Category Archives: History

How to Overthrow a Brutal Dictator


While NATO grapples with the most effective road to victory in Libya and treads the fine line which borders supporting civilians and  overthrowing a dictator, let me illustrate a very successful example of such an overthrow, in history, and see if we can learn some lessons from there. I talk of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

At the time of Independence, British India was partitioned into 2 major countries. Secular India and Islamic Pakistan. Pakistan was further divided into East Pakistan and West Pakistan. These 2 sub divisions were separated by 1000s of miles of Indian territory. Being so apart geographically, the peoples of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) were culturally very distinct. But the center of power lay in West Pakistan and there was rampant discrimination against East Pakistanis.

Eventually things reached a point when East Pakistanis started calling for independence in the 1970’s under the leadership of the charismatic Sheik Mujibur Rehman and a strong pro-Bangladeshi nationalist movement broke out in East Pakistan. They wanted to secede from Pakistan and form an independent Bangladesh. Pakistan was led by a ruthless military dictator called Yahya Khan. He swung the full might of the Pakistani military juggernaut against the hapless civilians of Bangladesh and carried out genocide in East Pakistan, targeting Hindus and the intellectual elite of Dhaka. Unable to bear the brunt of this brutal assault, close to ten million Bangladeshis fled to refugee camps in India. India appealed to the international community for help but none responded. India then decided to take matters in its own hands and started arming and aiding the rebels. Pakistan then attacked India and full scale war broke out on 3rd December 1971.

The Indian troops smashed through the Pakistani military defences in East Pakistan and raced towards Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan. They knew time was not on their side. The US, the ever staunch ally of Pakistan, sent its nuclear equipped USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India into declaring a ceasefire. The Indians called the Russians and promptly there were Russian ships tailing the Enterprise. The world was dangerously close to a nuclear war involving US and USSR. The Indians raced ahead to defeat the Pakistanis before the situation got out of hand. On the morning of 14th December, 4 Indian Mig-21s, it’s pilots guided by tourist maps, tore across the skies of Dhaka and bombed the governor’s residence with uncanny accuracy. The governor was so shocked that he resigned and took refuge in the local Red Cross center. On 16th December the Indian Army blitzkrieg hit Dhaka and the Pakistani Army surrendered with India taking over 90,000 prisoners of war, the largest since World War 2. Bangladesh was free.

The above situation is not very dissimilar to what is happening in Libya now. But will NATO achieve success in the near future? From the above case analysis we can identify 3 reasons that generally make such operations successful.

1) A clear call for external help: The Bangladeshis actively supported the Indian role in the war and took economic and military aid readily. In contrast, in Libya, the rebels some times ask for more assistance and other times claim that they will overthrow Gaddaffi on their own. This approach confuses NATO and others about the extent to which the Libyans require their presence and hence are often wary to be more pro-active. In contrast, India went in confidently knowing full well that they had the support of the Bangladeshi people.

2) A strong opposition with a visible leadership: The Bangladeshis had Sheik Mujibur Rehman and his Awami League as political representatives and the Mukti Bahini which formed the military wing of the rebellion. This helped India to know who it was dealing with and let it focus on waging the war and then pulling out on victory, allowing Mujibur Rehman to focus on nation building. In contrast, in Libya there is a ragtag group of rebels and disparate tribal groups with no visible leader. This causes great discomfort in western capitals as they don’t know who exactly they are supporting. This also makes countries like the US loathe to put boots on the ground in the fear that after the war, with no clear leadership a civil war will break out and it’ll become Iraq and Afghanistan all over again.

3) A quick and decisive military operation: India acted swiftly and with full force to decapitate the Pakistani Army and had its goals clearly established. In contrast, NATO and others still seem to be fumbling over the boundaries of their operations and are hesitant to expand it to a full scale war for reasons mentioned above. This may only compound the situation further and turn the war into a messy quagmire.

Hence, NATO struggles with matching what India could achieve in a matter of 13 days against a strong adversary like Pakistan.

