Wednesday, December 9, 2009

North-Atlantic Brussels

There's more to Brussels than what you see. It's the spider locus in a cosmic configuration.

In my hippie days, Brussels to me was a site of magical and mystical activities. I used to go there for meditation at the Zen dojo near Halle Gate or the Tibetan centre in the Capouillet Street, to particpate in the meetings of the neo-theosophical World Teacher Trust, to read and buy books in the esoteric bookshop Le Lotus in the borough of Elsene (more spiritual than its counterpart downtown, General Occult), or to attend the 1983 New Age fair "The world we choose". Kind of Kathmandu.

I read all about the heraldry of the city and the secret alchemical references in the names of and statues upon the buildings around the townhall square, including Manneken Pis, whom indeed you do see in Renaissance alchemical treatises. More secular but still colourful was the story of Everaard t'Serclaes, a patrician who in 1356 organized a citizens' guerrila action that chased the occupying garrison of the Earl of Flandres from the city and opened its gates to the troops of the legal ruler, the Duke of Brabant. He was murdered in 1388 by the bastard son of the Lord of Gaasbeek, and is depicted in his death throes on the outside wall of building De Sterre on the townhall square. If you caress his arm there, it guarantees a whole year of being lucky in love.

At some point, it dawned on me that Broekzele ("swamp-forest"), to use the original Dutch name of Brussels, is more than just a city. It is the capital of the Flemish region, which is not the old county of Flanders (now the western provinces East and West Flanders and the adjoining regions in France and the Netherlands) but the Dutch-speaking northern half of Belgium, including most of the old dukedom of Brabant and the region of Loon, now called Limburg. It is the capital of Belgium and the seat of the most important governing bodies of the European Union. And finally, it is the administrative seat of the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and consequently also the favourite place for anti-NATO demonstrations. On its central boulevard in the early 1980s, I and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators repeatedly marched against the installing of more nuclear weapons by Ronald Reagan. We shouted: "Belgium out of NATO, NATO out of Belgium!"

NATO was conceived as an alliance to defend freedom. To symbolize this lofty ideal, Brussels is historically very apt. In 1830, at the founding of Belgium, it pioneered the most liberal constitution of the age. Political refugees found freedom of speech there (recently whittled down by "hate speech" laws), most famously Victor Hugo and Karl Marx. Normally, the enemies of freedom, or at any rate of NATO and its intervention in Afghanistan, ought to treat Brussels as a favourite target for terrorist action. Yet, this has never happened so far. Today a NATO counterterrorism expert told me the hidden mechanisms behind the deceptive peace and quiet here, including the tacit understanding between the Belgian state and the terrorists that they will be left undisturbed if they merely use Belgian soil for preparing action elsewhere. This is top secret, so don't tell anyone. And if you really must (say, under torture), at least you don't have it from me.

But drop the mundane data now. Just think of this truly mystic insight: Brussels is the capital of North Atlantis. Gee, isn't that cosmic? Stop the search for Plato's Atlantis, it is right here.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Russia's Chinese future

Denial of unmistakable trends and of their crystal-clear predictions for the future are still de rigueur in European elite circles. This also seems to be the case in the one country to which European nationalists look up full of hope: the Russian Federation. Compared to Western Europe, immigration in Russia has a rather different character, but there as here, downplaying its foreseeable effects remains fashionable.

A few days back I attended a seminar on Russo-Chinese relations hosted by KU Leuven's think-tank for Global Governance. Professor Yana Leksyutina of St-Petersburg University presented interesting data on the trade equation between the two giants. Thus, we learned Russia's status as arms supplier is threatened by two developments: the looming end of the Western embargo against China that will bring other arms suppliers like France and Germany onto the Chinese market; and China's own increasing capability in advanced arms production.

In the energy sector, the traffic in oil and gas from Russia's Far East to China is characterized by a stark inequality: the raw material comes from Russia, but China keeps its high-tech processing entirely in its own hands and on its own side of the border. This means that Russia is to China what Africa is to Europe. Nothing in Prof. Leksyutina's diction indicated that she realized or deplored this humiliating condition for a once-proud European superpower. Has the nation that put the first man in space degenerated into a high-income but low-creativity mining estate, a kind of Congo or Saudi Arabia?

Of course, we all wanted to know about the most consequential trend of all, far more important than arms or oil: the demographic slide of the Russian people into dispersion and replacement if not extinction, at least in the historical non-Russian territories of the Far East. The beautiful blonde professor assured us, and possibly reassured herself, that nothing was going to happen. A very unlikely prediction.

The Russian population is shrinking. In the Far East, there is not only a birth deficit, but also considerable emigration to more westerly parts of Russia, or to the West. Admittedly, some of the Chinese imigrants move on westwards as well, but the main trend still is large-scale Chinese immigration, which continues unabated. In spite of China's draconian birth control policy, the world's most populous country sees its population increase by about ten million per year. It is happy enough to be rid of them.

