India and the world need Kashmir resolved

SRINAGAR, India // Writing last week in a popular Indian newsweekly, Michael Scheuer, a former CIA counter-terrorism chief, warned India against “doing an America” following the Mumbai attack. He advised New Delhi to be firm with Pakistan, take responsibility and turn northwards.

“The Kashmir issue clearly incites Pakistani and Indian Islamists, as well as those associated with or inspired by al Qa’eda,” Mr Scheuer wrote. “Whether those Islamists are right or wrong is irrelevant. India’s positions on and actions in Kashmir motivates them.”

Since its disputed accession to India in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars over this predominantly Muslim region of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. A bloody insurgency against Indian rule began in 1989, leading to more than 60,000 dead yet little progress regarding the territorial tug-of-war.

After the Mumbai attacks, analysts and observers from Washington to Waziristan have suggested ways to cut the Gordian knot that both binds and repels India and Pakistan. Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist group and the prime suspect in the Mumbai attacks, sprung from the Kashmir dispute, along with about a dozen militant groups – a handful of which the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies have armed as part of a death-by-a-thousand-cuts policy against India.

Some advisers to US president-elect Barack Obama argue that solving Kashmir will help solve Pakistani terrorism. Others warn against such simplistic reasoning. But Mr Scheuer distills the point down to its essence: India’s stance in Kashmir incites Islamist terrorists. Their al Qa’eda-style insurrection threatens to rock the foundations of the Indian state, to topple Pakistan and Afghanistan and endanger western targets as well.

If the world’s terrorism nexus is Pakistan, its roots lie in this lush, war-torn Himalayan valley, which may be more ripe for resolution than at any moment in recent memory. Violence has plummeted, dropping steadily every year since 2001. Although still only a trickle, travel and trade between the two sides of Kashmir – Indian and Pakistani – have further reduced tensions. And last summer, mass pro-freedom marches outlined a new movement of Gandhian non-violence, less hard line and perhaps open to dialogue.

Finally, over the past month Kashmiris have turned out impressively for state assembly elections – double, even triple the 2002 turnout in some districts – suggesting that many have moved beyond their tired separatist leadership and are amenable to a lesser, more India-friendly form of freedom.

Further afield the outlook is also bright. Both houses of the US Congress passed resolutions urging Pakistan to root out extremist groups and prevent its territory from being used to launch attacks. The UN Security Council has banned the Lashkar front, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and is applying strong pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorism. And the incoming Obama administration has hinted at a regional approach to Afghanistan that will include resolving Kashmir as a crucial element of ensuring Pakistani military support.

India could use this domestic and international consensus as leverage to pressure Pakistan – not only to root out terrorism, but to hack at the roots of regional terrorism by moving towards a resolution on Kashmir. Yet presented with this golden opportunity, India has buried its head in the sand.

“The attack on Mumbai has nothing to do with India-Pakistan relations or with Kashmir,” the Indian foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, said at a press conference in Srinagar last week.

As the dispute’s more powerful party, India has long been satisfied with the status quo and has therefore seen little reason to allow international intervention or to negotiate openly with Pakistan. But after the devastating attack on Mumbai, the Indian state must realize that the Kashmir dispute is no longer a stable, self-serving stalemate but a malignant tumor. Both parties now have an urgent interest in finding a resolution; India and its people will gain security, as will Pakistan and the world beyond.

Led by Asif Ali Zardari, the president, Pakistan’s democratic government has acknowledged that the greatest threat to its integrity is not India but locally based, state-supported terrorism outfits. The jailing of dozens of alleged terrorists and a ban on Jamaat-ud-Dawa is a good start. But the real test will be the Pakistani military, which has controlled the levers of power and wielded terrorism as a proxy for decades. Its leadership may be getting the message as well.

“The civilian and military leadership has to do some serious introspection about the cost-benefit ratio of these outdated and failed policies,” Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant-general in the Pakistan army, wrote in the Daily Times last week.

“Has Pakistan come any closer to achieving its objectives in Jammu and Kashmir by supporting militancy and proxies?” he asked. “The best option for Pakistan is to strictly confine its support to the Kashmir cause to the political and diplomatic domain.”

Kashmiris widely cheered the election of Mr Obama as the next US president, perhaps with good reason. At the urging of advisers like Mr Scheuer and a soon-to-be-published report from Gen David Petreaus, the architect of the Iraqi surge now overseeing the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is likely to prod India and Pakistan to come to the negotiating table on Kashmir – with or without international assistance. Considering the grave threat exposed by the Mumbai attack and the golden opportunity before it, New Delhi would be wise to heed the call.

-- published Dec 21 in The National, www.thenational.ae.


Kashmiris Hope for Christmas Poll Gift

Srinigar // Waiting for Santa Claus will be particularly excruciating for Kashmiris this year.

After Wednesday’s vote, Kashmir has gone to the polls six times since mid-November, and six times they have turned out impressively. The seventh and final vote – on Christmas Eve here in the state’s winter capital – will put a new state government in place, bring an unsettled populace into focus and perhaps put an end to a virulent yet non-violent pro-freedom movement that seemed to trouble New Delhi more than militancy.

Since a bloody insurgency against Indian rule began in 1989, more than 60,000 have died in this landlocked and predominantly Muslim region of Jammu and Kashmir state. Violence has slowed in recent years as more than half a million Indian troops have imposed New Delhi’s will.

Yet when blockaded roads threatened local traders during a land row late last summer, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris thronged the streets in a furious mass catharsis – releasing almost two decades of frustration and rage with chanting, dancing and the crying of pro-freedom slogans.

The central government banned the marches, beefed up security and called for snap elections. Although separatists say voting strengthens New Delhi’s hand, turnout in the early phases of polling hit nearly 70 per cent in some districts and has remained high despite daytime curfews, occasional police clashes and ubiquitous checkpoints on polling days.

The ground has shifted in Kashmir, but exactly how remains unclear.

“Everything has changed,” said Malik Sajad, 21, a student and political cartoonist for the valley’s leading daily newspaper. “That time you had people on the road. Now there are troops, and people are either inside or getting beat – I feel my childhood days are returned.”

Some of the 1990s danger has returned – security forces killed two commanders of militant group Hizb-ul-Mujihadeen in a shoot-out on Wednesday – even as voters went to the polls. In embracing Indian democracy and turning against what so many demanded so vocally so recently, have Kashmiris betrayed themselves?

“People going back and forth, protesting and voting, is not unprecedented in Kashmir,” said Zarief Ahmad Shah, a political analyst and retired government servant, citing historical antecedents in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Pointing to the continued presence of hundreds of thousands of Indian troops and the poor strategies of the separatist leaders, he said: “People are confused, not sure of what they want.”

Individuals seemed sure during Wednesday’s polling, as south Kashmir’s hilly Anantnag district saw 57 per cent turnout in a chilly drizzle. Kashmiris as a group, however, did not.

“We don’t have schools, good roads or a hospital, and there is unemployment,” said Khaleda Sheikh, a 37-year-old mother of two, while waiting to vote in the riverside village of Kashiteng Zarpara. “The government will help us.”

At a polling place a few kilometres away in the village of Kanalwan, a group of men had another perspective.

“We are voting so that they solve the Kashmir issue,” 58-year-old farmer Haji Mohammed Abdullah Shah said to murmurs of approval. “All this other stuff – roads, education, jobs – that’s nothing. This is about solving Kashmir.”

Queueing to vote nearby, Ghulam Nabi Karchoo explained. “There are several types of azaadi,” said the 45-year-old father of four, using the local word for independence. “There’s complete independence, but there’s also the ability to move freely, to cross borders and not deal with so much security.”

Others believe the quest for azaadi must remain pure. Outside a polling station in Anantnag, the district capital, several dozen men gathered to protest the elections.

“People in the government are puppets, and the strings are in Delhi,” said Mohammed Asim, 26, a computer engineer sporting sunglasses, a long beard and a black, leather jacket. He was surrounded by a group of agitated men. Some had voted, but they broke into anti-India chants at the slightest urging.

“These people who are voting – they don’t realise what they are doing,” said Mr Asim, a supporter of hard-line separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. “Voting gives India the power to say we are with them.”

The accuracy of that stance will be tested with the final vote in Srinagar, which represents a fifth of the valley’s five million population. Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, a key separatist politician and religious leader, has called for a boycott and pro-freedom march.

Shops will be shut, streets will be silent and security forces will patrol the city. Turn out is expected to be low, between 15 per cent and 30 per cent.

“The results of these elections don’t mean anything,” said Mr. Shah, the political analyst. Their apparent success, however, “is a big blow for separatists”, he said.

“If people lose heart, India has won.”

The city’s urbane youth are aware of greater international scrutiny post-Mumbai; familiar with popular YouTube videos such as “Bleeding India”, which depicts the deaths of several young Kashmiris at the hands of security forces; and frustrated by restrictive government dictates, such as a ban on text messaging, ongoing since July.

They were also at the head of the nonviolent campaign for self-determination this year.

“I don’t think I will vote because there is nobody who can represent us,” said Mr Sajad, the cartoonist. “I don’t think the protests are over. They will be over only when the government starts listening.”

For many, such meaningful dialogue is a long way off.

“The protests sent the message that we will accept nothing less than independence,” said Mr Asim, the Anantnag computer engineer.

“Are we willing to embrace violence again? We don’t want to, but if that’s the only way.”

Mr Asim raised his eyebrows. The men around him began nodding their heads.

-- published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Dec 19.

Ideals collide in Kashmiri elections

Patelbagh, India
// Asadullah Bhat is no stranger to polls, but he is not sure why he keeps coming back.

“My wishes have not been met, change has not taken place,” the 45-year-old paddy farmer said while waiting to vote for the seventh time in 25 years, all in this village a few dozen kilometres south-west of Srinagar. “But we have to vote because the government will be formed either way – so I keep hoping.”

Voters in parts of Kashmir went to the polls amid heavy security on Saturday in the fifth phase of staggered elections to choose the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly. Protests and deadly violence flared and accusations of vote-rigging flew as the people of this war-torn Himalayan valley continued their conflicted duet with Indian democracy.

