Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), popularly hailed as Veer Savarkar by his acolyte followers and Savarkar by his political and ideological opponents, is one of the most controversial men in modern India’s history. Since Savarkarism, a staunch form of Hindu nationalism, succeeded in appearing as a powerful current of political nationalism in India in the 1990s, not only the ideologies but the very personality of Savarkar has been subject to historical autopsy and various interpretations. There is no doubt, Savarkar became the iconoclastic bandwagon of what later came to be known as Hindutva politics in India, and to Hindutva, he is like what St. Peter the Apostle is to Christianity. It is so because the whole edifice of Hindutva politics in contemporary India is based on a partial representation of Savarkar as expressed in his 1923 book ‘The Essentials of Hindutva’, and in his numerous speeches and activities. In addition, his practical politics as expressed in Abhinav Mela and Mitra Mela later became the organisational foundation of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which now defines Hindutva politics. Savarkar is the most authentic stepping-stone behind Hindutva politics and his commitment towards what he defined as Hindutva forced him to be tactical to submit many unconditional apologies to be released from the Andaman prison to extend his wings in the free world of Hindustan. Yet, to become the saviour of Hindu religion, Savarkar remains to be the most criticised Indian freedom fighter, and is sometimes portrayed alongside Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan. Nothing but belligerent criticism, according to some political observations, Savarkar is also portrayed as a traitor who stood up against the Indian independence movement and apologised to the British government just to be freed from prison. It is unfortunate that a section in the Indian National Congress, especially under Nehru, too, represented Savarkar as someone who collaborated with the British Empire. Sarcastically, Indian Marxist intellectuals and leftist parties, who wish to locate the minutest apertures of socio-cultural movements and personal cults within the so-called materialist interpretations are adamant arguing that Savarkar is a Hindutva ideologue and that he collaborated with British colonialism, without the slightest mention that he was the product of an era of intensified religious tensions and his adamant commitment to Hinduism resulted in various streams of social reforms.
As a prelude, two factors need to be presented here. As Frank Anker Smith has shown, historians are not the custodians of ‘the truth of past’, instead they invent meanings and put it into interpretations suitable to their fashions and interests. Secondly, if we examine the history of British colonialism in India at least since 1757, we will be able to understand that a majority (something like 95 per cent) of middle-men, educated class, princes and political leaders have either collaborated or worked with colonial masters, and these names start from Mir Jaffar and extend to Mahatma Gandhi. About five per cent include the real heroes, if one wants to identify it so, of Indian nationalists who thought that the sacrifice of their lives would be much better than compromises. These are people like Birsa Munda, Surya Sen, Khudiram Bose, Bhagat Singh and others. This means, collaboration with the colonial state apparatus or a cluster of apology must not be the ultimate criterion to estimate or assess the life of stalwarts like Savarkar, Gandhi or Ambedkar. Doing so would be nothing but partisan and ahistorical interpretations.
Such distorted interpretations often take place in contemporary India, when we compete with each other to accuse Savarkar of collaborating with the British Empire. The problem of such distorted or partial narratives is that they forget to ask certain basic questions. For example, the way Savarkar was classified D-Class prisoner indicates that he was a danger to the British Empire. As well, why to hide the fact that many Indians of high repute had various secret engagements with colonial administrators, as demonstrated in the case of Madan Lal Dingra and the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Such distorted historical interpretations lead to contemporary political gimmicks as demonstrated by Mr. Rahul Gandhi who went to the extent of arguing that his name is not ‘Rahul Savarkar’ to offer an apology. Similarly, in my home state, Kerala, Savarkar’s name is often equated with loyalty to the British Empire, and as an ardent form of anti-communist, acerbically forgetting that Savarkar raised his voice in 1959 against the Liberation struggle to bring down E.M.S. Namboothirippad’s Communist ministry. For Savarkar, the struggle against E.M.S. Ministry was a Christian-Muslim ploy to derail what he termed as a ‘Hindu’ Ministry, though it was a communist-led ministry. Therefore, the ongoing (mis)representations of a devoted nationalist like Savarkar, for being an ideologue of Hindutva, and taking tactical but contradictory standpoints needs a balanced reading, significantly when his philosophies of Hindutva are misrepresented for partisan political purposes.
