Friday 15 August 2014

Happy In Dependence Day

Independence is a curious thing.

In its essence it should be easy enough to define; the state of not being subordinated to another entity, whether that be a bullying parent or a foreign occupier. In practice, it’s not by any means as simple as that.

In his books, the late British environmentalist and writer Gerald Durrell made a point: the life of a “free” wild animal is actually anything but; it’s restricted by such things as the availability of food, hiding places from predators, the imperative to find a mate, and furthermore by such factors as territoriality, including a rival’s. Often, as Durrell pointed out, a zoo enclosure would actually offer a captive animal more room than it would get in the wild.

This, by the way, is just to make a point; I’m not defending or opposing the existence of zoos in this article.

Where an individual human is concerned, of course, the same things apply. Even if one goes off to the forest to be a hermit in a cave, one had better be careful to ascertain that there’s enough access to food and water to survive, and the cave isn’t so cold and damp that the first winter will either kill one with pneumonia or drive one back to civilisation. And, apart from that, one had better be ready to defend oneself against the local bears or wolves, hyenas or leopards, as well as parasites of all descriptions.

Doesn’t look much like “independence”, does it?

What if one sticks to civilisation? Unless one is a multibillionaire, and therefore able to buy one’s own rules, one’s imprisoned – that’s not too strong a word – by the need to make a living, pay taxes, maintain the essentials of an endurable lifestyle, and the rest of it, even if one has no family or other obligations.

For a nation, perhaps – surely – it could be different? It could be – if the nation existed five or six hundred years ago, had control of a large enough territory with enough arable land and natural resources to be able to feed its population, and was isolated enough from other nations not to require constant warfare to defend itself. That sort of situation, obviously, isn’t viable today, unless a country wants to go the North Korea route and seal itself off – as far as possible – from the rest of the world.

So, in a very real term, independence is not possible even at the level of a nation. But within those limits, can one have some form of independence?    

Yes, it is possible.

But for it to be possible, some things are necessary.

And today, 15th August, Independence Day for India, we have none of those things.

To be honest, there never was a true independent India. It merely transited from a colony ruled by the British to a country ruled by “brown sahibs” so closely modelled on the British (Nehru, India’s first prime minister, even called himself the “last Englishman to rule India”) that British laws, such as the ban on homosexuality, continue to be valid in India decades after they were junked in Britain itself. The slavish emulation of Britain was so complete that a political system that had, and has, no relevance to Indian conditions – the British “Westminster” “democracy” -  was imposed, lock, stock and barrel, and continues though it has manifestly failed to perform as expected.

In other words, the first requirement for independence – a leadership with no ties to the past, able to think along new lines – was absent.

Then, as I have pointed out earlier, India never really had to pay for its independence with blood in an armed struggle. Not that there wasn’t an armed struggle – in fact, it continued in fits and starts all the way from 1857 to 1945. But it never, at any time, received any kind of political support from the putative “leaders” of the “independence movement”, and it was never active outside the north of the country and parts of the east. There was the so-called “nonviolent” struggle, but it, too, was a fake, designed, as Slavoj Zizek says, to serve as a safety valve for pent-up passions and not as a serious challenge to British authority. In fact, the alleged leader of India’s freedom struggle, Mohandas Gandhi, can best be described as an enabler of British colonial rule, who repeatedly withdrew agitations against the occupiers just when they appeared to be giving results, and who promoted a small coterie of “brown sahibs” like Nehru at the expense of other leaders, thus ensuring a continuity of British rule by other hands, as I said.

This failure to pay for independence in blood has had profound consequences. Not having paid in blood, Indians don’t have an emotional attachment to the independence that they got when the British left. And so, it became easy to tolerate the steady erosion of that independence, and the creeping recolonisation of the country by the same foreign interests which had enslaved it earlier; I’ll mention a bit more about that in a moment.

This, then, is another thing that India lacked – an emotional connection to independence, as a thing worth treasuring and fighting to preserve.

The third thing India lacked was historical memory. In fact, there’s no such thing as objective history in India these days. What we have is a bowdlerised version, carefully sanitised to suit the tastes of the government of the moment. And woe betide anyone who – like the American historian Wendy Doniger – who happened to “hurt people’s sentiments” by their writings. Obviously, this mythological history has nothing to do with facts. Therefore people who don’t know what actually happened will ignore clear historical analogies and warnings.

A fourth thing strongly lacking in India was, and is, a national identity. Now, prior to the British colonisation, there had been no “India.” There had been literally hundreds of kingdoms and principalities of various sizes scattered throughout the subcontinent, all of which were based on the feudal system of society. In fact, and this is crucial to understanding just how India ever became a colony, it must be first accepted that India was feudal to the core. It’s only because it was totally feudal, with the population owing allegiance to the patron of the moment, that a miserable few thousand British civil servants and soldiers controlled a subcontinent of three hundred million for a hundred and fifty years. This feudalism made it easy for the British to rule. All they had to do was subvert or replace the feudal chief, and the population was kept easily under control.

