Friday, 18 August 2017

The City With Spires Of Marble And Gold

The flat red sun rises straight ahead, painting the highway the colour of clotting blood.

I have been aware for some time that it is about to rise. The flames on the horizon have been gathering themselves up to crawl into the sky, and, each time that happens, soon the sun will crawl up after them.

I have long since lost count of how many days I have been walking this highway. Days and nights have followed one after the other so many times that I might have been walking this road since the beginning of time. I can’t even remember when I started; it is all I can remember ever having known.

It is not yet light enough to get a look at the eroded desert on either side of the highway, but the first of the morning’s corpses has appeared, lying half on and half off the road. One of its hands is still twitching a little, as though reaching up for help. I barely glance at it as I walk by.

There will probably be many corpses today. For the last day or two there have been hardly any. Sometimes I might walk hours without seeing one. Sometimes they are so thick on the road that I have to be careful not to step on them. Sometimes I have to step off the highway altogether and into the desert, but I do this as rarely as possible. There are things that move out in the desert, just glimpsed out of the corner of my eye; things that seem to be following me, biding their time. I do not want to give them an opportunity.

The sun is rising up into the sky now, fading from red to blinding yellow-white in the flaming sky. It is probably very hot. I don’t know; perhaps I am so used to it that I have stopped feeling it. But at every step, the soles of my boots stick a little to the surface of the highway, as though it was softened toffee. If I looked back, I would see my footprints marked in the road surface, black and glistening in the faded, dusty grey; but I do not look back.

In all this time I have looked back only once. Once was enough.

The corpses have begun to appear, sprawled on the highway. Today they are in groups of two or three, not clustered too thickly, so I can pass easily by them. They’re like all the others, leathery skin stretched over bone, wisps of hair and grinning teeth. Some of them clutch guns, the metal muzzles black holes leading to nowhere and nothing. A few occasionally have mobile phones and laptops, the screens dead as the desert, dead as the hands holding them. Some of the corpses wear uniforms, so faded from the sun that it is impossible to tell what colour they were. Others wear any clothes you care to mention: suits and T shirts, saris and dresses, kimonos and sarongs. A few wear nothing at all.

Some of them moan and turn their eyeless heads to track me as I pass.

Today, I think, I will finally reach that city whose spires have been rising on the horizon for many days now, climbing like white cliffs into the white blazing sky. Once, I would have welcomed the sight of a city, hoping to find someone living, or at least an end to my journey. Once, I imagined reaching some city with spires of marble and gold, where the truth would finally be revealed about where I am going and what I am doing here.

Now, having passed through towns without number, straggling along either side of the highway before giving way to the desert again, I know there will be nothing.

I think I can still remember the first corpse I saw. It sprawled halfway out of the turret of an overturned tank, the tracks spilling like the intestines of a disembowelled monster across the road. It still had a helmet on its head, and it was making a noise between a sigh and a moan. I think I had gone to help it, but its hand had reached for me with skeletal fingers, to pull me into the charred metal box with it. And I had kicked it aside and moved on.

Since then, how many corpses have I seen? And does it matter?

I have often wondered where the corpses come from. I have never seen any sign of fighting or disease. Perhaps it is famine, though I do not think so. I have, of course, not looked for food or water; I do not even remember ever needing either, and though I do not believe that there is any to be had, I also do not believe that there was ever any food or water in this world. All there is, in fact, are the highway, the desert, and the burning sky.

Sometimes, more than once, I have wanted to stop. I have wanted to sit down on the highway and rest, to let happen what will happen, but I do not. I dare not. I will walk until the end of time, but I will not sit on this road and rest.

Where am I? How many times have I asked myself this? Who am I? And why is it that these questions have no answer? What is the point of asking questions that have no answer?

The city is close now, and I can see that the white cliffs are tarnished and shattered, the walls crumbling and broken. The streets leading off from the highway are choked with rubble and wrecked vehicles, the metal scorched and corroded, half-cremated corpses still sitting behind the remnants of steering wheels. If I looked up at the towering cliffs of masonry on either side, I could perhaps imagine that there are living eyes staring down at me from the blank windows and empty balconies. But the highway goes straight through the city, and I do not look up.

I see the girl from some way away. She is sitting with her back to a half collapsed wall, her legs stretched out before her, her hands in her lap, and at first I think she is just another corpse, her stick-thin limbs skin and sinew pulled over bone. But as I come closer, her head slowly rises, and her mouth moves, the remnants of her lips writhing over the hissing of her withered tongue.

“You,” she says. “You’ve come.”

I stop, startled. “What?”

“All this time. Endless. And you came.” Her eyes, holes in the parchment-mask of her face, seem still to see me, to have some kind of expression. Her head swivels slowly, her feet and legs straightening, pushing her upright. “This is why we have been waiting,” she says.

“We?” I want to walk past her, as I have walked past a million corpses, but I can’t. I try to look away from her, but I cannot. “Who are you?”

“Who are we?” Her voice is like the wind across the desert. “We are your children,” she says.

My mouth moves, in response to the absurd thing she uttered. “I have no children.”

“You do now,” she says. “You are our father. You made us. You created us, and we are your children. We have been waiting for you to come, for we belong to you now. Now and forevermore.”

And, oh, I can remember now, the locked door bursting open. “I didn’t know,” I hear myself whisper. “I didn’t know it would be like this. I didn’t want this.”

“That does not matter,” she says. Her hand rises, touches my arm. “We were many, we had many lives. Now we have nothing. Only you.”

“And the road,” I say.

“Yes,” she says. “The road.”

And I can hear them coming now, as I have glimpsed them, the one time I looked back, in their hundreds and thousands and millions, those I have created, with my power and what I did with that power. I have brought them here.

“You have brought us here,” the girl agrees. “We will be with you from now on.”

They are behind me now, close-packed, streaming from ruined buildings and debris-clogged streets, joining together in sections and battalions and divisions, more and more till the highway behind me is so full of them that there is nothing but them, until the end of the world.

