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Listening to Subrahmanyam, reading Chomsky

No other major power imperils itself by making its Chiefs of Staff responsible to a bureaucrat, whether in times of war, or in defence preparedness for one. The India-China border war proved how flaccid such a system could be. The Tehelka expose briefly illuminated the shadowy world of arms procurement, where neither patriotism nor technology matters. Competency and transparency must be seen to exist at the top to back up the courage and devotion of our jawans.

Since September 11, the Indian elite have been breathless, with anticipated triumph, but also in fear. At long last, the U.S. government is condescending to make us sambandis, a relationship vainly aspired to till now, despite our multitudinous clever, emigrant children in America, and a few white bahus at home. But if the twin towers of New York could be brought down so cavalierly, what might not happen at home, shabbily unprepared as we are? At such times, the Indian elite turn to gurus, for words of wisdom, words of courage.

Professor Noam Chomsky, dedicated MIT radical from the Vietnam War days, speaking at the Music Academy in Chennai on November 10, had no words of comfort to offer, only the cold truth, as he saw it, of the U.S. Government continuing its horrendous acts of state terrorism in its supposed, but ultimately self-defeating, national interest. Twenty days later, on the eve of karthika poornima, when Hindu women auspiciously float beautiful lamps down rivers under the full moon, Mr. K. Subrahmanyam, Indian mandarin turned defence analyst, speaking at the prestigious Administrative Staff College of India, in Hyderabad, offered equally auspicious hope for the worried, provided they gathered their wavering support behind the U.S. Government, while cleaning up endemic political corruption at home.

Though coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both analysts focussed sharply on the same central features of the tragic events of September 11. These were not like the acts of mindless violence, so frequently called up by Hollywood's B-movies to scare us on Friday nights. The attack on the WTC towers was an attack on the very process of economic globalisation. The attack on the Pentagon was an attack on the nerve centre of the American superpower's military might. For the first time, since Dolly Madison fled with the Constitution from the White House during the Anglo-American War of 1812, American symbols of power were destroyed at home. Both saw the moves the American government made thereafter in the cold light of realpolitik, stripped of the veneer of middle-class morality. Both saw no end in sight for American military action. Subrahmanyam compared the new alliances made to that with `Lucky' Luciano, mafia godfather during World War II. Chomsky by happenstance had also mentioned mafia dons, a few days previously. Both saw the lack of genuine democracy anywhere. But the conclusions the two pundits drew from the same set of facts, from the same form of realistic analysis, were as wide apart as they could possibly be.

For Chomsky, September eleventh was only one incident, horrific as it was, in the long and bloody saga of the ruthless use of American power to destroy peoples in Latin America, the Philippines, of first nations at home, of others the world over. Almost every writer one can think of — Edward Said, Fisk, Galtung, Arundhati Roy, Rushdie, Mamdani,Gerassi, Kuldip Nayar, Asghar Ali Engineer, Richard Falk, Achin Vanaik, Sitaram Yechury, Susan Sontag — have all had plenty to say. None gave a carte blanche to the American President. All voiced grave warnings of what is to come. Most fear untold suffering being heaped on the unhappy peoples of Afghanistan, as has happened before to several people provoking American ire, or greed. But Chomsky warned that now the killing of people was being accompanied by the destruction of the environment, and the emiseration of all under the so-called processes of economic globalisation, with greater concentrations of wealth in the hands of the few beggaring the vast majority.

Subrahmanyam was not to be dragged into looking for the economic causes of the violence of the powerless. As a well-known defence analyst, he was very much aware that the great Twentieth century revolutions were not made by the destitute of Russia and China, but by their middle-class leadership, and middle peasants. He could not but be aware of Mao's famous dictum that his forces were to be like fish in water. But the waters of mass misery, exploitation, and the violence of the powerful could not be examined by the middle-class, let alone their mandarins, without a disquieting sense that they were all dressed in a little brief authority, profoundly immoral for their continuing colonial mission of oppressing their own people.

So, this mandarin, like the rest of his class, fell back on the safe agony of the middle-classes, and bemoaned political corruption as the cause of all our woes. The audience comfortably wrung its several hands. They knew about corruption, like they know about cheating at cards. It came about from several of their kind not behaving. It had nothing to do with massive exploitation, or with the actions of their appointed gate-men to exclude the masses from accessing social services, from exercising political or basic human rights. Or if it did, they did not, could not, want to know.

Internal weakness

This internal weakness was exploited by a known external enemy, who ruled in Pakistan, who was in our midst in multitudes. But their hate could have no name in an apparently secular society, yet. For Subrahmanyam, the root of terrorism lay in a phenomenon akin to a societal disease — an unhappy metaphor used extensively by the CIA trained junta of Greek Colonels when they overthrew a democratic government during the Vietnam War days. To make things clearer, Subrahmanyam said he found the epicentres of terrorism in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He had told Samuel Huntington some time back that the clash of civilisations had started 50 years ago with the Lahore declaration of 1940. Unfortunately for the force of this argument, even as the analysis was being made, the PWG created an epicentre of its own, blasting several places in Andhra Pradesh, without owing any allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Mr. Chandrababu Naidu, perhaps the shrewdest politician in India, was more realistic than realist analysts. He enjoined the police not only to suppress extremism, but with the same breath urged officials to be pro-poor and pro-tribal, and expeditiously settle land disputes, `the root cause of civil unrest.'

