Do Walls Matter?

india-plans-great-wall-along-kashmir-border-1385243419-7890India is constructing a ten feet high wall across the 197 kilometer long Line of Control (LOC) in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The wall, a strong embankment, will be in addition to the fenced wire that was constructed by the Indians about ten years ago. Pakistan’s permanent representative in the United Nations Dr Maleeha Lodhi has raised a complaint against the wall because this piece of architecture will make the LOC a de facto boundary between Indian and Pakistani controlled Kashmir. Pakistan considers this a crude way of settling a long outstanding dispute. Relations have steadily deteriorated between India and Pakistan. They have come a long way since the Musharraf formula of 2006 that sought to make the LOC irrelevant and make it porous, encouraging trade and free movement of Kashmiris from both sides at selected points.

Ever since Naraendra Modi took over as the prime minister of India in May 2014, he behavior towards Pakistan has been very aggressive, to say the least. The construction of the wall appears to be another combative action to browbeat Pakistan. The cocky Indian stance has no doubt been spurred by two developments. One, was the joint statement issued at the end of the sixth annual India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue. Second, is the statement made by the leading Republican candidate Donald Trump saying that the US would use India to keep Pakistan in check. The plan to build the Kashmir Wall must have been in the works for quite some time and certainly predates the developments cited above.

The strategic dialogue led by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and US Secretary of State John F. Kerry had a separate joint declaration highlighting Washington and New Delhi’s shared terrorism concerns. Specific mention was made about al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D-Company (this is a patently Indian construct for Dawood Ibrahim – the Bombay don allegedly hiding in Karachi or Dubai) and the Islamic State or  Daesh. The statement also condemned two recent terrorist attacks in India (in Gurdaspur and Udhampur). It also referenced “continuing efforts to finalize a bilateral agreement to expand intelligence sharing and terrorist watch-list information.”

Now what good are walls? Can they prevent infiltration of terrorists or keeping people apart or defending a territory? I don’t think that is the case.

In the first decade of the century the Indians spent billions of rupees to erect a barbed wired fence along the LOC. This fence was extended to cover the entire length of the international border. More money was spent to light the fence. An air traveler can now clearly discern the border between India and Pakistan brightly lit during the night. Such measures are only temporary and makeshift and cannot stop any person determined to cross this hurdle. Military walls like the Maginot Line and the Barlev Line and for that matter the Great Wall of China proved ineffectual to stop invasions. The Maginot Line, a fortified embankment with weapon nests constructed by the French was bypassed by the blitzkrieging German Panzers in the opening gambit of the Second World War. The Israeli Barlev Line along the Suez Canal was stormed by assaulting Egyptian infantrymen and Special Forces and the high and mighty Chinese Great Wall (visible even from the moon) could not keep the Ming dynasty safe. The Berlin Wall couldn’t prevent determined East Germans from fleeing to the West. It was ultimately demolished brick by brick by jubilant Germans as the East German collapsed in 1991. The Israelis have constructed a number of walls and fences to keep the Palestinians hemmed in the Gaza strip and the West Bank but arms, ammunition and essential utilities are still smuggled in.

This summer Fortress Europe crumbled as refugees fleeing their homelands in the troubled Middle East hit the beaches after risking their lives and limbs in rickety boats. So no walls are only temporary measures. These can keep people separated or enforce historical wrongs. They have a shelf life and can never be permanent.

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Pilgrimage and Tragedy

hajj_stoning_300x220.apPilgrimage 1436AH/2015CE has been struck by twin tragedies. The first one happened at the very beginning of the Haj rites, when a heavy construction crane fell in the Grand Mosque in Makkah killing about a hundred people. The next one took place, when the faithful were stoning the Satans in Mina. This time the toll was much higher. Hundreds were killed and many more were injured. The first one may be attributed to some technical flaw. The official explanation blamed gale force winds that caused the crane to crash and kill all those who came in the way. The second accident happened due to a stampede that may have been caused because some pilgrims going against the human traffic.

