Fate of Afghanistan beeps mixed signals

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.

Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi/Kabul, June28, 2016

 

 

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Migrants’ Progress

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.

Madhusree Chatterjee
Editorial Consultant/Foreign Affairs incharge  of The Statesman, Kolkata

 

 

 

 

 

Rajasthan on Silk Road – a metaphor for cultural geo-politik

Madhusree Chatterjee
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.

Madhusree Chatterjee
Editorial Consultant
Foreign Affairs Incharge/Senior Writer
The Statesman
Kolkata
India

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kalkatta-wallah: Narrative of belonging from the fringe of a metropolis

An Interview with novelist  Kunal Basu
(
Question and Answer Format)

 Novelist Kunal Basu, the author of “Kalkatta”, has captured the quixotic world of the gigolos in the underside of the metropolis. His protagonist, Jamshed Alam is a Bihari Muslim migrant to the city, who has returned to the land of his ancestors as a refugee from Bangladesh to become a Kalkatta Wallah on Zakariah Street. “Jami” in a outsider-insider. Basu describes the book as his first contemporary English novel set in the city, departure from his earlier works “The Opium Clerk”, “The Miniaturist” and The Curse (and Cure) of the Yellow Emperor (two-part series). On a book tour of the metropolis, also his home, he took time out to speak to Madhusree Chatterjee, in his South Kolkata residence. Excerpts from the interview:    

 Q Why did you name your latest fiction, “Kalkatta” — and not Kolkata?

 A …Because this city has several names. The antiquated name is Kalikata, the Anglicised name is Calcutta. The Bengalis refer to it as Kolkata. For the large non-Bengali population of the city, it is “Kalkatta”. The title itself is a clear hint that the novel has been written from the periphery of the city for the centre of the city. I have tried to explore what is the centre, what is the periphery —the different worlds that inhabit Koolutala and Chitpore in context of the Hindi-speaking migrants to the city. Kalkatta is the true melting pot where different cultures clash and co-exist.

Q The novel uses “the refugee” as its narrative centre-stage. The protagonist of your story Jamshed Alam is a Bihari Muslim, who migrated to Bangladesh as refugee and returns to the land of his ancestors as a refugee to become a true “Kalkatta-wallah”. Why did you choose the refugee and such a complex migration route to narrate your story?

A. This pertains to the collective amnesia of the sub-continent. A lot of academic study has been done about it but nothing has been written in fiction. The story is about refugees from three generations. They become refugees in Bangladesh and then travel back to India (from a refugee camp) to become refugees in the land of their ancestors. The back story is about Bangladesh and the displacement of millions during the Partition not caused by one tragic event but a succession of tragedies which makes it more poignant and complex. Our point of journey in the story stops where “Kalkatta” is made — for the large numbers in the city who are struggling to make this city their own, but cannot. This is a story which explores the interplay between the notion of the insider and outsider — who is the outsider and who is the insider.
In Chapter 3 of the novel, protagonist Jami meets Mandira, two beings from different planets. To my mind Kolkata is like a universe and we inhabit different planets. You are from Pluto because you are from Rajarhat, I am from Venus because I live in South Kolkata. The distance between Keyatala and Koolutala is the distance between Earth and Mars.

Q Where does it place your protagonist Jami?

A. Jamshed (known as Jami) is both. His profession — of a gigolo — makes him an insider. When he is in the posh Alipore neighbourhood servicing clients or in a five-star hotel in the city, he is an insider. But when he is out of his work environments and (professional) habitats, he is an outsider. He is an outsider, who is an insider. When he is in (leading lady) Mandira’s home at a gathering of poets (sic you must not forget he is a gigolo by profession with free social access), one of the guests walks up to him to enquire where he is from. Jami says he is from Bangladesh. The poet (guest) says he is from East Pakistan. That dredges up the entire notion of who is a “Ghoti”, who is the “Bangal (from Bangladesh) and who is the “Bangali (Bengalee). All of us refugees from one part of the world or the other?

Q Can “refugees” be defined, if you consider Kolkata as a microcosm?

A. It is very difficult to distinguish between the “refugee” and the “exiled”. A refugee is a product of physical alienation. An “exile” is influenced by psychological dislocation — all of us who live in Kolkata are in exile largely because of complex political, economic and sociological reasons – it does not let the city have a heart, dividing the population is into small tribes and small villages. Burrabazar is the largest trading areas in South-east Asia while the Writers’is peopled by Bengali clerks, who are complete outsiders. Nothing in culture, politics and social life bring together people in different planets… as in the city. Khidderpore and Metiaburz have a lot of Bangladeshis — but Bengali speaking Bangladeshi. Zakariah Street has Hindi-speaking Muslim migrants… All this makes the city interesting as a writer. Large metropolises cannot have an unifying force— the only unifying force is when there is a bombing. Ask people from the Pali Hills and Dharavi in Mumbai — do they share the same soul? The city has always been represented by one soul – in fictions and films — the soul of the Bengali intelligentsia.

Q. Migration is an epochal social phenomenon of our time. How do you analyse the cross-cultural and geographical movements in the perspective of your novel?

