Drunk with the Sight of Power

On January 27, 2009, a newly formed task force of Indian American organizations is set to overrun Capitol Hill. The Indian American Task Force will take their message to Congress and to the new administration, asking them to be much tougher on Pakistan. The impetus for this new combine and its lobbying is the Mumbai attacks of December 2008. But this is not just about justice for the victims of Mumbai. There is another dynamic involved, which is to walk the Jewish American road, to create a “India Lobby” that resembles the “Israel Lobby.” The investment among these Indian Americans is to follow the remarkable success of the Israel Lobby, which has been able to leverage its relatively small numbers (7 million, only 2.5% of the U. S. population) into considerable political power. An even more impressive story is that of the Cuban Americans (1.6 million; 0.5% of the U. S. population), but these Indian Americans are less enthused by them. After the Bay of Pigs and a few isolated terrorist acts, the Cubans have been rather unimpressive, the Embargo notwithstanding. The Jewish American dominated Israel Lobby, on the other hand, has made the United States into “Israel’s attorney” (according to former U. S. State Department official Aaron David Miller). This is what impresses the new Indian American Task Force.

Islamic Terrorism.

To prepare for the January 27 day of action, the Task Force released its “information document.” The primary author of the document is the US India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), a group founded in the aftermath of 911 with the close support and encouragement of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) and the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). At a meeting of Jewish American and Indian American partisans of the right, Charles Brooks of the AJCommittee said, “We’re fighting the same extremist enemy. We want to help [the new Indian group] become more effective in communicating their political will.” Who is this “enemy”? Sue Ghosh Stricklett, who was then with USINPAC, told a conservative publication in 2003, “the terrorism directed against India is the same as that directed against the United States and Israel. We would like to see closer ties between the United States and Israel [with India].” Stricklett urges this alliance to deal with what these organizations often call “Islamic militancy” or “Islamic extremism,” or what the late Congressman Tom Lantos called it at an Indo-Jewish forum, “mindless, vicious, fanatic Islamic terrorism.” The USINPAC document on the Mumbai attacks argues, “We believe the problem of Islamic terrorism is global and requires an urgent global approach and solution.”

To render terrorism and terrorists as the enemy fails to distinguish between the tactics that a people use and the social and political conditions that generate their hostility. To defeat those who use terrorism, one has to understand and deal with the conditions that produce those who take to terror. All this is irrelevant to USINPAC, and to its cousins, AIPAC and the AJCommittee. From a security policy or even military standpoint, avoiding a broad analysis of the roots of terror is a serious error of judgment.

To ignore the local origins of the attackers is myopic. It allows groups like USINPAC and AIPAC to make quick common cause with the anxiety within the US in the post-911 period. Half-baked assumptions about the terrorists (or what that distant memory of a person once called “evildoers”) generate fear, but not analysis and certainly not a strategy to deal with the problem. Ariel Sharon took advantage of the post-911 intellectual chaos in the US to “change the facts on the ground” (as the Israeli Higher Command likes to say) in both the West Bank and Gaza; his assaults in 2002-03 opened a dynamic that is ongoing in Gaza today. The Hindu Right, in power till 2004, wanted to mimic the Israeli strategy by bombing some madrassas and known terrorist camps in Pakistan, but neither the Indian military nor would Indian public opinion countenance such belligerence (I remember a breezy chat with an Indian army man, long known to my family, who proudly told me how the mid-level officers like himself bristled during the 2001-02 mobilization along the Indo-Pak border, called Operation Parakram, or Operation Strength). After the Mumbai attack, the media tried to carry the standard, joined breathlessly by the Hindu Right, whose parliamentary leader, L. K. Advani said, “This is not an attack. It is war,” and the government must take “whatever action [is] necessary,” a. k. a. bombardment of Pakistan. The government held fast, pressured in large part by a very large march organized by a hundred organizations and held in Mumbai in mid-December, and by the anxiety in Washington over the diversion of Pakistani troops from its Afghan border to its Indian one. The Israeli road was ignored for the moment.

It is this road that USINPAC and its kin groups wish to create, not by lobbying the Indian government (a task already taken in hand by the Indian Right) but by moving Congress. If the US government would be more resolute with its friends in Islamabad, the bromide goes, all would be well, or else India will have little choice but to go to war. The demands made on the Congress are, on the surface, quite bland, but also purposely naïve. For instance, USINPAC demands that Pakistan extradite the suspects in the Mumbai attacks to India. However, India and Pakistan do not have an extradition treaty, a result of the deep distrust between the two countries. Confidence needs to be built that could enable mutual security. Making a demand that cannot be met is both deceptive and dangerous: it deceives the citizenry with its simplicity, and yet it pushes adversaries into corners. Another demand is that Pakistan must shut down “all radical madrassas which preach nothing but hate.” This is also a reasonable demand, particularly if they “preach nothing but hate.” The problem is that under IMF pressure, Pakistan has clumsily cut-back on its state funded and run education and health infrastructure. Into this empty space came the Saudi/CIA/Pakistani elite funded “faith-based” organizations, who provide a dual function. They are the only schools for the lower middle class and working-class, as well as the disposable poor, and they are their only dispensary and hospital, at the same time as many of them harvest young people into organizations committed to armed action in Kashmir and terror operations around the sub-continent (in India, yes, but also within Pakistan, viz. the assassination of December 2007 Benazir Bhutto and the September 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott). Pakistani state and society are entangled in these organizations; to demand that these groups be taken care of on a short time-frame is unrealistic.

