Prem Shankar Jha

The deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 in Doha was little more than an abject surrender.

Instead of Pointing Fingers, Focus on Creating Spaces Where Afghan Liberal Spirit Can Survive
People carry Afghan flags as they take part in an anti-Taliban protest in Jalalabad, Afghanistan August 18, 2021 in this screen grab taken from a video. Photo: Pajhwok Afghan News/Handout via Reuters

With devastating suddenness, history has repeated itself: 46 years ago, Americans had to be evacuated from the rooftop of the US embassy in Saigon. This week, they were evacuated from the rooftop of the US embassy in Kabul. American public opinion has already begun to look for scapegoats, and President Joe Biden is in danger of being  selected, despite the fact that it was Donald Trump who took the pivotal decision that led to this second humiliation.  The coming days will see a deluge of recrimination and finger pointing, but none of it will serve an iota of purpose.

India’s strategic analysts will do their share of it. Many of those fingers will point at Pakistan. President Ashraf Ghani  started the ball rolling by accusing Pakistan of sending 10,000 Mujahideen into Afghanistan in the past few months to bolster the Taliban offensive. There is no reason not to believe him, for had a government in New Delhi been caught in Islamabad’s predicament, it would probably have done the same thing.

That predicament is the likelihood of history repeating itself. The deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 in Doha was little more than an abject surrender. All that the Taliban agreed to was that it would not allow al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist force, to operate in the areas it controlled. Since the Americans cannot tell one ‘raghead’ from another, this was an empty commitment.

Not only was the Ghani government not a party to it, but none of its concerns were taken on board. So it was no surprise that the agreement contained no explicit commitment by the Taliban to refrain from the use of force against the Ghani government, and no requirement, let alone a time-bound one, within which to work out the modalities of power sharing with the Ghani government. And no penalties if it did not.

The US took this agreement to Kabul for its ‘talks’ with the Ghani government only after it had signed its agreement with the Taliban. One does not need any great acumen to understand the significance of this action: it meant that the US and the Taliban had decided the future of Afghanistan. This became apparent when the US agreed in Doha to a Taliban demand that Kabul release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan soldiers, as a pre-condition to its holding follow-up talks with Kabul from March 10, 2020.

The prisoner exchange did not take place, so neither did the talks. But that did not deter the Trump administration from proceeding with the pullout. It would therefore have been surprising indeed if the Ghani government – the democratic government that the West had itself helped to create – did not consider this agreement and its aftermath to be a betrayal. This was compounded by the US’s refusal to supply the 300,000 plus Afghan national army with any of the modern attack helicopters, fixed wing military  aircraft and logistical systems that enabled US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan to call up an air strike within three minutes of coming under attack by the Taliban.

A handout photo obtained from Twitter via @Bw_Einsatz on August 17, 2021 shows evacuees from Afghanistan as they arrive in an Airbus A400 transport aircraft of the German Air Force Luftwaffe in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Photo: Marc Tessensohn/Twitter @Bw_Einsatz/Handout via Reuters

The US did not even consider the alternative, of leaving squadrons of its own air force at Bagram and a few other strategic air bases to provide air support for the Afghan army, although it has kept and continues to keep it there to facilitate the pullout of the remaining American troops.

In the face of this rampant, racist colonialism, can anyone blame Ghani for deciding that he would not be a party to Afghans shedding still more of other Afghans’ blood, only to ensure a slightly less humiliating exit for the Americans from Afghanistan? Whether this was his intention all along or not, far from betraying his people, Ghani has saved thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives, and prevented a third destruction of Kabul in 30 years.

In fact, seeing the speed with which Ghani surrendered Kabul, it cannot be ruled out that the Taliban’s lightning advance was also facilitated by the government having decided, secretly, to avoid a war over other cities as well. Ghani may also have been motivated by the hope, probably well-founded, that an army which enters a city peacefully will  behave far more responsibly towards its civilians and not indulge in the pillage, murder and rape that usually follows, because it will be relatively free of the bloodlust that the stress of conflict, fear of death and the injury and death of comrades brings out in soldiers.

The real losers in Afghanistan – the sacrificial victims of Ghani’s surrender – will be members of Afghanistan’s still renascent but rapidly growing civil society, who had trusted the ISAF’s promise to create a peaceful and free society. These are the people TV has shown clambering onto the few civilian aircraft still leaving Kabul on Monday. In numerical terms they may be few. But the blow to human freedom that their exit or, worse still, incarceration and death will inflict upon Afghan liberals’ struggle for freedom will be humanity’s real loss.