From undoubtedly reliable documentary sources, Prof. Leksyutina knew that the Chinese state does not organize the emigration to Russia. No Chinese conspiracy there. Well, of course not, why should they? The People's Republic of China has generally observed diplomatic niceties and respected borders. Thus, it has respected British sovereignty over Hong Kong for 48 years, abiding by the agreed-upon date of 1997 for ending the concession. It has so far refrained from taking "the Republic of China on Taiwan", preferring to let trade and the Republic's pan-Chinese nationalism slowly effect an organic reintegration.

In the case of Chinese emigration to Russia, as well as to the West and to Africa, China's interests are best served by giving free rein to private initiative. Whenever a conflict arises between the interests of individual Chinese migrants and their host countries, the Chinese government gladly respects the wishes of the host country. Speaking from personal experience with Chinese immigrants in Belgium, I would say that Beijing's cooperation with Belgian authorities in cases of repatriation of unwanted immigrants is impeccable (much in contrast with some African and West-Asian countries). This puts it in good standing with host countries like Belgium, which in turn makes it easier for individual Chinese immigrants to enter and get accepted under one label or other. So, without offending anyone and without spending a budget or energy on it, China is very effectively facilitating the emigration of its citizens.

Moscow has taken some token measures, like requiring that every business in Russia be Russian-owned. This is a formality, allowing for legal constructions with Chinese ownership through Russian middle-men. At any rate, it makes no difference to the demographic evolution. Maybe Northeast Asia is better off under Chinese than under Russian control, I don't know, but either way there is no reason to expect dramatic events. To that extent, the Russian professor was right: there is no reason to fear a Chinese military conquest of the coveted resources-rich Russian Far East. The process will be gradual. One day, the Chinese will find themselves in a majority position in some provinces and elect ethnic-Chinese administrators. Technically they may remain separate from Beijing and united with Moscow, but for all practical purposes it will be a part of Greater China.

To be sure, history is full of surprises, and we should be wary of long-term predictions. On the other hand, demographics is one area where safe predictions are possible for the duration of a couple of generations. Yes, China's population growth seems bound for a standstill and maybe reversal within a few decades, but by then Russia's population will have imploded, if we may extrapolate from current evolutions. So, it is strange to see experts hurry to assure us that nothing is going to happen. I don't know just what is going to happen, but I am sure it won't be nothing.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The BJP and the Ayodhya demolition

On 6 December 1992, in the presence of BJP leader L.K. Advani, Hindu activists demolished the Babri Masjid, a mosque structure imposed on the site in forcible replacement of a Hindu temple during the era of Muslim occupation. Only days after the event, an investigative commission led by Justice M.S. Liberhan was mandated to inquire into the facts and causes of the demolition. Seventeen years and an astronomical budget later, the Liberhan report was first leaked to the press and then finally presented in the Lok Sabha. It is hopelessly shoddy and biased, but its malicious conclusion that the BJP leadership engineered the demolition, though false, is paradoxically quite fair and fitting.

The Liberhan Commission's reported finding that the Bharaitya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People's Party, usually described as Hindu Nationalist) leadership is guilty of the “criminal” demolition of the Babri Masjid, has provoked some protests and denials in BJP and pro-BJP circles. These implicitly assume that the demolition was indeed a crime, that Advani c.s. have to be absolved from it, and that the guilt must be shifted to Congressite Pirme Ministers Rajiv Gandhi (r.1984-89) and Narasimha Rao (r.1991-96). Meanwhile, Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharati, then second-rank BJP leaders, have owned up their responsibility, but they happen to be the leaders who ended up clashing with the BJP. Hindu activists loyal to the Rama temple cause will commend their steadfastness. They will also praise Rajiv Gandhi for starting the process of replacing the usurper Babri structure with a proper Rama temple; and Narasimha Rao for passively helping the demolition by his refusal to intervene. By contrast, the BJP leadership’s denial of responsibility will only earn it their contempt.

To be sure, a more orderly procedure to replace the mosque structure with proper temple architecture would have been preferable. Advani had a point in lamenting the breakdown of RSS discipline that made way for the demolition fervour. But even what actually took place was a lesser evil compared with the continuation of the Babri structure, at least in the real world. For one thing, it saved many lives. Just compare the riot toll in the years preceding the demolition with those in the subsequent years. After the Muslim revenge had run its course with the Mumbai bomb attacks of 12 March 1993 (which set the pattern for later terrorist actions in London, Madrid, Bali, Delhi etc., one of the international offshoots of the Ayodhya affair), all was relatively quiet on the Hindu-Muslim front until 2002. The demolition and its aftermath, shocking though they were, triggered a catharsis that sobered up the marching crowds, both Hindu and Muslim. Imagine what riots would have taken place had the Babri eyesore remained standing, a scandal to Hindus and a prop to Muslim hopes of taking it back. Indeed, the prospect of endless Ayodhya-related riots is probably the unstated reason (apart from putting the BJP on the defensive) why Narasimha Rao allowed the demolition to be completed.

