An essay by Huck Gutman published in THE STATESMAN,
Kolkata, India, on January 19, 2002.
" LINKED IN A CIRCLE OF HUMANITY
January 19, 2002
Americans know little about
the current confrontation of
massed troops across the Line of Control, but then Americans in general know
little about either India or Pakistan. This should not be surprising. What
happens in distant places, places so important to those who live in them, is all
too often just a small hum - if that - on the very periphery of hearing, a faint
haze on the most distant limit of sight.
The world, for most
people, is what they see around them, not what takes
place 10 or 20,000 km away. Exacerbating this shortsightedness, Americans
operate out of what cultural historians call American exceptionalism. This is a
kindly term for the tendency of the American nation, since its first settlement
by Europeans, to see itself as a special place, blessed by God, a model to the
world. In 1630, voyaging across the Atlantic to settle America, John Winthrop
proclaimed the society established there would be "as a city on a hill, the eyes
of all people upon us". Prophecy or grandiosity? A less kind view of this
American self-absorption would call it unbridled egotism. Thus, as with people
all over the globe but to a larger degree, Americans ignore what takes place
beyond their national borders, unless what is happening affects them directly.
Or unless the occurrences reverberate symbolically, forcing Americans to
reconceptualise society or history and hence change the axes of their lives.
How little Americans know about south Asia can be dramatically indicated by a
minor event - minor to the speaker - which occurred recently. In a talk with
reporters at the White House, President George W Bush, speaking with his usual
repetitive incoherence, said of the current standoff between India and Pakistan,
"I don't believe the situation is defused yet, but I do believe there is a way
to do so, and we are working hard to convince both the Indians and Pakis there's
a way to deal with their problems without going to war." Did the President of
the United States mean to be derogatory in his usage of the term "Pakis"? I very
much doubt it. What he revealed was his ignorance, his almost total lack of
awareness of the difficulties so often encountered by inhabitants of the
sub-continent when they interact with residents of former colonial powers.
"Pakis", like "wogs", is a term of derogation and insult. But Mr Bush hardly
knew of what he spoke.
Unhappily, writ large,
the President's ignorance is the nation's. Yet there
he was, even though ignorant, trying to come to terms with the events that have
taken place with great speed in south Asia. Surprisingly, it was not an exercise
in American hegemony which led Mr Bush to try to address the complex issues
which have brought masses of Indian and Pakistani troops to face off against
each other in Kashmir. What, if not America's imperial ambitions, can explain Mr
Bush's concern with events in Kashmir? To Americans, so often ignorant of and
blind to the rich complexity of the south Asian sub-continent, the events which
followed the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on 13 December have the
capacity both to affect them directly, and to alter the way in which they and
others will henceforward view the world.
Reality and symbol:
both may be unalterably changed by the course of action
taken by India and Pakistan in coming weeks. It will come as no surprise that in
past decades, terrorism on the sub-continent has not been of concern to the
American government or the vast majority of the American people. Even following
the events of 11 September, it cannot be said that the attack in New Delhi has
deeply affected the Americans, nor has their new understanding of Afghanistan
created a hunger to understand the history of Kashmir.
Terrorism is bad, true,
and Americans now oppose it everywhere, but ....India
and Pakistan are very far away, and concerns about Kashmir do not register with
Although the American
government said it wants to root out terrorists
everywhere, what it meant - meanings differing from the literal denotation of
sentences - was that it was implacably opposed to all terrorism directed toward
the United States. And possibly toward some of its closer western European
allies. It is American exceptionalism, American self-centredness, all over
again. What America sees when it looks at India and Pakistan today is a nasty
disagreement between two nuclear powers, a disagreement that could easily slide
into armed conflict. And this conflict, in the view of not just American but
many nations, is one that could slide further: into a war in which nuclear
weapons are deployed, and used.
Readers of this report
will understand many things that are hidden from the
Americans, realities so well known to you that you take them for granted.
Americans do not understand the place of religious difference in this
disagreement, neither in Kashmir nor in the prickly relations between the two
Almost no American
can feel the weight of lived history that shapes the ideas
and passions of those in places so far from Detroit and Atlanta and Seattle.
Americans have no conception of the importance of the Moghul dynasties, the
British imperium, the British exploitation of the issue of partition, in the
shaping of the sub-continent. What readers of this newspaper take for common
knowledge and feel as part of the heft of current events - the significance of
Gandhi and Jinnah, the role in Kashmir's destiny of Maharaja Hari Singh and Lord
Mountbatten, the past wars between the two nations, the former regimes of
General Zia-ul-Haq and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the creation of Bangladesh,
the seemingly endless migrations which continue even to the present moment - is
neither known nor felt by foreign observers.
