Wednesday, Oct 20, 2021

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
Letter From Delhi: Hei Ram
Letters Against The War
By Tiziano Terzani
India Research Press Forthcoming

Tiziano Terzani, born in Florence, Italy, was for 30 years Asia correspondent of the German magazine Der Spiegel and has lived in India since 1994. After retiring three years ago he spent, as he says, "some months in an ashram in Southern India studying Sanskrit and Vedanta and then went to live part of the year in a 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 the 11th of September and it became clear to me that to continue to look at my navel sitting alone on top of a 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 so far). 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 his publishers  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 man seeks from the world's hustle and bustle. Here, as nowhere else, I get a sense of the senseless flowing of life. But now even India is a disappointment. Even India talks only of war, mobilizes troops and artillery and threatens 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 the American 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, its true strength. It was India's opportunity to return to its recent history of non-alignment, to remind the world of the middle way which is always there, and which in this case means not with them and not with the terrorists either.

Instead, even in India we hear nothing but the rhetoric of "shoulder to shoulder", the litany of the international coalition against terrorism, a great outpouring of rage and pride, of courage and determination, of readiness for sacrifice. All this for one of two reasons. Either those currently in power hope to take advantage of the situation created by the American attack on Afghanistan to use force to solve the Kashmiri problem, despite the fact that no amount of force has managed to solve it in fifty years (three wars have been waged between India and Pakistan already); or, worse still, the largest party in India's ruling coalition, the BJP, hopes that mouthing off about the war, even if they don't really want it, might help tip the balance in their favour in the imminent elections in two of the country's major states. This is what the world 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 food for thought. India and Pakistan formally became two independent states in 1947. In fact they were still two bleeding stumps of the same body, which the duplicity of British colonial power had helped to divide. Gandhi opposed partition with all his might. He said that both Pakistan and India were his countries, and he rejected the idea of a passport to go from one to the other. His idealism was defeated, and his fasting failed to stem the desperate exodus of biblical proportions and the massacre of almost a million people. The realism of small and large interests prevailed.

Partition was based loosely on religious grouping, with the Hindus on one side and the Muslims on the other. The maharajahs of the 562 princely states were left to decide which side they wanted to be on. The Maharajah of Kashmir was torn. He was Hindu, but most of his subjects were Muslim. So for two months he remained formally independent. Pakistan exploited this situation by sending "volunteers" into Kashmir to annex that precious plot of land. The Indians exploited it by pressing the Maharajah to decide in their favour and sending their troops into Kashmir. The war had already begun when the two countries had to divide up the reserves they still held in a joint account in Delhi, to complete the partition of what had been the British Empire in India. Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister at the time, argued that Pakistan would use its share to fund the war in Kashmir, so India should keep it all. Gandhi disagreed. In his eyes no reason could prevail over the sacrosanct principle of justice. Pakistan had a right to its share, and India had to give it to them. So it was. What a lesson! One that cost him his life. It was immediately after this decision to give Pakistan the 550 million rupees, that Gandhi, already accused by the Hindu fundamentalists of being biased towards 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 each other, but now with nuclear missiles. It's still a battlefield, and as in all the wars till now, it's been mostly the civilians who have died.

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

And one day they will, because unless the human race really does go ahead and commit suicide, the great Indian subcontinent, with its population equal to that of China, will have to go back to being what it was in 1947: a unity of diversities. Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis all have the same roots, the same culture and the same history, including the history of the wars they've recently fought against each other, just like the French and the Germans, the Italians and the Austrians. If the continent of Europe has managed to become a community, there's no reason why the Indian subcontinent can't do so too.

So why not, instead of preparing new massacres, start working immediately towards greater integration, a subcontinent without wars or borders, maybe even with a single currency, or if that's too much to ask, at least a wide-scale, shared commitment to supply everyone with drinking water, given that from Pakistan to India 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 conflict between India and Pakistan does indeed escalate and become nuclear, even if by mistake – after all, one mistake leads to another –, the death toll would be enormous.

