June 3, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
Home Team Advantage
On US-Iran talks and Sunni-Shia subtleties: Tehran must transcend its revolution and endorse the principle that the House of Islam has many mansions
First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page, Special Article, June 3 2007
By SUBROTO ROY
On Monday 28 May in Baghdad,the American and Iranian Governments held their first official face-to-face talks in some 26 or 27 years. This sheer fact is a good thing. For more than two years there has been incessant sabre-rattling and gunboat diplomacy by the USA against Iran, as well as provocative words and deeds by Iran’s President against America’s Israeli ally (though it is apparently false his words included saying he wished Israel “wiped off the map”). Palmerston said there are no permanent allies among nations. The last unofficial transactions had to do with the notorious “Iran-contra” affair which blighted Ronald Reagan’s second term as President. Iran was sold American weapons from Israel (yes, the same Iran and same Israel) for use against Iraq (the same Saddam’s Iraq which had been Rumsfeld’s friend and which apparently received American intelligence and logistics help against yes, the same Iran); the moneys the Americans received were then used to pay for anti-Sandinista “contra” forces in Nicaragua (so they could, for example, buy American weapons too). Apart from that unofficial and embarrassing “Iran-contra” affair, the American and Iranian Governments had not had face-to-face discussion since diplomatic relations broke in 1980 during the “hostage crisis”.
Arthur Millspaugh, an American invited by the Iranians to help their public finances, once wrote: “Persia cannot be left to herself, even if the Russians were to keep their hands off politically.… Persia has never yet proved its capacity for independent self-government.” The title of his 1925 book America’s Task in Persia reflected the old paternalist attitude that an imperialist power must necessarily know better than local people what happens to be in their interest in the way a parent knows better than a child. Even that otherwise great libertarian JS Mill himself once suggested that contact with a “superior people” allowed rapid advancement. India’s “Lenin Peace Prize” winner and Soviet sympathiser KPS Menon Sr (grandfather of our present top diplomat) said the same after the 1979 invasion and occupation by the USSR of Afghanistan. Nationalists of all colours and times ~ from Tom Paine, Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”) and George Washington to Bal Gangadhar Tilak (“Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it”), Ho Chi Minh and Ayatollah Khomeini ~ would disagree.
Indeed, in the Iranian case, the Khomeini Revolution was the antithesis of the imperialist doctrine. But Iranian revolutionaries then seized the American Embassy on 4 November 1979 and took 66 hostages. Thirteen women and black Americans were released two weeks later; one man was released due to ill-health in July 1980. In a failed attempt to rescue the remaining 52, eight American military personnel died on 25 April 1980. The 52 hostages, including two women and one black, were released on 20 January 1981 under the “Algiers Accord”, a day before Reagan became President. Even if the US Embassy in Tehran had been a den of spies, as the Iranians claimed, the Revolutionary Government could have ordered them all to leave and ended diplomatic relations.
Instead hostages were taken in deliberate violation of international law. The United States Government under duress on 19 January 1981 had to sign the “Algiers Accord”, the first point of which stated: “Non-Intervention in Iranian Affairs: The United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs.” That was the “blowback” from the coup d’etat against Iran’s democratic government under Mossadeq in 1953 which the CIA had engineered. Modern US-Iran relations have been about two wrongs ~ indeed multiple wrongs ~ not making a right.
From Algiers until the Baghdad meeting there was no official interaction between the USA and Iran (besides the Iran-contra affair and American relief supplies during an Iranian earthquake). The present US-Iran talks had to do with the catastrophic mess in Iraq, and were held via the current Al-Maliki Government of Iraq which is beholden to both as patrons.
Saddam’s Iraq had been officially secular not an “Islamic Republic”. But its Baathist national-socialism (with yes, a few silly Nazi aspects) had been populated mostly by Saddam’s fellow Sunnis, and there was some vicious anti-Shia persecution.
Doctrinally, the Sunni-Shia conflict may have originated during Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. “In the words of al-Baghdadi, a Sunni is one who believes in the creation of the universe, the unity and pre-existence of its Maker, the apostolate of Muhammad, recognizes and observes the duties of the five prayers, fast of Ramazan, poor-rate and pilgrimage, and does not adulterate his faith with an abominable innovation which leads to heresy.” (Imtiaz Ahmad in Grewal ed. Religious Movements and Institutions in Medieval India, p.277). Shias claim that exegetical authorities, both Sunni and Shia, record the Prophet on 10 March 632 AD at the pool of Ghadir “while returning from his last pilgrimage to Mecca… delivered his farewell address” in which he declared Ali ibn Abi Talib his successor (S. Ali Nadeem Rezavi, ibid., p. 281). No logical contradiction between Sunnis and Shias seems obvious from this.
