The history of Kolkata’s cultural soul is evolving with its political maturity – capturing the imagination of growing segments of young practitioners and lovers of art with its contemporary sensitivities and its manifests on the canvas. Art as a medium of the mass dialogue and propagation of social awareness has acquired wider connotations to include the continuum of living cultures and the political ethos of the geography in which it flourishes. Festivals are the best showcases to collate the diverse strains – and oeuvres – of artistic movements for the viewer to appreciate, understand and engage with the practitioner.
In India – the concept of art showcases like festivals of literature – has seen a spurt in the last decade with the explosion of the Internet, penetration of education, heightened aesthetic awareness and rising disposable incomes in cities for the common man to take time out for the arts – thus bringing complex practices out of the schoolrooms in the process to involve a gamut of stakeholders. The Kolkata Art Festival which began 5 February – 4 March like the Kolkata Book Fair is one such endeavour to integrate the arts into the mainstream of the greater cultural and social-scape of the metropolis with multi-disciplinary expositions.
An initiative of the Art Heritage Foundation, the festival has been woven around the promotion of young artists from across the country with the CIMA Awards on 4 February to help the arts and their practitioners sustain – with a head start. The buzz is yet to gather around the festival – unlike the India Art Fair in the national capital, but as the director of CIMA pointed out non-commercial activity in the arts require time to take off in the popular cultural consciousness. She described the initiative as the countdown to a full-scale Kolkata Art Biennale.
“The purpose of the award (and the festival as well) was that while we were working for CIMA for the last 24 years, we were not being able to get to the backwaters of India and know what was happening outside the bigger cities unless we did something that would bring out new talent. We have a hierarchy of artists and a whole system over there … it creates a back. How do we evaluate artists who are young,” director of the CIMA Rakhi Sarkar told The Statesman.
The awards were up in 2015 is across seven categories carrying a prize purse of Rs 500,000 for the winner –a solo show and participation in an international residency. The first runner-up trophy carries a bourse of Rs 300,000 followed by Rs 200,000 for the second runner-up, two jury awards of Rs 100,000 each, two special mentors’ prizes of Rs 50,000 each, four merit awards Rs 25,000 and a director’s booty of Rs 25,000.
“The shortlist of 15 finalists are selected by a two-tier jury – one early set and a final line-up . This year, out of the 1,500 entries for the awards, works of 196 artists are displayed across five sites,” Sarkar said. The age group caters to the burgeoning tribe of the young Indian contemporary artists – between 25 and 45 – most of them art school graduates and relatively unheard of – “but talented”.
The artist has to be an Indian resident. “We prefer Indian curators and artists to do the screening for us,” Sarkar pointed out.
This year, the preliminary jury comprised artists Shreyasi Chatterjee, Partha Pratim Deb, Sushen Ghosh, Sanat Kar, Paresh Maity, Pankaj Panwar, Ajit Seal, cinematographer Abhik Mukhopadhyay and Rakhi Sarkar. The final jury was made of author Kunal Basu, Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh, MA Palaniappan, Prabhakar Nolte, Anju Chaudhuri, NN Rimzon and Shreyasi Chatterjee.
The entries were diverse spanning a range in acrylic, graphic, pencil, ink, lightboxes, paper and thread – including odd solid works. The exhibits, according to Sarkar, threw up few startling trends. Artists were using “less of colours” on their canvas – choosing monochromes, unicolours and muted colour palettes instead of “brightly coloured compositions”. Artists are using less of oil paints now. “We have no oil paintings this year – because oil takes a longer while. Life has become fast and we don’t want to give so much. Artists look for easy mediums, excitement, bigger counters…” she said.
The mediums speak of the evolution and transformation in the art of Bengal –the crucible of modern Indian art dating back to 200 years – and the larger aesthetic psyche of India developing a global language and homogenous practices, embodying similar concerns. Bulk of the winning works on display is in acrylic, collages and mixed eclectic mediums on bigger and bolder formats – expanding in size and scope than on glitz. The works were more profound, Sarkar said. “More and More artists are refraining from using colours. Is colour fading out of our lives- the jury was discussing this. Lot of works are very dark,” she said.
The CIMA 2017 winner, Kolkata-based Harendra Kumar Kushwaha lives to the spirit of the jury’s observation in his stark and simple installation fashioned out of Nepali paper and thread – a swathe of rattan spread woven like cane thatch and threaded in white tendrils of asymmetrical lines. The ends hang loose – and shed is propped by bamboo batons, whose surface and knobby hinges are left untouched by the artists. “The awards have given young creativity and innovation a huge fillip. The winning entry is a fantastic installation work – it needs a lot of imagination to show something like that – what’s this all about… It is very sensitively done, a very profound piece. It could be a part of a shelter, an ambivalence or the insecurity inherent in so inherent in society, the rough edges of our lives. It is very spontaneous, fragile,” Sarkar explained.
Convention and quality are the underlining threads in the choice of award-winning exhibits- dominated by installations and innovative use of mediums. “We are not going to promote a kind of art – but all that we consider of merit and excellence. If it is a bad piece of work, it is a bad piece of work,” she said.
Two of the highlights of the expositions of the shortlisted artworks are “experimental use of space” and an “education module” designed to help students and lovers of art understand the movements and linkages of the arts – on local, national and global scales for more discerning appreciation. The once derelict Gem cinema in Entally – a popular relic of our childhood- which called the curtains down in the slump in cinema business over the two decades along with a crop of nostalgic cinematic landmarks like Tiger, Globe, Jamuna, Lighthouse, Minerva (Chaplin), Orient and New Cinema – has been resurrected to a new incarnation by the CIMA initiative.
“We are using it as a wonderful space to showcase contemporary art,” Sarkar said. The theatre has been remodelled on the lines of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Centre in New York – though on a makeshift scale to fit the festival’s time table. Sarkar hailed Studio Gem as a “precursor to a movement in promoting alternative art space”- a concept that is yet to catch on in the metropolis and in the country as a whole where “spaces” abound. The movement rolled out in its nascent concept on the night of the award on 4 February at the Oberoi Grand, where CIMA and Art & Heritage Foundation felicitated Alana Heiss, the creative motif force behind the P.S.1 Centre of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – whose journey across the alternative space was narrated in a brief-capsule. The spatial experts’ panel was graced by Chris Dercon, former director, Tate Modern, intendant of Volksbuhne in Berlin. Heiss paid her tribute to the spatial opulence of the metropolis by suggesting that “she should move to Kolkata” in her pursuit of her calling – developing alternative display sites.
Initiation into art corollaries such as these – and emerging concepts – have found platforms in staggered education module of seminars that will connect world art histories, spaces, movements, designs, aesthetic storytelling, systems, pedagogies, technicalities and semantics by panels of experts- both national and international, institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), CREDI, the Architecture Association of India and 18 city schools spread across the Oberoi Grand, 3 Dover Park, the Studio Gem, Academy of Fine Arts, Studio 21, the Bengal Club and CIMA gallery. The showcases and “symposium” will be complemented by performance arts capsule, television broadcasts and cinema- a core component of the contemporary arts movement worldwide.
“We have not conducted too many art education programmes,” Sarkar said. Consequently, it is watershed for CIMA and Art & Heritage Foundation with the involvement of several collateral organisations to spread awareness about arts – and educate new segments of viewers, collectors, aspiring practitioners and students.
Sarkar said the festival will push ahead as a two yearly affair similar to the Kochi Biennale in Kerala – in contiguity with the India Art Fair and the Kerala government initiative to bring West Bengal and the country on the bigger arts canvas globally and project the metropolis as a cultural destination. “I want to develop it more as a festival – theatre, music, food… Next time, we are planning to approach the state government for a street food festival in different parts of Kolkata so that the fringe sections of the metropolis get activated in a positive and efficacious manner. The state has plenty of hasta shilpa – handicrafts tradition – we wanted to have it this time (both food and crafts) but the municipality controls the hawkers. We need permission from the municipality. They (government) can help do it – an east-west north-south Kolkata Arts Festival. It will be good for the economy, good for tourism – Kolkata has everything to do it. We are testing the format this year,” Sarkar said.