Haj management has improved over the years. In previous years when tents catching fire due to cooking stoves and stampedes were the norm. Saudi government has made all efforts to streamline the haj facilities e.g. no cooking is permitted in the camps and the stoning of the devil is done from different levels and only one way traffic flow is allowed. Deaths during Haj are something that cannot be prevented. This year alone over 3 million performed haj. Many of them are old and infirm, particularly those hailing from the South Asian subcontinent and are not ideally suited to withstand the rigors of the physical activity that is part of the pilgrimage. Many actually want to die and be buried on hallowed grounds. Sometime this death wish can acquire the urgency of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After the heavy casualties during this haj season, I am sure the haj managers and the Saudi government will review its procedures and make a thorough audit of why things went wrong and how it can be prevented in the future. I feel any improvement in future haj plan should also include suggestions from the common pilgrim. A random selection of hajis from across the Muslim world would provide good inputs. I feel that VIPs get an infinitely better deal the common pilgrim, therefore, there is a need to listen to him/her.

There is also a need for more technological solutions for avoiding disasters e.g. mobile phone applications can be developed for the hajis that can tell them about potential traffic jams at the places for stoning or even during circumambulation around the holy Kaaba and while walking briskly and running between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa in the tradition of Hagar (Hajra the wife of Prophet Abraham). Reuniting lost Hajis with their families can also be done through technological means. Preventing jams and stampedes is a major challenge for any operation of the scale of Haj. Logistics such as providing food and water to the pilgrims has been mastered to a great detail but the movement of hajis from one place to another has not. A train service has been launched but it has met with mixed results so far.

Meanwhile it is interesting to note that the Pope while addressing the US Congress has advised the congressmen to accept immigrants with open arms. In contrast the khutba at Arafat did mention the deviants at large and in Yemen in particular but there was no mention of the tragedy that has forced many Muslims from Syria, Afghanistan and even Pakistan to flee to Europe in search for better life by risking life and limb during the perilous journey across wilderness and sea, at the mercy of the human smugglers and the elements of nature.


The Cost of 1965 War

6 September 2015 is being celebrated across Pakistan as the golden jubilee anniversary of the Pakistani defence of the homeland against Indian aggression. The day has been marked by special supplements in the newspapers, remembrance programs on the television, two minutes silence in the morning to commemorate the martyrs of the war and a spectacular air display in the capital city. Thousands of citizens watched with bated breath as jet fighters performed aerobatic rolls and pull ups at supersonic speeds.

For me it has been a day of serious reflection. My father was an officer in the air force and I witnessed the 1965 war first hand as a child at an air force base. It seemed a lot of fun then as we heard sirens wailing and sitting in trenches for the duration of the air raids, which used to take place it seemed on fixed hours at dawn and dusk. Most of the time, the Indian pilots were in a rush to dispense with the bombs they were carrying and to rush back to the safety of their own air space that they rarely found their targets. Once they did hit some houses in the vicinity of the Peshawar air base leaving behind some injured people cursing them for their poor marksmanship.

Much later I served in the armed forces. My career stretched over better part of four decades. I did not participate in any full-fledged war but I had my share of excitement and rush of adrenaline as I experienced enemy bullets fired from across the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir. I was also part of a number of military mobilizations in anticipation of a war. After so many years as a citizen of the country and as a former soldier, I wonder what indeed are the takeaways from the 1965 War?

The war that we celebrate as the good war was preceded by an infiltration across the LOC. The purpose of the so-called Operation Gibraltar was to defreeze the Kashmir issue, which the political leadership felt was losing significance. It is widely believed in Pakistan that General Ayub Khan was led up the garden path by the hawkish foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had convinced him that such an enterprise would remain localised and would not be responded to by the Indian army across the international border. One wonders if Ayub Khan was so naïve that he was so easily duped by his youthful minister. Bhutto would later unseat him from power by leading a popular agitation against the so-called sell out at Tashkent. The general populace was led to believe that the agreement brokered by the Soviets between Pakistan and India was a betrayal to the blood of the martyrs. It was surmised that Shastri died in Tashkent after the declaration was announced because he couldn’t contain his happiness for getting from Pakistan what he could not on the battlefield.

