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Central Asian

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India: The Weight of History

12 August 2020

“India is emotional as decades of wait has ended,” declared India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, laying the cornerstone of a new temple in Ayodhya a week ago. “For years our Ram Lalla (the infant Lord Ram) lived beneath a tent; now he will reside in a grand temple.” As if infants cared about the size of their dwelling.

The 16th-century mosque that once stood on the site was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992, sparking riots that killed more than 2,000 people. Modi had visited the location the previous year, swearing not to return until the mosque was gone and a Hindu temple was under construction on the site, and lo! – there he was laying a 40 kg. foundation stone of pure silver for the new temple.

Does Narendra Modi really believe that Rama, 7th avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, was born at this particular site in Ayodhya at 12.05 pm on January 10, 5114 BC? As with any politician who exploits religion to gain power, we’ll never really know, and in any case it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is the exploitation, which is destroying the secular Indian democracy of the past. And of course not only Hindu extremists exploit religion: on Sunday police opened fire on Muslim demonstrators in Bangalore, killing three, after local Muslim leaders spotted a Facebook post by a Hindu politician that allegedly “offended” the Prophet Muhammad. (Does he really take offense so easily?)

But there are six Hindus in India for every Muslim Indian, so this is not going to end well for the Muslims. Indeed, it has already ended very badly for some. Kashmir, the only Indian state with a Muslim majority, suddenly had its special status stripped away last August by Modi.

Kashmir has been split in two and is occupied by hundreds of thousands of Indian troops. Most of its politicians were kept under arrest for six months without charge, and the most senior ones have been charged under the Public Safety Act, which allows detention without trial for up to two years.

Five years ago, Indian-born artist Anish Kapoor called Prime Minister Modi a ‘Hindu Taliban’, and Modi’s role in promoting an anti-Muslim pogrom that killed 2,000 (including some Hindus) when he was chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002 gave early evidence of his promise. But he was surprisingly low-key about religion during his first term as prime minister of all India in 2014-19.

That went well economically, and Modi was rewarded with a landslide majority in the May, 2019 election – whereupon he dropped his mask of moderation and went on an anti-Muslim spree. Kashmir last August, Ayodhya this August – and in between, a pair of new laws that threaten to take away the citizenship of many of India’s Muslims. (They’re less trouble if they can’t vote.)

One new law is the National Register of Citizens, which everyone must be inscribed in. To be registered, however, you have to prove you are a citizen, which would pose a problem for many people who lack the necessary documents to prove they were born in India. It’s a particular problem for Muslims, who are on average poorer than Hindus, and therefore less likely to have such documents.

But never mind: the Citizenship Amendment Act, passed at the same time, says that most illegal immigrants and refugees will be allowed to register without such documents. Since undocumented people living in India will effectively be treated as illegal immigrants, that will give them automatic citizenship if they are Hindu, Sikh, Christian or Buddhist. Muslims, however, do not get a free pass. No documents? Problems.

India can never expel 170 million Muslims. There’s nowhere else for them to go. The goal of Narendra Modi and his Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP – Indian People’s Party) is to redefine them as an underclass without rights, and at the same time to preserve them as a permanent ‘threat’ that keeps Hindus united behind the BJP.

Why do so many Hindus go along with this vicious nonsense? Because for about seven centuries waves of Muslim invaders from central Asia ruled over most of India. It ended in the 18th century with the establishment of British rule (which didn’t interfere with religion), but by then one-third of the population of the subcontinent was Muslim.

Very few of today’s Muslims in India (or Pakistan or Bangladesh, for that matter) are descended from Central Asian conquerors. Most are descended from native-born Hindus who were forcibly converted to Islam, or changed their religion later to escape the Hindu caste system or the higher taxes paid by non-Muslims, or even sometimes for genuinely religious reasons.