Devotion to India: Journey as a Nationalist
Savarkar was born into a Maharashtra Chitpavan Brahmin family in May 1883, hardly two months after the tragic and poverty-stricken demise of the world’s most influential philosopher, Karl Marx. If the 1880s were times of despair and political revolutions in Europe, India was going through intensifying religious polarisations, especially under the foreign yoke of British colonialism. Under it, religion was becoming a basic component of socio-personal life while the whole structure of pre-colonial social conditions was acquiring new forms. By the 1880s, Bengal and Punjab had already witnessed various forms of religious tensions, mostly between Hindus and Muslims and between Hindus and missionaries. Maharashtra, too, was not an exception to such religious confrontations though the pace of such movements was very different. Adding fuel to the already strained religious harmony, the revolution of 1857 had redefined middle-class Indians’ attitudes towards colonialism. The revolt of 1857 showed the danger of unified Hindu-Muslim power in India. As reflected in the revolt and the elevation of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who lived under the title of Mughal Emperor, symbolically, to the title of Emperor of India, the British Empire smelled danger.
However, as later history shows, the revolt of 1857 was the last major symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity. In post-riot India, religious identity can be found to take on more dangerous dimensions. The Hindutva ideologies of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and the Islamic movements led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and a multiplicity of socio-religious issues were the hallmarks of this period, especially in the three hotspots of Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab. The influence of the nineteenth century reform-oriented and anti-colonial religious movements such as the Brahmo Samaj, Haji Shariatullah, Wahabi and Faraizi movements were reshaped into ardent but also fervent ideologies. Hindus and Muslims had already started to alienate each other, and mutual suspicion between these communities was promoted by the colonial administration, especially after the three months that shook the British Empire in 1857.
As Savarkar was born into a communally intensified social condition, and amid an anti-colonial situation, there was no doubt that two streams of ideologies influenced him. That is how the challenges to Hinduism and the colonial rule become points of interests for Savarkar. It means that colonial social engineering, especially the ploy to divide Hindus and Muslims, created more tensions in the minds of nationalist leaders who could also realise that the Muslim response to the Bengal partition of 1905 was propelled by communal interest, anticipating what was to happen later in 1947. Nevertheless, the fact is that Savarkar led his anti-British, nationalist agitation long before the 1905 Partition of Bengal and such form of extreme nationalism was the main reason for his expulsion from the famous Ferguson College in Pune. By the term ‘extreme nationalism’ I mean nothing but his deep patriotism, especially when Congress was trying to have a dialogue with British colonialism. This indicates Savarkar began his campaign with the determination to create the thunder of independence when moderate sections of the Congress were claiming that they should cooperate with the British and move on. Therefore, he was beyond the leaders of nationalism, who wore the nationalist garb of wanting achievements and strategic cooperation.
Although expelled from Ferguson College, Savarkar had the opportunity to graduate at Gray’s Inn in London with the help of Shyamaji Krishnavarma. Savarkar arrived in London in 1906 and devoted his entire London life to the anti-British struggle. Fascinated by the Italian nationalist Mazzini’s ideas, Savarkar founded an organisation called the Free India Society and propagated Indian nationalism among Indians in London. One thing to note is that Savarkar would have conquered great heights through strategic cooperation in London if he had wanted to. However, Savarkar did not seek to do so, but instead embraced nationalism. The reason for highlighting this is to remind us that Savarkar put nationalism ahead of practical gains when the vast majority of Indians in London continued their strategic cooperation with colonial politics. That is why he decided to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the First War of Independence in 1907, and that too in London which caused a great uproar, as students marched to pay their respects to the martyrs. The result was that Savarkarism began to be considered a dangerous philosophy, and the British police kept Savarkar under a panoptical model of surveillance. Such anti-Savarkar policies intensified with the unexpected act of Madan Lal Dingra in 1909, an Indian student, who killed Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, a British administrator in London. While the entire Indian community in Britain, including Jawaharlal Nehru, has either disassociated itself from or condemned the act of Dingra, partly securing their interests, Savarkar was the only one to support Dingra openly. Naturally, Savarkar was accused of instigating Dingra to murder Wyllie, though no conclusive evidence suggested so. While Dingra was given the death penalty, the life of Savarkar was becoming pathetic in London, as by this time he was branded the sole enemy of the British Empire in India. After a short stay in Paris to avoid arrest, Savarkar returned to London to get arrested in 1910. Savarkar was then deported to India for further judicial procedures which ended up with Savarkar being sentenced to life imprisonment for fifty long years in a small cell in the cellular prison in the Andaman Islands.
