déjà vu

They are like a re-enactment of things that have happened before. Or, my imagination has been jolted into overdrive by the horrific events of the last few weeks.

In the Afghanistan-US collision I fancy I hear echoes of the first encounter of Out-of-Africa Homo sapiens with the local Homo neanderthalensis nearly 70,000 years ago. The US and Afghanistan could very well be divergent evolutionary systems and have nothing in common.

I imagine the Rohingya in Burma, Tigrayans in Ethiopia, and other clashes taking place right now on earth, also echo the past and reflect fault lines. Are there deep intangible differences between ethnic groups that can’t be bridged because they can’t be named, described, understood and resolved as they’re beyond the reach of language? Have democratic people created a collective delusion that we are all exactly the same, to which others don’t subscribe?

Are wars actually a face-off between species, then? Setting aside the fact that scientists are now revising the definition of ‘species’, are there actual evolutionary differences in how people’s brains are wired, the way we think and behave because of differences in genes inherited from different remote ancestors and subsequently altered further by adaptation?

Surely it matters, considering that genes decide who we are and what we prioritize in life. The differences can’t be put down merely to culture, which is a superficial construct.

Our common ancestor Homo erectus evolved from chimps in Africa about 7 million years ago and his descendants migrated to different parts of the world in waves. Each group of ancient people adapted to life as they found it: desert, ice, grasslands, dense tropical forest, altitude, level of UV radiation, availability of water and food, etc.

Over time, adaptations generated genomic signatures of natural selection. So, though we share basic emotions like joy, sadness, excitement, anger, hate, etc., the nuances differ enough to sometimes not be able to relate to people who think very differently from us.

There were at least 21 human species that existed on earth at different times. These species were different from Homo sapiens, and interbreeding between some of them happened thousands of years ago. All the other species died out, but left some of their genes in the cells of different groups of Homo sapiens.

Some populations living now have 2-4% neanderthal genes from Eurasia. The indigenous people of Oceania have 4-6% denisovan genes from Siberia. So do Native Americans, whose ancestors entered America via the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia.

Does that explain why people of different ethnicity differ beyond just skin colour? I wonder, because the same people, when transplanted in a different environment, adapt and assimilate within one or two generations. Maybe neuroplasticity offsets inherited traits, or maybe these traits lie dormant and don’t manifest unless triggered by insecurity, distrust, fear or anger.

The Chinese government has accepted the new Afghan set-up with no reservations. Again, in my imagination, an echo from the past: Timur admired Genghis Khan and tried to emulate him! While Timur killed 17 million people, Genghis Khan killed 40 million. What might these allies get up to! Will they endanger India?

Of course, I’m not stereotyping regular citizens of either country by saying this. Citizens anywhere can only protest, and taking out processions doesn’t work in any country, which is why governments allow them in the first place! The subaltern history of any place is summed up as a footnote: the citizens rose up against the state but the uprising was successfully quelled by police with lathis, teargas and firing in the air.

Strangely, there are no stories about indigenous Indian kings with the sensibilities of these two men and their descendants. Though the Mauryas, Guptas, Cholas, Pallavas, Karkotas, Ahoms and all the rest continuously waged wars, killed people and wreaked destruction, I haven’t come across accounts that indicate they crossed the line separating soldier from psychopath.

Of course, it’s possible such records existed in the Nalanda or Vikramashila universities that were destroyed by primitive marauders whose idea of treasure didn’t go beyond jewelry. A re-enactment of this wanton destruction happened in 2001 when the Bamiyan Buddhas, a fine specimen of Gandhara art from the 6th century, were blown up. Déjà vu.

I do wonder if present day Chinese leaders and the Afghans that currently hold sway tap into a deep intuitive knowledge of one another’s minds. I mean, do they recognize themselves in the other and instinctively know how to transact business with them?

India doesn’t have that best-friend thing with any country, though some say we do have a genuine connection with Russia and Israel.