A. Migration can be voluntary and involuntary by nature. The migration that we are seeing now is involuntary — disruptions of life by external factors such as wars, conflicts, social instability, and politics in contrast to people who are going to seek their fortunes from Kolkata to New Delhi to New York. I have never been excited by diaspora- the NRI (non-Resident Indian) factor has never appealed to me because the displacement and the fractures in the society are petty cultural clashes. Part of the Bengali society is in love with NRIs— when we were growing up the idea of relatives residing in “Videsh (foreign land) was not very prevalent. Now, every family has someone living abroad. They come laden with gifts. There is a great aura surrounding the NRI. The concepts are “Bengali misti (sweets), deshe phera”. Involuntary migration — what you are seeing now is involuntary migration. I live in Europe — and migration to the continent has been largescale (together with the consequences). I was near the Bataclan (in Paris) on 13/11 , I had passéd by the Le Rupublic before the explosions. I was in Dhaka a day before two (famous) political war criminals were hanged. We are living in troubled times which make the stories of the people more poignant. As an author I wanted to engage with real stuff, the real crisis of humanity and the real splendor of the crisis. Jami is a product of the involuntary migration.

Q Do you think cities have been painted with a tilt or bias (in favour of elites) across popular cultures?

A. The poor and the marginalized have been edited out of contemporary Indian cinema and literature. New writers, publishers and film-makers are realising that we, the reading public, want to read about people like us — digitally savvy, smart and professionally adroit people. Question Mark: Do they (the other half) exist? Pimps, prostitutes, gigolos — the vast majority of the underbelly with legitimate jobs and the whole host of other professions (not in the mainstream). Do we the stable and “respectable” segment of Kolkata are aware that they are a reality. Nearly 70 per cent of the population is Bengali intelligentsia — our air time is more than anybody else. Durga Puja is more widely covered than Chaat Puja — to what extent have we been able to accept people who are not like us? As Jamshed’s Ammi (mother) tells him in the novel about the “rules of a Kalkatta-wallah”.

 Q What are the rules of becoming a ‘Kalkatta wallah’? Is it about identities?

A The city has multiple identities — not to mould together as one but to find accommodation. How many of us from South Kolkata go to Zakariah Street — but only during (the Ramzan or Eid) to taste “Haalim”. They (the residents of Zakariah Street as the novel depicts them) should not be cast away, but treated with understanding — in that sense Delhi and Mumbai do not have these convergences. When Jami begins to befriend Mandira (his colleague in a travel agency), she asks him, “Why didn’t you speak to me”. To which Jami replies, “… Girls like you don’t like boys like me”. Mandira a member of the Bengali intelligentsia. Jami learns to be a ‘Kakatta Wallah’ as he grows up — moving into the profession.

Q What was the triggers for the novel?

 A The triggers for the book was not the grand idea — my agents said when will you write an Indian novel. I wouldn’t say I wanted to write about Partition (as an essentially Indian novel would mean). The idea had been germinating in my mind after I completed writing the “Yellow Emperor’s Cure” in 2012-2013. I had time to creatively about my next book. I wanted to investigate the world of Zakariah Street, the world of gigolos — one can create agreements between the different worlds. The story gradually began to take shape in my mind. I needed to be out and about on the streets. I avoid travelling by car when I am in the city of Kolkata (he straddles Oxford University, where he is employed as a reader, and India) and I go out with Sushmita (wife) routinely to shop for food. I grew up in a middle class family I took a bus… I would see young well dressed men on motorcycles sitting outside five-star hotels and wonder who they were? I was curious. Out of these, ruminations came the story.

Q How did you stumble upon the tribe- of gigolos? They are difficult to locate in cities like Kolkata?

 A.I had to pursue and find them. This was a hard challenge – how I was going to find gigolos? I needed to know their lives — what do they think if life, how do they react afterwards, their profession — the totality of their lives. I went to noted Bengali writer (late) Sunil Gangopadhyay (he was alive then). Being a writer, Sunil ‘da’ realised I was in trouble. He put me on to a senior police officer Gautam Mohan Chakrabarty in Lal Bazar saying, “Eta kono criminal case na, (this is not a criminal case) help him. I went to his office in Lal Bazar – nobody even did a body check on me. How can I help you, Mr Basu, he asked? I am looking for a few gigolos, I replied. To his credit, he did not even bat an eyelid and explained that male prostitution unlike conventional prostitution was not brothel-based. It flourished by word of mouth and telephonic messages. Mr Chakrabarty put me on to a woman police officer from the anti-trafficking squad, who helped me track them down with the help of non-profit organisations, which work among them. I virtually lived with them for two years. I grew so close to them that on 15/1 (this new Year of 2015), the first greeting I received on my phone was from a gigolo- “dada Bhalo Thakben (brother, keep well). I inhabited their world, drank their tea, went to their dodgy bars and generally hung out with them.