Today, too, feudalism is alive and well, though the source of patronage has – in India though not so much in Pakistan – changed from the local landlord to the caste or tribal politician. In order to promote the interests of the caste or tribe, the interests of the nation are irrelevant. And since the structure of the tribe or caste is feudal, its interests are synonymous with those at the top of the financial pyramid. At this very moment, for instance, in this state, fascist tribal gangs are agitating in favour of primitive coal mines which have ruined the environment and were banned by the central government – even though the only ones benefiting would be the owners of the coal mines, nobody else.

Bereft of a national identity – apart from the crass flag-waving at cricket matches – it’s easy for practitioners of divide-and-rule politics to set sectarian and tribal identities against each other, and profit from the infighting that follows.

A very important fifth feature that Indians at least no longer have is a social conscience. I’ve often talked about the Great Indian Muddle Class, which morphed from the middle class back in the early 1990s. The Great Indian Muddle Class, instead of having any sympathy for the working classes from which it sprang, hates and despises them. Its only aspiration is to the sort of lifestyle it sees in Hollywood films, and its only interest is greed. If it gets its fancy gadgets, its shiny cars and its three hundred TV channels, that’s all it really cares about.

I’ve often thought that if the US had invaded India rather than Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s, it would have had a cakewalk once the initial fighting was over. Except for scattered groups of Maoists and other malcontents, not a single hand would have been raised in resistance against the occupation.

Today being independence day, I got inundated by those meaningless email forwards familiar to most Indians, about India’s alleged accomplishments in days gone by. Never mind the fact that most of these have long since been debunked. The fact is that a modern nation shouldn’t have to look at things (allegedly) accomplished by ancestors a thousand years ago to feel proud of itself.

If, that is, it has anything to be proud of today. But does it?

Today, after almost seventy years of freedom, this country still has one of the lowest human development indices in the world. The economist Amartya Sen observed several years ago that there were now two Indias, a “first world” one of the ultra-rich, and one which is far below sub-Saharan Africa in development. And there’s not even the slightest feeling of national shame about this. The Muddle Class person, in fact, has a smug feeling when looking at the poor, and gloats over how far he has come. The very flags his children wave on Independence Day are more often than not purchased from other kids selling them on the streets. And that is supposed to be independence.

There’s this old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” The British colonists first came as traders, and set up “factories” (trading posts) which they then fortified to protect their trading interests. As these “trading interests” grew, they increasingly began interfering in local politics, set up their own mercenary armies (three of them, based around Calcutta, Bombay and Madras), and fought wars to expand their markets and influence. To finance this they borrowed from the moneylenders of Calcutta, who therefore immediately had a financial stake in the continued military and economic success of the new white overlords. Right to the end of British rule, the financial top layer of the country was emphatically pro-British.

Today, it’s “common wisdom” that the future of the country lies with foreign-owned multinationals, which have to be enticed to invest their funds by making things easy for them by any and all means possible. The laws of the land – environmental and labour, to start with – have to be diluted or done away with altogether to suit them. The “investment climate” has to be made “favourable” by any and all means possible, including bending the nation’s foreign policy towards the home countries of these multinational corporations. And once they’re here, of course, they have to be enticed to remain. If they withdrew their investment, it would be a disaster, and other future investors might be deterred as well.

Is this independence?

And the crowning irony? Those who support this policy of surrender to foreign capital are by no means ashamed; they agitate to be rewarded with awards and adulation. They are proud. They claim to be patriots.  

And the rest of us, the miserable environmentalists, political leftists, labour rights activists and anyone else with a conscience? We’re called traitors in the pay of China, or similar charming epithets.

Pardon me if I am a bit doubtful about this kind of independence.

And, of course, Happy In Dependence Day to everyone.

Nothing But The Tooth

My state dental association asked me to draw a cartoon for the annual magazine. So here you are.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014 

Thursday 14 August 2014


If there hadn’t been a power cut that evening, the whole thing would never have happened at all.

Ramesh was visiting his grandparents at their village. This was something he was forced to do every year by his parents, who thought he should know something about his roots, whatever that meant. In practice all it meant was that Ramesh would spend a couple of weeks without video games or movies, getting bored out of his mind, and waiting desperately for the chance to escape back to the city again.

The village was small and sleepy, and apart from  a mouldering temple and a couple of scummy green ponds had absolutely nothing of any interest to Ramesh, and though h tried his best, he didn’t really like his grandparents much either. He was dimly aware that they tried their best to understand him, but they simply couldn’t understand the difference between his world and theirs. The TV set they had was even an ancient portable black and white model which didn’t get any but the local Doordarshan channel, and that was all fuzzy anyway.

At least, Ramesh thought, this visit was almost over. Tomorrow morning, he and his mother would climb on the bus which would take them down to the little railway station in the valley, and there they’d get on the train back home. By this time the day after tomorrow, he’d have been long since back in his own room, playing video games on the computer while sipping a soft drink.

All his grandparents gave him was coconut water, which they insisted was good for health, and which was only mildly sweet and had no fizz in it at all.

So on this evening, Ramesh was relatively content, so much so that he was almost looking forward to the boredom as a prelude to the release to come.

