Books

Letter From Delhi:Hei Ram

Exclusive extracts from the forthcoming English translation of the Italian best-seller, Letters Against The War

Letter From Delhi:Hei Ram
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Tiziano Terzani, born in Florence, Italy, was for 30 years Asia correspondent of the German magazine DerSpiegel and has lived in India since 1994. After retiring three years ago he spent, as he says, "somemonths in an ashram in Southern India studying Sanskrit and Vedanta and then went to live part of the year ina hut in the Himalayas with the view of the Nanda Devi.

"After so many years of noises and rumours and wars and massacres I enjoyed the silence. Then came the11th of September and it became clear to me that to continue to look at my navel sitting alone on top ofa mountain was a selfish adventure. In other words 'Osama bin Laden smoked me out of my cave'.

"I came back into this world, went to Pakistan, Afghanistan and along the way wrote a series of "letters"that were published as 'Letters against the war'."

In Italy the book became an instant best seller (18 weeks on the top 10 list, almost 200.000 copies sold sofar). It won the Bocaccio Prize for Literature in 2002, which is the Italian equivalent of the Booker. It has been translated in France, Spain, Germany, but NOT in the UK or in the USA as hispublishers  in London and New York rejected it as "politically incorrect".

His other books include The Forbidden Door, Good Night, Mister Lenin and A Fortune Teller Told Me.

Delhi, 5 January, 2002

India is home. I've lived here for years. It's here that I keep my books, that I find the refuge a manseeks from the world's hustle and bustle. Here, as nowhere else, I get a sense of the senseless flowing oflife. But now even India is a disappointment. Even India talks only of war, mobilizes troops and artillery andthreatens to use its atomic bombs against Pakistan. Like a star pupil who's just learnt the absurd George W.Bush doctrine of "with us or with the terrorists" off by heart, it happily wags its tail behind theAmerican military bandwagon. A country of a billion people! The country which owes its independence to Gandhi,the Mahatma, the noble soul, today a country just like any other. What a pity.

This was India's chance to go back to its roots, to rediscover the ancient language of non-violence, itstrue strength. It was India's opportunity to return to its recent history of non-alignment, to remind theworld of the middle way which is always there, and which in this case means not with them and not with theterrorists either.

Instead, even in India we hear nothing but the rhetoric of "shoulder to shoulder", the litany ofthe international coalition against terrorism, a great outpouring of rage and pride, of courage anddetermination, of readiness for sacrifice. All this for one of two reasons. Either those currently in powerhope to take advantage of the situation created by the American attack on Afghanistan to use force to solvethe Kashmiri problem, despite the fact that no amount of force has managed to solve it in fifty years (threewars have been waged between India and Pakistan already); or, worse still, the largest party in India's rulingcoalition, the BJP, hopes that mouthing off about the war, even if they don't really want it, might help tipthe balance in their favour in the imminent elections in two of the country's major states. This is what theworld is like these days, even in India: no principles but plenty of expedients; no spiritual aspirations,only the desire for large or small material gain.

The lessons of the past have all been forgotten.Here's a small one which, like all of Gandhi's, gives foodfor thought. India and Pakistan formally became two independent states in 1947. In fact they were still twobleeding stumps of the same body, which the duplicity of British colonial power had helped to divide. Gandhiopposed partition with all his might. He said that both Pakistan and India were his countries, and he rejectedthe idea of a passport to go from one to the other. His idealism was defeated, and his fasting failed to stemthe desperate exodus of biblical proportions and the massacre of almost a million people. The realism of smalland large interests prevailed.

Partition was based loosely on religious grouping, with the Hindus on one side and the Muslims on theother. The maharajahs of the 562 princely states were left to decide which side they wanted to be on. TheMaharajah of Kashmir was torn. He was Hindu, but most of his subjects were Muslim. So for two months heremained formally independent. Pakistan exploited this situation by sending "volunteers" intoKashmir to annex that precious plot of land. The Indians exploited it by pressing the Maharajah to decide intheir favour and sending their troops into Kashmir. The war had already begun when the two countries had todivide up the reserves they still held in a joint account in Delhi, to complete the partition of what had beenthe British Empire in India. Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister at the time, argued that Pakistan would use itsshare to fund the war in Kashmir, so India should keep it all. Gandhi disagreed. In his eyes no reason couldprevail over the sacrosanct principle of justice. Pakistan had a right to its share, and India had to give itto them. So it was. What a lesson! One that cost him his life. It was immediately after this decision to givePakistan the 550 million rupees, that Gandhi, already accused by the Hindu fundamentalists of being biasedtowards the Muslim, was assassinated on 30 January 1948.

From that moment on there has been no peace between India and Pakistan. Kashmir has been destroyed,tormented and divided by a so-called "line of control", across which the two armies still face eachother, but now with nuclear missiles. It's still a battlefield, and as in all the wars till now, it's beenmostly the civilians who have died.