They introduced me as their older brother, a friend. It was like no other world I have ever entered. Jami is not modelled on any one of them — his character has been drawn from aspects and elements of several people. Almost all of them are loyal to their families, love their wives and are suspicious of the media. They have regular concerns – they are real human beings. I invited several of them for book launch in Kolkata. I have finished my first full-length Bengali novel, it should be published in 2016.

Interviewed by Madhusree Chatterjee

In-charge Foreign Affairs, Editorial Consultant, The Statesman, News Coordinator, Asia News Network (The Statesman, India)

Colour collage: Mythology in canvas of realistic fantasia

An interview with noted contemporary artist Jayasri Burman 

Noted contemporary artist Jayasri Burman interprets Indian spirituality and mythology on her canvas with the woman as the centre of her creative mosaic. Born in 1960, Jayashri, wife of fellow practitioner of contemporary art Paresh Maity and the niece of Shakti Burman, has carved her space in the national and international mainstream as sculptor and painter, who combines popular folk techniques with the nuances of graphic print making to portray the divine feminine in her own world of magic fantasia, where human morph as mermaids, animals transform into birds and heavens come down to earth. Her messages are subtle.  Her canvases have a happy carnival feel to them, essentially Indian and colourful.
Deriving her inspiration from legends, miniatures, folklores and nature, she has created an oeuvre of unique art that is neo-realistic in its use of mixed media and history. Burman took time out to speak to Madhusree Chatterjee during the recent launch of her artistic biography “Antar Yatra” and a retrospective exhibition spanning her creative years from 1996 to 2015. Excerpts:     

Q Women — goddesses and aspect of the divine feminine — are the mainstay of your aesthetic iconography. Why does women play such an important role in your art?    

 I am a girl and the kind of people I mingle and interact with are women, My gallerists are women, friends are women, I grew up among women as a child` at home and my identity is that of a woman. The people or rather the sex, which surround you are those you know the best — and hence, I understand women. I am a Kolkata girl. I was born to a traditional family which subscribed to Indian spiritual sensitivities like the Durga Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Swarasati Puja and the “bratakatha” — ritual chantings. I invoke Mata Chandi — an avatar of divine feminine or the shakti — with chants everyday. The woman embodies the power of creativity and glory for me, as an artist, resplendent in all her finery like the mythological figures and the pantheon deities. This is how I like to visualize the notion of womanhood — larger than life and empowered.

Man or the male figure is secondary imagery on you canvas. Is it deliberate?  The “purush” or the man is always at a distance in my art — stoic on the periphery of the canvas powering the woman at the forefront with his silent strength. The birth of man is from the womb of a woman. How can a woman make headway without the man. They have to exist in harmony balancing the male and female energies of the universe. The womanhood of a woman is made possible by the presence of the “purush (man)” next to her. I deify the woman with the emblem of the man in the backdrop.

Q How has your childhood influenced the oeuvre of your art — so deeply grounded in Indian mythology, culture and the spiritual pantheon?

 Childhood has been integral my evolution as an artist — colouring my oeuvre with a deep Indian-ness. Every morning, at 5 am, my father would nudge awake saying, “Jaya Otho (Jaya, wake up). He would carry me in his arms to wash-basin. As I brushed my teeth, he chanted the “gayatri mantra (the hymn of the goddess…. Jaba kusuma sankachana… his voice filled my mindscape and still rings in my ears. I loved the sounds of his chantings. Sometime he sang: “Phire, Phire Chalo… Apono Ghare (Return home)… a love ditty by Rami Chandidas (a Bengali poet of the 15th century who composed lyrics celebrating the love of Radha-Krishna). On days, he would break into boisterous strains of popular folk… “Sohag Chand Bodhoni Dhoni Nacho to Dekhi (pretty damsel, dance) or the plaintive notes of Ranbindra Sangeet. My father’s songs and spirituality were my earliest inspirations. Before training as an artist, I had to orient my mind. My father helped me craft the perfect artistic state of mind to chase art as a vocation. On his part, my art was his sole recreation — the sheer experience of viewing it gave him the greatest joy.

Your art is figurative and free flowing. Your figures float in water worlds, vacuums in space and in mesh of complex cross-hatch textures which you employ with pen and ink. They morph, flux and take on fantastic forms — like the magical world of fantasia that is so neo-realistic. You refused to be tied down by black-and-white social realism? Where do this free flowing kinetics and fantastic forms come from?

The free flow of forms can be traced to my free spirit— a facet I discovered in childhood. My mother took me to the dance school. I left it in three days because they were teaching me footwork when everyone around me was dancing. I wanted to dance like a bird in motion— without the fetters of grammar and taal (beats). I wanted my body to move freely. My father told my music teacher to leave because I wanted to sing the way I liked — I did not want to be trapped in the formats of formal training. But later, he admitted that I was one of the best dancers he had come across and a musician as well. This craving for freedom seeped into my art later — the free soul, the free spirit and free movement. It was fostered the free flow of imagination and thoughts.

