Once more, with feeling: Hillary Clinton visits Chennai

July 20, 2011


Chennai’s shiny new Anna Centenary Library auditorium was packed. We assembled early, from noon onwards, for Secretary of State Clinton’s speech. The speech was scheduled for 3 p.m. but we were told 2:30 p.m. And so we filed in with small purses, no water—the high and might, rich and famous, bold and beautiful, and students of Chennai and some of us besides—and lunch becoming a past-life memory, and waited.

I know why I was willing to wait. It was my way of showing appreciation to a politician who has put in her time on issues of real concern and who may well be remembered for placing gender justice on the State Department agenda with a minimum of opportunism attached.

And so when she came in at exactly 3, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. The very brief welcome by the Librarian was much nicer than the usual ceremonial welcome with soporific speeches. And Ms. Clinton led the applause when the Librarian said this was Asia’s largest public library. Since most of us haven’t been inside yet, we joined more sceptically.

Ms. Clinton’s speech was very much in the same mode as President Obama’s Parliament speech (see my post on this). As she checked off her hat-tips and tut-tuts, I could have sworn the speech had the same structure—which is not really an issue. Diplomatic speeches are not cutting-edge policy statements. So what were these?

She opened with a “vanakkam” which got her a round of appreciative applause. Then she talked about how happy she was to come to Tamil Nadu and Chennai, and said nice things about culture and history and contemporary American connections to this town (which in the past includes the Ice House and the fortune that founded the Secretary of State’s alma mater).

Why was India so important to the US? Because the Obama administration believes that much of the history of the 21st century would be written in Asia, she said. And then elucidating “how to inject content” into the Indo-US relationship, she tipped her hat to democracy, pluralism, opportunity and innovation as “bedrock beliefs” that the two countries share.

Reiterating the US’ support for India becoming a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council in a reformed UN system (whatever that means, whenever that happens!), the Secretary of State said that the US welcomed India assuming a global leadership role. But she asked: What does global leadership mean and what does it mean for Indo-US relations? In that moment, I thought we were back in November 2010, listening to President Obama.

And after a little while, came the little nudge about Burma. Yes, India has interests and investments in Burma, so the US was happy to see the Foreign Secretary meet Aung San Suu Kyi. The words left unspoken: But really you can do more if you decide to, and if you want to assert your position as a leader, you should. If this annoys Indians because it sounds like a lecture, it is also not untrue—power comes at a price. President Obama reminded Indians of this in several ways through his visit but never as explicitly as in his Parliamentary address. And both he and Secretary of State Clinton subtly pointed out that US support for India’s claim to such leadership would depend on India’s willingness to shoulder its costs and responsibilities.

Of course, this nasty medicine was served with plenty of sugar: India had so much to offer in support of the democratic transitions in West Asia; Ms. Clinton described India’s Election Commission as the ‘gold standard.’ Apart from democracy, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and sustainable development (especially agriculture in arid areas) were three areas where India had something to offer, in her view.

The Secretary of State identified the Asia-Pacific and South and Central Asia as two regions where the US and India could work together. Chennai, she suggested, was a very good location from which to speak about these, since it was a reminder of India’s old connections to this region and its maritime history. The main point to this cooperation was trade; open markets and freer trade would make everyone prosperous. But the language of Ms. Clinton’s speech was colourful and evocative; she recalled the Silk Road and called for the creation of a web of Silk Roads that an entrepreneur in Chennai might use to get her products to a customer in Central Asia.

In this part of her speech, Ms. Clinton said Tamil Nadu was an example of what was possible when everyone enjoyed equal rights in a society, and then used that as a way to introduce Sri Lanka into her speech. When she said, every citizen deserved the same hope, there was a buzz of approval. But this was also the one place where she made a very strong statement that peace is not possible when the peace process ignores women’s rights and minority rights. But in spite of the passion with which she spoke these words, the audience in Chennai did not really react. It must have been as disappointing to the speaker as it was to this blogger.

In fact, after her ‘vanakkam,’ the only real response Ms. Clinton got came when she quoted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wish that he should be able to travel so freely across the subcontinent that he could eat breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. Interesting, when you consider how much criticism he currently receives. The applause was so great that she paused to say, applause is not enough.

