About one year before 9/11, I brainstormed with some Indian and American scholars about commissioning a major study on the Taliban movement, its history and dynamics, and potential threats to South Asia. Thinking out loud, I articulated my worst-case hypothesis as follows: i. Pakistan’s ISI could become increasingly Talibanized. ii. A coup could put Pakistan under a Taliban theocracy. iii.Talibanization could then spread into India using a combination of spillover from Pakistan and India’s own Saudi-funded madrassas that use the same teaching curriculum as in Pakistan. iv. Consequently, there could emerge a Talibanized South and Southeast Asia, covering nearly 2 billion people, all the way from Afghanistan to Indonesia. These 2 billion people would be contiguous to the Middle East, forming one large crescent of Pan-Islam and including almost half of humanity.
My hypothesis was that such a scenario was plausible over the next 25 years, and, therefore, was worthy of academic examination. This brainstorm took place before General Musharraf seized power in Pakistan.
But scholars immediately dismissed this scenario as “preposterous” and “sensational,” calling it an outright “irresponsible” and “dangerous” topic of academic study. The Taliban movement and the Wahhabi ideology that fuels it remained blind spots for South Asian Studies scholars prior to 9/11.
On the other hand, Professor Akbar Ahmad, a former Pakistani diplomat, and now on the faculty at American University, was the first person to agree that this was a plausible scenario, and regretted that few else took it seriously. He also revealed that Mullah Omar of the Taliban had publicly articulated his ultimate goal of flying the Taliban’s flag on Delhi’s Red Fort, as a symbol of recreating the once mighty Mughal Empire.
Even after 9/11, the President of the American Academy of Religion ignored my suggestion that their RISA (Religions In South Asia) unit should research Wahhabism as a religious movement that had serious global consequences. However, one year later, many Western academic scholars and journalists (not in RISA) were publishing reports on the Taliban and Wahhabis, and these were well received.
One wonders why, prior to 9/11, scholars of South Asia failed to do any research on the Wahhabi/Taliban movements, and why even now they are finding it so painful to accept the extent of this danger. This topic has been taken up mainly by scholars of the Middle East, and is seen in the limited context of Middle Eastern politics, when, in fact, the epicenter has been in Pakistan-Afghanistan for almost two decades, and these are in South Asia. While the State Department could be excused for strategic blindness, what excuse do scholars claiming to be South Asian experts have for their ignorance?
For over a decade now, South Asian scholars have focused on the growth of Hindutva as their central plank in attacking India, but have not bothered to acknowledge the militaristic and globally threatening Wahhabi-Taliban movement. While dozens of conferences and books in South Asian Studies in the US focus on Hindutva problems, there is virtually no study available or conferences organized on the rise of Saudi-funded Wahhabism in all of South Asia, over the last two decades. This is sheer negligence, because the latter should likely be of far greater concern to the US than the former, which has no direct strategic conflict with America.
Since it has now become impossible to ignore the Wahhabi-Taliban movement, the scholars insist on depicting it as a reaction to Hindutva. To achieve this remarkable distortion, they equate Hindu violence that is within India, localized and upon provocation, with Islamic terrorism that is globalized and at the initiative of Islamists. The fact that these Islamic movements pre-date the rise of Hindutva by more than a decade has not prevented these scholars from constructing parallels between Islamic and Hindutva movements, and from rationalizing the Islamic violence as a reaction to Hindutva. (For the record, I am not a supporter of Hindutva politics, and my criticism is of the lack of academic rigor and blatant disregard for due process. South Asian scholars seem to be postulating backward causation in time!)
The result of this manipulation (done right under the nose of “peer reviews”) has been to dilute India’s negotiating power in pressuring Pakistan on cross-border terrorism, because a large number of Washington think tanks and their academic affiliates across the US have made sure that Islamic cross-border terrorism gets neutralized as a separate issue, and is seen alongside Hindutva nationalism. With friends like these, one does not need enemies.
Any US strategic plan for “controlled instability” in India would be a major blunder and could easily blow up in unimaginable ways. A destabilization of India would bring into the public theater the tens of thousands ofmadrassas in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, as suppliers of angry young men for jihad. Once set into motion, this avalanche would be unstoppable, and would acquire a life of its own. The consequences for the US would be far more dreadful than the security threats it faces already.
Given the cataclysmic nature of this risk, the burden of proof should shift to those exploiting the sociopolitical cleavages in India’s unity: They need to prove that such destabilizing pressures will not eventually result in the Talibanization of India. As past US strategies in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other places have proven, the game of destabilizing with the hope of also maintaining control is very dangerous and unachievable. It is similar to amateur scientists playing with a nuclear reactor hoping to keep it from blowing up.
Talibanization of South Asia
Indians are rightfully relishing the positive news on India’s economic front, but must not forget that Pakistan remains the world’s leading supplier of jihadi outsourcing. The macro trends are simultaneously accelerating in opposite directions: One trend is the high probability that India will succeed in rapid economic expansion using several knowledge industries — this is the positive scenario. In the opposite direction, there are political undercurrents, both external and internal, that point towards possible calamities (discussed below). While being overall optimistic about India, we should also take seriously the major threats it faces.