Subrahmanyam said that America was at present fighting a war for `its very life,' swiftly conflating under one identity the millions of Americans living on food stamps, and the great oil cartels, who will gain possession of Central Asian Oil, pushing out both Russian and Iranian interests, in the process of destroying the people of Afghanistan. Within the next 48 hours, Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., who brokered a peace in the Balkans, or more realistically extended the American sphere of influence over there, made it abundantly clear that the Afghans in Bonn could not be trusted to reach a settlement; that the U.N. had always been ineffective in similar circumstances, and that a multi-national force would have to control Afghanistan for some time to come, meaning subordinate states, including Britain, to risk their soldiers on the field, but under American command. The British did the same when they held imperial sway, and they are justly rewarded.

The British also bear some responsibility for the hasty partition of India, which has resonances of the bloody partition of Ireland, the oldest colony. An empire must divide to rule; it must also divide people when its frontiers shrink, to maintain what political purchase it can. Britain did both in India, as we know from the words and acts of Sir Charles Wood in the 19th century, and Lord Louis Mountbatten in the 20th. But to accept an unseen imperial hand behind Partition might dilute the focus of dread and hatred. It might make rather ridiculous the great expenditures of ordinary people's money in annual giant Ganesh utsavs, since one would see no cunning enemy, but only equally poor, confused, dispirited fellow human beings. Hence few realist analysts in India today wish to understand why a staunch Congressman like Jinnah turned into a Muslim League leader, or how a modern secularist, who opposed the Khilafat Movement as reactionary, who did not even realise that it was Ramzan when he invited Mountbatten for a celebratory lunch on August 14, 1947, was pushed into accepting a `moth-eaten Pakistan.' It is worth remembering that three days earlier the same man had instructed the framers of the Pakistan Constitution to remember: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques, or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, which has nothing to do with the business of the state. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we all citizens are equal citizens of one state." Historical questionings are not for mandarins with a game plan, nor will they allow public introspection which might threaten allegiance to their game plan.

Epicentres of terrorism

Our mandarins, when they were little boys, were indoctrinated by British history books into thinking of Henry V, Marlborough, and Wellington as heroes worthy of emulation. The butchery of centuries culminated in the vast carnage of World War I. The mindless egotism of European leaders which brought about self-defeating misery on their own peoples is touched upon only rarely, as by Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower. But an end to nationalist bloodshed did come when the zeal to make money overtook blood lust. The French and the Germans buried the hatchet at long last when they jointly built the European economic union. Could India-Pakistan rivalry be safely buried under a similar economic initiative? But today our mandarins sense victory, winner taking all, behind the serene bulwark of the American empire, to use a Churchillian phrase. Despite the Americans saying in several different voices that they could change alliances at will to suit their national interest, our mandarins cling to the fond belief that the Americans will respect this special relationship, though a marriage of convenience, if you will. In haste, they want to identify Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as epicentres of world terrorism, implying Islam as the source of such ideology. They need all people at home to back them to the hilt. Complex political economic analyses are to be left in safe academic hands. The simple allegiance of people requires simple messages, and the simple identification of evil. All people experience disease; hence it is natural for drum sergeants to call up biological metaphors to describe the enemy, or better still to create one. But was it not evil to bomb innocent peasants from a great height, in fact, an act of terrorism? Subrahmanyam would have none of this sort of thinking. Equating terrorism with inflicting `collateral damage' was the product of a `sick mind.' Indeed, it is criminal insanity to say that the destruction of a people is a just response to a crime.

Mad logic of deterrence

It is not that India's security is not gravely threatened. Pandit Nehru once expressed his horror that the British would bomb helpless Afghan tribal villages. But long before the Americans arrived in Asia, the government of independent India was acting with colonial hauteur towards remote tribal and minority populations, breeding discontent, disaffection, and open enmity. By our mandarins not stooping to democracy, we may have lost all chance to retain loyalty. During the Agra summit, The Economic Times carried a leading article by Shubhrangshu Roy that the Prime Minister should have taken to the summit only Arun Shourie, the Disinvestment Minister. `India is not in the heart of Kashmiris,' was the simple message, and after years of bloodletting, this is entirely understandable. Again, when our nuclear scientists were toasting each other in champagne for letting off a nuclear bomb in Pokhran, India, from being immeasurably stronger than Pakistan, was reduced in Mr. Sangma's words to being only just as strong as Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the moment India entered the nuclear weapons club, several missiles belonging to other club members were turned our way, according to the mad logic of nuclear deterrence. More dangerous than all is our colonial framework of administration, trusting a thousand mandarins, however brahminical in their intellectuality, to rule over a thousand million subjects. Even the title of Collector, designed by the rapacious East India Company, remains unchanged, for it carries with it the threat of force over people. But a mandarinate can hopelessly weaken defence, as the Chinese found out in the 19th century. No other major power imperils itself by making its Chiefs of Staff responsible to a bureaucrat, whether in times of war, or in defence preparedness for one. The India-China border war proved how flaccid such a system could be. The Tehelka expose briefly illuminated the shadowy world of arms procurement, where neither patriotism nor technology matters. Competency and transparency must be seen to exist at the top to back up the courage and devotion of our jawans.

All of which goes to leaving the last point with Chomsky, who warns us not to put our trust in intellectuals, or the intellectuality of the human species. Then, we are left only with faith; not the twisted belief that kills, but the deep springs of the human spirit which upholds us in moments of great trial, which enables us to reach across chasms of tragic suffering, to embrace yesterday's enemy and make him tomorrow's friend.


Member, Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy

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