#143 This Day, That Year, Their Civilisation 🎧

Curl up for a long Sunday read: Ruminations on 9/11. Same Old Taliban. Plea for a 'Batter' India. And Road Sense


Programming Note: We are brewing another writing project. Since it demands some undivided attention (haha, so naïve!) we will not be posting for the next five weeks. We will republish a few of our older posts, maybe a few links and brief notes every week till then. Regular programming resumes on 23rd October 2021.

Global Policy Watch #1: 9/11, Toynbee and Civilisations 

Bringing an Indian perspective to global issues


I write this on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Like most adults, I have a clear memory of that day. I was in Bombay then. Just about getting my bearings straight in my first job. I left work early that evening (those were the days). Nariman Point, where I worked, to Warden Road, where I lived, was a half an hour commute then. I got into a ‘kaali-peeli’ and went past Marine Drive smoking a B&H. Quite posh. Especially, for someone who grew up in a small industrial township in eastern India and smoked unfiltered Charminar in college.

I usually got off at the intersection of Napean Sea Road and Warden Road. The Shemaroo (‘circulating’) library was located right opposite the Jogger’s Park. It was a dingy little place, packed with books, kids borrowing Harry Potters and a familiar musty smell of libraries that mixed with the salty Arabian Sea breeze blowing in from across. The proprietor spoke in a lazy Sindhi drawl (‘helloo, Shemaaarooo’) while keeping his eye all the time on a small TV that was mounted high on the wall on one end. On the other side of the street, further up the Napean Sea Road, was the famous Shemaroo video library. Another landmark of those times in south Bombay. Between these two establishments, my life in Bombay was a pleasant whirl of books and world cinema. And there was the paani-puri waala at the start of the Sophia College lane. Sorry, I digress.

Back to that evening. I had picked up a John Updike and was checking out from the library when the man at the counter with his eyes on the TV drawled - “yeh(hh) dekho(oo)”!

So, I turned right, looked up and saw the second plane crashing into the South Tower (2 WTC). Things weren’t the same again.

A couple of weeks back I saw the forlorn image of the last US soldier leaving Afghanistan. A grainy night picture enveloped in a ghostly, greenish hue. And I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast to that clear, blue fall day when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Those two images - one clean but ominous and the other blurry and defeated - bookend perhaps the most significant period of post-Cold War history whose echo will play out through this century.

2001 was a different time though. My life was good. India was shining. The western liberal democratic order had won the battle of superpowers. Nations, long suffering under communist dictatorships, were embracing democracy all around. Free market was in vogue. China was about to enter WTO. Borders were becoming meaningless. The end of history was nigh. We could feel it in our bones.

And here we are in 2021.

After many meaningless campaigns in Middle East and Afghanistan, the US is on a retreat with no interest in playing the global policeman. The global financial crisis (GFC) and the Covid-19 pandemic have dealt a body blow to globalisation. Borders have become more meaningful than ever as Brexit and the backlash against immigration have shown. The anger against the elite has seen the rise of right-wing nationalism and a retreat into authoritarian setups across the many fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. China turned prosperous but it didn’t turn into a liberal, open society as many had expected. Instead, it is mounting its own threat to the liberal order offering its model of a one-party regime that draws upon its civilisational memory as an alternative. India is not exactly shining now.

And for me? Well, I’m writing this newsletter.

Who could have imagined this in 2001?

There have been epochal events in history that changed its course. But none that lasted fewer than 20 minutes with a mere two buildings collapsing. We didn’t know it then. But they may have brought down a civilisation.

In the past few years, I have found greater meaning in the essays of the great 20th-century historian, Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), while trying to make sense of the change around us. This might seem surprising. Toynbee is hardly read any more in colleges. His last years where he made a distinct turn to the spiritual, his academic style that bypassed the factual for the ‘total human experience’, his rejection of Eurocentrism and his championing of Asian civilisational values made him an academic pariah by the end of his life. Yet, about half a century after his death, I see in his works a useful framework to appreciate the events that have unfolded in the past 20 years.

I will take up two elements of this frame in this edition.

Cultural Homogenisation versus Plurality of Civilisation

The idea that a dominant culture will impose its hegemony of ideas and beliefs through political will over other cultures seemed incongruous to Toynbee as he studied 19 successful and 9 abortive civilisations. That study yielded his 12-volume masterpiece, A Study of History. The two-volume abridged version by D.C. Somervell is easier to read and more accessible. For Toynbee, the dominant civilisation will export its way of life and cultural artefacts and they might even be accepted by others in a sign of apparent homogenisation. But it will be naïve to believe this acceptance and imitation of another culture signals the subsuming of a civilisation into the other.

