The Wrath of the Spurned: How Acid Attacks Life Beyond The Moment

(Now that the Supreme Court of India has made the laws regarding acid attacks more stringent — imposing a rather difficult-to-implement ban on sale of acid, and a more respectable amount of financial aid — it is worth looking at how this might change things for the better. You can also read this here)

Pragya was sleeping on the upper berth in a sleeper compartment of a train to Varanasi when she felt a burning sensation on her face. She woke up with a start — she literally felt her skin on her cheek come away when she touched it. “I jumped down and began screaming with pain. It was 2 am, my clothes had melted and people around me thought I was going mad. If it weren’t for the foreigner who recognised what had happened to me and called a doctor, I would’ve perhaps not survived,” she says, recalling with vivid clarity, the moment she was acid attacked in 2006.

The attack came merely 10 days after her marriage and, as she and her family were to find out in the following weeks, was the repercussion of a rejected marriage proposal. “The man was at least a decade older than me and apparently already married. They caught him and put him in jail in the next few months, but he’s out on bail now. None of it changes the fact that it took me over two years simply to recover physically,” she says.

Recently, two men on a motorbike threw acid on four sisters in Shamli. The case has made national headlines, as did another incident in Patna where two teenage girls were also victimised in their sleep. It is heartening to see an increased focus on reporting sexual crimes against women, following the December 2012 protests that were triggered by the gangrape of a girl in a moving bus in the capital.

It is important to recognise the special nature of acid attacks, seeing as they are generally perpetrated by somebody in the know. In the Shamli case, one of the accused is the brother-in-law of the victim. The girls wanted to go to town about their illicit relationship, and this was his way of containing the situation. In the Patna case, the attackers were spurned lovers.

“A general perception is that the male ego cannot take rejection lightly and seeks to overcome his rage through such an attack. This is complicated with the impulsive spirit of today’s youth, which cannot handle what we call ‘delay of need gratification’ – they don’t seem to find any sense of illegitimacy to their actions. Another explanation would be the lack of accessibility – the feeling of “if your attractiveness can’t be available to me, I will make sure nobody else can have it either”,” observes Dr. Arvind Mishra, professor of social psychology at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The notion of revenge is critical to acid attacks, since its intent is to ruin the victim’s life without actually ending it. Such attacks cause disfiguration that lasts for a lifetime, because the social stigma attached to deformation ensures that the victim would no longer have access to a social life, nor will she be considered a viable candidate for marriage. The fact that acid is easily available at kirana shops and supermarkets across the country, doesn’t help the situation.

The consequences of acid attacks can be very dire – considering the fact that this form is particularly popular in the low to lower-middle classes of society, the victims’ access to medical help might be limited. Basic operations to keep the victim alive could result in bills as big as Rs 50 lakh, or more, at times. Also, the facilities to treat first degree burns are few and far between. It was due to the lack of proper medical treatment that 23-year old J Vinodini died in Pondicherry after being attacked by her neighbour, and battling for life for over three months.

It is also within the momentum created by the December 2012 protests that the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was passed recently, recognising the various forms of such violence and raising the punishment bar for rape, voyeurism, stalking and acid attacks. Up till now, all these offences were clubbed under the ambivalent label of ‘grievous hurts’ in sections 320, 322, 325 and 326 of the Indian Penal Code, punishable by imprisonment upto seven years – legislation, or lack thereof, that itself showed just how seriously violence against women was being taken by the state.

Under the amendment ordinance, acid attacks, along with the others, are recognised as specific crimes and are punishable by imprisonment of upto 12 years, along with a fine of upto Rs 10 lakh. While this is a definite improvement, it still seems to fall short of the correction required in cases of acid attack, from the point of view of the victim. “The government has made provisions for a parallel amendment in the Criminal Procedure Code to provide compensatory medical and private aid for victims. But whether this will be followed through remains to be seen,” notes Madhu Mehra, director of Partners for Law in Development.

Image

She is sceptical because of two factors – the speed of convictions in India is nothing to boast about, and it isn’t possible to adjudge the capacity of the accused to pay the stipulated fine. “The government needs to recognise that this is among the most physically debilitating crimes. It must also acknowledge the fact that violence can create polities of its own kind. For the victim, it would be more important to get back on her feet. You can either make sure that you take up social transformation, but when you can’t even tell the Khap panchayats to shut up, you could at least ensure that the schemes or provisions you draft are water-tight,” she states.

