On a thin rope of hope
One stays alive.
One thinks of suicide.
One laughs machine-like.
– Nishant in Hindi poem ‘Dukh’
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of the term ‘anniversary’ to the Latin words annus and verto verse, meaning ‘year’ and ‘turn’ respectively. The sense of a celebration probably crept into the expression much later. An anniversary could be a day of commemoration or a memorial event. It could even imply performance of a ritual. The source of the neologism ‘9/11’ needs no elaboration. Since the attack on the Pentagon and the decimation of the towering symbols of free trade in New York at the hands of suicidal warriors who, wielding little more than paper cutters, hijacked planes to crash them into these buildings, the term 9/11 has become a synonym of cataclysm.
The tenth anniversary of that fateful day in 2001 forced us all to reflect over repercussions of that momentous event. The massive forces of destruction unleashed in the wake of 9/11 probably changed the course of history, but the direction and speed of the change is yet unclear. The initial signals, however, are ominous. The wolves of war have begun to sniff their way around the world, and nobody knows who will be their next victim. It might be countries such as Iran, North Korea, Pakistan or any nation-state or individual that the hyperpower decides threatens its interests anywhere in the world.
In the United States of America, 9/11 was remembered with solemnity. Ritualism was evident in the way the most powerful nation in the world marked one of the worst days in its history. Former president George Bush II – who sent his country’s armed forces to occupy Afghanistan, invade Iraq and launch a global ‘war on terror’ – read out an almost forgotten letter from Abraham Lincoln to the mother of five soldiers killed in the line of duty. President Barack Obama, appearing more like a new and improved version of his predecessor rather than the reformist he had promised to be during elections, recited a calming psalm from the Bible.
The tranquil mien of the two most powerful personalities of the past decade, responsible for the greatest number of civilian casualties in the 21st century, cannot be construed simply as self-assurance or even imperial arrogance. The sense of atonement was absent from the entire memorial ceremony that was telecast live worldwide. Apparently, whether he has to beg at home, borrow from the Chinese or rob the Arabs, Uncle Sam will not let go of complete control over the planet without a mighty fight. Deception has always been an integral part of waging wars; just about any ruse will do in future to justify blatant aggression born out of desperation.
The Long War
The 20th century was an American one through and through. Those that dream of an Asian century now would do well to take a reality check: What does the older civilisation have to offer that the New World cannot forcibly take? The Chinese are indeed workshop owners who have to lend to the buyer in order to sell their products, but they have to operate within terms of trade over which they have little or no say. When Japan realised that power flowed from nuclear missiles and patent rights rather than shiploads of consumer durables or chequebooks, they meekly accepted the status quo of geopolitics. The Arabs too will have to make peace on the master’s terms if they are to survive the wars being waged to appropriate their resources. Meanwhile, the technology of fighting wars has become so refined that a victim falls without realising what has hit him.
The First World War differentiated between the armed forces and the civilian population, and the demarcation between the arena for negotiation and the battlefield was usually respected. That distinction disappeared during the Second World War and the legitimacy of collateral damage came to be accepted in diplomatic discourse. The Third Great War – for that is what the Cold War was to all intent and purposes – established ‘regime change’ as a valid objective of surreptitious wars. That was the ‘principle’ on which the Nicaraguan contras and the jihadists of Afghanistan and Pakistan came to be feted at Ronald Reagan’s White House as the moral equals of the American Founding Fathers.
The ‘war on terror’ has clearly been a subterfuge. What President Bush II actually declared unilaterally was the Fourth Long War. President Obama is duty-bound to carry the confrontation to every doorstep, as this war is not meant to defeat an identifiable enemy or defend a loyal ally but to prop up an ageing economy that is heavily dependent upon what former president Dwight D Eisenhower called the military-industry complex.
In the Fourth Long War, the European Union would be content to play second fiddle, as it did recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The Old Continent is simply too old to contemplate charting a new course in foreign policy. The Russians will take a while to recover from the drubbing they received from the jihadists in Afghanistan, the nationalists in Eastern Europe and the ethnic upsurge in Central Asian Republics, to say nothing of the profligacy of their own Soviet-era military.
The great expanses of Africa have already turned into the new theatre of Great Games, wherein the regime in Pretoria discovered recently that it had no role to play in Libya or Egypt and would have to limit itself to keeping an eye upon the aspirations of only the ‘coloured’ section of the continent.
For all his bravado, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is no Fidel Castro, and even when put together, the two ailing strongmen are no match for President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil who has learnt to accept a subservient role in South America. With the whole world still trembling under its feet, the focus of US aggression in the coming decades would have to shift towards Southasia. To use a Bollywood cliché, the hunt in the Hindu Kush was merely a trailer; the full-length Rambo film in the region is yet to begin.
After completely devastating Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden was killed inside a safe house in Pakistan and buried at sea. The rules of the war vary according to the whims of the winner. Saddam Hussein was at least accorded the dignity of a trial, albeit a farcical one. For a zealot and a billionaire who helped defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan as a ‘CIA asset’, Osama met a sorry end. The immorality, criminality and blatant transgression of sovereignty involved in Operation Geronimo in Abbottabad will continue to be discussed for a long time. In the short term, however, US imperialism has demonstrated its invincibility in a region that is home to over a third of all Muslims in the world.
Along with Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, India has been humoured as one of the component countries of the so-called emerging BRICS bloc. It would take a while for New Delhi to realise that there are limits to what an acronym can offer to a resource-constrained nation of over a billion people. Once again, the possibility of any immediate challenge to US hegemony appears remote, even as influential Southasians revel in being honorary Americans zealously guarding the values of the US as their own.
Bangladesh hankers for markets, Sri Lanka wants military aid, and Nepal is gearing up for guard duties in Afghanistan and possibly Libya. Among all theatres of conflict on the globe, Southasia is perhaps the only region where the US forces scored a victory without orchestrating a coup, firing a bullet or pumping in greenbacks.
Running an empire on shoestring budgets has its pitfalls. Warlords tend to manipulate the loopholes of the system, and incipient insurgencies are often quite astute in identifying soft spots. Unfortunately, this would invite further reprisals, creating difficulties for most Southasians. That indeed has been the outcome of Osama’s jihad: Muslims have suffered its consequences most and the entire Islamic Ummah continues to live in fear.
The rope of hope is indeed thin and carries the risk of becoming an implement of strangulation, but Southasians would need to rediscover the ties of languages and cultures that bind the region together. Modernism has given us little more than militarism and mercantilism. Southasian cultures have ignoble attributes – nothing can justify untouchability or the lower status granted to women, for example – but the resilience of the Subcontinent’s cultures can save its peoples from worse humiliations.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Republica daily of Kathmandu.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)