THE PETTIFOGGERS- The courageous among mankind are dwindling in number

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By Cutting corners / Ashok Mitra
  • Published 4.04.03

Iraq burns, the people there die like flies, the rest of the world watches hopelessly, maybe now and then rages in frustration. Thereby is raised a fundamental question which is in fact that mother of all fundamental questions. Do five thousand years of human civilization really add up to anything? The long succession of eras and epochs have apparently failed to nudge mankind to the shores of a moral system.

Two American presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Frederick Delano Roosevelt, had, one following the other, attempted to build a benign, holistic international order. The League of Nations collapsed on account of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Now the United Nations lies in ruins due to the cussedness of the current American president and his British valet. Each and every rule of the UN has been flouted; such flouting is being defended on the ground of the necessity to preserve and extend human freedom. Insensitivity on the part of the marauders has plummeted to such a nadir that they do not mind turning themselves into run-of-the-mill laughing stocks. Never mind if captured Iraqi men, soldiers including, are displayed by the CNN, with triumphant glee, morning, noon, evening and late at night. That is legitimate. The Geneva Convention, we are told, is however in serious breach because Iraqi television, what cheek, has shown the image of four or six Americans and Brit soldiers captured in combat.

And yet, effective protest against the degrading of civilization verges on impotence. Yes, rallies and demonstrations are a-throb in all the six continents. Even within the United States of America, revulsion at the rape of Iraq has reached a crescendo. Russia, China, France and Germany have repeatedly expressed disapproval in the strongest terms. The Arab world is in ferment; significant assistance on their behalf, either open or clandestine, is percolating into Iraq. Turkey is still holding out and refusing American troops to land on its soil for onward march into northern Iraq. In thousands of human settlements in hundreds of countries, voluntary organizations are collecting money, medicine and victuals for the beleaguered Iraqi people.

But the anguish does not abate. None of the important countries, whose governments have condemned the Anglo-American atrocities, has gone the whole hog and posted an ultimatum threatening retaliatory armed action should George Bush’s savages fail to rein themselves in. They could have, but have not, assured arranged economic and military assistance to Iraq to deter the invaders. Barring the Arab initiative, outside sympathy for Iraq has continued to be essentially of a vacuous nature, as if the protests are more for the sake of form. Even the most conscientious ones, their numerical strength notwithstanding, are seemingly dead scared of invoking the wrath of the world’s only superpower.

Cowardice, thy name is humanity. The American administration is well aware of this neurosis the global majority is suffering from; cowards have a conscience but they do not have the courage of their conscience. To render this faint courage into total nothingness, the superpower has chosen to offer bribes right and left: do simmer down, pocket your so-called righteous indignation; we will finish off Iraq in the course of the next few weeks; provided you behave from now on, we will allow you a share of the Iraq reconstruction pie.

Four decades ago, the objective was to destroy Vietnam so as to save Vietnam. Similarly, the end-point of the present endeavour to obliterate Iraq from the face of the earth, it would appear, is to subsequently pour money for its reconstruction, including the rehabilitation of its left-over people. Conscience is cheap, just twopenny worth, might as well throw it in the junkyard; join us; we, the noble protectors of imperialism and colonialism, will top up your substantial wage with lots and lots of other material benefits.

President Bush has telephoned the Indian prime minister and offered the latter more or less the same allurements: come to a deal with Pakistan, keep quiet on the on-going monkey business in Iraq, and India will be included in the list of lucky countries to be awarded reconstruction contracts. Even more tempting, the huge stocks of foodgrains lying in the Indian godowns, unfit for human as well as animal consumption, would be lifted by the Americans on payment of a good price for distribution, as “relief”, to the starving millions in war-ravaged Iraq.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee has reportedly not rejected the offer out of hand. The be-all and end-all of existence, after all, is to be on the right side of the superpower. Besides, why refuse easy money? True, this stance would be regarded by many as thoroughly immoral.

Any moral system though, should be indivisible. Nations, who could have effectively checkmated Bush-Blair, do not act since they have to take into account other considerations. The Indian establishment is in the same predicament. The superpower is the repository of not only immense military might, but of mammoth economic wealth too. Anti-US sentiments therefore are clothed in restraint.

The other name for such demeanour is this-worldliness. Vajpayee and his government have been following the new international rule of behaviour: no treading on the foot of the big boss; shed one or two crocodile tears for humanity being massacred by the big boss, but do not allow these tears to grow so large that they stain the boss’s lapel.

The empire of hypocrisy extends further. It encompasses even certain radical circles. In quite a number of countries, an intense campaign is on exhorting the people to boycott goods originating in the US and Britain and sever trade relations with them. Even where the campaign has failed to attain impressive proportions, the feeble response from the populace has not dispirited the campaigners.

The government in New Delhi will understandably have no part of the move to shun American and British merchandise. The Bharatiya Janata Party has a stake in pledging loyalty to the US, the call of boycott of US goods and suspension of trade with that country will sound heretical to it and its acolytes. There are however a number of states belonging to the Union of India who are not subject to political domination by the BJP and the Hindu parivar. The masses in these states are traditionally anti-colonial and anti-imperial; they are proud of this inheritance. They are seething in indignation at the ghastly spectacle of murder, arson and pillage indulged in Iraq by the civilized tribes from the West. One would expect them to be in the forefront of the boycott of Anglo-British merchandise and to join the global movement in this regard.

Cynicism has however entered the post-globalized soul. In some of these states a hesitancy is noticeable even amongst sections otherwise virulently against American-British hegemony. Ideology is out, calculations are in: we are badly lagging in investment necessary for rapid economic growth, other things remaining the same, the Americans in particular would have invested substantially in our region; a call for boycott of American goods will cheese off potential US investors; therefore, while we condemn the aggression in Iraq, we must not stretch our condemnation to endorsing the boycott of British and American goods; that would be foolhardy and adversely affect prospects of foreign investment in our parts.

Leave out the hard reality that foreign investment in India is as low as less than two billion dollars annually and is likely to sink further, so that the share of an individual state will be barely a couple of hundred million dollars. The basic issue is much more severe: whether there is much difference between those who go along with the Americans because they have been offered a slice of the Iraq reconstruction greenback and those who are reluctant to support a call of boycott of American goods for fear of the drying up of American investment.

Whenever a nodal moment arrives in the history of human civilization, the brave ones dare to stand up and be counted. Obviously, this species is a dwindling number. Mankind has slipped into a new morality scripted by murderers, hypocrites and pettifoggers.