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Comment: What should India do in response to the US-China Rift?

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US President Donald Trump issued two executive orders on Thursday restricting Chinese social media networks TikTok and WeChat, on the grounds that they pose significant national security threats to the United States. These executive actions set a 45-day deadline to ByteDance, which owns TikTok, and Tencent, owner of WeChat, to sell the two platforms to American companies, or face a complete ban in the US.

ByteDance has already been in talks with Microsoft to sell the US operations of TikTok, an enormously popular video-sharing platform. Now by issuing the executive order, Trump has virtually ensured the certainty of that sale. WeChat, which is mainly used by the Chinese diaspora to communicate with their family members and friends in the mainland and make mobile payments, now faces a more uncertain future in the US.

Trump’s crackdown on TikTok and WeChat, and by extension, Chinese technology and business interests, opens up another front in the President’s on-going confrontation with China, which started with a trade war involving farming, dairy products and other American goods. More recently, the Trump administration has taken actions to restrict Huawei access in the US and the use of government funds to purchase Huawei products and services.

Does this latest phase in the Sino-American confrontation, which began on June 21 with the US ordering the closure of the Chinese consulate general in Houston, and China, in retaliation, closing the US consulate in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, benefit or provide an opportunity for India?

Several analysts in both Washington and New Delhi have observed that it does. It is easy to see the logic behind that argument. In restricting TikTok and WeChat, the US has merely followed India’s footsteps in banning these two and 57 Chinese apps in late June, in response to encroachments by People’s Liberation Army soldiers into Indian territory.

From a geopolitical standpoint, there is no doubt that the current US-China conflict has come at an opportune time for India, which has been engaged in multiple standoffs with China along the border in Ladakh since the beginning of this summer. It once again reinforces the convergence of security interests of India and the US on the China front.

There may be a temptation because of this to escalate the tension with China and in attempt to get concessions in Ladakh. Many armchair warriors have urged Prime Minister Modi to ally with the US and force China to the back foot, to use a cricketing term. Even though New Delhi and Washington have become closer strategic partners, especially in the past two decades, India has never openly aligned with the US on China, despite US pressure to do so.

The historic US-India civil nuclear deal, signed in 2008, was widely seen in Washington as a move to empower India as a bulwark against China. But, much to the frustration of the anti-China hawks in Washington, India has never been comfortable playing that role. This hesitancy continues till today. Notwithstanding calls by many in India and the US to do so, New Delhi has not rushed into Washington’s arms in the wake of the Galwan attack. This appears to be a quite prudent decision.

In any scenario, it is highly unlikely that the US will engage in a full-scale cold war similar to the one it waged with the erstwhile Soviet Union for much of the last half of the 20th century. China doesn’t pose any physical threat to the US, or its European allies, unlike the Soviet Union back then. Economically, the US and China are more integrated than perhaps any two large sovereign nations ever have. Besides being the source of many American goods, China also holds more than $1 trillion worth of US securities.

There is every possibility for a reset in Sino-US relations if Trump loses to Democrat Joe Biden in November. Even if Trump is re-elected, it is unlikely that he will pursue an all-out economic war with China during his second term.

Knowledgeable observers suggest that the immediate provocation for Trump’s TikTok and WeChat restrictions are not geopolitical, but domestic politics. With Covid-19 continuing to ravage the American heartland and the much anticipated US economic recovery not materializing, the President’s re-election prospects have dimmed considerably.

Having spent considerable efforts on boosting the stock market throughout his term, the economy was the primary issue Trump was planning to run on in his re-election bid. But, the impact of Covid-19 has cratered the American economy.

Indeed, the latest job report, released on Friday, revealed that more than 15 million Americans are still unemployed. And, over 30 million are receiving some type of unemployment assistance. These conditions dash any hopes for a meaningful and major economic turnaround before the November election.