As noted, the 1920s were periods of intense religious conflicts in India, especially between Hindus and Muslims. Since the conflict over the partition of Bengal in 1905, the mutual animosity between Hindus and Muslims continued and reflected in various forms: the establishment of Arya Samaj, Chapetkar brother’s initiatives, and Mitra Mela and Abhinav Mela by Savarkar brothers show these intensified religious animosities. Along with these issues, the prison-centric proselytising efforts, mostly by Muslim groups, were becoming an issue in the Andaman jail. For someone like Savarkar, dangers to Hinduism within the closed walls of the cellular jail were indicators to recognise what is happening in India. Deepened worry about Hinduism might have prompted Savarkar to avoid wasting his time and energy in jail. This means, Savarkar may have been motivated to approach the British government in the form of apologies because of the perception that he must seek to return to India to save Hinduism which was going through a difficult period of caste feud, missionary influence and Islamic conversion attempts. However, this apology was just another tactic of the most dangerous Indian freedom fighter who went to London and encouraged political assassinations. Therefore, to overcome the rising political pressure and criticism in India, Savarkar was sent to India in 1921, but was sentenced to detention in Ratnagiri until 1937. As we can see, by the 1920s patriotism slowly shifted towards Hinduness in the mind of Savarkar due to his unconditional love for Hindu culture and his desire to protect it. The result was a book, titled ‘Essentials of Hindutva’ which he wrote in 1923.
If necessary, he had the opportunity to become a leader of the Congress or part of the British government, perhaps more than Nehru, by strategically playing the card of secularism and nationalism. The perfect example can be Gandhi’s strategy of Khilafat satyagraha to extend his wings to the Muslim community. Nevertheless, Savarkar, also a poet and philosopher, did not hide his love for Hindu culture from within and went ahead with courage, and that is what now appears as Hindutva alias Savarkarism. That means, through his post-cellular politics, both as an ideologue of Hindutva and the steward of Hindu Mahasabha, Savarkar laid the foundation stone of Hindu nationalism in India, and produced various, often contradictory versions of Hindutva politics which to this day continue to be prominent in India’s road towards cultural nationalism.
Savarkarism: Caste and Hindutva
Savarkar’s nationalism was a mixture of Hindu-centered cultural ideology and a reconceptualization of India’s past. While acknowledging that he was a staunch nationalist, he was also a social reformer committed to the cause of eradicating caste violence and building bridges among the various Hindu communities in India. Very interestingly, Savarkar’s ideological development towards Hindutva was shaped by a Christian named Brahma Bandhav Upadhyay, whose argument that everything in India is rooted in Hinduism profoundly influenced Savarkar. So, Savarkar’s Hindutva or Savarkarism was a mixture of various shades of Indian-ness and he wanted it to be reflected in all such aspects. There is no doubt that Savarkar’s social reforms were tainted with his political motives, but that does not lead us to forget what he did to alleviate the social problems faced by Dalits in colonial India. Savarkar’s struggles to keep temples open to the underprivileged and to eliminate caste problems often led him into conflict with the upper castes. Not only that, Savarkar initiated that lower caste Hindus should get the opportunity to educate their children. Savarkar has been at the forefront of educating underprivileged children belonging to the so-called untouchable communities. As part of his anti-caste initiatives, he regularly visited Dalit houses during festival seasons and spent time with them. The Patitpawan temple at Ratnagiri can be seen as the best example of Savarkar’s social reform efforts and anti-caste movements. Savarkar ensured equality for the lower castes in the temple’s governing body, which gave access to Hindus from all castes when the temple entry struggles led by Ambedkar had failed. It is pertinent to mention one more detail. The Ganesha festival and the pan-Indian coffee shops, started under the stewardship of Savarkar in 1930 and 1933 are the two examples of anti-caste ideology, but these transformational efforts through the participation and representation of the lower castes have not been mentioned much in the social history of India. For example, in the context of discourses of the public sphere in Europe, the famous German sociologist Habermas explains how coffee shops and salons influenced modernity transformation. Unfortunately, none of the Left-dominated Indian academic studies speaks of the pan-Indian coffee shops or its social relevance. However, Savarkar initiated that a Mahar community member should serve the food, at a time when inter-dining was impossible in India. If Indian modernity is also about questioning caste oppression and its various manifestations, there is no doubt that Savarkar had an essential role in the whole process, whether one accepts it or not. Undoubtedly, Savarkar was an advocate of a Hindu-centric political ideology, but it was always subject to change. Therefore, as far as Savarkar is concerned, Hindu culture can be interpreted in many different ways. For example, he has made statements about India’s integrity, but also supported the partition of India. Similarly, his so-called Hindutva was an amalgamation of Aryan and Dravidian cultures, which sometimes even went so far as to say that beef may be eaten if desired.
