Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    South Asia
     Sep 3, 2005
Asia's missiles strike at the heart
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Even as India and Pakistan press ahead with confidence-building measures contributing to a new bonhomie between them, they seem loathe to abandon old habits. Pakistan naming its first cruise missile Babar could signal that one and a half years into the peace process, Islamabad's hostility-driven, missile-naming tradition remains largely unchanged. But there is a change in the mindset, albeit marginal, that many might be missing.

On August 11, Pakistan test-fired its first cruise missile. The missile, which has a range of 310 miles and is capable of carrying nuclear and conventional warheads, was tested barely two days after India and Pakistan formalized an agreement on notifying each other in advance about missile tests. The failure to notify


Delhi did annoy some in India. But in testing Babar, Pakistan was not violating the text of the agreement as the missile tested is not a ballistic one and does not fall under the scope of the agreement.
Meanwhile, the cruise missile's name has ruffled some feathers in India. It was named after Babar, a Muslim king from Central Asia who centuries ago invaded India and founded the Moghul dynasty. While Babar is looked upon with regard by most Indians as the founder of the Moghul dynasty rather than as an invader, the naming of the missile after Babar has not gone down well with some who still see it as part of a Pakistani convention of naming missiles after Muslim invaders of India. Ghauri, Ghaznavi and Abdali are some of other names Pakistan has given its missiles. The names are of Muslim kings who invaded India between the 11th and 18th century.

In 1988, when India test-fired its surface-to-air missile, Prithvi, Pakistan responded by not only testing a missile the following year but also by naming it Ghauri. In that case, Pakistan named its missile after misunderstanding the Indian missile-naming tradition. Pakistan believed Prithvi was named after Prithvi Raj Chauhan, a 12th century Hindu ruler in northern India. Consequently, it chose the name Ghauri for its response. Mohammed Ghauri was an Afghan warlord who in the 12th century invaded India and waged two wars against Prithvi Raj Chauhan. Mohammed Ghauri was defeated in the first battle but returned to inflict a crushing defeat on Prithvi Raj the following year.

But that is not how the name Prithvi was derived. Prithvi means earth, and the Indian convention is to name missiles after the elements. It was this logic that prompted India to name its subsequent missiles Agni (fire) and Akash (sky).

Many Indians might have dismissed Pakistan's naming of the first missile it test-fired as Ghauri as the result of that misunderstanding had Islamabad stopped with Ghauri. It did not. Subsequent Pakistani missiles have carried the names of Muslim invaders, particularly notorious for looting Hindu temples.

The Ghaznavi missiles are named after Mahmud Ghaznavi (971-1030), an Afghan warlord who is described in history books as a destroyer of Hindu temples. Mahmud Ghaznavi directed his attacks on the temple towns of Thanesar, Mathura, Kannauj and Somnath, and stripped these temples of their wealth, then destroyed them. The Abdali missiles are named after Ahmed Shah Abdali (1724-1773), an Afghan king whose invasion of India is particularly notorious for its month-long pillage of Delhi.

Names of missiles have the capacity to generate passionate debate in the sub-continent that is almost as heated as that over the missile capabilities. Most Pakistanis continue to believe that Indian missile names "are inspired by Hindu history". Some admit that Pakistan misinterpreted the naming of the Prithvi missile but the general perception is that the Indian missile names are linked to history.

Dr Hassan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based academic, told Asia Times Online that "the names of some Indian missiles Agni and Prithvi for instance - appear to have cultural and historical reference points". A student from Karachi told this correspondent that "the names of Indian missiles are offensive to the subcontinent's Muslims."

"The Prithvi missile was named after a Hindu king, Agni refers to the God of Fire, not fire the element, and the Trishul missile has been named after the trishul [trident] wielded by the Hindu God Siva," he said.

Indians dismiss these allegations as unfounded. It is true that fire and earth are worshipped by Hindus and nature worship is an important aspect of Hinduism. "But the naming of missiles after the elements does not have religious underpinnings, neither does it evoke hostile imagery nor is it offensive to Muslim sensibilities," insisted a retired Indian Defense Ministry official.

