Taking out the Taliban


By Gail Omvedt

There is not, and never has been, a government in the world which would not at least take police action to defend its people... At the same time, I thought there would be no bombing.

``For never in this world
Do hatreds cease by hatred.
By freedom from hatred they cease:
This is the eternal dhamma.''
(Dhammapada 5)

THIS WAS part of my first effort to articulate a response to September 11. Like many others, I had the fortune - good or bad - of seeing it on TV, in an unusual situation. Sitting in Kasegao, I had just turned on the only English news we get on cable - Sahara, at 7-45 p.m. It showed just a shot... and, wondering, appalled, I switched to PTV on AV, which has better English news than the poor selection of cable channels in our village - to find them rebroadcasting CNN. For two hours I sat there horrified and fascinated watching the breaking news, interrupting this only to whisper it to my husband and to phone to Pune to have my e-mail checked by a friend to see if my daughter (who lives in New York and worked then near the World Trade Center) was all right - that she was became clear after an hour. Still, the scenes unfolded, that day and for a couple of days after... the towers crashing, people running in fear, old file photos of Osama bin Laden with his strange, almost mystical yet frightening smile, shots of Palestinian children dancing in the streets, shots of presumed suspects and evidence about them. George W. Bush in his jacket, looking very Texan, Colin Powell looking authoritative and calm. An assault of images; an assault of messages, many coming on e-mail from the U.S., forwarded by my daughter who was more upset about the racist attacks that came after, messages mainly from African-Americans, Indian-Americans, Palestinian-Americans such as Edward Said, and even one Afghan.

What mixed emotional reactions I had even from the beginning! One sane, rational, peace-loving part of me followed the Dhammapada and the message of all religions (including Islam), that at a moral level and in the long run the only way to protect oneself and to resolve violent conflicts is to deal with the roots of violence - and that what happened did indeed have its roots in rage caused by events in which the U.S. was heavily implicated.

But another immediate emotional reaction was simply: if this is how the ``whole world'' feels about ``us'', then we have to defend ourselves. And, whatever may be the morality and the long-term considerations, there is not, and never has been, a government in the world which would not at least take police action to defend its people. No socialist government, no Muslim or even Buddhist-dominated government would have returned hatred with non-hatred. In fact, police action - for that matter, leave aside the various versions and meanings of ``crusades'' and ``jehads'' and ``revolutions'' - is something that was justified even for Buddhist emperors, who were expected not only to provide ``seed for farmers, capital for merchants, pay to employees and welfare to the destitute'' but also to protect their subjects. It may indeed be true that various forms of limited ``police action'' will be the alternative to war in the global age, though it may increasingly look like war and involve new levels of surveillance, as Amitav Ghosh has remarked.

And, of course, who would trust the American Government and Mr. Bush to carry out limited police action? Mr. Bush, talking of ``crusades'', calling Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden ``evil'' and at the same time ignoring all the terrorist actions of the U.S. against the world's peoples. However, another reaction of mine, from the very beginning, was that the U.S. Government, though capitalist and oppressive, was probably rationally so, and would limit its actions. Further, since Mr. Bush himself knew nothing of foreign policy (and little of how to speak to anyone but Americans, which is why Tony Blair and others had to make world tours) he was dependent on others - in particular, his Secretary of State, Colin Powell. And if the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was a hawk, Gen. Powell - standing before the cameras and the people of the world as a truly powerful man, the first African-American to hold such high office - clearly understood something of non-white peoples and probably, like that other former General, Pervez Musharraf, understood the costs of war. Or so I hoped. Thus, when the U.S. Government made it clear that it was determined to take out the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, I hoped it would be done in as patient and slow a fashion as possible.

And, if I felt anger in those days (as an American-born) against anyone, it was not against the Palestinian children who were shown on TV dancing in the street after hearing of the attack; after all they had sufficient reason to do so. Rather, I felt anger against the educated, sober adults of the Left who so quickly came forward with ``it was a terrible act but...'', and went on immediately to stress that this was a reaction to U.S. terrorism and give their analysis of imperialism.

