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The Curious Case of West Bengal

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To India – My Native Land is a poem composed by one of the most brilliant Indian poets, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio. The poem was composed in 1828 in form of a sonnet. This is one of the best works of an Indian poet in the English language.

In the sonnet, the poet expressed his anguish, his deep pain over his sense of personal loss due to the downfall of his motherland, India. In his anguish, he addressed his country, his motherland which was one revered as a goddess in the times old but has now become a slave under the boot of a ruthless invader, the British Empire. The mighty eagle which his country once was and which soared high above the skies of old, now lies shackled and chained on the dirt. The poet laments his misfortune that his nothing to offer to his country, not even a wreath of flowers. All he can do is try to dig into his country glorious past and sing some glory of her past which is no longer available for the coming generations. All he expects in return that his fellow countrymen remember him for his efforts.

Henry Louis Vivian Derozio was one of the greatest Indian English Language poets. He was also the assistant headmaster of Hindu College, Kolkata. Like most others his era, he was a radical thinker (he was a contemporary of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a fiery Hindu reformer) and one of the first Indian educators to promote and provide Western learning and science among the youth of Bengal. He died at very young age; he was only 22 at the time of his death due to cholera. He has contributed far more to literature and critical thinking than many others have in an entire lifetime. While most considered him as an Anglo-Indian, Derozio regarded himself as a native Bengali and an Indian. While there have been attempts to categorize him as a Christian and accusations that he promoted Christianity among his students, he was an Atheist dedicated only to his country and his motherland.  His works were the reflection of his soul. It won’t be naïve to call Derozio the first Nationalist English poet of Modern India.

It is often said that the French tried to find the key to the Indian Empire in the south and failed. Robert Clive found the key in Bengal and the rest is history. Bengal was the richest province in the Mughal Empire. At the peak of its power, the Nawab of Bengal held sway over the entirety of present day Bangladesh and West Bengal while also controlling the majority of present day Bihar and Orissa. Main exports of Bengal to the European countries were raw products such as rice, indigo, pepper, saltpeter, sugar and silk, cotton textiles, handicrafts etc. Cities like Dacca and Mursidabad were famous centers of art and culture, attracting artisans and musicians from all over the country. After the rise of the British Empire, Bengal became the centre of nationalism and the freedom movement. It would not be a hyperbole to call Bengal the birthplace of Indian Freedom Struggle. Along with the Indian Freedom struggle, prominent Hindu reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar reformed the Indian society. The Bengali Reform movement or the “Bengali Renaissance” as it has been called spawned a birth of a number of socio-religious societies like the Brahmo-Samaj.  The Bengali renaissance period after the Great Indian Freedom Revolt of 1857 saw a grand outburst of Bengali literature. While legends like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar were the pioneers, others like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee furthered it and built upon it. The first significant nationalist detour to the Bengal Renaissance was given by the writings of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (of the Anand Math/Vande Matram fame). While some scholars have argued that societies like the Brahmo Samaj movement never gained any traction among the masses and remained restricted to the elite but the Hindu society has accepted most of the social reform programmes of the Brahmo Samaj. It is worth noting that many of the later Brahmos were also leaders of the Indian freedom struggle. Many young and learned Bengalis joined in the freedom struggle. Many rich and resourceful Bengalis contributed immensely to India’s Independence. Apart from Art, Literature, Music, the Bengalis contributed immensely to science. It would be a shame to talk about the Bengali Renaissance and not mention the name of stalwarts of science like JC Bose, SN Bose and Meghnad Saha along with doyen of Indian Literature, the Bard of Bengal, Shri Rabindranath Tagore. Bengal was a leader of every stream and Bengalis dominated the national stage in all domains. The land of Bengal was a goddess, birthing such legends that all Indians take pride in. Nothing, it appeared so, could stop this magnificent land in leading our great nation to glory on the global stage.