The element of fantasy in my art comes from my “unconscious”. I used to sleep on one side and sing my own songs softly, lulling myself to sleep. The songs were accompanied by fantasies — from deep inside my unconscious, Something that was “ajana (unknown)”. It translated into the world of magical beings on my canvas. Often when I a in Delhi, I long to fly like a bird to my ancestral home on Bangur Avenue in Kolkata — perch on the roof and chat with my friends. The feeling was like a current. This longing for physical freedom and impossible feats and the unrequited wants flowed into my art as fantastic shapes, divine beings, strange wild creatures, mountains, trees and water in bright surreal colours and lines.

Q An element of Ravi Verma’s oleographs and your uncle Shakti Burman’s eye for details are apparent in your compositions. Do they inspire you? Who are other artists and movements that you imbibe in your work?    

A canvas “Narayani” (a large composition in pen, ink and watercolour on archival paper measuring

82X52 inches depicting goddess Lakshmi seated on throne of lotus, surrounded by a quaint crowd of celestial beings, birds, elephants and mermaids in a large pool of water) is dedicated to Raja Ravi Verma. I thought about him when I drew it. His icons fires our imagination. Chottokaku (her uncle artist Shakti Burman)works in details. People often highlight this similarity because it is easy to identify my work with his because he is my uncle. May be, I have inherited his eye for details and the fact that we are a very family oriented, loving and caring clan. My grandmother was an accomplished “kantha” embroiderer and was even awarded for her work. My paternal aunt made collages and wooden dolls with mixed medium — cotton, textiles, home made dyes. I inherited their knack for the arts – it flows in my genes.

The movements in my oeuvre are drawn from various sources. I have been influenced by wall paintings of Rajasthan, the miniatures, medieval Bengal art, patachitra (scroll paintings), different genres of spiritual paintings and all forms of folk art. When I first encountered early Christian and Byzantine art in course of my travel in St Petersburg, I was mesmerized by the iconic proportions of their paintings and the way the practitioners of spiritual art depicted their deities — the Christian pantheon. I wanted to create huge iconic works — with intricate detailing and emulate the “holistic” approach to the compositions. Beside these, I trained in Paris for a year (1984-1985). Soon after I returned from Paris, my works were distinctive in their French impressionist manifest with thick impasto compositions and western practices. The two years that I spent in Shantiniketan at Kala Bhavan were my formative period. It bequeathed to me a love for outdoor compositions, sculptures — and were the lifeline for my early pen and ink sketches. My first class with my first teacher, artist Sanat Kar, pushed me to the road of freedom, which I have traveled for the last three decades. His words, “you have flowers and leaves, interpret them in your imagination” have been the cornerstone of my artistic odyssey.

Q How would you describe your progression and evolution as an artist — from your early years to what you are today. Has your art changed with time? What are the watersheds in your life?

 As a child, I drew at random— mountains, water, bunds, trees, birds… Two of earliest paintings — one depicting a sea of human heads and colourful new clothes during Durga Utsav and other of the hills surrounding the Kamakhaya temple in Guwahati — won me awards as a student of class VI. I was encouraged. Later, I went to Shantiniketan to study fine arts — but I could not complete the course as my parents arranged a match for me. But I had vowed to be an artists and did not give up my creative thoughts. Even after my wedding, I continued to work till 1984, when I went to study at a salon in Paris under the guidance of Monsieur Ceizerzi. It was a very productive and learning spell in my life. His wife could speak English and I had a beautiful time learning a lot of things, When I returned to Kolkata in 1985, I joined the Society of Contemporary Artists’ Group to work in graphics at their studio.

That was my real education through encounters and interactions because the group was made of the biggest in Bengal’s contemporary art like Ganesh Haloi, Ganesh Pyne, Amitabha Banerjee, Shyamal Duttaray and several others. They allowed to me work in their studio. The art camps that I attended with eminent artists gave new perspectives to hone my oeuvre. The watershed in my life was 1996. My marriage fell apart and I came out to New Delhi with my son. It was a new responsibility — I knew I had to take care of my son. I put him in Mayo College. My father, however, was a pillar of support. He was a successful businessman and stood by me. He taught me that I had to live and earn my sustenance with dignity.

The horizons of my art broadened in New Delhi. I dipped into the free flow of my desires and creative expression — and began to travel across the terrain as conflicting as the Himalayas, the jungles of Kumaon, Rajasthan and Orissa. I assimilated ideas and influences from my interactions with people, cultures, folk traditions and societies. I began to use water colour for my outdoor series — a continuation of my days an undergraduate in Shantiniketan when I spent days at tribal Santhali villages (like Goalprara) sketching people and nature, Thereon, I began to explore the world. But I will never forget 1996 because it was the most important year of my life. Between 1996-1997, I learnt all that I could not in Shantiniketan. I finally received my due.

My work, over the years, has grown bigger because of the accessibility of larger drawing material —large format drawing boards and paper were not available in our childhood. Sometime ago, after a period of ill-health in Mumbai, I realised that my practise was changing — developing a tendency to abstraction and symbolisms.

Q When did you begin to sculpt?