My hypothetical catastrophic scenario about India’s destabilization is based on examining various kinds of internal and external cleavages. The role of Hindutva politics in driving religious tensions has already been placed under extensive international spotlight. However, many of the human rights whistleblowers have a conflict-of-interest, because as part of the foreign-based network of activist-scholars they exploit divisiveness in dangerous ways.
They condemn Hindutva while turning a blind eye to insurgencies and other forms of communal violence within the subcontinent. Furthermore, scholars play critical roles, often under the garb of “human rights,” in channeling foreign intellectual and material support to exacerbate India’s internal cleavages. These include i. the insurgencies in Kashmir, Nepal (now spilling over to India), and northeast states, and ii. the separatist movements of Dalitistan, Dravidianism, Naxalism and others.
These cleavages are too easily dismissed by many Indian optimists, as manageable localized nuisances. However, besides seriously dampening India’s economic growth rates, these insurgencies are rapidly being exploited by foreign nexuses which sponsor armies of well-trained and well-funded Indian activist-scholars who operate via NGOs.
Foreign-funded NGOs in India are not to be confused with voluntary organizations in the West. India’s foreign-funded NGOs are to be seen more as private companies using grant money, hiring Westernized Indians at salaries that can be several times higher than average market rates in India.
Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands of voluntary organizations in India that are based on genuine local voices, but these are not given prominence by the media.
In addition to the internal cleavages, the following four kinds of potential calamities are inherently outside India’s control. If and when any two or three of them were to occur simultaneously, they would send shockwaves through the heart of India, threatening its sovereignty. At the very least, the crisis precipitated would cripple India’s economic progress, as markets would look for suppliers in other more stable countries.In the worst case, it could precipitate India’s breakup. These potential calamities outside India’s control are:
– A few consecutive years of bad monsoons, causing economic and socio-political havoc;
– All-out prolonged war with Pakistan (even conventional);
– The overthrow of Musharraf by pro-Taliban forces in collaboration with the notorious ISI;
– Trade war against India’s technology-driven exports, caused by estern labor and/or political backlashes combined with mismanagement of India’s brand.
If enough of the above four events were to occur at once, the separatist movements mentioned earlier could get activated with Indian-American sepoys abetting the process. This could tear India apart in a series of insurrections. I know of many desi scholars who would jump with glee that the revolution had finally arrived!
Therefore, US strategists must ask the following question: If India were to melt-down or balkanize into what many desi South Asianists celebrate as “sub-national” groups — i e separatist movements — what might be the broader geopolitical implications?
India divided into approximately twenty separate and conflicting sovereign nations could appear to be the world’s largest market for US arms manufacturers. It could also supply millions of cheap cyber-Shudras (outsourced laborers) without being organized with the cohesion and clout of another China-like competitor. The US would hire them to do cheap work, but the money would come back to the US as they would buy weapons to kill each other in the name of “freedom fights.”
If this strategy were to be adopted, the present divisive scholarship in South Asian Studies would, indeed, serve a useful purpose, by exacerbating the internal conflicts within India. The army of such scholars would turn out to be useful in running the show in a balkanized India.
However, a destabilized region would, more likely than not, succumb to Talibanization pressures from neighbors and from within India. South Asian madrassas (estimated at many tens of thousands in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) would become a massive supplier of unemployable angry men, to feed a plethora of insurgencies. The most likely scenario would be the Islamization of India, of the radical Taliban kind, and not of the peaceful Sufi kind. A takeover of India would be a quantum leap for the Pan-Islamic (dar-ul-islam) movement, because an Islamized India would make it virtually impossible for the ASEAN countries to prevent a similar takeover. This would become America’s worst imaginable nightmare, a hundred times more calamitous than what it faces today in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
India’s fate over the next quarter century (between the optimistic scenario and the catastrophic scenario) will determine the winner in the global clash of civilizations.
America’s analysis of India’s pivotal role must determine whether divisive scholarship is a good or a bad thing to encourage further. This puts a new light on the decades of Western scholarship that has already assumed a life of its own in the form of the careers of hundreds of Indians working under Western sponsorship.
The high-leverage pressure points, where scholarship needs to be re-examined include Kashmir separatism, Khalistan separatism, Northeast and Assam separatism, Dalitistan separatism, Dravidianism, Naxalite violence in Central India, Maoist insurgencies in Nepal, the proto-Taliban sleeper cells in madrassas, and, last but not least, certain divisive Christian proselytizing missions. The truth is that many scholars and Western institutions are dangerously armed to intellectually encourage insurgencies across India.
Western institutions must introspect whether they should remain the blood supply of the intellectual vampire of Indian separatism, or whether they must drive a stake through its heart before it is too late. They must admit that they have inadvertently relied too much upon elite armchair Indian revolutionaries.
The divide-and-study academic theories about India have already gone very far in precipitating internal clashes on the ground in India. Today’s separatists in India (who see “Hindu” as a four-letter word and like to imagine themselves as liberators of the “downtrodden” from its backwardness and oppression) will one day be seen in the same light as jihadis are seen today. Will the Western institutions that are now sheltering and promoting these separatist ideologies like to go down in history as catalysts of Taliban-like movements?