Al Qaeda, Adam Smith and the Arabian Revolutions


What is the connection between Al Qaeda and Adam Smith? Absolutely nothing, at first glance. While the former is a ruthless terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of countless innocent people, the latter is a highly respected and scholarly person who is widely considered to be the founding father of free market economics. But if we actually think about it, we realize that Al Qaeda has, inadvertently so, been following Adam Smith’s principles of a free market economy.

In the last few years, thanks to the relentless drone strikes and global pressure on terrorist havens like Pakistan, Al Qaeda has been significantly weakened. Being constantly on the run, without having any safe sanctuary except in the Pakistani Wild West, Al Qaeda has not been able to launch any successful terrorist attack on any nation. However, they have fostered a spirit of “entrepreneurship” among their radical followers. Like in a free market economy, there is not much “central planning” and “state/central intervention” in the “framing of policies”; rather the “center/state” has created conditions for the “blooming of private enterprise”. That is to say that, though there is no organizational level planning from the Al Qaeda central leadership with regards to terrorist strikes, their vitriolic messages of hate have encouraged and influenced a host of small time morons to take up arms for delusional causes. This is clear in the recent attacks: the Nigerian Underpants bomber, the Times Square bomber and the parcel bombs from Yemen. These were all low cost and unorganized missions put together by a bunch of wannabe terrorists. But it is precisely these kind of attacks that become hard to detect and will increase panic and unrest in an already scarred society. Eg: the TSA pat downs at US airports.

The only way to prevent such attacks is to remove the deep rooted causes that fuel such hatred. But this is easier said than done. Top on the list of grievances is the Israel-Palestine issue, which shows no signs of heading towards a peaceful resolution. Another major cause for concern in the Islamic/Arab world is the US and Western support for oppressive military dictators. These despots, hated by their own people, are staunch allies of the US. When they fall, as all despots eventually do, the people turn their resentment towards the global allies of the tyrants i.e US and Europe. This is what happened in Iran and indirectly influenced the Al Qaeda.

In 1953, a US supported coup brought back the ousted Iranian Shah to power, much to the chagrin of the Iranian people. When the Shah was ousted in 1979, the Iranians fearing another US coup attacked the US embassy and held the diplomats hostage for 444 days. An incensed US supported Iraq in the following Iran-Iraq war, funneling weapons and money to Saddam Hussein. A power hungry Saddam then attacked Kuwait in 1991. The US intervened and threw him out of Kuwait, but stationed troops in the Arab countries as a counter to Iraqi imperialist ambitions. This presence of US troops and their support for the autocratic Arab regimes gave fuel to the newly jobless Mujahideen created by another US backed dictator: Zia Ul Haq.

As we can see, this has been a vicious cycle of violence. To win this war on terror, we can’t just be content with dismantling one or two organizations. Al Qaeda is still a dangerous if somewhat diminished threat. The world needs to make a cohesive effort to address the root causes that make educated urban youth in US, UK and even India to propagate violence against innocents. The recent revolutions in the Arab world has left the US and the western world in a bind. Should it support its dictator friends for the sake of stability or support the people and risk radical fanatic political parties coming to power? I think the world needs to support democracy and the freedoms of people in the Arab world. Only this would lead to stability and peace in the coming century.

What makes an Entrepreneurial Society?


If there are two countries in this world that have an Entrepreneurial spirit embedded deep within their genes, its USA and Israel. What has caused this? Why have these two countries turned out to be fountainheads of entrepreneurism? What makes these two societies hold their Entrepreneurs in such high esteem? Its not simply a matter of having an economic system favorable to this cause, for there are affluent European countries which have liberal capitalistic economies and yet have shown only feeble signs of Entrepreneurism. Though Americans have descended from the Europeans, why are the former so entrepreneurial and the latter very much less so? One can argue that Europe has a more socialist mindset but then that would be missing the wood for the trees.

Im currently re-reading the book ‘O Jerusalem’, the fascinating account of how the Jewish state of Israel came into being, sixty years ago. That’s when I realised why this Entrepreneurial spirit is found in abundance in Israel and by a similar analogy in America.