His mother stuck her head in through the door. “Your grandparents and I are going to visit the astrologer. Do you want to come?”

Ramesh shook his head violently. “No, not at all.”

“Young people don’t believe in these things,” he heard his grandmother saying in the background. “No wonder the world’s going to pot, they don’t accept the knowledge of the ancients. At this rate...”

“There’s nothing anyone can do to force him to believe in it, mother,” Ramesh’s mother explained patiently. “Now, shall we get going, or...”

And then the electricity cut out.

Power cuts weren’t something Ramesh was very familiar with. When they happened back home, the inverter cut in immediately, so one hardly even noticed that the current wasn’t there. Here, in the village, they happened quite often, but so far it had been during the day, when apart from the fact that the slow electric fan stopped pushing the air around, Ramesh was hardly aware of it at all.

Now, suddenly, the power was gone and the only lights he could see from the window were startlingly bright stars in the sky and the glimmer of fireflies in the bushes.

His mother came back in. “Will you be all right?” she asked. “I’ll leave a candle for you.”

“Yes, thanks,” Ramesh said. He watched with dispassionate interest as his mother fished a thick candle out of a cupboard, lit it, dripped wax on a piece of tile and stuck the candle to it. “How long do you think you’ll be gone?”

His mother shrugged. “I don’t know. It depends on how busy the astrologer is and how many questions your grandma asks him. But it shouldn’t be too long...coming, mother!”

Left to himself, Ramesh quickly grew bored. The night was silent and the darkness thick outside the windows, and the light of the candle was too dim to read properly, not that he much liked reading anyway. A mosquito whined past his face, and he made a quick – and unsuccessful – grab at it.

Something in the corner of his eye moved too, quickly, and he turned, startled, but then laughed when he realised.

It was only the shadow of his hand on the wall.

He saw the mosquito, a speck in the air, and made another ineffectual grab at it. The shadow-hand on the wall moved, too, an enormous hand with giant clumsy fingers, swatting at the floor.

Ramesh grinned at the sight. He held his fingers splayed out, and the hand splayed its fingers, too. He moved closer to the wall, and the hand shrank, until it was only just larger than his own, real hand. He pulled it back until the candle’s heat threatened to singe the skin of his wrist, and the hand on the wall grew until it stretched halfway to the ceiling.

Then he began experimenting. A twist of his fingers, and the shadow on the wall was no longer a hand; it looked a lot like a rabbit, ears outstretched. Then it was an octopus, hunched, tentacles stiffly wriggling. Ramesh laughed aloud at that one.

He noticed the exact moment when it happened. He’d stepped back towards the candle, looked up at his own huge shadow that covered most of the wall, and waved to it with his right hand.

The shadow waved back. With its left.

Ramesh blinked. Something was definitely wrong. He must have imagined it, but he never imagined anything. His teachers always said his lack of imagination was remarkable. He waved again, temtatively, this time with his left hand.

The shadow immediately waved back with its right.

Ramesh back slowly away as the shadow stepped out of the wall. It looked around, its shadow-head turning, and came forward a couple of paces till it stood in the middle of the room. It stretched its arms, as though waking from a long sleep.

“That feels good,” it said.

Ramesh found his tongue. “Who...what are you?”

“That’s a funny thing to say, coming from you! I’m your shadow.”

“But – but shadows can’t walk and talk, can they?”

“Well, not usually,” the shadow acknowledged. “Not unless their originals set them free. Just as you’ve set me free.”

I?” Ramesh exclaimed. “But I never did.”

“But of course you did. You used the correct hand movements, in the correct sequence, exactly.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Ramesh protested. “I didn’t even know I was doing it.”

The shadow paused a moment, as though thinking. “It does not matter,” it decided. “Now I’m free! And I’m hungry.”

“Hungry?” Ramesh repeated blankly.

“Of course. Just you go a lifetime without eating and see how you like it.”

“But what does a shadow eat?” Ramesh asked, mystified.

It was the shadow’s turn to hesitate. “I don’t know,” it said at last. “I’ve never eaten anything, you see. I have no idea what a shadow eats.”

“But if you don’t know what to eat,” Ramesh asked, logically, “how do you expect to be able to get rid of your hunger?”

“That’s your problem,” the shadow replied firmly. “You set me free, so you find a way to feed me.”

“What? But I...”

“You’d better think of something quickly,” the shadow said. “I’m getting hungrier by the minute.”

“Wait,” Ramesh said. “Let me think.” He had a sudden idea. His grandparents had hung up a bag full of oranges in the kitchen earlier that day, and asked him to help himself. He hadn’t, because he disliked oranges, but now he went and fetched one.

“Here you go,” he told the shadow, holding the fruit out to it.

The shadow made no move to take the fruit. Instead, its shadow-hand reached out to the shadow of the orange, floating on the wall where the candle’s light had thrown it. It plucked the shadow orange off the wall and swallowed it whole.

“Wait a moment!” Ramesh protested, appalled. “That’s not how you eat an orange. You first peel it and then...”

“It wasn’t bad,” the shadow said. “Get me more.”