It was all a very long time ago, and it shouldn’t matter now. In a truly secular India, it wouldn’t matter, which is why the country’s founders insisted that it should be secular. But that’s not what Modi wants, and Modi is winning.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“One…Problems”)

Caspian Games

Russian politician Andrei Zhirinovsky is all mouth, so it would not normally have caused a stir when he suggested earlier this year that Russia should simply annex the parts of neighbouring Kazakhstan that have a large Russian population. But the ultra-nationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party actually frightened the Kazakhs, because there is a bigger game going on.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power since before Kazakhstan got its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, was so alarmed that he openly expressed doubts about whether Kazakhstan should join Moscow’s “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) when it launches next January. “Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence,” he said in August.

The EEU is the same organisation that Ukrainians rebelled against joining last year when their pro-Moscow former president, Viktor Yanukovych, abandoned plans for closer ties with the European Union (EU). But Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev has always been on good terms with Russia, so Russia’s autarch, Vladimir Putin, immediately cracked the whip.

“Kazakhstan never had any statehood (historically),” Putin said. Nazarbayev merely “created” the country – with the clear implication that it was an artificial construct that might, if the wind changed, just be dismantled again. With Russian troops in eastern Ukraine “on holiday” from the army (but taking their armoured vehicles and artillery with them), it was a veiled threat that Kazakhstan had to take seriously.

There has actually been a Kazakh state. Almost the entire area of the current country, and substantial parts of neighbouring countries, were ruled from the 15th to the 18th centuries by a powerful Kazakh khanate, the traditional form of state among the Islamic, Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia. The reason it never evolved into a modern state is that the whole area was conquered and colonised by the Russian empire.

Russia is still the only great power within easy reach of the Central Asian states, and it underlined its displeasure with Nazarbayev by holding military exercises near the Kazakh border in early September. But Putin was not just restoring discipline in a prospective member of the EEU, his pet project to rival the EU.

Putin’s strategic objective is to control oil and gas traffic across the landlocked Caspian Sea. The last thing Moscow needs is cut-price competition from Central Asian producers in its European markets.

Moscow at the top of the Caspian Sea and Iran at the bottom have their own pipelines to get oil out to the markets. Azerbaijan, on the western shore, has built pipelines through Georgia into Turkey, one of which reaches the Mediterranean, so Russia cannot control its exports. But Moscow still has a stranglehold on the big oil and gas producers on the eastern side of the sea, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Neither of those former Soviet republics can escape Moscow’s grip unless it can move its oil and gas in pipelines across the Caspian seabed to Azerbaijan and out to the Mediterranean from there. So Putin has been trying for years to get a Russian veto on any such pipelines. He’s nearly there.

If the International Law of the Sea applied, then each country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, with control over seabed developments, would extend 300 nautical miles from its coast. The Caspian is not that big, so all five EEZ’s would meet in the middle – and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan’s zones would both touch Azerbaijan’s, so the question of trans-Caspian seabed pipelines would be beyond Moscow’s control.

But since the Caspian Sea is not part of the world ocean, the five countries around it can agree on any local rules they like. Russia is by far the greatest power on its shores, and the rules it likes would confine each country to a 15-nautical-mile sovereign zone and a 25-mile exclusive fishing zone.

Under this regime, the middle of the sea would remain a common area where any development would need the consent of all five countries. Hey presto! A Russian veto on any pipelines crossing the Caspian Sea, and continuing control over oil and gas exports from Central Asia to Europe.

Following a summit meeting of the five countries’ leaders in Astrakhan at the end of September, it’s practically a done deal, although the final treaty will not be signed until 2016. Late last month Richard Hoagland, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, visited Astana, the Kazakh capital, and said that the US firmly supported Kazakh independence and territorial integrity, but everybody knows who’s boss in the region.

Sidelining Kazakh and Turkmen competition in the European gas and oil markets will not help Moscow much, however, if Putin’s behaviour on Russia’s western borders continues to frighten the Europeans. They will be scrambling to cut their dependence on Russian gas and oil as fast as they can, and the fracking Americans, with their soaring production, will be more than happy to help.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. “There has…EU”

Central Asia: One Down

25 March 2005

Central Asia: One Down, Four to Go?

