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World without colours

KALPANA SHARMA
After many decades, the world is once again polarised. The lines of division do not follow national boundaries. `They lie in the hearts of people, in how we view the world, and what we cherish as values that must be defended.' There is no space for shades of grey.


No escaping "the global war on terrorism" ... it is the ordinary people who suffer as politicians look for victory.

LAST Sunday, thousands of people gathered in New York amidst the ruins of the World Trade Center and mourned for the dead. On the same day, a lone Afghan mother mourned alone for her dead children, the "collateral damage" of the increasingly senseless bombing of Afghanistan.

On both sides of the world, ordinary men and women continue to grieve even as politicians and men in uniform hunt for targets to bomb and boast of imminent victory in the "global war" against terrorism.

I have tried this last week to get away from "the war". But try as I might, I find that it creeps up on you from all sides. There is no escaping it. The world seems to have been bleached of all its colours; all of a sudden there is only black and white.

The world has changed after September 11. Words have lost their original meanings. Democracy does not denote freedom and individual rights any more.

In the name of democracy, our democratic countries are justifying laws that fly in the face of democratic and human rights. The United States, which counts itself amongst the "civilised" nations of the world, is justifying the most uncivilised behaviour in its hunt for accomplices of the terrorists who attacked it. Every day there are stories of people — Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis — being arrested, pulled out of trains and planes, being detained, questioned, harassed and traumatised.

In India, a Government that has failed to find political solutions to the problems in Kashmir and the NorthEast is using the excuse of terrorism to introduce an unnecessary and draconian law that will seriously curb democratic freedom.

Even the media will now be told how it reports "terrorism". One can only hope that the "opposition" will unite for once and throw out this despicable piece of legislation.

And in Pakistan, a military general who claimed he was moving his country towards democracy has dropped all pretences and reintroduced military rule.

After many decades, we find ourselves once again in a polarised world. The lines of division do not follow national boundaries. They lie in the hearts of people, in how we view the world, and what we cherish as values that must be defended.

Shaded differences have been erased. We are divided into a civilised and uncivilised world; we are pro-terrorist or anti-terrorist, pro-Islamist or pro-western, pacifist or war-mongerer. You are told to choose which side you are on.

In fact, you are left with no choice. In a recent television programme, the discussion centred on conservative and moderate Muslims, a division that several participants pointed out was unnatural and dysfunctional.

The editor of a leading newspaper gave an interesting analogy. He said, that if as a Muslim he refuses an alcoholic drink, his non-Muslim media friends suggest that he must be a fundamentalist. He is not permitted the right to choose how much or how little of his religion he follows.

Yet, as he reminded us, Hindus who refuse to eat meat because it is against their religion are not considered fundamentalist.

We are also left with a permanently destabilised world. The war will spread, we are promised. Iraq might be the next target. Where next? Meanwhile, the war is not leaving countries outside the arena of battle alone. Indonesia and Pakistan are already witnessing the impact of the Afghan bombings.

And in India we now have the first inkling of what could follow with the riots in Malegaon in Maharashtra. There are many more communal tinderboxes that could explode in the next days.

But apart from these convulsions in our own societies that we have to be prepared to face, what happens to individuals who refuse these artificial divisions that are being forced upon us? Will this new, post-September 11 world order accommodate a dissenter, an individualist, a person who insists that there are many shades between black and white, and that there also many colours in the world?

In the U.S., the increasing intolerance towards people of Middle Eastern and Asian origin is also being extended to those who are critical of the U.S. Government's "War on global terrorism".

And if you happen to be a person of South Asian origin, a woman, and a critic of the U.S. Government, you are in deep trouble. A noted Canadian academic, Professor Sunera Thobani, for instance, has been called "idiotic, foolish, stupid and just plain nutty" and a "hate-mongerer" by the press for making statements critical of U.S. foreign policy. Others had not said anything that she said before. But those others were part of the American majority, and she is from an immigrant minority. So she is now denied the right to raise uncomfortable questions in a country that swears by democracy.

What people like Prof. Thobani are experiencing today is not very different from what some Muslim intellectuals in this country have felt for decades. If they criticised the Government's policy in Kashmir, for instance, they were considered sympathetic to the militants, and to Pakistan. And today if they, or even non-Muslims, criticise the Government for banning a group like the Students' Islamic Movement in India (SIMI) on grounds that it is not being even-handed, they will be accused of being pro-SIMI. There is no middle ground.

For women, this obliteration of the middle ground, of the shades and nuances that are so much a part of our lives, must necessarily mean the beginning of much greater intolerance in all spheres.

Initially, this might express itself in matters political. But inevitably it will invade women's autonomy in all societies.

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