Thursday, August 21, 2008

Afghanistan: the unravelling of a warlord confederacy

Afghanistan was just a way station in the broader civilisational mission of ridding the world of terrorism, a brief halt for the armies of virtue before they went on to nobler tasks. When the larger project got mired in a strategic mess of exclusive U.S. authorship in Iraq, Afghanistan still remained the saving grace, with all the signs it was showing of change for the better.

The puncturing of that delusion began from about early-2006, though the virtuous took a while to recognise that reality. Since May this year, casualties among U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan have consistently outstripped the toll in Iraq. Afghan civilian deaths meanwhile, have multiplied, increasingly as a consequence of misdirected attacks by U.S. and allied forces. Each such incident elicits a volley of protests from the Afghan national government, followed by a commitment from the foreign forces that investigations would duly be conducted. And as virtually foretold from the moment the inquiries are launched, the finding, finally, is that the occupying military forces acted “appropriately”.

August 18 may have been a decisive moment in the shattering of these illusions. Coordinated attacks on that day killed ten members of an elite French paratroop company near Kabul and caused extensive damage to one of the largest U.S. bases in Afghanistan. It was the worst toll from one day’s fighting for western troops in Afghanistan since 2002.

The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy’s, hasty rush to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath, was as much about deflecting domestic criticism – he had increased French troop commitments a mere five months back – as to express solidarity with soldiers trapped in an unending and unrewarding mission.

Expectedly, Sarkozy was told by his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, that the consolidation of insurgents on both sides of the border with Pakistan, was really the source of the problem. Karzai’s denunciations of Pakistan, even if well-founded, have acquired much of a ritual quality, not merely because he has been pressing the issue for long, but also because he and his allies have acknowledged – in deeds if not in words – that there is nothing much to do about it.

The reasons why the border with Pakistan is now bristling with insurgency against the Karzai regime, owe entirely to the architecture of the western plan for Afghanistan. Because it did not want the retrieval effort in one failed state to end in a situation of two failed states, the west connived in the early phase of its military campaign in Afghanistan, with Pakistan’s strategy of withdrawing most assets invested in the Taliban regime, or at least all that could be salvaged. This withdrawal was part of an agreed compact by which Pakistan’s army chief and president then, Pervez Musharraf, sought in the cataclysmic defeat of his country’s strategic ambitions, a pretence – even if a very thin one – that the country was well-served by the war in Afghanistan.

The militant tendencies transferred to Pakistan’s northern areas, to greatly add to the restiveness of the Pashto tribes there, were handled through perhaps the first armed incursions by the Pakistan army into areas that had zealously guarded their autonomy. Whether this was make-believe, or a serious effort at extending the authority of the Pakistan state to the territorial frontiers, where its writ had never run strong, is a matter for future historians to assess, when they write up the balance-sheet of the Musharraf years.

The visible outcome of these engagements though, was a precipitate withdrawal of Pakistan’s armed forces and a rather demeaning peace treaty with the chieftains of the tribal areas.

The west, having connived at the evacuation of Pakistan’s assets in Afghanistan, applauded the armed incursion of the Pakistan army into the tribal areas, and perhaps unaware of the irony, warmly congratulated Musharraf on his peace accord with the tribal chiefs.

But with Musharraf now having passed into history, abdicating the presidency he had engineered for himself in a sham election conducted by a defunct national assembly, the civilian government that had, belatedly, summoned up the will to oust him from office, remains even more clueless about dealing with the tribal frontiers.

Afghanistan meanwhile, approaches meltdown, since the leadership that the west had anointed for the supposed democratic transition in the country, has carved up the country into a multitude of personal fiefdoms. Rather than attend to the rigours of building up a genuine sense of national solidarity, the west opted for a confederacy of the same warlords – Rashid Dostum, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, Mohammad Mohaqiq, Ismael Khan, Karim Khalili, and numerous others – whose ouster by the Taliban was greeted by the people of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s as a form of deliverance.

Denied authority in most of the country, Karzai himself has decided, according to authoritative assessments, to cultivate his own fiefdom in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar – currently Afghanistan’s most fertile breeding grounds for illicit opium. A loss of image in the west, the risk that he may be seen as a patron of the lethal trade in narcotics, is for Karzai, clearly a lesser danger than being overwhelmed by the confederacy of warlords that the western military intervention in his country has created.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Should India's Supreme Court be Writing Rules for Journalism?

The Indian Supreme Court on August 18 declared that it intends to lay down norms for media coverage of ongoing criminal investigations.

According to media reports, India’s highest court, hearing a public interest petition filed by an independent lawyer, determined that media coverage of the investigations into the murder of a teenage girl, Aarushi Talwar, in the township of Noida neighbouring Delhi, had seriously breached all norms of responsible journalism.

As The Hindu (Delhi edition, August 19) reported the court’s observations: “Nobody is trying to gag the media. They must play a responsible role. By investigation, the media must not do anything which will prejudice either the prosecution or the accused. Sometimes the entire focus is lost. A person is found guilty even before the trial takes place”.

