The dust must have risen from the cremation
ground of grandmother in May
A loan must have been incurred in May/
May must have made them pledge as
The banyan tree in the fields
Abode of birds
I get very sad in May
-Prabhat in Jharati Dhool
The rabi crop has been harvested. The season to plant kharif is yet to begin. Eyes wait anxiously for the monsoon – a dry spell means the death of dreams, just as floods from heavy rainfall can wash away plans for the son’s higher education, the daughter’s overdue wedding, the mother’s long awaited treatment in the city hospital, or the longing to buy a silver necklace or a new bicycle for oneself if there is something left to spare.
May is the month of extreme anxiety in much of Southasia. The poignant sadness of poet Prabhat uses images from Ganga plains, but the melancholy elsewhere in the vast hinterland of Southasia is no different in May. In a month when well-off parents from metropolitan centres fly out to USA to attend graduation ceremonies of their offspring, there is nail-biting suspense among the middle-class – what does the future hold for the multitude of school dropouts?
Talking is the time-tested way to overcome anxiety. So rural Southasians used to talk even more, and louder, in the month of May. Under the mango tree near the village pond in the Hindi heartland, along the banks of backwaters in peninsular India, in the shade of the banyan tree along bharia trails in the hills and mountains, near the community well in the Deccan, and under the stars in the vicinity of the Thar, Southasians have talked for centuries to lessen their restlessness at this time of year.
But today they talk less and less. These days they listen – sometimes in groups, but mostly alone in their reverie with the idols of the small screen. Like elsewhere in the world, television has transformed our communication patterns like no other invention in human history. In the empires of competing channels, people are not even ‘clients’ any more; whether in the city tenement or the village haveli, they are but consuming objects to be mobilised for yet more consumption.
Purity of means
Angst and anxiety abound everywhere in Southasia, but rays of hope remain as elusive as ever as May gives way to June and a delayed monsoon in the north. According to the images flashed by world media, as handmaiden of the neocons, the war on terror is succeeding. But Osama bin Laden has neither been smoked out nor captured ‘dead or alive’. Afghanistan remains an US colony administered by its chosen nominees. Hamid Karzai may claim to be elected, but his writ does not run even within the ruins of Kabul. Not for nothing is it said that colonialism dehumanises colonisers and the colonised alike, and so Afghan inmates are tormented in makeshift prisons by guards driven to cruelty by boredom.
The wounds inflicted upon the Afghans by the Russians, the Taliban, and the Americans will all heal, but the scars will remain to haunt human civilisation in the centuries to come. One might even try and restore the massive Buddhas of Bamiyan, but how do you keep the scarred landscape of Tora Bora from tormenting generations of Afghans. When Karzai went to Washington at the end of May to beg for a measure of control on the movement of armed forces, he was firmly put in his place by his sponsors. Now some 16,700 US troops will remain stationed in Afghanistan for an indefinite period ostensibly at the invitation of an “elected leader” of that country.
With a wink from Washington, the strongman-in-charge in Islamabad continues to run his country like a medieval fiefdom. General Musharraf has not learnt any lesson from the debacle of religious extremism on his Western front. While mouthing platitudes to ‘enlightened moderation’ in public, the military and the mullahs of Pakistan regularly act in concert to let Islamic fundamentalism grow unchecked. Ironically, the continuing expansion of religious extremism is used as an excuse by the American patrons to continue support for their man in Islamabad. Things don’t get more incongruous than that.
A little to the east, in New Delhi, premier Manmohan Singh celebrated the completion of an year in office with very little fanfare in May. According to his own admission, Manmohan has been barely a 60 percent prime minister at a time when even a 100 percent head of government would have been too little to dismantle the saffron edifice erected by Bhartiya Janata Party’s years in power. Communalisation of Indian society has reached such a stage that bomb blasts rocked its capital on something as flimsy as the name of a Hindi movie. It beats logic why the Indian intelligentsia take exception to riots caused by the desecration of the Holy Koran; Hindu holy-men tend to take to the streets for much milder offences and self-appointed guardians of Sikhism spot misdemeanour in innocent and imaginary portrayals on the screen.