The predominantly Muslim region has been gripped by conflict since 1989 when separatists took up the gun against India. About 60,000 have died and although violence has slowed in recent years, separatists see elections as a show of fealty towards New Delhi.

Yet turnout in the early phases of polling had reached nearly 70 per cent in some districts. Though numbers have begun to droop as voting moves into less India-friendly regions, Saturday’s results – nearly 50 per cent turnout in two Kashmir districts – represent significant increases from the previous elections in 2002.

Observers see an emerging line of thinking that separates independence from day-to-day governance.

“Why not delink voting from azaadi?” said Shabir Hussain, editor and publisher of a local daily, Kashmir Newsline, using the Urdu word for independence. “Unless we make ourselves a party to these elections, India will continue to thrust jokers and tricksters upon us. We have to consider what kind of damage we are doing to ourselves.”

That damage has been visible throughout the elections — in beefed up security across the valley, in empty streets every Friday and every polling day as bands of Indian troops enforce daytime curfews and in violent flashes from police, who beat up a handful of journalists attempting to cover an anti-election rally on the previous day of polling, Dec 7.

Kashmir election days rarely pass without trouble. On Saturday an early morning protest in Koil village escalated to stone throwing, prodding security forces to open fire – killing a 21-year-old student and injuring two others.

Yet thousands of Kashmiris stood in slow moving lines under cloudy skies to make their mark. Their differing voices revealed the complexity of Kashmir.

Saba Settar, 18, was idealistic about her first vote. “I hope I can choose a candidate who will solve our problems,” said the Pampore resident.

Ms Settar placed education before independence, saying “of first importance is our future”.

Naseer Ahmad, 22, a university student, participated in the mass anti-India protests this year but saw no contradiction in voting.

“I support independence first, but I also vote,” he said, queuing up with friends in Pampore. “We can’t let Jammu get all the government attention.”

In Patelbagh village, Abdul Rahim Yattoo, 70, a farmer, seemed to contradict himself.

“I don’t want all our men that have been killed in the last 20 years to have died in vain, so I want azaadi,” he said. “But I’m happy with India, so I’m voting.”

In traditionally separatist Shopian and Tral, locals are less happy. Several dozen young men chant anti-India slogans outside a Shopian town polling place. Inside, a Congress party poll minder was roughly ejected after accusing an opponent of helping burqa-wearing women to vote twice.

In the village of Nikas, near Shopian, villagers said soldiers had come the previous night and urged them to visit the polls. By noon Saturday voting stood at 12 per cent.

“This is democracy, we have the right to boycott,” said Arshad Hussain, a Nikas resident who did not vote. The 28-year-old is unemployed despite a master’s degree in history from Kashmir University. “India is taking only our blood, not giving anything in return.”

Yesterday, Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, spoke of giving back at a Congress party campaign rally near Shangas, in Anantnag district, which will vote on Wednesday. He announced a reconstruction programme of 26 billion Indian rupees (Dh1.97bn), along with planned power projects, roads and colleges.

“Autonomy and self-rule is also possible if the Congress is brought back to power,” he told a crowd of less than 1,000 supporters. Mr Singh congratulated Kashmir for its participation in the elections, saying “this proves that you have full faith in democracy”.

Mr Hussain, the Nikas resident, foresaw a dark future. “People are not joining together, taking one line,” he said. “Sometime they are with India, sometime azaadi.”

Mr Bhat, the Patelbagh paddy farmer, may have hit on why.

“The mainstream politicians cheat people and among the separatists there are no good leaders,” he said. “[Politicians’] children are studying in another country, in the US, but look at ours — they have no education, no future. What kind of leadership is that?”

-- published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Dec 15.


Political revamp far off despite bloodshed

They could not even let the blood dry.

Indian officials’ post-Mumbai opportunism and finger-pointing began while lives remained in danger, and has continued long after. They have bickered, bumbled and placed blame, but have done very little of what they are paid to do: lead.

As commandos prepared for a final assault on the Oberoi Hotel, Narendra Modi, who is the Gujarat chief minister and a divisive, charismatic national figure for the opposition BJP, offered 10 million rupees compensation to the family of the Mumbai antiterror squad leader Hemant Karkare, who was killed in the attack. The family rejected the offer, perhaps because the previous week Mr Modi had verbally abused Karkare’s squad for implicating Hindu nationalists in a previous bomb attack.

That same day, the BJP ran a political advertisement on the front page of the Hindustan Times (national parliamentary elections are scheduled for early next year). Immediately below an editorial calling for political unity, the blood-splattered ad blamed the “brutal terrorist attacks” on a “weak and incapable government."

Hours after terrorists were finally evicted from the rooms of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, took a celebrity film director on an official visit to the hotel. “Many people come to such places,” he said. Such nonchalance apparently trickles down. Of the assault, Mr Deshmukh’s deputy, R R Patil, said, “small incidents like this do happen in big cities”.

But the impropriety may have peaked with V S Achuthananthan, the chief minister of Kerala, who was turned away when he tried to offer condolences at the home of a commando killed in the attack. “Had it not been a martyr’s house,” he said later, “not even a dog would have gone there.”

For Ramachandra Guha, historian and author of India After Gandhi, this has not been a proud moment for India. “There’s just no excuse for this shameful, vulgar behaviour,” he said.

“It’s a consequence of the weakness and shortsightedness of Indian politicians. There’s also a larger systemic cause, this fragmented polity, wherein every coalition is extremely vulnerable and looking at short-term survival as opposed to the efficacy of security, education, health policy or anything else.”

Indeed, the leadership in New Delhi has fared little better. The Mumbai reaction speech by Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, conveyed neither confidence nor conviction. And after the resignation of Shivraj Patil, the home minister, who as terror attacks piled up in recent months looked more and more like a deer in headlights, P Chidambaram, the finance minister, stepped into the post.

Mr Singh, an economist himself, temporarily assumed the finance portfolio – leaving India without a full-time finance minister during the 21st century’s first global financial crisis.

Combined with the jaw-dropping security and intelligence failures that led to the assault, the inability of any public leader to adequately frame the nation’s roiling mix of anger, fear, outrage and sorrow has revealed the fragility of the Indian state. Urban, informed Indians have responded to the leadership vacuum with a groundswell of venom.

In thousands of online forums and viral text messages, young Indians are denouncing their opportunistic, deceitful and inept politicians. An angry, anti-politician demonstration outside the Taj hotel attracted nearly 20,000 Mumbaikars on Wednesday – a huge number for the normally laissez-faire metropolis.

Leading columnists, well-known authors and Bollywood stars are prodding Indians to be accountable and ask the same of their leaders. Others have urged people to refrain from voting or to stop paying taxes. Perversely, the anger seems directed more towards politicians than terrorists. Perhaps because the Mumbai assault targeted not just foreigners but the Indian upper class, who were suddenly moved to act.

“All the horror and outrage is because it’s the Taj, a symbol of aspiration for a very long time,” Mr Guha said. India’s poor suffer similar upheavals practically every day.

The death toll from a cyclone that hit the Tamil Nadu coast on the first full day terror gripped Mumbai, for instance, has passed 180 – making it more deadly than the terror attack. The storm has also displaced nearly 2.5 million, yet elicited barely a whimper from either the media or the newly activist urbanites.

So will this vague, narrow-minded rage result in a political reckoning? Some early signs are encouraging.

Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir have each held state elections since the Mumbai assault, and all recorded higher than average voter turnout.

The Association for Democratic Reforms, a network of 1,200 democracy advocate organisations across the country, is pushing to include a “none of the above” option on ballots and pressing for the right to recall candidates.

Yet if crying for change is no silver bullet, neither is removing politicians, as it is impossible to ensure the rise of effective successors. For now, the focus should be on improving security, and the creation of a central intelligence agency for terrorism based on the model of the US Department of Homeland Security is a good first step.

The next is depoliticising a hoary security system in which senior appointments are made by politicians. “In that kind of situation, where the security apparatus is always looking to please political masters, you cannot have efficient functioning,” Mr Guha said.

Grossly incompetent intelligence and security institutions; flailing, venal, and morally questionable leadership; and a populace separated by yawning divisions of income and geography: is India the world’s largest democracy or its biggest banana republic?

“Because India is so diverse and complicated it will always be vulnerable to conflict and attacks of this kind,” Mr Guha said. “This will not lead to the collapse of Indian democracy. We will stumble along, hopefully we will learn something and move on.”

--- ran in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Dec 7.


'It's an Attack on Everything'

As the most audacious terrorist attack in Indian history wound down, David Lepeska, Foreign Correspondent, met with Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi-based think tank that studies regional terrorism and insurgency. Mr Sahni is also the executive editor of Faultlines, an Indian quarterly, and writes frequently about South Asian conflict and Indian security dilemmas. In his offices not far from the seat of Indian power, Mr Sahni spoke about the implications of the Mumbai assault, the suspected involvement of Pakistan and the outlook for counter-terrorism in India.

Q: Many are calling this India’s September 11. Your thoughts?

A: The entire approach to terrorism in India is sensationalist and tragically transient. Somebody called Mumbai the “soul of India”. Then I would like to say that the soul of India has been attacked again and again and again. What’s the big deal? We did nothing last time. The attacks in 1993 and 2006 both had greater numbers killed. Why does this become September 11? I don’t see that.

This was a meticulously planned operation involving dozens of operatives and lengthy planning – and it came two months after a known terrorist group warned authorities of an attack on Mumbai. Yet Indian intelligence found no clues, no warning signs?

This is not at all surprising. We have no intelligence capacity. Everybody believes the Intelligence Bureau is some million-armed octopus with a presence everywhere in this country. The reality of IB is that it has 3,500 intelligence gatherers across the country. The force dedicated to counter-terrorism is about 200 personnel – this in a country of 1.2 billion. Considering that, I am amazed we are not blown up more often.

Rate the security response to this attack.

I see exemplary courage, exemplary leadership and exemplary dedication to duty, in everybody who responded from the security forces. I see people who are given virtually nothing to fight with and putting everything they have into the fight, with many losing their lives.

