Sunday, August 31, 2008

Three Questions for the Wandering Indian

Byline by M.J. Akbar: Three Questions for the Wandering Indian

This has become a three-question tour: Can rising India cross the hurdles without collapsing into a painful hobble? Where are the roots and branches of Muslim Terrorism? Is Pakistan a failed state and what does this mean for the war in Afghanistan?

To jaded Delhi eyes, the sky is much more vast in Canada. That could only be an illusion, right? Wrong. The horizon is not limited by claustrophobic cement, concrete, stone; the vision is not trapped by the tensions of road-crawl, or blocked by the arrogance of bullies who believe that a steering wheel has lifted them out of the demands of common decency. It is not distance that makes Canada seem like a frontier, although it takes a while to ingest that London is only a midway point between Delhi and Toronto. This frontier is not merely the boundary wall of the familiar; it is also the gateway to new space.

I am in the pretty urban village of Waterloo, obviously within British-Canada, for French Canadians are unlikely to institutionalise the memory of Napoleon’s defeat. But the tensions of the 19th century have thinned to inconsequence. Waterloo is the home of CIGI, the think-tank started by one of the creators of the ubiquitous Blackberry, which is my host. Billionaires in Canada do not believe that the only duty of money is to make more money. Money can also seed ideas, shape policy and perspective with the help of gardeners gathered from the finest academic and diplomatic nurseries in the world.

This has become a three-question tour: Can rising India cross the hurdles without collapsing into a painful hobble? Where are the roots and branches of Muslim terrorism? Is Pakistan a failed state and what does this mean for the war in Afghanistan? Canada has lost nearly a hundred soldiers already to the Taliban, with no end to the war in sight; the voter, if not the government, is beginning to flinch just a little.

I suggest a little adjustment in the focal lens, and the India story becomes much clearer. India may be growing at 9% or thereabouts each year, but every Indian is not growing at that impressive pace. Perhaps 20% of India is growing at that much-touted rate, but nearly 80% can choose a number from the lower single digits. The imbalance is both demographic and geographic. The result is virulent social conflict, the worst stream being an epidemic called Naxalism.

There are many tributaries, including caste and communal tensions. Moreover, aspiration is the right of every youth in a free society, and India is indisputably free. That is the core strength of modern India. But aspiration is also the parent of frustration. Until we manage these contradictions, instead of fooling ourselves with silly World Bank mantras like the trickle-down theory, which is such a solace to limp minds like that of finance minister P. Chidambaram, the India story will always seem vulnerable to sudden, even if temporary, descent into chaos. If it is any consolation, China has worse problems lurking behind the propaganda and dictatorship, but that is very poor consolation.

At least the phrase is becoming, gradually, more accurate: it is Muslim terrorism, rather than Islamic terrorism. As I have argued before, Islam does not permit terrorism, even during the worst phases of war. An increasing number of American and Canadian intellectuals and decision-makers have also begun to realise that war-mongering is not the only appropriate response to the problem. A simultaneous battle has to be fought, with equal vigour, in the minds of the young. At the core of this debate is a question: where lies justice? If the armies of some Western nations have travelled thousands of miles merely to impose forms of neo-imperialism, then the war will continue. If they have gone to induce the emergence of modern, equitable societies and nations –– although the job would be far easier in the hands of men who build schools than generals –– then the battle for the mind can be won. The 21st century has given us all that we could ask for, but it forgot to give us peace. Peace cannot come without understanding.

Understanding is impossible without dialogue. Dialogue can only be possible between equals, or it becomes a monologue. The world will not move forward on an axis of evil; that axis can only push it into reverse direction. An axis of good is perhaps equally sentimental. The world will move towards peace only on an axis of equals. This is the first principle of democracy, a point often forgotten by democracy’s drum-beaters.

It is counterproductive to dismiss Pakistan as a failed state, or underestimate the Pakistani’s desire to protect the cohesion of his nation. But the moment has come for clarity: Pakistan must reject theocracy as a failed idea. That is the real battle corroding the vitals of Pakistan. There is an enormous danger for not merely Pakistan, but the whole of South Asia, in the increasing appropriation of nationalism by theocrats, since they have positioned themselves in the forefront of the war against the foreign presence in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is the question that theocrats raised in order to chip away at Pervez Musharraf’s credibility: why was Pakistan fighting America’s war against fellow-Muslims? The non-theocrats, to use a clumsy term, consist of both democrats and autocrats in Pakistan. But both the civilians and the generals are being pushed into the American corner by a combination of events and an absence of real options. The fog of this war is intellectual, and more Pakistani politicians are dying in friendly fire than anyone might want to count. The boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan is notional in many respects, and this is not only because more Pashtuns live in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. There is no real dividing line on the battlefield where the Taliban is conducting operations against the NATO alliance. In fact, a rational assessment would indicate that the intellectual and political battle has to be fought far more vigorously in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, because it is the Pakistani street that will determine the outcome to a far great degree than the Afghan village.

One would have to be a substantial fool to suggest that these answers are comprehensive. But if they take a crucial debate a step or two forward, then the purpose will have been met. It is not only the sky that is vast in Canada. The mind is also more open than one finds upon travelling a little to the south of this country. Canadians, by and large, have a more intelligent view of the world than the neocon ideologues who have shaped the imperial policies of Washington in the last eight years. But Canada does itself, and its cause, an injustice when it sends only troops to Afghanistan. Guns may pacify the present, but it is only butter that buys the future.

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