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October - November 2004


Political News

A random harvest of political stories - part one

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


A strange mental case in Pondicherry
It is an unlikely story learnt from one of the senior most Consultants working in the Department of Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences ( NIMHANS ), Bangalore, India. Recently a young man living in a village in the Union Territory of Pondicherry – formerly a French Territory - was reported as mentally ill and referred to NIMHANS for treatment. He had a perfectly normal childhood and grew up as a perfectly normal adult. A few years ago he moved to a European country in search of work. An unmarried man, he went there alone. He was soon recruited as a soldier in its Army. After an intensive course of specialist military training he was sent to Rwanda in Africa on a tour of duty at the height of the civil war raging between the Hutus and the Tutsies where more than a million people died. I don’t have to remind you that it was one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the last century. On his return from Africa, he was given leave to go home. He returned to Pondicherry.

The trouble began at this point. Soon the villagers found the behavioural pattern of this man in his new incarnation as rather very aggressive in the context of a civil society in rural India. He had developed the habit of picking up quarrels of a ferocious kind with the villagers over points of disagreement on simple arguments, beat them up mercilessly, kick them into the ground and worse, urinate on their faces. When the frequency of these strange encounters escalated, the villagers felt that he was mentally ill and must be sent for treatment. This is how he landed himself in NIMHANS.

The Consultant Psychiatrist after intensive sessions found that the Pondicherry man was not a mental patient in the conventional sense. The problem was with the specialist military training that he had received in Europe. He revealed during questioning that he was given training to urinate on the faces of prisoners of war during interrogations to humiliate those who do not co-operate to force them to reveal useful intelligence. It is obvious that torture that has unsavoury human rights implications under the Geneva Convention is being replaced by humiliation as a tool of interrogation of prisoners of war. The Pondicherry man, if we are to believe his story, with other soldiers both European and non-European had liberally used this humiliation technique on the Africans in Rwanda to achieve specific goals. The patient was detained in NIMHANS for de-conditioning. He went back home after a brief stay in hospital once again a normal man.

In the background of the above story and at the risk of realistically interpreting its impact on the recent developments in Iraq and Afghanistan, reports of the abuse of Iraqi soldiers and civilians by British troops – in one of the pictures a British soldier was seen urinating on the face of an Iraqi - carried by one of London’s tabloid newspapers was too much of a coincidence to be accepted as totally fake as claimed by the British Government.

The saga of the US soldiers’ physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war also falls into the same category. Torture is out and humiliation is in, as an interrogation technique for drawing out intelligence information from out of the enemy soldiers under detention. Armies of some nations have also used mass rape of women by the marauding soldiers as an instrument of collective punishment against internal uprisings within their societies. The aim: to break the back of resistance and force them into submission. Pakistan Army used this technique during the Bangladesh war of 1971. 250,000 young women were recovered from the trenches dug for defence during war by the soldiers of Pakistan Army. After the war ended the resource crunched newly established Bangladesh Government found it a hard task to find money to rehabilitate the quarter of a million pregnant women, the victims of rape.

Soviet Ambassador in New Delhi holds emergency meeting with Indian Prime Minister
Yuri Vorontsov was the Soviet Ambassador in New Delhi. At about midnight on Christmas Eve in 1979 he was frantically trying to get in touch with Choudhary Charan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister. The PM was indisposed with a temperature and had passed instructions not to be disturbed. The Soviet Ambassador was not in a mood to oblige the sick PM. He had more urgent things on his mind to discuss with him. The Foreign Secretary had to be raised from bed to accompany the Ambassador to the PM’s residence. It was past midnight into the Christmas Day when they arrived at the PM’s residence.

Vorontsov had a top urgent letter from Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet President to be delivered personally to Charan Singh. Under the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace and Friendship 1971, the Soviet Union was under a treaty obligation to inform India that the Red Army at the invitation of the Government of Afghanistan had marched into Kabul on December 24, 1979. Brezhnev wanted India’s support of this Soviet action. Charan Singh was new to the job and had hardly any experience of foreign policy. He thought carefully for a while and advised the Soviet Ambassador to go back and send an urgent personal message to President Leonid Brezhnev that the invasion of Afghanistan was not quite the right thing for the Soviet Union to do. He said that the Afghans were a fiercely independent people, proud of their nationalism and they would not take the invasion lying low. They would fight back and fight to the last. The PM quoted the instance of the British who had tried hard but failed to subjugate the Afghans. Charan Singh assured the Soviet Ambassador that under the Treaty, India would extend public support to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan but would privately advise Moscow to consider withdrawal as quickly as possible before matters got too complicated and out of control. Vorontsov was quite bowled over by the earthy wisdom of the inexperienced Indian Prime Minister.

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which looked like Moscow’s knee-jerk over-reaction to the Islamic Revolution in Iran occurring in the same year, was perhaps meant to stem the tide of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the region. That was at least what the Soviet leadership might have calculated in the strategic context. It lasted 10 years. Moscow’s justification of the invasion was that it believed that geographically Afghanistan fell within its sphere of influence just as Latin America belonged to the US sphere of influence. In other words, it was the Brezhnev doctrine of Soviet sphere of influence that was applied to Afghanistan just as the Monroe Doctrine of US sphere of influence applied to Latin America.

Washington rejected the Brezhnev Doctrine and began a proxy war against the Soviet Union with the help of Pakistan, its erstwhile blue-eyed boys the Taleban and Saudi Arabia. It turned out to be a messy proxy war that de-stabilised the whole region and finally saw the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The ten eventful years saw the rise and rise of the monster of a violent brand of Islamic fundamentalism. Brezhnev’s dream had turned into a nightmare. The Soviet Empire came apart. A strategic question now comes to mind : Will the US in due time meet the same fate as the Soviet Union at the hands of the Islamic Mujahideen? Osama bin Laden and his hard-core lieutenants believe that the violent brand of Islamic extremism drawing sustenance from the vast army of poor, illiterate and unemployed young Muslims spread across the continents, will win at the end. The neo-conservatives providing the ideological underpinning to the current US war on terror are no less convinced that it is the US that will win at the end.

America’s strength in its war on terror lies in its vastly superior technology but will this advantage be enough to confront an invisible enemy armed with an ideology of world domination and capable of using innovative techniques like ramming hijacked civilian aircraft as missiles against skyscrapers? The West’s greatest weakness is that it is ideologically a divided house in its war on terror. It is therefore too early to say who will be the winner at the end. The unknown factor is what form of revenge will Moscow take in punishing the US for what Washington did to Russia during the Afghan war. I am not saying that it is going to happen tomorrow.

The long-term consequences of 9/11 apart, the Indian Prime Minister Charan Singh’s warning to Moscow on December 24, 1979 that failure to expeditiously vacate the Afghan invasion could prove hurtful to the Soviet Union, proved so prophetic.

Not to be forgotten is the story of another Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee conveying his personal warning to the US President George W Bush that the War of Pre-emption against Iraq seemed to him to be neither lawful nor justified since no UN authorisation was obtained nor WMDs found. Vajpayee had also advised that "Regime Change" should be left to the internal processes of the countries concerned. It is not the business of outside powers however powerful to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. Since the world now knows that Saddam Hussein posed no military threat either to the US or to Britain, and had no WMDs or had any links with Al Qaeda, was the invasion and the devastation of Iraq not unnecessary? Vajpayee’s stand opposing the war on Iraq stood vindicated from India’s point of view.

The full version of this article is available in the print edition.

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