The festival, the director of CIMA pointed out, has been built on a unique model apart from Kochi – a non-profit venture – and the India Art Fair, a commercial showcase with awareness programmes. The Kolkata Arts Festival is planned around an award, Sarkar said.
“You have to have balance between non-commercial activity and commerce in arts. You cannot do the big projects without non-commercial activity. Our’s is an award centric programme which does not exist anywhere in India. We want to bring out the evaluation system – support the arts with non-commercial projects,” she said.
The stakeholders are diverse from the (ProHelvetia) Swiss Arts Council, Alliance Francaise to the Japan Art Foundation and Star Television – among the few. And the festival promises integration – of the city, sensitivities, global-local and national cultural codes. “We have to hold each other’s hand,” Sarkar said.
It is a bustling beginning to the spring tide in the city of the golden renaissance.
Foreign Affairs (inc-charge)
The Statesman, Kolkata
Asia News Network (The Statesman/ANN) Coordinator
The turbulent lanes of the South China Sea are simmering on the global geopolitical map – throwing Asia into the centre-stage of littoral diplomacy and power mongering for a larger slice of the sea and the trade that passes through it. The pristine waters that were once on the margins of the protracted wars being fought on land – like those in West Asia, the Cold Wars pitting Russia against the United States and the World Wars– have surged back into consciousness with an ascending Sino sweep of the greater Asian sensitivity that is tilting to China’s growing commercial and diplomatic heft across the hemispheres.
The South China Sea is the theatre of this new power game. The dispute had been building for the last decade over the occupation of a motley crop of atolls, reefs and shoals- teeming with marine life – and demarcation of territories that China tried to clamp down with its “nine-dash line”, virtually bringing the whole of the watery swathe into its pale. It has broken the demographically contiguous south-east Asian nationalities and a large tract of East Asia into polarized entities – which are battling to keep their maritime rights on a tight leash. China is on a zealous overdrive to reclaim the reefs and atolls for building new bases – most of it aimed at military purposes to dare the might of America much to the disquiet of the allied nations set out against China.
The shadow war on the South China Sea, extending well into the East China Sea, is a hark-back to the Cold War with the two big power blocs – the United States of America and its allies – and China, the new muscle hub on the maritime and Asian commercial map – clawing at each other to keep their business lanes untouched by geographical claims. “Freedom of navigation” is the cornerstone of the allied powers while China claims traditional rights of ownership as US tries to breach manoeuvering . The conflict between the US and China is military in nature – the right of American military vessels to operate in the 200-mile exclusive economic zone believed to be belonging to China, a concession that China is reluctant to cede.
The historic slivers of contention on the South China East – a spillover of the Pacific Ocean- encompassing approximately 3,500,000 square kilometers of water – are however the picturesque little islets and rocky outcrops rich in Piscean variety. The wars pivoted around the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Patras Islands, the Maccesfield Bank and the Scarborough shoal.
The claims over the territories are conflicting – muddied by myriad international litigations, tribunals, arbitration, rejections of legal mandates, ‘unlawful’ occupation and even skirmishes. The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, known as Taiwan, stake claim to the entire sea – overlapping with the territorial rights espoused by Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Indonesia, China and Taiwan simultaneously claim the waters northeast of the Natuna Islands while the Phillipines, China and Taiwan bicker over the Scarborough shoal. Vietnam, China and the Taiwan compete for rights over the waters west of the Spratly Islands – while the land-masses are claimed by Vietnam, China, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines who eye the waters as well. The Paracel Islands are grounded in disputes between China, Taiwan and Vietnam – as Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam squabble over stretches along the Gulf of Thailand. Singapore and Malaysia are locked in a dispute in the Strait of Singapore and Strait of Johore. The ongoing tussles have several new spurs – and morphing ramifications because of the change of guard in the United States, which calls powerful shots on the trade routes along the disputed waters. China, which rejected a claim by the Philippines questioning the “efficacy of the nine-dash line” and the territorial ownership of the Spratly Islands – defied a verdict of an international arbitration tribunal set up under the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea which backed Philippines in 2016. The Republic refused to comply with the mandate of the European tribunal –saying “historically the seas belonged to China”.
The escalation of animosity between the littoral nations at war has put business on the hiving block, drastically reducing the volume that passes through the lanes. According to rough math, nearly $ 5.3 trillion of trade charts the waters of which US accounts for nearly $ 1.2 trillion. Consequently, the United States keeps its spotlight fixed on the territorial rights to navigate – a freedom that has been considerably constrained by China’s aggression to ration the scale of American intervention and movement in the region.
A resurgent China is carving new power equations in the South China sea. A report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said China has placed anti-aircraft and “close-in” weapons systems to guard against missile attacks on the all the seven artificial “islands”.
The Associated Press says “the outposts have been built in recent years by piling sand on top of coral reefs followed by the construction of airstrips, barracks, lighthouses and radar stations and other infrastructure.” China contends that the islands have been resurrected from the sea-bed to ramp up maritime defence safety in the region as bastions – “and they also mark the country’s claim to ownership of practically the entire South China Sea.”
Analysts point out that China foresees more opportunities in an increasingly fractured Asia – where the ASEAN has not been able to cut deep swathes into the commercial potential of its member nations. One of its Chinese initiatives – the Maritime Silk Road that will connect all the Asian trade capitals along one umbrella route controlled by China – is well on its way with Pakistan flagging off the first Chinese ship recently from its new deep water port as a new economic corridor.
The maritime trade-fare necessitates armed scaffolding that has spurred the nation into a massive military build-up on the reclaimed islands and atolls – along the nine -dash line. These lands are all subject to counter-territorial claims creating new fissures along the global power fault-lines.
The over-sell of the maritime road – and the random military activity on the islands – have put the US on the edge whose commercial interests on the waters are in peril. America is known to fuse commerce with military might around the world – and the lanes on the South China Sea and further Orient (the East China and the Japan Seas) have not been spared of US muscle-flexing. The country – through its network of post-World War and cold war allies – maintains several shadow bases in the region where it wields joint military batons.
The latest trigger in the conflict has the potential to turn the sea into a battlefield. The Republican US President-elect Donald Trump has trained his guns on China with a telephone call to the President of Taiwan – two warring parties on the disputed islands of the South China Sea. The call, described as a breach of diplomatic protocol, questioned the One-China policy that the US had endorsed in 1972 – and formalized in 1979. Trump who in as many words shot down the “one-China policy” – under which a foreign power, especially US, cannot reach out to Taiwan with diplomatic overtures – has sharpened the flashpoints of the dispute. The “brash” President hit out at China saying “China could not devalue the interests of the US along the trade lanes and in the Oriental money market” – and the build up of the massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea was a mockery of littoral camaraderie that the US sought to establish with China on the Asian trade routes. China responded by flying a nuclear bomber over the disputed islands along the nine-dash line.
Analysts say Trump has been trying to play the Russia card against in a reversal of what Nixon had attempted in the early Sixties – but Putin may not find it comfortable to jeopardize Russian ties with China which had reached an even keel in the last decade after years of traditional rivalry between the red citadels.
Trump’s hard-line on China’s aggression in the Asian waters sends mixed signals about the changing power math on the world map. Initially China friendly, Trump has suddenly decided to pit his brawns against it by warming up to Taiwan – which sources hint- may have been motivated by his business interest in the country, a bustling commercial hub. China may not yield much in terms of business – as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
If the US decides to flaunt its firepower on the South China to counter China’s hard rhetoric on the waters – then he has to take into account the interests and confidence of the ASEAN nations, a bloc which is not averse to forging closer ties with a Republican United States. The US cannot fight China alone on the South China Sea – for it would entail a cataclysmic geopolitical upheaval in the regions flanking the waters which are at war with China. The dispute on the South China Sea is creating new allies on land – further westward in the continent.
