This Orwellian nightmare
TRUTH is said to be the first casualty in any war, and this maxim is being amply proven in America’s newest war. However, an even greater casualty of this ‘crusade against evil’, in George W. Bush’s words, is likely to be those very freedoms that the US president has ostensibly set out to defend with the full might of a super world power.
Free speech, at the core of individual freedoms thought to be sacrosanct to the US, is in imminent danger of being the foremost victim of a lethal war hysteria consuming the Americans. It is not only a psychosis of war but also of fear and intimidation that has quickly engulfed the land and its people in the wake of the tragedy of September 11.
Bush, himself, was the first to raise the battle cry and articulate the war of nerves within hours of the bombing horror. He has not relented one bit since that moment. His war mania has gone down so well with the American people that anybody daring to disagree, or even raise a voice in dissent, risks being branded a traitor, and hung by the nearest lamp post. Bush set the tone for this hysteria when he ordained, in a cant reminiscent of the wild west, that a country was either with America or against it. Hence the same formula must also apply at home.
The fine line between nationalism and patriotism is being blurred. A gung-ho news media is whipping up frenzy with zest. As it is, the American media has never been known to be truly the Fourth Estate of the republic. Its watchdog role was buried for good in the ashes of the Vietnam War. On the other hand, the establishment, which had been singed during the turbulent Vietnam days, learned its lesson and has since honed the art of corralling the media. The Gulf War was the first success story of the establishment ruling the media’s roost with its strictly rationed, and doctored, copy of the battlefield. That very pattern is now reaching bizarre and absurd limits in this first war of the 21st century.
Because America is at war none is supposed to question its right to wage war, on its own terms, with or without (as is the case at present) any legal sanction or cover. Those who dare to differ must be silenced with firmness, if not crudely. Newspaper columns are brimming with rhetorical approval of Bush’s war cry. Those who vainly attempted to step out of the line have been made horrible examples of, like the highly popular “60 Minute” comic relief, Andy Rooney, who made light of Bush’s histrionics. His sponsors pulled the rug from under his feet within hours of his temerity. Another high-rated TV show, the eponymous “Politically Incorrect” has also been summarily blacked out for questioning the wisdom of this extraordinary war.
What is taboo in this euphoria of support for Bush is why the US has alone been targeted by terrorism? Why is it that “militant Islam” looks upon the US as its principal enemy? Why is the greatest power on earth pulverizing one of the poorest and weakest countries in the world? Anyone who dares to ask the ‘why’ of it all is showing the red rag to the bull and deserves to be put down, like the proverbial outlaw in a western movie.
But silencing the critics is only one part of the new script being readied for America in place of the Bill of Rights which Americans have been rightly proud of. Taking the cover of an unprecedented security alarm, the conservative right, traditionally uncomfortable with individual freedoms, is getting into the act to snuff out these liberties in a manner which brings to mind the spectre of ‘Big Brother’ of George Orwell’s mythical ‘Oceania’. In that fiction, now threatening to become a reality, the establishment held its subjects in perpetual fear — and consequently under perpetual surveillance — because the terrified populace was kept perennially involved in war against all kinds of perceived enemies.
New legislation now being rushed through Congress seeks to lift the drawbridge on civil liberties. Sweeping powers are on the cards for police and other intelligence agencies and apparatchiks. Unwarranted detention of people on mere suspicion for long periods is just one of a long list of preventive, anti-terrorist measures, now on the anvil. Much as the civil libertarians may cry themselves hoarse that America’s founding principles are being chipped away, if not being completely dismantled. It is unthinkable that in the present state of national preoccupation with ‘security threats’, further exacerbated by the anthrax scare, there would be any opposition blocking its course.
As it is, at least 800 people, almost entirely of the Middle East origin, have been detained in New York. They are being grilled without any evidence of their complicity in the heinous crime of terrorism merely because they fit the racial stereotype of terrorists conjured up on the heels of the September 11 tragedy in both the official and popular perceptions. Of course this is not the first time that collective punishment of this type is being meted out to a body of people because of their race or body complexion. Tens of thousands of Americans of Japanese origin were rounded up after Pear Harbour and kept in concentration camps for the duration of the war.
