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Sunday, Nov 25, 2001

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Kaun Banega liberal?


During times of war, debates are a menace. It is easy to sit in plush studios and discuss Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. After all, it is the responsibility of governments to shape policies and set the historical agenda.

DURING a period of global crisis like the present one, the first faculty that gets affected, is the human attitude towards time. Time, as we are all experiencing it just now; and a historical time, that lives in the memories of nations and civilisations, are two different entities. But as wars expand, instead of sober reflections on the real and immediate time that we are living in the debates tend to slip again and again into discussing ancient-history. Slowly, as old historic facts begin to squeeze life out of actual ground realities, ancient vows about vendettas and reprisals for real or imaginary affronts suffered in the days of our great grand fathers, begin to drive civilised nation towards unwanted and collective suicide.

This happened during the Mahabharata, this happened during World War-I and II and it is happening once again in the vast waste lands of Afghanistan, among crisis for crusades and Jihads.

In this epoch of lawlessness, all warring nations have bent the law to suit their interests sometime or another. To cover this up, cries about historic slights and revenge are spread thick on the ground. And often without realising people step into traps as they debate issues of morality. In the age of the globalisation, and 24-hour disseminations of news, the media has often been setting these traps. Each week, each day there is a newsitem or a public debate on the media that leaves the public with a sense of anxiety, anger and guilt. Given those trans-continental discussions on the Cable News Network (CNN), AI Jazeera, BBC or even our own domestic channels in India, Pakistan, Europe and the U.S., half-formed thoughts have begun to circulate in all communities. Perhaps we are really guilty of not being liberal enough? Perhaps those Government sources that are telling us through the media, that it is others have not they who infringed on human rights or rules of national sovereignty, are right. Today we have become tolerant of a leader that points a finger at the public in TV debates and asks, ``Before you induct my government, tell me are you a liberal or a fundamentalist?" But we are ready to lynch members of public whose real guilt is yet to be established. Take the two men from Hyderabad arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), or the 20 journalists hauled by the Taliban. Suddenly they begin to seem more threatening and worthy of punishment to us, than the governments who have (knowingly or mistakenly) hit civilian targets and killed hundreds of innocents, or whose morality police have made life a veritable hell for millions of women.

It is Afghanistan's contorted fate to have become the latest field for Buzkashi. For a century atleast, outside international powers have created a new scene and a new order here every few years. Today there is no continuity of any kind there, and the future no longer grows organically out of a shared past. First it was Shah, then Najib then Taliban. And now again it is Shah. What was considered important till a few years ago, is either being attacked today or has lost its significance. Nothing that is happening adds up. Nor is it possible that a sound workable coalition be shaped up with a little effort and conviction. What seems to have endured, is irrational beliefs and racial myths. The late Punjabi poet `Pash', who was killed by militants, wrote towards the end of his young life, there are many kinds of deaths one dies, but the worst among them is the death of one's dreams and hopes. Real barbarism follows soon, and a point comes when no one can stand up and say what he or the others are doing is barbaric, and must be halted. That is Afghanistan today.

While listening to several anchors conducting debates in popular TV programmes across the world, I suddenly felt tempted to ask: all of you who sit in these plush studios debating Islam and Christianity in a language that less than five percent of those that are being bombed speak, do you really care about the shades of grey in their life? In all the debates, governments' representatives justify their own barbarism and they promise to conclude, prove and present their own grand plans later. But they demand that the ordinary Muslims and Christians and Hindus prove their liberal credentials now, today. They tell that participants from all communities; Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs can either be guests or victims. They cannot be shapers of policy or setters of the historical agenda. That is for the governments to do. But who do these governments represent?

Why must governmental agencies aided and abetted by the media, rob life so mercilessly of colour and shades or grey? Why must they reduce the world of actual human beings, to Manichaean extremes, where you have to be the One; or the Other?

If actual people are acting like savages in the plains of Central Asia, today, it is not always a consequence of wrong choices. More often than not, their acts flow out of wrong policies imposed by rulers wishing to manipulate the masses and consolidate their rule. Today it is the Afghans, tomorrow any country, exhausted and weakened by battling against a powerful cartel, whose needs are never satisfied whose desires are unfulfilled, can become just as vulnerable to manipulation along religious or racial lines. On TV, the governments generalise constantly. They act swiftly, violently and telegenically. The public's representatives are always a little slow in contrast. They need time to formulate complex thoughts in an easy language. They want us also to bear witness, to feel involved. But few of us want that. We fumble for our remotes, when they begin to appeal for sanity, for compassion for allowing another point of view to be examined patiently and with love. By the time they've done that, the TV viewers are watching a Bachchan, a Rambo or an agent 007, dispensing easy justice on the movie channels. He who gathers knowledge the Bible says, gathers pain. Who wants to hurt when you can be a T.V. liberal?

The author is a freelance journalist and writer in Hindi and English.

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