Stories by Kapil Komireddi

Kapil Komireddi is an Indian writer. His work has appeared in such publications as The Guardian, Foreign Policy, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Salt Lake Tribune, and The Khaleej Times, among others. He writes about foreign affairs, particularly the emerging US-India relationship, for FrumForum.

The Land Without Smiles

December 19th, 2011 at 8:35 am 15 Comments

A brisk look at KCNA, the North Korean regime’s news agency hosted from Japan, used to form an occasional part of my reading routine. It was a source of comic relief at first. As the rest of the world lurched between crises, the inhabitants of North Korea seemed splendidly insulated from anything approaching hardship or even inconvenience. Dear Leader Kim Jong Il – depicted by KCNA scribes as a man so absolutely devoted to improving the lives of his citizens that you wondered if he had a life of his own – was unrelenting in his efforts to spread prosperity and tranquillity among his people.

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The World Loses a Light

December 16th, 2011 at 2:54 am 14 Comments

Hitchens is gone. And the phrase that echoes in my mind is Nehru’s at the death of Gandhi: “The light has gone out of our lives.” For every young writer – and every victim and opponent of authoritarianism – there is now darkness.

To Hitchens, there was no difference between the two: he rejected the line that separates the observer from the doer. The master stylist of the English language was also the Western world’s most forceful opponent of authoritarianism. He savaged intellectuals who, obsessed with playing the thinker, refused to engage with reality and often became apologists for tyranny.

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Mansoor Ijaz’s Record Speaks for Itself

December 9th, 2011 at 9:08 am 3 Comments

Earlier this week, in an essay that comprehensively debunked the so-called “memogate” controversy that has paralysed Pakistan and driven its already fragile civilian government to the brink of collapse, David Frum described the architect of the crisis, Mansoor Ijaz, as “a reckless fantasist motivated by childish vanity”.

Now Ijaz has responded with a rebuttal that vividly proves the case of those calling him a fraud.

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Belarus Dictator Popular? How Would We Know?

November 17th, 2011 at 1:06 am 10 Comments

I recently drew attention in an article for FrumForum to the imminent threat to the life of Andrei Sannikov, the pro-democracy opposition leader of Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship. Robin Tim Weis’s riposte to my piece coincides with news that Sannikov has disappeared. If nothing else, this should prompt us to question the policy of gradualism in dealing with dictatorships.

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Stop Being Idle, Speak Up for Belarus

November 4th, 2011 at 1:30 pm 18 Comments

As despotic regimes across the Middle East crumble under the weight of pro-democracy uprisings, an obscene silence prevails over the savage dictatorship in the centre of Europe. For 17 years, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a former Soviet state, in the fashion of his hero, Joseph Stalin: public assembly is banned, the press is censored, the internet is monitored, telephones are tapped, and people’s livelihoods – and lives – depend on eschewing politics.

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Fanatics’ Actions Don’t Define U.S. Muslims

June 15th, 2011 at 10:48 am 17 Comments

On the stage at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire Monday night, Tim Pawlenty offered a definition of religious freedom:  “The protections between the separation of church and state were designed to protect people of faith from government, not government from people of faith.”

Yet apparently not all people of faith are to be protected from government, at least not according to one candidate on that stage: Herman Cain, pizza-maker turned presidential candidate.   In January, the restaurateur-turned-presidential candidate justified the invasion of Iraq in simple, recipe-book English: “The people of Iraq, they wanted to be a democracy. Once it was clear that they wanted to be a democracy, President Bush pledged to help them out”.

But at the debate on Monday, Cain couldn’t countenance the thought of American Muslims sharing that aspiration. In Cain’s eyes, every Muslim must be judged according to the actions of the fanatics “that are trying to kill us.”

For that reason, Cain explained, he would not be “comfortable” including Muslims in his cabinet if elected president. Cain attempted to offer further justification by conjuring the bogey of Sharia law. He needn’t have to: a portion of the audience had by then drowned his words in applause.  Only Mitt Romney — himself sometimes a target of religious prejudice — spoke up against Herman Cain, and then only in the most velvety manner.

“We recognize that the people of all faiths are welcome in this country,” said Romney. “Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance. That’s in fact why some of the early patriots came to this country and we treat people with respect regardless of their religious persuasion.”

As if to offset any offence these words might have caused, Romney added that he would only employ people he knew would honour their oath to defend the constitution. This was more than Newt Gingrich. He interrupted Romeny to remind the audience that breaking an oath was easy — and, to applause, called for more rigorous measures, invoking, as a useful precedent, the treatment of Nazis.

Gingrich justified his treat-Muslims-as-Nazis prescription by citing the case of Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani American who attempted to blow up Times Square.