A strong India is good for America
I have focused mainly on the negative arguments — i e why a weakened India could produce a terrible outcome — only because this argument is seldom being discussed. But there are compelling positive arguments as to why the US should want India to succeed.
The consequences of helping one billion Indians approach first-class world citizenship status would expand markets and allow the US to continue its prosperous role as the leader of innovation. There are many critical industries in which India will remain weak and in which US firms are especially strong, and these will turbo-charge US exports to a prosperous India.
The USA must reduce its dependency on Europe. In the long term, it cannot depend upon China being a benign trading partner. It has no clear path available to lift the Islamic world out of oil dependency and into secularism and democracy. It needs a strong India.
An economically strong India would eventually rub off on Pakistan and Bangladesh, and would lead to regional economic advancement and stability. Therefore, supporting a unified India should be a strategic imperative for US interests to bring stability across Asia.
The USA and India share many civilizational values and visions. India is the world’s oldest crucible for successfully experimenting with pluralism and multiculturalism. Notwithstanding recent religious violence, its overall historical record is in sharp contrast with the way most other civilizations dealt with differences through the genocide of the weak. India’s vibrant tapestry of interwoven and diverse ancient communities is empirical evidence of its unique achievement.
Human rights activists should consider the role that a strong India could play on behalf of the Third World, as it once did when it was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. A strong India would once again be a beacon to others, especially in non-Western poor societies.
When India is seen as a problem, breaking it up into smaller entities appears to be a way of managing the situation. But when seen as a solution provider for a wide range of issues, India deserves all the help to achieve its potential as one of the leading civilizations of the world, and also to prevent a cataclysmic chain reaction which its failure would invariably cause. In order to achieve the positive scenario envisioned above, South Asian Studies must be radically repositioned.
There have been three American paradigms on India, each with its own Grand Narrative that sustains and guides its respective scholars:
A. Cold War — India was a satellite in the Soviet enemy camp. It made sense to undermine India both through internal conflicts and by using Pakistan.
B. Post Cold War but before September 11, 2001 — India ceased to be a threat, but was not seen as a strategic ally. It made sense to simply ignore India and to contain its nuisance value.
C. Post Clinton trip (2000) and especially post September 11, 2001 — India is a major partner and potential land of opportunity on many levels; strengthening it makes sense.
Many American senior policymakers, corporate strategists, business schools and business newspersons have been moving into paradigm C rapidly. The problem is with popular journalists, scholars in South Asian Studies, and the middle and low ranking US government bureaucrats, who remain largely stuck in paradigms A/ B.
The inertia against change also stems from the fact that many educated Americans seem influenced by the evangelical xenophobia of Hinduism, depicted as pagan superstition or as some sort of primitive, corrupt and degraded exotica. Semitic ideas have interpreted Hindu symbols and practices as weird idol worship, and these get subliminally correlated with evil.
The positive nature of Hinduism, which is now being experienced very intimately by the 18 million Americans practicing yoga, remains largely disconnected with Hinduism and India, while negative images of sati and violence remain firmly entrenched as “Hindu” essences. This is why challenging the “caste, cows and curry” depictions of India is vital.
Certain celebrity scholars have too much invested in the past to be able to change at this stage of their careers. Many are simply not re-trainable in paradigm C, because their specialty is in provoking trouble in some tribe in India’s backwater. (But every attempt should be made to rehabilitate old school scholars gracefully, as was done by the Czech Republic for its former Communists, because most of them have been products of a system beyond their control.) South Asian Studies programs have few experts in technology, science, India’s middle class dynamics, international trade laws, and other critical topics that the next generation of American leaders (sitting in classrooms today) will have to grapple with.
Sheer momentum of the old themes, planted in the scholars’ vocabulary, still keeps them and their funding agencies going. The present danger posed by the old school’s scholars stems from their ability to use their academic positions to clone the same mindset in the next generation.
The US must view the discourse and activism that destabilizes India in the same manner as it views movements that subvert its other friends, such as Britain, Israel, Canada, Japan and Mexico. This calls for reinventing South Asian Studies by asking why we are interested in the subject, who the target audiences are, and by what measures we should evaluate the merits of a given program. Indians must also enter this debate and must not remain passive consumers of whatever canned knowledge is being manufactured and sold by the system.
The central point here is that a divided India would be bad for the USA, for Indians, for others in South Asia, and for genuine human rights activists. On the other hand, a unified, developed India would further the interests of each of these constituents. Furthermore, current South Asian Studies do not adequately prepare American students to face the world, as they remain stuck in the past agendas of some scholars.
Fortunately, the previous US ambassador, Robert Blackwill, was effective in repositioning US-India relations towards paradigm C. So momentum is in the right direction for the new US ambassador to India. The time has come for the new thinkers on both sides to drain the intellectual swamp of past negativism. Future columns will further examine this swamp with specific examples.
Published: January 21, 2004