June 8, 2002
|This original Podium article was re-printed as one of the cover stories of the July, 2002, edition of India Currents Magazine. A shorter version was later re-published at rabble.ca under the title, “Kashmir, Mon Amour”. The author retains rights to all versions.|
A million troops are amassed in Kashmir, with nuclear weapons at the ready. The top story of The Washington Post? The ongoing investigation into Chandra Levy’s murder. Indian and Pakistani soldiers exchange artillery fire across the Line of Control, killing hundreds and inching ever so closer to an atomic holocaust. The headline in US papers that day? Another car bombing in Israel. Here in the USA, the Kashmiri conflict is often the fourth or fifth ranked news item, usually after local politics and sports.
News editors have the unenviable task of prioritizing news items, reflecting –and some would say defining– society’s priorities, shaping and channeling our concern and moral outrage. A bombing in Israel and the murder of a young intern are tragic events, to be sure. But they pale in comparison to the global catastrophe to be wrought by a true nuclear war in Asia. There persists a sneaking suspicion that the ranking of the Kashmiri conflict beneath other news items reflects a subtle kind of racism.
This is not a conspiratorial or overt kind of racism, mind you. But rather an unconscious one bred from Western narcissism and our steady diet of stereotypes.
One could argue that a nation’s media should focus on those issues that are most relevant to that nation. Hence, it is assumed that matters concerning Israel, America’s favoured client state, are most pertinent to US interests, as are local crimes and scandals. But such an attitude is belied by both the truth of empire –that all armed international conflicts are necessarily germane to the sole superpower– and by the very fact of the subcontinent’s consuming relevance: complex deals and tensions with Russia, China and Iran make Kashmir a veritable trigger for world war. And let us not forget the spectre of mass death promised by an untethered Indo-Pak war, one to rival the Black Plague and dwarf the Nazi holocaust. Surely, such a threat deserves the attention of all civilized peoples on Earth and consistent front page coverage on America’s leading newspapers!
Yet the score of a basketball game seems to take precedence, while official commentary on the matter is infuriatingly naive and self-serving. On May 28th, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke addressed the press on the matter of the escalating tensions between the South Asian nuclear powers. Amazingly, her concern was not for the threat of horrible mass death or the probable de-stabilization of the region. Rather, her worry was that the crisis would mean Pakistan pulling troops from its Afghan border, hindering the US efforts to smoke out scattered Taliban hold-outs. This was despite the Pentagon’s own projections of 12-20 million casualties resulting from an Indo-Pakistani nuclear exchange. A potential South Asian holocaust is seen as simply an inconvenience to US interests: a narcissistic attitude that is reflected in US newspapers, and one that has seen steady escalation since the “War on Terror” was declared.
It is an attitude that perseveres largely without examination, as if the events of September 11 have allowed the US to draw a clear line between “us” and “them,” the distinction between the two groups being largely racial. The current climate seemingly justifies a denuding of the value of non-American and non-European life, lumping South Asians with Arabs, and both groups with something less than human.
How much of this attitude is based on prejudicial Western preconceptions about the subcontinent? A joke has already begun to circulate, alluding to the possibility of the nuclear exchange beginning on July 11, thus making it a “7-11” war, in mockery of the stereotype of South Asians as shopkeepers. We in the West are regaled with inaccurate images of the subcontinent as home to teeming brown-skinned masses crammed 20 to a room, subject to regular mass kill-offs resulting from riots, floods, famines and other disasters. The unspoken sentiment, fueled by these stereotypes, is that, “there are a billion of those people over there. What’s a few million less?”
Radio “shock-jock” Howard Stern –who is famed for his offensiveness, but whose ramblings are nevertheless indicative of the sentiment of the common American– commented recently that India and Pakistan are “like children,” and that it is the US government’s job to go and “take their toys away.” To play with nuclear weapons is decidedly infantile behaviour, but Stern’s comments betray the essence of this society’s concept of South Asian (and probably any non- American and non-European) country: they are children for us to scold, coerce, manipulate and punish.
Of course, it falls upon deaf ears to point out that Asian leaders often come from better schools than American leaders, are often more experienced on the world stage, more cognizant of legal and philosophical traditions, often arise from enviable and refined traditions of erudition, and certainly administer vast, ancient and accomplished cultures. These are not characteristics of peoples who are “like children” needing hypocritical parental supervision. Such arguments sound hollow and grasping when measured against more tangible television and movie evidence, such as the character of Apoo on the The Simpsons, or any number of the disproportionately pandering or puerile Asian depictions in the US media.
Because India and Pakistan are so far away from us, we are tempted to think of theirs as just another foreign conflict we don’t need to worry about, much the same way that we ignore horrific events in Africa . But if these nations do end up fighting the world’s first bilateral nuclear war, the entire globe will suffer the consequences, in terms of radioactive fallout and economic collapse. Nothing is more germane to our interests than the prospect of nuclear war anywhere on Earth –not Chandra Levy, not local leadership races and not even the endless fighting in the Middle East. Yet the seriousness of this message is lost to us and our media, diluted by our tendency to rank foreign woes and peoples well beneath our own inflated agendas.
In her June 2nd article in the Observer of London, Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy recounts the tensions in New Delhi, as the nation braces for war and foreigners leave in droves. Some Western journalists remain, many seeking to interview Ms. Roy. But every interviewer concludes by asking Roy if she is writing a new book. She responds with indignation, “Right now when it looks as though all the music, the art, the architecture, the literature, the whole of human civilization means nothing to the monsters who run the world, what kind of book should I write?”
As Ms. Roy is painfully aware, Western media has not fully grasped that the Indian subcontinent is more than just a faraway exotic land providing us with New Age inspiration, store clerks and material for sad jokes. It might very well be the site the of the single greatest tragedy in human history.