It is one that this poor, benighted, country will not recover from during our lifetimes. The duty of the rest of the world today is therefore to provide the sanctuary in which the Afghan liberal spirit can survive. India has been the favoured destination of Afghan refugees since the overthrow of King Zahir Shah. The Narendra Modi government can still redeem itself if it opens India’s doors to the new wave of refugees that is now developing, once more.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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If there is anything to be learned  from Blinken’s visit, it is that the era of the cloistered nation state, which enshrined the absolute right of governments to deal with their people as they wished, has come to an end.

Anthony Blinken Conveyed a Warning to the Modi Government But Did the Prime Minister Hear It?
Indian external affairs minister Dr. S Jaishankar with US secretary of state Antony Blinken during their meeting in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

In the joint press conference that ended his one-day visit to India, United States secretary of state Anthony Blinken did not try to hide the US’s discomfiture over the turn that Indian democracy has taken in the past several years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Answering a question posed by the Wall Street Journal’s correspondent, he readily admitted that “shared democratic relations and high ideals were very much a part of our conversation”. Since busy world leaders do not waste time having conversations on things they completely agree on, Blinken was signalling, in diplomatese, that the two sides do not see eye on the fate that has befallen these high ideals.

“The relationship between our two countries,” he elaborated, “is strong and important because it is a relationship between democracies and at its core a relationship between its peoples. One of the elements Americans admire the most about India is its steadfast commitment to democracy, to pluralism, to human rights and fundamental freedoms. We see ourselves reflected in that. India’s democracy is powered by its free-thinking citizens.”

The language of diplomacy has its own conventions. One of these is to disguise admonition as praise. The former was abundantly visible in Blinken’s statements. The secretary of state lavished praise on India’s democracy, but its underlying message was that the Biden administration’s relationship with India would depend upon the  extent to which the Modi government respects the written and unwritten rules and conventions of democracy. He softened the message by admitting that American democracy too was a work in progress, but his message was clear: violations of human rights and freedoms occurred in the US too, but its federal and state governments did not shirk from taking corrective action. The Modi government had to stay the course too: backtracking was unacceptable.

Jaishankar is far too seasoned a diplomat not to have got Blinken’s message. Members of Biden’s administration had expressed their discomfiture over the Modi government’s disregard for civil rights and liberties more than once in the past six months. The Pegasus revelations have only served to heighten that concern. So Jaishankar’s response to Blinken was anything but spontaneous. His response was chilling.

“…it is the moral obligation of all polities,” he responded, “to really right wrongs, when they have been done, including historically and many of the decisions and policies you’ve seen in last few years, fall in that category. …freedoms are important,” he elaborated, “we all value them, but never equate freedom with non-governance or lack of governance or poor governance. They are two completely different things.” (emphasis added)

After seven years of Modi rule, it is not difficult to read between the lines of his response: the Modi government will continue to pay lip service to democracy but, as a sovereign nation, it had the right to decide why, when and how it will curtail the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the people by India’s constitution. Jaishankar did not stop there, but claimed further that this was not merely a constitutional, but a moral right, in short a right that transcended those inscribed in the constitution because it came directly from some higher authority.

Jaishankar then claimed that this “moral right” did not cover only present day wrongs but ‘historical’ ones as well. To describe this response as outrageous would be an understatement. Every government has not only the right but a duty to set perceived wrongs right. But it can only do so in the present, while the instruments for doing so still exist. As the last Ming emperor of China wrote before hanging himself, he had forfeited his right to live because he had not kept himself informed of his peoples’ plight, and therefore failed them in their hour of need.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US secretary of state Antony Blinken during their meeting in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

But how can a government correct a historical wrong, especially the ones the BJP the believes happened? For history is irrevocably a part of the past. It can be studied. We can learn lessons from it. But it cannot be changed. A wrong done in the present can be undone. But how does one undo a wrong done in the past?

The Sangh parivar’s answer has been staring us in the face for the past seven decades: it is to punish the descendants of the ‘wrongdoers’. These are the descendants of “the Muslims” who  conquered  north India. The ‘historical wrongs’ the parivar constantly harps upon is the pillage that accompanied the conquests, the destruction of temples, the driving out of the Brahmin priesthood and  the forcible conversion of a large section of Hindus to Islam.

As innumerable historians have pointed out, many of these assertions, especially of forcible conversions to Islam, are greatly exaggerated. But to the extent that they happened, they did so hundreds of years ago. The perpetrators have been dead for centuries. So the moral right that Jaishankar, perhaps unwittingly, claimed was not the right to seek justice but to inflict retribution.