Anyway, having spoken about Sri Lanka in Chennai—acknowledging the city’s interest in that country’s affairs—she made sure to talk about India’s assistance to the Maldives and the need for a regional solution to flooding problems in Bangladesh.

The end of Ms. Clinton’s speech was written to be rousing and inspiring but the audience remained cold.

Anti-Americanism comes very easily to Indian audiences, but I want to ask those gathered in that room why they were there. They were never going to hobnob with the Secretary of State; so that cannot be the motivation. They were not moved by the content and seemed largely disinterested in it. They were just not there; and as I have written this post and reflected on it, the watery applause they gave Ms. Clinton makes me wonder. What brought them to that room? Interactions (even non-interactive ones like this!) are a two-way street and both parties go under the scanner.

So my question to those who planned this event is: what was the point of having so many people—many very busy—gather in a room for so long just to listen to Ms. Clinton breeze in, speak and breeze out? You could have screened this and had a discussion. Or had her take some questions.

What was in this event for Ms. Clinton or the gathered Chennaiites? It’s not so clear at all. She got a tired, somewhat dehydrated and restless audience for a speech that didn’t need them to be there. They got an afternoon away from work (nice for some, including me) and a chance to meet friends they have no time for otherwise, but really this can’t have been the objective of the US Consulate. Might Ms. Clinton have done better to visit another social service organization, working in the area of child rights, perhaps? Would a town-hall in a college which is off the Consulate’s radar otherwise, have opened new connections?

Other notes:

• Ms. Clinton mentioned “Passport to India,” a programme to encourage American undergraduates to study in India in larger numbers and build connections with India.
• She also used the feminine gender everytime she had an example to narrate in the third person singular… very, very nice, and noted with great approval!

Last question for academics: Analyses of speeches like this one either start with a checklist of desirable mentions and omissions and then scan minutely and critically, or like this one, they are readings of style and structure. As a foreign policy scholar, I wonder, does the first miss the woods for the trees, and does the second fail to appreciate the work on each tree in its emphasis on the woods as a whole?

PS: The State Department’s account is here. Full text of the speech is here.

Truth, Justice and Protocol

January 20, 2011


This long post disentangles the web of questions raised about gender and international relations following the allegations of domestic violence made against a diplomat.


A quiet afternoon in a quiet London neighbourhood is shattered by the sounds of a scuffle and screams. A woman seems to be in distress, and when she emerges, neighbours see that she is bruised and bleeding. The police investigates but they run up against a wall built to protect the messenger from the arbitrary actions of her/his host: diplomatic immunity.

This incident which occurred on December 11, 2010 but which made news headlines more than a month later has once more pointed to the murky equation between gender justice and international relations.

The British authorities requested that the Indian diplomat’s immunity be revoked. The Indian government refused. The High Commission spokesperson was quoted as saying: “We are carefully looking into the incident. It involves sensitive and personal issues pertaining to individuals. It is premature to make any further comment at this stage. It is now expected that this matter will be resolved between husband and wife It is to their mutual satisfaction.” It took a month but the diplomat has finally been recalled, along with his family. The catch is that in the interim, his wife has disappeared along with their son.

Binay Singh & Pervez Iqbal Siddiqui, Diplomat Verma’s parents swear by his innocence, Times News Network, January 20, 2011.

The particulars of this story are less important than the issues it raises, and this post tries to disentangle each of these from the knotty discussion that is taking place.

Is domestic violence a lesser offence?

In one of the television discussions last week, a former diplomat kept citing other instances, primarily drunk and reckless driving, where immunity had not been waived so an alleged offender could be tried locally. He went on to say that the incident which has triggered this controversy was just about a Christmas tree, thereby infuriating other panelists. He conceded that had the diplomat been a serial rapist or killer, a waiver of immunity might be considered.

Is domestic violence a lesser offence than all of these? The answer really is no. A drunken driving incident could be an aberration; battery and assault within the family seldom are. There is always a long-term pattern of abuse, and it stems from power-play and the need to control. It does not happen because of a Christmas tree. Or any of the other violence triggers that researchers have found—delayed meals, perceived laziness of the spouse, too much salt, too little salt, etc. In fact, even the Christmas tree story would raise a red flag to those who work in this area: the issue reportedly was that the wife had refused the husband’s offer to buy a tree for reasons of economy but accepted a gift from her relatives, and this offended him. Enough said.