The national phobia whipped up within hours of the gruesome happenings in New York and Washington pale the hysteria of the McCarthy era that had blanketed America in the 1950s, and still haunts the psyche of a dwindling class of American liberals. What is unfolding in its shadow is much larger, and sinister, in magnitude and draconian in reach. It is the blueprint of an Orwellian society haunted by perpetual fear and, in that garb, opening its portals to all kinds of curtailment of liberties and individual rights. The biggest tragedy is that, as of now, a vast sweeping majority of Americans are ready to surrender their rights in return for greater security.
While such knee-jerk measures might still be warranted in a US hit by unprecedented violence, it is mind-boggling that the next-door Canada, which has consistently pursued a pacifist foreign policy and thus made hardly any enemies, should react to the horror of terrorism in tandem with the US. Revulsion at the crime against the US was quite understandable in Canada because of its emotional and physical proximity. By the same token, flying the Star-Spangled banner from their rooftops and balconies also made sense. But blindly following the US lead in legislating a near-draconian piece of law in its parliament takes some leap of romanticized loyalty.
Understandably, Canada lives in the shadow of its big brother to the south. Therefore, every time that US sneezes, Canada catches a cold. This country is tethered for its life line to the US economy and bilateral trade between the two countries, amounting to one billion dollars a day. It is not a symbiotic relationship but one of inequality. Because of such overt dependence on the US support and goodwill — and perhaps in reaction to it — the Canadians were, until September 11, jealously possessive of their own policies and freedoms. That is no longer the case, it seems, in the wake of the Black Tuesday, the day Canada’s centuries-old inferiority complex vis-a-vis the US (Canada has often been derided in the US as “almost a country”) got the better of it.
A new piece of anti-terror legislation introduced in the Canadian parliament on October 15 speaks volumes of Canada’s desperate lunge to pre-empt the big neighbour in erecting tough walls of security to deal with the scourge of terrorism. In a way Canada has been bamboozled into such undue alacrity by the finger pointed at it from across the border on the morning after the tragedy in New York and Washington. Canada was blamed for being lax and too liberal in its immigration policies which have made it home to 145 different nationalities. Tongues started wagging that Canada had a ‘weak’ refugee policy which allowed criminals to get refuge there. Prime Minister Jean Chretien was put on the defensive by a powerful conservative backlash. He was rattled to show more gut and grit.
Chretien’s gritty response is a draft legislation which would make immigration and asylum increasingly tough in Canada. But much more than that is the draft bill’s intended assault on civil liberties which is raising hackles amongst the minuscule liberals in Canada. Those privy to the 170-page bill speak of a licence to the police and intelligence services to detain ‘ suspects’ for up to 72 hours without any legal formality or requirement. Alleged witnesses to a ‘suspected intent to a crime’ could also be pressured to record their evidence against their will.
The eyes and ears of the law will, in a truly Orwellian sense, have the authority, once the bill becomes law, to wiretap phones of the suspects and even break into their e-mails. Dissent, according to some critics, would be closely monitored and even journalists and intellectuals could qualify as suspected terrorists. One critic has it that the new sweeping definition of a terrorist would make a school kid liable for a prison term for the ‘crime’ of throwing a stone at a store window in protest.
The liberals in Canada, as also in the US, will no doubt fight these draconian measures to the utmost limit of their will and capacity. However, they do not stand much of a chance in the frenzied ambience ruling the roost on both sides of the border. How taut and brittle the nerves have become in the US is best illustrated by the example of a 17 year-old Florida boy charged for creating an ‘anthrax scare’. His crime is that he scared his class teacher at school by sprinkling talcum powder on her chair. He could be sentenced for up to 15 years in jail. The erstwhile bright lights of civil liberties and individual freedoms are in mortal danger of being put out with vengeance.
India versus BJP’s India
AFTER a miserable performance by the BJP at the Lok Sabha polls in 1980, Atal Behari Vajpayee had observed that they could not consider any state safe like the communists who had West Bengal as their preserve. Two decades later, this remark still holds good. The BJP still cannot say with confidence that it will win in such and such state. It depends on the situation prevailing at the time of elections.
Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan used to be strongholds of the BJP or its earlier incarnation, the Jana Sangh. But both states are today in the hands of the Congress. Delhi and Himachal Pradesh too stayed with the BJP for a long time but both changed hands, although Himachal Pradesh has come back to the party.