How could a seasoned diplomat have made such a remark? The most plausible answer is that he was required to do so by his prime minister. Blinken had made no secret of the purpose of his visit to Delhi. Not only had he made it clear that the continuation of close relations with the US depended upon India remaining a democracy in letter and also spirit, but that the Biden administration would not allow India to drag it into a conflict with China. In a few terse sentences, therefore, he had destroyed every pillar of the ‘special relationship’ with the US, that Modi had made the talisman of his success in foreign policy.

For the prime minister, this was a double blow because it also punctured the larger-than-life image he had sought to create for himself as the heroic defender of India’s dominant position in South Asia and challenger to China’s hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. He cannot therefore be blamed for concluding that the US has not only emboldened his political rivals within India, but within the Sangh parivar itself. That would account for the belligerent manner in which Jaishankar asserted his government’s right to redress the wrongs of history. It was, in effect, a warning to the US to mind its own business.

That is not going to happen. If there is anything to be learned  from Blinken’s visit, it is that the era of the cloistered nation state, which enshrined the absolute right of governments to deal with their people as they wished, has come to an end. The revolutions in transport and communication technology of the past half-century, and the mass migration of highly educated workers from the developing to the developed world, have made every government’s business a part of the business of its peers.

The era of insular nation states is over, but the Sangh parivar remains locked within the cage of its outmoded perceptions. This has prevented Modi from perceiving how far he has taken India down the road to becoming a state of questionable democratic credentials. That his own foreign minister should have been unable to prevent this, speaks volumes for the way in which he has centralised power within the government without understanding how to use it.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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The resignation of top academics from Ashoka University is reflective of the current atmosphere where centres of education that encourage us to question beliefs and prejudices pose a direct threat to the Hindutva state.

Hindutva's Dead Hand in Destroying India's Future: A Personal LamentIllustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The news of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka University has filled me with an immeasurable sense of loss. I have known Pratap since he was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard in the mid-1990s. His field was moral and political philosophy and, even before he had completed the book whose peer-reviewed acceptance for publication is virtually a pre-condition for even applying for, let alone securing tenure (i.e lifetime professorship) at Harvard, his colleagues had taken it for granted that he would be among the very few post-docs who would be granted it when his fellowship came up for review.

But Pratap did not wait for the tenure review and returned to India because his heart had been set upon it from the very beginning. What pulled him back was, simply put,  a burning desire to serve his country. Soon after he returned, he submitted his first article to the Indian Express. I remember that one very well because on reading it I realised straight away that he had brought an element into political commentary that had been lacking before. This was an ethical yardstick, based upon his understanding of the moral and political foundations upon which great nations have rested, and whose betrayal has led to their downfall. Needless to say readers of the Indian Express, and its editors, also saw this, and Pratap’s column in the Indian Express, which he has sustained till this day, was instantly born.

When the founders and trustees of Ashok university chose him to succeed its first vice-chancellor, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, they could not have made a better choice. For not only had they chosen a renowned scholar, but one who had already shown, as the director of the Centre for Policy Research, that he has the self-confidence to allow an already well-governed institution to continue governing itself and grow through collective endeavour, and confine his role to protecting that growth.

Ashoka University’s haloed place at risk 

Among the several private universities that were set up in the glory days of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the distinctive feature of Ashoka University was its decision not to open the gates of admission wide to ensure its financial viability but to enrol only students who meet admission standards comparable to those of the best universities in the world. As a result, the quality of its student body, its faculty, the seminars they hold, and the research the PhD students do has been attracting growing respect in centres of higher education across the world.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Photo: Youtube screengrab.

This had not come as a surprise to me because, having taught as visiting faculty at Harvard, the University of Virginia, Sciences-Po in Paris and The New School University in New York, I had realised from my very first interactions with the faculty and students at Ashoka, that the quality of education it was giving, and of the research being done there, was second to none.

I was convinced that it was only a matter of time – and not much time at that – before Ashoka came to be recognised as one of a couple of dozen best liberal arts universities, something no Indian university has managed to do so far. I had also all but persuaded my daughter that to ensure a world class university education for my grandchildren, it was no longer necessary to look outside the country. That hope too is now fading as I look at the uncertain future that lies ahead.

Tragically, in a country with an unparalleled record of missed economic opportunities, and failed moral and political development, it is this single-minded pursuit of excellence that has endangered Ashoka’s future, for it threatens the very base of the edifice of power that the RSS has created for the Sangh Parivar. For that base is fabricated from ignorance, dogma, prejudice, an utter misreading of Hinduism,  and a twisted, sometimes fictitious rendering of Indian history from the Mauryan ‘Golden Age’ to the present day, and the perpetuation of the communal hatred that was Britain’s parting present to India.