The book illustrates the travails of the early Jewish settlers who migrated from Europe into the Holy Land(Palestine) in the early 20th century to build the state of Israel. They came from all parts of the world. They were of all shapes and sizes. All colors and hue. But they all had a single goal: To build a state on their traditional land so that they would never have to face persecution at the hands of non-jews again.(How valid it was to do so in Arab Palestine is a violent debate that has not ended even today.) But all these early settlers had was the land that they had bought. A desert for most part. They had to make the desert bloom if they wanted to establish a suitable home for themselves and the future generations of Jews that would come to inhabit those lands.

These settlers then set to work on building the farms, industries and institutions which would be needed to sustain a modern nation state. They may have had successful professions in their old homes in Europe. But here they were all alike, starting on a blank slate. So, lawyers dug ditches, pianists milked cows, teachers laid bricks etc. Whatever was needed to be done. They did not have the vestiges of past civilizations to fall back on. Everything that was needed  to run a country had to be built ground-up, brick-by-brick. And these settlers rose up to the challenge and how. Everyone took responsibility for building a pillar for Israel. Everyone became an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneur: a person who starts or organizes a business company, especially one involving risk.

What better example of entrepreneurs than these brave Jews who established Israel? What greater risk than doing it in the middle of a desert surrounded by hostile forces? Despite all the political turmoil, Israel remains one of the economic marvels of the world. Having built everything themselves is the reason I suspect that Israeli society holds Entrepreneurship in such high esteem.

A similar analogy can be extended to USA. North America was settled by peoples from Europe. Here too there was no legacy of civilizations ancient. Everything had to be started from scratch and the earliest settlers did just that. As the East coast became populated, the settlers ventured into the unknown lands of the West. The settlers initially struggled to cultivate the lands of the Mid-West due to the thick upper-crust soil. A man called John Deere then invented a steel plough which enabled the settlers to cultivate the land successfully. John Deere is now a massive farming company. The settlers overcame other odds too. Wind-pumps were used to draw up water from deep down, for irrigation and animals. Dry Farming, special ploughing and other methods were used to conserve moisture. Hard winter wheat (e.g. Turkey Red), introduced by Russian immigrants, was found to be suitable for the climate. New machines were invented.

Here too, like in Israel, development came on the back of immigrants and settlers. People who had left behind their pasts and took ownership of their futures. People who did not conform to the standards of comfortable living and constantly pushed boundaries, literally. Its only natural then, that with such a rich history, the societies of USA and Israel have entrepreneurship embedded in their cores.

In Europe and Asia it was different. Ancient civilizations had left behind sound structures and systems that did not have the need to be replaced. Occupational patterns set in the days of yore continued unquestioned. There was never a need to build anything from scratch. A well established order then, held back these societies from toying around with ideas of self-ownership to the extent done in America and Israel.

I guess entrepreneurial societies are a function of their historical legacies.

Movie Review: Restrepo


Restrepo is a documentary movie about a platoon of the US Army that battles the Taliban in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, for a year. Having been pinned down by the Taliban on all sides, the platoon decides to fight back and build a new outpost called Restrepo, named after one of the fallen soldiers, deeper in the Korengal Valley. This was done to put further pressure on the Taliban and provide an additional fire-base for the US  troops. How the platoon defends these posts and fights the Taliban is captured in this documentary.

This is unlike any other war movie you would’ve ever seen. No visual gimmicks. No recreated sound effects. Its gritty. Its hard-hitting. Its as real as things can get. The explosions are in-your-face. The gunshots ring in your ears. By having no specific storyline, the movie successfully captures the raw war zone in all its grime and glory.

The movie gives the viewer a very good insight on how the war in Afghanistan is being fought by the US troops and why they are finding it so difficult to win the war in this “Graveyard of Empires”. The platoon takes fire from an almost invisible enemy day and night. The majestic mountains belie the darkness they hide within, as the sounds of gunfire erupt in all directions forcing the platoon to scramble for cover, wondering where on earth they were being fired from. The Taliban are never seen, yet they cast an ominous shadow on all the valley, like ghosts from another world. They have their informants in the villages who pass on crucial info about the Americans. The platoon cajoles, bribes and threatens the villagers, yet fail to wean them away from the influence (or fear) of the Taliban. The villagers know that one day the platoon will be gone and then they will have the Taliban to answer to. That basically sums up the entire US strategy in Afghanistan.

