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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

The “Neo-Cold War” in the Indian Ocean Region

Kagusthan Ariaratnam

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Addressing an event last week at London’s Oxford University, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said some people are seeing “imaginary Chinese Naval bases in Sri Lanka. Whereas the Hambantota Port (in southern Sri Lanka) is a commercial joint venture between our Ports Authority and China Merchants – a company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.”

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has denied US’ claims that China might build a “forward military base” at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port which has been leased out to Beijing by Colombo. Sri Lanka failed to pay a Chinese loan of $1.4 billion and had to lease the China-developed port to Beijing for 99 years. Both New Delhi and Washington had in the past expressed concerns that Beijing could use the harbor for military purposes.

Image courtesy of Google

The USA, China, and India are the major powers playing their key role in the “Neo-Cold War” in Central Asian landmass and the strategic sea lanes of the world in the Indian Ocean where 90% of the world trade is being transported everyday including oil. It is this extension of the shadowy Cold War race that can be viewed as the reason for the recent comment made by the US Vice President Mike Pence that China is using “debt diplomacy” to expand its global footprint and Hambantota “may soon become a forward military base for China’s expanding navy”.

According to some analysts, the deep-water port, which is near a main shipping route between Asia and Europe, is likely to play a major role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In his book “Monsoon” Robert D. Kaplan (2010), a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security notes the following:

[…] the Indian Ocean will turn into the heart of a new geopolitical map, shifting from a unilateral world power to multilateral power cooperation. This transition is caused by the changing economic and military conditions of the USA, China and India. The Indian Ocean will play a big role in the 21st century’s confrontation for geopolitical power. The greater Indian Ocean region covers an arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Its western reaches include Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug trafficking […]

Two third of the global maritime trade passes through a handful of relatively narrow shipping lanes, among which five geographic “chokepoints” or narrow channels that are gateway to and from Indian ocean: (1) Strait of Hormuz (2) Bab el-Mandab Passage (3) Palk Strait (4) Malacca and Singapore Straits and (5) Sunda Strait.

While Lutz Kleveman (2003), argues that the Central Asia is increasingly becoming the most important geostrategic region for the future commodities, Michael Richardson (2004) on the other hand explains that the global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through the strategic international straits, waterways, and canals in the Indian Ocean.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)  report published in 2017, “world chokepoints for maritime transit of oil are a critical part of global energy security. About 63% of the world’s oil production moves on maritime routes. The Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca are the world’s most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit” (p.1). These channels are critically important to the world trade because so much of it passes through them. For instance, half of the world’s oil production is moved by tankers through these maritime routes. The blockage of a chokepoint, even for a day, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs and thus these chokepoints are critical part of global energy security.  Hence, whoever control these chockpoints, waterways, and sea routes in the Indian Ocean maritime domain will reshape the region as an emerging global power.

In a recent analysis of globalization and its impact on Central Asia and Indian Ocean region, researcher Daniel Alphonsus (2015), notes that the twists and turns of political, economic and military turbulence were significant to all great players’ grand strategies:

(1) the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China’s anticipated strategy to increase connectivity and trade between Eurasian nations, a part of which is the future Maritime Silk Road (MSR), aimed at furthering collaboration between south east Asia, Oceania and East Africa; (2) Project Mausam, India’s struggle to reconnect with its ancient trading partners along the Indian Ocean, broadly viewed as its answer to the MSR; and (3) the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, the USA’s effort to better connect south and south east Asian nations. (p.3)

India the superpower of the subcontinent, has long feared China’s role in building outposts around its periphery. In a recent essay, an Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote that the fusion of China’s economic and military interests “risk turning Sri Lanka into India’s Cuba” – a reference to how the Soviet Union courted Fidel Castro’s Cuba right on the United States’ doorstep. Located at the Indian Ocean’s crossroads gives Sri Lanka the strategic and economic weight in both MSR and Project Mausam plans. MSR highlights Sri Lanka’s position on the east-west sea route, while Project Mausam’s aim to create an “Indian Ocean World” places Sri Lanka at the center of the twenty-first century’s defining economic, strategic and institutional frameworks. Furthermore, alongside the MSR, China is building an energy pipeline through Pakistan to secure Arabian petroleum, which is a measure intended to bypass the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca altogether.

