The other as foe

History is replete with the horrors of us-vs-them narratives.

Written by Rajmohan Gandhi | Updated: September 29, 2017 9:46 pm
rohingya violence, rohingya, rohingya crisis, rohingya people, rohingya muslims, myanmar, myanmar rohingya, bangladesh, rakhine state, myanmar army, rohingya militants, rakhine state, rakhine, suu kyi, arsa, rohingya muslims, rohingya refugees, rohingya crisis, world news, indian express, indian express news Illustration by C R Sasikumar

Currently being watched by riveted and shaken viewers across the US, Ken Burns’ 10-part documentary, The Vietnam War, is relevant for places and issues far removed from the America and Vietnam of the 1960s and 1970s.

During that war’s early period, which was also when India and China fought a short war, many saw “the communist world” as a global monolith where the Soviet Union, China and North Vietnam harmonised their roles for conquering the world. The Vietnam War shows that what the American forces were up against in Vietnam was not international communism but wounded nationalism. Ho Chi Minh and others like General Giap were Vietnam’s admired leaders, not agents or followers of the Kremlin or Mao. Foreign intervention, not capitalism, was what Vietnamese men, women and children were resisting.

The US lost immense quantities of blood and treasure in Vietnam before recognising that nationalism was a stronger force than ideology. Then the US forgot what it had learnt, and Afghanistan and Iraq followed. Now, Trump appears to threaten Iran and North Korea with devastation.

The need for an enemy seems universal, as is the compulsion to see the foe as evil. The Vietnam War reveals that at least for some American soldiers, despising the Vietnamese was central to their war in southeast Asia. When, from the 1980s, communism seemed to sink below the horizon, the concern of those dependent on a good-versus-evil clash was allayed with the arrival of “Islam”.

For Americans, “Islam” arrived on September 11, 2001, wearing a terrifying face. Suddenly the world seemed more dangerous than before, but also less complicated. There was once more a “visible” evil to unite against, its terror visible on TV screens, its mosques visible in the landscape, its adherents visible, because of their clothes and beards, on the street. Just as yesterday, Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cubans were all, and above all, Communists, today Afghans, Syrians, Pakistanis and Iranians, and dozens of other groups, including the Rohingya, are all, and above all, Muslims.

There is a difference. Customers today of a good-versus-evil show are not confined to the US, the western world, or the capitalist class. As visible foes, Muslims are available in virtually every part of the world. Muslims don’t make life easier for themselves when they join in dividing the world between Muslims and non-Muslims. True, many Muslims seem to prefer fighting fellow-Muslims, but they seem to banish any unease about this by assuring themselves that their Muslim foe is not a Muslim; he or she is only pretending to be one, or is not in any case a Muslim of the right sort.

Pakistanis now admit that they lost Bangladesh by refusing to see that for East Pakistanis their Bangla identity was a life-and-death question. A common “Muslim-ness” was hopelessly insufficient for political unity.

Today, on her part, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is in error when, refusing to call the Rohingya by their name, she refers to them simply as “Muslims”. Whether she realises it or not, she thereby contributes to the Muslim/non-Muslim divide so favoured by the simplifiers of our times, people who yearn for an us-versus-them, good-versus-evil clash, which, as Vietnam showed, can prove extremely costly.

First and foremost, the Rohingya, like the rest of us, are human beings. Unlike the rest of us, they have been forced out of their homes and lands in large numbers. They are Myanmar’s outcasts, in that term’s literal meaning. For India to slam the door against them, and to threaten those of them already in India with deportation, is to display a heartlessness which the world may not quickly forget. The argument that, being Muslim by religion, the Rohingya are actual or potential terrorists and therefore ineligible for entry into India has no logic or law behind it, apart from the fact that it shamelessly squeezes out every drop of humanity.

The line is also imprudent because it subjects Indians living in dozens of other countries to current and future hazards. Today, they come for the Rohingya. Tomorrow they may come for the Indians, of whom there are many even in Myanmar, in different parts of that land. Whether they live in India or elsewhere, people of Indian origin have an enormous stake in the legal principle that no one may be discriminated against, or punished, for being linked by blood, ethnicity or religion to a criminal or terrorist.