By Gwynne Dyer

Askar Akayev was the nicest of the Central Asian strongmen. Dissidents did not get immersed in boiling water in Kyrgyzstan; statues of Akayev and his family did not litter Bishkek and the country’s other cities; he hadn’t been the local Communist Party leader in Soviet times, as most other Central Asian leaders were. During the 90s, Akayev was even seen as a man with a commitment to democracy and civil rights. Maybe that’s why he got overthrown.

He deserved to be overthrown. By the time the crowds in Bishkek invaded his presidential palace on Thursday, he was well on the way to turning Kyrgyzstan into just another Central Asian autocracy. Last month’s parliamentary election was so shamelessly rigged that Akayev’s supporters won 69 out of 75 seats while key opposition leaders were banned from running — and Akayev’s son and daughter were elected to the parliament.

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe condemned the election, and most Kyrgyz suspected that Akayev was packing the parliament so he could push through a constitutional amendment granting him yet another term as president. Even the United States, which has a large military base in the country, was beginning to take its distance from his regime. (Russia, which also has a base in Kyrgyzstan, backed Akayev down to the end.)

In style, the almost bloodless revolution that overthrew Akayev was close to the non-violent popular uprisings that have brought democracy to two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine, in the past year and a half. There was the same revolt against a rigged election, the same crowds in the street, even the same use of a symbolic colour to unite all the various strands of protest. And inevitably, the same claims are being made about it.

The Bush administration has not yet officially claimed that it is a result of the beacon of liberty that the US invasion has lit in Iraq, but you know that it’s going to. The Russian government, seeing yet another part of the former Soviet “near abroad” slide out of Moscow’s sphere of influence, mutters darkly about illegitimate American influence behind the revolution. And not much attention is paid to the reality of Kyrgyzstan.

The reason all five Central Asian republics ended up being run by tyrants of greater or lesser nastiness after the fall of the Soviet Union was that the same or very similar tyrants, in four cases out of five, were running them before it fell. Tyrants ran every part of the Soviet Union, of course, but whereas in most places the Communist Party provided the structure, in Central Asia it just wrapped itself around more enduring realities of clan, tribe and language.

The bizarre geography of the Central Asian republics, which interpenetrate and wrap themselves around one another, reflects Stalin’s policy of redrawing the borders to ensure that each major ethnic group was split between several different republics, and only had a bare majority in the republic that actually bore its name. Then the Communist Party recruited heavily from the leading clans of the majority nationality in each republic, who were generally willing to cooperate in order to secure their social position among their own people and their ethnic group’s political domination over the others.

It was a classic colonial policy of divide-and-rule, designed to hold down the Muslim provinces of the old Russian empire that had all rebelled against Moscow during the civil war after the October Revolution of 1917. It worked well for seventy years under the Soviet Union, and it has largely continued to work in the post-Soviet era, both in the sense that the same people stayed in power and that they stayed close to Moscow.

Freed from the discipline of the Communist Party since 1991, many of the leaders have grown deeply corrupt and a few (like Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who has taken to renaming the months and the days of the week after members of his family) have turned downright megalomaniacal. They deal with democratic opposition by the same secret police methods that worked in Soviet times, and claim that anybody who opposes their rule is an Islamist terrorist.

And not one of them faces imminent overthrow. Kyrgyzstan was different from the start because Askar Akayev was not a lifelong apparatchik, but a physicist who was chosen president by the first freely elected Kyrgyz parliament in 1991. Kyrgyzstan is also extremely poor, without oil, gas or valuable minerals (apart from a single gold mine that provides 40 percent of the country’s exports), so it has not attracted the same influx of foreign money and is significantly less corrupt.

Kyrgyzstan’s revolution may succeed, although the conflict that underlies it is partly based on clan and region and could tumble into something quite ugly. But it has virtually nothing to do with events far to the west in Georgia and Ukraine, let alone far to the south in Iraq — and the likelihood that it will spread to the other Stans is very, very low.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Observers…end”; “It was…Moscow”)