The economic corridor that China has opened with Pakistan spans a wide maritime stretch which falls within the purview of the greater South China sea conflict – integrating disputing claims over water, air and land simultaneously. It has brought Pakistan into an unusual bilateral cooperation with China – where the role of US is mired in ambivalence because of its outpourings of “diplomatic warmth” for Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. An unpredictable Donald Trump could later wean away Pakistan from China or may cave in to growing pressure to scale down tirade against China- over the military build-up in the South China Sea and overlapping business interests. Under such circumstance, the trade space created by ASEAN – as an umbrella of contiguous regional and commercial national entities along the water and the land routes in south east and east Asia – will lie in tatters in the hurricane of an American and Chinese confrontation or a deepening engagement. The smaller Asian nations – with territorial claims to the South China Sea (and even East China sea) will be cease to be relevant.
India does figure much on the map – observers suggest – unless the dispute spills and sputters in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where US has a sizeable say in Indian trade and defence affairs under a 10-year-pact. China is a major player in the region. But for the time- the buffer nation (India) which has been advocating peaceful resolution to the South China Sea conflict under the UN Sea Protocol has to fend off one niggling fear- of growing political and economic isolation in the Asian trade and power canvas which is hefting imperceptibly in favour of China in the south Asian region.
Blame it on the fire escalating the mercury on the South China Sea and its ramifications across the continent.
The metropolis is a big sweetmeat for the odd diabetic — a cottony white rosogulla or the voluptuous jal bhara sandesh perched comfortably saccharine on the banks of the Ganges. Kolkata, to the intrepid outsider, is identified by its proverbial Bengali sweet-tooth that creeps into the northern palette as well. A year’s sojourn to the metropolis –Satyajit Ray’s “Mahanagari” and chief minister Mamata Benerjee’s “cauldron of political bonhomie” — bequeathed me a legacy of a lifetime. A blood sugar count of 400. The doctor smiled – slightly benign and generally saccharine. “No misti (sweets), madam”. The stricture exploded in my mindscape with a new perspective — the sweetmeats on which I had been fattening my Bengali fantasies everyday at breakfast acquired a new pedagogy of existence. I began to ponder their anatomical dialectics – their genesis, evolution, the ongoing war of the “rasogulla” between Bengal and neighbouring Orissa – and their intellectual sublimities.
Startling, but the humble “jal-bhara”— a baked jaggery cheesecake – the proud refrain of every halwai in the metropolis — rolled out a story- my own juxtaposed against the large canvas of a changing Bengali pysche. It is a royal sweet that has seen the Bengali societal progression from elitism, Marxism to the current-day egalitarianism in the present-day Bengal, living above the breakages and fissures of political time-scales. ‘Jal-bhara’ has emerged unscathed to become slightly more refined, resplendent and modern with an odd raisin, a green cardamom and a dollop of liquid palm gur (jaggery) that aficionados swear is sweeter than it was at the turn of the century.
The sweetmeat vend near my home – “Mouchak” or the Beehive — a sought-after and thriving address for all the sugar-coated diabetic newbies in the south Kolkata neighbourhoods says the “jal-bhara” dates back to a time when the erstwhile landlords of the metropolis were scouting for forms in their “feudal consciousness”, nearly 150 years ago at the beginning of the 20th century or at the lag of the 19th century. An ingenious halwai or the cheese artist accidentally stumbled upon the idea of the ripe “plum’ as the clay model for the gastronomy of the sweetmeat somewhere near Jessore in present day Bangladesh – though some like to differ to Chandannagore- then vital to undivided Bengal as an arterial node on the silk road between Ganges and the Padma. The dates are tangled in factual and spatial discords.
History cites that the rationale for “jal-bhara” was inspired by topography – a desire to transform the desolation of a decadent Bengal into a “syrupy” passage of socio-politico cultural change. Pouring “rose syrup” inside a sandesh was the right spice to steam-cook the imagination of the Bengali misti (sweet) platter that occupied the forefront of the traditional Kolkata hospitality. In 1818, moira (sweetmeat maker) Surjya Kumar Modak drenched the jiggery and cottage cheese dough with rose syrup, moulded it like the plum fruit that hung in wanton and inebriating profusion from the green tongues of the city in the making – dotting roads, riverbanks, private gardens and the country-side. The “newly-crafted” sandesh (sweet) was christened the jalbhara or the tal-shansh sandesh. Modak later went to patent the “motichur sandesh”, aam sandesh (mango sandesh) and the khirpulli sandesh (cheeseball sweet). The discovery of the jal-bhara in chocolate and vanilla flavours came a mild surprise – the flavours appeared too city-slicking for a delicacy as traditional, prissy and hefty as the “jal-bhara”. The evolution of the jal-bhara into “choco-latte” took the wind out my Bengali soul. It was a sacrilege – the entire vandalism of the Bengali aristocracy associated with its unique gastronomy that progressed simultaneously with the march of the wet terrain from the days of the early Hindu-Bengali dynasties to the “nawabi tehzeeb” of Gaur, the ensuing fiefs, feudal holds and the British Raj to the “bullocks” 21st century- when the intellectual melting pot of the renaissance years became the superficial hunting ground of confused shopping arcades (east meets west facilities in Bengali haste) and messy industrial skeletons under the Left Front and then the Trinamool Congress – rising like a mythical flying creature from the grassroots.
The sight of a “kid” in dungarees – freshly disgorged from its NRI flying machine off the coasts of Atlantic – digging into the chocolaty jal-bhara in an obscure sweetmeat counter not far from my home was an affront to the sensibility. It was a spur. No! It is not the right way to sink teeth into one of Bengal’s enduring legacies- the words died at the tip of my tongue but the outrage took precedence prompting a deeper look at the social gastronomy of the “jal-bhara”.
Children measure the furlongs of societal transformation – in Bengal the process has acquired a curious twist spawning a generation of aliens –severed from the cord blood of their Bengali DNA early at birth.
At the beginning of the new millennium – circa 2000 – or as some of my peers point out — in the cusp of the political melodrama of the mid-1970s when the fire of a Marxist revolution (Naxalism – a home-grown brand of Mao’s doctrine meets the armed insurrectionist of South American Communists fired by the poetic violence of Che Guevara) was making way for a more sane and moderate Left bloc (derided as a bourgeois government), Bengal witnessed a drain. The outflow was a strange reversal of the 1971 demographic phenomenon when the droves swamped the Gangetic delta from neighbouring Bangladesh in an exodus spurred by the war of Liberation — a steady surge of bright young minds deserted the state for greener pastures up country – to New Delhi and beyond— moving across the walls of geography to surf foreign shores. United Kingdom and United States of America were their common destination stops – enterprising and thinking Bengali boys and girls – the later in a minuscule in proportion — took up posts in the white collared industry and the services. The elders inferred lack of space citing that the metropolis was bursting at the seams with progression and immigration – mostly illegal through its syrupy riverine borders. They had to find room in the more sparsely-inhabited turfs across the globe.
Forty-years on, the out-bounds of the 70s and the 80s have multiplied into families – two generations of them who fly home twice a year diligently unlike their brethrens elsewhere across the country – to bond. The boys bring in brides – as in my personal recollection and encounters – frail American blondes with lank mousy hair, pallid skins and large blue eyes. “Blonde, that’s what clicked…,” the guys who trooped to school in unison, gush out of the earshot of yankee consorts . “Jal-bhara” returns to the realms of conversations about politics and the quintessential Bengali gastronomy – the morphs, amorphous subtleties and the universalisation of the Bengali platter. “Misti (sweetmeats) and steak- medium, not overdone….beef. Fata fati combo. Pair it with red wine,” the suggestion is outlandish, perched precariously on insanity. Beef is irreverence. Why not?
