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Sunday, December 2, 2001
Time Off

Good words, sinister connotations
Manohar Malgonkar

WORDS keep acquiring new meanings and shedding old ones. But never have they changed so drastically as in the last six weeks. Good words have become charged with sinister connotations; words in everyday use have acquired hitherto unknown meanings. What is terrorism? What is democracy?. They mean entirely different things to different people. There just are no agreed meanings — not any more.

For instance, I was quite taken aback to come across the C-word in a recent issue of Time magazine. It was in an article about a Swiss activist who had spent several years in the jungles of Borneo, doing his best to save whatever is still left of the country’s famed rain forest. His name is Bruno Manser, and he has recently disappeared ‘Without a trace’ after he had returned to Borneo "at the end of a personal crusade to help his adopted tribe" Time said.

How could they? I kept thinking; those layer upon layer of learned and highly paid editorial staffers have allowed that word to slip in? How had the system that ensures that every item that is printed in the magazines is filtered like high-quality vodka of all floating impurities?

Then I looked at the cover-page and everything fell into place. The date was September 3. Oh, a whole week and a day before the destruction of the World Trade Center and of a part of the Pentagon. At that time, of course, that word was quite harmless, and certainly not taboo. You could say things like crusade against organised crime or against poverty with impunity.

But no longer. Within a week of that ‘Black Tuesday’, it became a non-word. R.I.P.

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Inadvertently, as any of us might stamp on a living creature while out on a walk, President George W Bush killed it. He was a harried man, still reeling by the events of September 11, trying to keep his cool while playing God, almost incessantly under the camera’s eye, and bombarded by a relentless barrage of questions. He was heard to say something like: "This is a crusade — crusade against terrorism."

We all saw it on TV; for it was shown again and again. George W with his family and his dog in the process of getting out of a small airplane that had just landed, he guiding the ladies and doing his best not to step on his dog. There could be little thought in the minds of those in the vicinity that the crusade he had spoken of was against the sort of people who had perpetrated the horrors of September 11, and against no one else. Nevertheless, it caused offence to groups and communities living in distant places. There were protests and denunciations. Even before the day had ended the President’s advisors were hard at work doing what they could to minimise the damage, and soothe ruffled feathers. President Bush himself had to make time from his horrendously over-strained schedule to do some high-wire propitiation. As it happened, he was provided with a ready-made opportunity: the President of the world’s most populous Islamic nation, Indonesia, Megawatti Sukarnoputri, was on a visit to America. Bush took advantage of the occasion to clarify that what he had meant when he used that already taboo word was a campaign against terrorism, and not against the Muslim religion. After that, he showed up at a couple of gatherings of American Muslims to explain his stand further. "Islam means peace," he told them. And of course, no one went to war against peace, did they?.

Britain’s Tony Blair, the most charismatic head of state of any country in living memory and staunchest of American allies, pitched in to do his best to control the damage caused by the C-word. He, too, went out of his way to assure Britain’s volatile Muslim community, that the war that was being waged in Afghanistan, was against terrorism and not against any faith. He, too, stressed the fact that Islam, meant peace.

But some feathers remained ruffled. Why punish the poor Afghans for whatever Bin Laden is alleged to have done. And there were quite a few people, in Iraq, in Iran, in the Arab world who saw nothing wrong in what had been done on September 11. You say you’re waging war against terrorism. But then so is Osama bin Laden. What is terrorism to you is a war of vengeance to him. What is terrorism to the Israelis is not terrorism to the Palestinians, or, for that matter, what the Indians say is terrorism in Kashmir, is a war of liberation to Pakistan.

And was not America’s bombing of Afghanistan itself an act of international terrorism?

So a word such as terrorism must be defined by national interests, not by linguistic disciplines. Meanwhile the war in Afghanistan rages, as does the debate over the meaning of words, and it has opened up new fronts, as it were: brought into focus some crucial elements that had been hitherto sidelined and given us, common people, a startlingly different point of view from within Afghanistan itself.

What we knew of whatever was happening in Afghanistan was filtered for us by the world’s media manipulaters. They took care to downplay whatever was being done by the Northern Alliance and gave prominence to the doings of the Taliban, both good and bad. Now, in a startling shift of policy, they have begun to give fuller coverage to the doings of the Northern Alliance.

It transpires that it was this faction, and not the Taliban, who have all along been the ‘real’ government in Afghanistan in the sense that it is they who hold Afghanistan’s seat in the United Nations, and also run or at least own the country’s embassies in around 40 capital cities of the world. One embassy that still seems to be functioning, is that in London, and what its spokesman had to say in a BBC TV interview, projects a chilling scenario of what lies in store for the people of Afghanistan after the American campaign against world terrorism has ended, or at least finished its purpose on Afghan soil.

After the Taliban regime had been vanquished, the Northern Alliance wanted to settle scores with what the spokesman referred to as "Pakistani militia." Meaning yet another revenge war, this one against the creators of Taliban. And we have seen how, in the Islamic lands, the line between a revenge war and a jehad, is very thin indeed: Merely a matter of a bomb or a shell hitting a holy monument or a hospital. Two armies locked in combat can both profess to be engaged in jehads. Some Palestinian groups, some Kashmiri separatists are already fighting jehads or so they say.

Against this explosive background, the joint statement put out by America’s Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, at the end of his recent visit to Pakistan had both the authority and ambiguity of a Delphic pronouncement. Colin Powell has the personality of a born leader like that of Nelson Mandela, or the Dalai Lama, so that their most offhand remarks, such as the passing of the time, assume the gravity of a policy statement. What the General said was this: that both he and his host General Pervez Musharraf, were in agreement that any future Government in Afghanistan must represent the interests of the various tribes and also that it must be — I heard it quite clearly — democratic.

On the face of it, these are unexceptionable aims. It is just that, in the past, much of Afghanistan’s warfare has been caused by outside powers aiding and abetting one faction or the other. As such, Pakistan and America joining hands to determine Afghanistan’s future makes one wonder if there has been some hidden agenda behind the pronouncement. And that word ‘Democratic’. What kind of democracy? Such as the one in Pakistan today? In that case that word, too needs to be redefined.

Meanwhile, there is the Northern Alliance, and their opposite numbers, already busy planning how to settle past scores.

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This feature was published on November 4, 2001
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