At the same time, I thought there would be no bombing. First, quite aside from the moral implications, it did not seem a sufficient way to take out the Taliban and deal with the problem of Afghanistan. There were Russian Generals interviewed to tell of how hopeless it was to fight in such inhospitable terrain, there were memories of how the small, impoverished Vietnamese had humbled bulky American soldiers - it was not so easy to fight Asians! And there was the letter from the Afghan-American, who wrote simply that it was useless to talk of ``bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age'', because it had already been done, and the Taliban had destroyed what was left ``If you think of the Taliban, think Hitler. And if you think of the Afghan people, think Jews in the concentration camps,'' he had written - and went on to warn once more that bombing was useless, that what must be done, however hard it would be for Americans to bear the count of ``body bags'' coming back, was to send in soldiers.

(Question (asked later in India): ``Why does the U.S. only concern itself with terrorism against its own people?'' Answer: ``Because they are the ones who elect it.'' Further clarification: It also has to be remembered that U.S. citizens now include not only whites, but African- Americans, Indian-Americans, etc. as well as Arab-Americans and even a very few Afghan Americans. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, taken between December 7 and 10, 2001, nearly three of every four Blacks and nine of every 10 whites approved of Mr. Bush's performance.)

With all of this came reports of the racist reactions, against Muslims, people with turbans, any ``brown people''. This was especially in New York city, where the tragedy was directly felt, and where hundreds of firemen - themselves mostly from ``white ethnic'' and some African-American background - had died rushing into the building to save people; but elsewhere there were the crazies, the man who simply shot a Sikh gentleman and rode away in his car. The truth is that there are maybe 5 per cent really crazy racists in the U.S., a lot of mild racists - but also many good-hearted people who were trying to understand the tragedy. ``Weep for us,'' wrote one Quaker friend. ``We all are beginning to understand that the whole world has changed and will continue to change,'' wrote a cousin, referring to ``our disbelief and sorrow at what has happened here, our feelings of helplessness and need to do something...''

Against such a background, the U.S. Government set out, on September 11, to take out the Taliban, Osama and the Al-Qaeda.

Dealing with worldwide terrorism requires looking at each specific sore spot. For India and Pakistan this means taking up their responsibility for nurturing terrorism in Kashmir.

AS WAR preparations proceeded, it was clear that we - lovers of peace, anti-imperialists or whatever - were powerless. Whatever we were going to do, the U.S. Government was sending its troops, bombers and diplomatic emissaries forth to take out its enemies (defined as ``international terrorism'' but specified as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden) and it was pulling together an international team of support for its actions. I awaited the results with gloom, hoping that the U.S. would not bomb Afghanistan. But it proceeded to do so, and it also became clear that anti-war, anti-bombing demonstrations in India were very small. Simply because while Indian Muslims were silent and confused, most of the rest who considered themselves ``Hindus'' were filled with a mixture of glee (now you know what it's like), jealousy (why didn't our Government do that?), and appreciation (of the determination of its anti-terrorist action) in regard to the U.S.

Now it is over three months since September 11 - not after all a very long time - enough to clarify some things. Among all my initial reactions, I was wrong about some things. Not only did the U.S. bomb, but it did so successfully. The U.S. Government did what it said it was going to do - use (relatively) measured force to take out its enemies. The Taliban is finished, Osama is on the run, and very likely Al-Qaeda will more slowly be weeded out. In other words, its actions have been justified pragmatically. Leave aside the moral and long-term questions of dealing with terrorism, it appears that not too many people have died in the bombing - relative to those murdered by the Taliban itself - and most Afghans appear satisfied with the result, some happy even, as women started coming hesitantly out into the streets and taking up jobs, while youth began to swing again to the sounds of their old music.