And because domestic violence is seldom a one-off occurrence, chances are the record of abuse and violence would equal that of a serial rapist or killer even though the number of victims is much smaller. So if the number of instances of violence is the threshold that decides whether something is a greater or lesser offence, wouldn’t most domestic violence perpetrators qualify?

How many reported (and unreported) incidents of domestic violence, or other gender violence, are to be tolerated before they attain the threshold required for immunity to be considered?

Is diplomatic immunity never to be waived?

This is not the first time local law enforcement has rued diplomatic immunity. It is actually a regular grievance for police in any city with a large diplomatic presence. The army of UN-accredited diplomats in New York park anywhere and don’t pay fines for it, and it doesn’t take a long stay in the city or any research to hear about it! Abuse of domestic workers who are brought in by diplomats is another issue that human rights activists have been highlighting. This can hardly be the first-ever case of domestic violence reported in the history of diplomacy.

What is diplomatic immunity? International law exempts select officials and representatives of foreign governments from the jurisdiction of local governments and laws; this is called “diplomatic immunity.” The idea was really to protect the messenger: “the channels of diplomatic communication by exempting diplomats from local jurisdiction so that they can perform their duties with freedom, independence, and security.” (See E-Diplomat) The rules for how diplomatic immunity works are set up by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963. The foreign government may waive immunity and the host government may declare a diplomat ‘persona non grata’ without explanation, so a diplomat really cannot take that status for granted.
Where the conflict arises in this case is actually in the reading of the offence. What we can surmise from the conflict over waiving the Indian diplomat’s immunity, is that while British authorities appear to regard the allegation of domestic violence as a serious enough offence to warrant a waiver, the Indian response has been paternalistic and dismissive. This raises questions about what would happen if the couple returned home to an Indian investigation.

Salil Tripathi, Immunity from Justice, LiveMint.com, January 19, 2011.
IANS, Indian UN diplomat recalled after incident on flight, Economic Times, January 19, 2011.

An Indian investigation

There are two questions that stare us in the face on this count. First, how will the case be tried in India if the evidence and witnesses are elsewhere? Second, what is the track record of gender violence trials in India?

There are probably ways around the first, such as travelling investigation officers who can interview witnesses. Perhaps the British police who visited the site initially can share their evidence and reports.

The harder question is really the second; it’s also an embarrassing question. The number of cases registered under the relevant section of the Indian Penal Code has risen steadily between 2005 and 2009, from 58,319 to 89,546, but when you search for the conviction rate, the numbers vary but there is consensus that the rate is very, very low.

National Crime Records Bureau, “Crimes against Women,” Crimes in India 2009, Delhi, 2010.
Madhu Kishwar, Laws against domestic violence: Underused or Abused? Manushi, Issue 120, September-October 2000.
Rashme Sehgal, Delays do not bode well for Domestic Violence Bill, InfoChange India, March 2006.

The reasons are many—from the reluctance of a family to pursue and press charges even if they filed a complaint in the first instance, to the pressure of the extended family and community to come to a mediated solution, to the lack of evidence. In spite of this very low conviction rate, there are many in India who complain that those provisions of the law that deal with different kinds of domestic violence are actually mostly misused by women to discredit their husbands and marital families.

Furthermore, in recent years, very high-profile cases of sexual assault have had obstacle-ridden investigations, protracted trials and where there has been conviction and sentencing, the handing out of bail so that the perpetrator more or less walks free. A paternalistic streak in many Indian courtrooms has also sought conciliatory and conservative solutions to the uncomfortable reality of gender violence rather than justice. Rape victims are thus advised to marry the person who raped them. Domestic violence victims are apt to be advised to adjust or consider the family or the children.

It is no wonder that even the most nationalistic Indians find it hard to express confidence in the way this system would respond to domestic violence in the diplomatic enclave. Would the bureaucracy bat for one of its boys? Would the weight of the establishment be on the side of ‘adjusting’ and making peace—not for family, not for the kids, but in the national interest?

