Originally Published 2011-07-20 00:00:00 Published on Jul 20, 2011
Saeed Naqvi, Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, traveled to Bahrain, Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Baghdad, Najaf, Amman, Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah after the Arab Spring broke out. Earlier, he visited Tunisia, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Western Sahara and Libya. In this paper, he shares his first-hand experiences and discussions with leaders and diplomats, many of whom have requested anonymity. This paper follows Naqvi's earlier reports on our neighbourhood.
The Arab Spring & India: Promises and Challenges
The Arab Spring has meant something of a revival of Indian interest in the region. India's interest has, over the years, varied from country to country in West Asia. This unevenness was partly a function of the Cold War, in response to which emerged the Non-Aligned Movement with Jawaharlal Nehru and Gamel Abdel Nasser as its founders. Pakistan became part of the western bloc during the Cold War. India was more in the Soviet orbit. Or at least that was how folks like John Foster Dulles saw New Delhi. For Dulles non- alignment was “evil”.
The non-aligned were something of a mixed bag. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco were entitled to the non-aligned label even though they were firmly in the western camp. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Algeria were more in the opposite team. While the Cold War was at its fiercest, Egypt crossed over into the American camp in 1979. That is when President Anwar Sadat signed the Peace Treaty with Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
This wrenching of Egypt away from the Soviets was actually quite a feat by the US-Israel combine because that very year détente was going particularly badly for the Americans after the Vietnam reversal in 1975. Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua had all embraced communism. Communist parties were powerful in Western Europe. In fact in 1978-79, when the most important West Asian nation, Egypt, made a sharp right turn, the Saur revolution brought Khalq and Parcham, the two communist parties of Afghanistan, to power in Kabul. Soon the Shah was to be toppled in Teheran, followed by the direct Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. These twists and turns in West Asian events did not force New Delhi into great agility. But when it adjusted it did so without in any way offending the Soviet Union. Soviet arrival in Afghanistan precipitated a division in the Indian establishment between those opposed to Soviet occupation and those who were softer on that issue.
Even though the Shah of Iran was very much an American ally, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had worked out a practical relationship with him. The Shah's fall coincided with the first non-Congress, coalition government in New Delhi, led by a pro-market, pro-American Prime Minister Morarji Desai. Morarji and his External Affairs Minister, BJP's Atal Behari Vajpayee, would have been most comfortable with the Shah. The Ayatullahs were a culture shock. But Vajpayee made a brave effort to befriend the Ayatullahs. It turned out to be one of the more comical initiatives in diplomatic history.
A junior Shia cleric from Lucknow, Saiyyid Agha Ruhi Abaqati, who claimed a relationship with Ayatullah Khomeini, was asked to “guide” a delegation, consisting of Planning Commission Vice-Chairman Ashoke Mehta and senior diplomat Badruddin Tayyabji, to Teheran.
Abaqati's claim was that Khomeini was a descendent of distinguished clerics born in Kantur, not far from Lucknow. This the young Islamic revolution was determined to deny. It was feared that Khomeini's non-Iranian roots would “weaken the revolution”.
The Indian delegation was led into Ayatullah Khomeini's presence at his Teheran residence. To their surprise, the Ayatullah, asked for Abaqati to be “carried away from his presence”. The delegation trooped out one by one, their faces in the lower mould. It was then left to Akbar Khalili, an outstanding choice for ambassador to Iran, to repair and boost Indo-Iran ties. Maulana Agha Ruhi's disputed relationship with Ayatuallah Khomeini did yield a comical diplomatic episode. But it also sheds light on an aspect–only an aspect–of the civilizational ties with Iran.
The kingdom of Oudh, with Lucknow as th capital, set up in early 18 century, was Shia. In the shadow of this royal patronage, emerged institutions of Shia theology with strong links with Shia centres like Najaf in Iraq and Qom and Meshed in Iran. Against this background, Ayatullah Khomeini's Kantur roots are plausible.
The Lucknow link with Iran is subsidiary to earlier pre-historic Aryan links and Moghul links, particularly after the second Moghul Emperor Humayun's exile to the Safavid Court at Isfahan. Humayun retuned with Shia artists, artisans and sundry Iranian Shia influences. Dara Shikoh's translation of the Upanishads into Persian were a culmination of extended interaction between the two civilizations which received a fillip from Humayun's cultural conversion.
There is a photograph of Tagore at Persian poet Hafiz's tomb in Shiraz in 1932. Tagore, whose father was a well known Persian scholar, is in this photograph actually reading Hafiz in the original. Persian was the court language in India. Tagore's interest in Persian poetry was not surprising. But the important point is lasting cultural links. These cultural and civilizational links were accorded high priority by India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who handpicked ambassadors to Teheran–Syed Ali Zaheer and M.C. Chagla. It made immense political and strategic sense because the two countries had no conflicts of interest and mutual civilizational respect.
There were contradictions with Pakistan which was a predominantly Sunni country. Iran was 90% Shia but not anti-Sunni in its orientation. In fact, once the Ayatullahs came to power, Teheran projected itself as leader of the Muslim world. This created a bipolarity in the Muslim umma—Teheran and Riyadh became two poles of the Muslim world.
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