The Supreme Court has issued notices seeking an opinion from the Press Council of India and explanations from two newspapers (The Times of India and the Hindustan Times) and three major 24-hour news channels (Aaj Tak, NDTV and CNN-IBN).

The higher judiciary’s attempt to write rules for journalism represents a new threat to the autonomy of India’s robust media industry. Most media houses already have well-considered norms in place covering every such journalistic contingency.

It is another matter though, that these norms are seldom honoured and that new entrants into the profession rarely benefit from mentoring procedures that would attune them to best journalistic practices. The judiciary’s current initiative is in this sense, symptomatic of a wider crisis of standards in the Indian media: one occasioned by the rampant commercialism that has followed the boom in cable television and the new media.

Since Aarushi Talwar was discovered murdered at her family home in Noida on May 16, there has been considerable public disquiet over the spectacular incompetence of the police investigation and the shocking abdication of responsibility by vast sections of the Indian media. These two in a sense, reinforced each other, ensuring that the truth remained obscure for an inordinate length of time. For the Talwar family and for all those who knew Aarushi, it was a deeply truamatic experience to see her being denied dignity even in death.

The media in other words, abandoned its truth-telling role in favour of crass sensationalism. Where it could have, potentially, served as a window for the public to keep themselves informed about the investigations, it chose instead, to reproduce and regurgitate every half-formed explanation put out by the police force.

Media ethics is all about sound internal scrutiny in the newsroom and editorial department, as also, of accountability to the readership or audience. A code of conduct that is externally imposed, even if it pertains to the specific area of ongoing criminal investigations, is not guaranteed either to be effective or to best serve the public interest.

Credible self-regulation on the basis of internally evolved norms, requires that the autonomy of journalism within the media industry be honoured. The increasing encroachment of the marketing and advertising functions into content decisions is responsible for many of the ethical breaches recently manifest in the Indian media.

The Aarushi Talwar case is only the most recent instance involving the use of governmental or judicial authority to restrain the media. On August 14, according to media reports, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued notices to three TV channels, to show cause why they should not be penalised for violating the “programme code”.

It is another matter that the “programme code” is a fairly loosely worded text drawn up in 1995 as an annexure to the sole existing law on cable TV broadcasting. It has never been subject to any form of public scrutiny, or won the explicit endorsement of journalists or the media industry. Indeed, efforts by the Ministry since 2006 to evolve a “content code” in consultation with the industry have so far failed to produce an agreed text, in part, because they have not involved media professionals in any significant way.

Despite an understanding on content being a distant prospect, the Ministry in February this year notified the creation of a number of state and district-level “monitoring bodies” that will assess non-governmental broadcast entities for conformity with the programme code. These committees as first constituted, were made up overwhelmingly of bureaucrats and police personnel. It was only in July, almost as an afterthought, that the Ministry mandated the participation of the journalism profession within these committees.

The media has also had to face the prospect of the judiciary often seeking to get involved in content decisions. In disposing of a public interest petition arising from the “sting” operation that wrongly implicated a teacher in a non-existent prostitution racket, the Delhi High Court held in December 2007, that any channel planning to broadcast programs involving a “sting” should be legally obliged to obtain prior permission from a government-appointed committee. It recommended that the Ministry should appoint a retired judge of a High Court to chair the committee, which should also comprise two others drawn from the bureaucracy.

The fake sting was a canonical case of non-existent editorial processes, which should be tackled through credible norms of self-regulation. In this respect, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) – the organisation this writer works with -- recently launched in association with affiliate unions in India, a series of broad-ranging discussions under the rubric of its “Ethical Journalism Initiative”. The IFJ believes that with the active engagement of journalists, the challenge of ethics in the newsroom can be adequately faced and dealt with.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Caste and the world of business

Review article
Harish Damodaran, India’s New Capitalists: Caste, Business and Industry in a Modern Nation, Permanent Black in association with the New India Foundation, 2008, Delhi, pp xxiii + 341, Rs 695.

To call this work a fascinating collage of business biographies would best describe the experience of reading it, though perhaps at the risk of undermining the rigour with which its material has been assembled. Quite in contrast to the unfettered subjectivity of a collage, Harish Damodaran has written this book with rigorous attention to the dimension of caste (or more precisely, jati) as a central determinant of entrepreneurial behaviour and business success in India.

Entrepreneurs have been viewed as the dynamic element in economic processes, as the rebels against conformity, who (as Joseph Schumpeter puts it) break the dull rhythms of the “circular flow” of the economy – or the reproduction from day-to-day of stagnant human horizons – and open up limitlessly expanding possibilities. Missing perhaps in this view of the entrepreneur as an epic hero, is a vision of the individual innovator within a larger network of social and cultural ties.

Caste in India, though often considered a residue of the pre-modern economy, has proved an inescapable part of all business histories, indeed, even perhaps a decisive element in modern entrepreneurial success. Social networks are key, simply because business is all about building and sustaining commodity exchange networks and industry is all about establishing productivity enhancing techniques at vital nodes in these networks. To put it in terms of the basic vocabulary of the economist, caste networks aid entrepreneurship by reducing “transaction costs”.