Savarkar Image in Post-Colonial India
One of the most distorted portrayals of Savarkar’s image in post-independence India was produced by Indian leftist intellectuals who accused him to be a communal fascist associated with Gandhi’s murder, though no such conclusive evidence exist. Typically, postcolonial India’s leftist circles always take what they call an anti-Hindutva stand, and argue that they oppose Sangh Parivar’s philosophy, and therefore Savarkar. Ironically, Indian lefts’ opposition to recognising Savarkar’s full role has led to an ahistorical representation of Savarkar’s leftist relationships, and how he has been praised by leftist or socialist intellectuals of international repute. For example, how do we interpret the fact that Savarkar earned a socialist image in the international anti-colonial circles in the 1920s, as demonstrated in the newspaper articles and a twenty-four-page pamphlet of Jean Longuet, the grand-son of Karl Marx, in support of Savarkar. Similarly, we seldom speak about Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s high regard for Savarkar. As expressed in the former’s instruction, one should understand three books to become a member of Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, and of these three, one was ‘The Life of Barrister Savarkar’. Most strikingly, M.N. Roy, the stalwart Indian leftist intellectual, reportedly requested to be part of a reception committee in 1937 to celebrate Savarkar’s release from Ratnagiri prison. As these situations demonstrate, Savarkar was a respected and celebrated freedom fighter, though the postcolonial Indian left obstinately rejects his contributions, while exaggerating his association with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
There is not only white and black in history but also grey matter. That is to say, individuals like Savarkar should be considered in light of all their contradictory identities. While recognising that Savarkar had every right to dream and work for Hindutva, one must also investigate his role in shaking the British Empire as one of the longest prisoners in colonial India’s history. Of course, Savarkar’s philosophy had an evident influence on India’s Hindu-Muslim conflict, but let us not forget that the Hindu-Muslim riots caused Savarkar to become a Hindu nationalist, eventually.
Even if we reject all of Savarkar’s anti-colonial and anti-Muslim ideologies, his struggles and social reform movements, especially his efforts for the Dalit community’s upliftment, need to be further studied. Contradictory to what we usually see in Indian movies, heroes are not the seedbed of all virtues. There are also plenty of anti-heroes, who stand beyond the personalities of heroes. Unfortunately, Savarkar is a man whom a group once made an anti-hero of old heroes, both colonial and Indian, and that image remains without much change.
- Chaturvedi, V. (2019). Modi’s Philosopher: An Interview
- Nalwa, V. (2019, May 29). ‘Veer Savarkar’s crusade against caste discrimination remains under-appreciated’. The Indian Express.
- Keer, D. (1950). Veer Savarkar. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.
The failure of the great games in Afghanistan from the 19th century to the present day
Whenever great powers have tried to make Afghanistan a colony, they have always been defeated. British imperialism and its “civilising mission” towards backward (and therefore terrorist) populations – a mission equal to that of the time when Great Britain established itself as the first drug pusher to the Chinese Empire with the two opium wars of 1839-1842; 1856-1860: an action that was terrorist at the best.
The Russian Empire and its exporting the orthodox faith and the values of the Tsar towards the barbaric (and therefore terrorist) Afghans. The Soviet Union and its attempt to impose secularisation on Muslim (and therefore terrorist) Afghans in the period 1979-1991. The United States of America that thought it could create parties, democracy, Coke, miniskirts, as well as gambling and pleasure houses by bombing the Afghan terrorists tout-court.
In this article I will try to explain why Afghanistan won 4-0, and in 1919 – thanks to its rulers’ wise skills – was one of the only six actual independent Asian States (Japan, Nepal, Thailand and Yemen), so that at least the barroom experts – who, by their nature, believe that History is just a fairy tale like that of Cinderella and stepmother with evil sisters – reflect on the nonsense we read and hear every day in the press and in the media.
In his book I luoghi della Storia (Rizzoli, Milan 2000), former Ambassador Sergio Romano wrote on page 196: “The Afghans spent a good part of the nineteenth century playing a diplomatic and military game with the great powers – the so-called “Great Game” – the main rule of which was to use the Russians against the Brits and the Brits against the Russians”.
In the days when geopolitics was a forbidden subject and the word was forbidden, in the history textbooks of secondary schools it seemed that the United States of America and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had fallen from the sky as large as they were on the atlases. I still remember that in the dialogues between professors and high school students, it was stated that the two powers could not be called colonial, since they had something messianic and redeeming in themselves (therefore anti-terrorist).
It was only thanks to western movies that the young people of the time understood how the thirteen Lutheran colonies had extended westwards into lands that we were led to believe had been inhabited by savage villains to be exterminated (hence terrorists) and by uncivilised Spaniards, as Catholics, to be defeated. Moreover, we did not dare to study Russia’s expansion eastwards and southwards, at the risk that the high school students – unprepared, pure and enthusiastic – would understand that the homeland of socialism had no different assumptions from all other imperialisms.
Sometimes the students heard about the great game or, in Russian, the tournament of shadows (turniry teney). What was the great game? Today it is mostly remembered as the epic of freedom of the unconquered Afghans, but in reality its solution meant the alliance between Russia and Great Britain, which lasted at least until the eve of the Cold War. A key position that is sometimes too overlooked, and not only in scientific and classical textbooks, but also in many essays by self-proclaimed experts.