However, things started to go downhill just around the time India got her Independence. A major chunk of Bengal, now known as Bangladesh was formed as East Pakistan in a botched up partition based on religious ground. The remaining part of Bengal, West Bengal with its capital at Kolkata was expected to become a hub of progress and education. Millions of improvised Indians migrated to West Bengal in search of a better life. After all, it had the industries; the educational institutes, the intelligentsia to guide several poor souls out of poverty. Bengalis had always been Radical thinkers. It was only a matter of before the longest democratically elected Left government was formed in West Bengal. The left, for their part, did try to do away with the inequality in the society with the land reform. However, their stranglehold on unions and frequent rabble rousing led to a massive decline in productivity of offices and factories. West Bengal became engulfed in petty politics and local turmoil.

The birth of the Indian armed left extremism took place in an obscure place in West Bengal, Naxalbari. The dreaded “Naxal” as the Left Wing Extremists are now called are the biggest internal security challenge before the entire country. The Left, in its own stupor, ignored the signs of rot and Industries ran away from the state. Those looking to make an entry in the state were treated to even worse excesses.  The left government rigged elections, murdered political opponents and promoted illegal immigration from neighboring Bangladesh. From their strong base in West Bengal, the Left started to weild a disproportionate influence on the national stage. Rallies held in opposition to the government were frequently lathi-charged by the police and protestors beaten up and thrown in the jail. The West Bengal under the left started to resemble the British Police Raj. In one such rally, a young woman was beaten and manhandled by the police.

The young woman was Mamta Banerjee and she vowed to uproot the left in their fort. “Maa, Mati, Manush” she said, forcing the Bengalis to remember their glorious past and whip up a sense of Bengali Pride. It took time and a lot of politicking to Defeat the left and when the left was finally defeated in West Bengal, the people heaved a sigh of relief. Things would now improve, the state would now improve they said. The start was promising. Development did take priority in the state government’s agenda. But the happiness did not last for long. Most of the local goons in the employ of the Left who had until then rigged elections and bloodied the streets found new paymasters in Mamta didi, as she is lovingly referred to now. The Left had promoted illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Most of these immigrants under the Left were Hindus who formed a formidable votebank for it. To tackle this issue, Mamta Didi started promoting existing and incoming illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. They were given identity cards, ration cards and funds and they swarmed in huge numbers from across the border. Her policies shifted from development to minority appeasement. Stipends were provided for Muslim clerics while huge accommodations were made for the minorities to celebrate various festivals. Any and all dissent was rapidly crushed and the political machinery geared towards the creation of a lawless brawling ground. So much so, that a high level leader told journalists that his constituency is “Mini-Pakistan”.

Corruption was rampant and senior leaders of the ruling dispensation are now accused and being tried for swindling millions of their meager life savings. Elections are now rigged even more, political opponents brutalized and the entire state administration is geared to serve the whims and fancies of their Didi. For the left, it just the taste of their own medicine, just a little more bitter this time. For the average Bengali, it is a simply hell. Educated Bengalis are rapidly moving away from the state and those left behind, lament the sorry state of affairs. Mamta Didi did not replace the Left, she has become the Left, only more demented and twisted. BJP, which is the ruling party at the Centre and in most of India, has never been strong in West Bengal even though one of its most prominent ideologues, Syama Prasad Mokherjee, was from the same state. However, this is rapidly changing. While the TMC, Mamta’s political party, remains the numero uno in the state, the BJP, a fringe player before 2014 is fast becoming the principal opposition. The former left and Congress vote bank appears to be coalescing towards BJP and it appears well poised to pose a credible challenge to Mamta didi. However, the lack of a hood  political face and a dedicated ground force will continue to dampen its prospects in the state.

To conclude, West Bengal was the richest province of India but today, it is the 6th. There is a lack of industries and jobs for its youth. Rapid emigration is eroding its intelligentsia and the Indian Civil Services, which used to be dominated by Bengalis, now has more Northerners in its ranks. The West Bengal of past which used to dominated the nation scenes for excellence in multiple domains now dominates the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Will the scenario change? Will the ruling dispensation finally come to its senses or will another, equally polarizing outfit take its place. It is with a heavy heart that I say, but Derozio’s words could never have been any truer before this date.