And yet finally seven hours after the beginning of the incident the so-called elite counter-terrorism force arrives. That is an absolute structural failure. A terrorism operation can only be contained, in terms of its potential, in the first few minutes, which means the first respondents have to be equipped, trained and capable of if not neutralising than at least containing the terrorists. If the first batch of police had come and immediately engaged with the terrorist they probably would have been able in both of these hotels to isolate the terrorists in small corners of the hotel and minimise the damage.

Many are blaming the police for the extent of the damage and the protraction of the assault.

Look, we are among the most under-policed countries in the world. We have a primitive police force, an early 20th century force trying to tackle a 21st century scourge. They’re just not trained, they’re not equipped. I could be lugging a weapon of whatever efficacy, for 10 years, without having the opportunity to use it. And then suddenly I am confronted with terrorists, well-trained, well-equipped, capable of blowing the crap out of me – and I barely know how to hold my gun straight. That is the state of Indian policing.

The reality is that nobody in India, no political party, wants a professional police force.

What do you mean by that?

During the ongoing investigations into the Malegaon blasts [in which Hindu nationalists have been arrested and charged], all the parties related to the Hindu right have been consistently attacking the very people who have laid down their lives in this Mumbai encounter. They have vilified them, they have denigrated them, they have abused them, they have accused them of torture, with the fabrication of case.

Why? Because they are trying to protect certain accused.

Every political party in this country wants to make sure the police investigates only what it wants them to investigate. They do not want an efficient, independent, professional police force. They want to use the police as their partisan thugs. Just a tool, and not a tool for the management of law and order, its declared purpose, but a tool for my political party.

So what will it take to change the mindset?

We have a problem in this country. We have an electorate that is more or less illiterate and ignorant. We have fed the world nonsense about the natural and instinctive wisdom of the people, but the people have no wisdom. They are a rabble and they are more easily led by caste or communal mobilisation than on issues. Unless we are able through public action and the media to generate so much pressure on politicians that they begin to address these issues, the politician himself has shorter routes to power, he will take those.

Early signs point to Pakistan-based Lashkar-i-Taiba, do you agree?

Absolutely. And if there is an Indian role it will be the Students Islamic Movement of India, in a secondary role. I do not see Simi having achieved the capacities to execute an operation of this nature independently.

What is their intent, their goal with this audacious attack?

It’s an attack on everything. It’s an attack to weaken India where you can. And if we can’t weaken India, never mind, just kill as many people as you can. It’s part of a larger campaign that is pan-Islamist. And the second, underlying motivation is Pakistan’s strategic interests. And these have been married into an ideological mobilisation that instrumentalises Islamism.

Is the targeting of foreigners in India a new twist?

As long as local Indian cadres with comparatively local objectives were involved, they were hitting local targets. As they become part, more and more, of the pan-Islamist movement, and their exposure to al Qa’eda ideology becomes deeper and deeper – they start looking for the wider target.

So if it is traced back to Lashkar, how will this affect Indo-Pak relations?

Not at all.

Same old, same old?

Same old, same old. What’s new?

Lashkar’s 2001 attack on the Indian parliament certainly changed Indo-Pak relations [India and Pakistan went to the brink of war].

No country has ever argued that a strong and stable enemy is in its interests. India has now argued that. The entire leadership – the military leadership of this country – is convinced that a strong and stable Pakistan is in our interests, even if Pakistan remains hostile. I have never come across greater and more entrenched stupidity.
You believe the leadership of Pakistan is at the very least aware of these attacks?

Absolutely, without question.

President (Asif Ali) Zardari, Prime Minister (Yusaf Raza) Gilani?

As far as I’m concerned there is only one leadership in Pakistan, that’s the military leadership. I don’t care who’s in government. Democracy makes no difference, elections make no difference, the people in charge are the people with the guns.

Might those people start attacking this problem?

I don’t see the necessary ideological or strategic shift. Everyone in the Pakistan army still believes that India is its principle enemy. And the only instrument they have for India’s containment is terrorism. And the only instrument they have for terrorist mobilisation against India is extremist Islam. So the sheer logic of their belief systems and their strategic calculations means they cannot abandon terrorism, either against India or against Afghanistan.

What about input from foreign sources – Scotland Yard, for instance, the FBI?

No one can come and fight India’s wars. I’m not saying we have nothing to learn, but I have found the ignorance of western experts to be terrifying. They come here and say: ‘Why don’t you do this?’ I say: ‘Have you seen our police stations in India?’ I know that I cannot have a Scotland Yard or Federal Bureau of Investigation here. I would have a parody of the FBI here.

We need to learn from western experience, but western expertise cannot solve our problems.

So India must deal with terrorist attacks for some time to come?

Even if the leadership changes tomorrow, in its intent and orientation, if we begin to fight this within the existing apparatus of government it will take decades. If we have a leadership that starts to fight this on a war footing it will still take years. You don’t understand how complex it is, we see it from the inside and it frightens us.

-- ran in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Dec 1.

Mumbai Assault Offers Second Chance To Go After Pak Terror

On a hazy December morning seven years ago, a boxy white Ambassador crashed through the outer gates of New Delhi’s Parliament House and slammed into the car of India’s vice president, fortuitously parked to block the building entrance. Five gunmen emerged and began spraying bullets towards the interior, where some of India’s highest-ranking elected leaders were assembled. After half an hour, the attackers had been shot dead by security men, but not before they had killed five policemen, a security guard and a gardener.

The next day, India demanded Pakistan clamp down on Lashkar-I-Taiba (Lit) and Jaish-I-Mohammed (JiM), two terrorist groups suspected in the attack. New Delhi demanded raids on safe houses, leaders captured and financing cut off. Pakistan stood firm, prodding India to deploy troops to its Kashmir and Punjab borders and inciting a tense nuclear stand-off. Fortunately, the parliament attack occurred shortly after September 11, enabling New Delhi to join forces with the United States, which was at the time also strong-arming Pakistan to address its internal terrorism problem.

Responding to the pressure, Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president at the time, banned Lit and JIM in Jan 2002 and vowed that Pakistani territory would not be used to launch cross-border terrorism. About 2,000 members of banned militant groups were rounded up, including Masood Azhar, the head of JIM. In March, US agents, aided by Pakistani intelligence, tracked down and captured an al Qa’eda commander, Abu Zubaydah. Several more raids in the ensuing days corralled more than 60 al Qa’eda suspects, nearly half of whom were foreign-born.

But India was soon distracted by domestic religious violence and the United States by Iraq, allowing Pakistan and the terrorist outfits to return to business as usual. Mr Azhar was released a few months after his capture. Lit and JiM shifted military operations to Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, where an ambiguous legal status means minimal governmental oversight. Within Pakistan proper, Lit continued to operate under its political wing, Jamaat-ud Dawa – whose Nov 2002 conclave attracted more than 100,000 people. Al Qa’eda regrouped in Pakistan’s remote, lawless tribal areas, gaining operational confidence along with the Taliban and the newly formed Pakistani Taliban.

The result? A rash of monstrous terrorist attacks within Pakistan, including the Dec 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the recent bombing of the Islamabad Marriott; a growing Taliban insurgency that threatens to topple Afghanistan’s toddler democracy; and, finally, a series of bombings across urban India that culminated in last week’s assault in Mumbai.

The Mumbai investigation is ongoing, but as in Dec 2001, early signs point to Lit and JiM. Both have a recent history of fedayeen attacks within India. Much like Mumbai, these are gun-spraying, kamikaze raids on government sites, police stations or other high-profile targets in which the attackers do not expect to survive.

Both, furthermore, have ties to the Pakistani establishment. Although direct links are hard to pin down, Pakistan’s military has for decades been training and supporting jihadi outfits – which its intelligence service, the ISI, then wields as proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The Pakistani government may not have had any knowledge of the Mumbai assault, but its links to terrorism mean it shoulders some responsibility.

So seven years on, here is a second chance to hack at the roots of international terrorism. Although unpopular at home, where enraged citizens are calling for action, India’s muted response is wise. Any act of aggression would play into the hands of terrorists, who seek to destabilise the region.

Refraining from brinkmanship will also increase international sympathy for India and support for its ensuing antiterrorism efforts – including the support and co-operation of terrorism’s greatest victim, Pakistan, whose president, Asif Ali Zardari, has sworn to act on good evidence. Finally, quick strikes are not the answer; rooting out terrorists in Pakistan will take years, not weeks or months.

Condeleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, arrives in New Delhi today. With Pakistan warning it would shift up to 100,000 troops away from its unstable western border to address a possible Indian threat to the east, the United States is worried about Afghanistan. New Delhi can use this leverage to its advantage and agree not to attack Pakistan or threaten to do so as long as Washington does the following:

a) Pushes for complete transparency from Pakistan, including zero tolerance of terrorist outfits from the Pakistani military and the handing over of terrorist bigwigs, such as JiT chief Hafiz Saeed, the JiM leader Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim, a mafia don who masterminded the 1993 Mumbai bombings that killed more than 250. With Ms Rice already urging Pakistan to follow wherever the investigation leads, this is little more than an extension of current US policy.

b) Embraces Indo-US counter-terrorism co-operation, involving sharing of all intelligence on Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan-based terrorist outfits. Terrorism is a global problem based in the South Asian region – only such co-operation will snuff it out.

In return, India should offer to open negotiations with Pakistan on Kashmir. This may seem like rewarding an alleged tormentor, yet neither Pakistan’s new government nor the majority of its people have any blood on their hands. Further, the broader regional vision of the US president-elect, Barack Obama, which sees a resolution on Kashmir as a key to regional peace, is looking prescient.

Apart from religious differences, Kashmir is the wellspring of Indo-Pak tension and distrust. Both Lit and JIM base their Indian antagonism in Kashmir. And in his 2007 book, Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam, Zahid Hussain, a veteran Pakistan journalist, had this to say about Pakistan’s broader internal terrorism problem: “As long as the Kashmiri issue remains unresolved, the government seems prepared to embrace it.”

While the sting of recent failure remains fresh, India, Pakistan and the United States must ensure this golden opportunity does not slip away.

-- ran in The National, www.thenational.ae, Dec 3.


Mumbai Attack's Success Could Spawn Copycats

NW DELHI // Wednesday’s night-time assault in Mumbai is just the latest and loudest in a steady drumbeat of mayhem across India.

