Monday, 27 June 2011

Of PNS Babur, INS Godavari and a tale of Mughal Hindustan

Despite recent talks between India and Pakistan's senior Foreign Ministry bureaucrats, there is little the two countries can agree upon. Even the rescue of six Indian crew members aboard an Egyptian merchant ship threatened by pirates by Pakistan Navy warship 'Babur' caused a diplomatic incident.
Interestingly enough, Pakistan's rescuing warship's name, i.e. Babur, personifies South Asia's rich, confused and often bloody history. Zaheerudin Babur (1483 – 1530), after whom the Pakistani ship is named, was not an Indian, and at best, an honorary Pakistani.
Babur was a tribal leader born in Andijan, a city in present day Uzbekistan. He was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur (aka Tamerlane). 
A miniature painting from Babur's memoirs, the Baburnama
Thrown out of hereditary lands by rivals, Babur was forced to flee south towards India. After a series of military battles, in 1526 Babur took control of Delhi and founded the Mughal dynasty. Babur's direct descendants ruled India until the British colonized the region in the 1800s.
Like most Muslim rulers, Babur ruled for the pleasure of Allah. Throughout Mughal lands, Friday sermons were read in his name. Official decrees were issued in the name of the Supreme Sovereign, i.e. Allah. Yet, while Babur ruled in the name of divinity, he was very much a man of this world. Many of his military victories were due to early adoption and effective use of modern technology e.g. cannons.
Babur also enjoyed life. Almost without exception, Mughal emperors maintained large harems, were 'recreational' users of opium and drank alcohol with reckless abandon. The Mughals easily reconciled these personal habits with their Islamic piety.
While Babur never completely adopted India as his home – he longed to return to Central Asia – his successors shaped India in many different ways.
Babur's grandson, Mughal Emperor Akbar, is referred to as Mughal-e-Azam or the Great Mughal. Following Akbar, the Mughals were no longer viewed as foreign invaders but legitimate rulers of Hindustan. For their part, the Mughals slowly dropped Turkish as their courtly tongue in favour of Urdu; a move which made it much easier for North Indian political elites to participate in Mughal India.
Babur is Indo-Pak in so many different ways. He was born in the far off Ferghana Valley, Uzbekistan. He spoke Turkish. He died in Delhi, from where he established the Mughal dynasty. On Babur's own insistence, he is buried in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Babur had little love for India or its 'native' people and did not wish to be buried there.)
Babur was a Muslim conqueror, as 'Muslim' as political expediency required of him. Nevertheless, the Mughals are 'Indian' rulers – not alien invaders out to convert Hindus to Islam. Many of India's most prominent sights, such as the Taj Mahal are monuments to Mughal rule.  
Mughal Emperor Babur's tomb in the Bagh-e-Babur, Kabul, Afghanistan

Babur's legacy remains with us in more ways than just PNS Babur.
Babur's ghosts most recently arose during the controversy over the (now destroyed) Babri Masjid. Babri Masjid was a mosque named after Babur and allegedly built on sacred Hindu ground during his reign. After Hindu fundamentalists demolished Babri Masjid in 1992, communal clashes leading to the death of thousands erupted across India. 
Babur may be the name of a contemporary Pakistani naval warship. To some, Pakistan's PNS Babur may represent Turkish speaking Muslim invaders. To others, Babur without the PNS prefix denotes the beginning of centuries of Hindu-Muslim amity under an enlightened Muslim dynasty. Or is it more appropriate to say Indian Muslim dynasty? Perhaps.

* As an aside, readers might be interested to note that the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is buried in Yangon, Myanmar.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Success is winning the lottery?