The drama enacted in Bihar was even more disgraceful. Apparently on the instigation of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Vidhan Sabha that had remained in suspended animation from the day it was formed was suddenly dissolved, foreclosing all possibilities of a popular government for quite a while. The manner in which this deed was done and president’s rule introduced – in stealth and hurry, getting the dissolution order approved from the president’s hotel suite in Moscow — doesn’t do any credit to the democratic claims of the ruling coalition in New Delhi. Granted that the step has succeeded in stalling a communal coalition from emerging in Bihar, M K Gandhi did have a point in stressing the importance of purity of means. The short-term gains for secular forces may shore up the electoral fortunes of Hindutva elements in future elections.
Meanwhile, the opportunistic intelligentsia of the Padma delta has meekly surrendered itself to the oligarchs that run the affairs of their state. In the name of fighting extremism, the paramilitary forces of Bangladesh perpetrate excesses that go largely unreported in the Dhaka press in the name of “national interest”. It is amazing that a country as culturally secure as Bangladesh needs to keep fanning the fears of Indian hegemony in order to exert its separate identity.
In the Island of Serendipity, dreams of peaceful cohabitation between the four religious communities of the land remain as distant as ever. Unity of purpose between the LTTE and the government machinery to rebuild areas devastated by the tsunami has begun to unravel. Fortunately, the truce between the two antagonists still holds despite repeated attempts at sabotage by disgruntled elements on both sides. Unless tangible progress is made in the creation of sustainable and just peace, the risk of unpredictable violence will persist.
On the margins
It was in May of 2003 that the Burmese junta detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who turned 60 on 19 June this year, with very little fanfare from the politically conscious of the world. The fact is that, as in the case of the Dalai Lama or the Bhutanese refugees, the western powers make a show of empathy but the real need for change lies closer to home. Not only appeals, but even sanctions from the West seem to have failed to have an impact upon the Rangoon junta. Unless China and India take joint initiatives to persuade Rangoon, chances of restoration of civilian regime in Burma will remain bleak. India, at least, would like to move closer to the junta, as it eyes the natural gas fields off the Arakhan coast. The more the Indian economy needs the gas, the bleaker the chances of Aung San getting support from New Delhi’s realpolitikos. There comes a point at which internal efforts are insufficient to dislodge a determined authoritarian regime and outside intervention becomes necessary. Burma seemed to have reached that stage long ago, but no intervention has appeared on the horizon and it will be a long time before the military regime begins to crumble from within.
Democracy in Nepal, however, isn’t yet beyond redemption. King Gyanendra’s courtiers continue to loudly proclaim that there has to be “peace and development” before democracy, but his ‘subjects’ do not have faith in the regime’s capacity of delivering either—not in a hundred days as promised by the king to the American ambassador, and not in three years as proclaimed by the king on 1 February. Indeed, peace and development will not arrive unless governance is handed over to the democratic forces as represented by the political parties, which are today working according to a common programme of peaceful challenge to the royal takeover. The progress of the parties’ challenge to the royal palace will depend upon the attitude of the ostrich-like middle-class of Kathmandu Valley, which prefers to believe what the palace propagandists say rather than what stares them in the face.
Aung San would understand: Tibetan civilisation is on the verge of becoming a footnote in the history books as the Han demographic and economic muscle strangles this ancient land. Meanwhile, multiplicities of forces struggling for the freedom of Tibet are keeping themselves busy without doing anything substantial. Dharamshala’s government in exile is more marginalised than ever before, willing to bask in the glow of overseas adulation while quite unwilling to take risks with China. The Dalai Lama’s advisors would do well to understand the implications of the fact that Sino-Indian trade has nearly doubled from USD 7.5 billion in 2003 to USD 13.5 billion in 2004. The lights of Potala Palace will fade away even from memory if the Dalai Lama does not decide on a return to the valley of the Kvu Chu.
Bhutan, the kingdom propagating the concept of Gross National Happiness, has placed that unscientific, feel-good concept into its draft constitution. The hundred thousand-plus citizens that King Jigme Singye Wangchuk evicted from the hills of Druk Yul are spending their fifteenth summer in the sweltering plains of Nepal’s Jhapa and Morang. The monsoon rains, when they arrive, will provide some respite, but then it will be humid beyond words in the camps of Timai, Goldhap, Beldangi, Sanischare and Khudunabari. King Jigme may want to check the thermometer outside His Majesty’s patio: when it is 17 degrees in Thimphu, it is 42 degrees in the shade where his subject-refugees live. Still wanting to return, Your Majesty. And wanting to be singing in the rain.