And when we talk about change, there is no question of the BJP ever crossing the Vindhyas southwards. The party had at one time 28 per cent of votes in Karnataka but it has tumbled down to half in four years.
I expected the BJP to ponder over its existence — it celebrated the occasion a few days ago in Delhi. It should have tried to analyse why it has not struck roots in any state. The party has neither learnt nor forgotten anything. And it continues to believe that it has made progress, as L.K. Advani claims, because it has taken up the Ram Janambhoomi issue as “a symbol of cultural nationalism.”
Advani forgets that after the demolition of the Babri masjid, the BJP lost in UP, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and just scraped through in Rajasthan. The Hindus felt so horrified that they voted for the Congress despite its tainted record. The phrase Advani has used is “cultural nationalism.” Words do not cover up the intent.
What he means is that Hindu chauvinism has helped the party grow. And he characterizes it as “the right perspective” to be carried forward. How is his approach different from those who propel Islamic, Christian or Sikh chauvinism? If he considers Hindu chauvinism “the right perspectives,” what is wrong with the perspective of other religious communities except that they are a minority?
Advani was the one who led the rath yatra in northern India to polarize the country and created an atmosphere where Babri masjid was demolished, creating a trail of bloody clashes which killed thousands of people. What happened at that time was pure vandalism by the groups of Hindus who had been excited to frenzy.
The BJP’s purpose was served when the temple issue got mixed with politics. But the question the party must ask itself is whether India’s interest was served.
It tarred the face of our secular country with the brush of fanaticism. The nation is still paying for it. That may be the reason why Vajpayee said at the BJP national council meeting that he was only to deliver the valedictory address while Advani was to guide the party into the future.
If Hindu chauvinism is the BJP’s agenda, the party poses a serious challenge to the country’s ethos of secularism. The nation’s strength is its pluralism.
It will be a sad day when “cultural nationalism” eliminates our composite culture. Its culture makes India different from the theocratic neighbouring states.
People of different religions and creeds have become the warp and woof of India’s tapestry, drawing strength from the various threads that have become interwoven over the years, resulting in a texture which has come to reflect diverse shades in a smooth, sturdy fashion.
And as the Ganges, the country’s main river, has taken into its lap a multitude of different streams, whether stormy, placid or dirty, so has India assimilated the strange and the strong from many cultures and countries. The country has gained from it.
The BJP should realize that it came to power at the centre because it kept its communal agenda aside.
The party joined hands with the parties which believe in a pluralistic society. Vajpayee was quite right in emphasizing that like the BJP its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have also left part of their agenda separate. What he was saying was that those who were egging on the party to follow the perspective of “cultural nationalism” were hitting at the accommodation the NDA represented. The differences between the approaches of Vajpayee and Advani came into the open.
The BJP should realize that the party cannot go forward by following its parochialism and by not co-opting the 130 million Muslims in a system which is democratic and which follows the pattern of joint electorate. Right and left labels are understandable but not Hindu and Muslim.
The BJP seems determined to polarize the country but it will be defeated in its effort because the nation’s temper is different.
The journey which the BJP has made in the last 50 years is different from the one described by Advani. The first lap was the denunciation of Mahatma Gandhi. But the same party introduced his name in its prayer some 25 years ago. Surprisingly, it has not begun putting up the Mahatma’s photo at the party’s meetings.
Probably it wants to disprove the allegation that it is more Congress than the Congress itself. The second lap, when the Jana Sangh was part of the Janata Party (1977-79), was that of betrayal of Jayaprakash Narain.
The Jana Sangh leaders had given J.P. an undertaking that they would snap their ties with the RSS, an organization which was anathema to the other members of the Janata. There could not be double loyalty nor dual membership. The Jana Sangh members stuck to their loyalty to the RSS and, therefore, had no place in the Janata.
The third and the last lap, which Advani has commended, is again controversial. In a composite society, there is no place for any religious fundamentalism. It will destroy the sense of tolerance which has kept the country united for centuries.
All types of fanatic groups will sprout, something which is beginning to happen. And it is all in the conjecture of Advani and his supporters that it can polarize the country and that it can acquire enough electoral strength to be in a majority in the Lok Sabha.
I will be surprised if the party retains even the present strength of 181 members in the next Lok Sabha. When Vajpayee goes out of the way to defend and protect the NDA, it means he knows the value of a collation of different minds and parties.