In such a situation, does regulating the availability of acid make sense? “Not really,” says Mehra, “because it isn’t the ‘weapon’, but the intent that needs to be inspected. Ten years ago in Mongolpuri, we heard of a case where men on motorbikes were slashing women’s faces with razor blades. The government could slap restrictions, but there’s always a way to get around the law, especially for a product so cheaply available. We just can’t deal with disfigurement and that is what needs to be addressed.”

Today, living in near-complete anonymity in an undisclosed location, Pragya believes that she’s been luckier than most, thanks to a supportive husband and family back home at Varanasi. “I have no friends though – when I walk on the road, people ask me what happened to my face. There’s plenty of sympathy, but they don’t really want to associate with me beyond that,” she says.

She has now started working with Stop Acid Attacks, an NGO working to help victims with medical and financial aid. Her aim is to help girls come out of the trauma through counselling and group support sessions. “I don’t think I am abnormal – it is feeling that a lot of girls develop when their faces and bodies are maimed in this manner. I want to help them get back to their lives as before,” she says.

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Defence, Disarmament and Global Wars in the age of mecha

(Also read this here)

jaeger kaiju

The high point, quite literally, of Guillermo Del Toro’s latest, Pacific Rim, is the moment when our hero Jaeger (outdated but strong yet, thanks to its drivers) slashes off the evolved, ever more dangerous Kaiju’s wing in mid-flight. The Kaiju, a futuristic dinosaur, is now flying as it zooms in on the Jaeger for its final kill, but like the proverbial trump card, out comes a sword (please note the irony) from the Jaeger’s right hand, just in time to pierce through the monster. Dismembered, the Kaiju returns to the ocean with a resounding splash; and the narrative is back to being a rather humdrum, predictable one.

Released worldwide on the July 12-13 weekend, Pacific Rim has, on an average, garnered lukewarm critical response. This lumbering spectacle of an apocalyptic war against aliens is a delight to watch for its expertly crafted action scenes. After all, what’s not to like about humungous robots and monsters fighting each other to death?

Disappointment is inevitable — lead characters Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) and Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) are all given back-stories that are rushed through; and the plot, like the Jaegers of seven years later, needs a severe upgrade. But then, this movie isn’t as much a psychodrama as it is the latest offering in the mecha genre of Hollywood cinema — with a history of movies like Star Wars, the Godzilla series,Transformers, and Sucker Punch — and revives the giant robots vs. monster trope, possibly the oldest idea in Japanese anime.

Pacific Rim does inspire some thoughts on the evolving nature of weaponry and the state of warfare. The Jaegers (German for hunter) are run by two fighters, located in the head of the machine. They must meld their brains, hearts and memories with each other as well as the machine, in the process becoming a ‘maschinemensch’ or machine-human — a trope explored often enough, and first seen in Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis.

Although this ploy isn’t quite the same thing as drone warfare (since the fighters are very much a part of the action, ‘remote’ only in the sense that there is minimal bloodshed), which in itself is more in vogue today, it does endorse the idea of ‘sanitised’ battles. In the aftermath of a fight, you as a viewer don’t see maimed and tainted bodies, blood or gore — which one can easily presume to be part of the scene — but, instead, witness broken machines, shattered buildings and, poignantly, Mori’s lost red shoe. Whatever ‘blood’ you can see on screen is glowing blue acid dripping from mutilated Kaijus, which is not nearly as disgusting or dread-inspiring. In that sense, Del Toro panders to a notion that is by now the staple of sci-fi and even action cinema — war doesn’t have to end in visible human casualty.

Man and machine have come together on various instances in cinema previously. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Lock Martin played the alien robot Gort, controlled by Klaatu, with a message for earthlings; Star Wars had Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker play ‘droids’; Bladerunner and Robocop simply assimilated man and machine to form human-like androids; and most recently, Avatar dwelled on the notion of man controlling a morphed, mechanised version of himself. Through them all runs common theme of bettering the human condition, perfecting his survival skill and instinct through ‘mechanical enhancements’.