The inconvenience of taking women’s rights into consideration

Feminists make a lot of people uncomfortable not because they are wrong but because it is so inconvenient to acknowledge that they are right. So much of international order depends on private-public, inside-outside, domestic-international being posited as binaries. Feminist thinking rejects all these binaries. To take issues of gender justice and women’s rights into account, would force a re-imagining of many of the axiomatic premises of world order.

Female genital mutilation and honour killings are not ‘nice’ issues to raise because they reflect a judgment on the traditional practices of other societies. Human rights standards stop short of others’ cultural practices, whoever defines them and however they are defined. The practices that most communities are very sensitive about are, unsurprisingly, the ones that affect women—FGM, sati, honour killings. The material and ideological origins of the practices are never examined in a reverse kind of orientalism because that sort of rationality can neither be expected of the “other” nor is it comfortable for a liberal to grant. It’s just easier to adopt a cultural relativist stand.

It’s easier to pretend that sexual violence and exploitation do not occur in conflict zones, because facing up to that would show that the best-intentioned military training and socialization do not stop the brutality from spilling over into the interpersonal arena. The words of the intelligence officer who once told me that rape was part of the ‘spoils of war’ have never left me. If you face up to the reality of conflict rape, then you have to look closely at the ethics of this and the morality of that and the many definitions of that particular context.

In this instance, if we affirm that violence against women is wrong, then at least while the allegations against the diplomat are being investigated, it must be clear that this person cannot represent India. If he did, what would that say to the world about the status of women in this country? Not something any country would want said.

Acknowledging that violence occurs within more homes than we know and acknowledging that a life free of violence is an inalienable human right, both simplify and complicate the diplomatic universe. Decision-making is simplified because then immunity waiver or recall, investigation and action must follow. But everything else is complicated because when you blur the line between private and public and say that a diplomat—any person—is as responsible to society for what they do in private as for what they do in public, other boundaries blur as well. Why should local jurisdiction not extend to certain people for what they do in their private lives? Should the dependents of those protected by immunity be deprived of the protection to which others in their situation are entitled, both in home and host countries? Should we now look for ways in which to standardize our laws on these problems so that the victim’s rights are not lost in the “we are better than you” tug-of-war between home and host country’s legal systems?

S Kalyana Ramanathan, Britain forced India’s hand to take back diplomat, Business Standard, January 20, 2011.

In 1989, when Cynthia Enloe first published “Bananas, Beaches and Bases” she wrote about the women in garment factories, sex-workers around bases, migrant domestic workers and diplomatic wives as the invisible characters in the stories about international politics. Zooming in further, twenty-two years later, we see not just the characters we first overlooked but the little complications—domestic violence, exploitation, sexual harassment—that were not earlier visible. When we do, we have to make choices: to ignore these realities and pretend the world still looks like our theories or to rewrite the theories to look like the world we now see; to overlook the things our laws do not account for or to change the law to account for them. What choices will we make?

The simplest possible reading

For all this greyness and complexity, the most important question is a very simple one, I think: Is domestic violence a grave human rights issue? I think it is, and all my positions and response follow from this answer. You?

Ending Violence against Women: Official priority

February 9, 2010



Director, Office of Global Women’s Issues, US State Dept, Ambassador Melanie Verveer blogs:
Ending Violence Against Women Is a Foreign Policy Priority (February 8, 2010)

This comes in a week when a Bill to Combat International Violence against Women was introduced in the US Congress.

A feminist foreign policy, indeed, and we said it here a few weeks ago!

A Feminist Foreign Policy for the US?

January 21, 2010


Gender issues may not be new to the world of international diplomacy, but the high profile being accorded them by the Obama-Clinton led State Department seems new.


It’s just about a year since the Obama inaugural. That euphoric morning, the mantra of ‘change’ was everywhere. But in the life after the inaugural, the logic and process of government dominate to slow down the whirlwind and subdue it to the measured pace of administrations everywhere. One thing, this blogger would suggest, has changed. And that is the growing profile of gender issues in the discourses and programmes of the US State Department.