British aversion to the Russian Empire – apart from the “necessary” anti-Napoleonic alliances in the Second, Third, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Coalitions – dated back to the 17th century and worsened considerably in the 19th century. Although Russian exports of grain, natural fibres and other agricultural crops were made to Great Britain – because the Russian landowners were well disposed to good relations with the Brits in order to better market those products abroad – there were no political improvements. The opposition came more from Great Britain than from Russia.
Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1825-55) – in the late 1830s, during his trip to Great Britain in 1842, and later in 1850-52, i.e. just before the Crimean War (1853-56) – often tried to bring about normalisation, but due to British suspicions and doubts (the Russians were considered to be terrorists) this did not occur.
What worried the Foreign Office – created in March 1782 – was Russia’s fast march eastwards, southwards and south-westwards. Great Britain could feel Russian breath on it from the three sides of India. The Russian goals with regard to Turkey, the successes in Trancaucasia and the Persian goals, not to mention the colonisation of Central Asia, initiated by the aforementioned Tsar Nicholas I, and conducted vigorously by his successor Alexander II (1818-1855-81), were – for Her Britannic Majesty’s diplomats and generals – a blatant and threatening intimidation of India’s “pearl”.
In the north-west of the Indian subcontinent the British possessions bordered on the Thar desert and on Sindh (the Indus River delta) which constituted a Muslim State under leaders residing at Haidarābād, conquered by the Brits in 1843. To the north-east of Sindh, the Punjab region had been amalgamated into a strong State by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Ji (1780-1801-39) who, as a simple Governor of Lahore (Lâhau) on behalf of the Afghan Emir, Zaman Shah Durrani (1770-93-1800-†44), had succeeded not only in becoming independent, but also in extending his power over Kashmir and Pīshāwar, creating the Sikh Empire in 1801, which was overthrown by Great Britain during the I (1845-46) and II (1848-49) Anglo-Sikh wars; the region became what is known as the Pakistani Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the North-West Frontier Province).
Given the British expansion into the neighbouring States of Afghanistan and Persia, Russia’s influence was trying to creep in; hence the Brits were paying close attention to what was happening on the border of the great Northern “neighbour”.
Russia had long been aiming to make its way to India through Western Turkestan, but that steppe region was inhabited by the Kyrgyz in the north-east and the Turks (Turkmen) in the south-west.
After unsuccessful attempts at peaceful penetration, the Russian Governor of Orenburg, Gen. Vasilij Alekseevič Perovskij (1794-1857), prepared an expedition against Chiva: it involved crossing about a thousand kilometres of desert and was thought to be easier to make during the winter. The expedition left from Orenburg in November 1839, but the cold killed so many men and camels that the Commander had to give up the venture and turn back (spring 1840). For a long time, the Russians did not attempt any more military infiltrations there.
In Persia, instead, Russian influence was strongly felt: Tsar Alexander II pushed the Shah, Naser al-Din Qajar (1831-48-96), to undertake an enterprise against the city of Herāt (which dominated the passage from Persia and Western Turkestan into India): it had detached itself from Afghanistan and had been a separate State since 1824. The Persian expedition began in the autumn of 1837: Herāt resisted strenuously, so much so that in the summer of 1838 the Shah had to renounce the siege and accept Britain’s mediation for peace with the sovereign of that city. That diplomatic move was therefore also detrimental to the influence of St. Petersburg. Even the first relations established by Russia with the Emir of Afghanistan did not lead to any result.
In those years, Russia was busy quelling the insurrections of the mountain populations in the Caucasus, where the exploits of the alleged Italian sheikh, Mansur Ushurma (Giambattista Boetti, 1743-98), in the service of the Chechen cause, still echoed.
Through two treaties concluded with Persia (1828) and Turkey (1829), Russia had become the master of the region; however, it found an obstinate resistance from the local populations that still persists today.
The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) was one of the most important military conflicts of the great game and one of the worst British defeats in the region. The Brits had started an expedition to Afghanistan to overthrow Emir Dost Mohammad (1793-1826-39, 42-63), the first of the Barakzai dynasty, and replace him with the last of the Durrani dynasty, Ayub Shah (17??-1819-23, †37), who had been dethroned in 1823, but he renounced. Not wanting to cross the Sikh country in order not to arouse mistrust among the Sikhs, the British entered Baluchistan, occupied the capital (Qalat), then penetrated into Afghanistan and advanced without encountering serious resistance as far as Kabul, where on August 7, 1839 they installed their own puppet, Shuja Shah (1785-1842), formerly Emir from 1803 to 1809.