To welcome a Chakma refugee from Bangladesh, who by religion may be a Buddhist, and a Tamil from Sri Lanka, who perhaps is a Hindu by religion, but deny entry to a Rohingya pushed out of Myanmar, who happens to be a Muslim, would appear to flout the Constitution, not merely the law of humanity.

It would also strengthen the craving, evident today in different parts of our world, for dividing humanity into the good and the bad. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was that craving which took the crushing, all-sided toll captured by the Ken Burns serial.

The writer is a historian. His latest work is ‘Why Gandhi still matters’.

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  1. N
    Nagia Abdelmoghney Said
    Sep 30, 2017 at 6:53 pm
    Thanks professor Rajmohan for your fairness.We are all decendants of father Adam and mther Eve.Why do we allow discrimination and ethnic cleansing??!! Why do we generalise and codemn people even if a few of them who may be ignorant or mislead or evil commit crimes that we abhore.Criminals and terrorist deserve to be punished for their crimes but we should not punish all their families ,tribes or people.
    1. Sriram Chadalavada
      Sep 30, 2017 at 4:00 am
      When India has enough wealth to take care of her own poor citizens like Germany is now, then we can consider taking in tens of thousands of other citizens. Our country's empathy is constrained by lack of resources. Chakmas or Tamils weren't as many and we have not become richer since than.
      1. p
        Sep 29, 2017 at 9:45 pm
        In light of Mr Gandhi's selective history and piety , Mr Trump should be ashamed of himself as he intends to deport some ten million illegal MEXICO citizens residing in the USA, most of them can't speak English, don't pay taxes, and are burden on the healthcare resources. Mr Gandhi, a part-time resident of America and and self-appointed expert on such matters, can be an asset to Mr Trump.
        1. Anil Kumar Tandale
          Sep 29, 2017 at 7:29 pm
          Nation is still bleeding for the misdeeds of the g father of the author whose name is pushed down the throats of surviving Hindus of India that MK Gandhi was/is father of nation. Hindus were cheated by him saying that the country would be divided on his dead body. What was gifted to us on 15 August 1947 was the corpses of Hindus. Whether India was a 'secular' country when Mohd Khasim invaded in 710 AD and p ered Somnath? India suffered aggression, occupation, conquest and subjugation because it has been Hindu country. Temples were destroyed, trampled and looted because they had Hindu deities. This fictional debate of "us versus them" is a new ploy to infect, infest and corrode this Nation state with haters, looters, quislings, terrorists and insurgents. We prefer to get our national integrity protected by communal BJP government rather than suffer 26/11 insult to one billion at the hands ten foreign merceneries, and cowardice being made national virtue.
          1. K
            Sep 29, 2017 at 2:23 pm
            The correct way of for the world to fix Islamic problem goes through Pakistan and Iran.US should plan to confiscate or neutralize Pakistan's nuclear weapons (it can do it, as Pakistan is about to collapse economically) and should never allow Iran to build one. After that, Islamic countries should be LEFT ALONE. Let them build themselves or fight each other themselves, whatever they chose.With the conventional weapons they have, they will not be able to cause any significant problem to anyone else other than themselves
            1. ሆልይ ትርንትይ
              Sep 29, 2017 at 3:25 pm
              I absolutely agree. I am not sure if you know that a highly trained troupe of Sanghi Svyamsevaks are camped at the Wagha Border waiting to receive Green Light from Nagpur. These extremely Brave Hindus are supported by their mothers, who are making million litres of watery Moong Dal and deep fried Pooris for their very very very brave sons. Their plan is that - once Mohan Bagavat gives the orders - they will shout Vande Matram and walk into Pakistan waving the Maratha Flag. the very very inferior Muslim will scatter and run into Afghanistan and these Extremely Brave Hindus will bring back to Hindia the Nukes. Bagavat Mata Ki Jai.
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