One of the very first things that President Obama did right after taking oath was to lift the ban on federal funding for family planning programmes that recognize abortion. From there on, take a look at these notes from the last six-seven months:

  • § On June 12, 2009, Melanne Verveer was sworn in as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.
    § In July, Secretary of State Clinton and film star Aamir Khan spent a couple of hours during her visit to Mumbai speaking before a large audience about the importance of education, especially for girls.
    § Sexual violence against women received a great deal of attention from the Secretary of State on her visit to seven African states in August, including time taken to speak with activists in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (See also: Jane Morse, Conflicts in Africa Exacerbate Gender-Based Atrocities, August 3, 2009) During this visit, it was announced that the US would assist with a three-year program to provide medical aid, counseling, economic assistance and legal support to vulnerable women and girls.
    § In September, when the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution to end sexual violence during armed conflict, Hillary Clinton spoke out against those states that had turned a blind eye to such violence in recent conflicts.  (See earlier ASI post on this topic.)
    § In November, the State Department’s Program on “Women’s Empowerment: Preventing Violence Against Women and Children” invited Take Back the Night Foundation to speak about its history and its work on preventing and ending violence against women to groups across India. Dr. Suraiya Baluch, an American of South Asian origin who sits on their Board, made the trip to cities across India during the global fortnight of advocacy against gender violence (November 25 to December 10).
    § In January, Clinton addressed the 15th Anniversary meeting of the International Conference on Population and Development with these words: “Now, as those of us gathered in the Ben Franklin Room on the eight floor of the State Department know very well, the topic of reproductive health is subject to a great deal of debate. But I think we should all agree that these numbers are not only grim, but after 15 years, they are intolerable. For if we believe that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, then we cannot accept the ongoing marginalization of half the world’s population. We cannot accept it morally, politically, socially, or economically.
    …. So we’re here today to examine the distance that remains to be traveled before the world fully realizes the ICPD goals. This is a journey that the Obama Administration and the United States Government will travel with you. But we need to travel quickly, because we only have five years to meet our original goals.” (Italics added)

It’s fair to say that foreign ministers and foreign policy establishments issue hundreds of statements and press releases and really most of them are meaningless. But given the high profile of each of these, it could be said these are shifts intended to be noted.

What’s the history?

Traditionally, women and gender issues have only featured in international relations as victims—to be protected, lamented, assisted. A growing global women’s movement over the last half-century has forced a gradual accommodation of women’s issues on the global agenda.

Since 1975,  the international community has taken increasing cognizance of the separate and different experience of women in every sphere of life. Momentum gathered from that year dedicated to women’s advancement, through a similarly dedicated decade that culminated in the formulation of Forward-looking Strategies at Nairobi in 1985. These were reviewed in Beijing in 1995 following a decade in which the world had verily changed: the Cold War ended; the Soviet Union collapsed; ethnic conflicts seemed to replace interstate wars; new ideas about security were emerging; and perhaps most critically, information and communication technologies made globally networked advocacy easy.

Since Beijing, we have seen the emergence of gender-related norms into the mainstream of international relations. The mass-rapes in Bosnia brought an old reality to light: the use of rape as a weapon of war. In 2000, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 recognized the impact of war on women and posited that women should be a part of peace-making and peace-building. Outrage has steadily mounted to culminate in the adoption by the Security Council in 2008 of a resolution condemning war rapes. The 2009 UN Security Council Resolution takes 1325 further, condemning sexual violence during conflict and mandating peacekeeping and postconflict operations to take women’s needs into account. Finally, it should be noted that the third Millennium Development Goal relates to gender equality: “Promote gender equality and empower women.”

Bosnia and Rwanda first brought gender violence during conflict into newspaper and talkshow agendas in the US, but the email petitions that were circulated by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in the mid-1990s seeking support to condemn the Taliban’s policies on women and women’s education seem to me to mark a watershed in the way global gender issues entered into ordinary homes and offices.  Activism surrounding these petitions and the news coming out of Afghanistan certainly contributed in some measure to the post-9/11 support for US intervention in Afghanistan. For a few years now, the State Department has been recognizing women around the world that it identifies as exceptional advocates for women’s right and advancement.

In other words, these issues are not entirely new to the world of international relations or diplomacy; it’s the high profile they are now being lent that is new. And interesting.

Why this high profile activism now?

Perhaps the simplest explanation is that it is the culmination of a thirty-year global change.