He points out that not all Pakistani missiles are named after invaders. "Names like Hatf [Prophet Mohammed's sword, which according to legend never missed its target] might be drawn from Islam, but these are not offensive to Indian or Hindu sensibilities," he said.

A look at Indian and Pakistani blogs on the subject would indicate how closely the names of missiles are watched, the sharp emotions they evoke and the extent to which the issues surrounding the names are dissected. Several Indian bloggers point out that the Muslim rulers after whom Pakistan named its missiles were Afghans, who before plundering territory lying in what is today India, ransacked towns in present day Pakistan.

One blogger points out: "The funny thing is Babar [after whom the missile test-fired in August is named] fought against Ibrahim Lodhi, a Muslim king. So Babar must have killed a good number of Muslims in his conquest. Same with Nadir Shah, Ghaznavi and Ghauri [who] must have raped a large number of women in the border areas of India, which is presently Pakistan."

So what drives the missile-naming tradition? Ammara Durrani, assistant editor at the Pakistani English daily The News, told Asia Times Online that Pakistan's naming of its missiles "after traditional Muslim war heroes" and the Indian government's naming of its missiles "in no less historically militant terms" are not surprising. "Both establishments know that thanks to the largely antagonistic and falsified accounts of history taught to their mass populations, these names would have more resonance and mass appeal for their respective populations in hating the enemy and glorifying the arms for their annihilation. For the vested interests of the two establishments, what better way to perpetuate the India-Pakistan conflict than to induce in it symbolism - through historical references such as the missile names - of the centuries' old Hindu-Muslim and invader-vanquished hostile frames of thought?" she asked.

The BBC's Islamabad correspondent Zafar Abbas points out, "Pakistan has never given any specific reason for naming these missiles after such historical figures. But the symbolism is a clear reflection of the official mindset in the country. It shows that for Islamabad, the present conflict with India is a continuation of the battles of the past between people described in Pakistani history books as just Muslim invaders and several of India's cruel Hindu emperors."

For both the Indian and Pakistani governments the missile program is as much about enhancing military capabilities vis-a-vis the other as it is about sending signals to their own domestic audiences. India's former chief of army staff General V P Malik wrote that the display of models of the latest missiles is an important part of the military parades "to convey and often exaggerate technological and military capabilities".

A successful missile test is projected to domestic audiences as a major national technical breakthrough and acquisition of an important capability, as a significant achievement of the government. Models of ballistic missiles were erected and displayed in several Pakistani cities, reminders of the Pakistan government's macho military image and of its "fitting response" to India's nuclear-missile program.

To some Indians the names given to recent Pakistani missiles holds out some hope. True, the Babar missile is named after yet another Muslim invader, but he figures in the sub-continent's imagination more as a king who invaded and stayed to found a glorious empire rather than as a plunderer. Noted Indian security analyst and author of the forthcoming book Minimum Deterrence and India's Nuclear Security , Rajesh Basrur, points out that Babar defeated another Muslim king to found the Moghul dynasty in India. "So maybe [the naming tradition] is just down to power and success now," he said.

An attempt to create distance from medieval, hostile, negative imagery in naming missiles is more evident in the case of the Shaheen missile. Durrani argues that "the name Shaheen [eagle in Urdu] could be an attempt by the Pakistani government to introduce a modern language of symbolism, one that falls less on martial references of medieval times, and derives more universal appeal from concepts of enlightenment and progressiveness, as envisaged by [Pakistan's national poet] Mohammed Iqbal [respected in India as well], who urged Muslims of the sub-continent to 'fly like an eagle' in its quest for progress and unity. This move could be an attempt by the Pakistani government to make a slight departure from its traditional approach, to portray its modern image in tune with post-Cold War political ethos."

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)

Pakistan's life and death decision (Aug 30, '05)

Gunning for peace in South Asia (Aug 13, '05) 

US salvoes across South Asia (Aug 4, '05) 

US risks Asian arms race (Jul 40, '05) 


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110