We see how India completed several civil projects in Afghanistan over the last 20 years but didn’t forge a friendship. One can’t force friendship – it’s like college roommates, some are merely roommates while some become friends for life. What we had going with Afghanistan is closer to the former.

Treaties, pacts, partnerships, MoUs, promises and assurances don’t carry quite the same meaning and sanctity in all cultures. People with fewer scruples may use them as expedients, bait, or devices to achieve immediate goals. To unscrupulous people ‘a gentleman’s word is his bond’ means ‘a foolish man who deserves to be taken advantage of’. This is illustrated by one version of Prithviraj Chauhan’s fate that has gained publicity recently.

As an Indian I feel a niggling unease, as if the Ghori-Prithviraj interactions in the two Battles of Tarain 1000 years ago might be re-enacted anytime. The US is either as innocent as a child getting into a car with the ‘nice’ man he just met, or incredibly stupid, or there’s a clever foreign policy that is beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals, or there’s a conspiracy involved. It’s hard to believe the US didn’t know where its ‘aid’ was going for twenty years.

Perhaps the aftermath of the 20-year Afghan war is to Americans what our 1000-year history of being under relentless attack is to us, hopefully making them a little more circumspect in future while dealing with people who live by a different set of ethics.

Words like president and minister in the context of a government in Afghanistan sound contrived because people holding those posts have different qualifications and job experience in our world. Since it is not an elected government, the nomenclature doesn’t sit well with many of us. All they want is the $$$$$, the bag of goodies they feel entitled to receive from the international community, and everybody knows it.

But the images coming out of Afghanistan of malnourished and sick children, vacant-eyed mothers sitting by the hospital beds of their little ones, women howling in pain on being beaten up, these are tugging at people’s heartstrings all over the world.

We empathize, because we’ve seen this before, whenever there is an upheaval somewhere in the world – Serbia, South Sudan, Burma, Honduras, Chechnya, Ukraine, Spain, etc. – and in our own country. Hopefully, the $1billion collected yesterday for food and basic necessities for the Afghan people reaches them.

the afghans and us

Every Indian has a representation of Afghans in his mind starting from school days. Our image of ourselves has been shaped by how Indian rulers of those times responded to attacks from the northwest, chiefly from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. And our core idea of Afghanistan is based on a whole lot of niche facts from History classes.

As 7th and 8th graders we were shocked by the savagery of Afghan invaders described in our textbooks. These accounts are based on what was written down by the invaders. They could be distorted by subjectivity, translation or victor’s bias. Or maybe that’s the truth, that’s exactly how they did happen.

Apparently, nothing was recorded by those whose lives were too disrupted by the maelstrom to muster up the will to record the events.

These are some of the invaders from Afghanistan that we had to learn up a lot about in school. After plowing through a few chapters it was like watching something play on a loop on a TV screen in a hotel lobby. They all began to sound the same!

Ghazni: 10th /11th century

Ghori: 12th century

Jalaludin Khilji: 13th century

Timur: 14th century

Lodi: 15th century


Ghazni’s ruthless ransacking of temples, especially the Somnath temple that he robbed and razed 17 times, bewildered us.

And the Rajputs patiently rebuilt it each time! What drove them? Perhaps a sense of duty, coupled with acceptance of the temple’s destruction as either God’s will, the attackers’ ignorance, or a test of their own faith. Fatalism is in our genes and we do sometimes behave like automatons if we are exhausted from being hit on the head too many times. Anyway, the temple still exists.


Ghori conquered India thanks to the original Jai Chand whose name is now a pan-India metaphor for a traitor. But, as children, we felt ashamed that an Indian betrayed our country. After Ghori, his slaves, and then their slaves, ruled India for nearly 100 years! To rule only meant to exercise supreme authority. Royal qualities were not required, so it didn’t matter who sat on the throne! So, this was the oxymoronic Slave dynasty.


Jalaludin Khilji killed the last ruler of the Slave dynasty and declared himself king when he was seventy. He was killed by his nephew-cum-son-in-law, Alauddin, so he could be king. His dynasty lasted for only 30 years and is best known for destroying the Nalanda University.

