The evolution of white man’s burden

As a 23-year-old woman trying to while away the time in curfew-imposed Srinagar city in the 90s, I turned to books more than ever to try and understand why we were in the middle of a violent movement and what prompted a peaceful people to take up arms against the might of a fully trained and equipped army. As I delved further into political systems and how the world operated outside the Banihal tunnel and how economic policies somewhere in the world affected an insulated population too, I increasingly saw how much a ‘clash of civilizations’ there had been historically. I learnt about simple terms and ideologies such as socialism, colonialism, post-modernism, capitalism and as things got clearer, it became apparent that a choice had to be made regarding human values and principles of democracy, freedom and liberty. It’s been only recently that I understood the wide spectrum of the Left, Right, and Centric. But the more one starts delving into political struggles, on-line debates, arguments and counter-arguments of the liberals and seculars and activists, etc, it can get very confusing between the far Left and the far Right and the Left-Centric, etc. Not to mention the feminists and the meninists!

The choice to observe the evils of one’s society and whether to stay quiet about it or not never occurred to me. I have never been one to stay quiet over an injustice. But the choice was whether to favor the means to an end or the end itself. Becoming aware of exclusively Eastern-originating repressive practices like honor killings, child brides, ‘bacha bazi’, FGM (female genital mutilation), female foeticide, sexual assault, religiously sanctioned domestic violence and child abuse and other misogynistic trends made me wonder how countries which fight for animal rights and are now even exploring the possibilities of the right of the individual to die with dignity exist on the same planet as those countries where the horrific above mentioned practices are prevalent. I am no longer the 23-year-old still trying to understand history. I can see the effects of colonization on the mindsets of the people as well as the development that occupation of colonies brought with it like railways, roads, hospitals, schools, modern healthcare, mental healthcare introduced through the rulers. Of course, collaborators were needed to maintain order and keep the general population in check along with the usual administrative day to day dealings with the locals. The ‘collaborators’ or as the new parlance is ‘allies’ were trained, sometimes armed and even given powers to rule and deal with legal hassles, etc. But what happens when the ‘collaborator’ is the dictator, the ally turns out to be just as autocratic and oppressive as the occupier in the first place? Do the people choose between the two evils and opt for the lesser evil or do they by virtue of their nationalism or patriotism prefer the evils of their own culture rather than the progress and accountability the occupier promises and is somewhat possible?

A recent New York Times article by Joseph Goldstein screaming ‘US Soldiers told to Ignore Afghan Allies Abuse of Boys’ laid bare the struggles two US Army men who did not look the other way and three who lost their lives. Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain who beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave was relieved of his command and pulled from Afghanistan. He has since left the military. The US Army is also trying to forcibly retire Sgt. First Class Charles Martland, a Special Forces member who joined Captain Quinn in beating up the commander, whose initial reaction prior to the beating was laughter at the allegations. The Army contends that Martland and others should have looked the other way.

The tragedy goes further. Lance Corporal Gregory Buckley Jr. and two other Marines were killed in 2012 by one of a large entourage of boys living at their base with an Afghan police commander named Sarwar Jan. In the same article Joseph Goldstein describes how Lance Corporal Buckley had noticed that a large entourage of “tea boys” — domestic servants who are sometimes pressed into sexual slavery — had arrived with Mr. Jan and moved into the same barracks, one floor below the Marines. He told his father about it during his final call home. “At night we can hear them screaming, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it… “ the Marine’s father, Gregory Buckley Sr., recalled his son telling him before he was shot to death at the base in 2012. He had urged his son to tell his superiors. “My son said that his officers told him to look the other way because it’s their culture.”

Yes, culture! In a world increasingly getting both tolerant and intolerant of other people’s culture, sensibilities, religious beliefs, way of life and values, the euphemism — ‘it is their culture’ — is often justified for blatant human rights violations like wife-beating, honor killings, mass slaughter of animals on festivals, code of silence around incest, rape and paedophilia, etc. The ‘clash’ of civilizations in the early 17th to the late 19th century did bring about hurricane changes to both the oppressed and the oppressors if the post-modern theories are to be believed. The colonizers with their belief in the ‘righteousness’ of the white man’s burden did commit genocide with the inevitable result of ushering in democracy, women’s rights, and humanism of the Western civilization. And the colonized changed too either turning towards embracing their ‘roots’ into a nationalistic fervour becoming more and more fanatic about it or totally getting disgruntled by the ‘inferiority’ of their own cultures and societies and turning into those white collar Messey Sahibs bent on brutalizing the locals with their newly acquired colonial mannerisms and association with modernity.