But the highway before us is empty, and there is but one way to go. Where that will take us, I do not know. It doesn’t matter anymore, if it ever did; perhaps, there will be a grand destination, a shining city on the horizon, with spires of marble and gold. Or maybe we will walk on till the end of time.

Head bent before the burnished sky, I trudge on, leading my army of the dead.  



Copyright B Purkayastha 2017

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Sino-Vietnam War and the Sino-Indian Confrontation: History and Comparison

One evening in the late winter of 1979 – I was eight years old then – I looked, as usual, at my father’s newspaper (the late unlamented Amrita Bazar Patrika, for anyone who’s interested). I still remember the banner headline taking over half the front page: CHINA INVADES VIETNAM, it screamed.

China? I thought. Invading Vietnam? China, which had, as I knew, “attacked us” in 1962 and would undoubtedly one day “attack us” again? The same Vietnam which I also already knew had beaten the Americans? The Americans who were our enemies? That Vietnam? What on earth for?

I do not remember much of that article – after all this time I don’t remember if I even read all the way through it – and in a few weeks the war was over anyway. I was by then getting ready to go back to school after the winter break, and it just registered peripherally on my mind.

But the question never really went away. Why on earth would China invade Vietnam?

Today, for reasons I will explain, that question is important again.

****************************************************

THE SINO VIETNAM WAR OF 1979

Whenever any discussion on Chinese military capabilities comes up, there are sure to be people who try and console themselves by pretending that Chinese military capabilities are nothing to worry about, and that “even Vietnam” defeated China in 1979, killing “20000/29000/34000/insert your own fantasy figure” Chinese soldiers. China was defeated and humiliated, so nobody should worry too much about fighting the Chinese; they were whipped and will be again.

Is that so? Let’s see.

The basic facts of this tragic episode are simple. In 1979, Vietnam – only recently victorious in the struggle against the Americans and their vassal regime – was involved in a border war against the People’s Republic of China. In December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Pol Pot regime, which China supported; in February 1979, China invaded Vietnam in an effort to compel Hanoi to withdraw forces from Cambodia to protect itself from the Chinese invasion. After 27days of fighting, the Chinese withdrew. What the casualties were on both sides is impossible to say because neither side has given an accurate estimation, and because each side claimed utterly fanciful figures of the casualties the other suffered.



We can, however, judge the results of this war on both a strategic and tactical level.

Strategic:

China’s plans were three-fold:

 First, to compel the Vietnamese to withdraw partially or completely from Cambodia. Chinese power projection capabilities back then were strictly limited. It could not send troops to Cambodia, which was separated from it by Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. It could, however, seek to draw off Vietnamese soldiers from Cambodia to defend the homeland, and to teach it that intervention against a Chinese client regime would have comsequences.

Result: Failure. The Vietnamese remained in Cambodia until 1989, and though they suffered fairly severe casualties in the meantime, the Chinese invasion had no effect on the occupation. However, it did compel Vietnam to garrison the area more heavily, therefore tying up troops who might otherwise have been re deployed to Cambodia.

Second, to show Vietnam’s ally, the USSR, that it could not intimidate China.

Result: Success. The USSR, which supported Vietnam with weaponry and intelligence, and massed troops on the Chinese border, completely failed to either prevent the invasion or affect its course. The Chinese openly warned the USSR that they were ready for a full scale war if the Soviets intervened in favour of Vietnam...and the USSR did nothing. At no point after 1979 did the USSR ever threaten China militarily, or look as though it was about to.

Third, to compel Vietnam, which had a history of hostility towards China and had mistreated “pro-Chinese” ethnic minorities and ethnic Chinese Vietnamese citizens, to change its policies towards China.

Result: In the long run, this paid off, with Vietnam settling its border disputes with China in 1989, and until fairly recently going out of its way to suppress all mention of the Sino Vietnamese war even in textbooks and the media. Only now, when tensions in the South China Sea are increasing, is Vietnam beginning to allow discussion of the war at all. And today China is incomparably stronger and in a position to handle such a confrontation than it was forty years ago.

Therefore, on the strategic level, it was far from an unmixed disaster for China.

Tactical:

On this there can be no argument whatsoever; on the battlefield, China (no matter what casualties it suffered) handily won the war. Every single battle that was fought in the 27-day-long campaign resulted in a Chinese victory. That the Vietnamese refused to commit their main forces, leaving them in defensive positions before Hanoi, only makes the point clearer; Vietnam had conceded that the border battles were lost, and that the capital now needed to be defended. And while China captured over 1500 Vietnamese prisoners during the fighting, the two-hundred-odd Chinese prisoners taken by the Vietnamese were all captured when they were cut off from their main force after China had declared the war over and was withdrawing. This is not how a defeated army loses prisoners of war.

Vietnamese soldiers surrendering to Chinese PLA troops, 1979

Also, there is another tactical feature of the war that is typically Chinese. Chinese military strategy, developed by Mao during the Civil War, still influences their thinking to this day. Mao’s dictum was clear: the guerrilla should never attempt to hold territory, because that would expose him to being counterattacked. Both in 1962, when China and India fought a border war, and again in 1979, China fought short duration conflicts – 30 days in 1962, 27 in 1979 – and withdrew as soon as strategic objectives were met. There is absolutely no reason why this should be different today, in the 21st Century, when most wars are short and sharp. I will shortly explain why this is important.  

To get back to the point: on a tactical basis, the argument that the Sino-Vietnamese war was a disaster for China is ridiculous.

Why does this ancient history matter anyway?

Here is why:

****************************************************

THE DOKLAM/DONGLANG STANDOFF

The current borders of the Indian state are rather unwieldy. A look at the map shows that there is a huge chunk of it (where, incidentally, the author of this article lives) that is almost isolated to the east, connected to the rest of the country by a narrow strip of land only about twenty kilometres wide. This strip is known as the “chicken’s neck”, and it connects “mainland” India with the landlocked  seven north eastern states. Just north of the chicken’s neck are three territories, two of which are independent countries (Nepal to the west and Bhutan to the east) and, sandwiched between them, Sikkim, which was until 1975 (when it was annexed by India under circumstances that are at least highly dubious) also an independent nation.