But what would Gingrich have done with Mohammed Salman Hamdani, another Pakistani American who died while attempting to save lives at the World Trade Centre on 9/11? Hamdani didn’t have to be at the World Trade Centre that morning, but he chose to go.

Would Cain have discharged Specialist Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, a Muslim American who was killed while serving in Iraq? It is Hamdani and Khan, not Shahzad, who are more accurately representative of the ordinary Muslim immigrants to America — and the instincts which drove him to the World Trade Centre on 9/11 transcend the distinctions of race and faith: they are the instincts of the best of humanity.

Get Tough With Pakistan

May 11th, 2011 at 12:59 pm 23 Comments

A month after Pakistan’s foundation in 1947, the American journalist Margaret Bourke-White interviewed the founder of the world’s first Islamic republic. She wanted to understand how the country would survive. But if she expected to be told about an impressive array of policies, she was disappointed. The answer was less complicated: Pakistan would survive, Mohammed Ali Jinnah replied, because it was too important to fail. America would not allow Pakistan to fall to the Russians. “This brave new nation,” Bourke-White concluded, “had no other claim on American friendship than this—that across a wild tumble of roadless mountain ranges lay the land of the Bolsheviks.”

Six decades on, that template continues to ensure the survival of Pakistan. Its ruling elite believes that America, terrified by the potential cost of dealing with nuclear Pakistan’s failure, will always pay the price for its survival. So instead of contrition and conciliation in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s discovery in Abbottabad, Washington received a contemptuous lecture on the sanctity of Pakistan’s sovereignty – accompanied by the deliberate release of the CIA station chief’s name in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s brazenness catches the breath. But there is method to what looks like madness. This is a high-stakes gamble by Pakistan’s military-intelligence chiefs. Having been exposed as the principal guardian of al Qaeda’s chief for the last six years, Pakistan is attempting preemptively to diminish the leverage Washington has acquired over Islamabad. By being shrill, by refusing to cooperate, by threatening to retaliate, Pakistan is shifting the focus away from the question of its complicity – and hoping that, rather than assume the role of prosecutor, Washington will scramble to play the pacifier.

A decade ago, at the height of its fury, Washington threatened to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if it so much as refused to cooperate in the war against al Qaeda. Today, trapped in the labyrinth of Af-Pak, it stares with impotent rage as Islamabad refuses even to grant access to bin Laden’s associates – congratulating itself on bin Laden’s killing, but still stuck in an alliance with his custodians.

Washington now has two options. The first is to return to business-as-usual. Washington can carry on pretending that Pakistan’s behavior can be altered with more incentives. This will make it easier for President Barack Obama to initiate a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. But far from repairing Afghanistan, the purpose of America’s mission will have been to secure the country for Pakistan. The Taliban leaders presently hibernating in Pakistan’s mountainous north will, with the ISI’s support, eventually return Afghanistan to its pre-2001 condition.

There are influential voices in the West which continue to exhort us to recognize and respect Pakistan’s “interests” in Afghanistan. But having fought the forces of medieval barbarity for a decade, can we hand Afghanistan back to those who foisted – and wish to re-impose – the worst elements of the Taliban upon the Afghans? To accommodate Pakistan’s “interests” in Afghanistan is to consign Afghans to a future of servitude – and to turn their country into an untrammeled training ground and launching pad for Pakistan’s relentless jihad against India. It should surprise no one that 91% of Afghans view Pakistan unfavorably.

The second option is for America to repudiate the myth of Pakistan’s indispensability and embrace the country which most Afghans view favorably: India. Washington has all along been aware of India’s overwhelmingly positive contribution to Afghanistan’s development. New Delhi is the fifth-largest donor of civilian aid to Kabul. It has constructed the new parliament building, the Palace of Democracy; trained the country’s parliamentarians; and donated aircraft to resuscitate Afghanistan’s national airline, Ariana. Its workers are engaged in major infrastructure projects ranging from highways and electricity grids to dam projects, telecommunications, and the expansion of a TV network.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote in his assessment of the mission in 2009, “Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people.” Yet India was denied a larger role for fear, in Gen. McChrystal’s words, of “Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan and India.” This, to borrow David Frum’s words, was the geopolitical equivalent of locking up Martin Luther King, Jr., for fear of the Ku Klux Klan’s “countermeasures”.