The Khiljis were followed by the Turkic Tughlaq dynasty whose exact origins in the northwest are not known. But one of them provided generations of Indian school kids with much needed comic relief in the emotionally draining History classes that mostly featured cruel people and a lot of bloodletting.

Tughlaq is now a metaphor for someone who makes costly decisions that are doomed to fail, and everyone but the Tughlaq can foresee what is going to happen!

Timur: Timur captured and looted all the towns from Kabul to Delhi, killed with abandon, ruined and destroyed everything in his path, and then, on his way back, plundered the towns he had missed on his way in, like Meerut, Hardwar, Kangra and Jammu. He has the distinction of causing the deaths of 17 million people, i.e. 5% of the world population at the time.

He took away gold, silver and precious stones from India. I wonder what happened to all the treasure that reached Afghanistan from India. Maybe the Chinese will find it when they start digging, once they get the mining rights they’re angling for!

Lodi: Lodi was a Pashtun Afghan. He and his descendants were a harsh and bigoted lot and did exactly what their predecessors did. Ibrahim got his brother assassinated so he could occupy the throne, something we simply accepted as one of their rites of passage by the time we reached tenth grade and had been force fed this stuff for four years.

The Lodis destroyed temples and built mosques on top, another standard procedure, which made remembering facts about each of these people both easy and difficult while studying for exams, because they all blurred into one turbaned, bearded, mustachioed, sword-brandishing hulk on a horse.

So this is the historic Afghanistan-India relationship we inherited! Reviewing these events from the safety of 500-1000 years into the future makes it’s easier to talk dispassionately about them, the way historians write about Attila and Bleda the Huns’ onslaught on the Roman Empire in the 5th century, or the Norsemen’s on medieval England.  

But, as school children, these stories upset us enough to prefer Amar Chitra Katha comics. Many of these comics were about kings like Prithviraj Chauhan who fought back, valiant rulers who were dismissed in one short paragraph in our textbooks. Until last month’s Tokyo Olympics India never appreciated the efforts of people who didn’t win in a competition or war!

Meanwhile, we read Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala every year from 8th to 10th grade, either in English or in Hindi. We warmed to the big Afghan as he affectionately teased the author’s little daughter. We felt his pain when he shed tears for his little girl back home in Kabul.

You might say the pen is truly mightier than the sword if one Nobel-winning Indian writer could make Indian kids forget all the terrible Afghans in Indian history for the moment, and feel compassion for an Afghan trader down on his luck in the 1890s, but honestly, coming across a normal human being from Afghanistan was a huge surprise and a great relief!

In the 1990s we felt sorry for present-day Afghans and were happy that our country was giving them refuge. At that time I was friends with the Afghan refugees who lived next door – Naaz and Nazia – and we spent a lot of time in each other’s homes.

For the past couple of decades we were glad there was peace in Afghanistan, thanks to the US presence. From 2001 India invested US$3 billion in Afghanistan to build roads, schools, hospitals, dams – and even a beautiful parliament building costing $90million.

400 infrastructure projects across the country. Nice!

Now, here’s the thing.

In 2011 we signed the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement and Afghanistan got duty-free access to the Indian market. Great. But I can’t find any information regarding what India gained from this deep engagement with Afghanistan!

I typed ‘What has India gained from Afghanistan’ – worded in many different ways to make sure Google understood – in the search bar and it returned 38,20,00,000 results for ‘What has India done in Afghanistan’! It never found the answer to my question! Perhaps private investors from India prospered and that doesn’t appear online?

I would have expected the government to get some quid pro quo for this construction work, like maybe lithium for our solar energy and electric vehicle projects?

The Ministry of External Affairs says we have ‘a people-to-people relationship’ with Afghanistan. I can’t decode that. I presume there is a solid reason for investing in a country that shares only a 106 km long border with us, thousands of feet up in the Hindukush Mountains; otherwise, we are separated by thousands of km2 of hostile land.