(Map of Kashmir depicted as it really is in this image, not as India claims it to be.)


For a country which allegedly wants peaceful relations with all its neighbours, India has managed a remarkable feat: it has, without just one exception, alienated every single one of them. The reasons for this are many, but ultimately come down to India’s habit of acting as the would-be subcontinental hegemon, with a divine right to order around all the other smaller countries as it sees fit. Nepal in particular has borne the brunt of Indian bullying, repeatedly being subject to economic blockades to compel it to bend its policies to suit India’s wishes.

The other South Asian countries, unsurprisingly, have not exactly been happy about this, and have reacted by reaching out to alternative partners. And the partner that was ready and waiting to take over was at hand: China. Today, China is integrating its communications networks with Nepal’s, rendering future Indian attempts at bullying inconsequential. It has leased the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, has become Bangladesh’s top arms supplier, has bought an island in the Maldives, and launched multiple projects in Myanmar. Pakistan (which is also improving relations with Russia, after India went out of its way to court the Americans) is so closely integrated with China now that they are converging towards becoming one economic entity.  

The one exception to this rule is Bhutan, and the reasons are interesting.

Bhutan, like Nepal and Sikkim, was allowed by the British to exist as an independent nation for one reason only; it was supposed to be part of a “chain of protectorates” separating British India from Chinese Tibet. The British had signed an “agreement” (in so far that a coercive treaty can be termed as such) under which Bhutan could have no independent foreign relations except under British “guidance”. In other words, the Bhutanese would have to do what the British said, and there were no two ways about it.

When the Brits left, the new Indian government, which slavishly followed British practice in almost everything, became the “successor state” to that treaty. It was finally renegotiated in 2007, when the Bhutanese regained, theoretically, the right to have an independent foreign policy. But the Bhutanese currency, the ngultrum, remained pegged to the Indian rupee, so that the Bhutanese economy remained hostage to India’s goodwill. And the Bhutanese aren't happy about it.

In 1962, India had provoked, and subsequently lost, a war by pushing troops across the Chinese border in a very badly planned and conceived “Forward Policy”, but that had not directly involved Bhutan. When defeated Indian troops had attempted to flee for their lives through Bhutanese territory, the then government of Bhutan had compelled them to surrender their rifles before it allowed them safe passage. At no point was Bhutan a colony of India’s, or a protectorate; it was, and remains, at least theoretically an independent nation, even if not treated as such by India.

Like a lot of other nations which were carved out by the hands of colonial powers, Bhutan has territorial disputes with China (it would never dare have territorial disputes with India for obvious reasons). Specifically, there are three points at which the two sides have a dispute. Two are not important for the present discussion, except to note that China has offered to Bhutan to cede them in return for Bhutan ceding the third; and this spot, sandwiched between Bhutan and a tongue of Chinese territory stretching south past Sikkim, is called Doklam, or (by the Chinese) Donglang.



Let’s state something right away: Doklam (to give it a convenient name) is not Indian territory. Not even India pretends it is Indian territory. The dispute, such as it is, is between Bhutan and China, and, normally, India would have nothing to say about it.

Unfortunately, these are not normal times.

The 1962 war between India and China was followed by decades of frozen relations, but by the early nineties the thaw had begun, with steadily increasing economic cooperation. The border disputes between India and China, while theoretically still in existence, were consigned to the Himalayan freezer where they belonged. Huge Chinese investments in Indian infrastructure and manufacturing projects were matched by Indian business projects in China. For a while it looked like a growing partnership in the works.

That changed with the advent of Narendrabhai Modi, and his ascension to power in the elections in 2014. Almost overnight, he seemed to look for ways to antagonise China, including enthusiastically joining with Japan and America in what was supposed to be an alliance to “contain” the Chinese, including refusal to join in China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. It did not (and does not) seem to have occurred to the people in the government that the Chinese might have their own ideas about this as well, and be capable of taking steps to counter it. But of course China did.

One of the things China did was construct a road near the disputed territory in Doklam. Alleging that this was an infringement of Bhutanese sovereignty, a 2012 agreement, and also a threat to the chicken’s neck, India sent troops to the spot, and they have been facing off against the Chinese ever since. From the rhetoric that began flying around, you’d imagine that both sides were itching for a war.

Chinese government image claiming to depict Indian troops intruding into Chinese territory at Doklam.


This is not true. There is not going to be a war.

The Chinese reacted by pushing Indian soldiers back across the territory they claimed as their own, physically, as they had done in the run up to the war of 1962, and destroyed Indian bunkers in what they claimed to be their territory. So what was India’s response to that?

Nothing.

The army chief, who was appointed to the post by Modi over the heads of two more senior generals, is someone who used to boast that he was ready for a “two and a half front war” – against Pakistan, China, and Kashmir; he is someone who likes human shield use and has publicly stated that he wishes Kashmiri protestors were armed so that he could massacre them. From boasting, he has fallen totally silent as well, Modi’s mouthpiece television channels Times Now and Republic, which are little more than inventive laden propaganda outlets for his party, have apparently forgotten China exists.

Modi’s online troll army, formally known as the BJP IT Cell, is normally tasked with bullying leftists, Muslims, and secularists online. I love how Bhakts who have contempt for beef eating, Christian North Eastern "chinkies" and couldn't find the North East on a map get all nationalistic about China allegedly preparing to cut the same North East off from India. But then the orders must have gone out, and the Bhakts fell deafeningly silent on the China issue as well.

There are reasons for this.

First, India has not to this day forgotten the disastrous war of 1962. The conditions that led to that defeat –  overwhelming Chinese military superiority, compounded by incompetent and politicised Indian military leadership, combined with tremendous Indian geographical disadvantages – are the same as ever. 

Chinese and Indian troops face off, before the 1962 war.


