The State Department, the Media, and "Human Rights in South Asia"

I. A few years ago, I was walking down the street near the East Village with some colleagues from various organizations when a woman came up to us and stopped us.  "Have you heard about Gujara?" she asked me.  She did this without saying hello, introducing herself, or saying her name--which all makes sense, because she was, in fact, a total stranger.  She just happened to want to talk to me about the emotionally loaded topic of the Hindutva pogroms in Gujarat without knowing me, where I come from, or what my views might be.

However, when confronted with a memory like that, even years later, that has yet to be emotionally resolved, there is a choice that is slowly made - or perhaps a better way to describe it is that there are many microdecisions we make that can help move us in one direction or another in attempting to make sense of a random stranger who didn't know there was another consonant in the name of the place whose problems she wanted to discuss with a total (brown) stranger on the street.

II. The AFP ran an article today, US sees South Asia rights problems, that notes the issuance of the U.S. State Department's "annual report on human rights."  As you might imagine, the article is more useful as a text to deconstruct than as a tool for building your understanding of the world.  Unfortunately, there are many people who are in a position to do neither because of the processes by which political thought is limited, contained, controlled, directed, stifled in the United States, as Chomsky, for example, has convincingly pointed out.

Consider the first line:

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States has reported widespread human rights violations across South Asia but also noted glimmers of hope thanks to political transitions in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The "United States" (singular) is reporting - it is not involved.  Brown people commit "widespread human rights violations" but there are "glimmers of hope" (for whom?) because of "political transitions" in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.  

"But in what ways are these places similar or different?", a clever person will ask.  We go on to learn the answer to this question: there was "progress" as "Pakistan shook off military rule"; "Nepal's insurgents transformed into a ruling party"; and "a caretaker government guided Bangladesh into elections." 

We do not learn that beneath the trend of alternating periods of civilian and military rule in Pakistan throughout its post-independence history, there may be a secular trend of the growing militarisation of the economy, which the latest election did nothing to stop.  We also do not learn anywhere in the article that the Bangladeshi "caretaker government" was military backed, and that the replacement for the military government are political parties led by the same Two Women (Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina), or that the "guiding" consisted of a massive and likely misguided attempt to eradicate 'corruption'  for 'good governance' (which in turn, we are told, is good for 'development'). 

To know these things, we would have had to have been exposed to the backgrounds of these regions which most Americans, including South Asian Americans, do not.  To disagree with what I have written - which may in fact be more incorrect than correct! - you would have to be exposed to the backgrounds of these regions in a substantive way that relies on the importance of understanding the world around us on an empirical level rather than solely as a way to build stories in our heads to make the world we experience - or hear about - more palatable to us.

I've cherrypicked here, but I am doing so for the purposes of illustrating a point: the article is essentially (and I do mean essentially) a recapitulation/reconstruction of major memes about South Asian countries in the paternalistic portions of the educated classes of the United States and elsewhere.   Some of them go back hundreds of years - others are of more recent lineage.  This body of continuing Orientalism is what the feminist-leaning liberal American human rights activist will draw from to talk about gender issues in South Asia, what the lay person will look to to understand Nepal's "bloody decade-long Maoist insurrection", what the undergraduate will take to grasp the nature of Bangladeshi politics, what I will have in my head about the Maldives and Bhutan.  These are the things that "smart" people know - that India is "the world's biggest democracy", "secular but Hindu-majority" with dowry killings and female infanticide, that Pakistan "shook off military rule", that Nepal "peacefully dissolved the monarchy" after the bloody insurrection.

Moreover, for those "facts" in the article for which I don't have an external knowledge base or that are not internally contradictory, I am left with nothing except the gnawing spectre of angst: "The article mentions the Maldives - I don't know enough about the situation, so I can't refute what the article is saying; but I do know that the things I do know about in the article are part of a way of speaking about South Asia that is profoundly flawed, and I don't have the inclination to read about the Maldives right now because I have something else I would like to do."  So that line, whether I want it to or not, is in my head - and there is little I can do to erase it in the short run, even if I wanted to.  Therein lies the second function of this type of piece, not just to provide fodder for views that are easily mocked as false, but to paralyse us with a sense of ignorance if we don't 'know' what the truth is about these places.

III. However, as is self-evident from the fact that I have written this blog post and you are reading it all the way up to here - I believe there is a purpose beyond venting in engaging with this kind of material, that there is at least a partial solution.  I don't know how to describe it fully, but I can only reiterate the two points I made in the second paragraph - a treatment of the article is possible; moreover, we can spend our other time building an accumulation of assertions in our head that we trust to build, reconstruct, imagine different conceptions of South Asia than what we have and are inheriting.  In fact, the one task (deconstruction) without the other (building) would render us useless, and that would be a terrible place to be in the land of Obamatronic Talibanoutsourcinginvasions.  We would sit around and be left with only complaints about the woman who came up to us on the street and not understand the mode of power that led her to believe what she did.  We would also be left with nothing to help humanise the people who speak ignorantly and often lend their support to massively destructive projects, but not out of ill will.  People, say, like me.

And then what would we do?  Join the ones who continue to deny us a more true social analysis? No, it seems like there is something more to this, for those of us who are socially invested in South Asia and its diaspora and who are intellectually curious about what is "really" out there beyond the world of AFP and the U.S. State Department.

It seems like there is something more for those of us who are curious about what is "really" out there...

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