There’s a great anecdote in Toynbee’s essay Islam, The West, And The Future (as part of his 1948 book Civilisation on Trial) which illuminates this idea (reproduced below):

“This state of mind may be illustrated by a conversation which took place in the nineteen-twenties between the Zaydi Imam Yahya of San’a and a British envoy whose mission was to persuade the Imam to restore peacefully a portion of the British Aden Protectorate which he had occupied during the general War of 1914-1918 and had refused to evacuate thereafter, notwithstanding the defeat of his Ottoman overlords.

In a final interview with the Imam, after it had become apparent that the mission would not attain its object, the British envoy, wishing to give the conversation another turn, complimented the Imam upon the soldierly appearance of his new-model army.

Seeing that the Imam took the compliment in good part, he went on: ‘And I suppose you will be adopting other Western institutions as well?’

‘I think not,’ said the Imam with a smile.

‘Oh, really? That interests me. And may I venture to ask your reasons?’

‘Well, I don’t think I should like other Western institutions,’ said the Imam.

‘Indeed? And what institutions, for example?’

‘Well, there are parliaments,’ said the Imam. ‘I like to be the Government myself. I might find a parliament tiresome.

‘Why, as for that,’ said the Englishman, ‘I can assure you that responsible parliamentary representative government is not an indispensable part of the apparatus of Western civilization. Look at Italy. She has given that up, and she is one of the great Western powers.’

‘Well, then there is alcohol,’ said the Imam, ‘I don’t want to see that introduced into my country, where at present it is happily almost unknown.’

‘Very natural,’ said the Englishman; ‘but, if it comes to that, I can assure you that alcohol is not an indispensable adjunct of Western civilization either. Look at America. She has given up that, and she too is one of the great Western powers.’

‘Well, anyhow,’ said the Imam, with another smile which seemed to intimate that the conversation was at an end, ‘I don’t like parliaments and alcohol and that kind of thing.’ (emphasis mine)

It is difficult for the Imam to put his finger on what “kind of thing” of the western civilisation is he dead against. There’s no definition of it. You could learn the western ways, read their great texts, trade with them, watch their films and grow prosperous following their lead; and yet, you would reject ‘that kind of thing’. There’s no logic to this. It is what it is. It’s always been this way.

As Toynbee continues:

The Englishman could not make out whether there was any suggestion of humour in the parting smile with which the last five words were uttered; but, however that might be, those words went to the heart of the matter and showed that the inquiry about possible further Western innovations at San’a had been more pertinent than the Imam might have cared to admit.

Those words indicated, in fact, that the Imam, viewing Western civilization from a great way off, saw it, in that distant perspective, as something one and indivisible and recognized certain features of it, which to a Westerner’s eye would appear to have nothing whatever to do with one another, as being organically related parts of that indivisible whole.

This is the Gandhian equivalent of accepting outside influences but on our own terms (“open your windows and let the winds blow in”). And not the isomorphic mimicry of the dominant culture that the elites of weaker nations often end up doing. Eventually, the plurality of civilisation asserts itself to redress the balance. Civilisation isn’t a destination. It is ever-changing and ever assimilating. As Toynbee memorably wrote:

“Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbour.”

This is what the past 20 years have shown us.

“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”

The other idea that Toynbee spent a great deal of time on was what causes civilisations to decline and fall. For Toynbee, civilisations didn’t break down because of a loss of control over their territory or human environment. Or a decline in military might or technology prowess. These are proximate causes but not the underlying reason. For Toynbee, the real decline is rooted in the social. Civilisations build and grow because of ‘creative response’ of a minority to difficult circumstances. This creative minority that battles the odds is the genesis of all civilisations. Over time, they overcome the external material threats through their military and economic might and build a stable platform for it to flourish. And then begins their focus on challenges that arise from within which require, what Toynbee calls, an inner or spiritual response. This is when a civilisation turns inwards, introspects deeply about itself and creates cultural markers that stand the test of time.

