Swans Commentary » swans.com September 7, 2009  



Hei Ram (Oh God!)
From India in Search of Diversity


by Martin Murie





(Swans - September 7, 2009)   In his longest letter, written from Delhi, India, on January 5, 2002, Tiziano Terzani expresses regrets and sadness about the ideological trends that pervade our modern world, offers a trenchant critique of warfare, and calls for the acceptance of diversity. Having a small, rustic home in the Himalayas, he opens the letter with this statement:

India is home. I've lived here for years. It's here that I keep my books, that I find the refuge a man seeks from the world's hustle and bustle. Here, as nowhere else, I get a sense of the senseless flowing of life. (1)

But he confesses that India is a disappointment. "Even India talks only of war, mobilizes troops and artillery and threatens to use its atomic bombs against Pakistan. . . . it happily wags its tail behind the American military bandwagon. . . . today a country just like any other. What a pity." The letter is a mean for Terzani to reflect on the subcontinent of Asia -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. Three wars have already been endured between India and Pakistan since the British colonialists drew the Durant line dividing Pakistan, mostly Muslim, from India, mostly Hindu. Gandhi opposed the partition with all his might, but lost his last battle for a peaceful union of Muslims and Hindus. The result was more death.

India, by committing itself unconditionally and unswervingly to fall in behind the might of America, perhaps in the hope of harnessing that might for its own purposes, has merely strengthened the US presence in the region, and definitively surrendered its stance of being distant and different from the groupings of others. It didn't need to.

India is a poor country, but it still has -- and it may well be the last in the world to do so -- its own strong, deep-rooted spiritual culture, which is able to withstand the materialistic wave of globalization that steamrollers over identity and everywhere engenders suffocating conformity. This was the moment when India could have sung the praises of diversity, when it could have reminded everyone that the world needs a coalition against poverty, exploitation, and intolerance much more than it does even a coalition against terror.

Well, our America has its own deep well of struggle against the almighty dollar too. Since the revolution against British colonialism, thirteen colonies, united finally in the campaign for union under the Constitution that produced ten Amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights. Patriots kept watering the Tree of Liberty -- of the people, by the people, and for the people. Today we are in the midst of a battle for single payer health care and an end to pointless wars of Empire.

Many people working for single payer or against wars won't quite admit that we are an empire and that war is the chosen means for maintaining that position. And no wonder! Our rulers are busy as bees feeding us the future: continuous wars to maintain our position as top dog, top bully. We citizens are slow as molasses in January in getting back to that adherence to the truly revolutionary tradition that lies there, hidden, unbroken, from the time Cornwallis surrendered to Washington and the band played "The World Turned Upside Down."

Terzani won't quite give up his dream of India awakening. Neither should we. Here, in the belly of the beast, the time for rebellion passed relatively peacefully during the Clinton years. Al Gore and Bill Clinton will be labeled by historians in the near future as The Great Compromisers. Proud they were, betraying their campaign rhetoric, including real health care. We lost our chance for determined opposition during those eight years. Timid policies paved the way for George the Second to move our nation further toward the tall cliffs. Those policies still prevail. Totally dumb pundit talk fills the complacent media in the midst of today's multiple crises: Unemployment, Homelessness, Sickness, Racism, War, Climate Change.

Terzani, in this Letter From Delhi, tells more stories about his adventures in Afghanistan. The letter is, among other things, a broad defense of diversity. Bad as the Taliban are, they are not robots. Just as the ranks of Donkeys in our own nation are ordinary citizens still hoping for real change, not realizing how drastic change has to be, Terzani defends the right of citizens of each nation to take care of their own differences.

What I'm trying to say is that a change in deep culture cannot be solved by "boots on the ground" backed by drones named Predator and Reaper that bomb on the basis of faulty "intelligence."

Terzani noticed that even after the Northern Alliance took over from the Taliban in the first months of the American invasion, he did not see a single woman not wearing a burqa, while in Florence, Italy, a major newspaper posted a headline reading, "In Kabul: high heels and lipstick." Afghanistan is still a thoroughly patriarchal nation, no matter who is in charge. Here is an example, written by reporter Jon Boone, on the August 2009, elections:

Most of the usually choked routes in and out of Kabul were almost empty, but on one baking, unpaved road in Kapsa province we came across a group of 10 men halfway through their two-hour walk to their nearest polling station in a distant village surrounded by uncleared minefields. "'We wouldn't have come if it was not a holiday today', said Mohamed Fasoul, who does back breaking work at the local gravel mines. Although they were just a few hours drive from the capital rural values ruled -- none of their wives or female family members would be voting, they said." (Source: Jon Boone, Commondreams.org, August 20, 2009.)

