Opinion

Wuhan to Wakhan: Why India should be wary of Modi-Xi’s promised project in Afghanistan

By accepting and agreeing to such participation, the Modi administration is cutting a fine balance.

They dined and wined on caviar and vodka for two days in the sparse highland where the earth met the sky. On the third, the Russian told the Englishman, “Get out of here.” The Englishman beat a long and hasty retreat.

The Russian was Captain Mikhail Efremovich Yanov, commander of the Pamirs “flying detachment” of Cossack horsemen. The Englishman was Sir Francis Younghusband, tester of the frontiers of British colonial power in India. They met in the village of Bozai-Gombuz in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Tract. The year was 1891. The “Great Game” had begun.

Cut to, and contrast in, 2018.

As they walked on the banks of the East Lake in Wuhan, China, last week, a Chinese group reportedly played the Bollywood oldie “Tu, tu hai wahi dil ne jise apna kahan” (You are the one the heart says is mine). India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping promised famously after that “informal summit” on April 27-April 28 to collaborate on a joint economic project in Afghanistan. The project has not been identified.

“The two leaders were clear that we have converging interests, and we have respective visions of domestic and foreign policy,” India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said in delightful diplomatese after the summit.

Interests converge in a Pamir Knot

The Wakhan Tract, where the Russian and the Englishman met 127 years ago, is a sliver of land bounded by the Pamirs to the north and the Karakoram to the south. It juts out of Afghanistan’s northern Badakshan province through Tajikistan and what is now Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and touches, just touches, China.

The Wakhan Corridor is 12.87 kms at its narrowest. India does not recognise Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that, post 1947, borders the Wakhan, and thus India, in its view, has a frontier with Afghanistan at Wakhan.
The Wakhan Corridor is 12.87 kms at its narrowest. India does not recognise Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that, post 1947, borders the Wakhan, and thus India, in its view, has a frontier with Afghanistan at Wakhan.

At its narrowest, it is narrower than the Siliguri Corridor through which the Indian mainland is tenuously connected to the Indian North East. Seven months before the Modi-Xi summit, and for 70-odd days, Indian troops had stepped into Doklam, territory claimed by both Bhutan and China, to thwart a perceived threat to the Chicken’s Neck in North Bengal.

A member of the Modi ministry who is a former Indian Army chief has pointed to the comparative vulnerabilities of chicken necks. Sitting in his official South-West Delhi quarter in June 2012, just out of uniform for four days and in short sleeves and chappals that defied the easiness of the eye, he told this correspondent the tract in the Pamirs could well be the epicentre of terrorism in the region. General Vijay Kumar Singh (retired) is now minister of state for external affairs. He said in 2012 that his primary objective after leaving service was to complete his PhD thesis. It was on “Fundamentalism in Afghanistan and the Geo Strategic Significance of the Wakhan Corridor”. (He has since completed it and been awarded the degree by Bhopal’s Barkatullah University).

China, already the largest foreign investor in Afghanistan, has undertaken one of its largest economic projects in the Wakhan. Singh said China definitely intends to revive the disused Wakhjir Pass that was part of the Silk Route over the Pamirs at the point where it crests over from Afghanistan to China. He said China was also probably building a tunnel through the mountains. In 2012, China was yet to announce its One Belt One Road project or the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

“It is an outflanking move. India risks losing the influence it has in Afghanistan because of a China-Pakistan link that is getting stronger and is seen in evidence here,” he said.

A couple of years later, just before the Modi administration took over in 2014, Ajit Doval was speaking to a discreet gathering of think-tankers. Doval, who is currently the national security advisor, headed the Vivekananda International Foundation at the time. “It is important to not forget that India has a frontier with Afghanistan at Wakhan,” he said. Implied in that statement was the “unfinished agenda” of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India’s Parliament has resolved that all of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the country. It does not recognise Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which, post-1947, borders the Wakhan.

Flashback: Christmas in Kabul

In the economic projects that make up the One Belt One Road, China is cutting through not just complex topography but also the rigidities of history and geopolitics. Its invitation – if that is what it is – to India to participate in one such project in Afghanistan will tear down New Delhi’s closely held convictions. By accepting and agreeing to such participation, the Modi administration is cutting a fine balance.

Talking and visiting Afghanistan is fraught with a certain nervousness for Narendra Modi in an election year. On Christmas day in 2015, he left Kabul after meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Modi had just been photographed in the backdrop of two Russian-made Mi-25 helicopter gunships that India had gifted Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on December 25, 2015. (Credit: Reuters)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on December 25, 2015. (Credit: Reuters)

India is now planning to fund a few more gunships for the Afghan forces. The gifting of the gunships marked a change in India’s Afghan policy. Till then, India was committed only to “non-lethal” supplies – aid, electricity stations and dams and a Parliament house. The gifting of the gunships followed the overrunning by the Taliban of an India-built road in Afghanistan’s southwest.

The Zaranj-Delaram highway that the Indian military utility, the Border Roads Organisation, had built, despite loss of life and limb, connected to the “Garland expressway” that was to ring through Afghanistan’s major urban centres. India was hoping that it would also help skirt Pakistan’s trade-and-transit blockade and send supplies to Afghanistan through Iran’s Chabahar port. From Chabahar, cutting through contentious Baluchistan, the goods would reach Zaranj. That has failed though New Delhi is re-investing in Chabahar.

But back to Modi’s Kabul trip and what Afghanistan can do to prime ministerial political psychology. On a whim that same Christmas day, Modi “dropped by” Lahore on his way back to New Delhi to wish Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday.

Militant attacks on Indian security installations in Pathankot in Punjab and Uri in Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian Army’s “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control followed in 2016.

Drop-ins during Christmas can be as fickle as meetings in domed villages named Bozai-Gumbuz in sparse highlands named Wakhan. Corridors created to keep ambitious powers apart over caviar and vodka and Bollywood oldies end in games like Chinese Checkers.

Sujan Dutta is a journalist. His Twitter handle is @reportersujan.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.