 I have been sculpting since my early years in Shantiniketan. But somehow, my mother insisted that I continue to paint because I had to marry. She felt it was difficult for a woman to sculpt with stone, metal and wood because of the tough nature of the medium — and it required space, resources and techniques. But I always wanted to do something difficult. I turned to bronze as my sculpting medium seriously much later — but I depend on the technicians for the finish. I don’t know much about casting. But the highlight of an exhibition currently on show at the Birla Academy in South Kolkata is a set of 14 bronze sculptures of women in different “rasa” or mood. I want to work with stone.

Q What do you think about commercialization of art?

 I don’t want to speak of commerialisation if art. My buyers acquire my works out of love — not with the objective of investment. My buyers — like Sachin Tendulkar, London’s Stella Art Foundation, Lata Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Ambani — are all educated, aesthetically refined and successful in their own fields. They appreciate my work, my interpretation of myths and spirituality and creativity. Therein lies my success.

Madhusree Chatterjee
The Statesman

 

 

              

                                                    

 

            

                      

 

Cinema-Literature: Not slaves, but mates in happy co-existence

By Madhusree Chatterjee
Kolkata, Oct 2015

Cinema and literature are indelibly threaded into the fabric of fine arts in a book-oriented country like India, where the written word and its visual manifest is as old as civilization itself— beginning with the first alphabet which were etched on to the walls of the caves of pre-history dotting ancient river valleys like the Narmada and the Indus.

First the art, then the fine print or literature and finally cinema — a nascent 150-year-old aesthetic oeuvre that drew its initial vital fluids from the treasure chests of literature. Though cinema is increasingly being espoused as an independent medium of work, the essence of the images in the talkie cinema is the word – the narrative which propels the action.

Story-telling or “katha”, the narrative wordplay which forms the core of Indian literary aesthetics, rendered itself into moving images on the screen in the late 19th century influenced by the emerging European traditions of cinematic arts. It refined into a full-length feature film in 1913.

Over the last century and a half, the word has travelled to and fro from the books to the screen with ease, changing in shape and colour.

The jacket of book has a bigger brand recall as a work of saleable mass fiction if the “announcement of its cinematic avatar” is made in bold letters above the title, says veteran Bengali actor, author and screen persona Barun Chanda, best remembered for his screen portrayal in Satyajit Ray’s “Seemabaddha” Chanda was moderating a discussion on “Cinema’s Literature “ or “Literature’s Cinema” at a festival of Bengali literature in Kolkata .

Chanda’s comment comes out of a synergy that pervades the interface between the reader, the fine print and the imagery of the literary interpretation in the mind space. This interpretation of imagery, when collated in visual sequences, becomes the heartbeat of cinema drawn from literature.

For young Boston-based India filmmaker of Kashmiri origin Amitav Kaul, literature is the core of his debut venture, “The Interpreter of Maladies” by Pulitzer-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri. The filmmaker, who has built a series of nine scripts around the collection of stories, says all artists would have been writers had cinema not become the soul of the 20th century. The cinema is barely 150 years old whereas books have existed since the written word came into being. “It is a symbolic relationship between books to film and films to books.”

“Jhumpa Lahiri represents the globe. She has won the Pulitzer prize and has been translated in 30 countries. Moreover, she is a Bengali,” Kaul said. The fact that the “Interpreter of Maladies” is universal in its treatment of dislocation and diaspora gives it cinematic potential that transcends its Bengali identity.

“To make it into a movie is a difficult task because millions of people have read the book which means the movie will be viewed by millions. The book is so popular, it is about meeting the expectations of the readership and to see if we can go beyond that.” Kaul said. The book’s appeal in the director’s mindscape lies in the fact that it is about dislocation — tales of natives who have adopted new homelands. “We left Kashmir for United States long ago,” Kaul said of his personal history.

Identification apart, this interpolation of literature as a genre of story-telling into a visual space has been spurred by new oeuvres of mass reading like comic book, pictorial novels and video game. If a book has a “big readership” a filmmaker can bank on the book to carry the movie forward.

“The Twilight series (Twilight novels by Stephanie Meyers) — for example has a wide audience because the books are best-selling mass fiction. The story becomes the star in this case. A director does not require a top-notch cast to shoulder his film. Transcreation of the work of literature into a script and subsequently into a movie does the work,” Kaul explained.

How does cinema influence writing? One of the best illustrative example is the “Star Wars” — the cult science fiction that spawned a legion of sci-fi comic books featuring aliens and space-age battles. Movies are being transcribed into serial picture books and the script is gradually acquiring the status of literature like Ingmar Bergman’s “Four Screen Plays”— “Smiles of a Summer Night”, “The Seventh Seal”, “Wild Strawberries” and “The Magician” — published in 1960, which gave him the credit of brilliant authorship. A filmmaker cannot narrate a story without a complementary script that combines cinematic pace with the narrative of literature to build a theme into a feature film. The medium, as many scholars of film studies say, twines the literary sensitivities of the script, the story, cinematic rendition, audience and the social contexts into one “complete” entity, inclusive of each other.

The history of world cinema is full of such instances.