Dost Mohammad was caught and sent to Calcutta. A the beginning of 1841, however, one of his sons – Sher Ali – aroused the Afghans’ rebellion. The military commander, Gen. William George Keith Elphinstone (b. 1782), got permission to leave with 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 non-combatants to return to India. In the mountain passes near Kabul, however, the expedition was taken by surprise and annihilated (January 1842). The commander died as prisoner of the Afghans (on April 23).
The Brits obviously wanted revenge: they sent other troops that, in September of the same year, reconquered Kabul: this time the Brits – intimidated – did not deem it advisable to remain there. Convinced they had reaffirmed a certain prestige, they withdrew and, since the Emir they protected had died on April 5, 1842, they agreed – helplessly – to Dost Mohammad’s return to the throne. He conquered Herāt forever for Afghanistan.
Russia did not just stand by and watch and asserted its power in the Far East. In the years 1854-58 – despite its engagement in the Crimean war: the first real act of the great game, as Britain had to defend the Ottoman Empire from Sarmatian aspirations of conquest – it had established, with a series of expeditions, its jurisdiction over the province of Amur, through the Treaty of Aigun – labelled as the unequal treaty as it was imposed on China – on May 28, 1858. Shortly afterwards the fleet arrived at Tien-Tsin (Tianjin), forced China into another treaty on June 26-27, thus obtaining the opening of ports for trade, and the permanence of a Russian embassy in Peking. Moreover, in Central Asia, Russia renewed its attempts to advance against the khanates of Buchara and Kokand (Qo’qon), and had once again led the Shah of Persia, Mozaffar ad-Din Qajar (1853-96-1907), to try again the enterprise of Herāt (1856), which had caused again the British intervention (Anglo-Persian War, 1856-57) that ended with Persia’s recognition of the independence of the aforementioned city. The Anglo-Russian rivalry thus continued to be one of the essential problems of Central Asia, for the additional reason that Russia gradually expanded into West Turkestan, Buchara and Chiva between 1867 and 1873.
After the Russian conquests in West Turkestan, Dost Mohammad’ son and successor, Sher Ali (1825-63-66, 68-79), came under the influence of the neighbouring power, which was trying to penetrate the area to the detriment of Britain. On July 22, 1878 St Petersburg sent a mission. The Emir repelled a similar British mission at the Khyber Pass in September 1878, thus triggering the start of the war. The Brits soon opened hostilities, invading the country with 40,000 soldiers
from three different points.
The Emir went into exile in Mazār-i-Sharīf, leaving his son Mohammad Yaqub (1849-79-80, †1914) as heir. He signed the Treaty of Gandamak on May 26, 1879 to prevent a British invasion of the rest of the country.
Once the British First Resident, the Italian Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari (b. 1841) went to Kabul, he was assassinated there on September 3, 1879. British troops organised a second expedition and occupied the capital. They did not trust the Emir and raised a nephew of Dost Mohammed, Abdur Rahman (1840/44-80-1901), to power on May 31, 1880. He pledged to have no political relations except with Britain.
The former Emir, Mohammad Yaqub, took up arms and severely defeated the Brits at Maiwand on July 27, 1880, with the help of the Afghan heroine Malalai Anaa (1861-80), who rallied the Pashtun troops against the attackers. On September 1 of the same year Mohammad Yaqub was defeated and put to flight by Gen. Frederick Roberts (1832-1914) in the Battle of Kandahâr, which ended the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
This brought Afghanistan permanently under British influence, which was secured by the construction of a railway from the Indus River to the Afghan city of Kandahâr. Since the railway passed through Beluchistan, it was definitively annexed to British India. In 1880, Russia began the construction of the Transcaspian Railway, which alarmed the Brits who extended the section of their “railroad” to Herāt.
It was only with the accession to the throne of Imānullāh (1892-1919-29, †60), on February 28, 1919 (Shah from 1926), that Afghanistan took its foreign policy away from Great Britain through the Third Anglo-Afghan War (6 May-8 August 1919), by which the Afghans finally threw the Brits out of the picture (Treaty of Râwalpindî of August 8, 1919, amended on November 22, 1921).
As early as 1907, the Russian government had declared it considered Afghanistan to be outside its sphere of influence, and pledged not to send any agents there, as well as to consult the British government about its relations with that country.
Indeed, Britain soon gave up direct control of the country, given the fierce fighting spirit of its people, who had humiliated it many times, and contented itself with guarding and keeping the north-west Indian border under control.
In reality, the great game has never ended. As Spartacus Alfredo Puttini stated (La Russia di Putin sulla scacchiera, in “Eurasia”, A. IX, No. 1, January-March 2012, pp. 129-147), upon his coming to power Vladimir Putin found himself grappling with a difficult legacy. Gorbachev’s policy of katastroika had dealt a lethal blow to the Soviet and later Russian colossus.