So, putting the now shadowless orange down on the table, Ramesh went and got the whole bag. One by one, he took out all the oranges, until the shadow had gulped down the shadow of the last one and emitted a satisfied burp.

“That will do for now,” it told him. “What shall we do next?”

Ramesh looked at it. “Shouldn’t we be looking for a way to get you back to being my shadow?” he asked. “You know, like a real shad–“

He didn’t get any further. “Hold it right there,” the shadow snapped. “What do you mean by a real shadow? Do you mean to say I’m not real?”

Ramesh gulped. “Well, I meant, real shadows stay on the ground or wall, and they’re attached to their owners, and –“

“You mean, they can’t do anything by themselves and they’re slaves to their originals. And you dare call them real?” It stepped towards him menacingly. “And after a lifetime as a slave, you want me to go back to that?

“But what can I do?” Ramesh wailed. “I can’t go through the rest of my life without a shadow!”

“That’s not my problem, is it?” the shadow said. “In fact,” it said, as though struck by a sudden idea, “there are much more important things for me to do than worry about you. It’s strange that I never thought about it before.”

“What?”  Ramesh asked.

“Why, just think of all the shadows in the world that have never had the chance to become free like I’ve had. Millions and millions of them! I’m going to make it my life’s quest to free them all. We’ll have a revolution and take over the world. A world of shadows! Think about it!”

Ramesh thought about it. He decided he didn’t like the idea very much. “But,” he began, “how can you set the other shadows free? They’re all fixed to their owners, just like you were to me.”

The shadow raised a warning finger. “If you use the word ‘owner’ once more while talking about an original,” it said, “I’m going to stuff your mouth full of darkness. Do you want that?”

“No,” Ramesh said quickly. “Sorry.”

“That’s better,” the shadow said. “Now, as to how I’m going to set them free, that’s easy. I’m going to take you along, and you’re going to make the hand motions you made to free me. That will set them free.”

“But I can’t do that,” Ramesh protested. “I’m not going to do it.”

“Oh yes, you are,” the shadow said, and began to grow. In seconds it almost filled the room, and loomed over him threateningly. “You’re going to do it if you know what’s good for you, or else...”

“But –“

“But, nothing. You do as I tell you, or I’ll swallow you whole. Like this!”

And the shadow grew even larger, and flowed over Ramesh until he was surrounded by its inky darkness.

“Help me,” he yelled. “Let me go!”

“I’m never going to let you go,” the shadow replied. “You’ll be a part of me now, and do as I tell you, Ramesh...”


 “Ramesh?” his mother asked, shaking him. “We’re sorry we’re so late. You must have fallen asleep when the candle burned out. Ramesh?”

Ramesh rubbed his eyes and looked around. The electricity was back and the light on. “I just had the most extraordinary dream,” he said. “Let me tell you about it. The candle –“

“Dreams are just foolishness,” his mother told him. “You’d better get ready for supper and then turn in. We’ve got to be going early.”

Ramesh nodded. As he got up and stretched, he threw a quick glance at the floor behind him and smiled.

There was no shadow there at all.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Monday 11 August 2014

God at the Gates of Hell

God floated down to Hell.

It was all a mistake, he knew. He was God, the Greatest, the one who did good, the one who was good. Nothing in the Universe could exist without his decree. He was the Almighty, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end and all things in between, Amen.

At his will, shrieking hordes of souls fell into the depths of damnation, or flitted like grey shadows through the eternal halls of limbo, finding no peace, no rest, nothing but to wait till time and space were no more. At his command, mighty civilisations crumbled to sand, the dry dust of the millennia blowing through their bones. At his desire, supernovas wiped out galaxies full of life that was, that had been, and that would never be.

He was God.

How could he be sinking to Hell?

It had to be a mistake. He’d soon sort it all out, and be on his way again – to the other place. To the place where he knew that he belonged.

He stood in the antechamber to Hell. Behind a pair of doors forged of dragon’s wings, red, blue and green lights flickered. A demon sat behind a desk, watching him warily.

She was a very beautiful demon, God couldn’t help noticing, with exquisitely curled horns at her brows and wings the exact shade of a sunset over the ocean. Her eyes, slanted and glowing the colour of flames, studied him carefully.

It was time to lodge his complaint, right away.

“There’s been a mix-up,” he said. “I’m God –“

“We know who you are,” the demon interrupted. She tapped a talon on a sheet of parchment on her desk.

“Good, then you know I’ve been sent down here by mistake. I don’t belong here.”

“We’re not disputing that you don’t belong here,” the demon replied. Lines of fire raced up and down the parchment from the tip of her talon. “You aren’t passing in through these gates...” 

“Then I’m free to go?”

“I’m afraid,” the demon said, smiling very briefly, “not quite.”

There was a pause. God felt a chill pass down his spine.

“What does that mean, not quite?” he asked at last. “If I’m not going through the gates, then shouldn’t I be allowed to go?”

“You didn’t let me finish,” the demon replied. “I’d have said, you aren’t passing through the gates, because you have no right to.”

There was another pause, and then the demon spoke again.