But there also have been racial and cultural aspects to the division. Arabs, though not Iraqi Arabs, are mostly Sunni while Iranians are mostly Shia. At the same time, Persian culture and history has had incorrigibly Zoroastrian roots just as Egypt was the land of the Pharoahs and Arabia of Meccan paganism. Mesopotamian culture has had Sumerian and Babylonian roots, and Indian Islam has grown among the cultures of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. Intra-Muslim conflict will be reduced only when it becomes generally recognised that the House of Islam has had many mansions.
Saddam’s war against Khomeini’s Iran was not a religious war but one between two putative nation-states. In Iraqi junior schools during the war, a class of 40 pupils could be divided by academic merit such that the top 20 would play brave Iraqis in the school-play ~ the hapless bottom 20 had to play the wicked Persians, leaving them in tears as well as in simulated defeat.
What the current US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq has quite deliberately accomplished is the destruction of Iraq as a putative nation-state and the fanning of mostly suppressed Shia-Sunni differences instead. The idea of “regime-change” in Teheran in the old way of the CIA coup against Mossadeq also has not been far from Anglo-American thinking in the current confrontation with Iran. “Who lost Iran?” was an American political slogan in the 1980s, and there are day-dreamers in Washington think-tanks today who have fantasies of Iran being run by compliant “Iranian-American” émigrés from Los Angeles. But instead the destruction of Saddam’s regime inevitably has led to Iran’s strengthening, as all Iraqi Shia forces made dominant as a result are, at least from a doctrinal standpoint within Islam, united with Tehran to greater or lesser degree. A new Iraq-Iran war is hard to imagine as along as Shias dominate Baghdad’s Government. Iran for its part needs to demonstrate that it has transcended its revolution and that it unequivocally endorses the principle that the House of Islam has many mansions.
The British and Americans are great lovers of sports and inventors of many modern games played on fields around the world, from cricket and soccer to basketball. Their Governments seem to have forgotten in their foreign policy theorising that there is such a thing as “home-team advantage”. Imperialists ultimately can never defeat nationalists, because, at the end of the day, imperialists have to either go home or (as Conrad and Coppola knew) “go native”. In the new Iran-USA talks, both sides may have sensed Iran has the home-team advantage. The most the United States can do to Iran is bomb it and leave.
May 25, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
On Indian Nationhood
From Tamils To Kashmiris And Assamese And Mizos To Sikhs And Goans
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page
May 25 2007
By Subroto Roy
In the decades before 1947, imperialist critics of Indian nationalism accused the movement of being less about creating Indian nationhood than about supplanting British rule with local Indian oligarchies. Sydenham, for example, in the upper house of Britain’s Parliament in August 1918, gleefully quoted from the “Madras Dravidian Hindu Association” (forerunners of today’s DMK etc): “We shall fight to the last drop of our blood any attempt to transfer the seat of authority in this country from British hands to so-called high-caste Hindus, who have ill-treated us in the past and will do so again but for the protection of British laws.” Also quoted were “Namasudras of Bengal”, allegedly numbering “ten million men”, protesting “gross misrepresentation” by “so-called high-caste leaders” of the desirability of “Home Rule or self-government”. Besides caste and class there was always religion too by which India’s inhabitants could be classified and divided, and it must have delighted Sydenham to quote the “South Indian Islamic League” saying “Nothing should be done which will weaken British authority in any manner whatsoever, and hand over the destinies of the Moslem community to a class which has no regard for their interests and no respect for their sentiments”.
Home Rule League
Sydenham was attacking the Montagu-Chelmsford Report which had stated that India had “a core of earnest men who believe sincerely and strive for political progress; around them a ring of less educated people to whom a phrase or a sentiment appeals; and an outside fringe of those who have been described as attracted by curiosity to this new thing, or who find diversions in attacking a big and very solemn Government as urchins might take a perilous joy at casting toy darts at an elephant.”
Annie Besant, herself an Englishwoman, was, along with BG Tilak and MA Jinnah, a pioneer of Indian nationalism at the time and headed the new Indian Home Rule League on the Irish pattern. The League stated its membership at 52,000. Sydenham multiplied that by five and asked if a quarter million could purport to rule 244 millions in an Indian democracy. Where, he demanded, was the “voice that cannot yet be heard, the voice of the peoples of India”? The imperialist jibe was that the British Raj would be replaced at best by a “Vakil Raj” of “high-caste” Hindus and at worst by anarchy and bloodshed.
