Friday, December 16, 2005

Too Much Time For Thought

From Aurangabad I've been heading ever southwards, stopping first at Bijapur, then Badami and now Hampi. Although the towns may not be on everyone's radars, each one has been the capital of major kingdoms throughout India's history, and they all have the requisite remnants of past glories to prove it. From Bijapur's Islamic mausoleums to die for (as it were), Badami's Hindu temples to Hampi's bizarre, boulder-strewn surroundings. This has got me thinking...

In the 2000 years prior to British rule, the subcontinent had only been united under one flag on two separate occasions: once, under the legendary emperor Ashoka for about 100 years in the third century BC; and then under the Afghan Mughals for 150 years in the 16th and 17th centuries. Apart from these two periods India has been a patchwork of kingdoms, sultanates and confederacies, and even under the empires local rulers had a large degree of autonomy. This all means that the India of today has a dazzling degree of diversity: 18 official (and over a thousand non-official) languages; similar numbers of ethnic, cultural and tribal groups; and on top of that a smorgasbord of gods and religions. It is larger, more populated, more heterogeneous and more complex than Europe, and yet it is one country. No wonder there are half a dozen separatist movements, including the Sikhs in Punjab, the Gurkhas in Sikkim and the Nagas in Nagaland.

Why should India be just one country? what gives these separatist movements less legitimacy than the Tibetans or the Timorese? It seems to me (and perhaps I have too much time on my hands and therefore spend it trying to resolve the world's problems) that the root of many of today's geopolitical problems lies in the carving up of the colonial world after the second world war. When the great powers drew their borders there seems to have been little heed paid to local populations, their feelings, their traditional boundaries or their aspirations for independence. Thus, some ethnic groups were split between several countries without one of their own, like the Kurds (despite having been promised one in 1920 in the treaty of Sevres); other countries became mish-mashes of many disparate ethnic groups, like Nigeria; and some countries were created where none existed before, like Israel. And so the scene was set for many of the bloodiest and most intractable conflicts of the past 60 years. For there is no motivating power as strong, or as irrational, as the Us versus Them mentality of the freedom fighter. Then, depending on which side in any given conflict is more amenable to other countries' views (i.e. how much of their country they will allow to be plundered) the international community will step in whilst, for the television viewers at home, continually paying lip service to Human Rights and the Moral High Ground, seeming to effortlessly distinguish between black and white when in fact everyone is coloured exactly the same shade of faecal brown. Many people in such affected countries see this all as a huge (often Zionist) conspiracy. I'm not so sure. It's probable that it's just initial stupidity followed by self-interested profiteering.

A perfect example of such realpolitik can be found in the miasma that is Iraq today. The Coalition is fighting tooth and nail to Iraq as a single, unified state and not to let it break up into a Kurdish north, Shi'ite south and Sunni middle, despite the fact that this would alleviate many of the existing sectarian tensions. Why is that? Iraq as a country has only existed since 1932 when it was created by the British as an amalgam of three ex-Ottoman regions, which, funnily enough, correspond to the Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni regions today. Why not leave it as it originally was? The reason is quite simple. An independent Kurdish state would annoy the Turks (allies of the West) and give legitimacy to their Kurdish separatist movement; a Shi'ite south would fall under the influence of Iran, and we can't let that happen; and the Sunnis in the middle would be pissed off at losing their oil wealth and status. So, for these dubious reasons, a shoddy status quo is maintained and the ordinary people on the ground suffer.

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