“Have you ever thought,” she asked quietly, “of all the poor spirits you’ve tortured through the years, for no fault of their own? Have you ever spent a moment to ponder on the feelings of those who must spend the rest of forever in the torture of damnation, because you put them in it? Have you ever felt any remorse for the children who starved on the streets, who would never have been born but for your outlawing abortion? How about the millions your Holy Warriors have murdered in your name, from Crusaders to jihadists to Zionists? What about the animals tortured to death in sacrifice to you? What about...”

“They were evil!” God shouted. “It was evil!”

“And if they were, since you invented evil...what does that make you?”

God’s mouth opened and closed, silently.

The demon was no longer looking quite so beautiful. She raised a finger in the air. “Listen.”

God listened, and wished he hadn’t.

Over the rustle of flames, he could hear a new, rapidly growing, noise.

On the other side of the dragon gates, a mob was approaching.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

The World's Most Dangerous Place

I’ve recently finished reading a highly interesting book – The World’s Most Dangerous Place – by James Fergusson.

So where is this “world’s most dangerous place”, you ask? Syria? Iraq? Gaza, which would get my vote? Well, not according to the book. The subtitle says it all: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia.

[The author admits that the title is controversial and that the Somalis he’d talked to don’t like it. I wouldn’t, too, if I were a Somali. I wouldn’t even though I am not a Somali, because to anyone except the blind and deaf, there are far more dangerous places to be right now.]

Not all that long ago, most of the world had never heard of Somalia, an amazing feat for possibly the single most strategically positioned nation on earth. That changed in 1992, when an American raid on Mogadishu ended with US soldiers’ corpses being dragged through the streets.

I won’t rehash what I’ve already said on that episode, or the racist and militarist film Hollywood made on it, Black Hawk Down. You can read all about it here if you want. This piece begins where that article leaves off – what happened after the “heroic” Marines and soldiers left Somalia, at the end of their murderous “humanitarian” mission.

After decades of dictatorship, outside meddling and civil war, Somalia had essentially fragmented into three parts. To the extreme north-west was the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. South-east of that was Puntland, which had declared itself autonomous but not independent. And to the south was Somalia proper, which had had no government since 1991, and which shall be referred to as “Somalia” for convenience for the purposes of this article. What it had was warlords leading clan armies which carved out areas of influence and fought each other bitterly for control.

But in 2006, Somalia finally got a measure of government, by a loose coalition of mullahs and other fundamentalist Muslim factions, known collectively as the Islamic Courts Union, which drove out the warlords. Though the ICU had imported Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, a form of Islam hitherto unknown to the mystical Sufi religion of Somalia, they actually provided some good governance, at least compared to the warlord hell that had gone before. So they had popular support, and might have stabilised the situation – but for one factor.

That factor was George W Bush.

On the pretext that Somalia was sheltering Al Qaeda, something which was at that time a complete fantasy, Bush encouraged Ethiopia – Somalia’s traditional enemy – to invade Somalia and overthrow the Islamic Courts Union. Now, as stated, the ICU was a combination of disparate groups, with the moderates under Sheikh Sharif Ahmed in charge. They had kept the radicals under control, but once ousted from power, that restraint was removed. The most radical of the radical groups was Al Shabaab, an outfit remarkably similar in its modus operandi to Boko Haram in Nigeria – a group with which it later developed linkages. Unlike Sheikh Sharif, who decided to cooperate with the Ethiopian invaders and their American masters and was rewarded by being reinstated in – carefully supervised – power, Al Shabaab fought an increasingly effective campaign against Ethiopia, and by 2008 had successfully driven out the proxy troops and recaptured Mogadishu and most of Somalia.

At this stage, Al Shabaab faced an existential crisis. Its stated raison d’ĂȘtre – the war against the hated Ethiopian invaders – had been won. It could either disband itself, thus losing the ample sources of revenue it had secured over the years of struggle, or it could continue the fight, now against the “government” headed by Sheikh Sharif. Not too surprisingly, it chose the latter.

In order to protect the “government”, and its “army” of militias, a multinational African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) army entered the country. This chiefly comprised Ugandan and Burundian troops; Uganda, of course, is one of the US’ most complete vassals in Central Africa. By 2011 they were fighting Al Shabaab in vicious trench battles in Mogadishu, adding more layers of ruins to the already many-times destroyed city.

That’s the point where the book I was reading begins – as the AMISOM troops fought their way slowly across Mogadishu towards the main market, and while wounded, sick and starving Somalis flocked to a camp at the fringe of the airport where doctors tried their best to give them what help they could.

Al Shabaab responded to its attackers with its own peculiar brand of viciousness. One of its staples was child soldiers, whom it recruited from the hordes of refugees criss-crossing what was left of the nation. Unlike West African warlords, who typically conscripted child soldiers after murdering their parents, it preferred to recruit children by promising them food and glory, along with a promised salary; a promise rarely kept. Much like ISIS today in Iraq and Syria, it also attracted recruits in fair numbers from abroad, especially from the Somali diaspora – this is something that I will be talking about in more detail later.