My country! In thy days of glory past

A beauteous halo circled round thy brow

and worshipped as a deity thou wast—

Where is thy glory, where the reverence now?

Thy eagle pinion is chained down at last,

And grovelling in the lowly dust art thou,

Thy minstrel hath no wreath to weave for thee

Save the sad story of thy misery!

Well—let me dive into the depths of time

And bring from out the ages, that have rolled

A few small fragments of these wrecks sublime

Which human eye may never more behold

And let the guerdon of my labour be,

My fallen country! One kind wish for thee!

* To India – My Native Land by Henry Louis Vivian Derozio

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South Asia

What’s forthcoming for Pakistan-USA relationship?

Hamdan Khan

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It was the first day of 2018 and the United States (U.S.) President Donald Trump – who had just welcomed the New Year with a lavish party in his private club – decided to take on the United States of America’s (U.S.A.) “misaligned ally”, Pakistan. Resorting to his symbolic practice of using twitter to express himself, President Trump lashed out at Pakistan accusing the South Asian nation of using “lies” and “deceit” while dealing with the U.S.A. Later in August same year, the U.S.A cancelled Pakistan’s participation in the International Military Education and Training Program (I.M.E.T) followed by the cancellation of military aid in September. These measures were classified as part of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy, which involved pressurizing Pakistan to help combat militant groups in Afghanistan.

Months below the line, bitterness between the U.S.A and Pakistan has reduced significantly. Besides using its military muscle in the battlefield to defeat the battle-hardened Taliban – an objective that seems distant with each passing day – the U.S.A opted for a more sagacious path and sought negotiations with Taliban to end the sanguinary war. Even though Taliban may have been exhausted after such a long war, yet convincing the hardliner group to come to negotiating table for meaningful talks was a daunting task and this was the occasion the U.S.A looked back towards its “misaligned ally” and all of a sudden, expectations from Pakistan changed from curbing its support to the militant outfit to use its influence over Taliban to enter into talks with the U.S.A.

Admittedly, Pakistan played its role in coaxing Taliban to the negotiations and by September 2019, a deal was almost ready to be inked but to the astonishment of Pakistan and Taliban, President Trump’s cancelled the peace talks using twitter citing the killing of an American soldier as the reason. Pakistan again played a crucial role in bringing the two parties together and a landmark deal maybe just days ahead.

Ups and downs in U.S.A.-Pakistan relationship is not a novel phenomenon. For past seven decades, it has been a classic transactional relationship with Pakistan’s geostrategic vitality in the region rendering it inevitable for the U.S.A to seek its help in return for economic, military and diplomatic support. But after each such transaction, there has been years of bitterness and strains due to the absence of common strategic objectives, which only contributed towards deepening of trust-deficit and suspicion between the two countries.

Undoubtedly, during the past one and a half year, there have been a few positive headways in the relations between the U.S.A and Pakistan but these advances are too minuscule a gauge to conjecture about the larger canvas of relationship between the two countries. Hence, the grand geopolitical picture of South Asia ought to be brought into consideration to analyze the contours of the future relationship between the U.S.A and Pakistan.

At present, the U.S.A is stuck in Afghanistan – the graveyard of Empires – where it is fighting the longest war of its history. Before assuming the Oval Office, Trump criticized the U.S. military adventures abroad and wanted a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now, less than a year before running for his second term in the oval office, the erstwhile real estate tycoon wants to publicize the superpower’s extrication from Afghanistan as one of his noteworthy achievements. Given Pakistan’s indispensability for the success of the Afghan peace process, burying the hatchet despite trust deficit and suspicion was the most realistic option for the U.S.A and this is exactly what they did. The recent military-related concessions and Pakistan’s probable salvage from the FATF quagmire essentially seem to be yet another transaction from the U.S.A in return for Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process and after the peace deal has been signed, facilitation of U.S. withdrawal from landlocked Afghanistan.