And, while the 1962 war was between a Korean War Chinese army and a WWII Indian army, today the gap is far greater; a 21st century Chinese army, with excellent logistics, would face a 90s era (at best) Indian army operating in the territory of another nation, which is hardly enthusiastic about becoming a battlefield. Indian soldiers have no Kevlar helmets and body armour, their rifles are of such poor quality that they were rejected even by the Nepali army, and morale is not exactly high. Apart from all this, the army has only some ten days’ worth of ammunition. It’s enough to massacre Kashmiri protestors, but hardly sufficient to take on the People’s Liberation Army.

Secondly, Modi has crafted an image of being a strongman in the Ataturk mould, but he's more like Mussolini; a balloon puffed up with hot air. One puncture and the balloon is done for, and Modi knows that perfectly well. A defeat in a military clash, especially one which India itself provoked, would puncture that balloon once and for all. Especially with the 2019 election edging over the horizon this is not something Modi can risk.

Third, and this is extremely important, China and India are today economically strongly intertwined, not just in India but abroad. Modi's corporate owners have huge Chinese investments. Do you suppose they can risk losing those? If there was a chance of a real war they'd pull on his chain so fast he'd fall over himself scuttling back to heel.

Fourthly, China isn't alone. India's policy of acting as the subcontinental bully has systematically alienated just about every single country on its borders, and China has filled the gap. If India wants a confrontation, it'll find itself alone, while in 1962 countries fell over themselves offering lip service support. China has already pointedly asked what India would do if, just as India “came to the aid” of Bhutan in its dispute, China sent troops into Pakistani Kashmir. It isn’t a question India would be too eager to handle.

Nor, to India’s surprise and dismay, did it get the response it was hoping for from the US. Apparently, to what passes for the minds of Indian politicians, America would be prepared to commit suicide to back up an Indian ego clash with China over a stretch of land claimed by Bhutan. To its consternation, the Trump administration, which is yet to appoint an ambassador to Delhi, has stayed deafeningly silent, except for a meaningless statement calling on both sides to resolve the dispute amicably.

No, America won’t kill itself for the greater glory of Modi. If India fights, it will fight alone.

Therefore, from India’s perspective, a war against China is the last thing India actually wants, and its subsequent behaviour bears that out. Despite all chest thumping to the contrary, India is looking for a face saving way out, and it only remains to be seen what kind of face saving exit China allows it.

China, despite its own hyper-jingoistic chest-thumping media, is no more eager for a war than India is. Yes, if there is a war, China will smash India flat, and that is something both sides know. But then what? China will win some bragging rights and a stretch of land which isn’t of any use to anybody unless Beijing wants to actually launch a full scale invasion of India. Beijing does not want to launch a full scale invasion of India any more than it did in 1962. So all it will win is bragging rights, a useless stretch of land, any chance of weaning Bhutan over to its side and....the loss of all the trillions of currency units of business that it stands to make in trade with India.

There is a third party, though, which might want a war between India and China, though it would carefully not take part. That is Modi’s hugging partner Trump and the United States of America. If there is a war, even if it is a short one ending in an Indian defeat, the immediate order of the day would be a massive rearmament programme; and the instinctive response of all recent Indian governments has been to turn to Warshington’s military industrial complex to supply defence needs.



Ay, there’s the rub, as Hamlet said. It’s all about the money here, on all sides. That is all there is to it.

Let us, however, take a look at what might happen in case there was a war, one caused by, say, some accidental clash or mistake.

The first thing that would happen is that it would not be long. China, as I said earlier, does not fight long duration wars. Mindful of both Maoist doctrine and Sun Tzu’s aphorism that no nation has prospered from a long war, Chinese strategy has always been to hit hard, make one’s point, and get out. So any idea India might have about bogging down the Chinese in a war of attrition is futile. Chinese strategy would be to expose India’s weakness, its inability to protect its Bhutanese client, and the hollowness of Modi’s own pretensions to being the Defender of India. The 1962 war destroyed Nehru; a war now would as surely shatter Modi.

Secondly, it would not be as per the planned Indian script; and this is why I started this article out by talking of the Sino Vietnam War of 1979. There is a repeated claim that the Vietnamese inflicted massive casualties on the Chinese and this proves that the Chinese, who use primitive human wave frontal assaults, can be slaughtered in battle. The assumption, apparently, is that the Chinese themselves failed to notice that they had taken casualties, and therefore have not taken any steps to correct that situation. In fact, the magazine India Today reported by the mid-1980s that the Chinese had drastically changed their war fighting tactics as a result. Instead of waves of Chinese soldiers swarming up the mountain slopes into carefully prepared Indian killing grounds, India Today said, India would face

“...massive heliborne commando assaults from the flanks and rear, backed up by overwhelming artillery fire.”

China had also acquired battlefield radars to track incoming artillery rounds, so as to locate enemy batteries and put them out of action; as India Today said, these were tactics that India could not counter, not then and not to this day, when Chinese road systems are better, they have better air cover, and light tanks on the Tibetan plateau ready to exploit breakthroughs.

Ironically, it was India which in 1999, at Kargil, was reduced to the same tactic of frontal assaults up mountain slopes. If the Pakistani defenders of those slopes had not been fighting with one hand tied behind their backs; if the Pakistani government, that is, could have admitted that it was their soldiers in action (and not, as they ridiculously kept claiming, “Kashmiri freedom fighters”), and used their air force and as many troops as India did, we’d have been slaughtered. If India thinks China wasn’t watching those battles and drawing the appropriate conclusions, it is deluding itself.

I’ve saved the most hilarious item for last: the Indian conceit of comparing itself to the Vietnamese. Oh, please; the Vietnamese fought off the Japanese, the French, the Americans and the Chinese, all in the course of half a century; they never gave up, never stopped fighting, even when things looked bleakest. India? India allowed itself to be ruled for almost 200 years by a few thousand British civil servants backed up by another few thousand troops.

We Indians, comparable to the Vietnamese in any way?


