (much to their own chagrin) are indistinguishable from Indians in many Arab eyes, Hindus and Sikhs are (much to their own chagrin) indistinguishable from Muslims in many North American and British eyes. Matthai Chakko Kuruvila, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Religion Writer (and whose own splendid ethnicity may appear obvious to us from his name), reports Paul Silverstein, an American anthropologist, saying “Muslims are the new Jews… They are the object of a series of stereotypes, caricatures and fears which are not based in a reality and are independent of a person’s experience with Muslims.” Kuruvila says: “The Muslim caricature has ensnared Hindus, Mexicans and others” across the USA “with violence, suspicion and slurs”, giving new form to America’s “age-old dance around racial identity”.


The subcontinent’s Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and others are from pretty much similar racial populations, so when we wish to distinguish ourselves from one another as we tend to do on the subcontinent, we wear turbans, beards, long hair, veils, bindis etc ~ symbols about which the average New Jersey “dot-buster” or British “Paki-basher” cares not a hoot. London last year even saw Jean Charles de Menezes, a young Brazilian electrician on his way to work in the morning, pinned down by an elite squad of Britain’s much-vaunted policemen and receive seven bullets point-blank in the back of his skull ~ merely for having “looked Asian”.

Subcontinental immigrant families in the West experience a defining moment when the wife first bobs her long hair and takes to wearing slacks, skirts or even shorts, just so she can leave home and assimilate better in the workplace or shopping mall. The saris, salwars and real jewellery are kept for the weekends when she meets people who will understand her as herself, namely, her friends and kith and kin in the immigrant community. When salwar or sari-clad women start fake-kissing one another in Western-style greeting at those weekends, the alternation of their identities (and confusion in their self-knowledge) may have become complete. A limiting point of such attempts at assimilation is reached perhaps when an Asian woman becomes a BBC or CNN newsreader, reading what she has been told to yet still narcissistically indulging in the extent of her external transformation.

Muslim-Hindu differences of religious and cultural beliefs and practices between racially similar peoples may be contrasted with the main fault-lines that have existed in Western societies in recent centuries: fault-lines of race and colour between European and African, and of race and religion between Jew and Gentile.

An eminent American legal scholar once said African slavery had been “the living lie” in America’s official heritage of democracy and individual freedom. Black America took one hundred years from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to Martin Luther King Jr., to begin to overcome the impossible odds against it. Sports, music, show-biz and the arts were obvious arenas for public demonstration of individual genius. Athletes like Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Arthur Ashe, musicians like Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt, “in-your-face” satirists like Sammy Davis Jr, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy upto and including modern rapsters and many thousands of others demonstrated that Black America was not going away anywhere, certainly not returning to Liberia, was going to stay in and permanently alter American life and culture, and wondered if anyone thought otherwise. The degree of assimilation into non-black cultures would be a matter of personal choice, not social or economic compulsion. During the Bush invasion of Iraq, Harry Belafonte re-ignited an old controversy when he referred to his fellow West Indian and perfectly assimilated Colin Powell in context of the “plantation slave”/”house slave” dichotomy: plantation slaves were externally oppressed but felt free within while house slaves had more comforts but were docile compradors inside their souls.

Immigrant communities from the subcontinent have had their share of the same. It has been all too easy for young people to reach academic highs in New Delhi or Kolkata only to escape to obscure corners of America and lead docile subservient unfulfilling lives forever afterwards, in exchange for material and ultimately meaningless rewards. It might be called the Madhuri Dixit Phenomenon of being transformed from celebrity-status in India to becoming a complete unknown in America.

Jewish-Gentile divide

The Jewish-Gentile divide in Western civilisation has been more insidious and damaging to mankind, and potentially remains so as the anger it generates has been transferred onto modern Muslims instead. At its unspoken roots is the frank Jewish theological assessment that Jesus of Nazareth was at most a wise and honest rabbi, not Christ Immanent ~ a veracious blow that seems to remove the corner-stone of all European culture and civilisation. The length of mutual recriminations and miscomprehensions as well as self-deceptions and cruelties over the millennia that have resulted on both sides, remains endless. On the Christian side there has been the vile persecution of Jews for centuries. On the Jewish side, there has arisen the vast myth that today’s Israel has something to do with the ancient Hebrews, when contemporary Jews likely descend mostly from the conversion to Judaism of the Khazar Khanate in the second half of the 9th Century (see e.g. Paul Meerts, “Assessing Khazaria”, International Institute for Asian Studies July 2004). In between Jewish and Christian self-deceptions and mutual misunderstandings has arisen Anti-Semitism, Zionism, and also Anti-Zionism (many thoughtful Jews having opposed the creation of Israel). As George Eliot, Hannah Arendt and many others noticed, the assimilation of 19th Century Jews into elite society in Vienna or London was only permitted where some exceptional individual genius was displayed, most prominently perhaps in case of Benjamin Disraeli who became Victoria’s Prime Minister. Even that acceptance of assimilated “exceptional” Jews came to disintegrate into the horrors of the 20th Century, from which we are yet to recover. Modern American foreign policy has been partly driven by the East and West Coasts’ understanding or misunderstanding of that history.


