The Allure of Walls

CK Lal is a writer and columnist based in Kathmandu.

That such walls fail, to fall, too? No matter.
Only raise more. That all walls, facing out or in,
Fail, fall, leaving fossils of lives in numb rubble?
No matter. Raise more. Only raise more.

– C K Williams in "WALL", the New York Times, 8 November 2009

In an oft-repeated Himalayan lore, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt Everest, legendary mountaineer George Leigh Mallory is believed to have retorted laconically, "because it's there". It has been since called "the most famous three words in mountaineering". Mountains, walls that nature builds, are there to be conquered – to an ant, a pebble is merely a barrier that must be bypassed or crossed over but a man needs to surmount it, step over it or sit upon it. But when human beings began to aspire to replicate nature, complications started. Manmade walls are not meant to be climbed; they can be breached, broken but not mounted while standing intact. A manmade wall is a line of division and anyone scaling it without permission risks being shot down.

The Berlin Wall, a symbol that has since ousted the Chinese one for the epithet of 'The Wall', was erected to create and defend two competing German ideologies: public versus people, creed versus code, community versus commune, merchant versus mediator, in short, Max (Weber) versus (Karl) Marx. The fall of the Wall heralded the triumph of economic realism over aspirations of a utopian society.

History, however, celebrates ironies too. Marx was voted the most influential thinker of the twentieth-century even though his ideas barely survive anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, Samuel Huntington has pipped Max to the post in the race for the European mindscape. Max's hypothesis about religious origins of economic development is passé; what matters in the post-Wall unipolar world is the Huntingtonian formulation of cultural militancy along civilisational fault lines. There is yet another problem with history: it marks events as cataclysmic, definitive, decisive or seminal, often ignoring processes behind the final outcome. That is perhaps natural. Who has the time to value the toil of the seed collector, the planter, the caretaker and the gardener while gazing at a fallen tree? But nothing happens in a vacuum. Causative factors precede every event even as the incident itself becomes a reason for something else.

Success breeds multiple claimants of fatherhood and then-trade union leader Lech Walesa's comments do need to be taken with a pinch of salt. But he is not too far away from truth when he claims that the first wall to fall was pushed over in 1980 in the Polish shipyards. Conferred with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, Walesa is a devout Roman Catholic, and has said that his faith always helped him during Solidarity's difficult moments. His conquest was a victory of faith that had started with the election of a Polish priest John Paul II to papacy in October 1978.

Identify vs ideology
Along with the rest of the world, the Southasian media too went through the ritual of remembering the fall of the Wall. Few Southasians, however, paused to reflect and recollect that the processes that led to the collapse of the Wall in Germany were set into motion in several places simultaneously, including in their own neighbourhood. The mightiest wall to fall in Asia was that of Malacanang Palace in 1986, and it was the Catholic Archbishop of Manila Jaime Cardinal Sin who played the critical role in making the People Power possible. Various explanations have been since offered for what Huntington called "The Third Wave of Democracy", but an often-neglected part in political discourse is the role of religion in overthrow of oppressive regimes of the left and right alike.

US strategists perhaps discovered the strength of beliefs in Iran, when Shah Reza Pahlavi fell from his throne with a hollow thud in January 1979. In the consequent hostage crisis, the greatest military state in the world failed to rescue its citizens from the clutches of a few hirsute fanatics and had to submit to the humiliating Algiers Accord. The hypothesis that religious creed could be used to challenge political credo was thus established. But more substantiation was necessary. A theatre of operation needed to be chosen from where the negative fallout of the experiment had relatively low chances of spreading out in the Western hemisphere.

Nowhere in the world are identities of cultural communities as sharp as in Southasia. North of Vindhyas, it is considered natural that languages should change every four kosh, or 12.80 km. In these parts, every river basin has a distinct culture; each mountain valley nurtures its own way of life. There can be no better laboratory to pit identity against ideology and test their respective strength. Afghanistan's proximity to the 'Evil Empire' of the Soviet Union was the main reason for its selection as a site of experimentation to test the power of identity against the might of ideology.

An unrepentant Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter (1977-81), was to later admit that he mobilised Islamic fanatics for the jihad to trap Soviets in Afghanistan and "give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam war". Americans let loose Islamic militants in Afghanistan in July 1979 – a bet that pulled Soviet forces in within six months. It did not take long for President Ronald Reagan's Afghan "moral equivalent of the founding fathers of America" to turn their guns upon their former sponsors once Soviet tanks pulled out of Kabul in 1988. When al-Qaeda and the Taliban had gone berserk against the 'Satanic Empire' of the USA, an aggressive Brzezinski is reported to have barked at an inquisitive reporter: "Which was more important in world history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire?"

There were eruptions of identity versus ideology wars everywhere during the Thatcher-Reagan era of resurgent conservatism. The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 was one such where Shia Muslims were pitted against Sunni-ruled secular Iraq in a conspiratorial attempt to weaken them both. The Chinese military might crushed the Tiananmen Square Uprising with uncontrolled brutality. Some Chinese scholars still believe that had the state not responded with its military might in 1989, the mercantilist-Maoist empire would have crumbled and fallen into the hands of the Mafia the way post-Soviet Russia did.

Identity politics was not a novelty in Southasia. After all, religion has been the main basis of the partition of British India. Bangladesh too was born out of a long struggle for identity. Linguistic, religious and communal conflicts have always been a part of mainstream politics in much of the Subcontinent. But it was the ideological sanction of the utility of identity to neutralise leftwing politics in Punjab, Assam and Andhra in India and Jaffna in Sri Lanka that provided these movements with certain acceptability, even respectability, in bourgeois society.

The virulence of the Nellie Massacre of Assam in February 1983 is impossible to explain. However, it may have resulted from the fear and loathing that comes out of what Sigmund Freud called "the narcissism of small difference" – the idea that people with minor difference between them become more combative and hateful towards each other than those with more distinctive identities. Perhaps this was the embryo from which the Sikh militancy too grew. Once again, acceptability of communalism as a legitimate means of combating communism transformed the most integrated of India's religious minorities into hardcore fundamentalists.

Identity politics claimed the life of Indira Gandhi. Her bodyguards-turned-assassins who shot her on 31 October 1984 probably believed that their faith triumphed over hers. But more than the defilement of the Harmandir Sahib during Operation Blue Star in Amritsar, it was Indira's 'martyrdom' that killed Sikh separatism. Furthermore, leftwing politics were pushed to the margins in the process. Years later, Rajiv Gandhi too was consumed by the inferno of identity politics. His death created conditions for the rise of fresh waves of Hindu fundamentalism.

The fall of the Wall was perhaps a victory of a kind of identity politics in Germany; it was a triumph of the idea that people on both sides of the barrier were one. Resurgence of identity politics in Europe, however, has consequences that will continue to unfold even after the multiple tragedies of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the enthusiastic project of constructing European unity, processes of religious and identity formation appear weak, but 'walls' being built in the minds of 'nations' may prove to be more dangerous than the Wall that fell.

~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times. 

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