Give me a break.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Something Happened

The sliver of moon had just struggled over the roofs of the town below, and lay like spilt milk on the path and the dead garden around us.

“Do you think there’s anything in there?” I asked.

Mitron’s face was unreadable as he stood looking up at the house. “Dust, mice, a cockroach or two, and probably termites in the woodwork, I’m sure.”

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about.”

Mitron turned to me. “Mr Idom, let me remind you that you haven’t really given me any details to go on. I have no idea what I’m looking for...yet.”

“How could I give you details?” I protested. “I don’t know any myself. This house...”

“...was in your family for a century, and was left to you by your uncle. Yes, you told me that. And you told me it’s been unoccupied for almost fifteen years.”
           
“Because everyone said it’s haunted!” I snapped. “I told you this.”

“But you don’t know anything about the haunting, as you put it. You haven’t experienced it for yourself, have you?

“And so? Aren’t you the expert on the paranormal? Weren’t you recommended by every single source I researched? Why have I...” I broke off abruptly.

“Why have you hired me?” Mitron grinned, his teeth glinting briefly. “I don’t know. When you called me, you just gave me the barest bones of your story. You haven’t told me why you want me, though. It’s your business anyway, not mine.”

“Well, I want to sell this place.” The dust in the air, which had been rubbing my throat raw, finally made me break out coughing. “I can’t do that until there’s no question of it being haunted,” I said when I could breathe again. Mitron didn’t seem to be affected, and was watching me impassively. “Everyone knows you’re the best paranormal investigator in the country, if not the world. If you say there is no ghost, people will believe it.”

“Will they?” Mitron laughed, like a dog barking. “What if there is a ghost, then?”

I shrugged. “I’ll have to ask you to get rid of it, that’s all.”

Mitron nodded. “We will see. Do you have the key?”

I held it out, but he motioned me to keep it. “I still don’t understand why you wanted me to come here. I could have come to your office and given it to you.”

A brief frown of irritation flashed across his face. “I need you, in the house. That’s why I asked you to come and meet me here. I thought that was obvious.”

“But...I’ve never visited this house before. I can’t guide you around. What do you want me for?”

Mitron didn’t seem to hear the question. “Unlock the door, please.”

 The lock was as large as a fist, and the key turned in it slowly and reluctantly. The door sighed wearily open.

Inside was a small hall, empty except for a thick coating of dust. A window on the wall to the right was a pale glimmer of moonlight.

“You told me, Mr Idom,” Mitron said, “that everyone says the house is haunted. What do they say about it?”

“I don’t know it all,” I replied. “All I’ve heard is that the people who tried to stay here felt...and saw...things. Nobody wanted to stay on afterwards.”

“Felt and saw things?” Mitron walked past the pale square of window to the rectangular black maw of the door on the other side of the hall, and looked over his shoulder at me expectantly.  “What things?”

I shrugged. “You know what imagination and rumour can do, I suppose. They all said different things. Things that had nothing in common. One letter I found in my uncle’s effects was from a tenant who rented the place seventeen years ago. He took a three year lease. He lasted three hours.”

“Oh? What did he say?”

The passage through the door was almost pitch dark. It didn’t seem to bother Mitron too much. “He said that he saw someone here from a long time ago, someone he’d blocked from his mind, in this house. And this person was not...he said something about the lights being strange. It wasn’t a very coherent letter. That reminds me, shouldn’t we have some lights in here?”

“Why?” Mitron turned a doorknob I hadn’t even seen in the darkness, and opened a second door. It was a large room with a row of windows along one side. Walking to the nearest, I saw the dead garden, and, beyond it, the empty street. “As you can see,” Mitron went on, “there’s enough light for our purposes. And, besides, if your uncle’s tenant was correct, and there are ghosts here, lights wouldn’t make a difference, would they?”

“Well, then,” I said. “What should we do now? Go upstairs?”

“No, this room will do fine.”

“And what do we do?”

“We wait.”

“Just wait?” I asked. He didn’t say anything, but his silence was eloquent. “I still don’t understand your reason for bringing me here,” I said eventually.

“Your house, your business, and you don’t want to be here?” Mitron’s voice was expressionless. “Besides which, I need you, to act as an attractant.”

“Attractant?” The word sounded ominous. “Have you found anything?” I asked eventually.

“I told you, we have to wait.”

“Wait for what?”

He sighed. “For something to happen, Mr Idom. Three hours, did you say your uncle’s tenant lasted?”

I nodded, and, because there was nothing else to do, went back to the window. Through the grimy glass the garden and street were blurred and misty-looking. Here, above the main town, there was no traffic. Except for a twitch of shadow that might have been a cat, nothing moved. Total silence fell.

Standing there, I wondered once again if I really wanted to do this, and whether the money I might get from the house was quite that important. Mitron, at least, was not someone I would have normally searched out. His face was even more like that of a bird of prey than his photographs suggested, his voice like a knife. Each time he looked at me I felt as though his eyes were stripping my skin and flesh and bones away and staring into the depths of what was left. He would have been intimidating even at high noon, in the middle of a bustling city. Here, in the deserted house and the wan moonlight, he was terrifying.

I could walk away from this, I told myself. I could tell him now that I’d changed my mind, that he could keep his fee, and we could leave. But could I really? Could I go away now without knowing, without being sure?

I would wait just a little longer, I thought. Just a little more.

When something happened it was so sudden that I almost jumped. It was also laughably simple and familiar; the ringing of my mobile phone. I fished it out of my pocket, almost dropping it in my fumbling haste, and put it to my ear. “Yes.”

“Mr Idom?” The voice was terrifyingly familiar. “I’ve been trying to call you for a while. I’m still waiting for you to meet me, Mr Idom.”

The phone did finally fall from my fingers, thumping on the floor. “Mr Idom?” I heard the voice coming from the darkness at my feet, tinny and idiotic. “Mr Idom?”

“Mr Idom?” the voice echoed from behind me, ancient and mocking. “Mr Idom?”