In our own way, each of us is special. Friends and family will vouch for that. I certainly believe so.
Being special and success are related but not identical. The warm, wholesome feeling of being unique comes from a belief in self and ability.
Surely, I cannot jump into a fighter airplane – were one available to me – and start flying combat sorties tomorrow! However, I do know that if I wished to fly airplanes, I can do so by implementing a proper plan of action for the purpose: enrol into a flying school, listen to flying instructors, clock up enough hours in the air and, in due course, I will be able to flying airplanes.
Of course, life is never as easy as written theory. Learning to fly an airplane is no easy task.
Recently, one of Singapore's premier educational institutions denied me admission into their Master's program for no apparent reason. (The university was unwilling to share with me the weakness in my application.) Not one to accept a slight to my ego lightly and having supreme confidence in my abilities as a candidate, I took up the matter with the Dean's Office at the university. Following a review, the university reversed its earlier decision and offered me admission into their Master's program.
The university experience highlights the obstacles particular individuals and circumstances may sometimes place in one's path. Other people, whether corporate managers, university lecturers or simply administrative staff may not always share our goals and have little interest in seeing us succeed.
The experience also illustrates the importance of persistence, especially in the face of adversity. We are all soldiers fighting our own private wars.
Success is one of the few things about which we must be selfish. Only we can bring success to ourselves. Success must be bought through hard work, persistence and a dash of luck.
Success does not come cheap, nor does it come quickly. Success is expensive and requires patience.
Time is a friend of success. Time can be manipulated to our advantage. There may never be enough time for every activity but with a schedule and, with some discipline, time can be stretched. 
Persistence, discipline and patience: important ingredients for success

Discipline: the hardest part to achieving! Enrolling in a flying school is not sufficient to teach me flying. I must attend my classes; study texts and so on. In other words, I must be disciplined in my approach to flying school.
Yes, this post reads like so many other simplistic 'motivational' pieces written by self-help gurus. But all the stuff about persistence, patience, hard work (and luck) is true.
Short of winning the lottery, there are few alternatives to succeeding in life.
"If you really want something in life you have to work for it. Now quiet, they're about to announce the lottery numbers."
- Homer Simpson.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Serbian war criminals, Bin Laden and Arab unrest

It is a cruel world out there. No rest for the wicked or justice for the righteous. As long as the definition of the 'wicked' and 'righteous' remains controversial there appears no end to global disputes. How the international media frames these many disagreements is critical to debates meant to find solutions.
Take the Greek, or for that matter the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain), debt crisis. There is little discussion about Greek corruption and poor governance. That Greece's institutional framework is, at best, on par with a typical developing country remains virtually unmentioned. The debate typically centres on Greek borrowing costs and keeping the European financial system afloat.
Then there is Osama Bin Laden and his recent killing in Pakistan. Surely, Pakistan shares some blame in Osama's elusiveness. The media and international leaders remind Pakistan of this and other faults almost daily, especially following the Abbotabad attack.
Meanwhile, the international reaction to the arrest of Serbian war criminals in Serbia is poles apart. Perhaps the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian men and children is less of a crime relative to the several thousand Americans who perished on 9/11? 
The wall of names at the Srebrenica Memorial

Serbian war criminals like Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic lived 'openly' in Serbia for many years. Some wanted war criminals continue to find refuge, allegedly in Serbia. Yet, when these notorious criminals are regularly arrested in Serbia neither the country nor its people is chastised.
Most recently, there are Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria. There appears no need to illuminate the deprived masses of Syria, Yemen and Bahrain about the virtues of democracy and human rights. Or, have NATO air forces simply run out of spare fighter airplanes for the purpose? Maybe the world's 'democracy quota' is full now that Afghanistan and Iraq have joined the list of functioning democratic states.
Please do not misunderstand me. The world is what it is and we deal with it accordingly. Perceptions of reality may differ but facts are generally incontrovertible.
Osama was hiding in Pakistan. Serb general Ratko Mladic was arrested in Serbia. Most Greeks, like most Pakistanis, do not pay personal income taxes. Nevertheless, in a world where information is plentiful and analysis as easily available as reading a blog post, individuals must question conventional wisdom. Comprehending the big picture is not as easy as it sounds. It requires effort.
The truth depends on the distinct facts we see, or choose to see. A CIA analyst located in Langley and an ordinary Pakistani in Peshawar will sees different 'truths' in the same event. One only need ask the Pakistani and American intelligence chiefs to confirm that truth.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign policy: learning to play hardball