Since September 11, the number of terror attacks in India has steadily increased, slowly at first but all in a rush of late: from 2002 to 2005, two attacks each year; in 2006, three attacks; in 2007, four attacks; and this year, at least seven major attacks since May, resulting in more than 300 killed and about 1,500 injured.

With the latest attack, two aspects stand out. The first is that a handful of young, presumably inexperienced men – in some of the grainy photos the attackers look like teenagers – were capable of executing such a sophisticated attack. Such brazenness underscores the lack of security in Mumbai and across much of India.

More worrisome still is the tactical shift the attacks suggest. Traditionally, Indian terror attacks spring from long-standing Hindu-Muslim tensions, which have been simmering and occasionally boiling over since before partition. Terrorism in India has for decades been little more than an increasingly deadly game of communal tit-for-tat. But this assault was aimed at foreigners.

American and British foreigners were targeted in particular, according to witnesses – and this may mark a reorientation away from religious animosity and towards a more diffuse, al Qa’eda-style anti-westernism.

Just look at the targets. The 137-year-old Leopold’s is one of Mumbai’s longest-running restaurants, and deservedly popular. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is the city’s largest train station and is frequented not just by locals but also foreign travellers who come to gaze in awe at the stunning Gothic exterior that has made the former Victoria Terminus a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Oberoi Trident hotel at Nariman Point is often filled with foreign business travellers. Senior executives from personal goods behemoth Unilever and members of European Parliament were among those holed up there on Wednesday night. Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, finally, is not only a world-class hotel popular with high-end tourists and businessmen, it is also an iconic landmark.

Considering the success of the attack – at least 101 killed, nearly 300 hurt, the Mumbai stock exchange shutdown, the city stopped in its tracks – it is likely to inspire more. Hundreds of locals, tourists and foreign businessmen have already begun recounting the horrors of what they assumed would be a pleasant night out.

As word spreads and the message sinks in, foreigners are sure to raise questions about visiting or doing business in India. What precautions should I take? Will I be safe? Are Indian authorities capable of protecting all of their monuments, lodgings and transport and business hubs?

So the pressure is on Delhi, where terrorism has become a political football, tossed back and forth depending on the latest news. New, harsher legislation is tabled but rarely passed, as blame is laid at the feet of one among a clutch of shadowy, acronym-bearing terror groups. The names hardly matter as little is ever revealed about their infrastructure and not a single conviction has been handed down.

After Wednesday, however, the concern might become less political and more sincere; India’s international reputation – among this budding power’s most prized possessions – is at stake. Despite a wealth of experience dealing with terrorism – after Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, India has suffered the most terrorist attacks in the world over the past two years – Indian authorities do not appear up to the task.

At 126 per 100,000 inhabitants, India’s police-to-population ratio is less than half that of most developed nations.

They respond slowly to attacks and do nothing to prevent them. Note how the Mumbai attackers, armed to the teeth with machine guns and hand grenades, were comfortable enough to calmly stroll around undisguised, controlling some of the most high-profile sites in the country for more than a dozen excruciating hours.

Further, these attacks came months after a known terrorist organisation had warned of a major attack on Mumbai. Even with ample time and motivated by clear intent, India’s intelligence personnel were unable to find any warning signs.

This may be the result of a severe shortage of information-gathering personnel, as found by a government-sponsored intelligence assessment in 2001 – the recommendations of which have yet to be implemented. But it is more than a matter of numbers. India’s police and intelligence forces suffer from inadequate training, equipment and technological support and a misguided mandate.

To combat the Maoist insurgency raging across the Indian heartland – which Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has repeatedly called India’s “greatest internal security threat” – the best and the brightest are often steeped in guerrilla warfare. Thus they remain unfamiliar with the slow, methodical cat-and-mouse of counter-terrorism.

Ajai Sahni, the director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a security think tank, think that combating India’s growing terror menace, “demands a transformation, a virtual reinvention, of how we look at and practise policing in this country”.

For the time being, India has little chance of preventing any future attacks, thus endangering its 1.2 billion citizens and millions of foreign guests – along with its rising international profile.

-- ran on page 1A of The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 28.


Somali Pirates Provoke Rising Power

Pirates have captured the public imagination for centuries, from the exploits of Blackbeard to Hollywood's jaunty Jack Sparrow and the hijacking of the oil tanker Sirius Star just last week. Brisk adventure and jaw-dropping booty – high seas thievery has long been easy to romanticize and far more difficult to denounce for the serious criminal activity it is.

So it goes for the Somali pirates that have wreaked increasing havoc in the Gulf of Aden and along the coast of Somalia in recent months. Piracy in the region has tripled this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, with over 120 attacks resulting in 40 hijackings, hundreds of hostages and at least seven dead crew. Estimates of Somali pirates' 2008 ransom income range from $30 million to $150 million.

A recent rash of brazen attacks has upped the ante. The Star hijacking took place a full 450 nautical miles from the coast of Kenya, meaning the pirates have put all area shipping routes at risk. Feeling the heat, major commercial shipping firms – including the world's largest carrier, Copenhagen-based AP Moller-Maersk – have begun diverting their liners away from the area, even though the alternative route around the Cape of Good Hope means millions in extra costs. Analysts estimate up to half a billion dollars lost shipping revenue this year.

Yet rapt news reports highlight the pirates' shiny mansions, advanced weaponry and high-tech gadgets. The international community appears baffled, responding with concern but minimal focus. Most agree that a long-term solution involving the establishment of a stable Somali government could take up to a decade. About short-term responses there has been no such consensus.

In a hastily arranged meeting with its neighbors, Egypt tried last week to forge a joint regional anti-piracy strategy, to no avail. The United Nations has authorized asset freezes and travel bans, despite the fact that Somali pirates live off cash ransoms dropped from helicopters. NATO has dispatched several warships, but like the US and the EU, points out that it has no jurisdiction to attack hijacked ships. The possibility of attacking pirate ships is rarely addressed.

The United States has been particularly feeble. Last week the US Navy told shipping companies to ensure their own security by hiring private contractors. Yet over three years ago Navy Admiral Michael Mullin, now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested a global security partnership to tackle maritime piracy and terrorism. The only result is the US-run Global Fleet Station, a pilot version of which was launched last year in the Caribbean, suggesting the US is either living in the past or watching too many movies.

Contrast all this with the confident clarity coming from India. Ever since Indian shipowners and seafarers' unions outlined the pirate threat – tens of thousands of Indian sailors and more than a third of India's sea trade pass through the region every year – Delhi has moved with laser-like focus. The navy dispatched a warship to the region in mid-October, and its personnel have in recent weeks foiled three attempted hijackings and sunk a pirate mother ship – the only nation to do so. Last week the Indian government authorized hot pursuit of pirate vessels, announced the imminent dispatch of three more warships and a reconnaissance aircraft and urged the United Nations to orchestrate joint action. The International Maritime Bureau has praised India's response and urged the international community to follow it.

India has been facing down piracy since making maritime history with the rescue of a Japanese vessel from pirate hands in the Arabian Sea in 1999. Indian frigates escorted US warships headed to Afghanistan through the pirate-infested Malacca Straits in 2002. And after the devastating 2004 tsunami as well as after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar earlier this year, Indian ships were first to deliver aid and relief supplies.

Yet last week's missions marked a sea change – the first time the Indian Navy had fired shots in anger so far from home. The world's largest democracy has long sought to transform its economic growth into military and diplomatic might, and is in the process of acquiring the hallmarks of a naval power – aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. These recent maneuvers, 1800 miles from its shores, represent a more aggressive stance, an effort to exert control over the waters from Djibouti to Indonesia – a stretch of open and not-so-open sea through which 20,000 commercial vessels and crucial regional energy supplies pass each year.

Paired with a successful moon landing earlier this month and the recently completed civilian nuclear deal with the US, India's anti-pirate aggression is the act of a rising world power seizing the opportunity on a flood-lit stage. And this new regional sheriff may be inspiring its neighbors. South Korea is hinting it will soon send a warship to the Horn. Japan, too, is considering sending navy vessels. And just last week, Coast Guard officers from 10 countries – including Russia, China and Korea – received anti-piracy lessons from Indian officers in the waters off Chennai.

The most oft-told pirate tale is that of Caesar's bloody revenge: the confident 25-year-old nobleman persuaded the Cilicians to double their ransom demand, which was duly paid; months later, after raising a navy, Caesar returned to capture and crucify all of his captors. Less familiar is what followed, as Cilician pirates tormented the Roman Empire for nearly a decade, until Roman military leader Pompey waged a fierce, months-long campaign to eradicate them.

Today's crisis in the Horn is not dissimilar, and will require much more than a single battle.

“The only solution I see is a coordinated effort by various naval forces,” said Fred Burton, analyst with Stratfor, a U.S.-based risk assessment agency. “The problem is that no single country wants to take the lead.”

In the past couple weeks India has done just that, but its Caesar-like, lone-wolf aggression will not end the threat. A UN Security Council draft resolution that calls upon capable navies to dispatch armed vessels and combat the menace would be a good first step. But whether the international community is ready to follow India's lead and take on Somali piracy with the seriousness it deserves remains to be seen.

-- edited version of this op-ed ran on page 1A of The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 24.


Indian Muslim Leaders Gather to Denounce Terrorism

Hyderabad// Fed up with being blamed for bomb blasts throughout the country, thousands of Indian Muslim leaders descended on this south Indian city to denounce terrorism and ban violence against innocents in the name of Islam.

“There is no relation whatsoever between Islam and terrorism; the two are poles apart,” reads the landmark fatwa signed by 6,000 clerics from across India. “Islam rejects all kinds of unjust violence … and does not allow it in any form.”

Organised by Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, which has more than 10 million members and a strong bond with the conservative Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband, the two-day conference culminated on Sunday evening with an open-air gathering of nearly 100,000 devotees. Among a clutch of strongly worded resolutions were calls for better integration of Muslims into Indian society, a law against religious violence, an end to the US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the creation of a Palestinian state.

But the focus was on putting terrorism in its place.

“By coming here we are extending our fight against terrorism,” said Maulana Mahmood Madani, leader of Jamiat and a member of the Indian parliament. “Because these terrorists are making a sustained effort to destabilise this country, we also have to make our effort in a sustained manner to contain this problem.”

