Friday, June 25, 2010

Most dangerous region? Look west

We think that the Indian subcontinent is the world's most unstable region, given the dominance of religion, the Pakistan army's jealousy-tinged hatred of India and the rise of hatemongers like Narendra Modi. But take a trip westward and we'll see that no part of the world is more dangerously unstable than the Arab region with Israel plonked in the centre of it thanks to the success of British machinations in 1948.

It will remain so despite Israel's current talk of "easing" the blockade of the Gaza Strip. On the ground nothing will change. It is important for Indian public opinion to be aware of the realities if only because India's own policies have been shifting in recent years. Traditionally our sympathies have been with the Palestinians, a people driven out of their homeland. After the BJP came to power the balance tilted in favour of Israel because the BJP admired Israel’s fundamentally anti-Muslim stance. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Israel edged its way into approvals by the Congress as well, especially through defence deals. Even when some of these deals look good, we should not lose sight of the fact that Israel is a one-issue state, the issue being the establishment of an enlarged and invincible Jewish state whatever the world thinks.

The harshest demonstration of this mental fixation was the wholesale invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Israel's Prime Minister at the time was Menachem Begin and the Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, the country’s bestknown fundamentalist hardliners. They contemptuously ignored all international conventions. So excessive was their use of force and so widespread the atrocities that, for the first time, Israeli citizens themselves criticised their government's actions.

The irony was that Lebanon was not a party to Israel's fight against Palestinians. Its fault was that it shared its southern border with Israel. This meant that Palestinian activists set up some camps in Lebanon as they did in other bordering countries. Israel said its intention was only to wipe out these camps with a military putsch 25 miles into Lebanese territory. In the event they went all the way to Beirut, the capital, and the valleys and mountains to the east and north. Civilian areas were bombarded including a hospital for geriatrics and mentally afflicted patients. Only the verdant expanse of the American University of Beirut was spared.

A visitor to Beirut today can still see, a quarter century later, civilian buildings in rubble, walls bearing shell marks -- and new Palestinian camps even in the Beka Valley on the road to Damascus. Several parts of this extraordinarily beautiful city have been rebuilt, some areas modernised. The streets are bustling, hotels full, traffic delightfully maddening, favourite fastfood-kebab joints like Bar-Bar doing roaring business. But an air of unease persists. The popular prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated only five years ago. And Israel is led again by the most extremist hardliner alive today, Benjamin Netanyahu. There's nothing that cannot happen because (a) Israel's objective includes Greater Israel with weak Arab government around and (b) it is supported by military-industrial lobbies that have a vested interest in recurring wars.

American weapons not yet used in combat are always tested in Israel's wars (nowadays also in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) In the war against Lebanon, cluster bombs, phospherous bombs and perhaps the vacuum bomb were used although the enemy was patently weak. Small wonder that the powerful American arms industry lobbies as vehemently for Israel as the no less powerful Jewish lobby does. Add to this the Israeli mindset. Army boss Gen. Eitan justified the war on Lebanon by saying: "Since I have built and excellent war apparatus, I must make use of it." Sharon said that since the last war was in 1973, a whole generation of Israeli soldiers had no experience of battle and needed to be given it.

These are the vested interests that keep West Asia on the boil and make the world a dangerous place for all of us.

Friday, June 18, 2010

‘Sri Lankan Model’ is no model

If it takes a thief to catch a thief, can we say it requires terrorism to defeat terrorism? That is the theory Mahenda Rajapakse put into practice in Sri Lanka. Because he succeeded in crushing Prabhakaran’s LTTE, the “Sri Lankan Model” is now attracting the attention of other governments that face internal insurrections.

Perhaps the most notable example is the not widely publicised visit Burma’s military dictator Than Shwe paid to Colombo recently. Than Shwe rarely travels outside his country, yet he was impressed by the “victory against terrorism” in Sri Lanka. He went there to see if he could employ some of the techniques against the ethnic groups that have been fighting the Rangoon government for long.

Thailand faces a Muslim rebellion in its southernmost areas. But Prime Minister Abhisit Vijjajiva is facing a threat from political opponents in Bangkok itself and there is serious talk of a possible civil war in the country. The tactics Sri Lanka used against the LTTE won’t work against the political opponents or the Muslims in the South because the circumstances are vastly different. Even so, he found time to exchange notes with Lankan leaders.

Bangladesh sent a military delegation to Colombo to see what lessons it could learn from the “war for peace” Sri Lanka fought. For all we know, P.Chidambaram himself must have secretly wished that he could do in Dandewada what Rajapakse did in Elam territory.