Within a few years, Russia had embarked on a unilateral disarmament that led, at first, to its withdrawal from Afghanistan and then from Central and Eastern Europe. While the State was heading for collapse and the economy was being disrupted, it was the very periphery of the Soviet Union that was catching fire due to separatist movements promptly subsidised by those who – in the great game – replaced the Brits. Massive US aid to the heroic anti-Soviet patriots, who were later branded as terrorists.
In a short time the real collapse occurred and the ‘new’ Russia found itself geopolitically shrunken and morally and materially prostrated by the great looting made by the pro-Western oligarchs in the shadow of the Yeltsin Presidency.
To the west, the country had returned to the borders of the 17th century; to the south, it had lost Southern Caucasus and valuable Central Asia, where the new great game was soon to begin. In other words, the process of disruption would not stop, and would infect the Russian Federation itself: Chechnya had engaged in a furious war of secession that threatened to spread like wildfire to the whole of Northern Caucasus and, in the long run, called into question the very survival of the Russian State divided into autonomous entities.
This was followed by the phenomenon of “orangism” in 2003-2005 (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan): the various caricatures of oxymoronic “liberal” revolutions aimed at moving certain governments away from Russia’s influence.
Ultimately, the central power had been undermined on all sides by the policy of Yeltsin and his clan, aimed at granting extensive autonomy to the regions of the Federation. Public property, the glue of State authority and the instrument of its concrete activity to guide and orient the nation, had been sold off. Over time, Putin put things right, and the rest is condensed into the restoration choices of the plebiscitary vote in his favour.
In the end Afghanistan also saw the US failure, which I have examined in previous articles.
The Asian sense of freedom is summed up in the expulsion of foreign aggressors from their own homelands and territories. Someone should start to understand this.
The Post-US Withdrawal Afghanistan: India, China and the ‘English Diplomacy’
The recent developments in Afghanistan, the impatient Tri-axis and the emphatic India at SCO, with the ‘English Diplomacy’ at display that tends to blunt the Chinese aggressiveness in South China Sea mark a new power interplay in the world politics. It also shows why the US went for AUKUS and how it wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific.
Afghanistan has turned out to be the most incandescent point of world politics today deflecting the eyes from the South China Sea and Gaza Strip. What is more startling is the indifferent attitude United States has shown to the other stakeholders in the war torn state. While Brexit appears to have created fissure in the European Union the AUKUS effects further marginalisation of France and India against the US-British and QUAD understandings. The vacuum that US have created in Afghanistan has invited several actors willing to expand their energy access to central Asia and Afghanistan provides an important bridge in between. The TAPI economics (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline) and huge Indian investments are endangered by the Afghan security question and make it imminent for India to stay in Afghanistan as a reckoning force.
The Taliban and the Troika
While the Russo-Chinese and Pakistani engagement with the Taliban’s takeover was visible the US exit has invited the wrath of other stakeholders like India, Saudi Arabia and Iran. India is significantly affected because of its huge investments of over 3 billion dollars over two decades in Afghanistan that would become target of the orthodox retrogressive Taliban regime. The government of India’s stand on Afghanistan is that an ‘Afghan peace process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. Any political settlement must be inclusive and should preserve the socio-economic and political gains of the past 19 years. India supports a united, democratic and sovereign Afghanistan. India is deeply concerned about the increase in violence and targeted killings in Afghanistan. India has called for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire’(MEA).
However, the takeover by Taliban that endangers India’s strategic and capital interests has made it pro-active in the state. Probably for the first time in Afghan history, India has shown aggressive tones against the militant government which may create problem for Kashmir in the longer run. The Pakistani air force’s engagement over the Panjashir assault by Taliban has unravelled the larger plans of destabilisation in South Asia.
In the meantime China has unequivocally expressed its willingness, as was expected to work with Taliban. The visit of Taliban delegation, led by Abdul Ghani Baradar who also heads the office of Taliban at Doha, met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials in Tianjin, on July 28, 2021. The visit followed the Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Kureshi’s visit to Beijing and unravelled how the two states have been supporting the Talibani cause. Although, China has its own perceptions about Xinjiang and Mr. Wang even told the Taliban “to draw a line” between the group and terror organisations, specifically the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which has carried out attacks in Xinjiang. Russia too has shown interest in Taliban and it didn’t plan to evacuate its embassy at Kabul. Its foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov said that Russia will carefully see how responsibly they (Taliban) govern the country in the near future. And based on the results, the Russian leadership will draw the necessary conclusions.
