December 26, 2018 @ 11:45 am

26 DECEMBER 2018

Chabahar tidings

As India takes over operations in the Iranian port, the possibilities and challenges are huge

The opening of the first office of Indian Ports Global Limited at Iran’s Chabahar and the takeover of operations of the Shahid Beheshti port is a milestone in India’s regional connectivity and trade game plan. Chabahar port opens up a permanent alternative route for trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, given the hurdles in the direct route through Pakistan. It facilitates India’s role in Afghanistan’s development through infrastructure and education projects. And it gives India’s bilateral ties with Iran, a major oil supplier and potential trade market for India, a big fillip. India has helped develop the Shahid Beheshti port with these outcomes in mind, and has been given the contract to manage it for 18 months. It will be important to operationalise the port quickly and smoothen the route to Afghanistan. The decision by India, Afghanistan and Iran to hold an international event in February 2019 to promote Chabahar and to study ways to make the route more attractive and decrease logistic costs is timely. About 500 companies have registered with the Free Trade Zone authority there. While keeping timelines and delivery of New Delhi’s commitments will be key to the port becoming a regional hub for transit trade, steel and petrochemicals, it will be necessary to encourage Afghan companies to use the route more, in line with President Ashraf Ghani’s desire to have a commercial fleet under the Afghan flag setting sail from Chabahar.

Visions of Chabahar’s immense potential as a game-changer for prosperity and stability in the region must, however, necessarily be tempered by the reality of geopolitical challenges. The Chabahar port has received a waiver from the U.S. sanctions on Iran for the moment, but these concessions could be withdrawn any time, given the constant upheaval in the administration. The possibility of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, after the pullout from Syria, will add to security concerns for Afghanistan and impact on the Chabahar route as well. Meanwhile, the reconciliation process with the Afghan Taliban is likely to see the regional powers, the U.S. and Russia engaging Pakistan more. This could give Islamabad space to play spoiler in Chabahar, which is seen as a rival warm water port to Pakistan’s Gwadar. That the Afghanistan government is hedging its bets on trade via Chabahar too is clear: in recent months, special cargo corridors have been opened with China, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Europe, Russia, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, with more trade diverted through them than with traditional partners Pakistan and India. With Chabahar, India has done well to keep a place in the intricate connectivity network of the region. Given all the competing interests that criss-cross over Chabahar, it will require sustained and nuanced diplomacy to stay ahead in this game.

The worried Indian

Actor Naseeruddin Shah had every right to express what he did without fear of retaliation

The intimidatory power of the mob made itself felt once again when the Ajmer Literature Festival abruptly cancelled veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah’s keynote address. This followed the torrent of abuse heaped on Mr. Shah by a loose coalition of persons, ranging from anonymous trolls on social media to functionaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party, after he spoke about the dangerous amount of power that mobs wield in India. In a reference to the violence over allegations of cow carcasses found in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district this month that led to the killing of a police officer and another person, he spoke of the growing insecurity over being targeted by vigilante groups. “There is complete impunity for those who take law into their own hands,” said Mr. Shah. “I feel anxious thinking about my children.” Unfortunately, in this climate of hyper-nationalism, even an expression of anxiety is twisted out of context and portrayed as disloyalty to the nation. As Mr. Shah has explained, he was only speaking as a worried Indian about a country he loves. But amid the acrimonious outburst against him, no one cares to listen. A fringe group in Uttar Pradesh has offered him a one-way ticket to Karachi. And State BJP chief Mahendranath Pandey suggested, outrageously, that Mr. Shah was growing into the character of the Pakistani agent he had played in a film.

That a mere expression of anxiety about lawlessness and vigilantism could be fraught with such repercussions is deplorable in a democracy. Three years ago, another actor, Aamir Khan, was hounded for expressing alarm about growing intolerance; pressure was even applied on a private company to dismiss him as its brand ambassador. With each such reaction, the message is sent out to the next celebrity to hush his or her intervention in the public sphere. Governments have often given in to the mob’s diktats, either as the easy way out or for political signalling. In this case, the Rajasthan Chief Minister did the right thing by tweeting his regret over the fact that Mr. Shah couldn’t participate in the Ajmer event, saying his “administration was fully prepared to hold [the] festival peacefully”; some arrests of those who attempted to vandalise the festival venue have also been carried out. But his own record of standing up for free expression, like that of many other politicians, is marred by inconsistency and underwritten by expediency. In his previous stint as CM, Mr. Gehlot and his party were of a piece with those who pressured Salman Rushdie into pulling out of the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of those in power to support those who feel threatened for their views and to come down hard on those who attempt to silence them with intimidation and threats.

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