Apart from Afghanistan, the prospects of cooperation between the U.S.A and Pakistan are extremely thin. The tectonic plates underpinning the South Asian regional order have been shifting since the beginning of 21st century and at the moment, expedited by the trends in the global order, the regional order offers a transformed illustration. As a consequence, a new balance of power arrangement has emerged in South Asia featuring Pakistan as a strategic partner of China in the opposite bloc of U.S.A. Contrariwise, India – the arch-rival of Pakistan and aspirant strategic peer to China – has been branded as the linchpin of the U.S.A’s Indo-Pacific Strategy which is essentially aimed at containing the rise of China to preserve the U.S.A’s “liberal hegemony”.

The U.S.A. and India have joined hands to oppose China’s geo-economic venture of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its flagship, China Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) which is hosted by Pakistan. The U.S.A has been particularly vehement and U.S. officials have consistently been labelling the BRI projects as a “debt trap” for the host countries – not out of consideration for the BRI hosts but purely due to the geopolitical angle associated with the trillion-dollar mega-scheme. Indubitably, the B.R.I projects may have some pessimisms attached, yet the committed enticements in the form of infrastructure improvement and industrial development are too much to refuse for some of the world’s most impoverished countries eager to receive investments. On the contrary, despite being the geostrategic superpower, the U.S.A doesn’t have a solid geo-economic alternative to offer to countries like Pakistan, let alone something as grandeur as BRI. This has resulted in the steady decline of the U.S.A’s geopolitical influence in BRI host countries including Pakistan and the endmost victor is proving to be China, both in geo-economic and geopolitical realms.

Although Pakistan’s geostrategic significance has increased manifold in the emerging world order, the regional geopolitics and balance of power realignment in South Asia are likely to impede any long-term cooperation between the U.S.A and Pakistan. The U.S.A has pinned towering hopes in India to be used as an off-shore balancer against China and despite the recent uncertainties about illiberal and unstable India’s ability to assume the grand demanding role, U.S.A is highly unlikely to move closer towards Pakistan to project its influence in South Asia at the cost of losing India’s propinquity. Nonetheless, the characteristic“ transactional relationship” is likely to continue…

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South Asia

Questioning the Novelty of India’s New Normal

Haris Bilal Malik

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In recent years Indian notions of Pre-emption and so-called surgical strikes have been referred to as the ‘new normal’ by many in India. These have contributed to further affecting the security, stability and strategic equilibrium in the South Asian region. This is evident in how the top-brass within the Indian military has repeatedly asserted that India reserves the right to punish Pakistan with such notions of preemptive strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) under its limited war doctrines, which themselves belie a desire to wage a low-intensity conflict across the border. At the doctrinal level, India has been planning for this for quite some time as evident from its 2004 Cold Start Doctrine (CSD)as well as its more recently released doctrines such as the 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) and the 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD). These doctrines are all based upon proactive strategies and indirect threats of preemptive strikes against Pakistan. Based on the current patterns of Indian aggression these ideas hold immense significance when considering the latest rounds of tensions over the disputed territory of Kashmir as witnessed in the short-lived military engagement between the two countries in February 2019

Inspired by such notions and in typical fashion, the new Army Chief of India Gen. Manoj Mukund Naravane wasted little time in blaming Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism in India. The same day he took charge of his new appointment he claimed that India reserves the right to respond in the same way it had previously done through its so-called ‘surgical strikes.’ Moreover, he openly asserted to physically taking control of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) if his government ordered him to do so.

However, such assertions from the Indian political and military leadership are simply repetitions of the same statements that have been made by Prime Minister Modi, Mr. Rajnath Singh, and former Army Chief Gen. (R) Bipin Rawat in the recent past. Representing the same aggressive and jingoistic posturing, there is not much novelty in these statements. In fact, even in this so-called ‘new normal’ which these leaders have repeatedly described over the last few years, there is nothing new at all.