The decline comes because the creative minority (the elites as we might call them today) lose their creative power, turn self-obsessed and focus all their energies on self-preservation. The majority loses their trust in them and rebels. This leads to a loss of social cohesion and the civilisation splits into three groups. A ‘dominant minority’, a pale shadow of the creative minority of the past, that’s clinging on to their power; an ‘inner proletariat’ that’s within the civilisation but has no interest anymore in following the lead of the dominant minority and rebels against it; and lastly, an ‘external proletariat’ that’s beyond the boundaries of civilisation which now no longer is in the thrall of the dominant civilisation and resists any attempt by it to dominate any more. A civilisation in decline isn’t a pretty sight. There’s a lack of clarity on which way to steer it or even who will steer it. There’s an aimless drift in its affairs. There’s a longing for the glorious past or some kind of revolution that will usher in a new future. It is a fertile ground for demagogues.

Sometime during the Vietnam War, Toynbee wrote:

“Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.”

I will leave you to draw your inferences as you read the above section and look at the course America has taken over the past two decades.

History might not repeat. But it rhymes.

I will close with what Toynbee thought was the only way for a civilisation to revive itself:

“Schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme to return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements [of civilization]. Only birth can conquer death―the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.”

There’s a lesson there for the US.

And if you read that closely, there’s a lesson in there for India of the present too.


Global Policy Watch #2: 9/11 and the Myth of Mindless Violence

Bringing an Indian perspective to global issues

— Guest Post by Ameya Naik

Even if you’ve never read Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, you’ve probably come across her theories on grief and loss. She proposed that the human mind processes grief in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Modern research has built on this model, supporting what may seem intuitive - that the five stages are often not linear, and that grief can be prolonged, impacted, and circular.

As a psychiatrist, Kubler-Ross developed her theories (and then applied them) in her work with terminally ill patients in Chicago and California. As anyone who has lost a family member to such a condition will know, these are intensely personal experiences, as the afflicted person and their family grapple with illness, pain, and impending loss.

Such experiences can be qualitatively different from instances of societal rupture: events that become a shared experience of loss, pain, trauma, or disruption. Unlike illness, which is ultimately an anticipable part of any personal or family life story, these societal events are like the shock of a traffic accident, magnified many times over. They can be seen as ruptures precisely because those who experience them recall feeling that the world changed -- that life would never be as it was before.

It was just such an experience with mass violence and disruption that sparked Kubler-Ross’ own interest in how the human mind processes death, both actual and impending. As a volunteer with the International Voluntary Service for Peace at the end of World War II, she visited the Majdanek concentration camp outside Lublin, Poland. Her biography describes a striking image she found there: on a wall in the camp, prisoners awaiting execution had somehow carved a picture of butterflies in flight. 

It was an illustration, she said, not only of transformation - the philosophical idea that death is not an end, but a transition - but also of dignity among the dying. That this could be found even amidst the cruelty of a concentration camp is poetic; it cannot change the fact of the deaths that followed, but it does change their meaning.

There is a second sense in which violence has meaning: the perpetrators of violence often intend it to convey a specific message to a specific group, often the community to which their victims belong. That message is usually some version of “do not imagine you are safe”. Sometimes it comes with the expectation of surrender - I can hurt you, so you had best not resist my will. In other cases, as with terrorist attacks, fear is an end in itself.

Much of the study of political violence is understanding when a group uses violence against another or others, and what message they aim to convey thereby. For instance, Dara Kay Cohen and her colleagues have done exceptional work on understanding the variations in use of sexual violence in conflict - who does it, under what circumstances, and with what motive or desired effect.

This is the irony of studying terrorism: it is war, and hence politics, by other means - and politics is all about messaging and influence. The perpetrators of a terrorist attack are well aware of how their actions will be interpreted, and quite deliberate in choosing actions that send such a message. 

We know this is true, and yet, the survivors and family members of victims of a terrorist attack are probably the last people who want to hear such an analysis. Their loved ones have been snatched away from them, suddenly and painfully. Some are fortunate to find, even in that loss, a story of courage and dignity -- for instance among the passengers on United Flight 93. Others, especially when in the stages of denial and anger, will pronounce these events -- the violence and loss -- meaningless, senseless, mindless.

I have spent the past week and more listening to many voices speaking about attacks of September 11th, 2001, and what the twenty years since have involved, what lessons can be learnt, and so on. There can be no dispute that this event was a rupture -- our world has not been the same as it was before. A more complete accounting of what exactly has changed, though, is likely to prove difficult.

As you take in these many voices, please take it as a sign that “what 9/11 means” is far from settled; to the extent that it meant and means different things to different people, a final answer may never be possible. What is certain is that the attacks themselves, and the “Global War on Terror” that followed, was neither mindless nor meaningless; violence never is.

