The Old Millennium

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Publisher and Managing Editor IKRAM SEHGAL wrote about the oppression and apathy that dominated the millennium, re-printed with thanks to THE NATION

For me there are two issues that dominate the old millennium in exception to everything else, that includes the tremendous achievements civilisation has made in science and technology. Coincidentally nothing symbolises these concerns more than Russia's ongoing genocidal war against muslim Chechnya, the relentless onslaught, a stark reminder that while civilisation may have made spectacular progress, States (or for that matter, individuals) care two hoots for civilisation's norms when 'might is right' takes over in pursuit of their own vested interest. And how much less guilty are those who while mouthing words of approbation remain silent in their actions and thus in their 'apathy' fail civilisation's prime objective, to act as a shield for the defenceless against predators. Yeltsin needed a convenient pretext to deflect public opinion from the corruption his family and close aides are accused of, the Russian Army needed to avenge their defeat at the hands of the Chechnyans in 1996 and having suffered humiliation after humilation for the past two decades starting with the Afghan war, the withdrawal from Eastern Europe, the break-up of the Soviet Union, surrender in Chechnya, economic privations, etc, the Russian populace needed a popular war. It suited everybody to go after 'Islamic terrorists' as a label for all Chechnyans, the propaganda sound-bites a salve for western mores, no quarter given to the hapless innocent old men, women and children in the massive killing fields from the endless rain of bombs, shells and bullets. The war in Chechnya proves one of the blatant outrages of the old millennium, 'might is right'.

Whether wars began because of the ambitions of the Kaiser or Hitler, or the militants in Japan, the Chinese, Vietnamese etc fighting imperialism or more recently, the Bosnians and the Kosovars taking on the brute force of the Serbs, the Afghans against the Russians etc, the premise remains the same, the use of brute power has scant regard for fairplay and justice. No callous thought for the poor and the infirm or the God-given right of freedom and the opportunity to live in peace for all the people under the sun. That power may flow through the barrel of a gun or it might be the authority of the State or even that at lower levels of a government department or a private firm, or for that matter even one's home in the absence of institutionalised checks and balances, power is more often than not misused by those who wield it. What is Kashmir but brutal and unchecked military power being used to subjugate an entire people by the use of force? Come right down into our daily lives and what does an SHO of a Police Station do in the exercising of force in his areas of jurisdiction? What is it but the fear of office that allows corruption, nepotism and favouritism to rule unchecked? And what about the dictatorship of a powerful minority over the 'great silent majority'? Unbridled power is what makes 'might is right' the most potent reason for our discontent with the old millennium.

The second issue is one of mass 'apathy', the electronic age graphically conveys the pain and anguish of those suffering into our drawing rooms if not into our hearts, what have we done to help our muslim brethren in Chechnya except for a few pious prayers? Maybe we cannot send weapons and ammunition, that being against diplomatic norm but aid can be in the form of money and supplies, it can also be by refusing to consort with the enemy. Because Kashmir requires inter-action and dialogue we probably cannot sever diplomatic relations with India, but why not with Russia? What is stopping Pakistan from persuading all members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) to cut off all ties of diplomacy, trade and commerce with Russia? Have statements ever stopped the likes of Hitler or did we not learn at Munich in 1938 what any schoolboy learns at first hand, appeasement is seen by the bully as a sign of weakness? When every clip of film in the electronic media containing atrocity or cruelty against the innocent and defenceless arouses mass anger, why are the champions of freedom and fairplay relatively silent at Russia's genocidal campaign? Sanctions have been applied against Pakistan on any number of perceived reasons but why can't the flow of aid to Russia be stopped? The world is very selective about moral standards, for whites more than black and brown, for rich more than poor, for Christians more than Muslims, and so on. What do the deaths of hundreds and thousands of Chechnyans matter? Do not we see in our everyday life the poor and downtrodden being virtually overwhelmed by the tyranny of the rich and/or powerful? Do we really have it in us to intervene against the atrocities committed in our Police Thanas against innocents more than criminals? When we see any ethnic or sectarian minority at the receiving end of injustice, except for perfunctory murmurs of sympathy, do we really rise in anger and protest? And forget the world stage, the national stage, etc and come down to the individual being. Most of us are daily on the receiving end of injustice, nepotism, favouritism, cruelty, etc what have our neighbours done to protect or defend us against such vagaries? Indeed if our neighbours were in such straits, what have we done to help them?

The old millennium may symbolise that might is right and that we are generally apathetic to it, on the other hand destiny is a great equaliser if one has firm beliefs that God favours those who dare to defy tyranny. Hitler and Stalin may have ruled supreme in sending millions to their early demise, they did not escape the judgement of history, neither did those who made the fields of Cambodia into a killing ground. Yeltsin may very well die a lingering natural death given his condition; his heirs already view the future with apprehension. Any people that have such firm belief in their religion are capable of great sacrifice and most surely have the ultimate favour of destiny. It does not matter what might is used against the Chechnyans, they will fight for their right as did Imam Shamyl in the 19th Century for over 30 years. The Chechnyans symbolise the great strength of the underdog, the willingness to take on massive odds despite one's numerical and material weakness, history has shown repeatedly that Davids have eventually triumphed over Goliaths. They symbolise such strength of character and ability to withstand adversity that one feels almost sorry for the Russians surrounding Grozny. Where will the poor Russians go? What will those soldiers who are not prepared to die for their country do when they come face to face with soldiers who are prepared to die for theirs? The stark difference, Chechnyans welcome martyrdom for their cause, the Russians do not have a cause. That unbending spirit of the underdog is what has inspired countless American tales of heroes throughout their history, would the measure of that spirit be any different halfway around the world because it is found in a different race and a different religion? The ready willingness to make sacrifices symbolises that particular spirit of the old millennium, that is what we should carry into the new.

The world has never been rid of injustice, corruption, nepotism, etc, whether internationally, nationally or in our everyday lives. Pakistanis welcomed the advent of an elected leader with great hopes and aspirations in 1997, yet two years later we thank God that on Oct 12, 1999 in the face of deliberate malafide intention the Army elected to remain a single entity, a single shot could have set off a bloodbath, that close we came to a civil war. The first few confident steps of military rule have yet to translate into achievement, given the sincere intent and motivation much is possible. Given the depths to what both individuals and institutions had sunk to and the time constraints, we are being very unfair in our impatience but that is the sum of our discontent. Down the line individuals face the same injustice at the hands of perpetrators and forces of evil and hatred, as anywhere in the world, most systems being imperfect. We survive only because it is in the nature of human beings to fight back in the face of adversity and tyranny, to battle the forces of evil and vested interest, however powerful they may. That is the muslim way, to fight overwhelming power despite one's relative weaknesses, very much as Chechnyans have engaged the Russians. Mankind has confronted adversity in the old millennium, with fear maybe but without being overwhelmed by awe. That underdog capability is what symbolises civilization, the willingness to take on might when it is not right and to raise the mass consciousness against rank apathy.