But what sorts of international relations observers would we be, if we did not cynically ask: What is the realpolitik of this change, if we do accept that there is change? FP establishments tend to be status quo, and if they are embracing this change, then it is tempting to subject to a realist reading: what’s in it for the US? It’s hard to buy into the idea that genuine idealism and humanitarian interest motivate any administration, anywhere. As President Obama pointed out in his Nobel lecture, we face the world “as it is.”

So why high-profile social activism in the foreign policy establishment? Does it have to do with Hillary Clinton being Secretary of State, not just because she is a woman but because so much of her work in the past has related to these issues? Does it have to do with a changed domestic environment in the US where economic downturns are forcing attention to social hardship?

While this is probably a question best answered by historians, such a change raises other interesting questions that we might take the opportunity to revisit.

Two interesting questions

1. Do women make a difference in decision-making roles?

“Where are the women?” is the famous point of departure for liberal critiques of international relations. It is a moral given that women should be well represented and that women should be able to participate in every sphere at every level. There is more ambivalence about whether the mere presence of women makes a substantive difference in favour of women’s interests, broadly generalized.

The essentialist assumption that women will extend a caregiving, nurturing presence to the policy sphere is not substantiated by history. It is common to cite recent examples of Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher to illustrate that women in power make the same decisions on the same bases as men. Furthermore, gender issues do not necessarily find space on their lists of priority.

But the coincidence of Hillary Clinton’s swearing-in and the raising of the profile of gender issues in the State Department makes it worthwhile for political and diplomatic historians to take this opportunity to explore this question.

Take a look at:

David Rothkopf, It’s 3 a.m. Do You Know Where Hillary Clinton Is? Washington Post, August 23, 2009.
Megan Carpentier, Ms. Magazine publisher Eleanor Smeal talks Hillary and international women’s rights, Madam Secretary: FP Blogs, January 23, 2009.
John Meacham, Meeting of the Diplomats, Newsweek, December 21, 2009.

2. What are the elements of a feminist foreign policy?

Feminism has been defined as the “radical notion that women are people” (Cheris Kramarae) The advancement of women’s issues and interests worldwide, a gender perspective on other issues and a structural rather than de-contextualised view of the world surely must make up some elements. But what would a truly thoughtful, comprehensive list comprise?

Here are a couple of links, to which I will keep adding as I come across interesting links.

Christine Stansell, The War on Women: Establishing a Feminist Foreign Policy, Dissent Magazine, June 26, 2009.
Nona Willis Aronowitz, Searching for Feminism on America’s Roads, Women and Foreign Policy: The World Affairs Blog Network, December 26, 2009.

Surely, this is not the last post on this subject!

Postscript (A little confession)
Found a paragraph on a campaign we run here against gender violence on America.gov. We are not funded by the US government, don’t invite guests through the local consulate, pretty much are a local, community initiative. But if the official radar are now sensitized to pick up such obscure signals, it must mean that they have been tuned to do so.

Special Report: Defining Asia

November 15, 2009


As President Obama travels from “Asian summits” at the Asia-Pacific Economic (APEC) forum and the U.S.-ASEAN summit, the Asia Security Initiative blog investigates what we mean by Asia.  Today, three views from India.  In this post, Swarna Rajagopalan asks “What is Asia?”


So, Is President Obama Really Going to Asia?

This week, President Obama is visiting Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul. Five cities of global importance that happen to be located in Asia. East Asia, to be precise. We can go back and forth on Singapore, which is located in Southeast Asia but really, to most Asians is like Europe.

A few weeks ago, I wrote from New Delhi about the great distances within my subcontinent-sized country. Today, I look at Obama’s itinerary and reflect on the size of this continent about which several of us have been blogging for the last six months or more. What is Asia? What does it mean to say something or someone is Asian? A landmass, a continent that embraces 4-5-6 civilizations with spillover along all its geographical frontiers can scarcely be imagined so easily, let alone a policy agenda or diplomatic platform evolved for its ‘teeming billions.’

Most people from this continent find the American conflation of ‘Asia’ with ‘East’ or ‘Pacific’ Asia a little annoying. But it’s a hangover from the times not a lifetime ago, when world maps were colour-coded by colonizer and where regions were named according to their distance from Europe (Near East, Far East, Middle East). Equally, the terms West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia have little resonance for people from the regions, who usually resent being lumped with others into a category—but at least they are geographically somewhat precise. And they take cognizance of distance, diversity and difference of interest.