Besides the failed and failing states of Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, over the past two years no country has experienced more terror-related incidents than India. Since May, a rash of co-ordinated bombings have killed more than 200 and injured nearly 1,000, with radical Muslim groups claiming responsibility for most of the attacks.

Indian Muslim organisations have begun a counter-offensive. Deoband issued an anti-terror fatwa in February, signed by three leading clerics. This weekend’s ratification of a similar resolution represents a near-consensus across the Indian ulama.

“This fatwa will slow down the terrorist activities,” said Dr N Ali Mandal, a signee and a cleric from the village of Rol in West Bengal. “It will also mean better understanding, better treatment of Muslims in India and hopefully beyond.”

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a Delhi-based security think tank, believed the resolution would hamper recruitment.

“The fatwa will have a great impact, but not a direct and immediate impact in terms of stopping the attacks,” Mr Sahni said. “When you have an alternative interpretation from the seat of authority, this automatically creates doubt – young, fringe radicals who still regard these muftis as their spiritual guides, those people will be forced to rethink their ideologies.”

Mr Sahni believed the fatwa would influence Pakistani Muslims as well. Others wonder whether it might reach further west, to Afghanistan, where the Taliban claim descendance from Deobandi religious thought.

“Afghanistan is a different country, a different political state – it is to the people there to accept or reject our resolutions,” said Mr Madani, acknowledging different interpretations of Islam. Yet he added: “Jihad is a fight against destructive aggression. Terrorism is itself aggression, destruction, so terrorism can never be jihad.”

Such pronouncements are of a piece with a new regional outspokenness against terrorism. For the past year, Saudi Arabia has been rehabilitating terrorists with lessons on proper and improper jihad. Jamiat is organising an anti-terror gathering of Muslim leaders from across South Asia for early 2009. This month, the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, another Indian Muslim organisation, will lead two simultaneous peace caravans across India to counter terrorism and religious animosity. And last month in Lahore, clerics from a handful of leading Pakistani Muslim groups issued their own fatwa, against suicide bombing and free interpretations of jihad.

“This is done at grave personal risk, as they make themselves potential targets,” Mr Sahni said. “Terrorists have usually been more unforgiving of Muslims who speak out against them.”

Indian Muslims – the world’s third largest Muslim population at 150 million – argue that they are often unfairly targeted.

“The perception of Islam and Muslims is the core issue,” Mr Madani, a charismatic speaker who brought the clerics to their feet, said later. “If we could deliver the message that Islam and Muslims have no relationship with terrorism, we believe this will have an impact on people, law agencies and the media.”

Recent events have aided their case: many security analysts are questioning the authenticity of an August shoot-out between police and alleged terrorists in Jamia Nagar, a Muslim Delhi neighbourhood; and the accused in the September bomb blasts in Malegoan, a city in the state of Maharashtra, are Hindu nationalists.

The Sunday evening finale of the largest Muslim conclave in India in nearly four years offered an Islam that was open-minded and peace-loving. Sitting cross-legged on mats under a cool, cloudless sky, reverent attendees shot videos, snapped photos and recorded speeches with mobile phones held aloft as banks of black loudspeakers boomed the words of various leaders – Muslim, Hindu and political – deep into the night.

“Islam and terrorism have been mixed together, and we have to de-link them,” said Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Hindu spiritual leader and founding director of the Art of Living. “In order to do that there must be unity, between Muslims and between all religious faiths.”

Mohammed Sharif, a Quran teacher from Nizamabad, felt the enormity of the moment. “This terror fatwa is for each and everyone’s benefit – it will help everyone if people stop doing such things,” he said. Mr Sharif rode seven hours on a bus with his 12-year-old son, Majed, to attend the gathering.

“He wanted to come see Hyderabad,” Mr Sharif said of his son. “With all of the great scholars here, I hope he learns something, too."

-- published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 11.

India's Divisive, Dark Ages Politics

A small independent film was banned from Mumbai theatres this week. Unremarkable in another place and time, “Deshdrohi” just happened to hit on the incendiary issue of Mumbai society today: migrant workers. Thus the release of this tale of a north Indian laborer trying to make it in the big city has been delayed for 60 days. “Some of the scenes in the film are such that they can provoke a law-and-order situation,” a police spokesperson said.

A roiling wave of xenophobia first welled here in February, when rising right-wing politician Raj Thackeray bashed workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – two poor, north Indian states – for taking all of Mumbai's taxi and auto-rickshaw driver jobs. Such work is for “sons of the soil,” he said, referring to speakers of Marathi, the local tongue. In the days that followed, local youths attacked immigrant drivers viciously, injuring dozens and killing two.

Thackeray continued his anti-outsider campaign and the wave swelled, cresting in late October when goons from his political party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or MNS, attacked north Indians as they were taking exams for local positions with the Indian railways. The next day police arrested Thackeray for inciting violence, which touched off widespread riots and acts of arson by MNS members and brought Mumbai to a near standstill.

By the time he was released the following day on bail, Thackeray had struck fear into outsiders and captured the hearts of millions of dissatisfied locals. When a week later Bihari immigrant Rahul Raj was shot dead by police after commandeering a bus with a pistol and threatening to kill Thackeray, few were surprised.

Mumbai is India's commercial heart and most cosmopolitan city, and immigrants have long been integral to its evolution. Indo-Iranians first settled this stretch of Arabian Sea coast in the third century BC. Marathi speakers arrived en masse only after the collapse of the Maratha empire in the early 19th century. In recent decades, as the Indian economy has boomed, skilled and unskilled workers have poured into the city to seek their fortune. Today, Marathi speakers represent less than 50 percent of Mumbai's 17 million population, and migrant workers – the majority from north Indian states – snatch up the low-paying jobs disdained by suddenly middle class Maharashtrians. They keep banks and businesses secure, build homes and office buildings, clean streets and pick up trash, drive locals from place and place and deliver Hinduism's most revered consumable – milk. Without them, the city would grind to halt.

To combat their progress, Raj has followed in the anti-outsider footsteps of his uncle Bal Thackeray, who founded the Shiv Sena in 1966 with the stated goal of securing jobs for Maharashtrians in the face of steady north Indian immigration. A local political icon partially retired at 82 years old, Bal claims to admire Adolf Hitler and hates without prejudice: outsiders, foreigners, Muslims, Christians, you name it. He is alleged to have coordinated the slaughter of hundreds of Muslims during Mumbai's religious riots in 1993 and, a few months ago, called for Hindu suicide bombers in response to a recent rash of bomb attacks in Indian cities.

Following that line, Raj's aggressively hate-filled, pro-Marathi stance has touched a vein of disenchantment and stirred an angry young army of committed indoctrinates. With each unchecked incident, each arrest, his power has grown. “Far too much latitude had been shown to Raj Thackeray and the MNS,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote in a recent letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. “We need to dispel any impression that people from one part of the country are not welcome in another, and cannot live in peace anywhere they choose.”

In its inherent ignorance and incitement to violence, Thackeray's stance brings to mind a darker age, in which fearful citizens of fortified city-states were protected from the mysterious, dangerous other by warlords who unleashed their minions on invaders. Such divisive, Dark Ages politics remain effective in India partially because they offer such great spectacle. Images of desperate, blood-splattered outsiders, flaming taxis and carnage in the streets, marauding gangs of angry young defenders and inflammatory remarks are played repeatedly on dozens of news channels and displayed prominently in local, regional and national newspapers. For ratcheting up the fear and subtly validating defense of the homeland in its sensationalist, non-stop coverage, the media must accept a portion of the blame for Thackeray's rise.

And he is not alone. Taking its lead from the Raj era British policy of divide and rule, politicians across India – in Andhra Pradesh and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam – have begun to exploit the uneducated lower classes, appealing to local fears and highlighting regional divides in order to blame the other for the sad state of the majority – when in fact it is the politicians themselves who have failed to serve the people.

The trend is particularly worrisome as India has long been both strung together and pushed apart by its astonishing diversity. One of the Upanishads, a series of ancient and influential Hindu scriptures, claimed “the whole world is my family,” more than 2500 years ago.“The roots of this culture go back to ancient times and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples,” south Indian intellectual Kota Shivarama Karanth wrote more recently. “Hence, among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force.” And sixty years after his death Gandhi remains the world's defining symbol of non-violence.

Yet even he was assassinated, and the country he fathered was born in one of the last century's great orgies of violence, Partition, which has been followed by lesser if also horrifying spasms: against Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and during a recent anti-Christian pogrom in Orissa, to name a few. Historically, such disputes have hinged on religion, but politicians have shown few qualms with shifting their focus to linguistic and regional divisions. Now the hate that dare speak its name threatens, according to Singh, to “undermine the unity and integrity of the country.”

A world away, another, almost equally diverse democracy recently made history by electing a dark-skinned minority to its highest office. Around the time Barack Obama began his campaign on a message of unity and change, an upstart Maharashtrian politician began his own political career with a call for inclusiveness.“I am seeking a chance, with a clean slate, to show you that change is possible,” Raj Thackeray told a Mumbai crowd in January 2007.

That Thackeray's embrace of Dark Ages divisiveness over the past year has garnered him much greater support is a sad commentary on the state of Indian politics. One that suggests it may have been unreasonable to hope that “Deshdrohi,” with its simple depiction of a migrant laborer tossed about and finally killed by an unwelcoming metropolis, might spark a little understanding.

-- an edited version ran in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 16.

In new India, age-old festival losing ground

Sonepur, India // Krishna Kanhai Singh sat on his front porch in this rural Bihar village last weekend watching the kick-off of the Sonepur Mela, an age-old religious festival and animal market that suddenly seemed unfamiliar.

“It’s sad, our festival is shrinking and changing,” said Mr Singh, 53, whose family has lived for a century in a rickety wooden house on the grounds of the event, long known as Asia’s largest cattle fair. “The government is not funding the animal market and the people don’t care.”

A series of conditions – new federal laws on animal trade, shifting societal and governmental interests, rampant lawlessness and the impact of a summer flood – have conspired to stifle the animal market and transform a revered, centuries-old festival into something more foreign to locals.