In our real, brutal world, however, man does not inhabit the machine (yet); he is far, far away, working on his surveillance or targeted bombing from safe, often undisclosed, locations. The ‘enemy’, for the last decade, has been hiding among his ‘own’, and has had to be ferreted out and hunted down like pesky rats. In this clash of civilisations, identity marked the ‘other’ and ‘ours’, and has been the crucial factor in deciding what is worth fighting for. Pacific Rim, like other sci-fi movies in its league, locates its enemy in the predator whose roots are alien, outside the realm of this planet in this space and time. These may be like all the other unknown threats from ‘out there’ threatening our world, but the movie departs from tradition in pulling upon all of humanity’s strength to fight this war.

Unlike his predecessors, Del Toro is more inclusive — his concern is not the US Pacific coastline alone, nor are his rangers strictly American. His heroine is Japanese; Beckett’s comrades are Russian, Chinese, British and Australian. Of course, in the end, it is Beckett, the American who saves the day. But in an industry where directors are used to casting at least one race/religion/nationality in the underdog/villain/sidekick role, this movie does give the idea of a global war a different twist.

Will Pacific Rim live long in pop-culture memory? Most probably not, thanks to its forgettable, repetitive story. But as a moment in the history of mecha, overwhelming sci-fi cinema, it could still make a lasting mark, for its representation of a world in flux.

Reel Rumination: Who is the Indian Woman?

(So, there are some advantages of not emptying your inbox regularly, even though Google keeps threatening to brim over and drop dead. I found this old piece I’d written as a measly assignment in ACJ back in 2008, and I find myself quite surprised! Mostly because I don’t even remember the plotlines of Meghe Dhake Tara and Charulata, but even otherwise, this seems like I’ve put in some decent effort. A bit long, but do read and comment!)

Benedict Anderson, in his book, Imagined Communities talks of a nation that largely exists in the collective psyche of the members of that nation state. Indian nationalism, in the absence of pervading literacy, depended on the more popular forms of art and cinema to grow. And since visualization is essential to the imagined community, India began to be identified with the icon of the mother. So, as India strove to become independent and, later, was endorsed as the land of opportunities, India became Bharat Mata for the masses. In such a scenario, Indian cinema produced its own interpretations of the Indian woman, an identity highly contested.

Indian cinema emerged as a popular art form, as well as one of mass entertainment, at the same time that the idea of the independent Indian nation was being given serious thought and substance. As the democracy’s roots grew deeper, newer identities emerged. The colonial, and his sidekick, the Zamindar, were being pushed backstage by the new-found educated sophisticate and the Indian woman, who again was probably the most conflicted identity of all- existing or arising. While on the one hand she had to live up to the strength and valor she had been endowed with in the process of attaining an iconic status, on the other, she was also the site on which Nehruvian idealists were cultivating India’s image as a fast developing one.

Questions about who the Indian woman was in the emerging context had many answers. There came up a number of interpretations and representations in the cinema of the time. The greatest Indian auteurs of all time had something to contribute to this debate. This paper intends to look at three films in particular- Mother India (1957) by Mehboob Khan, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1960) and Meghe Dhake Tara (1960) by Ritwik Ghatak, all of which were stories about women of the time, but in different frames.

MeImagehboob Khan’s magnum opus, Mother India, was a colored rendition of his earlier movie, Aurat, which came out in 1941. Possibly in a bid to promote the story in front of a larger, more diversified audience, he retold the story, produced it in Eastman-colour format, and made it revolve around the Radha, the protagonist, played by Nargis. The movie tells the tale about this woman, who marries Raj Kapoor, and comes into a household which is completely under the financial grip of the landlord, Sukhilala. As she deals with more failure and abandonment by her husband, the viewer is witness to the transformation of this good homely bejeweled wife into a hard, driven survivor covering herself in the mitti of her land, because she loves and identifies deeply with it. Her two sons, Ram and Birju, are the two diametrically opposite strands of moderation and extremism that characterised  the Indian national movement. When, finally, she shoots her younger son in a bid to save society from imminent danger, she acquires the iconisation of Mother India, in both a religious and a nationalist sense.