Is Balochistan Doomed?

Is Balochistan Doomed?

by Subroto Roy


First published  in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article Sep 3 2006


Nawab Mohammad Akbar Khan Bugti’s death (apparently in a cave that was precision-bombed by the Pakistani military using American equipment after he had spoken on a Thuraya satellite-phone) lengthens Pakistan’s list of political killings and assassinations, many still unsolved.  Liaquat Ali Khan, Dr Khan Sahib, ZA Bhutto and sons as well as their enemy Zia ul Haq, are prominent members of the list. The Rule of Law is better in India to the extent we tend to solve and punish our major assassinations.

Bugti’s killing is symptomatic of many of Pakistan’s continuing ills, not least of which is the continuing inability of the military to comprehend politics as a discipline that accommodates competing interests and uses two-way dialogue, not one-way instruction, as its method. There is also the personal failure of Pervez Musharraf, seven years after his coup détat, to transform himself into Pakistan’s first genuine statesman in many years. Musharraf is a well-read, well-spoken soldier who sees himself as a man of destiny but he has quite simply failed to recognise statesmanship requires far more than personal ambition; he has become a Napoleon at home and a Quisling abroad when what he aspired to become was Pakistan’s Attaturk.

The roots of Pakistan’s Balochistan problem are depthless. When Pakistan was first created, Punjabis constituted 25 per cent of the population but 77 per cent of the new armed forces. East Bengalis constituted 55% of the population ~ a fact inevitably leading to the idea of a “one-unit West Pakistan wing” governing itself independent of the numerical majority of Bengali-speakers. Equally inevitably perhaps, this led to Punjabi military domination of East Pakistan; the history of Bangladesh’s creation is too well-known to need recitation here except to say the Mukti Bahini, like Balochi separatists today, were incapable of taking on Pakistan’s military on their own.

After Bangladesh’s secession, Pakistan became the four areas originally named in Iqbal’s 1930 speech conceptualising a Muslim country in North Western India (which, incidentally, excluded J&K despite Iqbal having been Kashmiri). Pakistan’s Pashtun and Baloch highlanders were never of Hindu/Indian origin, whereas the plainsmen consisting of Punjabis, Sindhis and migrants from India were (despite protestations and pretensions), closely related to their Hindu/Indian cousins and neighbours. Muslim and Hindu religious and cultural beliefs and practices may be very different, but DNA testing would likely identify most of the subcontinent’s Muslims and Hindus as ethnically indistinguishable from a scientific point of view.

The central fact driving and explaining Pakistan’s political history has been that the idea of Pakistan arose in the subcontinent’s Muslim-minority areas, not among the peoples of the areas that today constitute Pakistan ~ least of all the Baloch (viz., F Robinson in WE James & S Roy (eds) Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy). Having created a country based on an ideology imported by a handful of super-elite Indian migrants like Jinnah and Liaquat, serious political conversation and democratic nation-building of a high order was required immediately from Pakistan’s national statesmen to make the enterprise a success. That was never forthcoming simply because there were no such national statesmen, only rather thick bungling soldiers and some corpulent corrupt politicians. In an alternative universe in which ZA Bhutto had been born a generation earlier, things might have been different. Musharraf’s efforts since his January 2002 speech to become an intelligent modern soldier-statesman amount to far too little, far too late, rather the way the French physiocrats were too late and came to be swept away by revolution.