As lowing cows, bathing elephants and straggly bearded holy men have in recent years given way to sleek advertisements, tractor display rooms and high-end gadgets, Mr Singh’s stoop has served as a front-row seat to the changing face of India.

“All these changes are bad for the fair and bad for Biharis,” said Mr Singh, surrounded by a dozen children and grandchildren. “I don’t know if it will die, but I almost wish it would.”

For aeons, Hindu pilgrims have gravitated to Sonepur on the first full moon of November for a visit to the Vishnu temple and an auspicious bath at the confluence of the Gandak and the Ganges, Hinduism’s holiest river. Animal traders, meanwhile, trace the festival’s market back to the ancient king Chandragupta Maurya, who is said to have bought horses and elephants here.

Historically the festival stretched across more than a dozen villages, but by the mid-20th century it had settled into a grassy expanse at the meeting of the two rivers.

Earlier this week barkers droned into microphones as Hindi tunes blared across muddy, meandering bazaars lined with kitchenware, noodle stands, sweetmeats and a dizzying selection of knick-knacks, like a shrivelled plant, dubbed “the one that brings dead to life”, that blossomed in water.

A family of gypsy musicians roamed the animal stalls, plopping down in the dirt to play traditional songs amid gathering crowds. And a warren of caged parrots and parakeets, white rabbits, Dobermans, dachshunds and a lone Rhesus monkey watched the passing human circus.

Yet from the millions-strong crowds in the mid-1990s, the fair, which continues into December, will welcome an estimated 150,000 visitors this year, most of whom arrived early and departed quickly. Two decades ago a visitor could contemplate the spectacle of 50,000 cattle, up to a thousand elephants and the same number of horses. This year there were less than 1,000 cattle, about 500 ponies and horses and no more than 50 elephants.

“Success is not in how many cattle came, that’s just one component, there are other things like markets, jeeps, and the religious aspect,” said Ashok Kumar Chouhan, the festival organiser and local government commissioner. He said the festival budget, at six million rupees (Dh442,700), had risen in recent years.

Ramjanam Diwari, 58, an elephant seller, had a different perspective. He swept his arm across a stretch of recently built homes and explained how the festival had in the past 20 years lost three-fourths of its acreage.

“The government has failed us,” said Mr Diwari. “They used to fix up the roads, add street lights, construct temporary roadside inns, but now there’s nothing, maybe five per cent of the facilities that were here. They are gradually and systematically killing the mela.”

Death may not be imminent, but the contraction of the animal market is likely to continue. Fewer animals are arriving from other states because of increasing transport costs and a recent law banning transport of for-sale cattle across state lines. Corrupt officials ask for increasingly large bribes, according to traders, both during transport and to secure a stall at the fair. And as the state government pushes development and industrialisation, Bihar’s younger generation seems more interested in iPod’s and Levis than traditional pastoral pursuits.

Hetukar Jha, a retired Patna University sociology professor who has studied regional animal husbandry, pointed out a few more reasons.

“Because of increased lawlessness in rural areas, people find it less safe to move around with lots of money or with valuable goods, like livestock,” he said. “Horses are not used for transport anymore, nor elephants or camels. And because so many people are moving to urban areas, they don’t have room to keep these big animals.”

The Indian government banned the sale of elephants in 2003 because of a rise in unauthorised sales that led to mistreatment and illegal ivory procurement.

But a loophole was quickly found: sellers now hand over the elephant as a “gift” and receive a large “donation” in return. Thus B B Singh, a wealthy landowner, donated nearly 2.5m rupees in return for the gift of two elephants.

“We have had an elephant in our family for 150 years,” said Mr Singh, as his mahout, chief negotiator, assistant and bodyguard looked on. “Other people have jeeps and SUV’s, I have an elephant; in Bihar it’s still a status symbol.”

It might not be for long. According to the fair organiser, the shift away from animals is by design.

“Last year I had to learn a few things,” said Mr Chouhan, the organising committee chairman for the past two years. “Now, instead of putting the focus on cattle we are trying to convert the mela, to rebrand it as a rural auto-expo and create a modern, industrialised fair.”

The latest edition presented more than a whiff of modernity, with ads for mobile phones and powdered cappuccino. Locals peered into shops hawking major appliances and large vehicles like John Deere tractors and Tata conversion vans but few stepped inside.

“I’m not sure how effective government implemented change can be,” said Mr Jha, the sociologist. “It was always the people’s mela, and that’s the way it will stay.”

For many people the outlook was grim. With declining attendance, merchant revenues have drooped. One samosa seller tried to charge two Dutch tourists 10,000 rupees (Dh 739) for four of the snacks, which typically cost three rupees each.

The cow dealer Mundrika Prasad Yadav, a 72-year-old from the state capital Patna, had been coming to the fair for 30 years and said the steep decline began around 2000. “My business is 10 per cent of what it was a decade ago,” he said.

Mr Diwari, the veteran elephant seller, was keeping close watch on his prized animals, which were co-operatively owned by members of his village. “Whatever I get in donations from these two will be distributed to all the villagers,” said Mr Diwari, from Taribara village in Uttar Pradesh. “But there’s not much interest this year.”

Jimhi Lal Rai, a 48-year-old cattle trader from nearby Hajipur, sold 20 cows last year, but this year had sold only two.

“Right now I’ve lost about 70,000 rupees on this festival,” he said. “If I don’t sell the rest of my cows I will have to start working as a labourer.”

Mr. Jha, however, sounded a hopeful note.

“Melas will change with the times, the items on offer will shift. But because the religious aspect will always be there, the festival will never die.”

-- published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 20.


Obama Renews This Expat's Pride

DELHI // A little more than 60 years ago a sharp-eyed, diminutive man with the tongue-twisting name of Jawaharlal brought the world’s most populous democracy into being with a stirring, landmark speech.

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny,” began Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, speaking in August 1947. “Now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.”

Squeezed into a south Delhi cafe not far from where those words were spoken, a ragtag band of nearly 100 Barack Obama admirers – Indians as well as Americans and various other foreigners – watched the United States redeem not one but two pledges with Tuesday’s presidential election.

Subdued optimism gave way to unbridled glee when the results appeared on the big screen at 9.30am local time. People stood and cheered, hooted, hollered and whistled.

“Bush created a perception of what Americans are like – arrogant and unable to listen,” Rishi Jaitly said shortly after bear hugging anyone within reach. An American of Indian origin, he has been working in Delhi as a policy analyst for Google since early last year. “This reaffirms that we are an exceptional country; today I’m so proud to be an American.”

Whether the dream of Dr Martin Luther King Jr has come to pass – and African Americans can proclaim themselves “free at last” – is not yet clear. But never has the United States so boldly lived out its creed: that all men are created equal. Come Jan 20, Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American raised in near poverty by a single mother, will become the most powerful man on the planet. A more persuasive argument for American democracy is hard to imagine.

Of greater concern for the world’s six billion non-Americans are the values for which the US has long stood: fairness and morality, liberty and human dignity, values many believe George W Bush trashed with post -September 11 bullying.

“When Bush was elected for the second time – after the Iraq war and torture and that – America lost a lot of respect in the world,” said Miguel Alcalde, a 29-year-old Spaniard who has been in India for a year. “But this means that people have had enough. This is good for America.”

Working as a South Asia correspondent for the past few years, I have faced regular fallout from the Bush failures. The most cutting occurred this past May. I was walking towards the Red Mosque in Islamabad when I locked eyes with a gentle-looking, white-bearded man wearing a salwar kameez and a skullcap.

“What country are you from?” he asked, smiling and walking alongside me.

“I’m from the United States,” I said.

He winced as if in pain.

“Why are you coming here and killing us?” he asked.

“I’m not killing anyone, sir,” I said, forcing a smile.

“Well your president sure is, coming here, going to Iraq, killing Muslims,” he said, holding my arm for balance as we negotiated a series of awkward kerbs.

“Yeah, well, I think he’s trying to do something good but doesn’t know how to go about it,” I said sheepishly.

“He’s not doing anything good!” the man retorted, pausing as we reached his turning. “And I speak better English than he does.”

Such people as Mufti Omar see hope in Mr Obama.

In South Asia, Mr Bush is widely panned, and support for John McCain has been scarce. Mr Obama is seen as offering redemption, the possible renewal of those great American values. His tryst with the world is thus not just a historical precedent, but a crucial break from the recent past.

Still, the Indian government is already voicing concern that in an effort to shore up a still tense relationship with Pakistan, Mr Obama will force Delhi’s hand in Kashmir. Other countries are sure to have their own concerns and with Mr Obama’s record so slim, his career still in its infancy, it is impossible to predict how successful a president he will be.

Yet even before he settles into the Oval Office and makes his first decision, the progress is clear. His middle name, for instance, is gaining him fans in the Muslim world.

Henry Pedersen, 22, an American camel genetics researcher, recalls being asked when he visited Algeria this year: “You’re electing a Shia president?”

“They were absolutely shocked,” he said. “But they definitely dig it.”

Can Mr Obama’s skin colour and background offer hope for the world’s minorities and disadvantaged?

“This is about America opening up to the rest of the world,” said Himali Kapil, 32, a Delhi-based writer and filmmaker. “The identities that truly represent America are finding their voice – that’s what feels so positive about Obama.”

For those eager to see Mr Obama in office, nearly two years of campaigning has revealed a steady hand, a sharp mind and confident, deliberate leadership skills.

“The good thing about Obama is that he might talk to somebody before bombing the crap out of them,” said John Butler, a Briton doing voluntary work in India. “It’s nice to have hope in a politician again.”

Could it really be? That after eight years, there will be no more discomfort when talk turns to international politics? No more bullying, no more assaults on the English language from the leader of the free world? We shall see. For many Americans abroad, however, Nov 4 2008 will go down as the dawning of a bright, new morning for the US on the world stage.

-- published in The National (www.thenational.ae) on 6 Nov 2008.


Leading Afghan Blogger Speaks

Despite decades of civil war, marauding Taliban and deadly military air strikes, Afghans have experienced some changes for the better over recent years. Health facilities, schools and roads have improved, and a fledgling media industry is finding its feet. Bloggers are off to a fast start, with Nasim Fekrat, also known as Afghan Lord, leading the way. This 25-year-old ethnic Hazara knows all too well the dangers of self-expression, but believes freedom of speech is vital if Afghanistan is to leave its bloody past behind.