Thirty years later India’s was partitioned and independent under Attlee’s Labour Party. Churchill took over the imperialist mantle and found solace in the new India agreeing to remain in Britain’s “Commonwealth”, saying that India doing so as a Republic did not impair “the majesty of the Crown or the personal dignity of the King”.
The ghosts of Churchill and Sydenham today would heartily cheer our Republic’s current President APJ Abdul Kalam agreeing to receive the “King Charles II Medal” from the Royal Society, and our current PM Manmohan Singh accepting honorary British degrees also while in office. Britain’s Crown Prince has proposed a cricket match between India and Pakistan to mark the 60th anniversary of 1947, and what, after all, could be less inappropriate to mark the event in British eyes? All that Indian nationalism would have been firmly put in its place.
Now Pakistan mostly goes unmentioned in the history of Indian nationalism because the new Pakistanis as of 14 August 1947 hardly felt or even wished to be independent of the British. Instead they longed only to acquire control over any kind of Muslim-majority Government that they could, and as much of the resources and joint military assets of the old India they could get their hands on.
The Kashmir dispute and India-Pakistan conflict have not been ones between Hindus and Muslims, regardless of what the BBC, CNN etc make themselves believe. As much as for any other reason, Kashmir escalated out of control because of British irresponsibility during the process of disintegration of the old Indian Army between the two new Dominions. Newly demobilised Mirpuri soldiers who had formed loyal British battalions were drawn into the cycle of Partition-related communal violence and reprisals in Punjab, which inevitably spilt over into Jammu and culminated in the attack on J&K State that commenced from Pakistan’s NWFP in October 1947 ~ plunging J&K into civil war with Sheikh Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s National Conference allied to the new secular India and Sardar Ibrahim’s Muslim Conference allied to the new and soon to be Islamic Pakistan. Field Marshal Auchinlek, the Supreme Commander of both Indian and Pakistani Armed Forces, had the decency to resign and abolish the so-called “Supreme Command” as soon as he realised his own forces were at war with one another.
It would not be too inaccurate to say Pakistan and Britain continued in a neo-colonial relationship throughout the 1950s and 1960s ~ all the way until Ayub Khan (who had been warmly entertained at Chequers during the Christine Keeler-Profumo matter), overplayed his hand by attacking India in 1965. That war followed by the East Pakistan cyclone in 1969 brought to a head the inherent political contradictions of the Pakistani state accumulated until that time, and soon led to Bangladesh’s creation in 1971. Britain has had no real interest in Bangladesh but as Pakistan had allowed dual nationality with Britain, Britain found itself with a lot of Bangladeshi immigrants whose “Indian” restaurants give modern Britons today something to look forward to every weekend.
Britain and its American ally continued to have deep interests in Pakistan, mostly because of the geopolitical importance of Pakistani real estate and the generally obsequious and compliant nature of the Pakistani military and diplomatic elite. All that began to change fundamentally when the real declaration of Pakistani independence occurred in the world with the AQ Khan nuclear bombs exploding in 1998 followed by the September 11 2001 attacks upon the USA.
As for ourselves in India, we have developed some coherent and recognisable design of a modern political economy with a Union Government and more than two dozen State Governments, and we have abolished the imperialist lackeys known as the “princes”. Our Governments at Union and State levels change peacefully by periodic elections under the 1950 Constitution. This in itself would be seen as an astonishing democratic achievement relative to where we were one hundred years ago at the time of the Morley-Minto policies. Thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru, we have had universal franchise since 1952 (at a time when the USA still had its Jim Crow laws against black citizens) ~ yet the imperialist jibe of an infinitesimally small elite purporting to represent hundreds of millions of India’s people remains to be addressed.
It would be interesting to know how many descendants of the 52,000 members of Annie Besant’s Home Rule League remain in India and how many have emigrated to the USA, Britain, Australia etc. The children of our top military, bureaucratic, business, professional and academic elite have cheerfully led an exodus out of the country. E.g. the son of a former commanding general of the Indian Army’s Artillery Regiment is now a British businessman and member of Tony Blair’s new House of Lords. Indian Nationhood in the 21st Century no longer has to include Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who have ended up seeking to develop their own nationalisms, but it remains hard enough to try to include everyone else ~ from Tamils to Kashmiris and from Assamese and Mizos to Sikhs and Goans. Cleaning up our government accounting and sorting out our public finances nationwide so as to establish a sound money for everyone to use for the first time in sixty or seventy years, is among the first steps in defining our common goals as an independent nation.
(Postscript: The original text stated Independence and Paritition came “forty years” after the only date mentioned until that point in the text, which is of the 1918 Montagu-Chelmsford period. Unconsciously, I was counting from the Morley-Minto period of 1906-1908 which was the constitutional precedent to Montagu-Chelmsford.)