We are currently hosting over 20,000 documented refugees from Afghanistan and several thousand undocumented ones besides. We are providing for them, obviously, despite our own impoverished populace being hit by corona and job loss. The refugees say we’ve made a bad job of it – merely saving their lives doesn’t count! Therefore, those who were stranded in a gurudwara in Kabul last week refused to come to India.

As of now, it seems to me that India helped Afghan civilians painstakingly build a comfortable nest in which parasitic cuckoos have now laid their eggs. And the US has inadvertently provided equipment for their protection. The civilians who built the nest want to go to Europe because their nest is now a ghetto. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if any good comes out of what, at this point, looks like India’s vanity project in Afghanistan.


Does Trump think India and Pakistan are merely modern-day Roman gladiators in his arena?

I admit that selling arms to both countries makes good business sense. Sell one thing to Pakistan, and the thing to defend itself against that thing, sell that to India. It generates much business for Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and Trump can MAGA with all that money.

The whole world is Trump’s arena, and he can pick any country to be his gladiator. All are expendable, the way gladiators were slaves or condemned prisoners in the Roman Empire of 100 BCE, or thereabouts. They had a short life expectancy and were meant solely for the entertainment of the Roman public. It seems that’s who we are, people who are going to use these weapons against each other until India-Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran, that whole contiguous patch of land is destroyed like Iraq and Syria. Incidentally, all these lands were once the seat of one of Earth’s most ancient and sophisticated civilisations of the time, the Harappan civilisation, around 3000 BCE.

Donald Trump can walk out of international agreements like the Iran nuclear deal, despite objections from the other members, on a hunch that Iran would not confine itself to peaceful use of nuclear energy, quoting Israeli intel. Maybe it’s true, but he ought to have discussed this with the other members first. Trump can ring up and chat on the phone with Khalifa Haftar, the military dictator of Libya, ignoring its effect on the authority of the elected Prime Minister Sarraj and, therefore, on the stability of Libya. Trump can unilaterally slap sanctions on Iran or Venezuela and order other countries to not buy oil from them. And so on.

The US is selling US$ 125 million worth of tech and logistics support for Pakistan’s F-16 fighter jets manufactured by Lockheed Martin. Pakistan owns 75 F-16s. They were originally sold to Pakistan for the global fight against terrorism. Later, they were upgraded with advanced radars, targeting systems, fire-and-forget missiles and precision-guided munitions. For the global fight against terrorists, right? Who might these terrorists be, and where do they operate? In a post-truth world any inconvenient entity can be branded a terrorist and attacked.

There is apparently a clause in the sale documents that is supposed to prevent their deployment against Indian military installations. So, at least on paper, we are safe, though that hasn’t been borne out by the events following Balakot. Once you hand over something potentially explosive to someone with a propensity to misuse it, you’ve practically given a carte blanche, like pictures and videos that teenage girls trustingly share with their boyfriends on Whatsapp.

Meanwhile, the US is also selling several C-17 Globemaster III airlift aircraft, manufactured by Boeing, to the Indian Air Force. This sale is worth US$ 670 million. It detects missile threats – obviously from the enemy ­– and the crew can select the countermeasures they need to take. That would be the start of a war, wouldn’t it? The US has also sold India four Apache Guardian attack choppers armed with missiles. We are waiting on eighteen more. They apparently cost INR 13,950 crore. Whatever that converts to in US dollars, it’s a lot of money. These are – as the name indicates – for attack, and to keep us mission-ready. That sounds terrifying. To be fair, I can’t blame the US entirely for selling us these, because we’re buying, aren’t we? There’s no gun to our heads. But we might have never needed them if Pakistan hadn’t become adventurous and overconfident, thanks to US’ support over the past few decades. Of course, the US genuinely believed Pakistanis to be their partners in the ‘war on terror’, as George W. Bush called it, and it’s a pity they were taken in.