The toil and sweat that goes into cultivation and growing a crop is in itself a character in the film, painted in the red and brown hues of earthiness. Mehboob uses the form of melodrama to acquaint the viewer with the exaggerated extent of suffering of this woman. He uses the archetypes of the evil landlord, the unrelenting mother-in-law, the sly uncle in addition to the lead characters in a bid to characterize the typical setting of rural India. “At its deepest level, Mother India is a study of culture in conflict with itself. Birju and mother represent headlong, near-suicidal rush to change an impossible situation, and the inner force of the system fighting back, trying to alter the system ‘peacefully’,” says Iqbal Masud. Finally, Mehboob endorses Nehruism in his reference to the Community Block Development Movement, which brings to the film a sense of resolution and opportunism.

In another tale of suffering, Ritwik Ghatak shows us the flip side of the coin- Meghe DhakeImage Tara is the story of Sita, a young working woman who is the sole bread earner in her family, her father having retired, one brother aspiring to become a musician and the other still in the process of completing his studies. But instead of being independent, which is the logical consequence for most of us in such a situation, Sita is oppressed nevertheless. Her mother does not want her to get married, lest their only source of survival be taken away, her younger brother intends to run away from the household as soon as possible, her older brother lives for dreams at the cost of pragmatism and her sister is disinterested in everything except finding a suitable boy to marry.

Sita ends up making the biggest sacrifices for the happiness of her family- first of love, then of her own mental health. Towards the end, when she has realized that her lover is now no longer hers, but is in love with her sister, and is walking away, the close up of her face as she feels trapped in her situation, and the crack of whiplash in the background, makes an effective visual depiction of her hopelessness. In the exaggerated portrayal of the lower classes, Ghatak is determined to alienate his audience, ensure that there is no sense of identification or empathy towards his pitiful protagonist, which was thought to be very important for the spectator to be able to criticize and participate.

ImageFinally, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, based on Tagore’s novel, Nashta Neer, and set in 1859, tells a different tale of womanly woe- Charulata is a housewife in a rich Bengali household. Her husband is too involved in his newspaper and the politics of the time to pay her much attention. She is left to her own devices and is too intelligent to be content with playing cards and enjoying ice cream, like her sister-in-law. A fan of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s work, she also represented Nabina or the ‘new woman’, in contrast to her sister-in-law, who was Prabina or the ‘old woman’. Charulata comes close to emotional betrayal when she grows an attachment for Amal, the cousin, and this the husband realizes only towards the end.

Satyajit Ray was a Realist artist- he believed in the deep focus technique and subtle initiation, and abhorred close ups or low angle shots, which meant iconisation. The movie is a pleasant concoction of music, scenery, emotions and characterization which is far from typical. Charulata’s situation is not a common one, especially in an India that was under British rule, or even after independence, when the largely rural landscape did not allow such financial and temporal liberty to women. But she did represent a small class of them, who were the unfortunate fortunates. As she attempts to while away time by looking out the windows through an opera glass, since she was restricted within the four walls of her house, the orchestrated on-screen and off-screen sounds allow the viewer to feel her loneliness, and when her husband walks away, absorbed in a book without paying her any attention, the authoritarian sound of his boots on the floor impress upon the audience her utter and complete desolation.

In all three films, we see the dilemmas that the Indian woman faced at the time, and we also see the problematisation that Indian society had in defining this Indian woman, and her boundaries of existence. While Ray explored the psyche of the Indian woman moving towards self- realization, Ghatak sought to unearth the loopholes in the grand Nehruvian plan. Mehboob manages to identify and place the Indian woman in the context of the nation, which in itself was visualized as a newly acquired bride, who had the powers of sustenance. Through both melodrama and realism, Indian cinema of the 50s and 60s, also known as humanist cinema, persevered in depicting the sorry state of the Indian woman.

Annalogy

mini-revolution at Chandni Chowk. (mid-August)

(Two weeks after the government ‘gave in’ and agreed to review the Jan Lokpal Bill draft as per Anna and the rest of his brigade’s demands, the circus is over. Over? Maybe not. But definitely taking a break. Now Anna Hazare and Prashant Bhushan have differing opinions on the fate of Kasab. But where has the urgency behind the “Bhrashtachar mitaoo!” morcha suddenly gone? Patience may be a virtue, but this seems suspiciously like a case of bought silence. On another note, there really ought to be an in-depth analysis of the role of 24*7 media coverage in events and their effect on the world. But this is a rant i wrote while the storm was raging and all of Delhi was out on the roads, celebrating god knows what. The silence now only goes to show how easily we’re made fools of.)