The early black and white era of the 1930s – 1960s in Hollywood owes its mass popularity to writer-director like Alfred Hitchcock whose movies like “Rebecca” (based on a novel by Daphne Du’ Maurier), “The 39 Steps (based on a thriller by John Buchan), “The Birds” (Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier), “Rear Window” (from an anthology of short stories by Cornell Woolrich) and “Psycho” (Robert Bloch) were assembled from popular literature of the times. Cult classics like the “The Godfather”, “Gone With the Wind”, “Guns of Navaronne”, “Born Free”, “Where Eagles Dare”, “Farewell to Arms” to name a few from a long list that perhaps runs into hundreds reveals the timeless draw of literature into the screen.

One of the reasons why cinema is dependent on literature is the fact that growing industry is in perpetual need of narratives — and literature provides a ready-made resource pool.

Closer home, the multi-million dollar Hindi and regional cinema industry has fallen back on the rich vernacular literature to build their narratives because the stories are tailored to meet the sensitivities of an indigenous audience bred on popular literature. “There is an aesthetic exchange,” Kaul said.

The early wave of Hindi cinema, which used modern literature as its narrative mosaic flaunt classics like “The Guide (based on a novel by R.K.Narayan)”, “Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam (based on a Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra), Tere Mere Sapne (based on The Citadel by A.J. Cronin), “Devdas”, “Parineeta” and “Biraj Bahu” (based on a novels by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay) – and several more that played to the intellectual needs of a middle-class educated audience of a nascent sovereign India which evolved out of years of repression by an alien British culture to nurture fierce self-determination and nationalistic identity.

The neo-Indian literary and aesthetic identity — which became the bulwark of modern Indian cinema — was made of five cardinal strands — a powerful and climactic story-telling, melodrama, elements of action, entertainment and an “Indianness”, almost bordering on house pride.

These traits which characterize post-Independence talkie cinema are shared by contemporary writing leading to a percolation across mediums. Writer Chetan Bhagat occupies a paradoxical place in the literature-cinema praxis. “His books are often unreadable, but as cinematic projects, they are box office successes,” actress Swastika Mukherjee pointed out. Movies like “Three Idiots”, “Two States” and “One Night@ The call Centre” based on Bhagat’s mass fiction novels illustrate the power of images over the written word. The story may convey the impression, but the cinema brings out the visual sequences.

“The standard rule is that since most Indians are avid cine-goers, they usually see a movie and then enquire about the book,” says diplomat-writer Vikas Swarup, whose mass fiction novel “Q and A” was made into Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” by Danny Boyle.

“It works that way in the film fraternity. Once people read the book, they get to know the inside story. But let us not forget that the shelf life of the movie is much less than that of the book. The book will be around much longer,” Swarup said.

One of the fallouts of the progressive cultural wave that an Independent India engendered was a parallel cinema movement inspired by the European new wave.

The dependence of cinema on literature can be traced back to the parallel cinema movement that began to take shape in the late 1940s to the 1960s under the guidance of pioneers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Buddhadeb Das Gupta, Chetan Anand and V.Shantaram. They took heavily from contemporary literature. Consequently, their films became a mirror to the Indian society and used by scholars to study the changing demography, socio-economics as well as the political temperament of the country.

One of the best example of the early art house movie to be inspired by social realism was Mrinal Sen’s “Calcutta ‘71” adapted from three short stories by Bengali writers Manik Bandopadhayay, Samaresh Basu and Prabodh Sanyal. It was enacted across three time-zones between 1940s to 1971 in three separate narratives to encapsulate a common socio-economic and political reality of a Bengal in morph from pre-Independence to the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

”I think cinema and literature are irrevocably linked because we respond to literature,” filmmaker Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury (Tony) said. He has made four films — two based on his own stories, one from a story by popular Bengali novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay and an adaptation of a short story by Samaresh Basu. the filmmaker said.

His movie, “Aparajita Tumi (Unvanquished You)— an adaptation of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s short story, “Dui Nari”, was born of a personal crisis at a time when was living in United States. It was reflective of a post-conceptual sensitivity that many youngsters living out of India was subjected to in the Eighties.

“I felt like I was living in a void. That affluence, that power and the American ambition brought about a nothingness. I had to retrace because I felt there was nothing after this. It was like living in a gap,” Tony recalled. It was around this time that Tony chanced upon Sunil Gangopadhyay’s short story about “two couples — and the voids in their lives”.

“I could relate to the story of two women who were in competition and their empty spaces. It was like Mario Puzo’s ‘Godfather’— a saga that we can all identify with, If you identify with a story, you have to make a movie of it. There are myriad possibilities,” the filmmaker explained.

Tony remembered watching Satyajit Ray’s “Charulata” first and then reading Rabindranath Tagore’s “Nasto Nir (The Broken Nest)’, a short story which inspired the movie. He did not find it anachronistic.

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore has been an inspiration for a legion of filmmakers — primarily for the maestro of Indian filmmaking Satyajit Ray, who adapted several of his short stories into cinematic classics. The dividing line between the story and the cinema remained on the edge because of the immense visual scope that the stories offered in terms of characters and landscapes.