President Obama is visiting Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul. Really, he is visiting East Asia. Far away from the realities of people in Tehran. In Sharjah. In Kandy. In Paro. In Almaty. In Chennai, for that matter. He cannot go everywhere, that’s fine; but let’s understand that his visit has different kinds and different levels of significance for all these people.

President Obama’s discussions will mostly be on bilateral issues. However, since most of these capitals belong to the same one or two regional security complexes, some issues will be discussed more than once and from more than one perspective. But they will still be East Asian issues from East Asian perspectives. And many of them will have neither relevance nor interest to people in other parts of Asia.

Moreover, when the President stops over at the APEC Forum, he will still not be talking with Asia’s leaders. He will be talking with leaders of states around the Pacific and then one or two others. The composition of APEC is not an accident of history; there was a conscious decision to keep a good part of Asia out of the organization.

But APEC is made of many important global players and when they speak they will speak about matters of global importance to a global audience. They will not, however speak for most of Asia and they will certainly not speak to most of Asia’s pressing economic, political and security problems.

Perhaps American interests would be best served if policymakers could start to disaggregate ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian’ in their minds, taking real cognizance of the mind-boggling range of identities and interests here. Hyping this visit as an Asian excursion overstates the reach of this itinerary or any diplomatic agenda the President could possibly have.

International relations scholars like summit diplomacy and the high table of international politics because so much else that we study is abstract, intangible and as we now like to say, ‘constructed:’ constructed by law like the state, constructed by polemics like the nation or constructed by scholars like anarchy and neorealism. But the real value of summit meetings can only be decided on a case by case basis. Perhaps the Obama visit will bring something fresh, something bold to the international politics of East Asia; but until we see that it does, let the buyer beware …

Maldivians in 26/11: The power of ‘security’?

October 28, 2009


President Nasheed stated this week in an interview that Maldivian nationals may have been involved in the November 26, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.


Earlier this week, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives stated in an interview:

Any terrorist attack through the underbelly of India, that is peninsular India, would have to go through Maldivian waters. We will be the first to see what is happening. For example, if we had this equipment, we would have been much more vigilant about what was going to happen in the Mumbai [ Images ] attacks…that is why it is essential to safeguard Maldives’ territorial waters and defend our coastline.

Is it true that the Maldives has a serious issue with Islamic fundamentalists?

Yes, we have a serious issue with Islamist radicals, we know that many are being trained by the Al Qaeda [ Images ] in the northern reaches of Pakistan.

How do you know?

Because several Maldivians have been arrested by Pakistani authorities after they crossed into Pakistan from India. The recruitment of Islamist radicals takes place in the Maldives and their channel of movement is all the way up to Pakistan.

Are you saying that the Maldivians are being trained by the Al Qaeda in Pakistan, in Waziristan?

Yes, they are getting trained there by the Al Qaeda to fight the war in Afghanistan.

You talked about the Mumbai attacks and of being more vigilant about your territorial waters…what did you mean by that?

I believe that the identity of all the dead terrorists in the Mumbai attacks has not been broken down into nationalities. I feel there is a Maldivian connection to the Mumbai attacks.

In what way?

Well, we have information from the families of terrorists who are still in the Maldives about this.

This is, in and of itself, interesting. For one, President Nasheed is identifying the Maldives as a potential terror entrepot to India. Second, he says Maldivians are being recruited into Al Qaeda. Third, by stating that “the identity of all the dead terrorists in the Mumbai attacks has not been broken down into nationalities,” he is pointing to what we don’t know for sure and then adding, “I feel there is a Maldivian connection…” Not the “We know” of security establishments worldwide, but “I feel.”

Presidents don’t draw attention to their countries as places from which terrorists originate; not on the basis of “feeling.” So does he know something that others are overlooking?

Or, is this a “calling attention” motion of some sort? Maldives has been an active campaigner against global warming, but President Nasheed has taken the campaign to a different level by talking about purchasing land for displaced Maldivians and holding underwater cabinet meetings. There is a penchant for the dramatic in these actions that offsets the Maldives’ disadvantages of size and remoteness. Seen in that context, a teaser like this, strategically slipped into an interview with a popular news portal, must be intended to place the Maldives on South Asia’s security agenda.