But the spirit of “jal-bhara” means magic. “Ganguram, Sen Mahashyay. KC Das, Balaram Mullick or Mouchak…” the contentions are overloaded. Ganguram spells class, Mouchak is spice. Sen Mahashyay harks back to the heritage of North Kolkata’s “bari” culture. KC Das is pure commerce. Each has interpreted “jal-bhara” to suit its trajectories – business, sociological and personal. The “jal-bhara” of Ganguram edges past Mouchak in its sugary wealth— and buttery skein. Mouth-melting, flaky, the jaggery smells like freshly-plucked palm fruit, the dough is softer and the sugar syrup sweeter.
The brisk trek to Ganguram in a bustling neighbourhood in South Kolkata is a 10-minute exercise in sugar-searching. “We look into our souls for a bit of sweet-nothing every year during the Durga-utsav, away from the manic pace of Manhattan…,” their words carry the wisp of Hudson’s serendipity. Limpid. Far-away. Unknown. It beckons. “Chole aye (come away). This city stinks,” the card-board loads of “jal-bhara” pile heavy on their arms. Two boxes are for the festivities and the rest loaded into the cargo-holds to New York.“That choco-latte derivative looks tacky – pedestrian. Jal-bhara has to be the right shade of earth – light, mute and drenched in memories,” the description fits the odyssey of my favourite Bengali misti . Like the city. A nostalgia crumbling into the flaky dough of jal-bhara. “I am acutely sugary…”
“ Never mind. Bite a morsel…” the response is shaper than usual. Why waste yourself in the alleyways of what it was; politics has never been this chaotic and quixotic, life has taken a second place on the transparency meter of the city and economics is on the least ebb in the stock-exchanges. The dollar trades beyond the periphery of my professional and algebric imagination- 60 for one. “Can you beat it. We can raid the stores here. Lark… ekhane eshe khorrcha korbi (spend here) – you can go to the moon…” This year should be my last in the city. Manhattan, next.
But jal-bhara remains resilient in the counter of the obscure sweetmeat vend next to my adopted home in the city. Jaggery, chocolatty, Bengali and slow-changing to the tug of the times.
Kolkata, Sept 2016
Asia News Network (India) Coordinator
Foreign Affairs Editor (The Statesman)
The destiny of nearly 33 million Afghans is still grounded on the frontlines of the gory conflict between the Taliban — the hawkish Islamist militia that had ruled the country for more than a decade during the 1990s — and the resistance led by NATO and the American support forces as the United States begins a renewed purge of the Taliban across select pockets in a spring-summer counter-offensive.
As the law and order scenario in the country spirals downhill with a resurgent Taliban – instilling a regime of terror in the civil society with spate of abductions, threats, extortion and daring guerrilla raids — the prospect of the pullout of support forces now appears uncertain. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has mandated in favour of retaining its troops in the country till the next year— though the United States is strangely ambiguous despite its new aggressive stand. On June 17, 2016, the US refused to mediate in a border clash between Afghanistan and Pakistan near the Durand line over a “wall” that Pakistan wants to build to stop the transit of terror across the border.
The United States, which has been involved in counter-terrorism operations and security drills in Afghanistan since 2011, is in a limbo. On one hand, the Barack Obama administration has pledged to cut back on the number of troops by the end of 2016, on the other hand, it has been pinned down by pangs of diplomatic conscience to carry on policing the strife-torn nation— as the Taliban musters more venom to spill on the streets and in everyday lives of the people.
Army general John W. Nicholson jr, in a 90-day assessment report tabled on June 16 — put together since he took over as the commander of the US military forces in Afghanistan in March— suggested that the US government had to confront tough choices in a region where it has significant strategic stakes — together with Pakistan and India. The report which has yet to be made public has spurred the United States government to ramp up its military operations in the region. The administration has cleared the way to expand the military’s authority to conduct airstrikes against the Taliban, “when necessary in the face of escalating violence,” the media reported.
The United States and NATO formally ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in the end of 2014 — but the duo has been to provide support services to the Afghan national security forces. The United States at the moment has 9,800 troops stationed in Afghanistan after a series of pullouts from its initial strength of 100,000 when it was rallying behind NATO to take on the Taliban. The contingent is engaged in “Resolute Support” and counter-terrorism operation under the umbrella, “Freedom’s Sentinel”. But the coalition forces have a time-bound trajectory that entails a pullout over the next two years to come. The Pentagon is debating on controlling the number of deployment to 5,500 into next year before phasing out the forces completely.
The widening of the American and the support forces’ footprints in Afghanistan with an order to strike at the Taliban – whenever need arises — shows the intent of the western powers to impose a semblance of political sobriety in the lawless state which has just experienced a democratic process of election — and has been striving to recoup from the damages of the last 40 years since the invasion by the Soviet forces in 1979. But the paradox lies in the objectives of NATO’s military deployment and its fruition – empowerment of the internal security– which is proving to be distant a possibility by the day.
The Afghan security forces have been crippled over the last four decades in the absence of a civilian government. Since the Afghan-Soviet war that lasted for nine years to keep Hazifullah Amin – the then head of state – in power against a guerrilla force of Islamist hardliners known as the “Mujahideen”, state policing as a concept was deliberately expunged from the list of government subjects. The evolution of the internal security was caught in the Mujaheedin’s zeal for “jihad” to grab more religious space – and the Soviet-backed establishment forces, which verged on repression. The Mujaheedin – later morphed into the Taliban – bred in the Sunni “madrassas” of Pakistan where the Afghan refugees enrolled in hundreds to pursue an Islamic education. In the last 25 years, the Taliban has become a formidable adversary to the pro-west and pro-India state establishment in Afghanistan, rejecting the open-door that Amin and his successors had tried to script in the political manual of the nation – once so arterial to the Indian sub-continent.
The revival of terror has cast a cloud on the efficacy of the support mission that NATO and US had embarked on to pull “hardline insurgency” out by its roots. The internal forces are yet to be trained – and the youth, say observers, are not keen to join the security forces, opting for civilian livelihoods and unpredictable destinies. The security and the fate of Afghanistan, according to international peace interlocutors, will have to be vested in the Afghan security forces in the future. The forces as they exist now are grossly out of sync to match the superior battle instincts of the Taliban.
Hence the need of the NATO training camps to pull up their socks for more rigorous training to the local Afghan security people to ensure stability of life.
The spotlight is on training and capacity building of the internal security — in a country where more than 25 per cent of the young people are returnees as “exiles” reconnecting to their homeland after a mass exodus between 1980 and mid 1990s. It is no mean mission to equip the Afghan security forces with precision firepower to take on the Taliban— as fear is endemic among the younger crop.
A retreating civilian mindset, who prefer to stay indoor in times of wars in the provinces and during raids in the capital, Kabul, coupled with the dwindling quantum of western military deployment have emboldened the Taliban in its traditional bastions once more. The support forces are locked in a fierce battle for Kunduz, a province, which fell to the militia last year in the northern region. To the south, the Taliban has made inroads into Helmand, taking the national security forces and the support troops by surprise in cities like Laskar Gah and Sangin.
In the heartland, the militia breached the high security of Kabul with a strike on the elite military headquarters complex in April 2016 that killed more than 50 and injured 300. It was the beginning of the organisation’s spring offensive. Between April to June, the Taliban made several incursions into the Afghan capital targeting civilians and security forces in sporadic guerrilla raids— though with smaller casualties.
The average Afghan, besieged by long years of repressive regimes — first by the Soviet occupation, the mujaheedin movement and then by the Islamic hardline Taliban in the 1990s — is in the midst of another spell of miasma. A mute government led by President Ashraf Ghani — who took over from Hamid Karzai — and a resurgent Taliban under a succession of rigid “mullahs” is a sign of a new political complexity looming on the fragile nation, which has been fired a new salvo by the entry of Islamic State’s Caliphate fighters in the eastern hubs of the country.