But, thank God, he can’t. What Rajapakse did, no democratic country can do. His military operations elicited serious charges of war crimes by Western governments. Besides, the campaign against the LTTE was part of a larger political agenda that would perhaps suit Burma, but not others.

For one thing, Rajapakse only defeated Prabhakaran’s LTTE, not solved the wider cause of Lankan Tamils, an integral part of Lankan polity. Prabhakaran was a cruel extremist who eliminated several Tamil leaders and his own eventual elimination was welcomed by large sections of Tamils themselves. But Rajapakse did not have the wisdom to see Prabhakaran as separate from the Tamils of his country whose claims for fairplay were, and remain, legitimate.

Secondly, Rajapakse’s basic agenda is different. A glance at the power structure is enough to bring this out. He as President directly handles defence,finance, planning and a dozen other portfolios. Brother Gotapaya functions as defence secretary with direct control of the armed forces, immigration and urban development. Brother Basil is Economics Development Minister. Brother Chamel has resigned as minister and assumed the office of Speaker of the House. Son Namal has been elected to Parliament. The Constitution is being amended to make presidential powers virtually absolute. This is the real Sri Lanka Model. Who will dare follow it, other than Burma?

There is another model not far away. This is Indonesia’s “Detachment 88”, a 400-strong elite special operations unit of the police that functions as the country’s counter-terrorism squad. That it is a police, not a military, unit is itself indicative of the government’s thinking. The Indonesian military is still associated with the long dictatorship years and the present democratic leadership wanted to avoid any stigma arising from that history.

Detachment 88 has to deal with Indonesia’s resident terrorists who are Wahabi-influenced Muslim fundamentalists. The unit is tough with them when required, but treats them now correctly, now sympathetically, never in harsh ways. Suspects are openly prosecuted. Members of the D-88 act also as spiritual counsellors, eating with the arrested men, praying with them. Muslim religious teachers are brought in for discussions on the Koran and Islam. The aim is to de-radicalise the suspects. Interestingly, anti-terrorist squads from Thailand and even Pakistan have attended training camps in D-88’s centre in central Java.

The choice is clear. It is not between the Sri Lankan model and the Indonesian model. It is between family dictatorship and democracy.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

And football produces gods

Not all the misplaced genius of the Lalit Modis and the Sharad Pawars of our land can generate the drama and passion football inspires. India is a net loser in becoming a cricket-only country. On the one hand, it destroys the spirit of cricket itself by turning it into a crass money machine. On the other, it leads to the neglect of glorious games like hockey and football.

Cricket covers but a few countries; football is universal. Cricket is colonial; football is democratic. Cricket, especially today’s commercialised format, is an artificial creation; football is utterly natural. Cricket needs cheer leaders; football doesn’t. Cricket corrupts; football enlivens. Cricket produces heroes; football makes gods – like Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Kaka, Messi, Drogba..

And so be it. Football is the true people’s game, the anywhere–anyhow game. You don’t need expensive equipment to kick a ball around. In the slums of the world kids play football without shoes and without a proper ball. From one such slum emerged today’s highest paid footballer, Samuel Eto’o of Camaroon (who earns $ 13 million a year). Football is a great leveller.

Not that football does not have its unpleasant side. A whiff of corruption hit FIFA, the all-powerful governing body of the game, in 2001-2. A case reached the Swiss courts, but was eventually dropped. Ever since, FIFA’s bosses have been extra careful about keeping their hands clean. At the other end of the scale, beer-guzzling “football hooligans” were a phenomenon in Europe until recently, going literally wild in their enthusiasm.

Money is the engine of international football as well. Some clubs, like Chelsea and Barcelona, are immensely rich. The clubs buy and sell players. Barcelona paid Valencia $ 48 million to buy Spanish star David Villa; Real Madrid paid as much as $ 132 million to buy Christiano Ronaldo. As usual TV rights and corporate sponsors are the principal fund providers. In the 2006 World Cup, the TV audience was estimated at 26 billion, that is, 26 times he population of India. No wonder that sponsorships alone added up to $ 875 million; FIFA’s profit that year was an impressive $ 1.8 billion.

Figures like that help us understand why Lalit Modi and the BCCI itself went salivating at the prospect of minting money with “club” cricket. But they reckoned without that powerful institution that sustains the integrity of football – the Coach. The best coaches are dictators, but dictators who are admired for their dictatorship. For they are professional to the core. The bosses may think money, but the players under the command of coaches think football. Meritocracy reigns supreme.