The current India-Pakistan situation clearly shows that a doctrine like the one America is using in support of the international anti-terrorism coalition is preposterous, unjust and downright dangerous. All the reasons the United States has brought forward for bombing Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban would now give India equal right to carpet-bomb Pakistan and overthrow the regime of General Musharraf. For years the Indians have been on the receiving end of some horrendous terrorist attacks, the most recent of which was on their parliament on 13 December 2001. There can be no doubt that the terrorist organizations attacking India are based in Pakistan, and there's equal proof that the Pakistani government is granting them asylum. War, then? A just war from India's point of view? No war is just. But there's a problem here: who exactly are the terrorists? Many of those India labels as such are seen by others as freedom fighters. Then there's another problem: 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 war against them would have unforeseeable consequences.

Washington is therefore now busy trying to calm the two parties down, basically explaining to them that only America is allowed to pursue its terrorists, that only America can go and flush them out where and when it wants or overthrow governments which are not to their liking. Can you imagine any other country asking them to deliver up to justice one of their citizens who committed terrorist acts in Cuba, Haiti or Chile? Or Washington handing over one of the shady characters responsible for the prolonged terrorist campaigns carried out 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 genuine interest in resolving the Kashmiri issue, just as they have no genuine interest in solving the problem of Afghanistan. They entered the region by force to gain their revenge and pursue national interests, and now they're there, they'll stay. The attack on Afghanistan has changed the shape of the world. For the first time in history the United States have gained access to Central and Southern Asia, and they won't let go of it in a hurry. The agreements they've made with the ex-Soviet republics will extend beyond the anti-terrorist state of emergency, and the military base they're building at Jacobabad in Pakistan will be permanent, not least because it will serve to keep an eye on and if necessary wipe out the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, which we all know they see as the "Islamic atom bomb".

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. presence in the region, and definitively surrendered its stance of being distant and different from the groupings of others. 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 own strong, deep-rooted spiritual culture, which is able to withstand the materialistic wave of globalization that steamrollers over identity and everywhere engenders suffocating conformity. This was the moment when India could have sung the praises of diversity, when it could have reminded everyone that the world needs a coalition against poverty, exploitation and intolerance much more than it does even a coalition against terror. India, sometimes described as "the largest democracy in the world", could have reminded Western democracies that we won't solve our problems by restricting our citizens' freedom, protecting our societies with barbed wire, granting ever more power to repressive organizations and making those who are different feel more and more excluded. It was the moment when India could have spoken up against violence of every 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, merely imposes on India and many other economically underdeveloped and hence "weak" ex-colonies the kind of policy which makes the rich richer, the poor poorer, and both more and more unhappy.

Despite its politicians, India is still a country apart, a country whose society is not moved exclusively by earthly ambitions. Only in India do millions and millions of men and women who have lived normal lives as fathers 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 at an 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 remain an 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 in favour of diversity.

By its very existence, India reminds us Westerners that the whole world doesn't necessarily want what we want or care to be how we care to be. I think back to Afghanistan, and I realize how pertinent this is to that poor country too. The international community, which is rushing in with its cash, its soldiers, its advice and its experts, is most certainly not the answer for Afghanistan. Indeed, it will only be a new problem if the future of the country turns out to be just a projection of Western fantasies and interests rather than the aspirations 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's still there. In my eyes I still have the stunning view from my two dusty windows, in my ears I still hear the constant buzz of the bazaar, the muezzins' call to prayer and the shouts of small boys seeking custom for the taxis as they depart for the ever more dangerous roads of the province. I flick through notebooks crammed full of the stories I heard and the things I thought there. From a distance, it seems more and more obvious to me that what is happening now in Afghanistan, and will continue to do so, is basically to do with diversity, with the right to be different. A century ago, diversity to the Afghans meant gaining independence from colonial oppression, just as it did for the other peoples of the world. Today it means remaining outside a more sophisticated but equally oppressive regime, one which seeks to turn the whole world into a marketplace, and all men into consumers who must first be sold identical desires, then identical products.

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

One example of this is the image of the Taliban that the Western press has tried to convey. They were horrible, 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 Pakistanis kept in power. The arrival of the Northern Alliance soldiers in Kabul was a genuine liberation. I remember the headline 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, their pressing on with raids which continue to cause civilian casualties, and their the hunt for Mullah Omar, his ministers 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.

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

Certain Taliban prohibitions, such as the one on flying kites because it took up time the children should have 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 watching television 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 even produce matches!), so people could only see or hear material which had been imported, usually from India. This was considered non-Islamic and therefore a potential source of corruption. Their reasoning was not all that different from those in the West who don't want to expose their children to all the ridiculous sex and violence currently shown on television.


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