The Baloch are a tribal people who defeated and later assimilated the Dravidian(?)-Brahui inhabitants of the area. For most of their modern history they were independent though owed nominal allegiance to the Afghan ruler in Kabul. The 19th Century British created a strip known as “British Balochistan” including Quetta and Sibi, but were interested in the region solely to the extent it controlled access to Afghanistan and otherwise left the Khan of Kalat to himself. The British also annexed Sindh from a Balochi dynasty. In the 21st Century, it has become Balochistan not Afghanistan which has immense economic potential and strategic value in international politics. Yet its future must be filled with foreboding because Musharraf’s military-business state, goaded on by Western and Chinese business and military interests, has recognised its potential and begun to behave ruthlessly against Balochis as a result. Balochistan contains Pakistan’s reserves of uranium, coal, gold, silver, copper, aluminium, and of course plentiful natural gas at Sui. The Makran Coast had been gifted by the Khan of Kalat to Oman, and was bought back by Pakistan in 1958. Development of Gwadar and Ormara ports and naval bases (whose strategic value is self-evident) and a road link through the Karakoram to Sinkiang have now become top Pakistani and Chinese military and business priorities.

Gwadar real-estate speculation is rampant among Lahore and Rawalpindi’s military-businessmen, while two Chinese workers were killed in Gwadar by Balochi nationalists in 2004 causing ruthless Punjabi reprisals. Also, the Americans have long had secret CIA-built bases in Pasni and Dalbandin in Baloch territory, which are being used presently in military operations in Afghanistan; their Pashtun/Taliban enemy also use Quetta and northern Balochistan for rest and recuperation while fighting in Afghanistan! And Balochistan’s caves are where Pakistan’s nuclear-armed F-16s against India are hidden. The Balochi are a small, poor, traditionally peaceful, politically divided tribal minority of perhaps 6.5 million people spread sparsely over this vast arid area that constitutes more than 48% of Pakistan’s present territory. Despite the pretensions of an articulate expatriate rebel elite (including even a self-styled Government-in-Exile based in Jerusalem dreaming of a secular free Balochistan), Baloch guerrilla fighters are wholly incapable of taking on the organised military might of the Pakistani state, armed by America and China. The expansion of Pakistan’s 74 million Punjabis, 30 million Sindhis and 17 million Pashtun into Balochistan seems as inevitable at present as the expansion of the Han Chinese into Tibet ~ a similarity doubtless noted by Musharraf’s Communist Chinese friends and advisers. Also, because there are two million Balochis in Iranian Balochistan, Pakistan’s Balochi nationalists have had a declared enemy to their west in the Iranian Government ~ the Pahlevi regime even provided Italian-made American Huey helicopter gunships with Iranian pilots to help Bhutto crush the Baloch rebellions of the early 1970s. In fact, Balochi rebels have had no military allies except the pre-communist Government of Afghanistan under Daud, who “ordered the establishment of a training camp at Qandahar for Baloch liberation fighters. Between 10,000 and 15,000 Baloch youths were trained and armed there” (R Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan 1988, p. 78). The Governments of India or the United States lack motivation or capability to help, and Balochistan may be doomed to becoming a large human rights/genocidal disaster of the next decade.

An independent Balochistan may be unviable, being overwhelmed by its riches while having too small, uneducated and backward a population of its own, and powerful greedy neighbours on either side. In effect, a weak Balochistan has been divided rather like a weak Poland was divided by Hitler and Stalin in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

Today, the Pashtun of Pakistan and Afghanistan (as well as perhaps Sindhis of Baloch origin) may be the only interlocutors who can prevent a genocide and mediate a peace between Balochi nationalists and Musharraf’s ruthless Punjabi military-businessmen determined to colonize Balochistan completely with Chinese help, effectively subsidising their misgovernance elsewhere with Balochistan’s riches. Like Bhutto and Zia, Musharraf has chosen military suppression and failed to see the only way forward for Pakistan is political accommodation of both Baloch and Pashtun aspirations and desires, while solving Pakistan’s grave fiscal and monetary problems separately. The terms of a peaceful accommodation could involve e.g., a vertical administrative division of Pakistan between its tribal highlander peoples and its Indus Valley plainsmen (viz., The Statesman 16 July 2006) followed by slow, steady, sustainable development and modernization consistent with tribal cultural wishes ~ not Shanghai or World Bank capitalism. To be a man of destiny, Musharraf must transcend the military-business complex he rules over and reduce its role in Pakistani life, not increase it. Statesmanship involves taking risks for a noble cause and these are the main risks he needs to address and build a national consensus upon. Instead, he has enhanced military capabilities and seems hell-bent (perhaps on advice of his MBA prime minister) on ruthless exploitation of Balochistan as a Lahore/ Rawalpindi colony. It is the road to catastrophe.

(NB The original article said grandsons of Nawab Bugti had been killed with him, but this is not confirmed.)