USINPAC’s document does not acknowledge the deep influence of the United States in some of this mayhem. It was during the Afghan Wars of the 1980s that Pakistani society was deeply scarred, as the US-Saudi funded jihad produced a social force that committed itself to religious war. Those “irregular troops” were never demobilized, and it is here that one finds the core leadership of the terror outfits. They have then built on the grotesque inequality of Pakistan to draw their cadre, many of whom are inspired not only by their poverty, but also by the rise of the Hindu Right in India (whose riots are a spectacular example of terrorism in their own right) and by the virtual occupation of Kashmir (what else to call a situation where 700,000 troops police a state with a population of nine million?). Washington has never taken any responsibility for its role in the creation of these outfits. The recent, and ongoing Afghan war, has only heightened the tension, with the US moving to a nuclear treaty with India that has only stiffened the resolve of the Pakistani military to fear its neighbor. None of these moves have done anything to create confidence in South Asia, and nor will the demands made by USINPAC, the putative Indian Lobby.

The India Caucus.

USINPAC and others will move, on Tuesday, around a Congress already receptive to them. In 1992, Frank Pallone of New Jersey gathered six other Democrats and one Republican into a hastily formed India Caucus. Pallone’s 6th District includes Edison, which is one of the capitals of Indian America (20% of the population in the town is of Indian origin). Pallone recognized that this bloc needed to be cultivated, and he proceeded with finesse. The Indian government had recently begun to “liberalize” its economy, it had opened its arms toward Israel and it had signaled that it wanted a new relationship with the United States. Pallone became the go-to guy, and in under a decade he brought in a fourth of the House to the Caucus. It helped, of course, that the Indian American community had money in its pocket, and its “leaders” (those with the money) wanted to be players in DC. The India Lobby tested its mettle by destroying the annual move by Indiana’s Dan Burton to end US assistance to India. Burton eventually said that the India Lobby “beat me into the ground.” No loss there, really. In 2002, Pallone won India’s highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan. Winning the award with Pallone was Gary Ackerman of New York, the current chair of the India Caucus.

Ackerman helped coordinate the links between AIPAC and the AJCommittee and the USINPAC. Israel, he said, is “surrounded by 120 million Muslims” whereas “India has 120 million” Muslims within. In 1999, Ackerman was in Atlanta at an Indian American event, where he celebrated the “ancient civilizations” of Hindus and Jews, pointing out that “Strong India-Israel relations is very critical to ensuring peace and stability in a part of the world that is characterized by instability, fundamentalist religious bigotry, hatred toward the West and its values and murder and mayhem spawned by acts of cross-border terrorism.” Ackerman is not only one of those who believes that Israel is the 51st state of the United States, but he is also one of the major proponents of the Indo-US nuclear deal. In 2001, Ackerman’s legislative aide, Narayan Keshavan (who was otherwise a journalist, and who died very young, at 53, in 2003), said, “There are scores of congressmen and dozens of senators who clearly equate the growing Indian American political influence to the ‘Hindu Lobby’ – very much akin to the famed ‘Jewish Lobby.’” The aspiration to become like AIPAC and to move India in the direction of Israel is strong among many of those who want to build this India (or Hindu) Lobby, geared as it is against Pakistan and without deference to the fact that the 120 Indian Muslims are Indians too and not simply Muslims. A senior Democratic Senator said in 2003, “All of us here are members of Likud now.” In 2009, if USINPAC succeeds, they’d say, “We’re also members of the Hindu Right now.”

The South Asia Caucus.

President Obama has appointed Richard Holbrooke as his representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. India is not in the equation. What South Asia needs is a regional policy, with all the players in a regional organization that is committed to human security in its widest sense. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation could become that organization if it were taken seriously, better funded and not used as a venue for self-interested grand-standing. The regional organization could coordinate the demobilization of the forces of reaction in India, Pakistan and perhaps Afghanistan. But this is only the first step; there are others. Groups like USINPAC are incapable of finding the dynamic toward genuine peace, trapped as they are in the tired rhetoric of belligerence. We need a new vision for South Asia, a new commitment to the peace that is possible.

Take a few minutes of your day and call the White House (202-456-1111), Gary Ackerman (202-225-2601), Jim McDermott (202-225-3106) and Mike Honda (202-225-2631). Tell them to ignore a strategy that creates tension in the subcontinent, and to dig deeper, to pay attention to a strategy that calls for the creation of confidence between its countries and the creation of trust between its peoples. In 1947, as Indian and Pakistani generals added an extra pomade to their moustaches before setting off to war, Gandhi told his prayer meeting, “If we cannot keep our freedom without the sword, then I shall think that India has done nothing for the world. Today we have an army. Attempts are being made to strengthen it. I declare that in this way we are not really strengthening ourselves. We shall be doing no good to the world in this way. And if the world learns this kind of thing from us it is not going to gain anything, rather it will be doomed” (December 4, 1947).

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).