Touchstones

Afghan riddle

Afghan riddle

Photo for representation only.

Ira Pande

What a rotten calendar of events we’ve had so far: a raging pandemic, the high death toll, a collapsing healthcare system, vaccine shortages, unprecedented natural disasters… the list is endless. Yet, look around you and the scene in our country is no better than in any other part of the world. Europe, the Americas and the Middle East, to say nothing of our own Asian subcontinent and now Australia and the two polar regions as well, are all battling crises that have left them devastated. Even China is reeling under floods and burst dams brought on by messing up nature.

There has to be a larger picture that we are all missing: all these disasters are not just acts of God, they are man-made and should shake us out of our complacency to discover what we have done wrong and must now remedy. What I can come up with is that at the core of most problems is man’s hubris in assuming that he is the centre of the world. Gandhiji was spot-on when he said the earth had enough to satisfy man’s needs, but not human greed.

Enough has been written by greater thinkers on such subjects so I can add little more. What has somehow got buried in recent events such as Pegasus and the Punjab and Karnataka soap operas is what is happening in a region not far from home. More than a century after Rudyard Kipling wrote about the Great Game being played between England and Russia, we are back to square one and nothing seems to have changed at all. Neither the imperial mindset of the western powers, nor the tribal notions of honour and loyalty. Since the 1980s, Afghanistan has become the nemesis of Russia, America and Europe and no matter how cruel and violent the Taliban are, they have managed to set the clock according to their time.

If only rulers and politicians read history before they formulated their foreign policies! The three Afghan Wars, fought between 1839 and 1919, were a mirror image of what has happened in Afghanistan since 1979, when the Soviets began creating small Maoist groups to take on the tribal lords. The bloody nose dealt to the Soviets and to the American and UN troops since then has come full circle, with the Americans leaving Afghanistan and running away to the safety of their middle-class lives. What did all these so-called superpowers achieve, one is tempted to ask. They have left a bitterly divided society, terrified of the Taliban with no human rights at all. Their women, children and young men live in hourly dread of being abducted, raped or killed. Their schools are shut, their lands ravaged by minefields and broken waterways and the once beautiful orchards of Kabul and Kandahar are now gone. In a land-locked country, the only means of survival is farming and animal husbandry and now even that is not an option. The images of starving children, weeping widows and ruined villages, to say nothing of the sub-human condition of the refugee camps, should shame us all.

And yet, this is not the first time the so-called civilising efforts of the great powers have birthed a savage society. Much of Africa, looted and divided by European imperialists, is now in the hands of the Boko Haram and other such medieval warlords. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, are all ruins of human hubris and imperial ambitions. History buffs may recall the name of one Sir Charles Napier, who was sent by Lord Dalhousie to the NWFP to annex and subjugate the tribal lords almost a century ago. Napier’s famous dispatch after he annexed Sindh was a one-word message: ‘Peccavi’. This was a pun on a Latin word, a state of atonement meaning ‘I have sinned’. It was not just a clever play of words. It was also a realisation that slowly dawned when he reflected on what the British annexation of a hostile tribal area, set in a harsh mountainous country, would mean for the future of the Empire and, most crucially, for its hapless citizens. History buffs will also recall that the First Anglo-Afghan War was also known by the British as the Disaster in Afghanistan.

In his posthumously published ‘Defects, Civil and Military of the Indian Government’ (1853), Napier detected and condemned the growing superciliousness of the English in India towards the Indians: ‘The younger race of Europeans keep aloof from Native officers… How different this from the spirit which actuated the old men of Indian renown,’ he wrote. ‘The Eastern intellect is great, and supported by amiable feelings,’ he added, ‘and the Native officers have a full share of Eastern daring, genius and ambition; but to nourish these qualities, they must be placed on a par with European officers.’

When the Sepoy Mutiny broke out in 1857, Napier’s ‘Defects’ was hailed as a prophetic work. Modern-day imperialists (and petty politicians too) must understand that it is time to study the past in order to build a better future.

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