Warsaw: An Old City

Names of cities evoke images. These pictures are usually connected with memories. Warsaw had reminded me of the Cold War. For my sister it means Polish dolls that she had played with as a girl. The images can only be replaced by new ones, if you visit a place. So it did in my case. We drove nearly 600 km due east from Berlin to reach Warsaw in about 4 hours. It took Hitler’s armies five weeks to occupy Poland in September 1939 to begin the Second World War. Warsaw is now part of the NATO and the EU. It is also integrated within the Schengen system of open borders but it has not accepted Euro as the common European currency. It still hold on to its Zloty.

Warsaw is an old city that has seen a lot of turbulence in the past. It has been occupied and reoccupied and it has witnessed uprisings and risings against forces of occupation. It gave its name to the military alliance created by the USSR to counter NATO. The USSR imploded last century but Russia is now resurgent and is not happy with either the NATO expansion eastward nor with the deployment of the US missile shield in their country. I saw a small demonstration outside a military HQ against NATO. I also saw a small honor guard marching to the tomb of the unknown soldier. They were not goosestepping!

The most famous Pole of modern times has undoubtedly been Pope John Paul II. The first non-Italian to occupy the highest seat in Roman Catholic Christendom.  The other person grabbing headlines during the end of the Cold War was Lech Walesa, the port worker in port city of Gdansk. Poland unlike many other European countries has not been a colonial power. Its coastline is too small in comparison but it has produced many men and women of knowledge.  Copernicus, the astrologist that first came to the conclusion that all the planets revolve around the sun in our universe was a Pole. Also Marie or Maria Curie who discovered the elements Polonium (named after her native Poland) and Radium; and the phenomenon of radioactivity was a Pole. Curie was the first woman and indeed the first scientist to have been twice awarded a Nobel Prize in two different subjects. A small statue overlooking the banks of the River Vistula. Across the Vistula is the famous zoo that is the centerpiece of the recently released movie The Zookeeper’s Wife.

While in Warsaw, it is a must to see the old city with its amazing square and churches and spires. Despite the fact that Poland during the Cold War was a part of the religion-less system, it now appears to be a deeply religious society. Religious symbols are everywhere. One interesting piece of information that I found towards one end of the square was the pictorial history of the Poles, who went to Manchuria towards the beginning of the twentieth century to establish factories, businesses and yes spread religion.

If you are in Poland, you must sample their dumplings or pierogi. You can ask for one with vegetable filling. If you are on a budget, you can survive by taking your meals at a milk bar or bar mleczny. Food is relatively inexpensive in Poland and so is petrol but if you’re travelling on the main road be advised that you’d be frequently required to pay toll. The public toilets are neat and well maintained but people do not speak English and you rarely find any instruction or information in any language other than Polish. Incidentally the Polish language does not sound remotely close to either to English or German.

If you enjoy travelling do visit Warsaw or other places in Poland like Krakow.marie curie

 

 

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Portugal

There is a distinct possibility that I might have been writing this blog in Portuguese instead of English. That is if the Portuguese had not restricted themselves to their coastal holdings in Cochin and Goa and had decided to move inland. They had ‘discovered’ India before the English. Vasco de Gama set sail for India in 1497. This was even before the Moghuls arrived in the subcontinent. Remember Babar, the first Moghul defeated Sultan Ibraheem Lodhi in the battle of Panipat in 1526. Fortunately or unfortunately the Portuguese decided to build their colonial empire in South America and where they successfully destroyed the ancient civilization of the indigenous people with the Spanish conquistadors and replaced it with their religion and culture. The English did much the same in our parts of the world. Portugal held on to its colony in Goa till 1960, when they were forcibly evicted by the Indians. This long toehold in India allowed the Portuguese to leave their mark in the shape of their brand of cuisine, names and their particular form of Roman Catholicism. Cyril Almeida, the journalist better known for the infamous Dawn leaks carries a Portuguese name.

There were a number of reasons to visit Portugal besides being the birthplace of Vasco de Gama. It is also the native country of António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, the new UN Secretary General and I believe that my second term roommate Christopher Khalid Saleem was also a Goan Christian. Army was not Christopher’s calling and had decided to call quits. So he did against his mother’s wishes and went back to Karachi. Once he sent me a box full of old books purchased from the thriving old book bazaar in Karachi but thereafter we moved on our separate paths and there has been no contact ever since.