Faced with a battle hardened and blood thirsty enemy, a harsh and indomitable terrain and a hostile local populace, the platoon struggles for its survival everyday. Their body language clearly shows that they know that victory is all but impossible against such odds. Most war movies Iv seen involve soldiers shouting out patriotic slogans and being happy to fight in battles and die for their nation. Here its different. Is it because the platoon knew that they were faced with an impossible task? Or is this how all soldiers in all war zones are? Weary and tired of war. Disillusioned by the deaths of countless friends. Broken by nightmares of blood and fire.

India in the UNSC: Much Ado About Nothing


The Indian media is awash with the news that India has become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council after 19 long years and the MEA pundits are patting themselves on the back for a job well done. But is it really worth all the hype? I think not. Let alone non-permanent status, even a permanent seat on the UNSC is just a bag full of hot air if you ask me. Its nothing more than mere symbolism.

There are many reasons for this. Let me not even get into the colossal failures of the UN in preventing genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Sudan, Bosnia etc. Lets also forget for a moment that the UN has mostly failed to prevent military conflicts, right from the Korean war to the recent Israel-Lebanon war. The UN has also failed to resolve territorial disputes like Israel-Palestine, J&K, North-South Korea in any meaningful way. The greatest successes of the UN lie in its humanitarian divisions like UNICEF, WHO etc.

Given this shaky track record, why should being on the upper echelons of this old-timer’s organization even matter? True, the UN is a global forum and for all its flaws, it does provide mechanisms for arbitration of disputes, however poor their track records may be. In this sense, it is enough to just be a member state of the UN and I do not believe that being a permanent UNSC member is of any added advantage to a country like India. China’s global clout is a result of its massive economic power and not because China is a UNSC member. If India sustains its current healthy growth rate and flexes its diplomatic muscles to forge long ignored partnerships with various countries in Asia and Africa, there is no stopping India from being counted among the world’s super-powers, with or without a UNSC seat.

But, I also believe, that as much as a UNSC seat should not matter to India, India too does not matter to the UNSC. This is because of India’s largely neutral stance on all global conflicts. Sure, India is a big economic player and it is given a lot of respect in the G8. But thats economics and India has been good at that of late. Geo-politics is a totally different ball-game altogether and India’s track record is very poor in that field.  We are not key players in any global issue and hold little influence over countries that are. Russia and China have considerable clout in Iran, and China has strong links with the North Korean leadership. In fact China wields great influence over many African nations. All this makes China an important global player. Brazil and Turkey too have been pro-active on a global-level of late. Contrastingly, India has been doggedly muted over the burning issues of Iran, Korea, Middle-East etc. The only time we have raised our voices is with regard to the Af-Pak scenario and even then noone listened to the song we were singing. So what exactly will India bring to the UNSC table I cannot fathom. Countries that are supporting our UNSC bid are doing so only as a policy of appeasing a rising economic power-house. Lets not fool ourselves into believing that we matter in global geo-politics.

Given all this, I dont think we need to bite our nails over the non-committal of US and China to our UNSC seat. Instead, we should pull our socks up, resolve  internal issues like Naxalism and Kashmir, focus on alleviating poverty, improve education etc. We have our hands full and we can do without stepping into international quagmires till we set our own house in order.

Identify the country….


Lets play a small game. I’ll post a few photos from the 1950’s and 60’s and lets see if you can identify the country that these pictures were taken in.

A university campus

Biology class in the university

A girl scout program in the capital city

Mothers and children at a city park

A phonograph record store selling the latest music records

Cabinet in session

So which country is it?

Somewhere in Europe? No.

USSR? No.

Iran? No.

India? No.

Its Afghanistan!

This ravaged and war torn country was once a stable and developing country in the 1950’s and 60’s. These photos are from a book published during that period by the then govt’s planning ministry. I agree that this being an official govt book, it would naturally have handpicked photos which served to promote the country’s image in the west. Even then, im sure we all can agree that it is very very difficult to even imagine such normalcy in today’s Afghanistan, even in a few places. Children playing in a park, girl scouts undergoing training, a functioning modern co-ed university all seem so very surreal today. This is what 30 years of war can do to a country. It is very tragic indeed.