Hindutva brigade aversion to knowledge

It has been apparent from the Modi government’s first days in power that it considers knowledge, and sincere, dispassionate debate to be its enemy, because it knows that the promotion of “Hindutva” and his government’s very survival, depends upon the relentless fostering of the myth, passion, and prejudice. Freedom to debate, and the right to disagree, are its enemies because they allow us to question existing beliefs and discredit myth and prejudice. Centres of excellence in education that encourage both are therefore direct threats to the Hindutva state.

Modi’s advisers have made no secret of their belief that knowledge is an enemy of the state. So it is hardly surprising that they have targeted liberal arts universities like Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and now Ashoka, in particular. They destroyed Delhi’s academic integrity first over the Ramayana issue;  they have all but succeeded in taming JNU by appointing an unknown professor from a different institution who is a known member of the RSS as its vice-chancellor and permitting him to hound dissident students, bring the police onto the campus, and systematically emasculate its academic council.

But the government’s bete noire has been a section of the print media and the proliferating online journals to which many of the best and brightest in civil society have migrated. So it is hardly surprising that its baleful gaze has now fallen on the digital media.

Chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian. Credit: Reuters
Following Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s exit from Ashoka University, Arvind Subramanian too followed suit. Photo: Reuters

Its favourite mode of attack has been the choking off of funds, through layer after layer of draconian and intrusive laws whose cumulative effect has been to ban foreign funding, open domestic donors to ever heavier and more intrusive investigation, and declare any criticism of the government or its policies an ‘unlawful act’ that opens the alleged perpetrator to a minimum of six months in jail without a judicial hearing, at the will and command of the police and its masters.

Ashoka University has so far escaped this fate, but the pressure upon it to bow to the government’s will has been mounting for at least the past four years. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has been the focus of this pressure because he is among the very few persons in the country who has the stature and credibility to defend the right of dissent in both academia and through his columns in the Indian Express. This has been far too much power for the government to stomach. Pratap Mehta has been at the head of this select list.

Pratap Mehta alleviated the pressure on the University for the first time in 2019 by resigning from the vice-chancellorship but staying on as a Professor. But the Modi government did not relent, so the government’s pressure on the university’s founders and donors continued.

Mehta has tried to save the university a second time by resigning from his professorship also. But this too will not suffice, because the government’s main purpose has not been to push him out of the university but stop his column in the newspapers. That is the request that the board and some of the trustees of Ashoka are believed to have made of him. Pratap has chosen the alternative of cutting all his remaining links with the university.

But instead of dousing the fire, this has added fuel to it. The resignation from its faculty of Arvind Subramaniam, Arun Jaitly’s former economic adviser, and the rebellion of the student body has seriously jeopardised Ashoka’s future. Other faculty members are presently awaiting the outcome of the struggle, but it is a safe bet that should the Trustees not rediscover the courage to stand up to the government, there will be more resignations and a fairly rapid departure of the best professors to  universities abroad.

Ashoka university may survive, but it will do so not as a liberal arts university comparable to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge but as a successful skill imparting university comparable to Jindal University next door.  Should this happen far more will have failed than just another foray into higher education.

For one has only to look at the place that is occupied by the above-mentioned universities in the US and UK, and of Sciences-Po and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in France, to understand the role that liberal arts universities that have played in creating  the thinkers and policymakers  – Plato’s Men of Gold – who have guided the destinies of their nations.

Oxford and Cambridge were training colleges for the clergy before Britain became the archetypal nation-state

“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy,” our courts have intoned, most eloquently in Romila Thapar versus the Union of India. But it is Pratap Mehta again, who has described the constructive power of dissent in the making of a nation.

In the annual lecture he delivered for Project 39A on December 10, last year, he said,  “Dissent is not a freestanding value because it is grounded in moral judgment. It has, as George Elliot said, to speak in the name of a higher rule; it has to speak in the name of a common good; it has to be reaching for something better. Otherwise, it simply is a disposition to subvert, where the means become the ends (emphasis added).”

Today the BJP is on its back feet. In the past year, it has succeeded in alienating just about every important group in the country – the entire working class, especially its migrant component, the farmers, and the small and medium enterprise owners and their employees.

These are vast economic strata that cut across every ideological and religious grouping in the country, so its standard appeals to religion and hate are failing. It has fallen into this trap, not because of the COVID pandemic, but because it has choked off public debate and dissent. Ashoka university was primarily, and could still be, its best vehicle for bringing the global debate into India. But all that this government seems intent upon is to destroy its future.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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