The early lot of Tagore stories set in motion by Ray included milestones like “Teen Kanya (Three Women)”, “Kshudito Pashan (The Hungry Stones)” Ghare Baire The Home and the World).

“Cinema should not become a slave of literature because cinema has its own independent language.In my opinion, the most important exploration of literature into the cinematic vernacular has been the rendition of Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), a novel by Bibhuti Bushan Bandopadhyay because it stands on its as a screen benchmark,” said Suman Mukhopadhyay, who has adapted Rabindranath Tagore’s popular novella, “The Last Poem” as a screen play and movie in 2013.

“The movie is a talking thing and the literature is a reading thing,” Tony summed up. The two will always co-exist to enrich each other.

Destruction of history is new terror or petty theft

By Madhusree Chatterjee

New Delhi/Kolkata: Cultural appropriation and subversion of history have been traditional historical tools in the spread of religious terrorism. But theft of history and its sale in the international market reduces the lofty spirit of the ‘jihad’— the premise of which every stream of insurrection drawing from religious schools of consciousness is based.

A world minus cultural history is a world of itinerants — regressive in its ways of looking at human progression out of the arcane cave dwellings into the advanced realms of civilization nurtured by rich and diverse streams of living legacies and histories of culture.

The relentless march of the dreaded Islamic State militia or the ISIS (Daesh as it known in the western Asia and in many African and central Asian nations)  – which is reinstalling the Islamic caliphate, a relic of history from within the rubble of lost heritages — drives terror into the heart of every culturally rooted thinking man, who is increasingly looking upon the world as one globalised space having evolved out of clashes and confluences of disparate civilizations.

A set of video images released by the Islamic State throughout 2014-2015 shows the systematic destruction of ancient heritage sites like Nimrud, Mosul and Palmyra in Iraq and Syria respectively — in relentless and barbaric tranches that strives to drive home two points. First, the organisation like any other terror group wants to grab eyeballs in the international media and second, to churn out a psychosis of fear among the culturally-oriented neo-liberals in the Mesopotamian plains and elsewhere where the organisation is active to submit them to Wahabism — an orthodox interpretation of Islam that seeks to homogenize cultures in sync with the Spartan and rigid tenets of the hawkish brand of Islam espoused in the early years of the faith.

The faith, as the Wahabis say, prohibits idol worship, campaigns for the cause of the  “jihad” or the holy war, model Sharia lifestyles and territorial expansion in the name of a Caliphate built on the strength of religion, intimidation and mad craving for power and loot. Faith is relegated to the backseat in the frenzy of prosletysation and longing for power over a cowering humanity by acts of atrocity and gore. Beheading and execution like the Fascist and the Nazi death squads are the militia’s favourite devices of subjugation.  The outfit uses Wahabism as a tool to further its macabre designs — remove from its path every cultural legacy that is un-Islamic in origin.

Analysts say the outfit – that has established worldwide network with its “dedicated” hierarchy of zealous cadre, armies of western-educated adolescents and a tiered leadership – requires a “suitable” oasis of seclusion and dereliction in a no-man’s land to headquarter its agenda of terror. What can suit them better than Palmyra – the pearl of the desert — a rich oasis of palms nestled in the safety of the “past” and a rugged terrain in the Syrian dunes of wilderness. Palmyra provides the IS multi-pronged advantages — it renders them insulated from the “enlightening” influences of modern cultures, sanity and a steady flow of resources from the sale of historical memoirs. Palmyra is an ancient pre-Christian heritage site that bears testimony to a time when religion was defined by “divine rites” in abodes of timeless and invaluable beauty.

A Lebanese-French archaeologist Joanne Farchakh, says in The Independent, “The antiquities from Palmyra has been on sale in London. There are Syrian and Iraqi objects taken by ISIS that are still in Europe. The destruction hides the income of IS. It is selling these things before destroying the temples.” The video footages of the desecration are shocking – the organisation succeeds in its purpose to hit the culturally aware, thinking-world on its face.

In April, the outfit blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq and then Palmyra, where the militia had been making gradual inroads till it conquered the oasis virtually overnight in a civil coup, overrunning the streets. When it began to ravage Palmyra initially, the terror group strapped the Syrian soldiers to Roman pillars and placed explosives around them. After eliminating the armed resistance by Syrian forces, the militia unleashed bloodbaths on the streets of the oasis town. Last month, the organisation beheaded the former antiquities of the Palmyra museum- “incentivising” him for his lifetime of dedication to restoring the legacy of the great races of builders, who inhabited the region before the arrival of the prophet and Jesus Christ.

This mindless act of “neutralising” a key witness of un-Islamic history was followed by the destruction of the temple of Bal Shamim, an ancient Phoenician god of war and thunder — and the shrine of the Semitic deity of Bel – who lends Palmyra a place for itself in the spiritual map of West Asia as a pilgrimage hub and site of religious festivals. On Sept 4, the militia claimed that the outfit had destroyed all the old towers that canopied the UNESCO heritage town.