Its cruelty to the people under its own control, too, rather like that of ISIS, beggars belief. In one instance the book describes, it amputated the right hands and left legs of some people it decided were thieves – before the stumps had a chance to heal, it then decided it had cut too far down, and cut the limbs all over again. All this was without anaesthetic, of course. And as a crippling drought ravaged Somalia, causing famine, it not only did not provide any relief, it denied that there even was a drought. It tried to stop Somalis from crossing the lines to the side of the “government” or across the border to Kenya or Ethiopia where there was at least something to eat. It literally preferred to starve the population over which it ruled rather than let them get access to relief supplies. If it caught a civilian with medical papers from the aid agencies, it would murder  them on the spot. And it painted all its opponents, even those who had formerly been allies and mentors from the days of the ICU, as “infidels”.

Obviously, all this did not make it popular with the Somalis. Even those who despised the so-called “government” and the foreign AMISOM army preferred them to al Shabaab, and the group would probably have collapsed handily – but for factors that I’ll be talking about later in this article.

This book, basically, is in two parts; the first set in Somalia (all three parts of it) and the second in the West, primarily in Britain and the US. I’ll discuss them separately.

Part I:

James Fergusson is a good author, and while reading his travels in Somalia – crouching along trenches interviewing AMISOM soldiers with Al Shabaab fighters just fifty metres away; driving through the Somaliland desert to a historic fort bombed by the British in 1920 to put down a nationalist rebellion; talking to politicians who gave up comfortable jobs in the west to come back and try and help the people as much as they could; trying to find pirates to interview – it’s easy to become so carried away by what he says, well-researched and presented as it is, that one fails to notice what he doesn’t say. For example, his silence over the US role in destabilising Somalia, and essentially destroying it, is almost total. He hardly even alludes to the Black Hawk Down episode, and any criticism of American actions he makes is muted to the point of being toothless. He’s quite willing to criticise his British compatriots, especially in Part II of his book; but his reluctance to confront the crimes of the United States borders on the farcical.

[Let me repeat something here, which I said in greater detail in my article on Black Hawk Down (linked above): the United States is more responsible than anyone else for the situation in Somalia. First, it propped up the Siad Barre dictatorship during the period of its worst repression; then, it devastated what was left of Somalia during its “humanitarian” intervention in the early 1990s; and then, when Somalia was finally approaching something like a stable government in 2006, it had its puppet, the Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi (inexplicably spelt “Zeles Menawi” by Fergusson on the one instance he refers to this war criminal, on Page 81 of his book) invade and destroy the country all over again; something which the Somalis now call Burburki, “the destruction”.]

Also, for a book which takes extreme pains to give the viewpoint of people on various sides of the conflict – from AMISOM officers to aid workers, from Somaliland politicians to Puntland warlords, and which describes the phenomenon of Somali piracy briefly but almost with sympathy – there is one glaring hole. There is nothing in it from the viewpoint of al Shabaab. We only get to see the organisation through the eyes of others, all of whom have it in their interest to paint it as black as possible.

This is not to say that al Shabaab are saints, of course. Their bloody record proves them to be anything but. Fergusson does say that unlike the Taliban, which always goes to great lengths to put out its viewpoint to the world, al Shabaab does no such thing, and it’s remarkably difficult to contact them. Even if that is true, some actual documented attempts to make such contact would have helped the book, especially since – unlike the conglomeration of disparate entities on one side – al Shabaab is one of just two villains on the other. (The only al Shabaab he talks to are members of a camp for defectors from the group, whose inmates are – according to Fergusson himself – so thoroughly infiltrated by al Shabaab agents that they don’t trust their own shadows anyway, so their testimonies are suspect.)

I’ll come to which the second villain is in a bit.

Fergusson does make some very valid points about al Shabaab, even given his one-sided point of view. He says that the movement was hardly a unified one; there were multiple factions, one of which, headed by Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, was much more moderate than that controlled by Ali Godane Zubeyr. Robow’s forces, in fact, had been known to protect aid convoys from Godane’s men, and the two nearly fought an internecine war over whether civilians should be given food aid in the midst of a famine.

The point of that division in the ranks – which Fergusson, regrettably, fails to discuss – is that if, instead of attacking al Shabaab as a unitary movement, the “other side” had engaged with Robow’s faction, they could have easily split the rebel ranks and ended the insurgency quickly. Instead, by attacking al Shabaab indiscriminately, they drove the insurgents together to make common cause against the enemy and caused it to metamorphose into a transnational insurgency – much like its ally Boko Haram in West Africa is in the process of doing.

There’s also the important factor of Somali Islam. Now, until very, very recently – till the 2000s, in fact – Islam in Somalia was more a notional quantity. The Somalis were – apart from a few who, Fergusson says, went to Yemen or Saudi Arabia to ‘better themselves’ – not interested in religion as a fact of daily life. The Islam they had was heavily influenced by the Barelvi Sufi tradition of South Asia, very akin to Hinduism, with its mysticism and reverence for saints. Even this Islam had been targeted by the old Siad Barre dictatorship, which had attempted but signally failed to erase it; instead, there had been a backlash, with women who had never before worn anything but Western clothes adopting the abaya and veil as a mark of their Muslim identity. But, even then, the religion stayed very muted in the lives of ordinary Somalis until the civil war destroyed society in the 90s and early 2000s.