Those who play politics with cricket must think about this. All sports in India is an extension of politics. That is why we flop except in individual events (as distinct from team sports) – in tennis, chess, shooting, boxing. In football we are nowhere in the picture. Which is astonishing when we think of Africa’s rise.

The average African footballer trained in the most primitive conditions. We were miles ahead with clubs like Mohan Bagan and East Bengal and playing fields like the Cooperage. But we never produced a magician – like Eusebio of Mozambique who scored four out of five goals for Portugal against North Korea for a 5-3 win in 1966, one of the most thrilling games in football history. Almost all European clubs today are performing well because of the Africans they have recruited. With natural talent, speed and footwork skills that are unique to them, Africans have made football their own.

For a month from now in South Africa, the self-confidence and newfound pride of Africans will enliven the spectators’ stands as well as the field. They have a typical style of enjoying football, not the hooligan style, but singing and dancing with spontaneous rhythm. An African team may not go home with the trophy, but this year’s World Cup will be one of the most exciting ever. And deservedly so.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

God’s chosen rogues

There is no country in the world – perhaps in history – like Israel. It has done wonderful things like turning deserts into lush agricultural farms. It has also turned itself into a singularly evil state. Its resort to cruelty against Palestinians has few parallels in modern history. Its nuclear hypocrisy is unparalleled too.

Israel’s greatest exceptionality is the immunity it commands in the world. It can do pretty much what it likes – and get away with it. Other countries get damned by “the international community” for all kinds of assorted sins: India is attacked for not signing the nuclear proliferation treaty; Iran is threatened for following a nuclear policy; Iraq was blown up for possessing nuclear arms it never possessed; China and Russia are criticised for persecuting their dissidents; Serbs and African leaders are tried for war crimes.

Israel commits all these sins, but we hardly hear the international community making a noise about it. Israelis have secretly assembled 100 to 200 nuclear weapons. That makes it the biggest nuclear power in the world after the so-called Big Five ( US, Russia, UK, France and China). The Americans who want all kinds of guarantees and inspection rights to participate even in civilian nuclear power programmes in India actually gave clandestine help to Israel to build its arsenal. That help was channeled through apartheid South Africa with which, officially, the US was supposed to have no contacts. It was a march of multiple hypocrisies all the way.

Immunity and double standards were again in evidence when the Israelis used massive military force to attack multinational aid ships going from Turkey to the Gaza Strip. The world’s most persecuted population, huddled in the world’s most crowded strip of territory, has been suffering Israeli terror for decades. According to UN estimates 70 percent of Gazans live on less than one dollar a day, 60 percent have no daily access to water. Hundreds have died for want of medicine.

The ships were carrying water purification systems, wheelchairs, construction materials and so on. Admittedly, there were anti-Israeli and perhaps even jehadi-supporting activists among the 700 passengers on board. But there were also scientists and journalists and an archbishop and three German MPs. There were citizens from the US, UK, Australia, Sweden, Greece, Canada, Belgium, Ireland. These were the people who were attacked by machinegun-wielding Israeli commandos who dropped down from helicopters. Some of the commandos were attacked as they slithered down the rope. Israel cited this to describe the commando attack as “self-defence”.

Israel gets away with international criminal activity on one strength, and one strength alone: American support. Obama, aware of this, had made promises of an even-handed approach to Israel. But that was during his glory days of campaigning. In the less-than-glory days of power, he seems to have understood that the American Goliath is slave to the Israeli David. The Jewish lobby is so powerful in America that no President can ignore it and survive. The Jewish lobby has the power to paralyse American economy.

The current Prime Minister of Israel happens to be the most rigidly hawkish in Israeli history. Benjamin Netanyahu, son of a Zionist extremist, considers himself a professional patriot and defender of Jews. He believes, like many of his countrymen, that Jews are God’s chosen children.

It is also useful to remember that the concept of using terrorism as a political weapon originated with Jews when they started the Zealot Movement (hence the term) against Roman occupiers in the 7th century. It grew steadily into modern times when, in 1946, the early Zionists bombed the famous King David Hotel in Jerusalem where the British administration had its headquarters.

Netanyahu’s Israel can only be a rogue state – and proudly so. World condemnation will mean nothing to it. This can only lead to more terrorism by the terrorised and still more terrorism by immunised state terrorists. One day one patriotic terrorist will use a nuclear bomb. Then?