Back to Portugal, our daughter, who had traveled to Portugal and written a travelogue that was widely read and appreciated had booked us in the Belem House in Lisbon, a bread and breakfast joint owned by Mavilde, a sixty five year old pensioner. The landlady and her husband Julio, a retired economist were on hand to receive us. Both spoke good English and explained to us the various facilities that their House had to offer. It was a good place. Two rooms, a lounge, kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen had modern gadgets and was stocked with the minimum essential groceries. The place was well located in the district of Belem and was near a number of places such as the monastery, the monument of discovery and the Belem Tower.  The River Tagus is just a walk away.  A ferry ride on a moonlit night was magical to say the least. The other rides to remember in Lisbon was on the iconic number 28 tram that chugs up through the narrow alleyways to the Castelo Sao Jorge. The return journey to Belem on a tuk tuk was also fun. The rickshaw driver, a man with a pony tail claimed that the ride was funny but safe.

We went to Sintra by taxi that cost us 25 Euros. The hill town was shrouded in early morning mist that gives it a magical touch. The mist was not a onetime phenomenon but happens every day and is marketed in the postcards showing the mist clad Pinela Palace. The most exotic sight in Sintra is the Moor’s castle high up on the mountain. A bus ride through narrow roads gives you a chance to visit four historic sites in the small but extremely pretty city. Portugal was part of the Iberian empire that was ruled by the Arabs for 800 years.   The kingdom of Granada fell in 1492. All the Muslims were converted to Christianity and officially none remained after 1501. It was around the time that the Portuguese had landed in India.

Porto in the north was also on our itinerary. It is famous for the Port wine but for me personally it was the Livraria Lehlo that was fascinating. This library is small when compared to Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad but is known for its exquisite woodwork. It is also the place, where JK Rowling sat and wrote the first Harry Potter novel. She taught in the Porto University next door. The students still wear capes that was the uniform that Rowling gave to the students of Hogwarts.

Portugal has been part of the EU since 1975 but now has an ailing economy but suffice is to say it has thriving tourism.FB-Sintra-Castle-of-the-Moors-Sintra-Portugal


Victoria Park by night

A half-moon hung low in the sky casting a diffused light on the victory monument on the hill in Victoria Park. The environment was surreal as people barely visible in the low light cast semi shadows in the semi darkness that covered the steps surrounding the Gothic800px-Berlin-Kreuzberg_Postkarte_079 structure. In the pleasant summer evening a number of people were lying or sitting hidden from public-gaze gazing out at the sprawling city of Berlin. In the distance the TV tower, the monument that the East Germans had erected to celebrate their technology, emerged from the darkness as a symbol of a bygone era.

In this twilight zone, when everything was not clearly visible, the monument to victory stood out pointing to the sky. The cast iron monument of 1821 was dedicated by King Fredrick William III of Prussia to the liberation wars fought at the end of the War of the Sixth Coalition against France in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. It provides an excellent viewpoint over much of the central and southern portions of the city. In summer an artificial waterfall originates at the foot of the monument and continues down the hillside to the intersection of Großbeerenstraße and Kreuzbergstraße. A historic wine-growing area, today the park is neighboring two small vineyards, one in the northeast founded in 1968 and owned by the Senate of Berlin and cultivated by the adjacent market garden, the other one established in summer 2006 within the Victoria Quarter on the southern slope of the Kreuzberg Hill.

The waterfall was given a trial run for the first time on 14 October 1893. Gas motors in a neighboring machine house (now the venue hall of the restaurant in the Villa Kreuzberg, the former engineer’s home, an ensemble built 1892–1893) pumped up the water. Since summer 1894 13,000 L (2,900 imp gal) per minute are cascading the 24 m (79 ft) down to the small lower pond. Between 1898 and the First World War the waterfall was electrically illuminated at night shining in light resembling Bengal fire. However, the operation of the waterfall was interrupted between 1914 and 1935, and again 1938 and 1961. On the occasion of the festive days firemen re-flooded the idle waterfall for one day on 19 August 1955 by pumping the water uphill with their firefighting devices replacing the war-ravaged pump house.

Since 1949 the annual late summer funfare Kreuzberger Festliche Tage (Kreuzberg festive days, founded as Kreuzberg-Festwoche, i.e. Kreuzberg festival week) is held in the park, accompanied by more events also in other locations. In August 1953 a memorial stone was added in honor of the victims of the communist suppression of the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany. In November 1958 the smashed southern edge of the socket octagon was reconstructed again.