Advani sounds like a person in a hurry and indulges in a lot of wishful thinking. The party has made progress because of the acts of omission and commission by the Congress. The latter is now making inroads because of the BJP’s lack of performance.
The BJP cannot make up the failure by stoking the fires of communalism or what Advani characterizes as “cultural nationalism.” The party’s image was never secular but what attracted the people was the impression that it was pegged to certain values.
That impression is gone after the BJP’s governance for the last three years. No other political party has violated values so blatantly and mocked at public opinion. What do people infer from the re-induction of George Fernandes in the cabinet when the inquiry committee looking of charges corruption against him is still sitting.
Never has any democratic government murdered the cannons of justice as Vajpayee has done. He even went to the extent of saying that there is no case against Fernandes. Now the ball is in Justice Venkataswami’s court.
How does the punishment meted out to a few military officials matter?
The problem with the BJP is that it has ceased to differentiate between right and wrong. It is justifying the murder of principles for political reasons. But it won’t cut much ice with the people.
For you can’t fool all the people all the time.
War on terrorism: many dimensions
THE ‘relentless, sustained and comprehensive’ American-led campaign against terrorism has now entered its twentieth day. While promising support, Pakistan had expressed the hope that the campaign would be sharp and short.
A very vocal section of the people took to the streets, demanding the bombing to stop. When President Musharraf addressed the nation on September 19 it was not clear what type of support Pakistan was going to give the United States and Britain in their campaign against terrorism.
However, when the bases in Jacobabad, Kharan, Batta Behr and Pasni opened for the American warplanes, the protests of our baffled public became even more violent. Several people have been killed and many more injured in some of the most violent protests Pakistan has seen since the MQM’s strikes during 1996.
Apparently, the apprehensions that prompted the government to act upon the demands of the United States following Mr Bush’s call to President Musharraf related to our vital security and strategic interests. There were fears that American bombs might target Pakistan had we chosen not to cooperate with the West in its war against our Afghan neighbour, especially when India offered its unconditional logistic and other forms of support to the impending US-led military operation against Osama bin Laden, his Al Qaeda network and the Taliban.
India has always accused Pakistan of promoting and harbouring local militants involved in the uprising in the occupied state of Kashmir. Therefore, when America summarized the idea of terrorists and terrorism as being anyone or anything that used force against it or against its allies, Pakistan’s apprehensions grew. Hence the race to be the ally of America, the ‘only option left’ in our quest to maintain our ‘strategic assets’ and safeguard our ‘supreme national interest.’
Turning to our traditional allies did not seem to be an option to the president, though he turned to them for support during his first year in power, following his action against Nawaz Sharif when the latter attempted a ‘coup’ against the general who then was — and still is — the chief of army staff. Following the democracy-related sanctions imposed by the western countries on Pakistan in the autumn of 1999, the leaders of the countries General Musharraf had visited such as Lebanon, Syria, China, Iran, Libya and Egypt assured him of their support and promised him cooperation in all fields.
A similar public relation tour today perhaps would have given him several new options. Seeing the crisis from a regional angle would have given Pakistan the courage and wisdom that comes from sharing views and discussing options with friends and people whose interests and well-being are as vital to Pakistan as Pakistan’s to them.
Our stand vis-a-vis the American war in Afghanistan failed to prevent casualties at home as well as on our border with India. While avoiding the ire of the West and facing up to the hypocritical attitude of India, Pakistan found itself inflicting self-injuries trying to control public protests within the country. Not surprisingly, the newly formed rapport between Pakistan and the United States has upset the Indians.
Driven by spite and a sense hostility towards Pakistan, India chose to resume firing across the Sialkot border on the eve of US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Islamabad and New Delhi. This virtually put an end to an unannounced cease-fire agreement that had once helped bring the two top leaders of India and Pakistan to the negotiation tables at Agra.
‘Relentless and sustained’ is an apt description of the American-led offensive against Afghanistan. However, the American comprehension of terrorism and its causes and manifestations leaves a lot to be desired. The September 11 attack has been condemned the world over. The Muslim nations have offered their sympathies to America, as in many cases they have promised help and cooperation in fighting the menace of terrorism. Yet some of them, such as Libya, Iraq, Sudan and Lebanon, find themselves on the American hit list. This creates serious misgivings about the American definition of terrorism and terrorists.