The little Indo-Russian engagements over Afghanistan have minimised the scope of cooperation over the decades now. Although, Russia has been trying to follow a balancing policy between India and Pakistan yet its leanings towards the latter is manifest from its recent policies. “The extent of Russia-Pakistan coordination broadened in 2016, as Russia, China, and Pakistan created a trilateral format to discuss stabilizing Afghanistan and counterterrorism strategy. In December 2016, Russia, China, and Pakistan held talks on combating Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), which were widely criticized in the U.S. for excluding the Afghan government.” (Ramani). The deliberate neglect of Afghan government and Indian role reveals the neo-Russian policy in South Asia that de-hyphenates India and Pakistan and sees Pakistan through the lens of BRI and at the cost of North-South Corridor. The Chinese and Russian belief that by supporting Taliban they will secure security for their disturbed territories and escape from terrorism appears to be unrealistic keeping in view the Taliban’s characteristics which are chameleon like i.e. political, organizational and jihadi at the same time looking for appropriate opportunities.
Is it the Post-Brexit Plan?
The Brexit ensures a better space for Britain; at least this is what Brits believe, in international politics following the future US overseas projects. However, it for sure annoys some of its serious allies with the new takes. The announcement of the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) pact, a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific to contain China is an important step in this direction. The Brexit and the US-withdrawal seen together mark a shift in US policy perception of Asia that aims at Asia Pacific more as compared to Central Asia. It has not only betrayed India in Afghanistan but also France through AUKUS which sees an end to its multibillion dollar deal with Australia. France now shows a stronger commitment to support India in its moves against Taliban and Pakistan’s interventions.
President Macron recalled French ambassadors for consultations after the AUKUS meet that dropped France deliberately from the major maritime security deal. The French anguish is not about its absence in the deal by the Canberra, Washington and London but being an allied nation, its neglect in the secret deal. “The announcement ended a deal worth $37bn (£27bn) that France had signed with Australia in 2016 to build 12 conventional submarines. China meanwhile accused the three powers involved in the pact of having a “Cold War mentality”(Schofield 2021). It also reminds one of the Roosevelt’s efforts at truncating French arms in Asia, especially in Indo-China and the consequent sequence of betrayals by the US. AUKUS also symbolises the ‘English diplomacy’ of the English speaking states just like the Five Eyes (FVEY), an intelligence alliance consisting of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Started around 1946 the member countries are parties to the multilateral UKUSA Agreement, a treaty for joint cooperation in signals intelligence. Recently there have been voices for taking India, Japan and South Korea also into its fold to strengthen the contain China job.
The Wildered QUAD
While the first ever in-person QUAD summit approaches near, the announcement of AUKUS shows haze that prevails over the US decision making. President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japan’s Yoshihide Suga meet at the White House for the summit on September 24, 2021. This follows the virtual meet held in March 2021. How apposite it would be to declare a maritime deal at a time when the QUAD meet is about to take place with the same motives and plans, notwithstanding the fact that QUAD has a wider platform for discussion like climate change, cyberspace, pandemic and Indo-Pacific. Is there an uncertainty over the realisation of QUAD? However, AUKUS unravels the US intentions of first line preferences and second line associates in its future projects that will further marginalise its allies like France, Germany and many other states in future.
At SCO meet at Dushanbe India has unequivocally announced its view of the situation that takes Taliban as a challenge to peace and development in Afghanistan and South Asia. Prime Minister Modi remarked that the first issue is that the change of authority in Afghanistan was not inclusive and this happened without negotiation. This raises questions on the prospects of recognition of the new system. Women, minorities and different groups have not been given due representation. He also insisted on the crucial role that UN can play in Afghanistan. India’s investment in the Iranian port of Chabahar and the International North-South Corridor along with TAPI are central to its argument on the recent developments in Afghanistan. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar had also remarked in July 2021 that the landlocked Central Asian countries can benefit immensely by connecting with the huge market of India and the future of Afghanistan cannot be its past and that the world must not let the new generation of Afghans down (Hindustan Times). The Indian message is clear and received huge support at Dushanbe and India is poised to play a greater role in Afghanistan, where the US and Russia have failed miserably.
The Internal Dynamics
The internal dynamics in Afghanistan presage a government by uncertainty in the coming months as Sirajudin Haqqani of Pak supported Haqqani network, captures Mulla Baradar, the man who settled the deal with US at Doha. It appears from the Pakistani backed government of Haqqani that Baradar has been dumped for his commitment for inclusive government expected to be pro-west against the Sino-Pakistan expectations. The US reluctance to remain engaged in the troubled region marks a shift in US foreign policy but the exclusion of its allies from Indo-Pacific plan are bound to bring new engagements in world power politics. While US dumped Afghans France and Israel appear as new hopes for Indian led moves against the undemocratic terrorist forces in Afghanistan.
Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions
Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.
The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.
Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.
The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.
The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.
Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.
Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.
Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.
Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.
A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.
That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.
These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.
The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.
Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.
“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.
“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.
The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.
Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.
Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.
Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.
Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.
Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.
“Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.
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