In addition, India is buying the S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft weapon system from Russia. It is a long-range surface-to-air missile system. This is obviously used to destroy enemy aircraft or missiles violating our air space. Do we expect to need these soon? On the other hand, many countries have purchased S-400s, so maybe it is something many countries keep in their arsenal, just in case. For some reason, Trump has threatened us with sanctions if we dare to buy them, regardless of the fact that we need to honour a deal made with Russia long ago, and Russia and India have always had a good equation. The ‘with us or against us’ binary can’t be blindly applied. India belonged to the non-aligned group during the Cold War but is now what Shashi Tharoor describes as multi-aligned.

And now Trump is going to restore US$ 1.3 billion aid to Pakistan if it does what the US wants:

  1. Help the US exit Afghanistan by getting the Taliban to achieve full ceasefire and participate in talks with the Afghan government.
  2. Crack down on terrorism on its soil.

These are tall orders. Imran Khan returned from the US to Pakistan in a happy frame of mind last week and one of the first things he heard was that ten Pak soldiers had been killed, six of them by the Taliban. How will he cut the Gordian knot to keep his end of the deal with Trump? To digress a little, is it true that Blackwater mercenaries will replace the US soldiers in Afghanistan when troops withdraw? There was a documentary about this on TV and I thought this plan rather alarming.

Whatever I have expressed here has taken me a few hours to piece together. Most of the information is from the humble daily newspaper ­– the Times of India reporter, Chidanand Rajghatta, to be precise ­– with some help from the Internet. I can’t process the mind-boggling numbers Rajghatta quotes, but I’ve mentioned them to reflect how much money is involved in the lucrative business of war.

I am uneasy about all this, otherwise I wouldn’t have tried to wrap my head around a topic like this that I normally avoid thinking about. Peace between India and Pakistan would be nice. Iran and Afghanistan matter to India just as the UK, France and Germany matter to the US; they are friends. India and the US are natural partners on a range of issues, but nobody has yet said we are friends, though we hope we will be, in accordance with the definition of the word friend.

This post is not about feeling victimised. It’s about the POTUS being completely blind to other countries’ relationships with nations other than America. Other countries are not his vassals, they have their own sovereignty, and I wish someone who has his ear would tell him that.




Thinking of Nazia

I lived in Delhi in the early nineties. My next-door neighbours were refugees from Afghanistan. They lived with their mom and younger brother. Their dad was in Kabul taking care of business and property.

They were moved to India for safety when it started raining bombs in Kabul. The girls, Naaz and Nazia, had had to drop out of high school. One of their friends, Zakia, had a little sister who had been to school only until second grade. All of us felt bad that she hadn’t got to experience normal life at all. The only life she knew was sitting around at Nazia’s, hanging out at the market or the park in the evening, and shopping for clothes and stuff. The brothers of all these girls moved around in a gang (a harmless one) dressed like Hindi movie stars. It wasn’t possible for them to go to school/college or to work, so this is how they passed time.

Their dad called from Kabul every few days. When I dropped in at Nazia’s one evening I found her alone at home, hugging a cushion and sobbing bitterly. I sat down on the gaddha beside her and held her close. After some time she told me her dad had not called for many days and she had no way of contacting him. She was worried about what this was doing to her mom too. She went into a flood of tears again. “Do you think he is . . .?” Though I tried to soothe her and raise a smile by saying “Tch, tch, now don’t be a giriyanok” – a word she often used when my infant son cried, meaning ‘cry-baby’ – I was worried too. But there was nothing we could do.

scan00061.jpgNazia was just one of the few people I knew  in this situation. These were ordinary kids with ordinary lives, till their country had got embroiled in a war. Now their lives were fraught with uncertainties and anxiety. Family members scattered, education disrupted, constant fear of losing loved ones left behind in Kabul. Living as refugees in a foreign country (though it was admirable how they picked up both English and Hindi)  must have been so difficult. Those who stayed back in Kabul probably had it even worse.

A whole generation of kids grew up in Kabul exposed to violence. And those little kids are young adults today. Chaturasti? How are you? Do we really want this to happen to the little children growing up in Syria today?

I don’t understand international politics very well. All I know is that I don’t want a war anywhere on Earth.  And I’m happy that a lot of people agree with me, regardless of what their Presidents want.