Around May, when the Syrian forces flanked off the initial wave of the Islamic militia attack, the terrorist group bathed the streets of Palmyra in blood, killing more than 400 people – mostly Muslims of Syrian origin. The objective of this massacre was grotesque than it seemed – not just a cultural relocation to impose the levelling writ of Islam as the group touted during the inauguration of its holocaust of history in April 2015, when it embarked on its mission of wiping out cultural lineages in an irrevocable subversion of history. It was the “sinister” and yet a “pedestrian”  element of petty artifact loot that tainted the militia’s intent of messianic purpose.

The militia is using archaeology and history to its advantage. According to Farchakh,  the Shah of Iran “used the ruins of Persepolis to falsify his family’s history” and Saddam Hussain had his initials embossed on the bricks of Babylon.

In October, 1971 when the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi celebrated 2500-anniversary of the Iranian monarchy, he had spent an estimated $ 100 million to establish his family’s royal status by building a tent city next to the ruins of Persepolis, where guests were treated like monarchs at the cost of the country’s exchequer. Iran erupted in protests and the media alleged that the “Shah”, who was of commoner blood – an army officer’s descendant — used the official coffers to stamp his acquired “royal” genes on the country. He had minted a new coin of oppression.

Such acts of blasphemy and acquisition in the name of radical causes are widespread across history — from the ancient Caliphate sultans, the slave kings of Egypt to the grand Mughals and the neo-imperialists and the cults. They have all used subversion of historical events to tell their own stories. It is this war of cultural appropriation that defines the new anatomy of 21st century terrorism or rather the “clash of civilization” in which one race of people – with allegiance to a particular stream of thought — seeks to decimate a weaker group, in most instances- peace loving civilians, who are ineffectual against the “jihadi” might or organised guerrilla warfare. It is strange, as one historian, points out that the “common” people who have no knowledge of the new and complex pedagogy of terror and even “interpretation of religions” should be caught in the crosshairs and tangible histories – archaeology – brave the bullets of hate and domination play. The masterminds shulk in the shadows, occasionally splashed in the media as having been downed by drones, airstrikes and resistance coalition of governments fighting the brigands. They often make a comeback with severe injuries in “diligently planned and worded videos” exhorting the indoctrinated cadre to carry on with the “jihad” or their individual missions of bloodshed.

The Taliban had ruled the plains and hills of Afghanistan on this violent appropriation of a historical culture with a stringent interpretation of Islam, the al-Qaeda razed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in a fit of ‘jihadi’ rage – blatant show of religious and indoctrinated muscle— in retaliation to the blunders committed by the western world in Iraq and elsewhere. Yemen, Libya and Syria are caudrons of this historical hate and sustained and protracted civil wars— with consequent upheavals of displacement and demographic transformations across Europe and the western world. In India, the Partition of the country came riding on partisan religions, Mohammed Ali Jinnah wanted a Islamic Pakistan – and Jawaharlal Nehru-Mahatma Gandhi wanted a secular India. The British rulers, wanted to deal a parting shot to the sub-continent’s cultural, social and political mosaic so that India remained with an “itch” on its shin for all ages to come contending with a hostile Pakistan and a belligerent Bangladesh.  In more recent memory, the riots in Gujarat rustled up this religious divide once again to derail the process of globalisation.  Sultan Mehamet fought the crusades, fired by the rage of a prosletysing Islam against an “emotionally-charged” Christianity.

But theft of history cannot be accounted in this lofty battle of spiritual or religious or political hegemonies. It takes back to the war in Iraq in 2003 when the national repositories of cultures were looted by rampaging mobs after the war. The National Museum in Baghdad officially reopened this year (2015) in February, 12 years after it was closed in the wake of the US invasion. The opening of the museum, as the British Broadcasting Corporation, reported was pre-poned as a “response to an Islamic State video showing statues being destroyed in the Iraqi heritage town of Mosul”. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider- al-Abadi described the acts of looting as barbaric. “These barbaric, criminal terrorists are trying to heritage of mankind and Iraq’s civilization,” he said.

Archaeologist Farchakh says “instead of building its power on archaeological objects, the outfit is building its power on the destruction of archeology. It is reversing a method- never ‘before’ in history and never ‘after’”. In a decade, Palmyra will be shorn of its collective historical memory and its new Caliphate rulers richer by billions of US dollars by selling the “oasis” of continuous past – rich and sought-after- like petty artifact thieves in the international markets bequeathing inheritances of loss and cultural emptiness to its posterity.

Where does it position the “jihad” of the Islamic State with its lurid lores of slave trade, torture, sexua’ excesses.  zenophobic massacres of innocents, unwarranted indoctrination of minors, kidnappings and misplaced ideology of a larger Islamic pre-eminence fuelled by petty greed like unchecked artifact smuggling. The Islamic State needs to take a serious look at its “jihad” of goals — and saner means to achieve them. Theft and blood do not pay in ideological wars of civilisation. We have a right to our pasts and roots.

Madhusree Chatterjee
Senior Editor/The Statesman/Asia News Network (ANN)