The infiltration in Kashmir by irregulars supported by Pakistan had predictable results. The Indians first responded in occupied Kashmir by occupying the Haji Pir Pass and Kargil. The infiltrators couldn’t convince the unprepared Kashmiris to raise lashkars for mounting a freedom movement. Indian army launched a scorched earth policy and were soon able to evict or round up most of the infiltrators. Operation Grand Slam was mounted to balance the situation. Pakistani armor crossed the working boundary to occupy Chamb and moved towards Akhnur. The operation lost momentum after initial successes because of an operational pause to allow a mysterious change of command to take place. After all this noise and fury in the Kashmir Valley and Jammu, international actors including the UN called for restraint. This, however, gave the Indians enough reason to launch a multipronged offensive across the international border towards Sialkot and Lahore. Pakistani forces were caught unaware but as an equally tentative Indian advance guard stopped within stone throw of Lahore, Pakistan was able to recover and put a strong defence. This is where the courage of the soldier and the initiative of the junior officer came to the fore and resulted in saving the country. A counter offensive by Pakistani 1st armored division petered out, when the logistics failed to keep pace with tanks that had debouched from the bridgehead and had raced past Khem Karan. At nightfall the tanks pulled back into the leaguers for replenishment, allowing the Indian defenders to flood the paddy fields making it impossible for the tanks to advance any further.

During the 1965 War, the nation was gripped by a patriotic fervor. Soul stirring patriotic songs sung by the legendary Noor Jahan and Mehdi Hasan were produced and played to exhort the soldier to stand fast and to pay tribute to his incomparable courage and valor. The masses rooted for their armed forces and lapped up each word that the government controlled radio and the press said about stunning victories. Kashmir seemed within the grasp of the freedom fighters. In all this show of patriotism, what did not become immediately visible was the reaction of the East Pakistani. The policy of the defence of East lies in the West brought home the reality to the people in East Pakistan that they were actually left to fend for themselves. This became the beginning of the six points propagated by the Awami League, in which inter alia they demanded the right to raise militias to defend themselves. In six short years the Bengalis would secede from West Pakistan because they sincerely felt that the West Pakistani leaders were not sincere to them and that the defence of Lahore meant more to them than the welfare and prosperity of the eastern wing.

Kashmir cause was indeed briefly revived but mostly it was a losing battle on the diplomatic and political front. American aid was suspended and the Kashmir issue lost appeal with countries that mattered. Pakistan was no longer a dependable ally and its image as a progressive country among the Muslim nations lost its sheen. Pakistan’s economy that was experiencing a remarkable growth lost steam and spluttered as the costs of war mounted. The 1971 war would put paid to Pakistan’s ambition of becoming the leading nation in Asia.

There is no gainsaying the fact that whereas, the soldier rose to the occasion in 1965, the national leadership grossly failed to achieve the desired results. It had not reckoned with an attack across the international border. It was not prepared for the costs of the infiltration in Kashmir. It had no appetite for a prolonged war. The actual war lasted only 17 days and the government heaved a sigh of relief once the ceasefire took place because of the intervention of the great powers.  The trust of the East Pakistanis was lost forever and became one of the reasons that they decided to go their separate way. The Kashmir issue lost its genuineness in the UN and other international fora. Pakistan could never recover economically from the aftereffects of the war.

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Porus – The Forgotten Hero

It is so sad that we have failed to give true place in our history to Puru (Porus to the Greek), who fought Alexander of Macedon. We have instead through the years idolized the European invader. Not only that there was once upon a time some talk about letting the Greeks build a monument for Alexander on the banks of Jhelum. I doubt if the Greeks have any money to build any monuments. About Porus, the son of the soil our attitude has been mostly hostile and none of our historians have made any effort to set the record straight. In the Indian movie Sikander produced by Sohrab Modi (Modi plays the role of Porus) and released in 1941, the only concession given to Porus is the famous dialogue he delivers, when he is produced in shackles before Alexander: “Treat me as a defeated king should be treated by the victor.” Some took this as Porus’s desire to be killed. Even in this poignant scene, the Indian king is depicted as the loser and the European (played by the dashing Prithviraj Kapoor – the patriarch of the famous Kapoor clan of Bollywood), the gracious winner, who sets the defeated local satrap free. Interestingly though the British were so frightened that this film that coincided with the onset of World War II may arouse patriotic fervor against a foreign invader that they banned it from some of the theatres serving British Indian Army cantonments.

