Monday, December 06, 2004

Churn is in the Air

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar: Churn is in the Air

Politicians don’t mean what they say, do they? A bureaucrat checks out the biases of the audience for whom the speech is meant, and writes down the right noises for them to deliver and survive another day. So why make a fuss?

This club of five (United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China) sits in the Security Council because it defines security as an extension of its interests. That is why these states consider their possession of nuclear arms as legitimate, and condemn any other nuclear power as "irresponsible" or potentially "evil".

The traffic in Dhaka is not irrational; it is merely Bengali. Witness the desire, for instance, to overtake when there is nothing to take over there. All the familiar problems of travel on the subcontinent accompany you.

Bangladesh Biman tends to have an illegitimate relationship with its timetable, so every journey encourages whispers from those with inside knowledge, particularly if you are catching an en route flight. So it depends on how you view a three-hour delay at Bangkok airport, from where I flew into Dhaka: it is, of course, much worse than being on time, but far better than being six hours late, which was the situation on the previous evening.

But let us stress the fact that the destination is far more attractive than the journey. A visiting Indian must, of course, get through the angst barrier. It is not just hawks who carry chips rather than epaulettes on their shoulder. Perfectly normal people do not feel that they have done their good deed for the day unless they can throw a bit of ritual cold water on an Indian but this is soon forgotten in the sunshine of natural hospitality, the cool edge of high intelligence, and, for those who know Bengali, the joy of a shared language.

We were in Dhaka at the command of an old friend Farooq Sobhan, and there is always something mildly uplifting about a worthy mission. Farooq had brought together young journalists from Bangladesh and India on the valid assumption that ignorance and absence of human contact were the major reasons for the trust-deficit that plagues media on both sides of a complicated border. The generation that covered the 1971 war, and through it discovered each other (not always for the good), has gone the way of most journalists. That generation is tired even if it has not retired. The younger lot are fed with that familiar evil, disinformation masquerading as nationalism.

The dialogue opened on an expected note: a speech by a minister. Journalists of any age and generation very quickly develop a Nelson’s ear to speeches by ministers. Admiral Nelson, saviour of England and victor of critical battles against Napoleon’s France, made his blind eye famous by turning it towards anything he did not want to see. Similarly, journalists turn a Nelson’s ear towards any speech they do not want to hear. This does not imply any disrespect towards the dignitary concerned. It is simply one of those immutable laws of media life. When reporters have to do a report on a speech they did not therefore hear, they check the text, put something from the opening paragraphs at the top of their story, and go home, confident that even if the story is published no one will bother.

Perhaps this was the reason why some interesting, and perhaps even remarkable, points in the speech delivered by the Bangladesh minister for information, M. Shamsul Islam, were missed. One sentence cried out for greater attention. "Changing concepts of sovereignty, humanitarian law, the nature of security, the role of multilateralism all have brought about dynamic changes (in geo-politics)," he said.

He was making this argument against a specific context. He had said earlier: "The balance between politics and economics always remains a vital one. Our two countries (Bangladesh and India) are bound by history and geography that have left many cobwebs and irritants. We are also tied by many enduring commonalities — ideas, traditions, culture and a shared past covering centuries. All the factors that divide us can also unite us."

As a fully paid-up member of the Press Club (Dyspepsia Department) let me first turn to scepticism. Politicians don’t mean what they say, do they? A bureaucrat checks out the biases of the audience for whom the speech is meant, and writes down the right noises for them to deliver and survive another day. So why make a fuss? In any case the track record of the present government in Dhaka towards India is more knee-jerk than level-headed, so why treat a whiff of honey as anything more than ephemeral scent?

Because you do not have to be thoughtful when platitudes will serve. Mr Islam used the opportunity to suggest ideas that were both above the India-Bangladesh equation as well as relevant to it.

We are living in a world whose geopolitics was shaped by the outcome of two world wars. If Germany and Turkey had won the First World War — and they were close enough to doing so, until America intervened — the map of the Arab world, and the nature of its polity, would have been significantly different. The Arabs, who had helped Britain in that war after they had been promised freedom from the Ottoman Empire, were dumped into the quagmire of neo-colonisation while pliant regimes handed over their precious oil to the masters of the world at ridiculous prices. And though Britain was too weakened by the Second World War to hold on to its most important colony, India, a divisive legacy continues to extract a heavy toll. So many nationalisms were derived from the politics of the colonial period.

Even as the old world order collapsed a new one was fashioned through the creation of the United Nations (a term coined by President Franklin Roosevelt to define the allies against the fascist axis of Germany, Japan and Italy) with a veto for the five nations who won the Second World War: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China. (Communist China and Russia are successor states to the nations that fought the war.) This club of five, sits in the Security Council because it defines security as an extension of its interests. That is why these states consider their possession of nuclear arms as legitimate, and condemn any other nuclear power as "irresponsible" or potentially "evil". Israel, under the divine protection of the United States, is permitted a not-so-secret nuclear arsenal without comment or question. While there is grudging acceptance of India and Pakistan as nuclear powers, the last word has not been said on the subject, and those on the subcontinent with apprehensions are wise to be apprehensive.

When there were differences between matched powers among the Big Five, as during the Cold War, the world seemed to rest on a more balanced keel. By the early Nineties one half of the post-1945 arrangements had collapsed, with the crumble of the Soviet empire. With Moscow unable to pull its former weight, unilateralism moved into a vacuum. Militarily, the European Union power is a myth; politically, it is easily divided, as Washington proved, taking time off only to sneer at France’s pretensions. But is this sustainable? Questions that were unthinkable during the Cold War, and dormant in the Nineties are being asked with vigour now. One of the issues that Vladimir Putin had to address during his visit to Delhi last week was the possibility of an expanded Security Council. His response would have pleased any Tsar. Putin argued that any restructuring that extended the right of veto to a new member would lead to confusion and collapse of the United Nations. He knew that he was being a trifle indelicate in his candour, for India will be a member of any altered Security Council. The Indian foreign minister, Natwar Singh, has very coolly, and correctly, said that India was not impressed by any second-class status offer.

Churn is in the air. A cynic, or even a realist, could argue that there has been perpetual war since 1945, and if this is what the Big Five have delivered in the name of stability then it is time to return to the drawing board. Most wars have been fought over conflicting definitions of nationalism, creating fertile options for superpowers interested in their own security as well as domination of natural resources.

It is significant that if Mr Shamsul Islam’s comments had been made by an Indian minister in Dhaka, he or she would have been accused of hegemony. Suspicions die hard, and votes can be milked out of fear. Mr Islam spoke above both temptations. Twenty years ago General Ziaur Rahman set the subcontinent on a new curve by suggesting cooperation among seven South Asian nations through SAARC. As someone wryly pointed out, Pakistan’s first reaction was to wonder whether this was a version of the Hindutva brigade’s "Akhand Bharat" and India wondered whether it would mean a gang of six against one. The 13th summit, fortuitously in Dhaka next month, is building up huge expectations of further breakthroughs in regional prosperity. (Peace may not always bring prosperity, but prosperity does tend to bring peace.) SAARC leaders, having travelled so far along the pragmatic, must also seek to spend a little time once again on the conceptual, for each horizon is only a means to the next.

There is enough time to pencil Mr Islam’s phrases into the agenda. It will take a long while for the pencil to become ink, but there is no harm in putting a little more writing on the wall.

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