Who are the barbarians?

27 Apr 2006


Prem Shankar JhaTo Indians who are basking in their new-found friendship with the United States, the warning issued to Mrs Sonia Gandhi by Nazim Syed Sarwar Chishti, the head of the Dargah at Ajmer Sharif, to stay clear of entanglement with the US, may have come as an annoying fly in the soup of their satisfaction.

Since Chishti coupled this with a plea to settle the Kashmir dispute, and since a similar plea was made by the head of the Dar ul Uloom in Deoband, they may be tempted to dismiss this as fresh evidence of the intrinsic unreliability of Indian Muslims and their willingness to do Pakistan's bidding. But before they jump to this conclusion let them pause a moment and consider who is making this plea and precisely what he is saying.

Both these luminaries have asserted, without the faintest qualification, that they consider Kashmir to be a part of India. And as Syed Sarwar Chishti reminded us, the Dargah at Ajmer is not only the most important Muslim shrine in the subcontinent, but is one the last of the great shrines where Hindus and Muslims still pray side by side. It is therefore the embodiment of a bone-deep secularism that the elites of India and Pakistan have now largely forgotten.

Their desire to see the Kashmir dispute settled stems not from any loyalty to Pakistan but from their awareness of what the end of hostility between Pakistan and India will mean for the 140 million Muslims of our country, and more generally, for Islam in South Asia. In fact there are no more fervent advocates of an emotional, if not political, reunion of the sub-continent.

Instead of dismissing their warnings and entreaties, the government would do well to understand what has agitated them so profoundly. There can be little doubt that it is the news now leaking out of the US, that Mr. Bush, who so entranced us in Delhi a few weeks ago, is seriously thinking of using nuclear weapons to destroy Iran's nuclear and other military facilities.

Reports that the Bush administration is preparing for a pre-emptive surgical strike on Iran's nuclear facilities have been surfacing for more than a year. The White House has dismissed this accusation, claiming that such planning is part of the war games that the Pentagon regularly plays. But the eminent American journalist Seymour Hersh has given details that cannot but chill our blood.

Planning for a pre-emptive strike has been going on at least since last October. This will be aimed not only at Iran' nuclear facilities but also at its airfields, its naval, missile and submarine bases and its power systems. The Bush administration seems to have convinced itself that one surgical strike will allow him to achieve all his aims — destroying Iran's nuclear potential, changing the regime, and installing a democratic successor, free of cost.

One former defence official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the Bush Administration, told Hersh that the military planning was premised on a belief that "a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government." He added, "I was shocked when I heard it, and asked myself, 'What are they smoking?' "

But the most fiendish part of the planning is that by degrees the administration is convincing itself that it has no option but to launch a 'surgical' nuclear strike. A principal target of the bombing has to be the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant which will be capable, when fully operational, of producing enough weapons grade uranium for 20 bombs a year. But Natanz is 75 feet below the earths' surface. So it can be 'taken out', to use the Amerians' anodyne euphemism, only by a tactical, bunker busting, nuclear weapon like the B61-11.

After a century of horror in which 'statesmen' consciously took decisions that resulted in the deaths of at least 200 million people, nine-tenths of whom were civilians, most of us have become so numbed by the daily toll of lives that we simply shrug such information aside and carry on with our lives. The Americans have done their best to anaesthetise us further with incessant claims that their strikes are surgical and kill very few civilians.

But anyone who has witnessed the films shot in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and knows that in 1991 when we were first introduced to the video game called War, 87 per cent of American bombs and missiles missed their targets and killed civilians, will know what a nuclear strike on Iran will mean.

The truth is that the US is preparing to cross the line that divides human beings from monsters. It has deliberately rebuffed every attempt by Iran to start a dialogue that will address its security concerns in exchange for cast iron safeguards against the production of weapons grade uranium. It has deliberately closed every avenue that Iran or the EU3 has suggested to end the head-on confrontation till surrender by Iran or war are the only options left.

According to Hersh's painstaking analysis, the US has also convinced itself that Iran will cave in. Now that this is not happening, it is quietly preparing to use the ultimate weapon against a defenceless people. And it is claiming that it is doing all this in the cause of world peace !

Bush may have fooled South Block. But he hasn't fooled the 140 million Muslims of our country. I am proud of them for having the courage to raise their voices.

* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.

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