My mouth must have made a sound. I do not know what it said. I tried to turn around, and my body would not obey me.

“I told you we were waiting for something to happen, Mr Idom,” the voice said, and there was breathless laughter in the words.





Copyright B Purkayastha 2017

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

De Putin Made Me Do It, Sah

Putin is in your walls
Hides under your bed
He crawls on the ceiling
And squats on your head.

If you happen to be driving
He is there, beside you
Or if you're in an aeroplane
He's the cockpit crew.

If you think your vintage wine
Is free of him, think again!
He taints your waking, your nightmares
He coils inside your brain.

If you think to end it all
With a poison pill or a rope
It's Putin who wins once again
He's the noose and the dope.

The end of the world fast cometh
And Putin did it all
Global warming, war, pollution
Are at his beck and call.

When you die your damnation
Is at Putin's bloody hand
He tempted you into sinning
Too late you understand.


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Anti-National

I am an anti-national.

I believe
My neighbour is my neighbour
Even if she has a crucifix on her wall
Or if he eats beef and prays on a mat towards Mecca
Five times a day.

I am an anti-national.

I believe
That you don’t stop being a human being
If your name is Salim or Cynthia
And you don’t stop having an equal voice
In what happens to you and to me.

I am an anti-national.

I believe 
The borders imposed by colonial masters from across the seas
Are not worth killing and dying for
And that evil done cannot be undone
By inflicting evil on someone else.

I am an anti-national.

I believe
That using human shields is evil
That blinding people with buckshot is evil
And that the country is not served
By treating our own people as the enemy.

I am an anti-national

I believe
That five thousand years of history
Cannot be wiped away by a bloody finger
That lies cannot become truth by repetition
And that the politician of a moment
Cannot be permitted to divert away the future
Into the dead desert sands of “destiny”.

I am an anti-national.

I hear the screams of lynched Muslims
As loud as the screams of beaten Dalits
The mourning of Kashmir’s parents
The sobbing of farmers’ widows in Maharashtra
The drowning of children in Assam’s flooded valleys
The cries of pilgrims shot on the way to Amarnath
Are all equally loud to me.

I am an anti-national.

I cry for blood that is shed
And think it is equally red
No matter whose heart pumped it
No matter whose stilled heart pumped it.
And I believe the world is his and hers, yours and mine
Nobody’s patrimony.


I am an anti-national

Blame me.




Copyright B Purkayastha 2017

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

On Russian Aircraft Carrier Development

The news is that the Imperialist States has just launched its latest supercarrier, the Gerald Ford (why would anyone name a carrier after Ford, anyway?), which cost some big bucks, and is not exactly the greatest thing since the discovery of fire.

I love this ship, just as I love the F35 fighter. I love them because they, and similar other white elephants, are driving Amerikastan towards bankruptcy, and a bankrupt and destitute Imperialist States is something the world needs more now than it ever did.

White elephant, did I say? Yes, that is what I said. The cost of one of the Ford’s unisex toilets is probably more than the cost of the Russian missile that could send the ship to the bottom.

However, this – and the Imperialist States’ Brutish vassal launching its own carrier, the Queen Something Or Other – has reinvigorated discussions on whether Russia should build more carriers to complement or replace its sole ship serving that role, the aging and decrepit Admiral Kuznetsov.

In this article I shall address my thoughts on that topic. All opinions are, of course, my own.

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I have in the past reiterated my opposition to the idea of Russia building aircraft carriers. The reasons I’ve given, in brief, are these:

First: Russia has never built or operated an aircraft carrier.

Russia’s so called aircraft carriers, all of which were constructed during the Soviet era, have always been poorly designed and highly inadequate compromises between cruisers and aircraft carriers. There were two reasons for this.

The first of those reasons is the fact that all Soviet carriers were constructed at the Nikolayev Shipyard 444 in Ukraine, which is on the Black Sea. Owing to the Montreux Convention, aircraft carriers over 15000 tons in weight are not permitted to pass through the Black Sea’s only exit, the Dardanelles. Instead of doing the logical thing and moving its carrier construction elsewhere, the USSR decided to get past the restrictions by constructing cruisers which could also carry aircraft; so called aircraft carrying heavy cruisers.

The second reason is that, as I discussed in detail elsewhere, the Soviet idea of the wartime role of carriers has always been the by now long outmoded concept of air defence of the fleet in case of a naval battle. No naval battle between anything like comparable surface units has happened since World War II and is virtually certain never to happen again. By the time the first Soviet “aircraft carrier” was launched, therefore, it was already totally obsolete for the role in which it was meant to operate.

The only remaining Russian “aircraft carrier” is the closest it has ever come to building a real carrier. This is the Admiral Kuznetsov, which I have analysed in some detail in the link above; it is still not a carrier nor classified as one. Although it has dispensed with some of the immensely heavy missile armament of older Soviet “carriers”, it still wastes a lot of storage space on offensive missiles and launchers, limiting both the number of aeroplanes it can carry and fuel, ordnance and spare parts for them. And these planes are further crippled in range and war load by having to take off with a ski jump, not a catapult like a real carrier.

Here is a discussion on why catapults are so much better than ski jumps.

These shortcomings didn’t just get discovered yesterday; they were evident as far back as the early 1980s, and were so glaring that the Soviet Navy finally decided to build a real carrier. That ship, the Ulyanovsk, was only 20% complete at the time the USSR collapsed, and was quite criminally scrapped instead of being laid up until it could be completed. Not just that, all other Soviet “carriers” of the time were either scrapped or mothballed and eventually sold off; the Admiral Kuznetsov, never meant to be anything but a transition on the way to a real carrier, was left to sail on alone.

Here is a recapitulation of the Soviet aircraft carrier programme. The article is over twenty years old, but is still completely valid because in the time since it was written Russia has not built a single carrier of any description, or made any real attempt to do so.

Never having built a carrier, the idea that Russia can build a supercarrier (as we’ll discuss) out of nowhere is absurd. Even China, which is already far more proficient than Russia in carrier technology, first refurbished an old Soviet carrier, then built another of the same class, and only now is planning a real full scale American style aircraft carrier. It’s called learning to walk before one tries to run.

