Wednesday, July 30, 2008

An open letter to Omar Abdullah

An open letter to Omar Abdullah from T. Jayaraman, Mumbai.

Dear Mr. Omar Abdullah,

Now that the sound of the cheers and the applause following your speech in the Lok Sabha on the occasion of the trust vote a few days ago must have stopped ringing in your ears, I would like to draw your attention to some questions regarding our practice of secularism and the conduct of our foreign policy.

Your staunch defense of the nuclear deal ``as an Indian and a Muslim'' has undoubtedly endeared you to our pro-nuclear deal media. It is undoubtedly correct that we must all conceive of our foreign policy as ``Indians'' and not as part of any particular religious or other identity that we may have. However, when the conduct of the nation's foreign policy itself bears the clear stamp of the weakening commitment to secularism in important sections of our political class, bureaucracy and civil society then it becomes unclear to many ordinary citizens, such as myself, whether your stirring speech was indeed appropriate for the occasion.

However, as you most manfully confessed in Parliament, even at the height of the Gujarat riots the subtlety of the link between these riots and the politics of the leading party of the then ruling coalition seems to have escaped your watchful commitment to secularism. So this other connection between our weakening commitment to secularism and our foreign policy must undoubtedly be even more surprising to you and deserves to be explained briefly.

You will undoubtedly recall that the BJP-led NDA alliance began its rule in 1998 with the Pokhran nuclear tests. The tests were promptly followed by considerable sabre-rattling vis-a-vis Pakistan exemplified by Shri Advani's comment that Pakistan should now be conscious of the changed geo-political realities of the situation. In that remarkable statement of May 18, 1998, Shri Advani linked the tests to the Kashmir issue and claimed that the ``decisive step to become a nuclear weapons state has brought about a qualitatively new stage in Indo-Pak relations, particularly in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem.'' Regrettably Pakistan refused to take the hint and continued on to its own nuclear tests shortly thereafter. The slippery slope on to which Indo-Pak relations were thrust by these tests culminated in the Kargil conflict of 1999, showing how hollow was Shri Vajpayee's claim that nuclear weapons were ``weapons of peace.'' Nuclear threats continued to be exchanged with Pakistan during and after the Kargil conflict through the years of NDA rule. You will undoubtedly appreciate that these threats also boded little good for Kashmir as a prospective theater of nuclear war.

Simultaneously after the tests the VHP/RSS combine took to the streets hailing the tests as the arrival of a new and resurgent India, taking as a cue Shri Vajpayee's claim that the ``tests had given ...India shakti.'' The VHP toured the country with handfuls of the dirt from the soil of Pokhran to celebrate
the tests. The RSS mouthpiece Organiser hailed the tests in a special May 17, 1998 issue with a collection of hawkish and virulently anti-China and anti-Pakistan articles that the bomb had to be made to ``tame Pakistan'' and teach China a lesson.

That these remarks were not simply those of an extremist fringe was made clear by Prime Minister Vajpayee's letter to Bill Clinton, then President of the United States, claiming that the tests were necessary to deal with a ``deteriorating security environment'' due to an ``overt nuclear weapons state on our borders''. Further the letter speaks of the ``atmosphere of distrust'' with this state that ``persists mainly due to an unresolved border problem''. And further linking Pakistan to this obvious reference to
China, the letter adds, ``that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state.''

If this ill-timed letter were not alone enough evidence, the long record of negotiations between Shri Jaswant Singh and the U. S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott made it clear that the tests were less about India's nuclear independence and more, much more, about aligning at the earliest with the world's foremost superpower.

I am sure you would agree that this was not the common variety of anti-Pakistan or anti-China sentiment with which we are all familiar but had a special character to it from the fact that it was promoted by the BJP.

We may also remind ourselves that these moves in foreign policy went hand-in-hand with a virulent communal agenda in domestic politics. The tirade against conversion was directly responsible for the tragic death of Staines and his sons in Orissa, the high-point of a series of attacks on Christian communities and their places of worship. The communal agenda was thrust everywhere from our children's textbooks to the world of art and letters. Gujarat was merely the high-point of a broad communal campaign.