As for the pre-planned nature of the demolition, it has always been obvious. This too the BJP should concede unequivocally. Members of the demolition vanguard have told me about their training and the equipment they had brought. They also mentioned the name of the mastermind of the whole operation; it was not Advani nor A.B. Vajpayee. Which brings us to the most startling fact of the demolition’s aftermath: the total refusal of the Indian media to investigate the details. Collectively, they spurned the scoop of the decade, viz. a cover picture with the caption: “Meet the mastermind of the Ayodhya demolition.” The reason is that they found it more expedient to blame Advani and barred themselves from publishing or indeed finding anything that might disturb this story-line.

Once the vanguard had started its operation on 6 December 1992, the rest of the crowd followed. For them at least, the demolition had indeed not been pre-planned. And this unprepared crowd included the unwilling Advani. He and most BJP leaders (if not all -- I cannot claim completeness for my data) clearly were not in on it, and the Liberhan report offers no proof for their involvement either, only some suppositions about what they “must” have known. Even so, they did bear a political responsibility. Today the BJP says that if Home Minister P. Chidambaram did not personally leak the Liberhan report, he remains politically responsible. That makes sense, but the same principle naturally applies to the BJP leaders’ responsibility for the demolition. They should have owned it up right then, and they can still do so now.

Justice M.S. Liberhan is unconvincing in his unfounded allotment of blame for the demolition's technical preparation to them. But it is petty-minded to make a fuss about this, because their political responsibility is so undeniable. Focusing on the technical whodunnit is politically incorrect in that it misrepresents the whole issue as conceived by the pro-temple movement. The crime is not that a usurper structure was demolished, but that the government (egged on by the English media, the CPM, the JNU historians and similar usual suspects) had been thwarting the restoration of a Hindu sacred site to its pilgrim constituency, the Hindus. The right policy would have been to acknowledge and act upon the self-evident principle that a Hindu sacred site should be in Hindu custody and adorned with Hindu architecture. Will the secularists insist on the imposition of a Rama temple on the Kaaba site in Mecca, or on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? Of course not, and for the same reason there should not be a mosque on a hill that for centuries has been the main site dedicated to Rama.

Some people were ready to act upon this simple and logical insight. When Rajiv Gandhi had the locks on the Babri Masjid opened, he clearly embarked on a policy of accommodating the Hindus in compensation for (and in proportion with) the plentiful Muslim “appeasement” by his own and previous governments. It was a typical instance of the Congress culture with its compromises and horse-trading. Nothing very noble, but with the virtue of pragmatism. That approach would normally have led to a deal, with the Ayodhya site for the Hindu lobby and some sweeteners for the Muslim lobby, of which package the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was an opener. Indeed not quite noble, but it would have saved a lot of lives and political energy. Today the Rama Janmabhumi temple would have become just one among many uneventful Hindu places of pilgrimage. Come to think of it, that option could still be tried by the present Congress government.

But in 1989-92, that option was thwarted by the offensive of Babri ultras, and by this I don’t mean the warriors for Islam but the conformistic intellectuals shrieking and howling that the contentious building was the last bastion of “secularism”, a matter of high principle, of life and death. Under their fierce calls for “hard secularism”, no administrator dared to reduce the controversy to its true and manageable proportions anymore. Not the Congress, not the various left-populist parties, and not the BJP either. They were all paralysed and consequently bought time all while taking sides against the weaker party, the pro-temple movement with its vacillating and politically incompetent leadership.

And this shows us another sense in which the BJP is politically responsible for the demolition and for its erratic implementation by an unguided crowd. They too took the side of the status-quo against the Hindu demands. The Hindutva rank and file defied its leaders because it felt cheated by them. After the 1991 elections, when the BJP rose to the rank of largest opposition party, the Ayodhya demand was ditched, first mentally, then gradually also in practice. The activists felt that the leaders didn't mean business, that they didn't dare to push for the logical next step, viz. physically replacing the mosque structure (already in use for Hindu worship) with temple architecture. It was clear that the leaders had no clue on how to go about it. As it later turned out, in 1998-2004, even with the mosque gone and the BJP in power, Advani c.s. didn't move a finger towards the construction of the temple. So the ordinary activists had rightly sensed the unwillingness of the leaders to take the movement forward. That is why they took the law into their own hands.

The leaders could have avoided this outcome by charting a political roadmap towards a negotiated temple construction and then staying the course. Instead they tried to give the issue a quiet burial all while still making some increasingly faint pro-temple noises in order to retain their vote-bank. For that hypocrisy, they ought to pay a price. The Liberhan findings are shoddy and biased, but the disgrace now suffered by the BJP leaders and worsened by their denials is well-deserved.

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