If Gandhi or someone else of his moral stature were here today, they would well understand that no-one hasbeen "just" in the Kashmiri question, that Pakistan and India bear enormous responsibility for thecurrent state of affairs, that both have committed horrendous crimes in pursuing their aims, and that the realvictims of this whole sorry business have been and still are the Kashmiris, whom no-one in over half a centuryhas asked the simple question: "What do you want?" More than anything, I think they'd like to livein peace and enjoy that valley, which is still one of the most beautiful places on earth.

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And one day they will, because unless the human race really does go ahead and commit suicide, the greatIndian subcontinent, with its population equal to that of China, will have to go back to being what it was in1947: a unity of diversities. Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis all have the same roots, the same cultureand the same history, including the history of the wars they've recently fought against each other, just likethe French and the Germans, the Italians and the Austrians. If the continent of Europe has managed to become acommunity, there's no reason why the Indian subcontinent can't do so too.

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So why not, instead of preparing new massacres, start working immediately towards greater integration, asubcontinent without wars or borders, maybe even with a single currency, or if that's too much to ask, atleast a wide-scale, shared commitment to supply everyone with drinking water, given that from Pakistan toIndia to Bangladesh only a quarter of the population currently has it?

But drinking water is hardly a cause to get excited about. War is much more so. And if this damned conflictbetween India and Pakistan does indeed escalate and become nuclear, even if by mistake – after all, onemistake leads to another –, the death toll would be enormous.

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The current India-Pakistan situation clearly shows that a doctrine like the one America is using in supportof the international anti-terrorism coalition is preposterous, unjust and downright dangerous. All the reasonsthe United States has brought forward for bombing Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban would now giveIndia equal right to carpet-bomb Pakistan and overthrow the regime of General Musharraf. For years the Indianshave been on the receiving end of some horrendous terrorist attacks, the most recent of which was on theirparliament on 13 December 2001. There can be no doubt that the terrorist organizations attacking India arebased in Pakistan, and there's equal proof that the Pakistani government is granting them asylum. War, then? Ajust war from India's point of view? No war is just. But there's a problem here: who exactly are theterrorists? Many of those India labels as such are seen by others as freedom fighters. Then there's anotherproblem: unlike the Taliban, who had little in the way of defence to offer against the American superpower,the Pakistanis have modern armed forces and nuclear missiles which are ready and available to be used. A waragainst them would have unforeseeable consequences.

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Washington is therefore now busy trying to calm the two parties down, basically explaining to them thatonly America is allowed to pursue its terrorists, that only America can go and flush them out where and whenit wants or overthrow governments which are not to their liking. Can you imagine any other country asking themto deliver up to justice one of their citizens who committed terrorist acts in Cuba, Haiti or Chile? OrWashington handing over one of the shady characters responsible for the prolonged terrorist campaigns carriedout on America's behalf, say, in Latin America, who now enjoys their protection?

The Americans aren't seeking justice; they're seeking their version of justice. They have no genuineinterest in resolving the Kashmiri issue, just as they have no genuine interest in solving the problem ofAfghanistan. They entered the region by force to gain their revenge and pursue national interests, and nowthey're there, they'll stay. The attack on Afghanistan has changed the shape of the world. For the first timein history the United States have gained access to Central and Southern Asia, and they won't let go of it in ahurry. The agreements they've made with the ex-Soviet republics will extend beyond the anti-terrorist state ofemergency, and the military base they're building at Jacobabad in Pakistan will be permanent, not leastbecause it will serve to keep an eye on and if necessary wipe out the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, which we allknow they see as the "Islamic atom bomb".

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India, by committing itself unconditionally and unswervingly to fall in behind the might of America,perhaps in the hope of harnessing that might for its own purposes, has merely strengthened the U.S. presencein the region, and definitively surrendered its stance of being distant and different from the groupings ofothers. It didn't need to.

India is a poor country, but it still has – and it may well be the last in the world to do so – its ownstrong, deep-rooted spiritual culture, which is able to withstand the materialistic wave of globalization thatsteamrollers over identity and everywhere engenders suffocating conformity. This was the moment when Indiacould have sung the praises of diversity, when it could have reminded everyone that the world needs acoalition against poverty, exploitation and intolerance much more than it does even a coalition againstterror. India, sometimes described as "the largest democracy in the world", could have remindedWestern democracies that we won't solve our problems by restricting our citizens' freedom, protecting oursocieties with barbed wire, granting ever more power to repressive organizations and making those who aredifferent feel more and more excluded. It was the moment when India could have spoken up against violence ofevery kind, even that of the "new world order". This, with its supposedly "global"principles and criteria, which are actually those of the "strong" ex-colonialist countries, merelyimposes on India and many other economically underdeveloped and hence "weak" ex-colonies the kind ofpolicy which makes the rich richer, the poor poorer, and both more and more unhappy.