Today the Victoria Park on a warm autumn night reminds you of the ghosts of the past.


Pakistan at 70: Whither Good Leadership?

There is no gainsaying the fact that without the visionary and charismatic leadership of the founder of the nation Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah the dream of an independent country would have been impossible. It is difficult to imagine that a person so frail of physique could have singlehandedly achieved a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. One can gauge his vision from the fact that having pleaded his case on the basis of two separate nations, he was quick to add at the eve of independence that he wanted an inclusive homeland, where everyone was free to practice his or her faith. He had reassured everyone: “You’re free to go your mosques, you are free to go to your temples or any other place of worship that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

Today is Pakistan’s 70th birthday. Its detractors weren’t giving it 10 days let alone 70 years to survive. The country has come a long way from its early days. To begin with the challenges were grave. At the time of its birth its share of the army was spread all over the world and there was no single Muslim unit for the defence of the country. There was no industry, no trade and no trained manpower. Its share of money and weapons had been stopped. It was inundated by an unending stream of refugees. War had broken out in Kashmir and the British commander in chief of an independent Pakistan wasn’t willing to take the orders of the Quaid to support Pakistan defend its legitimate rights.

Looking back at these 70 years Pakistan’s has had its share of successes and failures. It lost half of its territory in just 25 years. It has been through wars, natural disasters and multiple political crises. The common thread visible throughout these upheavals has been a leadership that did not measure up upto the myriad challenges faced by the nation. Unfortunately after the Quaid’s death just one year after the birth of the nation, no one could replicate his standards of good leadership. The ship of state was allowed to flounder against the rocks that it encountered in its progress as an independent state.

Often but not always good leaders are an accident of history. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was one such leader. He was a messiah, truly a gift of God, who did what he was ordained for. This, however, begs the question whether it is the end for us? Are we such an unfortunate nation that we will remain bereft of good leadership even after 70 years? Such thoughts can lead to despondency? I don’t believe that we are fated to be ruled by third rate leaders. We can have our share of good leaders provide we have a long term plan for it. First and foremost we need to allow to the agreed system of governance to take root. Whatever, democratic norms that we have adopted for our country must be allowed to blossom and bear fruit. The early fruits may be bitter at first but eventually there would be sweeter crop that comes out if the system is allowed to filter out those not fit for leadership roles. The important thing is that the system of filtration should not be extra-constitutional. The Quaid was a constitutional lawyer per excellence. During his visit to the Staff College in Quetta he had reminded the military leadership of the oath that they had taken to protect the constitution. He was absolutely clear that if the country had to flourish there ought be no coups either military or judicial. Leadership like wine takes time to mature. So lets be patient and give time for a merit based leadership to emerge from an archaic and decadent system based on feudalism and dynastic rule.  Time is not far, when we will have our own Thomas Jeffersons and Abraham Lincolns.

 


New Globalization: The Asian Model

Recently a delegation of the Chinese Association of Social Sciences (CASS) visited our University in Islamabad. The visitors were given a thorough briefing. During the Q & A session, a high ranking Chinese lady, well conversant in English language, wanted to know about our opinion on the new globalization? A colleague, who is an economics professor gave an impromptu presentation. He said that indeed a new Asian model was emerging and that the existing one based on the Bretton Wood institutions such as IMF and the World Bank was on its way out. The new system he said would eventually be replaced by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). This, however, may take time. In the interim smaller countries like Pakistan would still be going to IMF to get loans. If the old institutions knows that their members were preparing to join the new system, they would crush them by lending money on very high rates. Therefore, he recommended the new Asian economic model of globalization should not be based on harsh lending rates because that would devastate emerging economies. The new economic world order he suggested should be more humane, in order to allow poor countries to prosper. The point was well taken.

