[Reader-list] Recognising the Other...

abir bazaz abirbazaz at rediffmail.com
Wed Dec 5 23:18:39 IST 2001


Recognising the Other
By Manash Bhattacharjee

But the other refuses to disappear... 
he is the hard bone on which reason 
breaks its teeth 

     - Antonio Machado 

WHAT made our eyes go wide and our mind go dark as we watched the World Trade Centre being hit must have been this: one human object, a civilian aircraft, crashing into another human object, a building with people at work. The shock of the image lies in how our straightforward distinction between warring and peaceful objects got erased. The sight transformed our conventional notions of the signifier and the signified, and violently collapsed our sense of distinguishing zones of terror from zones of peace. By this it also opened up a new awareness: that these zones are no longer separate. The fact that the privilege which had enabled such an innocent distinction needed such a tragic event to wake up to the shifting terrain of violence merely reveals how people should now live under a certain political awareness. This awareness has to do primarily with trying to engage in the ``causes'' which lie behind these violent episodes in order to not remain an ignorant victim of the meaning of its ``effects''. Like it or not, the structured fantasy of our political and social knowledge has been destabilised by reality. 

If there is anything positive to be drawn from the events of September 11, it is the fact that we can no longer depend on the cushions of our indifference to the nature of power and the way it plays in different ways with the plights of people in the world. Milan Kundera had warned that the ``unity of mankind means: no escape for anyone anywhere''. Our plights have got intricately entwined. It's time now to wake up to the political battles being waged across the world and know which side has what at stake. We cannot let any argument justify the way countries play with the fate of other countries by indulging in proxy wars. In Afghanistan we know how the Russians, the Pakistanis and the Indians have their hands a
today for Afghanistan, has also given nothing to the country except slogans of solidarity. So let no one take any superior moral postures here. 

On the one hand we have the U.S. government trying to come to terms with the guilt of their own support for the Taliban and the havoc that was played on America's symbolic and human essence as an ironical result of it, which of course includes other issues. It then responded with the only language it always finds at its disposal: a hegemonic diplomatic and military threat coupled with a bemused critique of the terrorist forces, not knowing exactly from where and why they came, and hiding what they know, as it would open up the list of American crimes. On the other hand, the strong fundamentalist Islamic upsurge of the Sunni kind has given rise to complex cultural phenomena. It's interesting how various factors have coincided with the coming of the new avatar of the prophet as warrior-god (though it should be pointed out that such potential gods have the possibility of emerging in any society and from any religion once religious intolerance is allowed to breed at the subterranean level) 

``In every man there sleeps a prophet'' warned Cioran, ``and the moment he is awake there is a little more evil in this world''. Being the leader of a Sunni brand of fanaticism, Osama is not a clerical leader as generally happens in the case of a Shiite upsurgence. He is a more complex, politico-cultural symbol of a modern Sunni resurgence. He is the corrupt glorification of the demagogue and the tyrant rolled into the figure of a saviour of religious orthodoxy and the hatred of the other (as if the only goal and fate of religious unity and pride is a war against the other). For Osama and his supporters, the U.S. did not merely represent the modern hegemonic power, which exploits out of economic and political interests. The U.S., in the language of Islamic fundamentalism, became the enemy of Islamic prestige and power. They changed the nature of the enemy by medievalising the concep
meaning of the U.S. in a way that it became the demon of the delirious language of fanaticism. 

But Salman Rushdie is erroneously worried about the terrorists' alleged attack on Western political and cultural values which he thinks are at threat. The West has reached democracy out of the struggles of its own history and it cannot be threatened as a value from outside by anyone. So that is not the issue. The issue is how the U.S., out of self-interest, treated the Taliban like their guinea pigs and how they turned out to be, in a slightly bizarre comparison, like the pigs of George Orwell's Animal Farm. This blindness and ignorance towards solving national concerns with instrumentalist methods, where even the true nature of the other in all its dimensions is not perceived, shows the crisis of modern democracies in their failure to understand the accumulative and indifferent spirit of their selves and their relationship with others. 

The U.S. as a result, through the transformed meaning given by religious fanaticism, became a meta-historical enemy of the faithful. The Osama phenomenon is symbolic of the language of resurrection which is archaic and modern at the same time in that it interrupts the present with its buried, repressed language of a religious mythology poised against the rationalistic language of democracy. By this it puts the modern discourse of rationality versus irrationality upside down. Unless our moderns understand this archaic language and engage with it through conceptual tools which would include the other, repressed side of their own modernity, we would keep becoming victims of this wound at the heart of our modern self consciousness and its presence would remain a hole in the dialectic. 