Second: Russia cannot afford an aircraft carrier.

In this, Russia is not alone. Aircraft carriers are incredibly expensive things. Not only are they, in themselves, staggeringly costly, but each ship requires a crew of several thousand (anything from three to six or seven thousand), support and repair facilities, fuel and maintenance. On top of that, since carriers can’t protect themselves, they need a fleet of ships and submarines as escorts and protection. Going by American Navy practice, each carrier needs an escort group of fifteen or so ships, each of which, of course, need their own crews, maintenance and repair facilities, and so on.

Nor will one carrier do. Like anything else, carriers need to be repaired and upgraded. For a ship of this size repairs and upgrades take literally years. The Admiral Kuznetsov, for instance, is due to undergo a repair (just repair, no modernisation; modernisation would pretty much require the ship to be stripped down to the bare hull and rebuilt with new engines, additional lifts, removal of useless missiles, and installation of catapults to replace the ski jump). This repair will take at least two to three years, depending on what is to be done, during which, of course, the ship will be unavailable for anything at all.

So you can’t just have one carrier; you need at least three to four of them. And you need even more if you intend to use them in different parts of the world, because you don’t know how many of them might be needed at any one given moment.

And that is even before we go to the air groups to be carried, and the cost of the planes, the cost of training their pilots, the maintenance crew for the aircraft, the fuel their engines consume, and the like. In fact, the cost of carriers is so high that even the decrepit and ceremonial Indian Navy has shelved, and probably cancelled, its plans to acquire a third carrier in the foreseeable future.

For the cost of a single carrier, literally tens of smaller ships can be constructed...or thousands of missiles, each of which can sink said carrier.

Which brings us to the third reason:

Aircraft carriers are obsolete.

This is the era of the missile. Cheap and effective, they can neutralise carrier groups utterly and completely. Except when used against countries which have been essentially disarmed and cannot shoot back, any carrier group can be swamped by swarms of cheap missiles. Even if 99% of the missiles could be avoided or shot down, that would still not be enough, because one lucky hit would be all it takes to send the entire multi-trillion-currency-unit vessel to the bottom of the sea.

What this basically means is that a nation does not even have to be actually able to destroy aircraft carriers; it merely needs to have a demonstrable possibility of being able to do so. No naval staff, unless in a situation of an existential threat, will send a carrier into a battle where there is a good chance that it will be sunk. Therefore, the possession of an arsenal of anti-ship missiles of, say, a thousand kilometres range will force the other side’s carriers to stay at least that far away from one’s shores. Essentially, the other side might as well have no carriers at all.

Russia’s Soviet era doctrine was to have a defensive “blue belt” along its coast where enemy carriers couldn’t operate, where its own missile submarines (the heart of its seaborne nuclear deterrence) could hide safely; and the security of this "blue belt" was to be enforced by a fleet of its aircraft carrying cruisers. Well, these days the same thing can be done much more easily and cheaply with its missiles, which have ranges of about 1500 kilometres. That means no enemy carrier group can approach to 1500 kilometres of its coast without running an unacceptably high risk of destruction. And Russian missile submarines can hide within that 1500 kilometre safe zone.

So why would it need carriers?

Fourth: What else can it use carriers for?

Russia isn’t in the regime change business; it does not, despite the usual western propaganda, go around looking for innocent nations to invade and subjugate on the other side of the planet. The Admiral Kuznetsov, which as I said is not a carrier, was deployed as one off Syria, launching air strikes against terrorist targets. This was done primarily because Russia decided to get some actual combat experience on using carriers (and didn’t do very well; the Kuznetsov, with its limited air group taking off using its limiting and less than ideal ski jump, was marginal at best). Unless Russia wants to invest in genuine carriers capable of launching American style strikes, it is pointless having carriers at all; as already stated, carriers have no role other than that in today’s world. 

This is apart from amphibious assault ships, which are much smaller, much cheaper, and have a different role altogether; and those, too, Russia does not really need, though the Chinese probably do.

I shall come back to this point soon.

Now, there has been a lot of commentary, on and off, fuelled by often contradictory statements by Russian naval officials, that Russia is planning to acquire a giant aircraft carrier. This beast is supposed to be called the 23000E Shtorm, weigh upwards of 100000 tons, be nuclear powered, and carry 100 aircraft (which, ludicrously, would be launched by both catapults and ski jumps). The internet is highly dubious that it will ever be built, for a lot of reasons, not least that Russia has no idea how to build a carrier, or even a nuclear powered destroyer (the Lider Class destroyers were supposed to be built with nuclear propulsion, but none has even been budgeted for yet), or even facilities where to do so.

I would say that it would be a tragedy if it were to be built. Learn to walk before you run, I said before, and will say again. Or get the Chinese to build the ship for you.

So, given all this, there are just two reasons I can think of why Russia should want a carrier at all.

First, and this is a really big point, prestige. Although today a 650 tonne missile carrying corvette is infinitely cheaper, more useful, more deadly and more logical as an investment than a 65000 tonne carrier, it’s the latter that is the prestige platform. Like battleships a hundred years ago (when they were already fast being rendered obsolete by aircraft and submarines), carriers are prestigious flag waving projects. No self-respecting major navy can be seen without them, and few admirals would be willing to admit that they are obsolete.

It took battleships being sunk with little effort by submarines and aeroplanes in WWII before the navies of the world finally gave up on them; if there is to be a war where carriers are sunk, maybe they might finally give up on them as well. But the chances of such a war not moving on to a nuclear exchange are small, so the point is probably moot anyway.

The second reason is much, much, more interesting.