Washington must now seek an all-out alliance with India. It makes no sense for the US and India to function as practical strangers in Afghanistan in order to mollify forces that threaten the existence of both these secular democracies. For Pakistan, the indulgent era of bottomless bribes and easy exonerations must come to an end. Pakistan must be held to account. This does not mean going to war. It means taking concrete measures to blunt the power of the military-intelligence camorra that rules Pakistan:

  1. Washington must identify and pursue Pakistan’s military and intelligence officials who collude with extremists of any stripe.
  2. It must impose severe travel restrictions on senior officers of the Pakistan army and the ISI – and their personal assets in the west must be identified and frozen.
  3. Washington should make it clear to Islamabad that it will no longer plead its cause with India.
  4. The ISI must be declared a terrorist organization. At least five Americans were killed in the attack on Mumbai in 2008 – an attack sponsored by the ISI. And according to the CIA, the 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul – the deadliest since the Taliban’s fall in 2001 – was planned and executed in concert with the ISI. Afghanistan’s former foreign minister, Rangin Spanta, has confirmed that the “same sources’’ were behind the repeated attack on the Indian embassy in 2009.
  5. Finally, Pakistan must be told in no uncertain terms that if it does not act against the terrorists in its midst, then those likely to be affected by their actions have the right to intervene in self-defense.

Pakistan can no longer presume a place in the comity of nations. It must earn it.

Follow Kapil on twitter: @kapskom


Palin Flops in India

March 19th, 2011 at 6:26 pm 115 Comments

With due respect to aficionados of the emerging India-US alliance, it is difficult to see how New Delhi qualifies as an appropriate destination for a potential presidential candidate to enunciate her “vision of America.” That was the theme of Sarah Palin’s speech at the India Today Conclave, a major media talkfest, in Delhi earlier today. Palin’s rambling and incoherent performance suggested two possibilities. First, the generous reason: perhaps the theme was too restrictive, like those school exercises which require students to construct whole essays around a key theme, such as rain or forests or the railways. Students often try to overcome this challenge by resorting to an old technique: write lengthy, unconnected passages and sprinkle them with the keywords. So in a dense essay about nothing, you’ll find repeated references to rain or forests or the railways. Palin borrowed that technique, holding together a suffocatingly vacuous speech by invoking, from time to time, the theme. So she would interrupt herself from time to time, pause for a second, and say, “my vision for America.”

The second possibility: Palin was out of her depth.  It’s appalling enough that a contender for the American presidency, the putative leader of a popular anti-government movement, cannot conjure up a compelling vision for her country. But the speech also confirmed Palin’s illiteracy in foreign affairs. Talking about energy – the centerpiece, apparently, of her “vision” for America — Palin had no words to assuage Indian anxieties about nuclear energy in the wake of the tragedy at Fukushima in Japan. Energy-starved India is likely to be one of the world’s biggest markets for American nuclear technology, but Palin was content with empty platitudes: there was repeated praise of free-trade, condemnations of government spending, and even a mention of the moose her daughters had recently spotted outside their house in Alaska. Standing in the capital of the world’s largest democracy, she said nothing in her speech about the pro-democracy uprisings in India’s neighborhood. When prompted, she repudiated President Obama’s approach, but offered only a vague alternative of her own. What’s the biggest security challenge facing the world right now? The “evil dictator” of Iran (or, as she put it, “eye-ran”) and his nuclear program. Fair enough. How would she stop him? She seemed lost, suggesting economic sanctions and then military action. How will the pro-democracy movement in the Middle East affect Iran? Can India, which has strong relations with Iran, mediate? On China, she was refreshing, unafraid to sound the tocsin: India and the US should be partners in containing China, she suggested straightforwardly. And yet, for someone seeking the presidency, Palin seemed astonishingly unimaginative.

The world once marveled at Sarah Palin. In a very dull sport, the gun-tottin’, straight-speakin’ Alaskan was a refreshing star. But as we become acquainted with the dangers of reducing politics and policy to sport, how embarrassingly obsolete Sarah Palin looks.


If Mubarak Falls,
What’s Next?

January 28th, 2011 at 5:47 pm 13 Comments

Old certainties are turning to ash in the Middle East. Solidly established regimes, for all their monopoly on violence, are suddenly finding themselves incapable of suppressing the rage of the region’s disaffected young. Hosni Mubarak lorded over Egypt for three decades. Today he cannot to put out the fires in Cairo. This is a revolution.

The temptation to explain away its causes is difficult to resist. Slogans now emerge from across the world. Yet the force most visibly driving this revolution is rage – the sudden explosion of latent resentment triggered by Tunisians’ brisk dethroning of Ben Ali.

Everyone who opposes authoritarian rule must support the Egyptian revolutionaries. They must also, in the same spirit, urge them to consider the consequences of their revolution. By erasing order, revolution creates the illusion of empowerment. But without order, the mighty rule the weak. True revolutionaries know that their struggle is a means to an end, the chaos a necessary route to stability.