Western historians have gone to great lengths in portraying Alexander’s invasion of India as a brilliant and methodical occidental victory over the disorganized orient. Recently, a friend provided me material throwing a fresh light on the encounter between Porus and Alexander. He quotes Marshal Gregory Zhukov, the famous Red Army general, who stopped the German Army in its tracks as it made bold inroads across the Russian steppes during the Second World War. In 1957, while addressing the cadets of the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, Zhukov said Alexander’s actions after the Battle of Hydaspes suggest he had suffered an outright defeat. In his view, Alexander’s setback in India was greater than Napoleon’s in Russia. Only 30,000 of out of 600,000 soldiers comprising Napoleon’s invasion force survived and out of these fewer than 1,000 were ever able to return to duty. Axiomatically, therefore, if Zhukov was comparing Alexander’s campaign in India to Napoleon’s disaster, the Macedonians and Greeks must have retreated in an equally ignominious fashion. Zhukov would know a fleeing force if he saw one; he had chased the German Army over 2000 km from Stalingrad to Berlin.

In 326 BCE a formidable army led by Alexander of Macedon invaded India. Comprising battle hardened Macedonian soldiers, Greek cavalry, Balkan fighters and Persians allies, it numbered more than 41000 fighting men. Their most memorable clash was at the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) against the army of Porus, the ruler of the Paurava kingdom of western Punjab. For more than 25 centuries it was believed that Alexander’s forces defeated the Indians. Greek and Roman accounts say the Indians were bested by the superior courage and stature of the Macedonians. Two millennia later, British historians latched on to Alexander legend and described the campaign as great western triumph. Although Alexander defeated only a few minor kingdoms in India’s northwest, in the view of many gleeful colonial writers the conquest of India was complete. In reality much of the country was not even known to the Greeks. So handing victory to Alexander is like describing Hitler as the conqueror of Russia because the Germans advanced up to Stalingrad.

Alexander’s troubles began as soon as he crossed into what constitutes modern day Pakistan. He first faced resistance in the Kunar, Swat, Buner and Peshawar valleys, where the Aspasioi and Assakenoi, known in Hindu texts as Ashvayana and Ashvakayana, stopped his advance. Although small by Indian standards they did not submit before Alexander’s army. The Assakenoi offered stubborn resistance from their mountain strongholds of Massaga, Bazira and Ora. The bloody fighting at Massaga was a prelude to what awaited Alexander in India. On the first day after bitter fighting the Macedonians and Greeks were forced to retreat with heavy losses. Alexander himself was seriously wounded in the ankle. On the fourth day the king of Massaga was killed but the city refused to surrender. The command of the army went to his old mother, which brought the entire women of the area into the fighting. Realizing that his plans to storm India were going down at its very gates, Alexander called for a truce. The Assakenoi agreed; the old queen was too trusting. That night when the citizens of Massaga had gone off to sleep after their celebrations, Alexander’s troops entered the city and massacred the entire citizenry. A similar slaughter then followed at Ora.

The fierce resistance put up by the Indian defenders sapped the strength and the confidence of the Macedonian army. In his entire conquering career, the hardest encounter that Alexander came across was at the Battle of Hydaspes, in which he faced king Porus of Paurava, a small but prosperous Indian kingdom on the river Jhelum. Porus is described in Greek accounts as standing seven feet tall. In May 326 BCE, the European and Paurava armies faced each other across the banks of the Jhelum. By all accounts it was an awe-inspiring spectacle. The 34,000 Macedonian infantry and 7000 Greek cavalry were bolstered by the Indian king Ambhi, who was Porus’s rival. Ambhi was the ruler of the neighboring kingdom of Taxila and had offered to help Alexander on condition he would be given Porus’s kingdom.