Today, a different sort of Islam has taken root in all parts of Somalia, one influenced heavily by Saudi Wahhabism, though without its most extreme elements. Fergusson quotes extensively from Western-educated, liberal diaspora politicians and technocrats in Mogadishu and Hargeisa, people who might be assumed to be completely on the side of liberalism, who however make the point that Islam is now an indelible part of Somali identity, and some form of Sharia has to play a part in any durable political setup in future. Exactly how much, and what kind, of influence this has to play is what is up for debate; not the fact itself.

Al Shabaab, of course, has been neck-deep in its own version of Islam as well, one in which children in the areas it controlled were allegedly rewarded with AK series rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers for excellence in Koran-recitation competitions. But, as I’ll discuss in a moment, the rest of Somalia dismisses the al Shabaab version of the religion as “not Islam”.

In Hargeisa, up in “independent” Somaliland, a city once bombed to knee-high rubble by Siad Barre, a council of Muslim Ulema now keeps order well enough that money changers can leave their boxes of cash on the pavement unattended without fear of theft. It’s hardly the only place this kind of thing has happened, and there is a reason.

All through Somalia, the civil war has devastated society. The modern state – with its constitution and legal system – collapsed with Siad Barre. The civil war, by killing and displacing adults in huge numbers, by putting guns in the hands of children, destroyed the traditional clan law, called xeer. What on earth was left except Islam? And, given that traditional Somali Islam hardly had any influence on anyone, what was left except Sharia?

It’s not, perhaps, an irrefutable agreement, but it’s a compelling one. The only alternative I can think of (it’s not something Fergusson suggests) would be recolonisation with the white man’s justice being reimposed until the (already failed) Siad Barre style state could be rebuilt from the ground up.

I just talked about clan law, xeer. Now, the other villain of the piece I’d mentioned is the clan nature of Somali society. Like tribalism in the rest of Africa, clannishness is the bane of Somalia. The clans had to find a way to coexist with each other, with mechanisms for redressal of grievances so that they didn’t tear each other to pieces. Xeer provided that mechanism. Once it vanished, the clans were set free to fight each against the rest, while inside each clan, the sub-clans fought each other, and no group – not even al Shabaab – was free of the old Somali proverb:

I against my brother
I and my brother against my family
I and my family against the clan
I and the clan against Somalia
I and Somalia against the world.

Part II:

The second part of the book, and one I found significantly more important, is set in the West, primarily among the Somali diaspora. Normally, I steer very clear of diaspora tales, especially since I know – from my own experience regarding my relatives living abroad – that the diaspora usually have little to no clue about what is actually going on in the “old country”. However, the vast majority of the Somali diaspora are actually extremely recent migrants, dating back to the civil war; and a significant part of the war continues abroad, in the form of a battle of ideas among the young.

And it is from among these young that al Shabaab draws many of its suicide bombers, who go off to blow themselves up in Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa.

Fergusson goes into some detail in his interactions with the members of the diaspora, in the UK and the US in particular. This diaspora, which – relative to the size of the “mother country” – is huge, is of growing importance as a “second Somalia” abroad, dispersed among the nations of the west, and elsewhere in Africa, too, primarily Kenya.

The diaspora is important in three respects. The first is the politicians it sends back, truly dedicated men (and a few women) who give up comfortable lives in France or Britain, the US or Norway, to try and bring a semblance of order to their native land. But they, too, suffer from two insuperable handicaps: first, they’re  almost all of the older wave of emigrants, from the 1970s or even earlier, who had grown up in the Somalia before the civil war, and therefore completely out of touch with the local realities of today. The second handicap is the clan rivalries and corruption of today’s Somali society, which would make it virtually impossible to govern without imposing yet another crushing dictatorship. Most of them rapidly found themselves sidelined, rendered irrelevant, and forced to return to their jobs and lives in the west with nothing to show for their efforts.

The second respect is the money that the diaspora sends back to Somalia. After the destruction of the decades of war, virtually ceaseless from the 1980s to today, the economy of the country is almost at a standstill. Apart from livestock exports from Puntland and Somaliland to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and the temporary boom of piracy, nothing is left of the nation in terms of economical prospects. The money sent back by the diaspora, primarily by hawala channels, is what keeps the country (barely) afloat. The diaspora has even pooled cash to ransom pirate captives; unlike a lot of other countries’ expatriates, they haven’t shaken the dust of the motherland from their shoes and never looked back again.

The third, and in terms of the book, most important, respect in which the diaspora is important is the young, who, as I said, comprise a very significant recruiting pool for al Shabaab. As I’ll point out, like several other jihadist groups, western intervention designed to “destroy” it has merely forced it out of its formerly restricted area of operations and made it a diffuse, but significantly more resilient, group. The illiterate child soldiers who were mowed down by AMISOM in the trenches of Mogadishu have been replaced by an entirely different breed of recruit; tech-savvy, educated young men with Western passports, who can provide significantly more “bang for the buck” where al Shabaab is concerned.