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Matsyanyaaya: The Taliban Government and What it Means for India

Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action

— Pranay Kotasthane

(This is a draft of my article which appeared first in Times of India’s Thursday, September 9th edition.)

Taliban has again done what it does best: make vague promises, extract concessions, and return to their original plan. Meanwhile, the interlocutors continue to extract more promises from the Taliban — hoping that the group has changed — only to return disappointed. This cycle repeats. Afghans suffer.

The newly announced Taliban government is a good illustration of this now-familiar playbook. Former President Hamid Karzai and the Head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah's presence in Qatar gave an impression that an interim government with broader representation is in the works. The Taliban made the right noises all through the Doha agreement negotiations about creating an inclusive government. But when the government was finally announced, it was anything but inclusive.

The exclusion of women in the ministry shouldn't surprise anyone. Instead, notice three other aspects. Many old-timers have found a place in the government as a reward for their role during the twenty-year war. For the Taliban, it didn't matter if the international community had put these leaders under travel and financial sanctions. For a long time, the US  believed that these sanctions could mould the Taliban's future behaviour. Not only did the Taliban ignore this carrot of removing sanctions, but it has also chosen to appoint Sirajuddin Haqqani — still on the FBI's wanted list — as the powerful Minister of Interior. When asked on a Pakistani news show about the sanctions curtailing the ministers' ability to govern, the Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen countered that the US had gone back on its Doha agreement promise of removing the sanctions three months after the intra-Afghan dialogue began.  

Two, as Ibraheem Bahiss of the Crisis Group points out, there are no Hazaras, just two Tajiks, one Uzbek, and hardly any representation from the north in the 33-member government. Pashtuns from the southern part of Afghanistan — Taliban's strong base — have disproportionate representation. While the world is still hoping that this caretaker government would transition to a more inclusive government in the future, the Taliban continues to maintain that it is already an inclusive formation. Despite the steadfast opposition, the Taliban's narrative has always been that without broad-based support, they wouldn't have been able to sustain a war with a superpower for twenty years.

And three, the Pakistan-backed factions have cornered all the positions. Not only is the Haqqani Network in, but all candidates known to take an independent line are out. The Doha political office has been sidelined, while Mullah Abdul Ghani 'Baradar' has been relegated to a deputy prime minister role.

Given the lopsided composition of this government, protests from many sections of society are likely to continue. The latest rounds of protests in Kabul were in opposition to Pakistan's interference in Afghanistan's domestic affairs. Such a perception will only gain strength with the formation of a government that came into being after an ISI Chief visited Kabul. Twitter feeds of protests in Kabul will continue to pressure other governments to modulate their engagement with the new government. Expect the resistance forces in the north to regroup once the Taliban lowers its guard there. From a foreign policy angle, the US is unlikely to grant any economic relief to this government.

From the Indian perspective, hopes that the Taliban will be aggressive towards Pakistan, once in power, should be shelved for now. This government is, without doubt, a Pakistan-installed and Pakistan-controlled administration. It also means that any resumption of Indian diplomatic presence in Afghanistan will remain severely diminished for quite some time. Beyond limited contact to enable humanitarian assistance, the risks of engaging with this administration far outweigh the benefits.

Finally, we shouldn't forget that the Taliban wants to transform the Afghanistan State itself. It won't be content with installing a government alone. The Taliban believes that it has freed Afghanistan from foreign powers, and its next project is to create a new constitution. Many Afghans will continue to oppose this revisionist project.

India Policy Watch #1: Pluralism and its Discontents

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Pranay Kotasthane

“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” RSJ’s invocation of Toynbee reminded me of an instance of majoritarianism from the past week that should scare us, once again.

A Bengaluru-based ready-to-cook food manufacturer was accused of mixing cow bones in dosa batter, through a targeted disinformation campaign on popular social media. To sound even more compelling, the posts also said that the company employed ‘only Muslims', it Halal certified, and hence ‘every single’ Hindu should refrain from buying its products.

At one level, none of this should surprise us. Like everything else in India, food is also not personal. It’s communal and hence communal. The Information Age version of food-based majoritarinism perhaps began in 2015 with the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri following the circulation of three photos of meat and bones of a slaughtered animal via WhatsApp. Since then, such instances have become irregularly regular.

And yet, this latest instance hurts. Perhaps because it is personal. I am an admiring customer of the brand facing baseless accusations. Their ready-to-cook food has popularised a whole new segment of breakfast eats, and inspired many a copycats in the process.