Even the oft-quoted notion of a preemptive ‘splendid first strike‘ is not new for Pakistan as it had already formed a key part of the discourse surrounding the Indian and international strategic community since the years 2016-2017. According to this, if in India’s assessment, Pakistan was found to be deploying nuclear weapons, as a contingency, India would likely resort to such a splendid first strike which it has always hinted as being a nuclear strike. As such all this does is prove Pakistan’s pre-existing doubts over India’s long-debated ‘No First Use’ (NFU) Policy. Yet, what’s worth noting here is that this overt shift towards declaring a more offensive doctrinal posture from India represents a more focused attempt at undermining the deterrent value of Pakistan’s own nuclear posture, thus ultimately destabilizing the South Asian region.

Instead, the only thing new to come out from all these assertions from Indian leaders is the prevailing fascist mindset within India that is being fueled by a false sense of racial superiority and hatred against Muslims. This was clearly stated by Prime Minister Imran Khan in his tweet when he attributed the cause of such provocations to the RSS’s extremist ideology. Hence, Pakistan perceives the recent statements from India’s top military brass as also being wholly politically inspired and as a routine attempt to divert attention away from the rampant domestic socio-economic issues currently plaguing India. The fact remains that Pakistan’s response to this Indian self-proclaimed ‘new normal’ which was on full display during the Balakot crisis itself set a clear example of its full spectrum deterrence. Contrary to the notion that a conventional asymmetry of sorts exists between the two countries, Pakistan had responded conventionally and more befittingly while holding its own toe to toe. In other words, Pakistan proved that it can also restore deterrence via conventional means despite the quantitative edge of India’s conventional forces and military hardware.

It is also worth noting that while India is spending billions of dollars on its military modernization program both in terms of its conventional and unconventional acquisitions; allocating billions for defence spending does not necessarily guarantee military supremacy. Especially if the adversary is determined to thwart any such attempts right from the outset. India’s actual capabilities still differentiate widely from what its political and military leadership inspires and projects itself to be. In fact, there is a huge gap between the Indian leadership’s expectations and what its military can actually deliver. As apparent not only in the absurdity of Gen. Naravane’s statement but also in Prime Minister Modi’s and others, the credibility of such threats already remains highly questionable.

Hence at the present, it seems that India is more keen on simply projecting military supremacy vis-à-vis Pakistan as opposed to actually attaining it, as reflected in the statements of its political and military top brass. Its favored notions of preemption at the doctrinal and strategic levels are evidence of such aspirations. As such the increasingly provocative posturing against Pakistan in the form of this so-called ‘new normal’ seems to represent simply a jingoistic approach to manipulate Indian public sentiment in the ruling government’s favor. However, the fact remains that Pakistan has already nullified such notions of preemption in the recent past and has proved it time and again. As such India’s aggressive posturing seems to be collapsing on itself with its self-proclaimed ‘new normal’ unlikely to pose any serious challenges to Pakistan’s strategic posture at least for the time being.

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South Asia

From Scapegoat Back to Key Ally: Pakistan and the Perils of US Maximalism

M Waqas Jan

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In the two years since President Trump accused Pakistan of giving nothing but deceit and lies, relations between both countries seem to have undergone a dramatic turnaround. This is evident not only in the official narrative being put forth by both countries with respect to one another, but also in how this growing sense of cordiality has culminated into a series of high-level visits and meetings between key representatives. For instance, the icy indifference with which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was greeted with in Islamabad back in September 2018 now stands in stark contrast to the frank more amicable meetings that have been held between Prime Minister Khan and President Trump thrice since then. Not to mention the back to back visits from Alice Wells, the current US government’s focal representative for South Asia, that have further accompanied a steady yet gradual thawing of tensions.

Signs of this turnaround are further evident in how last month’s resumption of military education and training programs for Pakistani Officers marks one of the first steps towards renewed strategic cooperation. This represents an important milestone since President Trump had announced the cancellation of all forms of US military aid to Pakistan in early 2018. Similarly, acknowledgments of the progress made as per the requirements of the FATF review, as well as the ‘concern’ expressed over India’s recent actions in Kashmir are all signs aimed at placating some of Pakistan’s most pressing interests. Thus, hinting at what more cordial relations with the US could look like for Pakistan, while just stopping short of making any concrete commitments.