But there is a broader point here, and one that all of us recognise intuitively. It is, as Ole Waever once wrote, that security is a ‘speech act.’ When you draw anything into the realm of security, it gets the attention it should get anyway. It ratchets up its importance instantly. As scholars, we sceptically debate whether this is what the non-traditional security research agenda is about, at bottom. As activists, we know well that it partly explains the genesis of “human security” reports; they are a way to underscore the urgency of public health, displacement, gender inequity and other humanitarian crises.

What does it mean however, when the President of a country like the Maldives states that its citizens might well be foot-soldiers in one of the world’s most complex security problems? If there are Maldivians involved in South Asia’s many terror attacks, then the Maldives will attract welcome and unwelcome attention. Some positive investment and foreign assistance will flow in, no doubt, but also a great deal more scrutiny and pressure than a small state and fledgling democracy can probably bear. And if it is all based on a “feeling”? What is the cost-benefit analysis of a statement of that? That’s something for all of us, especially for this intelligent President and his advisors to think about.

New Delhi Notes: Where you stand = what you see

October 11, 2009


Geography determines many things, including the perspective that one holds on international relations. The way Indians from different parts of the country view South Asia has been a good example, although this is changing somewhat.


In the last few days during my meetings with people in Delhi, several people have expressed an interest in knowing what I would say or write on matters related to Pakistan. Only one person actually was interested in talking about Sri Lanka. It’s almost the opposite in Chennai, although Pakistan does hold an enduring fascination everywhere.

India is the only one of South Asia’s states that shares borders, and therefore, communities, languages and culture, with every one of the others. Even the atoll-state of Maldives has something in common with one part of India—Minicoy. Along this long, multicultural frontier, perspective shifts to reflect neighbourly concerns and ethnic kinships. Thus, from the point of view of West Bengal, the view of South Asia begins with Bangladesh. For Punjab, it begins with West Punjab and Pakistan. For Tamil Nadu, it begins with Sri Lanka. A more careful reading would show moreover that within a region, say the Indian east, primary preoccupations vary too. If for someone from Assam, it is immigration from Bangladesh, for a policy-maker in Tripura it could be the easy passage across the porous frontiers of the region of militants and arms.

Similarly, for people on the other side of these frontiers, India begins with their neighbouring/ co-ethnic region and is largely imagined as an extension thereof. For Sri Lankans, therefore, India begins with the state of Tamil Nadu and the ‘60 million’ Tamils that they see as an extension of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. The rest of India is an add-on for many imaginations.

Happily and unhappily, these perspectives are now becoming complex. The advent of the Internet and satellite television carries programming in the region’s languages far from their area of origin. Thus, Chennaiites can now hear Nepali news! People are chatting, commenting on each other’s blogs, networking and tweeting across borders. Travel across the world is providing an opportunity for South Asians to meet and adding nuance to their understanding of each other’s states. This is the ‘happy’ part.

Terrorist attacks are the unhappy part. Because terror groups do not see their issues as local, they strike far from their area of contestation. There is no more striking example than the repeated attacks on Mumbai, especially 26/11. Mumbaikars now think about Pakistan.

Would that such a broadening of perspective were not due to insecurity and would that it were accompanied by a deepening! I have also had two or three conversations here about the fact that given India’s location and natural interest in its neighbourhood, we do not have the multi-disciplinary programmes or conferences that are seen elsewhere on South Asia. Where a single department might have a political scientist, an agricultural economist and an ethnomusicologist, giving students the opportunity to learn broadly. Where simultaneous panels in a conference might discuss poverty, law, textile and text. There are of course, South Asia programmes in India, but security, strategic studies and politics dominate the agenda, even though we know from historical experience across the world that it is broad-based knowledge that is most useful even in these areas. A depletion of area expertise made US intelligence-gathering on South, Central and West Asia very difficult in very recent memory, for instance.

Indian debates about educational reform, non-governmental and state initiatives and big funding should take a little time to support the creation of such spaces and platforms for research and teaching that will nurture this broad and deep learning about this complex, interconnected neighbourhood. In their absence, in the long run, we will continue to see policy underpinned by shallow understanding from perspectives skewed by narrow expertise. And globalization will carry the consequences of bad policy across continental frontiers.