There is no denying the fact that we are witnessing a great change in global leadership. It may still take time before a complete change takes place because of a number of reasons i.e. the US is still militarily the most powerful country on earth and its technology and education and the system of governance is still vastly superior to all its immediate competitors such as China and Russia. However, the writing is clearly on the wall. The US is a retreating power. The ascension of Donald Trump to the White House hasn’t helped matters. He is vastly unpopular at home and is under investigation by federal agencies for his alleged collusion with Russia to manipulate the results of the presidential elections. Cracks are also appearing between the whites and non-whites. The rally by the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia is a case in point. Abroad, the foreign policy challenges are not being addressed in a cogent and clearheaded manner. The showdown with North Korea, a poor country led by an unpredictable leader, does not behove a mighty country like the US. Trump’s response to Kim ICBM plans has spiked tensions. Threats such as “you’ll witness fire and fury of the kind that he has not witnessed before” and that all his “weapons are loaded and locked to fire” is a very dangerous trend of saber rattling that can endanger the international peace. The policy on Afghanistan remains unclear and Trump’s advisers have yet to give him policy options that would allow a face saving exit. All this is weakening the American hold on the global leadership. So we are seeing is the emergence of a new world order in which the global leadership would shift from North America and Europe to Asia.

It is a time of great circumspection. The new global leaders should not blindly follow the capitalist norms. The new world order should be based on ancient wisdom of the East. It should be based on integrating all nations of the world. The resources of the poor countries should not be exploited mercilessly by powerful nations without making them a stakeholder in the profits earned. The harsh lending system should be replaced by one that encourages the poor countries to not become entangled in a vicious debt trap. Instead they should be encouraged to stand on their own feet and through prudent economic policies build their economies that will help them integrate with the global economy seamlessly. This is not a Utopian model and it has all the chances of success.


In search of Col Mehboob Ahmed

0bae700e148c9ad2f326faafae38d5ca--azad-hind-colonial-indiaWhen I was commissioned into the famous 7 Frontier Force Regiment in October 1976, I was quite overwhelmed by its rich history and traditions. Raised by Captain John Coke on 18 May 1849, a few years before the war of independence of 1857, the ‘paltan’ had come a long way from being part of a mercenary army to a truly nationalistic one. It fought with distinction in the first Kashmir War in 1948 and was rushed to hold the line in Lahore and Sialkot in the 1965 War. One of its officers earned a sitara-i-juraat for gallantry in East Pakistan in the 1971 war. In the early 1990s it would have the honour to be the first battalion in the world to land in war torn Mogadishu as part of the UN operations in Somalia (UNOSOM). In recent times it has had multiple tenures of duty in the restive tribal areas.

As a young subaltern I spent many happy hours browsing through the regimental history and going through the sepia photographs in the well preserved regimental albums. Making my way around the ante room of the officer’s mess in Multan I would look wonder struck at the regimental silver and the photographs adorning the walls. One photograph of the officers of the unit on the eve of war in Malaya showed one incongruous native officer, among a bunch made up entirely British men. The name below said he was Second Lieutenant Mehboob Ahmed. “Who is he and where did he go?” I remembered asking Rahman, the old waiter, who had served with the battalion in Malaya. “He remained behind in India and became an ambassador.” I never probed any further but something didn’t add up e.g. why didn’t he re-join the unit and why did he opt for India. The battalion had become prisoners of war in the Far East early in the Second World War. The British officers had been employed to construct what was known as the death railway to connect Burma with Thailand. Most of the Indian soldiers had joined the Indian national Army of Subhash Chandra Bose. Second Lieutenant Mehboob Ahmed was lost. He didn’t find any mention in the regimental history and wasn’t there, when the unit was re-raised after the war in 1945 in Rawalpindi. Something did not add up.

As I read more about military history I discovered about the Indian National Army (INA) and the charismatic personality Netaji (the leader) Subhash Chandra Bose. Bose, a leading Congress politician from Bengal had escaped from captivity in Calcutta and made his way first to Germany and later to Japan.  He had raised the Azad Hind Fauj or the Indian National Army from among the Indian prisoners of war held in captivity by the Japanese. One thing distinct about the INA soldiers was that their cause defied religion, cast and creed. Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians were all joined together by their overwhelming desire to liberate India from the British. Unfortunately, after the War they found themselves to be on the losing side and once again became prisoners. The famous trials held in the Red Fort in Delhi made them a cause celebre among Indian nationalists. The British sensing that their end was near cashiered them from service. The armies of independent India and Pakistan were loath to rehabilitate their comrades, who had joined INA because they had defied their oath to the King and the Empire.

So much for INA, where did Mehboob Ahmed go? By a stroke of luck an acquaintance, whose passion is to research about freedom fighters belonging to the Ghadr party and INA gave me a photocopied autobiography of one Colonel Mehboob Ahmed, who was the military secretary to Netaji. The book is a fascinating account of Mehboob Ahmed for his love of his country and for his adulation of Bose.  Nowhere in the book does he mention the time he spent in his British unit but he clearly recounts his defection in Malaya. He recalls in detail INA’s military campaign in Burma and Netaji leading from the front. It is poignant and moving to read his refusal to believe that Bose had been killed in an air crash. Towards the end Mehboob Ahmed appears to be disillusioned man because an independent India had not lived upto his expectations.

