Jawed Naqvi Published March 29, 2022
THE school in Lucknow where Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is situated as a student used to only have British students in the beginning. When I joined the racial mix of Anglo-Indians with students of other cultural stripes, colonial-era disciplining methods were still in vogue. For good measure, a particular corporal punishment favoured by teachers had elements of the tragedy unfolding for the Ukrainians.
The vicarious punishment was called ‘pairing off’. Should the class teacher ask for the boy who stuffed his half-smoked cigar left on the table with match heads (to explode in the staffroom), other students, barring cowardly exceptions, were ready to ‘own up’ to the crime they never committed. This ‘I am Spartacus’ spirit needed to be broken. The headmaster would call out two closest friends from among the unyielding boys, and order them to slap each other. The duel invariably turned into a gentle cheek-patting exercise. A stinging slap from the teacher to one or both grudging combatants then prompted the start of a brutal scene of friends turning on each other. At the political platform, this colonial-era school punishment was known as divide-and-rule policy. It happened in India and it happened elsewhere too.
Turning Ukraine cynically into another Afghanistan may not work for the West.
One is tempted to see the Slavs, that the Ukrainians and Russians mainly are, in the image of India’s Other Backward Class. Slavs are numerically Europe’s single largest ethnic group albeit with variations in culture and language. OBCs constitute around half of Indians, a majority of them from the lowest rung in the caste ladder. In some ways, Slavs are not unlike India’s Jats, the mostly agrarian community, who are culturally and religiously diverse, as Sikh, Muslim and Hindu Jats are, and who comprise a significant number of soldiers between India and Pakistan. The peasant-soldier’s political clout is shored by their numerical strength, which the ruling minority traditionally undermines with divisive policies.
Slavic men women and children were victims of white slave traffic carried out by European and non-European powers. President Putin may have saved Syria from the total annihilation that visited other erstwhile pro-Soviet countries after the fall of the USSR. Libya, Iraq, South Yemen, Palestine once constituted the red lines the West would not breach against Moscow, for the same reasons that it will not impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine. The Soviet-backed countries were destroyed after their support system vanished. While Putin did save Syria from Western predation, there was a time in history when Syria’s 7th-century army under Muawiyah I had a large number of erstwhile Slavic slaves. White slaves were equally part of the history of the Ottoman and Roman empires among others. The Russian revolution changed the equation. And the Soviet Union brought most other Slavic states under its watch under the Warsaw Pact.
The war between Russia and Ukraine is being fanned and fuelled by the West and sold vicariously to the world by its influential media. The latest example of loud cheer when two gladiators — comrades otherwise — were locked in a fight to death came from President Biden. He stoked the embers by calling for President Putin’s removal from power. The speech was reinterpreted by his damage controllers — upon nudging from France among others — as an allusion to Putin’s hold on non-Russian countries. The rowing back wouldn’t wash. Where being deposed is concerned, Biden’s ratings that crashed with the curiously messy withdrawal from Afghanistan haven’t picked up with the war in Ukraine he has stoked, fanned and fuelled. In fact, it may not be wrong to see how the smug withdrawal from Afghanistan, which increased everyone’s misery in Kabul’s neighbourhood, was planned as requirement for a new front with Moscow.
Turning Ukraine cynically into another Afghanistan may not work for the West. The showdown will bring pain and heartbreak for both the Slavic cousins no doubt. On the other side, the Americans may sell more gas to Europe though they may not match 10 per cent of Russia’s share of the European market any time soon. In the end Ukrainians are more likely to be left looking at the West as betrayers, a thought surfacing in President Zelensky’s anguished utterances. Biden’s partisans are beginning to look like Job’s comforters, aggravating the agony of those they claim to help.
What a miracle Europe’s OBCs conjured for themselves though. They became a formidable industrial power that put the first man in space. It was Yuri Gagarin’s death anniversary on March 27, and regardless of the painful war they never wanted, Russians stoically marched to his memorial to pay tribute. It is an expression of the Soviet miracle that Ukraine is able to defend itself against its abbreviated successor, though still its own Slavic cousin. The bomb shelters helping its citizens retreat into safety were built by the Soviets. The strategy to survive Russia’s lethal assault and the determination to take on the challenge comes from Soviet days. Remember Russia lost 27 million citizens to stall the Nazi onslaught, the biggest toll of any nation against Hitler. Therefore, when the free media talks of this or that Russian general falling in the Ukraine war, they should be better aware of the history that knows Russians — much like the Jats of India — as emotional fighters. It is equally a tribute to the Soviet-era training of Ukraine that its valiant fighters know the antidote to the aggression.
While critics call Putin a relic of Stalinism, they are in fact paying him a compliment. There’s no gainsaying that Stalin defeated Hitler and remained invincible at home as long as he lived. What the Western media perhaps means and certainly Biden too wants is that Putin should go Khrushchev’s way. Khrushchev, Stalin’s staunch critic, was the Soviet leader to be deposed in a palace coup, by Brezhnev, ironically a Ukrainian. On his part, the headmaster, cane in hand, is sensing that the ‘pairing off’ isn’t working.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2022