I found these images on www.foreignpolicy.com, in a photo essay by Mohammad Qayoumi. Click here to see all the pictures and the full essay.

Fall of an Evil Empire


There was once a cunning man. He got a brilliant business idea. One, that he felt would make him tons of money and also bring glory to his country and their people. No-one else had dared to do something like that before. He decided to take the risk. He approached the necessary governing bodies with his plan. They were skeptical about it. Instead they let him have absolute control over the business and supported the business with funds. He played his rivals against each other and with some calculated manipulations he struck a deal with potential stakeholders which gave him virtual control to run his business. Though it was widely known that this was a business venture for money, he disguised it under the garb of a noble cause. People saw through it but no-one said a word.

He brought in people close to him into the business. People whom he trusted would follow him. With a mix of hard work and luck he made his business very profitable and made tons of money. But his greed knew no bounds. He wanted more. He started milking his business for maximum returns and in the process committed many mistakes. Soon he made many adversaries. They wanted to pull him down. They started a whisper campaign of his misdeeds, his misuse of his absolute power and the atrocities he was perpetrating. He started a counter campaign against what he called were baseless allegations. The secrets were out in the open, but few believed the words of his detractors. They remained just whispers.  However, a few honest men went deeper into this muck to investigate and found the allegations to be true. They launched a full-on media campaign to oust this man from this business and bring him to justice. Eventually, public and international pressure forced the government to launch a clean-up drive and removed the man from his post and took over his business empire.

Who was this man? No, it wasn’t Lalit Modi. It was King Leopold II of Belgium. His “business venture” was the ‘Congo Free State’.

In the 1870’s, Congo still remained an unexplored part of Africa. Few explorers ventured so deep into the African jungles, partly out of fear and partly out of the belief that there were no resources to be exploited. However, Leopold II sponsored an exploration mission headed by the famous Henry Morton Stanley, who returned with treaties signed by local African chiefs, who handed over the land to Leopold II in exchange for peace and a few gifts. The Belgian government was not interested in this venture and Leopold II took full control of the regions which had come under his rule and called it the ‘Congo Free State’. Other European rivals grudgingly ceded the Congo regions to Leopold and recognized him as the sole leader of Congo. Leopold II now governed an area larger than Belgium itself and with a population of 30 million people without even a constitution or a code of laws. He could do what he wanted. Leopold promised the Europeans that he would govern Congo for the good of all and would bring it to the level of “modern civilization”.

He extracted ivory and rubber from the jungles of Congo. In the 1890’s rubber came into great demand for its use in bicycle tires, insulation etc. The rubber trade boomed and Leopold amassed a fortune. However he wanted to stay ahead of his competition and he exploited the villages which collected rubber for him, to maximize his profit. Every village had to fulfill an obligatory “rubber quota”. The villagers would be whipped, often to death, and their women were held hostage until the men collected the requisite amount of rubber. If the village could not meet this “rubber quota”, then the villagers were killed and their hands cut off by Leopold’s army(The Force Publique) to fulfill the remaining amount. The number of villagers killed, increased proportionally to the rise in the demand of rubber.  A soldier could shorten his army service if he brought in more severed hands than others. Soon, the cutting off of villager’s hands became an end in itself for Leopold’s army. This led to widespread mutilation and dismemberment. All this, forced many villagers to flee their villages and try to survive in the jungles. This, coupled with widespread disease and malnutrition resulted in the deaths of an estimated 8 – 15 million innocent Congo villagers!!!

His business rivals eventually got wind of these atrocities and while some used these same tactics in their African fiefs, a few others used this to pull him down. After his misdeeds were brought out into the public eye by journalists and authors, the Belgian govt finally stripped him of his powers and brought his brutal regime to an end. Congo passed on to the hands of the Belgian govt. However, the man who had perpetrated the deaths of close to 10 million Africans received no punishment. This is the colonial history of Africa.