One 74-year old man has taken the nation by storm. By simply defying his right to food, right to freedom and right to speech on various occasions in the past couple of months, in protest against that corroding feature of the Indian ‘system’ called ‘bhrashtachaar’, he has almost single-handedly put the government on edge, making it jittery enough to take damaging decisions that it has regretted two seconds later. In the tornado of fury that he has unleashed, there has emerged a ‘civil society’ more comprehensive than the smattering of NGOs and activism that the word is understood to represent in common parlance – spiritual leaders, yoga gurus, human rights activists, academics or simply my neighbour who seems to have finally found, if nothing else, a maidaan to vent his frustration – all under a single umbrella. They’ve yelled slogans as one, screamed silence as one, gone on sulking diets as one, walked the roads with candles alit and banners ablaze as one, chanted hymns, ranted against the government, fed each other’s anger, as one – one immensely volatile mass of people that is giving the impression of being a time bomb, ticking to explosion.

One has to hand it to him. Anna Hazare is to 2011 what Mahatma Gandhi was to 1942. Leadership is no walk in the park. Getting through to a mass of people that is usually too self-involved to bother about the rest (the dictum goes: “humne duniya ka theka le rakha hai kya?” or “Have we taken on the contract to uphold morality in society?”), and getting them to come out of comfort zones is a big achievement. Taking on a government along with the entire hallowed ranks of officialdom is daring, like a garish cinematic stunt one can expect from those gutsy gatsbies, the likes of Clint Eastwood or Rajnikant. He has become our new age poster-boy, the hero of this 21st century saga reiterating the ‘good vs. evil’ or ‘us vs. them’ battle that has been raging since eternity. He has suddenly metamorphosed into a demi-God, with his name on everybody’s lips, like a chant, feverishly whispered, that has the power to purge a society steeped in decades, nay centuries, of sin.

Then there is the cause itself. Corruption is that aspect of Indian life that every office, household, man, woman and, sadly, child is acquainted with. From the time we begin to gain a basic consciousness of the way systems and societies work, we are told in defeated tones that this, too, is an undesirable, but entirely real facet of how things are run here. At some level, we are even encouraged to learn how to slip it to them ‘under the table’, smooth talking all the while to cover the crudeness of the act, be it to the local plumber, the policeman or the politician (or even his peon).

We learn that as is in the case of our elders, teachers and other authority figures, “ours isn’t to question why, ours is but to do and die”. Only this time, it isn’t the steely resolve Tennyson imagines to be on the face of the many-hundred dedicated soldiers, now it done is a casual, dismissive shrug of the shoulder, and we’re on our way. A subtext that lends itself to innocent beings getting welded into maturity and adulthood in this process is: if it’s ok to give some, it must be ok to take some back too. After all, what goes around, really ought to come around too. And so, corruption, one would be forced to argue, is more than just the much publicised 2G scam, the Adarsh scam, the Bofors scam; it is more than numbers and names, it is increasingly an entire ‘norm’ in itself. Fighting against corruption, then, is fighting against our very own baser selves.

This is not to say that everybody in this country is essentially corrupt. They are not. We, the middle classes who are said to be the backbone of this movement, would essentially be victims, even in the carrying out of the act, because honest ways don’t exist. But it would bode well to pause and question – does externalising the fact absolve us all of our mini-sins that snowball into the hulk of an evil? Is everybody in this movement just fed-up of the system, are there no appearances being kept up in the process? Would one more law change everything so drastically, would this be the nation that manages to kick the butt for good? Will Jan Lokpal be the most effective nicotine patch man ever made?

Chances are, this won’t happen. A lesson our parents wish very strongly for us to learn is that change never happens overnight. Social change, systemic change, specially, is a time-consuming process and generations of protest could go into changing hearts and minds, show them a better path. Similarly, we should know that corruption, the epitome of all that constitutes the rot and decay of our precious ancient society, is not going to go away with a hunger strike and general civil upheaval, like the sustained Satyagraha of Gandhi managed to repel the British. This is because corruption is not an alien colonial capitalist invader, it lives and surfeits within and among us. Nor will it evaporate out of existence with another law being passed, because one can’t fight the system through a weapon of the system itself. We will have to be more innovative than that.