Americans do not know
how to weigh, in the affair of Kashmir, the competing
claims of autonomy and sovereignty, of liberation and continuity, of indigenous
struggle and foreign intervention, of self-determination and national integrity.
What Americans do know, along with Europeans and Africans, South Americans and
Asians, is that the storm clouds of nuclear war have appeared on the world's
horizon. They know that there is great anger in both India and Pakistan, anger
fuelled in good measure by religious fundamentalism.
The world knows about
religious fundamentalism, for it displays its narrow
righteousness globally, consistent (regardless of which religion is being
fundamentalist) in its ubiquitous assertion of what, in the American vernacular,
is called "my way or the highway". America, too, knows about fundamentalism, and
not solely because of the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September:
Christian fundamentalism is a major force in American politics. From vitriolic
opposition to abortion to a backlash against women, from the election of
President Bush (inconceivable without the support of the Christian Right-wing)
to lack of support for the UN, the not-so-secret hand of the Christian
fundamentalist marks all of American politics.
Based on their understanding
of how implacable can be those who are convinced
that they have God on their side, combined with their understanding (underlined
in recent months) of how strong a motivating force is national pride, thoughtful
Americans can foresee that the course of affairs in Kashmir might tragically
slip into nuclear war. In the middle of the 19th century, American philosopher
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a great essay about circles. His dominant image was of
a stone dropped into a pond: circular ripples appear, and they spread outward,
outward, outward. He was writing about ideas, about how they circulate, about
how growth and expansion is a natural law, true not only for ripples in ponds
but for human culture. But there is another kind of circle, the nuclear circle.
If Pakistan or India,
Pakistan and India, resort to detonating nuclear
weapons or blowing up nuclear reactors, hundreds of thousands will die. Tens of
millions will be maimed by radiation, either immediately as a consequence of
radioactive fallout. (The victims of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, a
smaller event than war might unleash, lived in a broad swath of central Europe,
and not just the city in which the reactor was located.) Hundreds of millions
will be at future risk, not just on the sub-continent but all over the globe, as
radioactive clouds enter the jetstream. We can look forward to decades of
deformed babies, to decades when cancers increase, to decades when food is
either contaminated or the land on which it was produced is taken out of
Worse - can there be
worse? - the prohibition which has held since Nagasaki
is in danger of unravelling. "Mutually assured destruction", as savage a threat
as there ever has been, has somehow constrained nations from first use of
nuclear weapons for over five decades.
But once the nuclear
prohibition is breached, once a nation in the
post-nuclear world decides to deploy atomic bombs, it will become much easier
for the next nation, or terrorist group, to use nuclear devices. The words of
Louis XV of France seem eerily appropriate in this context: Apres moi, le
deluge. So there is good reason for America, and Americans, to be concerned.
What is taking place in south Asia, what may transpire if tensions are not
relaxed, is fearsome. We are, even if we don't always realise how urgently, in
this together. If the conflict between Pakistan and India expands, especially if
it goes nuclear, the human world will pay the price. And the natural world, as
well. A savage destruction looms, not as a certainty but as a possibility.
Obtuse as they often are, Americans know this. And so there are daily reports on
the stand-off across the Line of Control, on the statements of President Pervez
Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, on India's demands and
Pakistan's responses. It is not the place for Americans, with their national
obtuseness and their leaders' obstinate egotism, to tell the nations of the
sub-continent what to do. But they can always urge prudence, moderation, and the
necessity of dialogue.
All are human responses
that have proved useful in crisis after crisis. And
they can recite a lesson they would do well to learn themselves, as a nation: it
is not just one nation's interest that is at stake, or two, but the fate of the
entire world. For we are all linked together, no matter how great the distance
between our homes in kilometres or language or customs.
Sharing the rounded
globe, we are linked in a circle of humanity, The great
Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai understood circles, too. His poem, "The Diameter of
the Bomb," has much to tell us about destruction and its widest circles:
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won't even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
a circle with no end and no God.
Huck Gutman is Professor of English at the University of Vermont, and co-author with US Representative Bernard Sanders of Outsider in the House (Verso). He is a regular contributor to both The Statesman in Kolkata and Dawn in Karachi.