To go back to what can be called a neo-Islamic fundamentalism (like neo-Hindu fundamentalism), it is not simply a reaction against modernisation, but a by-product of it. It's a desperate attempt to intervene the frustrations of the modern self faced with mongrelism, with the aura of buried demons as
nd rooted identity as a source of power. Just as terrorism is not a (conceptual) critique of the decadence and hegemony of the modern state but one of its symptoms. As by-products, these movements carry a double-construct: on the one hand they seem to be based on movements which speak in the name of modern values like rights but, on the other hand, they speak in the language of an invented solidarity of a common past. But in this they echo the language of all nationalist struggles. The past is very important for any movement, which culturally distances itself against the ideology and the power they are contesting.Prof. Dipankar Gupta completely misses the point when he says in a recent article that moderns are not interested in the past nor should they be and that the anti-moderns are obsessed about the past and will always make the modern lose ground if they argue on that terrain. "The struggle of man against power" wrote Milan Kundera, "is the struggle of memory against forgetting". Forgetting is as pathological as memory. What needs to be understood and constantly reaffirmed is the question of ethics in all inventions. It's the only way to bridge the gap between morality and history. As Walter Benjamin has put it, "To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past — which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments''. But this is impossible until the relationship with the other is solved. How to describe and understand the self with regard to the other? How to conceptualise and ethically formulate the relationship with the other in history (and in some measure against history)? 

In India we have seen this refusal to face the other in one's own history being repeatedly paid with blood. Octavio Paz uttered a truism when he said that "India as a country and as a history is much greater than Hinduism". Nehru too was alive to the wisdom that culturally Hindus and Muslims in India belonged to one common cultural heritage. I feel that to say Muslims are
f a greater achievement historically by the Muslims as they belonged to the ruling class till the British appeared on the scene and so the effort was against the power equation and was based on a spirit which gave roots to movements like the Sufi. We have our own intimate relationship with Islam and our Muslims. So we should never fall into the trap of the current Western discourse, which would like to tell us about our own other. The West has itself been unable to sort out the relationship with its own, repressed others and with the others belonging to different cultures of the world. We cannot hence make the mistake of seeing Islam through Western eyes. Every relationship is specific and has a specific history. The nature of the crisis between the West and Islam is not our crisis. 

It's of course true that from the 18th Century onwards, our own intellectual understanding of Hinduism emerged from a dialogue with Western ideas. It is impossible, and I think undesirable, to deny that influence. It has helped us to add western knowledge as a part of our eclectic, cultural heritage. And no doubt we have gained a lot from the secular knowledge of Western civilisation. But we cannot understand the history of our civilisation and the relationship between the various cultures of India through Western ideas alone. On the other hand we cannot fall victims to pathological constructs of the wounds in those relationships. 

For example, partition is one such construct. In order to endorse the codes of religious hatred as operative during partition and create an exclusive meaning of independence, Hindu fundamentalism in India questions the role and identity of Muslims. In order to be an Indian, according to the logic of Hindu fundamentalism, the Muslim must derive his own definition from what the Hindu thinks of him. To strip the other of his right to attach meaning to his own self and derive his own definition from what the Hindu thinks of him. To strip the other of his right to attach meaning to his own self and derive
gh it, is to deny the basic condition of an ethical relationship. The more we deny the place of the Muslim in the very part of our historical self as our intimate other, the more we will fall into the trap of the language of the State. The State interrupts our dialogue with the other through its language of law and order. Its sub-text is the fetish of nationalism, the old suspicion between communities, the need for state secrecy and the importance of security over freedom. This is a circular plot. No wonder then that we are sentimental about Kashmir but not about Kashmiris. The fetishism of territory matters to us much more than the aspirations of the other. It's strange how some people feel they have more stakes in Kashmir than the people who live there. But isn't true that with the death of each Kashmiri we are losing the spirit of the land? (` "Where was he wounded?" You don't know/ if they mean a place in his body/ Or the place in the land' — Yehuda Amichai). Any indifference to the spilling of the blood of the other would be the spilling of the blood of our own self-denial. The Hindu fundamentalist movement in India is of one such denial. 

The way the U.S. has managed the Taliban issue is also the progression of the circular plot of State logic. But though the U.S. can destroy the enemy it cannot bury the ghosts. And the ghosts always return with a new language of vengeance. The circular plot of the State feeds the circular resurrection of historical enmities. We have to wake up to the ways of the State. It is in the political nature of terrorist groups to make their acts visible, create spectacles. By this, however, they make us aware of the tragedy of innocent human lives caught unjustifiable between the State and terrorist groups. We don't come to know of the stories of State terrors. Because governments act in an invisible manner. Whatever acts of violence they indulge in are carried out with the aim to hide, distort, legitimise and justify according to their own necessity. How long will we be indiffe
ort the way it ruthlessly creates the phantasm of security in our name as it acts out its megalomania on populations which face them? "How many more deaths will it take" as Neruda asked, " to say so many have died?" 

However, one has to be alert on the judgement against the terrorist elements which hijack popular movements even as they are always at threat from State forces. Violence in popular movements threatens to make them lose credibility. We cannot escape critical opinions about the methods of struggle. Somewhere the causal as well the ethical link which justifies popular movements in their agitation against the State gets disrupted. In any popular movement violence enters with its own secret and uncontrollable motives and agenda whose moral claims against repression cannot be trusted or supported. Or else, we would have stopped talking about Gandhi. We still, however, have to be bold enough to make distinctions between these terrorist groups and the popular movements which go on side by side as these are complex political situations and cannot be over-determined this way or that. 

After all, these are the most acutely contested and historically disputed issues which embarrass our fantasies of a peaceful co-existence supported by force. But these are issues which should make us ask the most evaded questions of our past, present and future. There is no escape for us. We have to learn to introduce new values to our consciousness through the ills of history, and never give up. 

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