A recent study done by a panel of experts and reported by the New York Times reveal that how the power has increasingly shifted towards China from the traditional US led world order in the past five years among small nation states in the region. The critical role played by the strategic sea ports China has been building in the rims of Indian Ocean including Port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Port of Chittagong in Bangladesh clearly validates the argument that how these small states are being used as proxies in this power projection.

This ongoing political, economic and military rivalry between these global powers who are seeking sphere of influence in one of the world’s most important geostrategic regions is the beginning of a “Neo-Cold War” that Joseph Troupe refers as the post-Soviet era geopolitical conflict resulting from the multipolar New world order.

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South Asia

IMF bail-out Package and Pakistan

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Pakistan may approach IMF to bail-out the current economic crisis. It is not the first time that Pakistan will knock the doors of IMF. Since 1965, Pakistan has been to IMF 17 times. Almost all of the governments has availed IMF packages. Usually, IMF is a temporary relief and provide oxygen for short time so that the patient may recover and try to be self-sustained. The major role of IMF is to improve the governance or reforms, how the ill-economy of a country may recover quickly and become self-sustained. After having oxygen cylinder for 17 times within 5 decades, Pakistan’s economy could not recover to a stage, where we can be self-sustained and no more looking for IMF again and again. This is a question asked by the common man in Pakistan to their leadership.  People are worried that for how long do we have to run after IMF package? The nation has enjoyed 70 decades of independence and expects to be mature enough to survive under all circumstances without depending on a ventilator.

The immediate impact of decision to approach IMF, is the devaluation of Pakistani Rupees. By depreciating only one rupee to US dollar, our foreign debt increases 95 billion rupees.  Today we witness a depreciation of rupee by 15 approximately (fluctuating), means the increase in foreign debt by 1425 billion rupees. Yet, we have not negotiated with IMF regarding depreciation of Rupees. Usually IMF demand major depreciation but all government understands the implications of sharp devaluation, always try to bargain with IMF to the best of their capacity. I am sure, Government of Pakistan will also negotiate and get the best bargain.

IMF always imposes conditions to generate more revenue and the easiest way to create more income is imposing tax on major commodities including Gas, Electricity and Fuel. Pakistan has already increased the prices of Gas, Electricity and Fuel. It has had direct impact on basic necessities and commodities of life. We can witness a price hike of basic food, consumer items and so on. Except salaries, everything has gone up. While negotiating with IMF formally, we do not know how much tax will be increased and how much burden will be put on the common man.

We believe, our rulers know our capacity and will keep in mind the life of a common man and may not exceed the limit of burden to common man beyond its capacity. We are optimistic that all decisions will be taken in the best interest of the nation.

It is true, that Pakistan has been to IMF so many times, so this might be a justification for the PTI Government to avail IMF package. But, there are people with different approach. They have voted for change and for “Naya” (new) Pakistan. They do not expect from PTI to behave like previous several governments. If PTI uses the logic of previous governments, may not satisfy many people in Pakistan.

Especially, when Pakistan was in a position to take-off economically, we surrendered half way, may not be accepted by many people in Pakistan.

The government has explained that other options like economic assistance from friendly countries was also very expensive, so that they have preferred IMF as more competitive package. I wish, Government may educate public on the comparison of available options, their terms and conditions, their interest rate, their political conditions, etc. There might be something confidential, Government may avoid or hide, one may not mind and understand the sensitivity of some of the issues. But all permissible information on the terms and conditions of all options in comparison, may be placed on Ministry of Finance’s website or any other mode of dissemination of knowledge to its public.

Against the tradition, people of Pakistan have voted Imran Khan, who so ever was given ticket of PTI, public has voted him or her blindly in trust to Imran Khan. A few of his candidates might not be having very high capabilities or very good reputation, but, public has trusted Imran Khan blindly. Imran Khan is the third most popular leader in Pakistan, after Jinnah the father of nation, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Former Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1970s.