The peace talks — mid-wifed by Pakistan – has foundered with the Taliban developing cold feet on the table, much to the glee of the mediator (sic Pakistan) which has been providing covert support to the Taliban by pumping resources into the seminaries on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and in the remote heartlands that act as training ground for the Taliban cadre. Afghanistan, which had earlier been subjected to Russian occupation, has stood up to constant “manoueverings” by Pakistan to foist a “friendly government” that would allow it to use the country as a gateway to central Asia and as a counter-cushion to India’s growing muscle in the subcontinent. But the Afghans, a resilient and battle-scarred lot, remain committed to peace that might be difficult to claw out of the mesh the country is trapped in.
If history is taken as a context for the growth of militancy in Afghanistan, then the present scenario is no less provocative. The Taliban is on a comeback trail — together with the Haqqani network, the al-Qaida, which pledged support to the Taliban recently, the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the Islamic State. The Taliban, which had a free writ in the country during the 1990s – suddenly finds itself among competitors armed with greater expertise honed in the west.
It has been compelled to set in motion a series of sweeping changes in its ranks – a transformation in the modus operandi that is vexing the common Afghan on the streets. The death of Mullah Omar – the founding mastermind of the terrorist network – last year had bolstered the morale of the Afghan masses for peace while the US — which forms the scaffolding of the foreign security back-up with the NATO forces — lapsed into a reconciliatory mode exhorting the Ghani government to sit across the table with the new successor, Mullah Mansour. The possibility of infighting in the Taliban, as the reports suggested in the media, led the western powers to infer that a weakened Taliban riven with internecine feuds would be easy to rehabilitate. But the “mullahs” have not allowed the Afghan citizenry or the government or the support forces any respite. The slew of attacks on civilian targets has intensified in the last two months.
Fighting between the Taliban and the forces are raging across 20 provinces in Afghanistan, says a Kabul-based parliamentarian Farhad Sediqi. The spiralling violence, which is threatening to plunge the country into a civil war, has spurred the Ashraf Ghani government into officially ratifying a “defence minister” and an “intelligence chief” — in an indication that Afghanistan is ready to helm its own security to ensure a continuity in command at a time when more American and NATO are preparing to go home.
Nicholas Haysom, the UN security general’s special representative for Afghanistan paints a mixed picture of the security situation. “There is a risk, in my view, that the conflict might enter a new phase which could see retaliatory acts of vengeance and an escalating spiral in violence,” Haysom, who has been manning the post for four years, says. Hayson, who warned in March, that the very survival of the President Ashraf Ghani’s government in 2016 would be an achievement, says the “battlefield is in a state of flux with gains and reversals but neither side affecting a clear dominance”. “Security forces face more challenges of leadership, morale and recruitment”. Going by the scope of training local security people and the response of the fledgling Afghan army in provinces like Helmand and Kunduz — observers say the war-preparedness of the regime forces leaves much more to be desired. The Afghan army is still reluctant to pull out the big guns — after decades of being smashed at source command since the Russian invasion and the later years of Mujaheedin insurgency. The army did not receive lee-space to evolve.
At stake are lives of the unsuspecting victims – like the Nepali guards killed on 20 June in a bus ambush — who cannot out a finger to the conflicting forces at play. The rapid change in Taliban leadership after Omar’s and Mansour’s death, as many local residents point out, brought initial cheer that democracy would allowed to enact itself out in the political theatre of the country that has not witnessed much of “realpolitik” in the last five decades. If the reign of Hazifullah Amin was brazenly pro-Russia, the reign of Hamid Karzai was pro-India and the west in defiance of Pakistan’s bid impose its writ on the nation. Ghani, on his part, is dependant on the western support forces and NATO to keep him in the chair.
The Taliban exhibits a singular-minded determination to find a toehold in Kabul — and the west is confused about the power points driving the organisation to frame bolder strategies in the vicinity of the establishment. Mullah Mansour, a former warlord and a hard-boiled fighter, did not turn out to be a fair player in the peace process — under the hawk’s eyes of mediator Pakistan. Mansour, who was not averse to opening a dialogue with the government in the early phases of the peace mission, went on the backfoot after the first two rounds of talks. His tenure in the organisation was eventually cut shot in a drone attack by the US in May 2016 deep inside the Balochistan province in Pakistan— where the “mullah” was sheltered. Mansour was in contrast to Omar, who did not beat around the bush for peace. The founder was committed to the “jihadi” and the terrorist ideology of the Taliban, which had tasked itself with the “takeover” of the country to form a militant Islamic nation. Omar carried the organisation through the restive times, post Russia and the increased presence of western forces later on. The organisation had been lying low in the last decade — either cowering in a corner battered by the death of Mullah Omar or recouping after its 2001 debacle when it was trounced — out of power.
The United States claims that it took Mansour out because of his bellicose outlook to peace— but his successor, Mawlawi Habibatullah Akhundzada, a hardline cleric from the spiritual ranks in his fifties — is a mysterious figure, whose strengths have not been identified. But as Af-Pak observers point out, the Mawlawi is a seasoned operative with a flair for guerrilla strategies — a fact that the US would not like to ignore. Akhundzada, a member of the Noorzai tribe from the Panjwal district of the southern Kandhahar province, is member of the first generation of the Taliban – and was close to Mullah Omar. Out of the frontline combat, Akhundzada was responsible for the “day to- day administrative and judicial machinery” of the organisation.
According to Michael Semple, a professor of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice in Belfast, the cleric was the “author of many of the decrees that Mansour used as religious cover for his actions”. Akhundzada’s religious grounding – together with his austere lifestyle – may restore the Taliban to the “Mullah Omar days” of jihad and simplicity, integrating the younger and the more aggressive ranks with the older and the mature ones. The cleric has the firepower of the Haqqani network as Sirajuddin Haqqani – the chief of the Haqqani group — is one of his deputies.
The Taliban is in strategic relationship with the Haqqani group officially for the first time — and the tactic has paid off in rich harvests. The strikes have assumed more precision while in the provinces, the organisation has revived dramatically to hold the security forces at a distance. For the citizens and even the security forces, resurgence of the Taliban has mixed portends. Accountability is cherished in the ranks of weather-beaten militants – every move by the organisation has to be justified to the cleric under a central command to curb the infighting that had broken out after Mansour’s death. Akhundzada has ruled out negotiating with the government— and in the process letting the people have an understanding of the things to come. Peace is far-fetched, but the average Afghan is more wary now than he was in 1979 — because of the element of universality that the nation had begun to savour to engage with the world after the democratic election of 2014.
Pakistan has made its stand obvious. The two countries – traditional rivals – are locked in a battle on the border over the reported movement of terror. However, Islamabad continues to support and shelter the Taliban on his soil as a buffer against the democratic government in Kabul. The momentum of the growth and infrastructure rebuilding work that the country was privileged in the last five years is slackening – mostly because of the vulnerability of the foreign crews deployed as know-how to bring the country back on rails.
India, one of the steadiest of the Afghan allies, has appealed to the United Nations to declare Akhundzada as a terrorist. The country risks losing the support of India as an Indian aid worker kidnapped from Kabul has not been traced and amid reports of the sporadic deaths of expatriate Indians in Taliban raids. The region is a bustling breeding ground for terror, United Nations envoy Mahmoud Saikal says .
The revival of the Taliban and the entry of the Islamic State — coupled several other “jihadi” clusters — has triggered an unprecedented exodus of refugees to the west, who opt to live as refugees in camps rather than face bullets in their homes. The country is beginning to resemble Syria or Iraq — where the Islamic faith is at war against forces from within. Pakistan adds to the inferno with its constant attempts to stamp its whip on the country. The deaths of Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansour in quick succession raise doubts about the veracity of the proclamations? The news of their deaths leads to unholy analogies between the Taliban and the “often” circulated news of Islamic State ideologue Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s demise. Are they really dead or is it a ploy to throw the support forces and the western world off their scent — present proxies in the fight against the regime?