Yet approaches to business history have suffered from certain serious deficiencies, which Damodaran cites as the principal motivation for his work. There has been for one thing, a tendency to remain confined to “traditional” business communities without an understanding of how these traditions are continually being invented and reinvented. This in turn leads to a lack of contemporary focus. Several traditional merchant families, having made the transition to industry and riches beyond imagination, have since fallen away into obscurity. And despite all the continuing prominence of older trading communities in the Indian entrepreneurial landscape, there are new entrants of no recognisable business pedigree who are leading the charge into new frontiers. In terms of geographical focus, the south of the country again, has tended to fall outside the gaze of the conventional business historian.

For these reasons, Damodaran does not dwell at length on the so-called “old merchant communities”, which he identifies as the Banias and Jains of Gujarat and north India, the Marwaris, Parsis, Nattukottai Chettiars, and the Lohanas and Bhatias of the Kutch-Kathiawar-Sindh belt. After a quick consideration of the “general trajectories” of entrepreneurial growth within these communities, which brings the narrative right up to contemporary times, Damodaran turns his attention to the communities less studied: Brahmins and Khatris, Kammas and Reddys, Naidus and Gounders, Nadars and Ezhavas, Patidars and Marathas. He documents the presence of entrepreneurial energy in all these quarters and then turns his attention to explaining an absence. The northern farming communities – in particular, the Jats – he points out, have yet to manifest any tendency to make the transition from agrarian dynamism to industry. Damodaran concludes, a little implausibly since his entire treatment has dealt with “minorities”, with a “note on the minorities”, unable to resist the temptation of using a politicised euphemism in referring to the Muslims. Here again, he is dealing with an absence – or rather, a marginal presence that was splintered and scattered with the partition of 1947.

Damodaran shows how extended kinship networks have concretely worked in ensuring business success. The Nadars of southern Tamilnadu promoted a bank entirely through small capital subscriptions from their caste folk, providing their business ventures with an effective bulwark against fthe uncertainties of finance; a Gounder family of Coimbatore, newly arrived in the sugar industry, overcame a stiff working capital bottleneck by effecitvely persuading clansmen to part with sugarcane on an extended line of credit, a business deal that would have been unthinkable outside of strong and deep community bonds. Then again, Damodaran also demonstrates with a number of illustrations, how globalisation and the stockmarket, which have given a fresh impetus to the mobility of capital and loosened its anchorage in specific social and cultural milieus, has led to a weakening of these kinship ties in business.

Summing up the experiences of these diverse social aggregates, Damodaran identifies three kinds of trajectories of business success. “Bazaar to factory” sums up the path taken by the traditional merchant communities, which are really not the primary focus of this book. Rather, what this book is more concerned with, are the “office to factory” route, which brought the service-oriented and “scribal” castes – Brahmins, Khatris, Kayasths, the Bengali Bhadralok -- into the portals of industry; and the “farm to factory” trajectory represented by the Naidus, Gounders, Patidars, Marathas and Nadars.

Considering the mutability of tradition, it could also be argued that these perhaps are not three distinct trajectories, but three variants of the same trajectory, though displaced in time. That argument perhaps is especially apt when it comes to the “office to factory” trajectory, since many of the traditional merchant communities identified by Damodaran, began their industrial empires as minor functionaries in the early colonial trade in opium, raw cotton and indigo. As these networks of commodity exchange spread out through the south Asian landmass and gradually acquired diversity and depth, greater numbers were drawn into it, both as movers and shakers, and as hapless victims. New identities were forged, such as capitalist and worker, even as several old identities, such as craftsman and subsistence peasant, were undone.

India’s industrial growth was derivative of the dynamics of colonialism, rather than autonomous. The national bourgeoisie that grew out of the process remained segmented, divided into numerous endogamous groups. This book ends with an affirmation of the value of diversity. When democratic political contestation and spontaneous economic change, contribute towards a socially diverse middle class, the likely further outcome is a socially diverse entrepreneurial class. Diversity in turn, becomes an assurance of solidarity. Though the country has in its southern and western regions, achieved a semblance of social diversity, large sections still remain excluded. And in the vast Hindi heartland and the east, even the semblance has not been achieved.

The last two decades of economic liberalisation have seemingly created conditions for those lower in the hierarchy of business and industry to migrate upwards into the interstices of the capitalist system and acquire leadership positions. Yet there has also been in this time, a vast increase of inequalities of income and wealth.

There is currently underway, an impassioned debate among the Dalits – a heterogeneous social group that shares the common attribute of exclusion under the ritual order – on globalisation as a possible antidote to all their inherited debilities. That argument remains inconclusive. And while the jury remains out, material realities are ensuring that the answer is not left to spontaneous forces of entrepreneurship and economic change. Politics, it is increasingly recognised, will now drive the agenda.