Yet, to say that Pak-US ties have begun to ‘normalize’ or ‘revert’ towards a mutually beneficial status quo would be ignoring the age-old complexity that has characterized relations between both countries. Especially for a relationship that has been long described as blowing hot and cold, on and off, as a rollercoaster ride, or simply a love-hate one. History has borne witness to the fact that US foreign policy towards Pakistan has more than often been based on a ruthless pragmatism and maximalism. This all or nothing approach has brought immense amounts of aid and funds for Pakistan which have been always cut off just as abruptly as they were initiated. Often without any long-term assessment or appreciation of what such actions are likely to lead to beyond the US’s more immediate goals.

None of this has been more evident than in US expectations from Pakistan regarding Afghanistan and the Taliban. It’s no secret that the very inception of the Taliban came from US funds and training during the waning stages of the Cold War for which Pakistan played the role of an indispensable intermediary. Yet following the 9/11 attacks, US policy towards the Taliban changed overnight when the US in lumping the Taliban together with Al-Qaeda brought down its military might on the entire Afghan State. What’s more it forced Pakistan to join its War on Terror almost at gunpoint. The infamous statement attributed to then US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage where he allegedly threated ‘to bomb Pakistan back to the stone age’ stands as a stark reminder of how even labeling this relationship as ‘complex’ is simply an understatement.

This aspect is further reinforced in the damning revelations of the Afghanistan Papers that were released just last month. Representing a cache of candid interviews of key officials responsible for formulating and implementing the US’s Afghanistan policy, these interviews have been used to piece together crucial mistakes at the strategic and policy levels made by successive US governments over the last two decades.  One of these mistakes has been highlighted as ‘trusting Pakistan as a friend’ where Pakistan has been repeatedly accused of providing sanctuary and support to certain militant groups. Hence, accusations of Pakistan playing a double game, as well as the confusing distinctions between good and bad Taliban all contributed to a narrative that Pakistan was doing more to upend US progress than support it. This had caused much of the resentment and mutual distrust specifically during the Obama years which starting from calls to ‘do more’ resulted in the US unilaterally and covertly taking out Osama Bin Laden deep inside Pakistani territory. As ties worsened, the advent of the Trump presidency brought with them an overt sense of finality in the form of his new year tweet that was referred to in the beginning of this article.

Yet, even now as both countries come full circle with the US asking for help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, one fears that the US may still not have learnt anything from its adventurist debacles. As the Afghanistan Papers themselves testify, Pakistani officials have remained quite  candid in their desire to hedge their bets against the US by maintaining limited ties with the Taliban. This was made clear to Ambassador Ryan Crocker who had served as the US ambassador in Islamabad from 2004-2007. In one of his interviews in the Afghanistan Papers, the former ambassador directly quotes a conversation he had with Gen Ashfaq Kayani who was then the DG ISI.As Mr. Crocker himself recounts, the general had quite explicitly made clear his reservations against an abrupt US withdrawal that would force Pakistan to once again pick up the pieces while having made the Taliban a mortal enemy. Hence justifying the reasons behind Pakistan’s so-called duplicity.

But considering how it is in fact the US now that is pressing Pakistan to use those same ties to help extricate itself out of the Afghan quagmire, Pakistan’s strategy against the Taliban seems to have stood wholly vindicated. In fact, it appears downright visionary considering how in hindsight, Pakistan had repeatedly called on the US to consider negotiating with the Taliban – especially when the US had the upper hand following its initial successes back in the early 2000s.However,the US after squandering its own reputation and credibility and already having missed multiple chances to engage with the Taliban are now ironically banking on Pakistan to help secure an exit. A kind of exit that not only allows the US to perhaps save face at the international level, but also offer something palatable to the American people during an election year. Thus, once again reeking of the reactionary maximalism that has so often brought into question the US’s reliability and trustworthiness as an ally. Not to mention President Trump’s own ‘America First’ policy, which already risks squandering whatever little credibility the US has been left with in the first place.

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