With a little common sense, it would seem as if education is the sole ambit of possible social change, especially if the change is to be as monumental as this. If you want it out of the system, you’re going to have to start from the basics. Hajmola can only quell the quake in your stomach, not eradicate the root causes. The cure might lie in changing the way you see things, do things, eat things. Forget the fish fry and butter chicken, shift to whole wheat and green leafy vegetables. Bring back the discipline and restraint in your life. So, while I too am all for holding ‘them’ accountable for all our taxes that they gobble up, it would really be encouraging to see some more long-term thinking and less indefinite fasting from Ramlila Maidaan.

Of course, to this cynicism-coated rant, one could retort that movements like this are about building hope. Hope is what we, the people, the common men, thrive on. It is also what Obama’s thrived on, with big words possibly going to land him a second presidential term. If a man can inspire hope in this world steeped in scepticism, we ought to doff our topis and stand up for him, next to him. One knows that conflict resolution is all about ‘winning hearts and minds’, which Anna, bless his starved soul, has definitely managed to do. And for simply that fact, one hopes that this circus is over sooner than later, that we get our accountability and our transparency, and that this is not just another spark of excitement in the mundane lives of countless trigger-happy and TV-hooked Indians, that fizzles out before autumn arrives.

Ann-a-shan. mid-August, Chandni Chowk

Oh Kabul Kabul!

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( The following is an essay on the lessons learnt in peacemaking in Afghanistan during the visit to Kabul earlier this year. In the space of one week, we were given lectures, visited the city an neighbouring areas to see ground realities, and had long soulful discussions on the unique conundrum that South Asia faces in terms of development, coming to terms with a colonial history and building peace. This work is a product of analysis and summarisation of all that I learnt from the experience. )

Mr Aziz Rafiee, the director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum, had begun his talk to us in Kabul with the following quote by Saadi: “If you have no sympathy for another’s pain, the name of human you cannot retain.” For peacemakers, and for any individual, these words are heavy with the wisdom of man’s experience in the world, not as a political being, but a social, emotional one. For us students, the student exchange programme was enlightening in that it showed to us the three sides of the subcontinent: it was an exercise in understanding this very ‘other’.

The Great Game

Afghanistan is currently, and historically has been, the prize that the winner of the ‘Great Game’ shall acquire. Although this explicit statement sounds inciting enough, and may sound untrue at first sight, seeing as America’s predominant ‘cause’ in the region is the establishment of democracy and a ‘just government’, this is how people from within the civil society analyze their status even today. Said Mr Rafiee, Afghanistan currently has the highest capability of sweet water in the world: 17 billion cubic metres. The World Bank puts this number at 65 billion cubic metres and the CIA says there’s 170 billion cubic metres of the said resource in the region. There is also said to a hidden trove of natural gas and oil, along with mines of caladium and scandium which are 200 times more expensive than uranium. So while the label of instituting democracy stays put, as it has since the time of the Cold War across the world, it seems to be a covert war in the name of globalization that the US is carrying out in the region to advance the interests of its multi-national corporations. This is a view from within Afghanistan as to their value in the world.

All in the name of Democracy?

The presence of international actors seems to be something that has, for the larger part, been welcomed by the people of Kabul, at least in terms of dealing with the Taliban. However, their continuing presence seems to be irksome to a few within the civil society members we spoke to, who saw them as a hindrance to development of the country as well as peaceful resolution of their political situation. They are seen as pursuing greedy corporate as well as strategic interests. Also, a large number of people do not believe that NATO and US forces shall actually be pulled back by next year. Continuation of presence could be justified through the fact that Afghanistan has no functional economy of its own, and is too dependent on funds coming in from aid from the UN and other international donors. There are not many people dying of hunger or poverty within the country, maintaining this status quo which turns into a vicious cycle. Neo-colonial domination also continues through the fact that the cabinet of Afghanistan is composed of foreign ministers from different countries which means there are already too many stakeholders within the country.

