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Speech on the  occasion of the DSC South Asian Literature Festival, London – October 2010

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I wrote an essay called ‘Salman Rushdie and the fictions of Third World Politics’, in which I argued that Magic Realism was the best way of dealing with South Asian politics since they were truly stranger than fiction. Those, if you remember, were days in which two generals ruled with rods of iron in Pakistan and Bangladesh, when the Americans were encouraging Al Qaeda to topple the godless Communists in Afghanistan, when the monarchy in Nepal introduced and withdrew democracy at will, when Sri Lanka had postponed elections through a brutal referendum in between attacks on Tamils that were encouraged if not perpetrated by elements in government. Bhutan was an absolute monarchy, the President of the Maldives had been going strong for a decade and a half and was to continue in power for as long again afterwards. Only India, after its brief flirtation with authoritarianism in the seventies, seemed safely democratic, but there Mrs Gandhi had just been assassinated by her own bodyguards.

Ironically enough, the only government – apart from the admittedly unsavoury Afghan communist regime – of which the West disapproved in those distant days was the Indian one, the only one that had in fact been selected by the people. In the dying days of the Cold War, when South Asia was – trust our luck – worse affected than ever before,  we had to cope with the Reagan/Thatcher doctrine of Our Bastards, which Lyndon Johnson and Henry Kissinger had used to pervert South East Asia and Africa – and indeed South America too – in earlier decades.

Much of this is forgotten now, in the new found zeal the West displays for democracy, and perhaps we should not be too harsh on those monsters of yesteryear. After all, as I was recently told, in criticism of a piece on my blog that drew attention to the disastrous carving up of the Middle East after the First World War, ‘The defeat of the Soviet Union was one of the great victories of the 20th century on a par with the defeat of Nazism and the Kaiser – nay greater if on a kill-ratio basis. It was worth the temporary alliance with the fundamentalists in Afghanistan, as the alliance was with Stalin to defeat Hitler. The unprecedented flourishing of democracy and liberalism that followed the fall of the Berlin wall would not have otherwise happened’.  The monsters too had their own ideals, and given the Euro-centric mindsets of those days, we should not be too indignant that they did not really look on people elsewhere as human in the same sense as themselves.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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