Last summer I checked into the British Archives in Kew Gardens in London to look for Mehboob Ahmed. My search yielded no results. First I was told to go to the British India Library, where all records of the erstwhile British Indian Army had been transferred but again I turned a blank. I was then told by the archivist that I should try the South Block in New Delhi, where all accounts of the Indian officers reside. With the kind of relations that our two countries have, I’ve momentarily put my urge to write to the Indian Army on hold.

All that I know about Second Lieutenant Mehboob Ahmed of 1/13 FF Rifles (now 7FF) and Colonel Mehboob Ahmed of INA is that in 1945 he was the military secretary to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. In 1946 Captain SK Sinha (later Lt Gen and governor of Assam and Jammu & Kashmir) met him in a PoW camp in Insein jail in Rangoon. He had known Mehboob Ahmed from his hometown Patna. He recalls Mehboob being very proud of having fought for India’s Independence and he considered those fighting for the British as mercenaries. He was inspired by Netaji’s personality and worshiped him immensely. After the infamous INA trials held at Red Fort, Mehboob was freed and was given a hero’s welcome in Patna.

In 1972, Mahboob Ahmed, then a senior official of the ministry of external affairs deposed before the Khosla Commission and stated the Japanese respected Bose and their common interest was to evict the British from India. In 1991 Mehboob Ahmed gave an interview to Sugata Bose, a relative of Subhash Chandra Bose for his book His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle against Empire. If by any chance Col Mehboob Ahmed is alive today he must be a very old man. If he has passed away, perhaps he lies buried somewhere in his native Patna. I hope he is at peace with himself for having fought for the right cause.

 


Pitfalls of the Social Media

There are always two sides of the coin. This is particularly true for technology. There are obvious uses and utilities of the social media. It has to a very large extent empowered the ordinary folks to send their messages across to a very large audience. This liberty in some cases is being used to spread hatred and disinformation.

I have been added by friends, relatives and colleagues to become a member of a number of Whatsapp groups. I thought these sites would provide like minded people to catch up on news about each other and be a support system, when one was down in the dumps or needed genuine help or sincere advice. Unfortunately this is not the case. Most of these places spread negativity at a lightning speed. The rumor mills works effortlessly to spread false information, once a message becomes viral on social media. Many if not most of these messages spread baseless and useless information through unwitting accomplices. The purpose of these messages is mostly to spread hatred and disharmony. Packaged in a subtle and convincing manner, these appeal to political, sectarian and moral senses to those on the social media. When these messages strike the sympathetic chord, sensible people do not even take a nanosecond to pass on second hand information without verifying the veracity or source of these messages. Most of this recycled information has been planted in the first instance with sinister motives and apparently sensible people become part of these campaigns.

I’ve tried my best to leave some of these groups but caring and sometimes concerned friends have very sympathetically added me right back thinking that I had accidentally left and did not do so on purpose. To be frank, I do not have the gumption to tell them real reason for my departure. In a final act of surrender I’ve become a silent spectator of the goings on in the morbid spaces of social media.  The most I do now is to clear chat, as soon as I find the thread become too large for the memory of my smartphone.

The Government in power is afraid of the propaganda launched on the social media to expose its wrongdoings. In desperation it threatens to prosecute those behind these campaigns under the Prevention of Cyber Crimes Act of 2015. Cyber rights activists have crusaded against the indiscriminate application of these laws and have been to a large extent been able to win some important concessions. Threats of incarceration hasn’t stopped trolling or harassment in cyberspace.

There is a need to sensitize the users of the social media to act as responsible citizens in cyberspace. The state, the people’s representatives. Opinion-makers, the clergy, the role models, teachers and parents all have a role to play. Everyone is a stakeholder. Sometimes the messages being uploaded are striking against the very vitals of the state and our family values and ethics. Rules of the game have to be defined and all concerned must be asked to abide by these. Group admins should not moderate the conversation and under no circumstances be allowed unsubstantiated information to be uploaded on groups that they’re managing.  If they are not careful in their responsibility they’re party to the crime and last but not least they should learn not to add anyone without his or her consent.

We need to act before it is too late!