By Mitali Chakravarty
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
— Four Quartet, Burnt Norton, TS Eliot.
Each year, each day, each hour, the world changes. The time that is past will never come back to us. It remains embedded in history and in fossils. We stay with the present and learn from the world around us – even though our blood and bones bear the stamp of billions of years of evolution recorded in history.
Afghanistan is a country deeply embedded with a major role in history. This August, it was again occupied by the Taliban. The past had warned us to be vary of the professions made by men who had annihilated a world heritage that had flourished in peace for many hundred years, an exquisite product propounding the best of the co-mingling of various cultures – of Buddhist and Gupta art, of Sassanid and Byzantian influences. The statue was constructed around 600 CE – before differences were etched out hard and fast. The differences were drawn in the garb of ‘isms’. The ultimate destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha came in 2001.
In 2021, on the day India celebrated her independence from colonials (1947), the Taliban rode into Kabul unopposed. Some of the media have declared, they might be the voice of the people. The ‘women in mini skirts’ who resided in Kabul were a minority. However, when we read Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) or The Kite Runner (2003) we get a different feel. These were written by an Afghan writer who had had first-hand experience of the regime when he had gone back to his country. One could argue it is two decades later and the world has changed. Has it? Does history repeat itself or have we learnt from “time past”? A recent response of a doctor who was sixteen years in Afghanistan makes me wonder. He said in a recent interview:
When the Taliban or Al-Qaeda come to a village, they are armed and they threaten the Afghan villager, who is likely a farmer.
The Afghan villager submits to the group to survive. If I were there, I would submit too, if not, I could be shot and killed.
So, some Afghans may join out of self-preservation and many other reasons, not because they subscribe to the Taliban or Al-Qaeda’s ideology.
When such militia groups arrive at and control the village, the U.S.-NATO coalition identifies the village as a potential target, simply because of the Taliban’s presence, even though the villagers do not support the Taliban’s ideology.
And so the coalition may come to the village, and they could decide to attack or bomb it. In wars, most people who are killed are civilians.
These casualties are the product of a binary, absolutist worldview, of one party perceiving themselves as the correct and good guys and the other party as the wrong and bad guys. Both the U.S. and the Taliban subscribe to this simplistic binary view, seeing each other as the “evil” party.
In the end, it is the Afghan civilians who are caught in the middle of their clash.
I remember reading Three Cups of Tea (2007, co-authored with journalist David Oliver Relin) by Greg Mortenson who had been in Afghanistan among the villagers. Mortenson came back with a story of how the villagers needed education. That is the same story given by the doctor who served sixteen years in Afghan villages and learnt to speak their local dialect, Dari.
On the other side of the Indian subcontinent lies Myanmar, another country with a history that is difficult to fathom. Jessica Mudditt, a journalist who lived eight years in Yangon, published her memoir this year, Our Home in Myanmar. It depicts a country torn by injustices, hatred, and bigotry. In a country, that worships Buddha that seems strange. The fact that this movement should be spearheaded by a Buddhist monk seems even more of an oxymoron – for Buddha we all know was all for peace, harmony, and love.
Orwell’s book, Burmese Days, published first in 1934 prior to the partition of Burma from the Indian sub-continent in 1937, paints us a country under the colonials. Orwell, who served under the Raj in Burma, severely critiqued the colonial stand but all the same he wrote in his novel: “The heat rolled from the earth like the breath of an oven. The flowers, oppressive to the eyes, blazed with not a petal stirring, in a debauch of sun. The glare sent wariness through one’s bones. There was something horrible in it – horrible to think of that blue, blinding sky, stretching on and on over Burma and India, over Siam, Cambodia, and China, cloudless and interminable.”
The description of Rangoon that has been given by an article on Orwell’s stint in Burma, says, “Rangoon in the 1920s enjoyed a higher standard of living than neighbouring India. Surpassing New York as the busiest immigrant port in the world Rangoon had a growing economy resourcing labour and professional skills from the subcontinent. But Indians weren’t the only immigrants. Chinese mingled alongside European and even Latin Americans…” But just as Kabul has been seen as an artificial bubble of liberals, the impenetrable distance with the “natives” persisted as depicted in his novel.
And what did Orwell think of the country in real life? Orwell described Mandalay with these words: “It is dusty and intolerable hot and it said to have five main products that begin with P, namely pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests, and prostitutes.”