When I was 11 years old my father pushed me to pray and I would not pray. One night my father raised his hands to the sky and said: "Please god, take Nasim. Kill him, take him back – I don't want him." He did this in front of me and my siblings and nobody said anything. That evening I couldn't sleep. I was thinking death would come right at that moment. I was so scared, thinking god would come to take me soon, that I kept moving my hands and legs to make sure I wasn't dead.

My mother was kind to me. After my father kicked me out of our house she gave me blankets and told me: "I can't help you, your father is very stubborn, but go to the roof and sleep there." Eventually I left and went to Kabul where a local family took me in. All I did after that was read books.

When I created my first blog I used a pseudonym – I wanted to escape my identity and to be neutral. I told people I was born in Afghanistan but that was it. I didn't want to be seen as one type of person or another. Now in my writing it's no secret: people know I'm Hazara.

I'm not a practising Muslim, I'm agnostic. Another blogger has been calling me out as a non-Muslim. I know people realise from my English writing that I don't believe in god, but in my Farsi blog I'm trying to keep that a secret. I'm not sure I'm succeeding.

In Afghanistan, when you write your opinion in the public sphere, you are labelled a racist. I've been receiving a lot of threats. Someone by the name of Coffin posted on my blog, saying "Soon I will find you", and I also received an email that said "Your days are numbered". People approach me from aid organisations that don't exist. But I've been dealing with this since 2004 when the police shut down the satirical magazine I had started, so these sorts of things are very normal for me now.

Our life, or our society, is completely different from in the west. I told my friends that as long as you have bread to eat here in Afghanistan, don't go to Europe; in Europe we are not treated as human beings. Our looks are different, our ways different. It takes a long time to match with them, to understand. When I went to Hamburg I asked two German people for directions and they completely ignored me; they turned and walked away. So I tell my friends, if you want to go to Europe, fine, just visit for a little while and come back.

Newspaper media is very new in our society. There were just one or two newspapers up until the Soviet era, which were only propaganda for political parties. At that time freedom of speech had little meaning. Now, with people coming back from Iran and other countries, Afghans are more educated, they are more interested in news and in reading. We now have more than 20 daily papers and 100 weeklies.

I don't read Afghan newspapers; most of them are not independent. They are biased towards a specific political party or organisation, or whichever donor is giving them money. We don't have a situation here in which very few people earn enough money to publish a newspaper.

All that I write is with a view to making an Afghan thinktank. I want to bring independent thinkers together who can talk about Afghanistan in a different way. I don't want a repeat of our history of massacres and tragedy. This has become my mission.

One thing I still don't know is how to deal with the past. Afghan history is full of genocide and bloodletting – and we still have warlords wielding power. So writing about the past, dealing with it, is kind of taboo in this society. It doesn't matter who you are – if you are Pashtun, Uzbek, Hazara, Tajik – whatever you write, somebody will attack you. People think we should just forget the past.

Nowadays when I see my father I kiss his hands, but he is not happy with me. He regrets what he asked god for, to take me. I can read that in his eyes. But I forgive him. Because at that moment I decided I wanted to be a man for myself, not for my father. It made me very strong and able to take care of myself. In my life, whatever I wished for, I reached out and grabbed it.

• Nasim Fekrat was speaking to David Lepeska in Kabul.

--this interview was published at http://www.guardianweekly.co.uk/ on October 17.

Sacred Fight of the Dongria

For a secluded tribe in the Indian state of Orissa, Niyamgiri Mountain is both home and sacred temple. Abundant natural resources have allowed the Dongria Kondh people to live an isolated and spiritual lifestyle on its slopes, disconnected from the outside world. But that way of life is now under threat, as an Indian subsidiary of UK-based mining giant Vedanta Resources plans an aluminium refinery on their land. Tribe member Jitu Jakesika, 21, explains why his people would rather die than let heavy industry onto their sacred mountain

For us, this is our sacred place. We worship Niyam Raja, which means lord of our lord. There are many gods, but he is the most powerful for us, so he is the Niyam Raja. Here on our mountain there is forest, wildlife and medicinal plants. We get all of our food here on Niyamgiri – everything we need, except salt. We can go for a month without having to travel down to the market.

We don't hunt very often, only around special occasions like the Meriha sacrifice. This is the most important festival for the Dongria. If our village wants to celebrate the Meriha we invite all the surrounding villages to join us. A lot of villagers come to see us, bringing axes, arrows and knives. They come to our village dancing and singing songs. The priest welcomes everyone.

Then we make a bamboo fence around a buffalo and when the priest says OK we start to hit him with our knives and axes. He gets angry and runs around. It can be messy and very bloody but we keep hitting him until he dies. I have done this two or three times in my life. I feel sad to see this strong animal die, but it makes our people very happy – we believe it gives us strength.

When the girls reach maturity they don't like to sleep with their families any more, so they go to a dormitory. Every village has a girls' dormitory. Every week young boys from different villages come by dancing, drumming and playing instruments, and they sing of the mountain and the forest and the river, and declare their love for their girl. When I was young I did this many times. Sometimes we slept together. This is done without marrying, like girlfriend and boyfriend. We Dongria, you see, can love 100 girlfriends; it is not like in Indian culture.

Some get married at 15, others at 18, and some wait until they are even older. Once a couple is married the man is allowed to have girlfriends. That is OK, the wife never minds. But if the woman takes a boyfriend the husband would be very angry.

Already, the aluminium refinery has changed things here. Now when it rains there is dust everywhere, a white-coloured covering on our fields. Our crops don't grow so well. Also, the river is poisoned. I know this because five cows died when they went to drink water from the river. And some people who bathed in the river developed sores on their body.

Nobody came and warned us about this; we had to learn about it by ourselves. Now that I have learned I am telling everyone. Just today I visited three villages. When I arrive I call all the villagers and explain to them what is happening. I tell them how we will fight and that we have to remain strong at this moment. I have talked to different activists, and sometimes they come with me to help our people to understand what's happening.

We have to protect our culture. OK, we can be educated and developed, but these young children – we have to teach them about our way of life, our beliefs. What will happen when the older generation dies?

The government says that it will make a decision, but then it they delays and delays. It is still trying to convince us it will be OK. But our people don't want any development from this company, and we don't want money. Why destroy our nature? God has given us this nature – this is how our people think.

The company cannot take this mountain. It can try to plant trees and make a forest, but it can't remake it. The company says: "We’ll give you new houses, new land, a new village!" But all we want is our mountain. Every family, every young boy and girl, every person, wants to stay. Nobody wants to leave this mountain.

If the government decides to allow for mining, we will have to fight. This is our land; for generations we've been living here. They have money, power, guns; they can kill us in five minutes. So we'll tell the government: "Please kill us all and then you can have your mine. Because without Niyamgiri we cannot live."

• Jitu Jakesika was speaking to David Lepeska in Orissa.

This interview was published at http://www.guardianweekly.co.uk/, on October 20.

Indian sailors strike for action against pirates

DELHI // Tired of paying the heaviest price for piracy, two leading Indian seafarers’ unions went on strike this week. More than 100,000 sailors refuse to work until their government provides an armed escort for all ships passing Somalia and frees the 18 Indian crew members of the hijacked Stolt Valor.

They may be in for a long wait.

“It’s been five weeks and still my husband is stuck on that ship,” said Seema Goyal, wife of Prabhat Kumar Goyal, the captain of the Japanese-owned, Hong Kong-registered Valour. “I worry about him constantly and our three children don’t understand what’s going on.”

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has more than doubled this year, with 74 attacks and counting. As the increasingly bold and well-armed sea bandits have snatched one after another of the cargo-laden ships passing through the Gulf of Aden, Indian citizens at home and at sea have borne the brunt of the hostilities.

“Because they are skilled and speak English, there are more seafarers from India than from any other nation,” said Sunil Nair, spokesman for the National Union of Seafarers of India. He said more than 150,000 Indian sailors work in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. “Because of this, Indians are at more risk as a result of all this piracy than anybody else.”

On Tuesday, the Somali coastguard freed an Indian cargo ship with two Indian crew members that had been hijacked near Socotra Island a few days prior. Last weekend, Somali pirates released the Deyanat after its Iranian owners paid a reduced ransom. Three emaciated Indian crew members arrived in Mumbai after seven weeks in captivity and related tales of food shortages, constant death threats and drug-addicted captors. And in Salaya, a Gujarati port town, locals are waiting to hear from three ships carrying 15 local seamen who lost radio contact from the region this week.

Mr Nair estimates that 17 of the 30 ships hijacked near Somalia this year have had Indian crew members.

One high-profile exception: there are no Indian sailors among the 20-member crew of the Faina, a tank-laden Ukrainian vessel captured a few weeks ago.

On Sept 15, about 35 pirates stormed aboard the Valor, a chemical tanker, off the coast of Yemen. The hijackers stripped the 22-member crew and confined them to the bridge, according to crew members who have been in phone contact. More than five weeks later, progress has been minimal, even as the ransom demand has dipped from US$6 million (Dh22m) to $2m.

Critics, such as the Hindustan Times, a popular national daily, said Delhi has been “pussyfooting on the issue”. That, however, may not be the case.

“In reality, there’s little the government can do,” said Roger Middleton, senior fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, and author of a piracy study released this month. Mr Middleton said military force rarely works and that ransom ultimately resolves the majority of these incidents.

“It’s very possible that the Indian government is trying very hard to help negotiations behind the scenes,” he said. “We can’t know for sure, and beyond that, they can’t do much other than monitor the situation.”

A K Antony, the Indian defence minister, has repeatedly said India is unable to mount a military attack because it has no maritime agreement with Somalia – a point reiterated on Tuesday by the Somali ambassador to India. In the case of the Stolt Valor, armed aggression would be doubly risky because of the 24,000 tonnes of chemicals in the hull. And responsibility for hijacked ships falls first to the owner nation, then to the country where the ship is registered and finally to the country in whose waters the incident occurs.