Multiculturalism vs a Fragmented Nation

Apart from the international presence, the question of a cohesive national identity still remains. The region is made up of 36 ethnic and religious constituents, including Hindus, Muslims and Parsis. Of these, the Pashtuns dominate, constituting 36% of the population, according to the last census held in 1979. The second in this turn come to be the Tajiks, who hold the executive administrative rights within the country, while the Pashtuns hold most of the power. Other tribes include the Hazaras, the Balochs, the Turkmen and the Persians, among others. The country is landlocked on all sides by Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan and on all fronts, there exist skirmishes along the borders as identities spill over them. Thus, Afghanistan also faces the problem of facing disturbances on almost all fronts with ethnic identities seeking to unite or separate. Thus emerges the problem of no common language, no common national identity to keep the nation together. However, it was also argued that no serious efforts at secession have been made, and this was attributed to the predominance of the Islamic identity, and the characterization of Afghanistan as an Islamic state.

Jihad

Then there is the question of terrorism. According to Liaqat Ali at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this is the most important challenge that Pakistan and Afghanistan face today. He stressed on the importance of taking this seriously and not being reductionist about it since it is the main contributor to instability and threat to regional peace. He blamed the phenomenon on the inability of the region to get rid of the colonial legacies, ie the disputed borders along Kashmir as well as the Durand Line. Calling us ‘hostages to history’, he said it was important to go back to the roots of jihad and see where it originated and tackle it from the ground upwards. Jihad, according to him, has very deep sentimental, psychological and social underpinnings, none of which will be easy to tackle, but it is equally important that they are. Finding a political solution would mean encouraging the Taliban to participate within civil society and eventually reaching a political power sharing agreement with them, even though Mr Ali did not see in them the capacity to be able to govern.

Regional Peace?

Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan are also a hotbed of disagreements as well as the source of much security for the country. While both characterize themselves as Islamic countries and share that bond, they also share a partitioned Pashtun population between themselves along the Durand Line. Apart from Pashtun cries for national secession, the two countries have till date not come to an agreement on formalizing the border or on Pakistan returning the disputed areas to Afghanistan. Mr Ali at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterized Pakistan into four categories: the common people that live there, the progressive civil society of Pakistan, the nation-state of Pakistan and the established one in terms of governance and intelligence. While the first three are not problematic, it is the last that creates a sense of an ideological Pakistan that shoulders Islamic fundamentalism. Pakistan has had an increasing desire for influence in the country since the Russian invasion and it also has a different approach to terrorism than Afghanistan. Its approach to the Taliban is one of support and encouragement, especially the Quetta Shura faction, even at the political level, while it sees the Northern Alliance as an opposing political party. In this, the two countries face potential problems which could only be solved through a resolution of the disputed border, an agreement on approach to dealing with terrorism, and possibly through a power-sharing agreement that could be cut between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance that could be cut next year.

India’s presence in Afghanistan, although not seen as definitely benign by either Afghanistan or Pakistan, is certainly not military, which makes it less of threat in that sense. The Afghans seem to embrace the Indian presence, for its effect on their economy, their cultural advancement and social and infrastructural development. Although there have been recent accusations and uprisings against the perceived corruption of the indigenous culture by Indian parties in the state, for the larger part, the Indian presence is seen as harmless and productive.

Representation and the Other

Thus, for Afghanistan, the situation is as tumultuous as ever. According to Mr Rafiee, the lack of trust, disconnected states and state-nations, corrupt governments, territorial conflicts, ethnic, religious and linguistic differences, no presence of rule of law are all factors that work well for the ‘actors’ present in the region. As much the speakers stressed on regional cooperation as the way ahead as well as the ultimate goal for lasting peace in the region, a real-time on-the-ground effecting of such a situation seems hard enough, seeing as there exist enough intractable conflicts between the three countries – India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, common agendas to work on would and should include dealing with the rampant poverty in the region, terrorism and millennium development goals.

According to Mr Aziz Hakimi of Future Generation, copious investment in education, building tolerance instincts, dispelling myths that might create victims are some of the ways to deal with the exceptional situation in South Asia at the ground level. According to Mr Ali, also important is reviving micro-identities to focus on localism to deal with Western hegemonistic forces and keeping traditional values alive. While such as assertion at a cultural level can go tragically awry in the name of re-gaining ground for the ‘Orient’, it is indeed true that for Afghanistan to take further steps into development and peaceful existence, it needs to move forward on its own feet with a considerable role in handling issues that the region faces together.