In addition, Trump’s failure to develop a national plan and process to contain the spread of Coronavirus has raised serious questions among many voters about his competency. According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, nearly three-fifths of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and less than two-fifths approve.

Trump can never take the blame or assume responsibility for his own poor performance. In his mind, if he loses the presidency it will be solely because of China and its failure to contain the virus from spreading outside its borders. He began calling Covid-19 the “China virus” in an attempt to deflect attention from himself regarding his failed leadership in managing the response to the pandemic. This deflect and diversion tactic is classic Trump. It explains why the President has chosen the path of escalation with Beijing. It is not a deep-seated ideological or policy-based aversion to the Chinese. It is primarily a personal and politically motivated action taken as part of a re-election gambit.

Given this, India should engage in watchful waiting to see what the next move from Washington and Beijing will be and who will be elected President in the US in November. It should then determine how to proceed. And, do so with caution.

(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed are personal)

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Rail-Roko: Farmers continue to block tracks in Amritsar against farm bills

Farmers, under the banner of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, have been staging a sit-in on the rail track in Punjab since last Wednesday

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Farmers Protest

Farmers squatted on the Amritsar-Delhi railway track here on Sunday, continuing their ‘rail-roko’ agitation against the contentious farm bills passed by the Parliament last week.

People from nearby villages brought cooked food and other items for the demonstrators. ‘Langar’ (community kitchen) has also been organised at the site by local gurdwaras.

Women wearing saffron dupattas also joined the protest, raised slogans against the Centre and said they would not allow the implementation of the three legislations.

Farmers, under the banner of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, have been staging a sit-in on the rail track in Punjab since last Wednesday.

Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee general secretary Sarwan Singh Pandher demanded that all the sitting 13 MPs from Punjab should tender their resignation with immediate effect in support of the farmers’ demands. He asserted that BJP leaders would not be allowed to enter villages.

The committee had announced to extend their agitation till September 29. Trains services remained suspended in the state because of the protest.

Farmers have expressed apprehension that the Centre’s farm reforms would pave a way for the dismantling of the minimum support price system, leaving them at the “mercy” of big companies.

Parliament had passed the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020; the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill; and the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill. These are yet to get the assent of the President.

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Antecedents of anti Muslim bias in media including Sudarshan TV

The Sudarshan TV’s “UPSC Jihad” is, in the words of Justice Chandrachud, a “rabid” vilification of Muslims. The channel felt encouraged to cross the red line because this particular line is considered Kosher in the current political atmosphere by mainstream channels as well as fly-by-night media operators.

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There have been many but let me cite just two reactions from the family to Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and K.M. Joseph’s utterances restraining Sudarshan TV from telecasting its ‘UPSC Jihad’ show. A relative mailed a couplet comprehensive in its simplicity:

‘Door insaan ke sar se yeh musibat kar do

Aag dozakh ki bujha do, use jannat kar do’

(Remove this menace hovering over our heads,

Douse the leaping flames of hell; make it a paradise)

“Leaping flames of hell”: that is how a majority of Indian TV shows register with petrified Muslims. TV news is daily mortification; lynchings happen outdoors. The Supreme Court’s quest for “some mechanism” for self regulation of the media brings her hope. “Cricket will be played within a well measured boundary?” Not too much to expect.

The other reaction, from a younger relative is more cynical: if the Supreme Court had sharp instincts, it would have taken suo motu note of the outrage, before Sudarshan TV was able to telecast even one episode.

Incipient communalism was part of the Republic from the very beginning. Contentious issues on that score, however, did not come up when the electronic media consisted only of Doordarshan. DD, launched in the mid-70s, faced roadblocks too — as in the screening of Tamas, based on a novel by Bhishm Sahni, directed by Govind Nihalani. Centered on Partition, the director pulls no punches on exposing communalism on all sides. Since Hindu communalism had never been placed under the scanner with such candour in independent India, there was a furore. Screening was stopped. Only when Justices Bakhtawar Lentin and Sujata Manohar of Bombay High Court cleared the serial was it screened.