One of Terzani's remembrances from his days in Afghanistan.

The Taliban regime undoubtedly was arbitrary and repressive, but the Koranic students were hardly pathological assassins. They were the victims as well as the perpetrators of several massacres in the course of the civil war. For example, 3,000 Taliban were captured and killed at Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. They then did the same to 2,000 Hazaras in the same place a year later by way of retaliation. But unlike in Pol Pot's Cambodia, there were no killing fields in Mullah Omar's Afghanistan, no plans to wipe out part of the population, no attempt to create a "new man" by eliminating the old. The Taliban saw themselves as protectors of the people and as moralizers of Afghan life, which in their eyes had been polluted by a variety of foreign influences. It shouldn't be forgotten that their first public acts in Kandahar in 1994 were to execute a mujahideen leader guilty of abducting and raping two young women, and to hang another leader whose offence had been to "marry" a little boy he'd fallen in love with, festoon him with garlands and parade him round on a tank as if it had been a wedding carriage.

Terzani condemns as "absurd," Taliban prohibitions, such as flying kites because it took up time the children should have devoted to memorizing the Koran, or rules such as maintaining beards at the "Islamic" length, but adds that "their reasoning" was not unlike those in the West who are troubled by exposing their children to ridiculous sex and violence on TV.

Regardless of whether we go along completely with Terzani's evaluation of Taliban rule, we need to find his bottom line, a defense of diversity among nations, instead of mindless uniformity built by market ideologies and the realities they forge. We might look far back to colonial times for an analogy, the witch executions exacted by strict Puritan leaders, in their attempt to purify their society. It didn't work, but the Puritans held the power, just as today the profiteers hold power over us.

A life which, it is good to know, will be dominated by the perpetually unresolved conflict between modernity and tradition, or as Amanullah saw it, between knowledge and ignorance. Unfortunately this is also how the so-called international community sees it, believing it is knowledge come to drive out ignorance, civilization come to drive out savagery. But it isn't like that, and until we understand that the struggle going on in Afghanistan and other parts of the (especially Muslim) world is also a struggle for diversity, it will never go away.

Is diversity worth the trouble? Yes, and it can't be won by invading countries in the service of our Empire.

We are so ignorant of other peoples, even our own oppressed, homeless, unemployed citizens. Here's Christopher Dowd, writing on Antiwar.com:

Everything we read about Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran floats upon a sea of false premises and lies of omission and commission. Right now the American mainstream media is printing mountains of news stories and editorials and opinion pieces about the Afghanistan "elections." All of it is blather. All of it. This is an election where no political parties are allowed. This is an election for a government that does next to nothing but serve as a propaganda tool for an occupying army, an election where no one truly opposed to the U.S./NATO occupation is allowed to run. All the stories and opinion pieces on this election miss the plain, simple fact that this is an "election" being conducted under occupation and is seen by probably next to no one in Afghanistan, regardless of their politics or ideology, as legitimate. (Source: Christopher Dowd, Antiwar.com, August 19, 2009.)

I've been commenting on Terzani's Letters Against The War. This one from Delhi is the longest and well worth reading as a summing up of his spirited defense of diversity to counter the straitjacket of acquiescence and uniformity that we, in the service of the empire we are currently serving; an empire that is changing our planet to a diminished species homeland and monotonous uniformity. Also, Terzani writes from the heart. To me, his writings have been a refuge from unbelievably stupid TV, radio, and print "journalism."

We walked on a section of a very well built Roman road at the then margins of the Roman Empire, Wales. Since then I have often wondered about the feet of Legionnaires, packing shields and weapons, marching for miles on flat stones to settle another crisis on the borders. One of my infantry friends had bad feet, but he was determined to stay in the Tenth Mountain Infantry and he did. The final agony for him was to march across the Po Valley to the foothills of the Alps.

Tomorrow Alison and I go to the Saturday antiwar demo, with new signs, promoting Single Payer Health Care and an End to Endless Wars.




1.  Tiziano Terzani, Letters Against The War: Letter From Delhi: Hei Ram, 5 January, 2002. See Swans complete posting of "Letters Against The War," Swans.com, September 8, 2008 (republished June 1, 2009).  (back)


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Published September 7, 2009