On deeper reflection, I realised how this instance illustrates the instrumental significance of tolerance. Religious tolerance (or the lack of it) can even change the nature of acceptable competition in markets. In a communally-charged environment, instead of product quality and differentiation, targeting the religion of a seller becomes the shortest-path-to-ground for a hypothetical adversary. Why compete when you can communalise? What happens to an economy in which this hatred itself becomes the primary method for oneupmanship between employees and between firms?

It is easy to blame social media apps that are used to propagate such messages. But its really the ‘social distancing’ between Hindus and Muslims that has allowed people to frame, disseminate, and want to believe, the most outlandish accusations against each other.

And so, when I think of twenty years since 9/11, my heart sinks. While the terrorists have been defeated over the last decades, it seems to me that terrorism has won. It has deepened the divides between religious communities. Terrorism has even managed to set the terms for casual debates about politics, society, and culture. And most importantly, it has torn down the carefully constructed idea of Indian pluralism. Like with the language of terrorism, the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’ has become central to the existence of all our religious communities. If terrorism is theatre, the show’s been running for twenty years and still going strong.

I’ll end this lament with a Puliyabaazi episode with Ghazala Wahab, whose book ‘Born a Muslim’ tries to bridge the knowledge gap between Hindus and Muslims. We need many more such stories if we truly want to vanquish majoritarianism.

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India Policy Watch #2: On-road behaviour and us

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Pranay Kotasthane

Roads are like big functions — you come across several annoying people whom you meet just once. But on roads, this fearsome interchange happens every single day. And so on-road behaviour tells a lot about our society, values, and priorities. Two thoughts regarding roads made me write this piece.

One, the precipitous fall in observing traffic rules since COVID-19 began. In my city, driving on the left-side of the road divider was a rule largely followed before the pandemic hit. But that norm melted once the traffic thinned during the first-wave. Not surprising. But what’s interesting is the persistence of this norm-breaking. Observe how the norm, once broken, hasn’t been put together even as vehicle traffic has gone back to near normal on key roads. Is this your observation as well? What’s happened to rule-breaking on roads in your city? How can we return to the older equilibrium of more rule-following?

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Two, I read this tongue-in-cheek and yet not tongue-in-cheek story of the Union Roads Minister’s idea that vehicle horns should also play to their tunes, meaning that horns should sound like flutes, violins, and tabla (how sushil and sanskaari).

So that the honourable minister doesn’t seem out of place, I have another wacko idea — a two-way horn that’s audible to drivers. I even wrote something on it seven years ago in CitizenMatters:

A basic law of economics states that a rational person makes a choice by comparing the costs and benefits associated with it. If the marginal benefits of picking an alternative exceed the marginal costs, that alternative is picked. It is relevant in the current context because the marginal costs currently are too low for the offenders to force them to give up the benefit experienced by pressing the easily accessible horn button. Raising monetary costs alone will not be sufficient to change the predisposition of the average Indian driver, which is to use the horn as an object to reduce his/her on-road anxiety — much like an office desk stress ball.

One way is to think beyond fines and instead increase the emotional costs for the offenders. This can be done, for example, by installation of horns that channel a portion of the sound they generate towards the vehicle users themselves.

Currently, the users are practically shielded from the noise pollution because the design is such that the sound is amplified and expelled outwards. If, on the other hand, if a blaring horn also causes discomfort to the user’s ears, it will make him/her think twice before launching a noise assault on other road users, particularly the unarmed pedestrians.

Though the design of such a system is simple and costs not high, it is natural that no vehicle maker will be interested in incorporating this for the fear of turning away possible customers. And this is where governments can step in. The Union government can create noise guidelines on the lines of the Bharat Stage emission standards. Such vehicular noise guidelines with broad specifications for horns that feed back to the user will help bring down noise levels.

Along with the existing initiatives, this step of increasing emotional costs can make our urban public spaces sane and peaceful. Ideally, a society that is more empathetic towards others will not need such government interventions. But until we reach that enlightened state, we need our governments and our people to collectively tackle this social evil of urban noise pollution.

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Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. [Podcast] Dan Carlin on the retreat from Afghanistan: After 20 years in Afghanistan the U.S. exits the country thus ending the longest war in American history. Are there any lessons to be learned?

  2. [Article] Yuval Harari’s 2015 article on the theatre of terror

  3. [Podcast] Toynbee’s Reith Lectures from 1952. The BBC website has taken down the audio for five of the six parts. Thankfully, the transcripts are all available here (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6).