Playing international politics is not child's play. Playing politics brings with it unforeseen risks. Often these risks are unknown until they come to the fore. At other times, these risks are considered manageable or benign until it is too late.
Recent evidence points to the normally soft dollar diplomacy of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations being traded for a combination of military and economic policies. Traditionally, the grouping of six wealthy oil producing nations of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) practiced purely 'petrodollar' diplomacy, i.e. complementing 'mainstream' US / Western foreign policy with judicious use of their wealth.
The causes of proactive GCC policy are manifold. Among them may be a perception of US military weakness stemming from an overextended military battling on too many fronts; a US failure to achieve its long term goals in Iraq or Afghanistan despite almost a decade of warfare; a realization that US foreign policy places little value on 'friendships' following America's quick withdrawal of support to Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak. Most importantly, the weakening of Iraq has allowed historic rival Iran emerge as a regional power.
Whatever the cause, a muscular and confident GCC is revealed in the collective and individual responses to crises in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. 
Omar Mukhtar, Libyan rebel of yesteryear. Are the Benghazi rebels of the 'Omar Mukhtar tradition'?
Qatar, sometimes seen as a maverick within the region, came out very strongly in favour of ant-Gaddafi Libyan rebels. During the initial stages of the Libyan conflict, Western diplomats were grasping at Qatar's stance as evidence of Arab support to overthrow Gaddafi. Qatar was amongst the first nations to recognize the Libyan rebels as the country's provisional government. Additionally, Qatar is helping to market Libyan oil pumped from rebel held areas to provide a crucial supply of cash to anti-Gaddafi forces.
Much was made of news reports that Qatar Air Force planes flew some missions alongside NATO 'partners' in the early stages of NATO's mission. There was also unconfirmed talk of UAE air force jets joining the NATO mission.
While Libya demonstrates an 'idealist' GCC hand, the GCC reaction to unrest in Bahrain is 'realpolitik' personified. As the battle of wills between Bahrain's centuries old Al-Khalifa monarchy and protestors permeated into a stalemate, the conservative Gulf monarchies fretted that Iran may obtain a beachhead were Bahrain to 'fall.'
Saudi Arabia, with prominent support from the UAE, and other GCC partners sent in a security force of Saudi soldiers and UAE policemen. The force operates under GCC's collective security agreements.
The UAE's uncharacteristically high profile participation must be placed in the context of increasing concerns about Iran's regional influence. Iran's ability to 'bully' the UAE and adversely affect the country's ambitious economic development plans worries UAE leaders.
Yemen remains a work in progress. Saudi Arabia's interests in maintaining stability in Yemen are crucial. Yemen's internal disturbances have spilled over into Saudi Arabia in the past. Nevertheless, Yemen is not Bahrain. Yemen is also not part of the GCC. Any Saudi or GCC military intervention in Yemen is fraught with danger. Last month's 'siege' of the UAE Embassy in Sanaa hints at the difficulties any foreign force may face in a nation awash in weapons.
For a Saudi military force to try and pacify Yemen might be as telling as India's 1980s peacekeeping experience in Sri Lanka. Like the Indian action, a Saudi intervention may be an exercise in immediate power projection. However, it is unlikely military intervention will achieve Saudi strategic objectives. Ultimately, any Saudi military intervention may merely result in a revision of counterinsurgency tactical doctrines and a new logic for future Saudi-Yemeni relations. 
The ancient Yemeni city of Aden
GCC dollar diplomacy is well known around the world. However, the flexing of military muscle by the region's countries is a new phenomenon. Many analysts suggest the reinvigorated GCC foreign policy is simply filling a void created by a weakened America. A more sinister reading suggests GCC nations are redrawing battle lines with Iran.