The new Orientalists

With a blind heart,
You yourself understand nothing.
How can you explain anything?
You sell your erudition for possessions,
And spend life meaninglessly.

– Sant Kabir's admonition to the learned  

When asked to comment upon the significance of the French Revolution, the first prime minister of the People's Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, is reputed to have answered without a moment's hesitation, "It's too early to tell." Indeed, a century or two is hardly enough time to pass judgment upon the cataclysmic events of history.

The Chinese premier could show equanimity towards an event that did not concern him directly. But a French person, who has to live with the direct consequences of that history, will probably have to learn to examine it in the light of contemporary realities. There is no better way to make sense of the present than through the lenses of the collective past. Predictably, there is a rush to compare Ghazi Abdul Rasheed of Islamabad with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale of yesteryear. But to blame the state for fostering a Frankensteinian monster would perhaps be an over-simplification. There must be deeper reasons why the devout risk decimation in revered shrines.

Resemblances are obvious between the seizure and subsequent storming of the Lal Masjid in July, and the military operation at the Golden Temple in June 1984. But the dissimilarities are no less striking. At Amritsar, Operation Blue Star came as a shock. The Sikh community was not prepared for the desecration of the holiest of its holy shrines. Over in Islamabad, however, General Pervez Musharraf's Operation Silence had a sense of inevitability about it. The opinion-makers among the Pakistani population seem to have accepted the operation with quiet relief, rather than frenzied alarm. The consequences of similar military actions can have different political outcomes in different situations, but the aftermath of the Golden Temple tragedy offers salutary lessons to all of the strategic planners of Southasia who are confronted by religious extremism.

Operation Blue Star led to violent protests. Mutiny by some Sikhs in the Indian Army tested the integrity of the country's defence forces. The assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own bodyguards raised questions over the reliability of Indian unity. Retaliatory communal riots and the callous handling of the post-assassination period by Rajiv Gandhi nearly pushed the polity over the edge. Social stability was under threat, as one of the best regarded minorities of India was harassed and humiliated.

One cannot predict the final fallout of Operation Silence. The state and society of Pakistan are much more militarised than was the Indian establishment at the time of Operation Blue Star, and even now. However, there is a shared history that speaks loudly and clearly to all Southasians: overwhelming military superiority over an opponent, or success in individual battles, does not ensure victory in any prolonged war. Whether it is a struggle for 'sovereignty' or a war against 'terror', the pursuit of peace through violent means is a prolonged affair, with notable advances and serious setbacks along the way.

Crisis of contemplation
There is a hint of triumphalism evident in the celebrations as well as the censure of the Lal Masjid adventure. Strangely, the learned of Pakistan seem to have fallen over each other over the past few years to explain the rise of the religious right as a direct outcome of the Zia-Musharraf sponsorship of mullah-military extremism. But there is more to militancy in Pakistan than the state patronage of jihadis.

The Westernised elite of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi love to blame madrassas for producing fundamentalists and fanatics. But the deadliest of Mujahideens have been products of modern institutions. Ghazi Abdul Rasheed, the head of the Lal Masjid, had a degree in International Relations from Quaid-e-Azam University. Tamil militancy is home-grown, as Sikh extremism once was. But just as the Sikh diaspora gave thrust to a separatist movement in Punjab, the rabid ethnocentrisms of overseas Tamils and Singhalese comes in the way of the peace process in the island of serendipity. The rage of alienation among uprooted Muslims has likewise driven many overseas Southasians to extremism.

Analysis of trends such as these in the mainstream Southasian media is frustratingly black and white. A very influential section of the privileged class has tagged on to what Fatemeh Keshavarz, of Washington University, chooses to call "New Orientalism". Keshavarz argues that the newer version of imperial discourse Edward Said described in his groundbreaking book Orientalism is proving to be even more insidious than the old. Indeed, elaborations of New Orientalist discourse over 'Islamic' militancy dominate the English press in Southasia.

The annoyance of professor Pervez Hoodbhoy over what he calls "walking tents" at his university campus in Islamabad is understandable, but his conclusion that "Today, if one could wipe America off the map of the world with a wet cloth, mullah-led fanaticism will not disappear" appears somewhat rushed, and more in line with the approach taken to West Asian Muslims by Bernard Lewis, who famously coined the phrase 'clash of civilisations'. No matter how strongly one denounces the mullah-military alliance in Pakistan, they are as much victims of the United States' designs in Southasia as villains addicted to violence. Some of the blame for showing the seeds of religious extremism has to be shared by colonialists of earlier era; and neo-imperialists of our age have to be nailed for militarising the devout.

At the other extreme are the manufacturers of ethnic, sectarian or nationalist apologia of extremism. Writing mainly in the vernacular press and on the Internet, members of an educated but alienated elite feel that extremists are doing what they themselves would have done had they possessed the courage to get over their obsession with creature comforts. This group tries to buy gratification by writing cheques for the poor souls ready to shed their blood to protect the 'honour' of keyboard warriors in distant cubicles. 

Indifferent intelligentsia
Like every contestation in a society, reality is obviously a complex mix of political compulsions, social disturbances and the personal pathologies of the major actors. These are precisely what made possible the Bengal debacle of June 1757 and the Awadh tragedy of 1857. A hundred years apart, the treason of Plassey and the uprising in Awadh were dissimilar historic events with comparable consequences – one entrenched the East India Company in Bengal, while the other ended up adding the Subcontinent to the British Empire as the most prominent jewel in its crown. They had other parallels. During both encounters between invaders and defenders, locals vastly outnumbered the outsiders, but suffered from a failure of leadership. The treachery of Mir Jafar at Murshidabad and the naivety of the nabobs in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar at Lucknow made the job of scheming Robert Clive and his successors in the Company at Awadh significantly easier than if the defenders had been as alert as the aggressors.

The intelligentsia is supposed to keep the rulers of the day informed of every significant development in society. It would be yet another facile generalisation to propose that the failure of the intelligentsia was the main cause of Plassey or Awadh, but the decadence that had begun to consume the courts of the last Mughals must have been inimical to the growth of indigenous intellectualism. Mullahs and priests masquerading as thinkers and theorists may have misled Nawab Sirajuddaula in the 18th century and Nana Sahib's envoy Azimullah Khan in 19th century to believe that the firangis would be easy prey. That was then; what has happened since is not very encouraging.

Rechristened the First War of Independence by the Indian establishment, the events of the 1850s have been put on such a high pedestal that no dispassionate evaluation of those years can be done without the risk of being branded blasphemous or anti-people. After all, nationalism often is the main religion of all secular states. The humiliations of Plassey have almost been forgotten; the circumstances that led to the rise of Robert Clive are seldom analysed from a Southasian angle.

Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington are not disinterested scholars, dissecting Islam for the sake of human advancement. Rather, they are the voices of New Orientalism. The felicity of V S Naipaul or Salman Rushdie with their masters' language has won them knighthood from the Crown. After his Nobel recognition, Amartya Sen has quietly fashioned himself into a court-dissenter. Instead of contemplation, Sen celebrates argumentation these days, a position that must be making Kabir turn in his grave.

Perhaps Zhou was right after all. It has been barely 250 years since Plassey, and it was only 150 years ago that Awadh was annexed by the British. The history of the Independence of India and Pakistan, meanwhile, is only six decades old. In time, perhaps our thinkers too will learn to contemplate, and leave the lure of the unexamined life.

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Himal Southasian