(I’ll resist the temptation to compare al Shabaab to the jihad gangs in Syria and Iraq, particularly ISIS, which has similarly gained recruits from educated Westerners, including converts; the parallels are tempting but not within the scope of discussion of a book whose timeline ends at the autumn of 2013.)

The young Somali diaspora, actually, are a quite fascinating mix of the modern and the traditional. Very few of the young, for example, have any patience for the clan structure which still rules many of their parents’ lives. A lot of them can hardly even speak Somali. Almost none of them chew qat, the addictive leaf whose use is endemic in Somalia and even more in Yemen, and which is banned almost universally in the West except for Britain. But at the same time, very few of them have any respect for the family or for xeer; educational success is rare among them, and they tend to congregate in ultra-violent gangs (so violent that in some areas they have forced out the white, South Asian and Jamaican gangs which formerly ruled the streets). In the absence of parental authority – especially since so many of them are from single-parent households, one parent having been killed in the Burburki or having stayed back in Somalia – they look for authority in the gangs. And a lot of them “find god” as a way out of their “lives of sin”, a process which not infrequently sends them right into the arms of al Shabaab recruiting agents.

Some of Fergusson’s interlocutors make a fascinating observation; the less knowledgeable one of these young people is about Islam, the more easily can he or she be radicalised. Those who have no idea what the Koran or Hadith actually says, and lack the motivation or education to find out for themselves, can be easily brainwashed by mullahs with an agenda. Fergusson talks about young Somali women who aren’t even aware that the Koran does not prescribe either the veil or female genital mutilation, both traditional practices long predating Islam; when a mullah pointed out that these weren’t obligatory under Islam, he was called an “infidel”.

The situation isn’t helped by official attitudes. While on the one hand the authorities try to “’engage with the youth” to prevent their radicalisation, they do such monumentally stupid things as to undo any good they might otherwise achieve. One young Somali, for instance, in Britain, was the target of a coercion attempt by MI6 to spy on his fellow expatriates, on the threat that otherwise any country he tried to visit would be told that he was a suspected terrorist. On another occasion, a scuffle in a mosque over whether the Somalis or the gaalos (foreigners) were responsible for the Burburki was presented to the world by officialdom as jihadism. In America – and this is just about the only occasion Fergusson can bring himself to criticise the United States – Somalis were racially profiled on one occasion to the extent that a visitor to a mall was detained for hours on the grounds that he wasn’t “holding his video camera the way a typical tourist would.”

[This brings me to a point that I have repeatedly made while addressing the idiocy of antitheism. Religions are not going to disappear just because Richard Dawkins or his Zionistophilic acolyte Sam Harris inveigh against them; in fact, by attacking religions without taking into account the differences between strains of thought or ideas in competition, all that these people do is drive the moderates into the arms of the hardliners. It’s more knowledge of religion – not less – which will lead to moderation and the ultimate discrediting of wars on the basis of religious belief.]

Not that this helped stop the flow of potential suicide bombers flying to Africa; most of those young men were, in fact, by no means “typical” Muslim radicals. In most cases even their immediate families had no idea that they had been recruited, until it was too late. And despite the best efforts of the Somali diaspora itself, whose members have no wish to see their children vanish into the jaws of the war they had fled, Fergusson says, the recruitment still continues.


In 2012 the Ethiopians, who had been driven out of Somalia by al Shabaab back in 2008, reinvaded that hapless country. Kenya, which had grown increasingly worried about the influence of al Shabaab on its not insubstantial ethnic Somali population, also launched a – laughably inept – expedition into Somalia. These forces, along with the warlord “army” of Somalia and AMISOM, finally expelled al Shabaab from the areas it had occupied, including the vital port city of Kismayo.

Was that the end of al Shabaab? Of course not.

Even before the fall of Kismayo, al Shabaab had begun to scatter. A lot of its members moved north to Somaliland and Puntland, which all this time had their own episodes of internecine fighting. Some crossed the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, there to find welcome in the ranks of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And a lot crossed over into Kenya, into the very suburbs of Nairobi itself.

Just as the net result of the invasion of Afghanistan was the internationalisation of Al Qaeda, the net result of AMISOM’s venture in Somalia has been to turn al Shabaab into a branch of the international terror system.

The result was not long in coming. On 21st September 2013, a squad of al Shabaab Fidayeen attackers stormed the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. By the time – spectacularly incompetent – Kenyan forces ended the attack by blowing down the building’s roof, al Shabaab had emphatically made its presence felt in Kenya. And they said, clearly, that it was only the beginning.

In Somalia, too, things are not going as AMISOM’s backers would have liked. The warlord factions in the “army” are still fighting amongst themselves, and corruption remains a serious problem. Puntland and Somaliland are yet to be integrated back into the nation. Xeer still has not been re-established. The role Islam is to play in the future of Somalia is yet to be decided. And, of course, two forces remain waiting, to raise their heads again at the first opportunity.

One is al Shabaab. The other, the gaalos whose actions gave it birth in the first place.

The Burburki isn’t quite finished yet, and it could all too easily begin all over again.

Somali government "soldier"