Akhundzada appears tougher than his predecessors if the frequency of the raids are a yardsticks The Taliban seems to changed its war-plan — launching a two-pronged blueprint that is waging “hits-and-run” in the cities and full-blown sustained battles in the southern provinces and in Kunduz in the north. The outfit is rich with resources – earned from the multi-million dollar opium trade and as new reports indicate – from the banned lapis lazuli mines.
For India, Afghanistan spells a small diplomatic riddle as the two have cooperated since Kabul’s post-Taliban building years. The two countries’ animosity towards Pakistan finds a chord in India which has been fighting Islamabad since Independence over border, terror and armaments. Kabul is a strategic ally for India given the two nation’s traditional kinships and hostilities. The growing Pakistan-China axis of power in the subcontinent and in east Asia makes it a tightrope walk for Afghanistan to keep its bridges untouched with India – and the west in general. The United States is cautious in its approach to peace in Kabul — stopping short of the heartfelt friendship with Ghani — fearing a backlash in its “defence deals” with Pakistan.
China eyes Afghanistan as a wary battleground – where it can cash in on the ambience of terror and get a slice in the development trade if Kabul can be weaned away from its Indian affinities. In this scenario, the common Afghan is back to where he was in 1979, confused and vulnerable. Democracy is confined to the capital complex in Kabul and the internal security is still on the story board, unlikely to empower itself in the western training schools, which are fast shrinking their infrastructure. For the west, Afghanistan, as the grapevine in the corridors of Pentagon indicate, is eminently expendable, a mammoth military burden, taxed by interventions in Syria. The casualty of the war is the scarred Afghan, whose life swings between NATO support and the Taliban’s killer dance. Despite the fact that the United States has given President Ghani a year of life-breath – by allowing support forces to retain the frontlines against the Taliban – and its ilk.
History rarely allows decreed war zones to enjoy interludes of peace.
New Delhi/Kabul, June28, 2016
The grey reality of the 21st century migration — described as one of the biggest in the recent history of civilisation — are the roadblocks impeding the wanderers’ progress. A controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey — a non-member state— to control the surge of nearly one million people migrating from Asia and Africa to Europe has earned the outrage of the international human rights fraternity and the spectators of social evolution, who see in the move a stagnation of cultural and demographic progression. Movement, it has often been extolled, has been the trigger for the spread of human civilisation since the early primates evolved into the walking species and eventually the hunter-gatherers’ community— foraging for survival on the pristine planet in foot.
Migration as a notion of reality was born in the imagination of the early hunter-gatherer, who wandered around the habitation pockets looking for food and land — or rather caves — to pitch for their survival. Their movement across the global topography did not translate into this complex nuance of the present-day migration prompted by a gamut of contemporary realities and diversities like politics, strife, hunger, social dislocations, calamities and a yearning to explore uncharted pastures. Hence, the idea of migration initially flourished as a concept of necessity, fluxing with time to take on more complex colours— nourished by man’s nascent powers to imagine new homes across different terrains through they moved.
Historically, migration has been a tool of subversion — appearing in early history as a weapon to crush rooted cultural identities with alien aspirations to power and empire building. After the foragers settled down in their fledgling village states, they began to eye the world just beyond the periphery of their hearths, hovels and granaries. The invention of fire spurred the wheel in motion — the ploughshare, the forge and the cart. Migration ceased to be an exercise on foot; the carts were ready to ferry the early wayfarers on. In the middle ages, the wheel was a catalyst to wars that brought in its course mass movements across geography to fight and to subjugate.
The war led to explosion of economics — new livelihoods — and slavery. The victorious sought the services of the vanquished resulting in forced movements of people from the annexed dominions to the seats of power to serve their new masters. Since the last 5,000 years in recorded history, the Afro-Eurasian continental mass has witnessed large shifts of people westward to work as serfs. The slave surges across geographies are often treated as the beginning of the modern-day migration — powered by extraneous factors like economic inequities, forced bondages, exploitation, destitution and changing allegiances.
The zeal to cover more ground — or territorial expansion — and power mongering — lust for ownership — have been the threads underlining migration down the millennia. The slave trade, which sparked the biggest and the most prolonged exodus in the history of human civilisation, is still the catalyst of people’s movement even in this century. New forces such as the great wars, economic meltdowns, civil unrests and insurgencies have forced the developing world to seek affluence — peace and right to security of existence away from their troubled native turfs. The fundamental premise is a safe asylum where one is free to pursue the right to life, The 21st century migration is similar to the migration revealed in the testaments — where the children of the Hebrew god were forced out of their shelters by followers of an Islamic prophet to seek a promised land, a country they could call their own. The exodus bequeathed to the world a Zionist homeland — Israel — on the periphery of Islamic consciousness of the Arab world. The contemporary movements of people from the strife-torn nations of West Asia to the shores of the occident is grounded in this divergence of religious belief to a large extent and the schism that ensued more than 2,000 years ago, around 1,500 BCE.
Just as the Jews or the Hebrews were hunted down like animals and hounded out of their homes by oligarchs of another faith, the migration from war-ravaged Syria, Iraq, north African countries and Afghanistan has been abetted by the idea of an Islamic caliphate, which seeks to impose its writ on the moderate followers of the faith. The conflict of faith in today’s West Asia has redefined itself through politics — where Islam is at war against Islam riven by sectarian divides and power-mongering regimes, The resulting zenophobia is changing the demographic dynamics of West Asia — prompting a rush driven by an insane fear of dislocation that is not always an imminent reality. The war in Syria, from where nearly 9 million people have fled so far and 11 million rendered homeless, is not merely a civil war. It has raged for five years, factoring in new nations bordering as far as the Islamic north Africa and sweeping across the region.
This war has numerous hues, whose subtexts span a range of issues bearing on politics, crisis of faiths, sectarian wars between Shia and Sunni Islam, backwardness, power tussles and a new cold war between the United States and those opposed to its intervention in the troubled region from the other end – led by Russia. Experts describe it as a sociological crisis — exponential and unparalleled in scope that is partially man-made and to some extent a natural corollary of strife-induced ousters (like in the great wars of the early and mid-20th century). The genesis of this zenophobic migration from Asia and the rims of Africa can be traced to the Iraq War that led to the consolidation of militias like the Islamic State and the Kurdish armies. , After the ouster of Saddam Hussain, the militias which extended covert and tactical heft to the United States led allied forces had to keep themselves afloat in another turbulent geopolitics — a post war scenario where the rule of the mob became a lip service for democracy and armed rebels could bend this frenzy to their whims. The Islamic State, fearing irrelevance and disenchantment among votaries stricken by a miasma in the aftermath of the war, moved outside Iraq to Syria, Turkey and a few other countries in the region.The organisation came to be synonymous with disruptions, dislocations and guerrilla style civil wars. A hardline Wahabi sect of insurrectionists, the Islamic State is at war with President Bashar Al-Assad’s Shitte Alawite sect in Syria. The war in Syria that began with clashes in Derra in 2011 when the anti-establishment forces picked up arms against the ruling dispensation alleging “suppression of a school of thought” and attempt at grabbing more power at the cost of formidable rival groups — inimical to al-Assad’s relatively liberal but wily regime — soon degenerated into a sectarian war between the armed Islamic hawks and the doves drawing new entities like the Kurdish militias from neighbouring Turkey and northern Iraq into a fractured anti-and proAssad frontlines. The war raged on five years —battering Syria’s fragile economy and social matrix.
Estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees cite that more than 320,000 people crossed the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015 to escape the excesses of cuvil war — a rate that is being billed as twice as high as during 2014 and eight times as high as 2013. While the bulk of the migrants ventured out from the battle-ravaged topographies of Syria, the surge comprised refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan as well who mingled with the millions of Syrian migrants. Almost all of them were in quest of peace and life – away from the glare of gun-fires in their homelands
A report by the Siege Watch released by the Netherlands-based aid group, PAX, which has been monitoring the war in Syria, says 1.09 million people are living in 46 besieged communities in Syria – and they are in need of succour. The report which challenges the findings of the United Nations hints that more people are looking for ways out of the country — a fact corroborated by the statistics of migration to Europe last year. “The majority of migrants cross borders in search of better economic and social opportunities,” the UN says. “Others are forced to flee crises – the current mass movement of refugees and displaced persons has given rise to xenophobia and calls for tightening borders. Internal migration within countries is also on the rise.”
Europe, consequently, is in the midst of this transformation. The socio-ethno mosaic of an essentially affluent Christian society and seats of classical cultures are under siege — threatened by hundreds of thousands of Islamic migrants, whose roots are mired in mists, whose kitties are stripped of sustenance and who are powered by religious and emotional vendettas, fuelling violent zenophobia in the entrenched—and to a large measure complacent — civil societies of Europe used to peaceful and progressive realpolitik and upwardly mobile lifestyles.
The hungry and the penniless throngs— according to economists — who are flocking to the shores of Greece and its adjoining Aegean islands, Turkey, the Balkans and finally to Germany which has opened its heart to the human tide in a rare gesture of compassion — are gnawing at the individual penny purses of the average European deepening the inequities and social fault-lines into distinct economic groups of “haves” and the “have-nots”, unheard of for a long time in the developed European Union economies, since the great wars. Coupled with these fissures is a subtle conflict of faith — a situation in which the European Christian is forced to look upon the new-arrival owing allegiance to Islam, with suspicion. The fear of anything “Islamic” is bordering on paranoia with the hit-and-run terror strikes across the power hubs like London and France — bulk of whose perpetrators have been identified as Islamic migrants, tracing their antecedents to the Syrian war and the expansionist ambitions of the hardline Wahabi “insurrectionists” or the Caliphate soldiers.
Observers say the geopolitics of Europe is straining to break away from its existing framework. The idea of a unified and integrated Europe – or the European Union — is disintegrating. The economies have been in a state of chaos since the Balkan members have clamped down on the open borders to stem the flood of refugees from the strife-torn areas of west Asia, north Africa and the Afghanistan. The “schengen” zone of an integrated Europe — specifically meant to facilitate borderless tourist and business traffic — have been abused at random by the immigrants, who sailed across the Aegean to walk, ride and even break through barbed wire boundaries to find a new homes on the European soil. More than 100,000 have perished on seas in heir crossings aboard “ramshackle” dhow boats, fishing trawlers and over-crowded dinghies.
The quest for an adopted homeland has been fraught with pitfalls— leading to a macabre spike in the extras-judicial trade of human trafficking by a caucus of unscrupulous smugglers, criminals and migrants, who have been trading dollars for lives in high-risk odysseys. Such has been the frenzy since 2013-2014 to flee the battlefields of the developing world that Europe and the United Nations have pressed government and military resources into service to ensure safe passages and mount mega-rescue operations to “save” the victims of an unprecedented socio-political crisis.
The hemisphere divide has never been more perceptible than as it is now in Europe. The spectre of a neo-Fascism looms over the relatively liberal skies of Germany, France and even Great Britain.. The far-right is making a slow comeback piggy-riding on anti-migrant crest.
Reports in the media said in Germany, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany won 13.2 per cent of the votes in a local election in the state of Hesse. In the little town of Leun, barely 50 miles north of Frankfurt, the neo-Nazi NPD Party wrested 17 percent of the votes. The Pegida, a far right movement that was founded in Dresden in 2014 has widened its support base in a dramatic subscription of hardline political capital — on the strength of the local residents who have taken on the immigrants, alleging pilferage of economic opportunities, breakdown in law and order and social unrest. The anti-migrant vitriol sweeping through the middle or classical Europe, epicentered in Germany, threatens to regress the heaving European Union into a pre-World War scenario of Nazism and Fascism. The rise of the far right has fanned the revival of neo-Nazi cults, accused of arson and violence against the migrants.
A liberal Europe that had exorcised Fascism in an arduous endeavour post-war is perched on the threshold of an abyss of a political time warp that might facilitate the right wing to take roots in the demographic chaos of migration. Observers say if the politics of Europe changes colour irrevocably, the European Union will crash like a house of cards — taking down with it the single window of finance, trade and cultural solidarity. One of the key pillars of the integrated European entity — Britain— is debating its association with the Union in a referendum scheduled for 23 June. British Prime Minister David Cameron in an European Union summit in February had wangled a “series of concessions” from the “V4” nations and other members of the 28-member bloc that would leash the slew of benefits which migrants in Britain could enjoy — including child support which became a sensitive humanitarian issue. The East European countries, reluctant to Britain’s proposal gave in on the last day of the summit — a marginal victory that Prime Minister David Cameron prepared to ride on his home turf, polarised on “migration” and the volume of unchecked “entry of immigrants” through France and eastern Europe.
The Independent says Brexit – as Britain’s exit from the European Union as is being described in the media — would help Moscow take over the reins of the European economy. In an article, writer Ben Judah contends that “Moscow’s first weapon is the Syrian refugee”. Nato’s supreme commander in Europe, Philip Breedlove warns that Russia, together with the al- Assad’s regime in Syria :is “weaponising migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve”. Right now “Russian planes are bombing civilian areas, turning northern Syria into a refugee factory. By pushing them to Germany, Russia hopes, will force Berlin to lift sanctions, will it be for the refugees to stop. Russia’s second weapon is the European fascist, Judah points out. “The old sponsor of the far-Left, Kremlin, is now Europe’s sponsor of the far right. In France, this is out in the open with reports of Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front being funded by Russian banks”. The writer says “in central Europe, in a dark mirroring of EU democracy promotion efforts in the former USSR, Russian intelligence is seed funding the far right underground.”
The European Union has been looking to Turkey as a buffer to “contain the deluge” from Asia in transit camps in a deal that contravenes several international statues protecting the rights of the migrants under the EU laws”.
Under the new agreement March 18, 2016, “any migrant who has crossed over to Greece will be sent back to camps in Turkey to wait for registration”. In a discriminating rider, the deal states that for every unmarked Syrian immigrant returned to Turkey, a refugee ‘whose documents have been processed’ will be allowed to enter European Union from the Turkish camps. This could lead to a “mass return of Syrian migrants to their battle-scarred country” if Turkey decides so —a prospect which goes against the basic grain of the Eurasian and African migration. The right to a safe life.
European Union bosses justify the deal as the only way to save “schengen” zone of open borders – an integrated European Union. Turkey has been paid to look after the “homeless” squatting along its shores. Once the seat of Ottoman power, gateway Turkey is now the key to the existence of an unified Europe. The nation’s encounters with unchecked migration from Asia has accorded it a “new face” — it has become the theatre of unprecedented human suffering and the soil that plays host to the dead. Migration culled its first commercial “grace” from the coast of Turkey last year when a three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi was washed ashore from one of the numerous sunken trawlers crossing the Mediterranean, packed with migrants from Syria.
The United Nation estimates that more than five thousand people have died on their way to safer homelands outside Syria on the high seas last year. Kurdi, who little carcass sprawled face down on the beach went viral on the media — with another iconic photograph of a policeman cradling the lifeless form. They were the catalysts for “serious action” to tackle the crisis. The heads of the European Union members states sat up, wide awake to the scope of tragedy unravelling on European soil. Turkey was turning a blind eye to the throng, moving northward to Italy, Germany and France, without leashes. Kurdi became the “poster dead”, Europe bandied his “image” as the essence of a catastrophe threatening the continent— and the growing magnitude of human smuggling— a crime perpetrated by humans against its own kind. The refrain since has been of a cap on migration and “equal sharing of the human burden under the Dublin pact which stipulates the Union to a collective pitch”.