Egypt’s revolutionaries are determined to bring down Mubarak’s regime, but have they given thought to what will replace it? Can their revolution transcend its origins as a movement opposed to Mubarak and produce a nationalism that stands for something superior? Will the quick satisfaction of ridding the country of Mubarak make Egyptians unalert to the more objectionable ideas for their country that will follow? Will they resist the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to subsume the revolution? History is handing Egyptians the extraordinary opportunity to renew their nation.  If they allow secular tyranny to be replaced by theocratic absolutism, they will not have another chance.


In Pakistan, The Extremists Have Won

January 7th, 2011 at 1:10 pm 19 Comments

Pakistan’s founders explained their hasty creation as the Promised Land where no Muslim would be killed for being Muslim. Today, it is a land where Muslims are killed for not being Muslim enough. Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, was assassinated because he had the temerity to assail the country’s anti-blasphemy laws. In responding to the plight of Asia Noreen – a 45-year-old Christian woman awaiting execution for the capital crime, under Pakistan’s penal code, of blasphemy against Islam – Taseer had inflamed god’s warriors, earning himself a fatwa. On Tuesday, as Taseer was entering his car in Islamabad, one of his security guards shot him dead. The guard then surrendered himself, explaining, like a latter-day Godse, the Hindu fanatic who murdered Gandhi for being too “soft” with Muslims, his opposition to Taseer’s views.

“Facts”, Louis Fischer wrote in his autobiography Men and Politics, “cannot compete with a fiction that is comforting”. If history is a reliable guide, comforting fiction is what is likely to emerge from Pakistan. Who bears the responsibility for Taseer’s death? To Pakistan’s liberals, the principal cause of religious extremism in their country begins and ends with one person: Zia-ul-Haq, an austere bigot who governed the country from 1976 until his death in 1988. But apportioning the blame so disproportionately exonerates his predecessors, erases the deeper history of religious supremacism that underpins the very idea of Pakistan, and promotes, to the present generation, the false idea that, prior to Zia, Pakistan accommodated pluralism.

The formal Islamisation of Pakistan was initiated as early as 1949 by Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister; the Objectives Resolution he introduced that March set out the core constitutional principles by which the new country would be governed. Among other things, it proclaimed that Allah, who held sovereignty “over the entire Universe”, had “delegated it to Pakistan”. Most alarming of all, it called for the creation of conditions “Wherein the Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah.”

By the time Ayub Khan launched the first military coup in 1958, 11-year-old Pakistan had been ruled by seven prime ministers. His finely clipped moustache and fondness for scotch whiskey led outsiders to view Ayub as a great modernizer. Indeed Ayub’s first major act as president was to commission the construction of a new capital city. A Greek firm of architects was tasked with the job. On 24 February 1960, Ayub gave the city its name: Islamabad, the City of Islam. Fittingly, while the parliament and the supreme court built by the Greeks are frequently forced into abeyance, the one building that is always open for business in today’s Islamabad is a lavishly built mosque named after a Saudi despot who funded it.

What followed was an intensive program of indoctrination. Education was the principal target – textbooks were filled with myths; the study of “Islamiyat” was promoted at universities; a whole new discipline called “Pakistan Studies,” locating the country’s origins in the history of Islam, was created; and the army, particularly Ayub, was portrayed as its saviour.

To validate this myth, Ayub launched a war against India in 1965. At the battle of Badr in the 7th Century, the Prophet’s tiny band of Muslim soldiers claimed to have vanquished the Quraysh with the help of white-turbaned angels sent by Gabriel. Ayub’s propaganda machinery borrowed directly from that legend, reaffirming Pakistan’s position as the defender of Islam. Stories about Pakistan’s forces being assisted by green-robed angels who deflected Indian bombs with a wave of their hand were circulating, as were legends about Pakistani soldiers shooting down Indian aircraft with Enfield rifles. Pakistanis weren’t just being invited to celebrate the valor of their soldiers – they were being told that their side had received celestial sanction.

Salman Taseer’s security guard seemingly felt blessed by that very divinity when he pulled the trigger yesterday on the man he was commissioned to defend. To all those in Pakistan’s armed forces who sympathize with Taseer’s killer, this may be a logical culmination of the journey that began in 1947. Advocates of tolerance have gone into hiding. The government has surrendered. Taseer’s killer is now a hero, beatified by Pakistan’s mullahs and televangelists. Dissent carries the death penalty. Historians will look back at the murder of Salman Taseer as the point at which Pakistan was irrecoverably lost to extremists. This was Pakistan’s very own Khomeini Moment.