The Sudarshan TV’s “UPSC Jihad” is, in the words of Justice Chandrachud, a “rabid” vilification of Muslims. The channel felt encouraged to cross the red line because this particular line is considered Kosher in the current political atmosphere by mainstream channels as well as fly-by-night media operators.

An anti Muslim edge is a perceived requirement of Modi’s march towards Hindu Rashtra. But an anti Muslim edge in the media has antecedents which predate Modi. Four apparently disparate events stirred the cauldron of communalism. In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed. The disappearance of a column in the international system on which India had depended, plus an unprecedented economic crisis, caused Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh to lurch towards Washington and swiftly embark on liberal economic policies.

With the new market economy came consumerism and the need for multiple TV channels to accommodate the burgeoning advertising. Remember, when the Babri Masjid fell in December 1992, there was only Doordarshan to televise the news. About this time, Mandal versus Kamandal, caste versus communalism spiraled out of control. It is pointless speculating whether a mushroom growth of channels went some distance in amplifying the new, energetic, communal politics. Market and identity politics is a separate study. Internal politics, however communal, would have been amenable to management. The real problem arose when globalization, spurred on by unbridled capitalism caused even Barack Obama to ask in retrospect: “Did we mishandle globalization?” I have often wondered if Ghalib’s imagery is applicable:

‘Rau mein hai rakhsh e umr kahaan dekhiye thamey,

Nay haath bag par hain, na pa hai rakab mein.”

(The steed is in full flight; I know not where it will halt;

I have lost control of the reins and, feet are not in the stirrups.)

That was globalization.

All prime ministers of India, from 1947 to the mid-90s, depended on traditional forms of mass mobilization, prior to the TV era. A more media savvy Prime Minister than Narendra Modi there has not been. He played all the strings to arrange for himself a saturation coverage of the 2014 and 2019 elections with expert ease. Crony capitalism was essential and it was easily managed.

Having brought down the Soviet Union, the US put its imprimatur on a Unipolar World Order by embarking on operation Desert Storm in February 1992. In some ways, Desert Storm bared the plans the US had for the future. The most important of these, pertinent to our narrative, was the inauguration of the Global Electronic Media which the Pentagon planned with such stealth that even an arch ally like the UK found itself flat footed. BBC’s senior correspondent, John Simpson walked around Baghdad with a lowly satellite telephone while Peter Arnett of the CNN launched the New World Information order from the terrace of Baghdad’s Al Rasheed hotel. For the first time in history, a war was brought live into our drawing rooms.

The unprecedented fire power which I saw from the 14th floor of Al Mansour hotel, remained a nightmare for months. This frightful exhibition, let it always be remembered, divided the world in perpetuity into two hostile sets of audience — the triumphant West and the defeated Muslim world, humiliated yet again. Had multiple channels been operational in India (they were not in 1991-92), would they have been cheering Western victory or Muslim defeat? It would have been bad form to pose this query then? Please note how times have changed and why the Supreme Court’s intervention is timely.

The Post 9/11 war on terror transformed itself into a crusade against Islam. Journalistic restraint became a casualty. Geraldo Rivera of Fox News flourished a revolver in front of a TV camera in October 2001 in Afghanistan. “Should I see Osama bin Laden anywhere, I shall finish him off with this,” said he, his finger on the trigger. The copycat Indian media, now in a phase of rapid expansion, picked up every inflection.

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Muslim education in India: Need for private and public sector investment

These are troubling findings that frame the continuing needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections. What should be done to address those needs?

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Muslim education in India

Muslim education in India: Eminent columnist Swaminathan A. Aiyar called upon Wakf boards and wealthy Muslims to finance the development of “a string of world-class education institutions” that would attract foreign students and Indian Hindus as well. His article was written in response to Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi’s recommendation for “government scholarships for all” to deal with the “literacy and attendance gaps” of Muslims and other communities.