Facing this tumultuous force led by the genius of Alexander was the Paurava army of 20,000 infantry, 2000 cavalry and 200 war elephants. Being a comparatively small kingdom by Indian standards, Paurava couldn’t have maintained such a large standing army, so it’s likely many of its defenders were hastily armed civilians. Also, the Greeks habitually exaggerated enemy strength. According to Greek sources, for several days the armies eyeballed each other across the river. The Greek-Macedonian force after having lost several thousand soldiers fighting the Indian mountain cities, were terrified at the prospect of fighting the fierce Paurava army. They had heard about the havoc Indian war elephants created among enemy ranks. The modern equivalent of battle tanks, the elephants also scared the wits out of the horses in the Greek cavalry. Another terrible weapon in the Indian armory was the two-meter bow. As tall as a man it could launch massive arrows able to transfix more than one enemy soldier.

The battle was savagely fought in the vicinity of the ancient city of Bhera. As the volleys of heavy arrows from the long Indian bows scythed into the enemy’s formations, the first wave of war elephants waded into the Macedonian phalanx that was bristling with 17-feet long sarissas. Some of the animals got impaled in the process. Then a second wave of these mighty beasts rushed into the gap created by the first, either trampling the Macedonian soldiers or grabbing them with their trunks and presenting them up for the mounted Indian soldiers to cut or spear them. It was a nightmarish scenario for the invaders. As the terrified Macedonians pushed back, the Indian infantry charged into the gap.

In the first charge, by the Indians, Porus’s brother Amar killed Alexander’s favorite horse Bucephalus, forcing Alexander to dismount. Legend has it the Bucephalus is buried in the town of Phalia. This killing of the king’s charger was a big blow. In battles outside India the elite Macedonian bodyguards had not allowed a single enemy soldier to deliver so much as a scratch on their king’s body, let alone slay his mount. Yet in this battle Indian troops not only broke into Alexander’s inner cordon, they also killed Nicaea, one of his leading commanders.

According to the Roman historian Marcus Justinus, Porus challenged Alexander, who charged him on horseback. In the ensuing duel, Alexander fell off his horse and was at the mercy of the Indian king’s spear. But Porus dithered for a second and Alexander’s bodyguards rushed in to save their king. Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer, says there seems to have been nothing wrong with Indian morale. Despite initial setbacks, when their vaunted chariots got stuck in the mud, Porus’s army “rallied and kept resisting the Macedonians with unsurpassable bravery.”

Although the Greeks claim victory, the fanatical resistance put up by the Indian soldiers and ordinary people everywhere had shaken the nerves of Alexander’s army to the core. They refused to move further east. Nothing Alexander could say or do would spur his men to continue eastward. The army was close to mutiny. The Greek historian says after the battle with the Pauravas, the badly bruised and rattled Macedonians panicked when they received information further from Punjab lay places “where the inhabitants were skilled in agriculture, where there were elephants in yet greater abundance and men were superior in stature and courage.” Says Plutarch: “The combat with Porus took the edge off the Macedonians’ courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but 20,000 foot and 2000 horse into the field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander’s design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, on the further side of which was covered with multitudes of enemies.”

Indeed, on the other side of the Ganges was the mighty kingdom of Magadh, ruled by the wily Nandas, who commanded one of the most powerful and largest standing armies in the world. According to Plutarch, the courage of the Macedonians evaporated when they came to know the Nandas “were awaiting them with 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8000 war chariots and 6000 fighting elephants.” Undoubtedly, Alexander’s army would have walked into a slaughterhouse. Hundreds of kilometers from the Indian heartland, Alexander ordered a retreat to great jubilation among his soldiers.

The celebrations were premature. On its way south towards the sea, Alexander’s army was constantly harried by Indian partisans, republics and kingdoms. In a campaign at Sangla in Punjab, the Indian attack was so ferocious it completely destroyed the Greek cavalry, forcing Alexander to attack on foot. In the next battle, against the Malavs of Multan, he was felled by an Indian warrior whose arrow pierced the Macedonian’s breastplate and ribs. The wound was so severe that it put an end Alexander’s career as a fighting soldier. Lung tissue never fully recovers, and the thick scarring in its place made every breath cut like a knife. Alexander never recovered and died in Babylon (modern Iraq) at the age of 33.

porus elephants