The American attitude has triggered strong protests amongst the Arab and Muslim nations. To them, the resistance to the usurpers of the rights of the people in Palestine and in Kashmir is a sacred struggle for emancipation. The long and relentless struggle of the Palestinian and Kashmiri Muslims in resisting oppression has been the main factor behind a shift in the stand of the fiftyfour-nation Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) which recently passed a unanimous resolution at its recent meeting in Doha in line with the wishes of their people.
The Osama bin Laden phenomenon has been an eye-opener for many rulers. Osama has symbolized the gap between the people and their governments. The Muslim leaders’ disagreement with the American perception of terrorism and their disapproval of the US action plans in this regard does not necessarily mean an endorsement of the Osama phenomenon. It may be remembered that of the 54 OIC countries, only three — Saudi Arabia UAE and Pakistan — had recognized the Taliban regime, the first two have now rescinded their recognition under American pressure.
The Muslim nations have always disapproved of the Taliban’s ways of interpreting Islam, they have disapproved of the way the Taliban treat the Afghan women and religious minorities. They are also critical of the way the American-led offensive has made Osama a hero in the eyes of many Muslims on the one hand and subjected the Afghan people to unspeakable miseries on the other hand. They have rejected the policies of the developed countries that have in the first place given the Taliban and their fellow obscurantists elsewhere the raison d’etre of their extremism and a degree of justification for their ‘jihad’ against American and its allies.
Ever since the campaign against the Taliban started, there has been a great deal of emphasis on the ‘humanitarian’ side of the ‘mission’ in Afghanistan. This has taken bizarre form of air-gropping of food packages along with bombs — presumably for the survivors. On the eve of the attacks on Afghanistan, Washington stressed that the air strikes would cause the least collateral damage possible, that they would have very precise targets, which will have the least effect on the civilians. Unfortunately, the technology is still subject to human error.
There have been debates on the number of casualties. A few days ago the Taliban claimed 200 casualties, but the western media dismissed this figure as highly exaggerated and confirmed ‘only’ twelve civilian deaths, as if the casualties are a bank account that starts accumulating interest and gaining importance only beyond a certain figure. Civilians have been dying whether in tens or in hundreds and whether it is in Afghan cities or in Pakistani cities or Palestinian camps.
There is a common factor between the attack of September 11 and the Anthrax attacks — both may have come from yet unknown sources. The proof that the US investigations have given of Osama’s involvement may be more prejudiced than real. Even Osama failed to support his claim with proofs that these attacks were the work of an Islamic organization.
Terrorism is born out of extreme and prolonged frustration and helplessness in getting justice. Extreme intolerance is thus bred. The belligerent attitude of the fanatic Muslims must be seen in juxtaposition with the international financial institutions’ imposition of harsh conditionalities on the economies of the borrowing developing nations such as stopping subsidies, imposing taxes and high tarrifs, demanding privatization, high interest rates on debts, burdening local industries with the imposition of international prices on local raw material and so on.
Practitioners of religious fanaticism who cannot accept the idea of another religion being at par with their own are in the same category as those of the rich and powerful who hold that their wealth and power must not be threatened by the attempts of the poor to improve their lot. The sanctions imposed on the ‘rogue states’ compare with the ‘edicts’ the Taliban issued on how to deal with the ‘infidels’. The veto powers used in the United Nations’ security council equate with the veto the religious fanatics impose on the practices of other religions.
The attack on America was not an attack on the American way of life; it was an attack on the American way of ruling. ‘Ground Zero’ now resembles the shantytowns and katchi abadis that keep sprouting up in South America, in the subcontinent, in South East Asia, in Africa and in our very midst in Pakistan. The ‘clash’ today between the West and the Rest is not a clash of cultures or civilizations; it is rather a clash of power. The civilizations continue through the continuation of the human race. The people remain and mingle and evolve; only the political power behind them diminishes with the evolution of intellect and eventually disappears.
The campaign against terrorism is not ‘comprehensive’ but narrowly punitive. America is right: the roots of terrorism lie here in the poorer countries, in the deprivation, denial and alienation of the majority for the benefit of the few. However, terrorism is not in the nature of the people but is rooted in the unjust nature of the situations imposed on them. Correct these situations and the world will become a haven of peace and harmony where all cultures and religions will interconnect outside the vicious circle of the dynamics of absolute power.