The proposal was driven by his opinion that “the quality of government schools is so poor that giving more government scholarships will do little for Muslims or any other community”. And, that “Christians have long created their own educational institutions of excellence”.

There is no argument that Christians have created good educational institutions — as have Muslims and others I might add — and that government-supported schools need to be improved. But, a programme of the scope and nature that the article suggests would do nothing to address the very real problem that Owaisi has identified.

That problem is that Muslims and others in the weaker sections still lag far behind those in other religious groups in terms of their development. The development deficit occurs at points all along the educational continuum from pre-school through higher education.

The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 disclosed this “development deficit” for minorities in many areas. The report resulted in the creation of an across the board programme for the development of minorities in India.

Some progress has been made since then but much remains to be done:

  • In the 2011 census, the overall literacy rate for Muslims went up substantially to 68.5 per cent from 59.1 per cent in 2001. The rate for Muslim females was much lower at not quite 52 per cent.
  • A study released by the US India Policy Institute at the end of 2013 states that since 2006, “… the literacy level and the quantum of improvements for Muslims were modest compared to other populations.”
  • That same study showed that only 11 per cent of Muslims in India pursue higher education compared to a national average of approximately 19 per cent and that participation in the “general category of Muslims in higher education” had actually declined by 1.5 per cent for the period studied.
  • The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO)’s 75th round report cited by MP Owaisi showed that 22 per cent of Muslim girls aged 3 to 35 have never enrolled in a formal educational course.

These are troubling findings that frame the continuing needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections. What should be done to address those needs?

In my opinion, the answer must be a comprehensive and collaborative effort financed and supported through public and private sector investment.

That effort should improve educational opportunity and quality at all levels. Educational literacy should be the starting line and higher education of some form should be the finish line.

For students at the primary and secondary levels, the Indian government needs to continue to upgrade its educational improvement initiatives to ensure basic knowledge, skills and abilities in language, science, mathematics and technology. Although madarasas educate only between 2-4 per cent of Muslim children and youth, they need to modernize their curriculum and move away from Islam centric or Islamic-only education to a holistic approach that enables these students to integrate fully into Indian society.

Higher education should not be solely the province of four-year colleges or universities. It should include technical, vocational and professional education at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

Education in those areas provides avenues for participation in 21st-century careers, the competencies to compete in a global economy, and the capacity to contribute to lifting Muslims and those in the weaker sections out of poverty and deprivation.

I know from my personal involvement that Muslims are already making commitments to assist in providing educational opportunities for Muslims at all these levels. For example, the American Federation of Muslims of Indian origin supports hundreds of schools and scholarships for underprivileged Muslims and others throughout India.

The Duty Society of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) has numerous members who have focused on educational development for those in the weaker sections and placed an intensified organizational focus there in 2016, its 125th anniversary year.

I myself have supported AMU with initiatives that enhance higher educational opportunities for Muslims and others including the funding of a new Management Complex, an Entrepreneurship Center, and an auditorium for the Mass Communications Department. At the dedication of the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex, I said, “From this Management Complex will come the future leaders who will make India and the world a better place. It will be an educational empowerment zone.”

I have had a lifelong passion and commitment to improving girls’ access to and participation in meaningful education. If we empower girls through education, they are most likely to control their own destiny. Education prepares the girl to become a change agent. Too many families are trapped in poverty because of lack of education. With her own education, the girl who becomes a woman and a mother can educate and equip her children to escape that trap. This is why my wife Debbie and I have also committed to support the development of a technical school for women in Azamgarh UP. Those women graduates will make invaluable contributions to making India and the world a better place as well.

Addressing the development needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections is a strategic investment. It is a hand-up and not a hand-out. Those who get that hand-up will extend their hands to help others up. As a result, the return on these public and private investments will be exponential for the Indian economy and society.

(The writer is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)

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