As peace in Syria becomes a prospect shrouded in diplomatic confusion — with Russia’s partial pullout from the battle zone and President Assad’s reluctance to kowtow to primary agenda of Geneva talks — a democratic transition of power, more people are expected to flee the scarred nation. The circumstances point to conspiracy— according to analysts a deep-rooted one grounded in politics of faith, terror and territorial expansion. A clash of civilisation hangs like a dark cloud billowing out of the ghettos of Brussels, France, Germany and London, where the refugees huddle like human cargo desperate to break through the cultural and economic barricades and militias like the Islamic State dig deeper roots in their zeal to acquire more space.
Europe is retreating into its shell, fearing onslaughts of change in the rush for better life .The serial terror strikes in Brussels on 22 March which killed more than 35 are a precursor to that societal upheaval that ensues in the battle over ceding territory to the “new”. Transformation tagged with safety — when the Afr0-Asian migration to Europe is assessed in this context, the movements of pre-history appear almost sobre compared to the new march of civilisation across continents where safety is at a premium.
Editorial Consultant/Foreign Affairs incharge of The Statesman, Kolkata
Jaipur, 23 January 2016
The historic pink city of India, Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, has pushed a new frontier in festival tourism. As the city decked up to host the Zee- Jaipur Literature Festival 2016, an annual jamboree of fine print and culture often described as the mecca of east-meets-west literary ethos, the city’s cultural intelligentsia is already mapping the blueprint for another festival — “Beyond Borders, The Silk and Spice Road Arts Festival”.
“The Silk Road was a global market before emergence of the global markets, a world spanning network before the invention of the telecommunication, a cultural melting pot before the advent of transitional media. It was in short the way the world discovered itself. And despite all the commerce — and all the connectivity and the cultural homogenisation, “Beyond Borders”, by returning to the beginning makes it all the more valuable again,” Peter BG Shoemaker, Co-Founder of Beyond Borders, The Silk and Spice Road Arts Festival, said.
The festival that is reminiscent of the Virasat Foundation’s pioneering culture initiative instituted nearly two decades ago — to bring to the world the rich legacies of the desert state of Rajasthan — pledges to resurrect the lost arts of Thar and the medieval cultures which flourished along the Silk Road.
The culture, according to historians, is more than a millennium old, having entrenched its colours as early as in the 6-7th century CE. The manifests drew their sustenance from the ethnic crafts and arts that symbolised the way of life and the histories of the warring clans of the Rajput, a sturdy race of fighters who inhabited the vast sandy swathes stretching from the Aravalli ridges — up from the Yamuna “doab” plains of Delhi — to the frontier regions across to modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan — opening out to the central Asia.
Culture on these roads of the caravan trade was forged in a union of three great faiths — early Hinduism, a nascent Islam and Buddhism, the lineage of the living god Gautama who contoured the arts and sensibilities of people along the length and the breadth of Asia.
Carpets, textiles, spices, artifacts, metalware, stoneware, jewellery and the Gandhara arts carried the aromas of the Orient right up to the gates of the western world through Constantinople and Tripoli in modern Turkey and beyond — across the Himalayas, the Urals, Euphrates and the Tigris to the Mediterranean Sea.
Rajasthan is positioned in an unique way on the Silk Route — fusing the cultures of the Orient, Persia with the greater Hindu royal legacies of Rajputana. Hence, the venue of the new festival is the Amer Palace, the piece de resistance on the — Silk Road which peters down to a dusty back-of-beyond track connecting the palace to the Delhi-Jaipur highway in the outskirts of the pink city.
The old Silk Bazar along the Silk Road to Amer Fort is no longer the grand “Mina Bazar” of the 15th and the 16th century CE when the Silk Road bustled with commerce.
The festival proposes to breathe life back on to this road — barely a kilometer’s stretch to the Amer Fort 1 with 100 artists representing the best of the Silk Road traditions from across the continent.
Business wise, a Silk Road festival makes perfect money sense now that China is spearheading a cultural and economic resurgence — in an attempt at an Asian conglomeration both on land and sea.
The proposed Maritime Economic Silk Road — an ambitious project — linking China, with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Africa through a string of pearls ocean board halts is an example of this emerging cultural-economic synergy that professes to revive ancient trade routes to cater to contemporary multi-lateral business needs. The estimated 140-bn USD project, as pundits point out, is in tandem with the overland routes that the caravaners had used in the early years of the spread of Buddhism that coincided with trade and the explosion of cultures — assimilations – driven by religion and movements of people from one geography to another.
The sea-lane aims to add heft to the land road, redefining trade and cultural links in the 21st century, jumping across time and history. A new cultural festival assumes relevance in the transforming Asian realpolitik and cultural diplomacy.
American art historian Mitchell Karim Crites, who has spent much of his productive career encouraging traditional artists in Jaipur, says, “Artisans don’t want a handout. They want an international market to display their talents and to pass on their traditional skills to the next generation.”
Beyond Borders as a result is is star-studded to create new linkages between the grassroots and those of girth at the global level. The roster rolls off names like Judith Espinar — founder of Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, Peter BG Shoemaker, award winning writer, poet and advisor, textile designer and visionary architect Edric Ong, Vice president for Central Asia on the World Crafts Council Dinara Chochunbaeva, Manjari Nirula, coordinating member and juror for the UNESCO award of excellence for central and south Asia and international exhibition director Nataliya Musina —among those do the international circuits. It is “a step further than the Jaipur Literature Festival and the big names it ropes in every year,” suggest insiders. The idea is to combine the salt-of-the-earth with the best from the around the world to a specific geo-cultural buzz.
International cultural expositions are precursors to greater bilateral synchronicity and engagements that ensues from interactions — people-to-people contacts and networking to boost ties between disparate geographies and encourage survival of living cultural practises and livelihoods.
In the last two decades — Rajasthan has been in the spotlight for mega cultural interfaces at the international level drawing participation from across the continental divides. Its strategic heritage location, busy tourism loop as one of the state’s economic mainstays, a trade friendly government, hospitable ambience and a proactive approach to development have helped the state carve a leg-space for itself as a trigger for diplomatic initiatives that engender at the national level and on the Asian canvas.
The Virasat Foundation — a cultural platform set up in 2002 to engage with the traditional arts and crafts of Jaipur as a catalyst of global exchanges — has set an example in how the culture of an ethnic typecast — as Rajasthan personifies with its arts, performances, music, mores and historic lifestyles— can be a cross-road of seamless overlaps and “track three” for a larger synergy between India, the rest of the SAARC bloc, ASEAN regions and the greater west Asian and Gulf terrain.
The Jaipur Literature Festival and the Rajasthan International Folk Festival which have been born out of the Virasat Foundation intiative — have spread the red carpet for even bigger displays of indigenous cultures that have found connectivity along the major Asian nodal civilisations.
The hype over the revival of the Silk Route — and China’s overdrive in promoting its maritime parallel is rooted in this need to converge on an economic plenum, where culture translates into business and often doubles as solutions to bilateral lean stretches between nations in dispute.
The riven relationship between India and Pakistan — with threads tying Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar into the mosaic of conflicts — breathes afresh with people-to-people cultural understanding which are sporadic but broodingly intense in their objective to mitigate.
Silk Road is an apt political metaphor for diplomatic bondage between the ideologically divergent power blocs like the SAARC and the ASEAN that are at odds over leverage space, sea boards, maritime securities and trade spin-offs. Analysts say cultural exchanges and jamborees — bear a balmy overtone on terrorism-related dislocations in the socio-cultural matrix as well promoting understanding, resuscitation, removal of misconceptions and rehabilitation at deeper psycho-diplomatic level.
Beyond Borders, one can hope, will live to paper the deep chasms along the 21st century Silk Road. And put Rajasthan — the diamond in India’s incredible history durbar — on a consolidated plane in the geo-space of global cultural diplomacy.
Foreign Affairs Incharge/Senior Writer