In Burmese Days, protagonist John Flory did not seem to have been too kind to the indigenous either though he does befriend some of them. The politics of the local Burmese officer who wants to ‘destroy’ the Indian doctor and succeeds in doing so at the end, echoes the experience of Mudditt. Mudditt gives us first-hand real-life stories on how the Burmese hate Indians, Muslims and Rohingyas. She has said that the reason for it, as Orwell has shown to an extent, goes back to the fact that colonials brought in Indians to form the backbone of the administrative system. Now, she claims the situation is such that if they see a dark-skinned person or a Muslim, they turn abusive because they are identified with Rohingyas! Mudditt also gives us the stance of the Nobel peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi who headed the country till the February takeover of the government by the military junta. Evidently, she clubs the Rakhine as ‘Bengali’ and turns her face away from them despite international media glare, losing her position as a favourite pioneer for modernity in Myanmar. A striking fact to note is that though the Burmans form the majority the population (68%), there are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar, one of them being Rohingyas of Rakhine, formerly known as Arkan. Ain-ee-Akbari mentions the residents of Arkan. The second volume of Ain-ee-Akbari, a manifesto written in Persian around 1590, and later translated to English, gives out:
To, the south east of Bengal is a large country called Arkung (or Aracan) to which the Bunder (or port) of Chittagong properly belongs. Here are plenty of elephants, but great scarcity of horses, also camels and asses are very high priced: neither cows nor buffaloes are found in this country, but there are animals of a middle species between those, whose milk the people drink, they are pied and of various colours. Their religion has no kind of agreement either with the Mahommedan or Hindoo. Twin brothers and sisters may intermarry, and only mother and son are prohibited from it. They pay implicit obedience to the will of their priests, whom they file Wallee. When the prince holds a court, the soldiers wives attend, whilst their husbands remain in their houses. The complexion of these people is dark; and the men are beardless.
Were these people all of the same race because they mention ‘various’ skin colours? Did at some point all the ethnicities live in peace?
Stories given out by people sometimes vary from what some others perceive as facts. Our Cambodian guide in Angkor Wat gave out that Buddhists had destroyed the heads of the statues of the Hindu gods we saw at the famed twelfth century temple in Siem Reap. When I googled, I did find reports online that these heads were sold for money and to showcase Cambodian art in foreign museums. RC Majumdar, a historian from India who did not tow the Nehruvian view of history, had said, “I have not hesitated to speak out the truth, even if it is in conflict with views cherished and propagated by distinguished political leaders.” Perhaps, we need a new RC Majumdar to sort this out. Perhaps, our perception of people gets coloured by our own cultural experiences.
Myanmar has borders with four Indian states. A village in Nagaland stretches out between Burma and India, the Longwa village. In an interview, the chief of Longwa told BBC in Bengali, “I eat in Burma and sleep in India.” He further elaborates, “The kingdom was founded in 15th century and this palace is over hundred years old. The border was built in 1971.”
What a wonderful thing to say that the borders drawn are merely an incident of time as opposed to those in power who continue to harp on divisions enforced by the colonials! I wonder how he would react to Aung San Suu Kyi’s approach to the Rohingyas? Looking at responses of the international community to the Rohingya displacement from their home grounds, I wonder what will happen when three decades down the line we have climate refugees from all over the world? And now, we have refugees from Afghanistan too. On the last day of August, Taliban celebrated the departure of the last of all American presence. Reports of closed banks that have been non-functional since their occupation of Kabul from August 15th, and women being beaten as the official rulers declared the complete withdrawal of American troops to be a “historic moment”, the moment when Afghanistan had gained “full independence” are available online.
While we close our non-interfering eyes to what happens within any single country as it is an ‘internal’ matter, what will happen to the future of those who today do not have the respite to see the pandemic or climate change as their biggest threats? And this is not because they are obtuse, but because the conditions they live in make these issues that are huge for us, seem minor to them. They are all on the other side of the divide – the same divide that creates different worlds among neighbours.
However, there is perhaps still some hope. The stirring of consciousness for resolving the plight of people has started to an extent as seen in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics that hosted the Refugee team. We just have to do what Hans Rosling suggested in 2016: “But first you need to erase preconceived ideas and that is the difficult thing.”
Mitali Chakravarty writes in quest of harmony and in that spirit founded the Borderless Journal.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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