“In cases such as this, it is normal for negotiations to take place between the proprietors of the ship and the hijackers themselves,” said Nagma Mullick, spokesman for the ministry of external affairs. “That’s what’s been happening here and our embassy has been working to facilitate those negotiations.”

On Saturday, Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian foreign minister, reassured the captive sailors’ families that their loved ones would return home safely.

That same day India rushed a warship to the Gulf of Aden to protect Indian shipping interests in the region. It is the first time an Indian Navy vessel has been authorised to patrol international waters, a move the navy said was not incident-specific. The patrol comes more than three weeks after the navy requested authorisation to pursue and use force against the Stolt Valor hijackers, but was refused.

Somalia’s caretaker government, battling an Islamist insurgency, lacks the resources to combat the problem. Thus, a flurry of hijackings along the coast has in recent weeks attracted a clutch of foreign military vessels. Still the problem festers. The pirates are holding 10 ships and nearly 200 crew. Some of the $20m to $30m paid to pirates in ransom this year, according to Chatham House, is funding Somalia’s Islamist insurgency and possibly wending its way into international terror networks.

“Operating in an area full of rich pickings and with enormous rewards on offer seems likely to point to a trajectory of increasing ruthlessness,” Mr Middleton wrote. “It is likely to be only a matter of time before more people are killed.”

Such fears may be strongest on the subcontinent, where security concerns have led to the sailors’ strike. When Mr Goyal, the captain of the Valour, spoke to his wife last week, he said the pirates were becoming “increasingly hostile."

-- this story published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on October 24

Left Out in the Cold

CHAR-E-QAMBAR, Afghanistan- When the fighting came to his village in south Helmand, Abdul Rahman gathered his wife and seven children and fled to this bulging refugee camp on the Western edge of Kabul. Five months later the steely-eyed 35-year-old is questioning his decision.

"We are only getting food if I can find work in the city, which does not happen very much," Rahman says through an interpreter, scanning the mud walls and torn plastic roofing of his home away from home. "My children go to sleep hungry. We have no money and nobody is helping us."

Rahman is not an exception at Char-e-Qambar, where as a result of bureaucratic balderdash, minimal health care and almost no foreign aid an estimated 5,000 Afghans are struggling to survive.

Not a refugee camp?

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are about 250,000 internally displaced people in Afghanistan and 3.4 million Afghan refugees in Iraq and Afghanistan - the fallout of three decades of conflict. Those numbers are rising as the insurgency intensifies and insecurity spreads across Afghanistan and into Pakistan's tribal areas, from where 20,000 fled into Afghanistan in late September.

The village of Char-e-Qambar lies a dozen kilometers southwest of central Kabul. Here, on an open expanse of desert under looming mountains and a blazing sun, nearly 900 Afghan families have squeezed into a tight, ramshackle collection of tents, tarps and mud homes.

The first trickle appeared in mid-2006 but the majority arrived in early 2008, fleeing intense fighting between the Taliban and international forces in southern Afghanistan. More arrive every day, yet to UNHCR this is not a refugee camp.

"It's not officially a camp - it's a spontaneous settlement," says Nadir Farhad, spokesman for UNHCR in Afghanistan. "The decision to open a camp is totally the government of Afghanistan's. Then it can be backed by international organizations such as UNHCR and we would be responsible for the camp and be able to provide them with proper, monthly assistance."

An Afghan Ministry of Refugees spokesman says the government is conducting a survey to determine the status of camp residents - refugee, internally displaced, or other. But on several visits Devex failed to find a residents who had recently been visited by a government representative or filled out a questionnaire.

"To the best of my knowledge many are not really IDPs," Farhad says of the camp residents. "They are just squatters."

Either way, UNHCR's stance may be inaccurate.

"The government has the primary responsibility for the welfare of its people but UNHCR and other agencies have a mandate to respond to vulnerable individuals in situations of displacement," says Patrick Duplat, an advocate for the pressure group Refugees International, in an e-mail.

He added that the government does not need to make any official declarations for aid to move in - a view confirmed by a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, and other aid outfits. Duplat, who co-authored a recently released report on the refugee and IDP situation in Afghanistan, has not visited Char-e-Qambar but is aware that many residents do not receive adequate aid.

"If people are suffering," says Duplat, "it's because the response has been poor at all levels, but it is not due to a bureaucratic impediment."

Darkness falls

Makeshift, multi-colored tents press up close to hand-packed mud walls, leaving foot-wide passageways in some spots. The stench of sewage and rotting food lurks around every corner. Gaggles of wide-eyed children, some with distended bellies, prawl dusty alleyways in torn clothes, looking to relieve their hunger-borne boredom. Housewives with little to do - there is no food to cook, no house or clothes to clean - peer out from behind tent flaps, scanning for their children or good news.

In the afternoon, long-bearded men retreat from the desert sun. In dark, windowless tents they speak in low, solemn tones, the phrase "Insh'allah," or god willing, never far from their lips.

"My daughter has been sick for two or three weeks," Abdul Rahman says matter-of-factly, sitting next to his 10-year-old daughter, who lies prone, moaning and occasionally twisting her rail-thin body. "Sometimes she gets fever, sometimes she gets sick in all her body, sometimes she's bleeding from her nose and mouth."

Rahman has taken her to the camp's clinic, to no avail. Run by the Education Health Bureau of Afghanistan, a small local NGO funded by the Dutch government, the clinic operates out of a tent near the camp entrance three days a week, offering consultation and free medicine.

Pharmacist Asadrullah Siddiqui, 23, is overwhelmed with 60 or more patients per day. He has more than 100 medicines but is often unable to supply what residents need.

"The health is bad here because there's no clean water and no full meals," Siddiqui tells Devex. "It will most likely get worse during the winter."

Unable to find adequate care at the clinic Rahman went to a doctor in Kabul, who prescribed medicines costing 12,500 Afghanis, or $250. Rahman has no money, so he carries a prescription on a piece of paper everywhere he goes, hoping someone will help buy the medicine to cure his daughter.

Many camp residents are similarly desperate.

"The Americans, when the Taliban attacked our village, they just started attacking everyone," says Dadgul. The 25-year-old from Helmand, who like many Afghans goes by one name, barely escaped the fighting with his wife and three young children. "We haven't been given any food and I can't find work. This will be a long winter."

Sorgul Kasho, also from Helmand, has three children and is building a new mud room for his home, hoping it would keep his family warm during the winter.

"Sometimes we can find work and eat, sometimes we do not," the 36-year-old says. "Our children are crying for food, but we cannot feed them."

Dribs and drabs

Aid agencies and their backers have in recent months cut back their efforts because of targeted attacks and deteriorating security. Indeed, as Duplat points out in his report, refugees and the displaced have received less humanitarian aid as a result of increasing insecurity.

But Char-e-Qambar is on the edge of Kabul - headquarters for the international community and the safest place in Afghanistan.

"The ICRC concentrates its activities with regard to assisting displaced persons on the direct conflict zones," says Franz Rauchenstein, ICRC spokesman. "In Kabul and its surroundings other humanitarian actors, including the government, have access themselves."

Less than five miles from the camp, foreign workers sip frothy mocha chais and nosh on cheeseburgers at Chaila, a hip garden cafe in Karta Se. In the evenings, expat staffers and consultants kibbitz over cocktails with a foot in the pool at L'Atmosphere, a few clicks further east.

"I know they are living in a poor condition, it's very hard," says Farhad during an interview in his office at the sprawling, heavily secured headquarters of UNHCR Afghanistan. "Our preferred solution for the IDPs is to go back to their place of origin if security permits it. If the security doesn't permit it we do our utmost to provide assistance where they are."

Aid has trickled in since the spring. In July, UNHCR delivered "winterization assistance" - lanterns, blankets, small bags of coal and dozens of white plastic tarps, which can be seen underneath rags and cloth coverings on rooftops. The Afghan government delivered hundreds of 10kg bags of flour that same month.

"Still our tents are too old, we have no food, and the medical assistance is no good," says Noor Mohamed, a 26-year-old father of two from Uruzgan. "When they brought the bags of flour the police took more than half of them, to sell for profit. Please you must tell people to help us."

The Afghan Ministry says it handed out cash awards of US$100 to each family in May. Some camp residents say they received the hand-out, others complain that it was only given to the newer arrivals from the south. In August, soldiers from the Kabul headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force passed out Meals Ready-to-Eat, but only enough for a couple hundred families.

"The situation with the internally displaced in Afghanistan is of grave concern," says Duplat, from Refugees International. "The international community were not and are still not set up to respond to humanitarian crises. Rather, the emphasis is put on longer-term development and institution building, at the expense of humanitarian activities."

The lone aid group providing humanitarian assistance daily is a local outfit. Since spring, Kabul-based Aschiana has been running boys and girls schools in tents near the camp entrance. Six days a week Mohammed Wahid leads classes in Dari and Pashto before the children are fed a meal of bread and bean soup. At lunchtime, hungry families come to share their son or daughter's food, which often leads to fighting.

"Winter is near, and last year many children died due to cold weather," says Engineer Yousef, Aschiana's founding director. "If they don't receive any aid this year maybe children will die as well because the prices of food and heating have both gone up."

A bitter winter looms

In late August, an American air strike near Herat killed 90 civilians, including 60 children, according to the United Nations. This most bloody American attack added to 2008's record total of civilian deaths. The following week the British charity Oxfam warned that Afghanistan could be facing one of its harshest winters in 20 years, putting up to 9 million poor and displaced at serious risk. With drought, rising food prices and a renewed insurgency compounding the problem, the group urged the international community to act quickly to avoid a "humanitarian crisis."

Yet many aid agencies are short on staff and most have curbed operations in light of increasing insecurity across the country - particularly in the area immediately surrounding Kabul.

Duplat sees a broader, systemic problem. He acknowledges the insecurity, but says the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's humanitarian branch "remains inadequately staffed." The result is poor coordination and few opportunities for advocates to raise humanitarian concerns. The Char-e-Qambar neglect may thus be of a piece with the international community's fitful progress in improving the lot of Afghans.

"Until there is a real humanitarian coordination both in Kabul and in the provinces," Duplat says, "delivery of emergency services - including responding to internal displacement - will remain inadequate."

-- posted to devex.com on October 13.