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Despite its politicians, India is still a country apart, a country whose society is not moved exclusivelyby earthly ambitions. Only in India do millions and millions of men and women who have lived normal lives asfathers and mothers, employees or professionals still give up all that is of this world - possessions, ties,desires and name - to become sanyasis or renouncers, dressing up in saffron robes, embarking on pilgrimages atan age where we're ready to retire, going round the country from temple to temple, from ashram to ashram,living off charity. As long as this goes on and the people continue to feed and honour them, India will remainan existential and philosophical alternative to the materialism which dominates the rest of the world today.This is why deep down India remains a line of resistance against globalization, and a bulwark of defence infavour of diversity.

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By its very existence, India reminds us Westerners that the whole world doesn't necessarily want what wewant or care to be how we care to be. I think back to Afghanistan, and I realize how pertinent this is to thatpoor country too. The international community, which is rushing in with its cash, its soldiers, its advice andits experts, is most certainly not the answer for Afghanistan. Indeed, it will only be a new problem if thefuture of the country turns out to be just a projection of Western fantasies and interests rather than theaspirations of the Afghans, all Afghans.

I left Kabul a fortnight ago to spend the holidays with my family in Delhi, but it's as though my head'sstill there. In my eyes I still have the stunning view from my two dusty windows, in my ears I still hear theconstant buzz of the bazaar, the muezzins' call to prayer and the shouts of small boys seeking custom for thetaxis as they depart for the ever more dangerous roads of the province. I flick through notebooks crammed fullof the stories I heard and the things I thought there. From a distance, it seems more and more obvious to methat what is happening now in Afghanistan, and will continue to do so, is basically to do with diversity, withthe right to be different. A century ago, diversity to the Afghans meant gaining independence from colonialoppression, just as it did for the other peoples of the world. Today it means remaining outside a moresophisticated but equally oppressive regime, one which seeks to turn the whole world into a marketplace, andall men into consumers who must first be sold identical desires, then identical products.

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Every reconstruction scheme and recovery plan to be financed by international aid in Afghanistan raises onevital question, which no-one seems to have the courage to ask with any conviction: what sort of country is itwe're wanting to rebuild? one like ours or one like theirs? The great danger for the Afghans today is that inthe euphoria of regaining their freedom to dream, they'll end up dreaming only what we Westerners want themto, and looking on their own history through the eyes of those who are now rewriting it. It's enough just tolook at the current version of what has happened in Afghanistan to understand the extent to which it's alreadyriddled with distortions and lies. American war propaganda has planted some of them there on purpose. Othersare spontaneous, deriving from the fact that what we call "reality" is what we perceive via our ownsenses, prejudices and fixed ideas.

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One example of this is the image of the Taliban that the Western press has tried to convey. They werehorrible, an Islamic version of the Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. They committed hideous crimes against humanity,especially women. They had no popular support, and were little more than foreign occupiers whom the Pakistaniskept in power. The arrival of the Northern Alliance soldiers in Kabul was a genuine liberation. I remember theheadline in a major Italian newspaper on 15 November which said: "Kabul: high heels and lipstick".Others told of women who were throwing off their burqas or even burning them.

This is obviously a picture which helps justify the conduct of the American war in Afghanistan, theirpressing on with raids which continue to cause civilian casualties, and their the hunt for Mullah Omar, hisministers and envoys, with which they've got so carried away they've forgotten to explain exactly what"crimes" they're supposed to have committed. But is it an accurate picture? Probably not.

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The Taliban regime undoubtedly was arbitrary and repressive, but the Koranic students were hardlypathological assassins. They were the victims as well as the perpetrators of several massacres in the courseof the civil war. For example, 3,000 Taliban were captured and killed at Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. They then didthe same to 2,000 Hazaras in the same place a year later by way of retaliation. But unlike in Pol Pot'sCambodia, there were no killing fields in Mullah Omar's Afghanistan, no plans to wipe out part of thepopulation, no attempt to create a "new man" by eliminating the old. The Taliban saw themselves asprotectors of the people and as moralizers of Afghan life, which in their eyes had been polluted by a varietyof foreign influences. It shouldn't be forgotten that their first public acts in Kandahar in 1994 were toexecute a mujahideen leader guilty of abducting and raping two young women, and to hang another leader whoseoffence had been to "marry" a little boy he'd fallen in love with, festoon him with garlands andparade him round on a tank as if it had been a wedding carriage.

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Certain Taliban prohibitions, such as the one on flying kites because it took up time the children shouldhave devoted to memorizing the Koran, or rules such as the one about maintaining beards at the"Islamic" length, were clearly absurd. Others less so. For example, anyone discovered watchingtelevision or listening to music was sentenced to a week in prison. This had a certain logic to it:Afghanistan didn't produce any tapes or television programmes of its own (at the moment it doesn't evenproduce matches!), so people could only see or hear material which had been imported, usually from India. Thiswas considered non-Islamic and therefore a potential source of corruption. Their reasoning was not all thatdifferent from those in the West who don't want to expose their children to all the ridiculous sex andviolence currently shown on television.

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