The result: a legacy of confused identities for Midnight’s Children or Jinnah’s Orphans as two famous authors respectively call those born on the subcontinent post-1947 after the Partition. I am reminded of the effect on British officers of the East India Company when they first encountered the horrific practice of Sati (or Suttee) in the 18th century in undivided India. Sati is the practice among some Hindu communities by which a recently widowed woman either voluntarily or by use of force or coercion commits suicide as a result of her husband’s death. The best-known form of sati is when a woman burns to death on her husband’s funeral pyre. However, other forms of sati exist, including being buried alive with the husband’s corpse and drowning. The influx of Europeans into India under the Raj meant that the practice of Sati was being scrutinized as never before with missionaries, travelers and civil servants alike condemning the official Raj tolerance of the ‘dreadful practice’ and calling for its end according to Robert L Hardgrave Jr. in his 1998 book The Representation of Sati: Four Eighteenth-Century Etchings by Baltazard Solvyns.

In his classic ‘Raj: the Making and Unmaking of British India’, James Lawrence writes that in 1827 the Governor-General of India, Lord Bentinck, finally outlawed the custom in its entirety, claiming it had no sound theological basis and that this outlawing was considered the first direct affront to Indian religious beliefs and, therefore, contributed to the end of the British Raj. But it was not entirely unwelcome and many Indian rulers of the 19th century welcomed its abolition. Fast forward to Afghanistan in 2011. There has long been an undercurrent of man-boy pedophilia in Afghanistan. There’s even a term for it: “bacha bazi,” or boy play. And perverse rituals associated with it. In one, prepubescent boys dressed as girls dance for powerful men, who then buy them or pay to use them as prostitutes. But it’s a mistake to think of it as something that is culturally accepted, says Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, who adds that everyday Afghans “would speak about people who did this in very, very derogatory terms. . . . There was an acknowledgment that this was something society was seeking to reform.”

In fact bizarrely, during their brutal rule, the Taliban punished ‘bacha bazi’ severely and since their downfall the practice is back in full swing. But since the US military has to keep good relations with its allies, it chooses to urge its men to ‘look the other way’ so that its easier for order to be restored and the Army can depart without admitting defeat and interfering in the personal predilections of the warlord or police chief or militia commander who is best able to restore that ‘order’, writes the Globe columnist Scot Lehigh in his Sept 23 article, ‘An intolerable outrage in Afghanistan’. So the paradox of the ‘white man’s burden’ is exposed here. To euphemize America’s colonization of the Philippines, Rudyard Kipling, a British writer, “justified” it as the white man’s burden to spread its superior civilization. But in enforcing that ‘burden’, the white man ended up ‘self-serving’ at the cost of the conscience of its people and many, many body bags.

It happened in India under the Raj too. Even though the British expressed horror at the practice of sati, they divided the practice into the good, legal sati, which involved the voluntary submission to death, and the bad sati, which involved coercion. Denial of subjectivity to women was the practice of a colonial British culture that saw men as individual, autonomous subjects and that had divided women into the infantilized angel of the house and the victimized whore. Good sati was described in the British newspapers in a non-horrified way, showing that for English culture, a voluntary sacrifice or submission of a woman was to be praised. The submissive, bourgeois Englishwoman was to be horrified at the practice of sati but also to admire such submission. Sati became a lesson in barbarism and in female obedience. These colonial reforms were attempts at extending patriarchal power to Englishwomen as well as to those colonized peoples whose practices seemed to escape it. Colonial reform movements placed Indian women under new forms of patriarchal oppression while purporting to free them from the power of Indian men.

The same is happening in Afghanistan. The risk that the warlords or militia are taking to restore peace in their countries is given the upper hand while the barbaric practices that they indulge in are chosen to be a part of their culture and conveniently ignored despite the war cry of bringing freedom and democracy to a defeated and broken people. In my mind, I see and hear a 21-year-old Corporal talking in a dejected voice to his father about the rampant abuse he and his fellow officers were seeing and not being able to do anything about it. Soon he is dead, killed by one of the same abused boys being kept in the barracks for the entertainment of the police chief Sarwar Jan against whom there were earlier reports of corruption, opium smuggling and gun running. Lance Corporal Buckley’s father Gregory Buckley Sr. still agonizes about whether the killing occurred because of the sexual abuse by an American ally. Because in the minds of the young boys who are victims, the US Marines are allowing it to happen and so they’re guilty by association. He adds, “They don’t know the Marines are sick to the stomachs.”

So will the US Army go Lord Bentinck’s way and put its ‘boots down’ or will they just go by the British Raj newspapers’ way and give new tools of oppression to an already defeated and demoralized country. President Ashraf Ghani’s pledge on Wednesday to stamp out a practice pervasive among many wealthy and prominent men in his country is a welcome step. But it won’t be possible without the ‘white man’s burden’. Cultures, civilizations, countries, peoples have changed, been enriched, reformed due to the intermingling of various faiths and their value systems. That is how great civilizations survived and thrived and often withstood the sands of time. Otherwise, we have the danger of imploding within ourselves; obliterating all the good of our societies and with it the chance to contribute to the world diversity.

I should know.

I belong to such an insulated society hell bent on destroying itself.

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