The other dramatic turn in India's foreign policy was a new opening to Israel, setting aside the long-standing ties between our country and the people of Palestine and West Asia. Israel today is the arch-exemplar of a fundamentalist state in its unremitting pursuit of its Zionist aims. Shri Brajesh Mishra, one of the key figures of the BJP's foreign policy, was feted by Jewish/Zionist groups in the United States as the architect of this new policy. This turn undoubtedly also pleased the political establishment in the United States no end, since secular, non-aligned India's opposition to Zionism had long been a thorn in the side of their foreign policy.

The brand-new new foreign policy that began to emerge in the years of BJP-rule would be inexplicable if we did not recall the writings of the late Guru Golwalkar . In a 1965 essay titled ``Welcome bigger war'' in his book, ``Bunch of Thoughts'' the Guru characterised China as ``the one common menace to entire humanity'' and looked forward to a superpower and global alliance, including India, the United States (and even the then Soviet Union) to destroy it. For Golwalkar the building of a nuclear bomb was an essential requirement for the conduct of India's foreign and defence policy. This campaign for the nuclear bomb and a corresponding shift in India's foreign policy has long been an ardent desire of the RSS/Jan Sangh combine, articulated at every turn and subsequently carried over to the policy of the newly-formed BJP. If the new foreign policy attracted many non-communal elements too in our nation's corridors of power, I would humbly submit that it points not to the secular nature of the new policy but the extent to which our establishment was willing to sacrifice secularism for this new pursuit of aligning with the United States to become its gendarme in South Asia.

The Islamophobic campaign launched by President George W. Bush after 9/11 clearly came as a welcome relief to the NDA government that had made little headway in its negotiations with Bill Clinton. Bush's call for a `` War on Terror,'' that has repeatedly and indiscriminately targeted the innocent (predominantly of the Islamic faith) and killed far more innocents than the few terrorists it has managed to seize or kill, fell on receptive ears in our country's leadership. The violence of Gujarat drew little condemnation from the United States that has been quick to condemn any perceived violation of the democratic rights of the poor millions of the Third World (including that of the followers of Islam in Kosovo).

It is this foreign and nuclear policy that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's regime inherited. But despite its protestations of secularism, this regime has consistently refused to recognize the anti-secular roots of its inheritance and has maintained a continuity of policy with the former regime. Dr. Manmohan Singh said it all with his cry `` I have completed what you had begun'' as he greeted Shri Vajpayee at the briefing given to the former Prime Minister on the 123 agreement last year.

I would respectfully submit to you that this connection has not been lost on the Muslim masses in our country. They are not so naïve as to think that the deal per se is anti-Muslim. Nor are they naive enough not to know that solving the problems food, health and livelihood are the key to ending the poverty of all, Muslim or non-Muslim. But the large numbers of Muslims who turned out for the protest rallies on the occasion of the Bush visit in 2006, demonstrated unmistakably that they percieved the anti-secular roots of the UPA's foreign policy when it came to India's relations with the United States and the nuclear deal.

In the event, your renewed commitment to secularism may perhaps be of some value. You could begin by campaigning against the judgement of the Gujarat court that has refused to return the young boy to his parents, who were separated from him at the height of one of worst incidents in the infamous Gujarat riots. Many would be thankful if you would use your new-found influence with the UPA government to persuade them to greater action on the recommendations of the Srikrishna Commission so that they may prosecute at least some of your erstwhile NDA colleagues with the same enthusiasm that has been shown on the Mumbai blasts case. It would be of value if you and your party were to firmly take a stance against the demand for the trifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir on religious lines that has emerged once more in the wake of the Amarnath land agitation.

In the meanwhile, the drama of the nuclear deal will continue to play itself out. I am also sure you will have the opportunity to see the claims of nuclear power providing electricity every rural household tested against reality just as the claims regarding power supply for Maharashtra from the Dabhol power project were tested within a very short time.

I would be grateful if you would see it fit to forward this letter to Shri Sachin Pilot, Shri Manavendra Singh, Shri Jyotiraditya Scindia and others, all young leaders with a strong political lineage, which as our media has made clear is the indispensable proof of competence, indeed excellence, in the political arena. They too in similar fashion might have misunderstood the millions who protested against George Bush two years ago and still harbour the same sentiments. Who knows, all of you together might even confess, a few years hence, that you made a grave mistake today, just as you personally had made one in the years of NDA rule.

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