People of Pakistan have blindly trusted in Imran Khan and possess very high expectations from him. I know, Imran Khan understands it very well. He is honest, brave and visionary leader and I believe he will not disappoint his voters.

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South Asia

Now India denies a friendly hand: Imran Khan debuts against arrogant neighbors

Sisir Devkota

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Imran Khan is facing the brunt for overly appeasing its arch rival-India. On September 22, Khan tweeted that he was disappointed over India’s arrogant reply to resume bilateral talks in the UNGA and that he had encountered many “small men” in big offices unable to perceive the larger picture.I am observing a south Asian order changing with Khan’s rise in Pakistani politics. We in Nepal need to grasp the possible reality before circumstances shall engulf our interests.

Observation 1

Narendra Modi was undoubtedly “The Prince”of South Asia from Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th century classic political narrative. I sense the old prince acting in distress over the rise of a new one. Imran Khan’s invitation for a ministerial level meeting in New York; amidst the eyes of foreign diplomats could not have been a better approach by Pakistan in a long time. Instead, Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj dismissed the offer, blaming Pakistan’s double standard in killing Indian forces and releasing Burhan Wani’s (India’s terrorist and Pakistan’s martyr) postal stamps. Khan did not sanction the postal release, but as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he must be held accountable for failing to stop the killings,just when talks were supposed to happen. He should have addressed the highly sensitive Indian government. But, I do empathize with Khan’s statement, “small men in big offices”; as he clearly outlined the exact problem. He directly called upon the Indian government to think bigger and escape circumstances to solve historical problems. Narendra Modi has developed a new rhetoric these days; that India is not going to keep quiet over Pakistan’s actions. It fits the nature of Machiavelli’s Prince as an authority which can maintain national virtue. Unfortunately, I do not buy Modi’s rhetoric. The Prince has come a bit late in his tenure to act for Indian virtues. I am sure many at the UNGA would have noticed India’s apprehension in the same manner. I suspect that the ex-prince is facing insecurities over the fear of losing his charisma. Nepal, in particular was charmed by his personality when he first visited our capital, with promises that flooded our heart. And then, we faced his double standard; right after the massive earthquake in 2015. Nobody in Nepal will sympathize with Swaraj’s justification of cancelling the meeting.

Observation 2

Let me explain the source of insecurity. Modi has thrived by endorsing his personality. A tea man who worked for the railways under great financial hardships, became the poster man of India. He generated hope and trust that his counterparts had lost over the years. His eloquent stage performance can fool the harshest of critics into sympathizing his cause. People have only realized later; many macro economists in India now argue that demonetization was, perhaps, one of the worst decisions for India’s sake. Narendra Modi is India sounds truer than Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India.

Imran Khan, a former cricketer does not spring the same impression as Modi. Khan, a world champion in 1992, is known for his vision and leadership in Cricket. Comparatively, Khan does not need to sell his poster in South Asia. He does not cry over his speeches to garner mass euphoria. Ask anybody who’s into the sport and they will explain you the legend behind his name. I suspect that Modi has realized that he is going to lose the stardom in the face of Pakistan’s newly elected democratic leader. After all, the Indian PM cannot match Imran’s many achievements in both politics and cricket. I suspect that Modi has realized the fundamental difference in how his subjects inside India and beyond are going to perceive Imran’s personality. I expect more artificial discourses from India to tarnish Imran’s capabilities.

Nepal & Pakistan

You will not find Pakistan associated with Nepal so often than with India. Frankly, Nepal has never sympathized with Indian cause against Pakistan. We have developed a healthy and constructive foreign relations with the Islamic republic. However, there has always been a problem of one neighbor keeping eyes on our dealings with another. Indian interests have hindered proximity with past governments. Now, Imran Khan has facilitated the platform for deeper relations. He does not carry the baggage of his predecessors. He is a global icon, a cricket legend and a studious politician. He is not the result of mass hysteria. Imran Khan has pledged to improve Pakistan’s economy, reinstate foreign ties and boost regional trade. For me, he is South Asia’s new Machiavellian prince; one that can be at least trusted when he speaks.

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