The current issue facing the Indian people now (and the world) is Pakistan and Kashmir. The Indian Government in recent weeks has been speaking of war and sending its troops to the borders to engage in fire with the Pakistanis. Jawans are getting killed. In contrast to the U.S. case, I have not been much worried or disturbed. In India and Pakistan also, reactions have been much more muted: while Indian stations and PTV are at present including this at the top of their news, they also quickly go on to other important things; it is clear most people in both countries have many other things on their minds. More important, while the fear of any country having nuclear weapons continues to hang over the heads of all, it seemed clear that Vajpayee, Advani, Sushma Swaraj et. al. were playing to the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh elections. So I have been seeing occasional Doordarshan shots of the Hindutva leaders breathing fire and listening to such remarkable events as the loud declamation of anti- Pakistani sentiment in a a small poetry session of ``patriotic'' poets including Vajpayee, Gujral and all - and turned off the TV quickly. It has not seemed very real.

Whatever happens, the moral questions and long run problems remain. The moral debates will continue; they are perhaps unresolvable. At the long run, practical level, it is absolutely correct that the roots of terrorism have to be eradicated and that the U.S. Government is heavily implicated in the planting and nurturing of these, in the world and in Afghanistan specifically. But it is also true that other countries and Governments are also implicated (Russia, for instance). Dealing with the question of worldwide terrorism requires looking at each specific sore spot in the world's geography.

For India and Pakistan this means taking up their responsibility for nurturing terrorism in Kashmir. Pervez Musharraf has been confronting his responsibility in this. What about the Indian Government? When will the Government admit that some of the most important roots of terrorism in Kashmir (``cross-border'' or not) lie in its own actions? Consider the course of events since Independence. The gradual suppression of democratic rights and autonomy and the jailing of Sheikh Abdullah by Nehru himself - a Kashmiri pandit, we might remember. The falsifying of election results under subsequent regimes. Then, when an armed insurgency occurred in 1991- 92 under what was then a secular force - the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front - its total crushing and the suppression of any information about the fact that the JKLF did not describe itself as ``Muslim'' and aspired to speak for all Kashmiris and the people of Jammu as well. It was in other words not even ``Islamic'' not to speak of ``fundamentalist.'' It was a ``liberation front'' like all the others we used to know in the 1970s and 1980s.

With democracy denied and the JKLF crushed, wasn't it natural that with no other options before them, at least some of the Kashmiri people would listen to terrorists espousing a distorted version of Islam that gave them access to worldwide funding and fanatic warriors?

Just as hatreds cease only by freeing oneself from hatred (at the moral level), so the rage that fuels the conflict in Kashmir has to be appeased at the practical level. Just as this means that the Palestinian people have to be given their rights, so it means that the Kashmiri people have to be given their rights - and both the Indian and Pakistani Governments have to recognise this and engage in a process of dialogue to resolve the situation.

There are many complications ahead. First, the ``Kashmiri people'' here means those of both Jammu and Kashmir, not only the Muslims of the Valley but also the Pandits and Dalits of the Valley, the Muslims and Hindus of various sections of Jammu, the Buddhists of Ladakh. There are various proposals to make the right of self-determination truly meaningful - primarily giving voting rights at the district level, as to whether people would rather join Pakistan, India or form an autonomous/independent state. This includes also a recognition that the process would have to involve a period of teaching and reaching out to people, and that it should/would lead to a recognition by the Kashmiri Muslims themselves that their independent state would have to be one which maintained close relations with both Pakistan and India. This means that the ultimate solution would probably require a new rapport between India and Pakistan, a decentralisation of power (a ``refederalisation'', as one recent writer put it) in both countries, and recognition of a differentiated autonomy for the different parts of ``Jammu and Kashmir''. In fact, this sort of proposal was put forward in 1990 itself by Syed Shahabuddin and O.K. Vijayan, and responded to by Mohammad Haroon Ahmed in a Pakistani journal.

How we move in that direction is another matter. With the current Hindutva leadership of the Central Government, the situation does not look hopeful. India at present seems to be in a situation that will result neither in taking out the Lashkar-e-Taiba or actions leading to the cessation of hatred, rather at best simple border skirmishes and at worst, futile war.

What is required instead, in the moving words of Dr. Vitthal Rajan, a member of the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy, is: if not the absolute non-violence of a religious commitment, at least ``the deep springs of the human spirit which enables us to reach across chasms of tragic suffering, to embrace yesterday's enemy and make him tomorrow's friend''

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