Russia has always had an enormous geographical problem. Its naval capabilities have always been clustered in its far west and far east; the very long northern coast has always both been virtually undefended and, being locked in ice, impassable. Any Russian ship merely wishing to travel from St Petersburg or Murmansk to Vladivostok, for instance, has to first head south through the Atlantic, cross the equator, then go east around the Cape Of Good Hope or west around Cape Horn, and then move back north through the Pacific until it reached its destination. It’s a difficult enough proposition in peacetime, and far more so when at war – and one’s ship can be spied on or sabotaged, if not actually attacked, by hostile nations along the way.

But suppose the north was not locked in ice. Suppose the Arctic was not frozen solid. Suppose, in a few years’ time, global warming would melt the Arctic and make it accessible to shipping. Then what?

Two things. The first thing that would happen is that an additional, and much shorter, pathway would open up between the country’s two coasts. This path would also be far more difficult to spy on or sabotage; the only danger, in fact, would be from long range attack by ships or aircraft from further to the north, that is, from across the Arctic itself.

Those ships and planes, in fact, would be a much greater threat to Russia than any approaching the east or west, because the northern coast is very long and undefended. There can be no blue belt zone there created by land based anti ship missiles. Carriers, moving through the molten Arctic, would be the only real flexible and relatively economical possibility of granting such cover.

The second thing that would happen from the melt is that undersea deposits of natural gas and minerals would become exploitable. This, frankly, will be something nations will go to war for, in the way they wouldn’t fight for other things. Nations bordering the Arctic, mainly Russia, Canada, and Norway, are already scrambling to carve out exploitation zones in the Arctic...and the ice hasn’t even melted yet.

And all these other countries are enemies of Russia, part of the evil alliance called NATO.

Russia, accordingly, will not be able to depend on good faith and signatures on agreements to defend its economic zone from poaching and exploitation. It will need aircraft to survey and defend the area, round the clock, throughout the year.

These two factors combined would argue for a Russian carrier force to serve in the Arctic, and in the Arctic alone.

 For this, obviously, the best solution would be a Russian carrier fleet comprising vessels specifically designed for Arctic conditions, capable of being used there only.

In the rest of this article I shall put forward my idea of what such a vessel should be like.

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The Arctic is the smallest of the oceans, and in fact is little more than a large lake. Also, there is little chance that there will be any time in the relatively near future when it will be totally free of ice, all the year round. Therefore, the actual area of operations that any Russian carrier will have to cover will be even more restricted than the map suggests. And, as a logical corollary, mobility will not be something that will be extremely important.



Therefore, think of an aircraft carrier that is, literally, an aircraft carrier and nothing else; a huge floating airfield. It would resemble a gigantic metal box, with the minimum streamlining necessary to move through the water, thus maximising available internal space.

It would not, by itself, be mobile. Therefore it would not need huge, space-consuming, manpower-hungry, expensive engines, nuclear powered or otherwise. It would be towed into position by ocean-going heavy tugs, possibly with icebreakers clearing the way. Russia, with its icebreaker experience and familiarity with Arctic conditions, surely would have no problems with handling that.

Not being mobile, it would not need anything like as large a crew as a full scale aircraft carrier. It would not need anything like as many maintenance facilities in port or be anything like as expensive. Therefore, for the same amount as a 23000E Shtorm would cost, several of this type could be built. And they would require much less maintenance and refit time, meaning more of them could be available for service when necessary.

Not being mobile, it would also have fewer constraints on size. It could be much larger than a carrier which needs to move around under its own power at a reasonable speed. Therefore it can hold more planes, more missiles – including the anti-ship missiles Russian “aircraft carrier” designers seem to love so much – without sacrificing on space. And it could be much more heavily armoured, too; the only constraints on size and armour would be the ability of tugs to drag it into position.

And it is much, much easier to build a heavy tug than a giant warship.

Not being mobile, it would also not require a constantly dynamic escort group. Once in place, it could be protected underwater by a defensive belt of mines and anti-submarine torpedoes, while its own very large air group could protect it from attack from the sea or air. And if necessary, warships could be dispatched from ports like Murmansk, which would be far closer to the area of operations than St Petersburg or Vladivostok.

Furthermore: not being mobile, this ship would have no engines for propulsion, but of course it would need engines. It would need turbines to provide power for the living quarters and for shipboard operations, including the many sensors and radars any modern warship can’t live without. These turbines would also of necessity include power for the catapults, whether steam or electromagnetic, to launch aircraft.

What? Yes, this ship would need catapults. Catapults, in any case, are the only efficient way of launching aeroplanes from aircraft carriers, but apart from that this carrier could not possibly operate without catapults. Not being mobile, it could not provide lift to planes it is launching by its own speed. Aircraft carriers fitted with ski jumps can’t launch aircraft if they’re stationary (one of their many, many, many disadvantages). So, it would need catapults, not just in order to operate effectively (including launching surveillance aircraft, essential for the kind of role it is meant to fulfil), but to operate at all.

Therefore what we would be looking at is a very large, heavily armoured, floating airfield, with multiple planes of various kinds, protected by mines and missiles, which could be moved to a new position as and when necessary. It would be expensive, but nowhere near as costly as a supercarrier, and would actually be usable for something that makes sense.

Here, then, is what I envision such a carrier looking like:



Legend:
1. Box like, heavily armoured hull with no screws, though a rudder may be necessary
2. Defensive belt of mines and smart anti-submarine torpedoes
3. Missile tubes
4. Sensor suites
5. Flight deck with catapults
6. Heavy surveillance plane (of the kind that can’t be launched without catapults)
7. Heavy shipborne fighter
8. Anchorage

This is the kind of carrier one can envisage for protection of the Arctic coast. When we get to protection of resources like natural gas fields, we can start thinking in bigger terms.

After all, natural gas fields don’t move around. Their positions are known, the areas to be protected predictable. Carriers that are placed to protect them don’t even have to be mobile; they can be converted into artificial islands, if necessary by modular construction right at the spot by tugs pulling sections from the shipbuilders. Once in place, that kind of carrier could protect the resources as well as an army could protect a mine on land.

I’m not saying that this is the way future Russian carrier construction will go. I am just saying it could.

As to whether it should, that’s something else altogether.