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Mainstream, VOL L, No 24, June 2, 2012

Contradictory Aspects of Jihad’s Geopolitical Realities in South Asia

Friday 8 June 2012, by Ajay K. Mehra

BOOK REVIEW

Jihad on Two Fronts: South Asia’s Unfolding Drama, by Dilip Hiro; HarperCollins Publishers India, NOIDA, UP; Rs 699.

This fourteen-chapter (plus an Introduction and an Epilogue) 471-page book by a veteran journalist-author, who has presented a number of analyses on world affairs as well as written some fictions in the past, seeks to analyse the politics, context(s) and process(es) of jihad in South Asia. ‘Jihad’ is an Arabic word, meaning ‘effort’. In the Qur’an Sharif it has been used with a wide meaning, from internal cleansing of an individual through moral discipline to a struggle against the non-believers, which could be violent war-like too; jihad permeates struggles within self and society. In the history of Islam as well as in the contemporary context of the politics of terror, it is the latter meaning that has mostly been highlighted, not only by those who have been critical of jihadi terrorism, but also by the Islamic groups using the war cry of ‘jihad’. Obviously, without going into the overlap of the meaning, it is this dimension that Hiro too explores.

In his own inimitable style, Hiro mixes journalistic narrative and analysis of facts on how countries, governments and regimes as well as the world powers pawn individuals and groups in their power game of one-upmanship, unmindful of their own Frankensteinian role of creating monsters they cannot rein in as they wreak death and destruction in society. Indeed, his fiction writer too comes out in places as he cannot resist describing his journeys to different countries and cities, going into details of the environs. Needless to say, such narratives make the book readable without adding to the analysis. In fact, he appears to get carried away by such details so much that chapters become repetitive of facts. The theatres he has picked up to analyse the politics of ‘jihad’ have a number a common issues, history, grievances and problems. Is it then that the cauterisation attempted by the author has trapped him into repetition? For example, The Sufi Connection, Target Kashmir, Liberating Indian Kashmir, is about the Kashmir question in different contexts and the background, situations and perspectives get repeated. They also come back in different contexts in ‘India, Israel and America’, ‘Zia Ul Haque …’, ‘Indian Muslims…’ and ‘Pakistan’s Jihadists’. Similarly, the chapters on the Afghanistan situation too have certain repetitions. I am sure, as the book reaches the audience, jury would be out whether this style has added to the bulk of the book, without adding to analysis and substance, or whether it has enhanced its readability.

The author has marshalled enormous facts to put into his analysis and narratives. He also covers the widest possible time-frame in looking at each of the issues. For example, in building his argument on ‘jihad’ he begins with its connotation in the Qur’an Sharif and contextualises it to the present. But considering that the book uses ‘jihad’ as the centre of its analyses, it needed discussion in greater depth and length. Literature is available on the subject. Analysts and authors on Islam and Muslim politics such as Asghar Ali Engineer have argued that ‘jihad’ in Islam is not so much about violence against non-believers as about controlling violence within one’s own self. This indeed would beg further analysis as to how and why the word has become synonymous with terrorism and those indulging in violence in the name of religion are not bothered whether this denigrates their own religion. Hiro appears to have kept himself away from these complexities.

Jammu and Kashmir and Afghanistan are the two theatres where subcontinental rivalries and the power stakes of the two world powers have brought in the politics of terrorism of the ‘jihadi’ variety in the past six decades. Both the theatres were serenity personified, live picture postcards as far as bounties of nature were concerned; people were religious, but not fanatics. However, decolonisation of the subcontinent in 1947 made J&K disputed between India and Pakistan, divided first between the two under controversial circumstances; China took away a chunk in 1962. Afghanistan could never become a stable political unit. Taking advantage of the rivalries of the warlords, the USSR extended
its influence in the country in 1979, creating an intense conflictual situation within and attracting US interest. The Indo-Pak rivalry, particularly Pakistan’s definition of itself as anti-India, further added to the complexities. Pakistan was in any case affected by the developments in Afghanistan due to the common border and ethnicity overlap in its western provinces. Also, it had willingly become a US ally in the Cold War games in the 1950s; hence the US interest in the area also drew it in.

Religiosity of the people can easily be transformed into fanaticism if the regime of the day wants it, or strategies of political mobilisation use religion as the glue for the disparate population. Weak regimes particularly strategise the passion of religion for support and political mobilisation. The politics of Pakistan, where politicians lost their legitimacy soon after partition and independence as the Father of the Nation Jinnah died in 1948 and popular Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan was assassinated three years later, with predominance of the Army, more particularly as Zia Ul Haque took over power following a coup in 1977 and effected the judicial murder of popular leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977, brought in Islam as the blind faith. Nuclearisation of Pakistan along with India added to the dangerous scenario.
India’s stakes in J&K, characterised by a number of political blunders since 1948, have witnessed, apart from the conflict with Pakistan in 1948, 1965 and 1999 (Kargil), proxy war in the Valley by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence Agency which has trained and supported mili-tants from Kashmir. Naturally, with the emergence of a number of jihadi groups in Pakistan, the situation has at times become quite tense. Not only do the two sides keep accusing each other on this issue, leaders of pro-azadi and pro-Pakistan secessionist groups too keep adding to the politics of the bizarre.

The issues that emerge through the discussion in Hiro’s analysis and narrative are that interpretations of the precepts of religion by the leadership for its own political purposes makes the society its tool in avoidable violence with international ramifications. The emerging geopolitics of religion, in this case Islam, does not necessarily see nations act as part of the umma, in this case Pakistan and Afghanistan. This makes the politics of religion and that of jihad even more bizarre because the politics of terror works through these two countries, as also against them. Of course, the geopolitical game of the two big powers was intense, though strange, in the 1980s, and suddenly in 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist. During that period the USA considered the Soviet Union a bigger threat than the Islamists. The power game witnessed another dimension since then with the USA coming in with its NATO allies to annihilate the monster it created—Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda—post-9/11. It also revealed the peculiarities of the US politics with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf suddenly somersaults on its support to the Al Qaeda and Osama by becoming a US partner in the war on terror, but post-Musharraf Osama is killed in Abbottabad, a garrison town near the capital Islamabad, by the USA’s special anti-terror group. Some groups in Pakistan cry violation of sovereignty, but the government keeps quiet, the USA too does not raise the issue as to how Laden was sheltered so well and secure by Pakistan when it was a partner in the war against terror. The partnership continues, so do the contradictions of the politics of jihad and terror in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The aforementioned analysis emerging out of Hiro’s voluminous narrative has been found elsewhere earlier. The literature on the subject, quite abundant, in different contexts has brought out most of the points that Hiro presents here. Obviously, Hiro is not saying anything new with all the data and facts he puts together, some of which he has collected by visits to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet, the book does highlight some of the contradictory and bizarre aspects of the geopolitical realities of jihad as few studies have done. If only he had avoided the temptations of recontextualising each and every episode, repetitions could have been avoided and a slimmer and more cohesive study with his lucid style would have reached the readers.

Prof Ajay K. Mehra is the Director (Honorary), Centre for Public Affairs, NOIDA, and Editor, ICCSR Journal of Abstracts and Reviews in Political Science.

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