In recent days, a remarkable colloquy has taken place in the American media between two men widely regarded as the greatest contemporary Indian novelists. Amitav Ghosh, in America's most important progressive weekly magazine, The Nation, argued that a new imperialism is in the air: "The idea of empire...has recently undergone a strange rehabilitation in the United States."
Within a week, Salman Rushdie wrote an essay for The New York Times, asserting of Kashmir that "right now it's the most dangerous place in the world," and asking whether a fear of 'imperial' intervention might not be allowing the world to slide into a nuclear conflagration.
I do not know if Rushdie was specifically responding to Ghosh, or whether the two essays simply address a region and an issue that is on everyone's mind at this historical moment. Although Americans know little about Kashmir, they are nonetheless troubled by reports that over a million troops, Indian and Pakistani, are massed at the Line of Control and on the two countries' common border. The possibility that sporadic violence could lead to war, and war to the two nations 'going nuclear,' has currency in the American press. (One recent national story asserted with pseudo-scientific certainty that a nuclear exchange would produce 12 million fatalities - not 13 million, not 28.467 million, not just an 'incomprehensible number'.
Here is the lead of Thom Shanker's front-page story in the national paper of record, The New York Times: "An American intelligence assessment, completed this week as tensions between India and Pakistan intensified, warns that a full-scale nuclear exchange between the two rivals could kill up to 12 million people immediately and injure up to seven million, Pentagon officials say." The numerical exactitude is staggering in its arrogant assertion that hypothetical guesswork is somehow an accurate measurement of future events.)
The thought of a nuclear war is profoundly unsettling. And, not knowing what might happen in South Asia nor how to keep the unthinkable from happening, Americans welcome guidance. The American populace, largely people of goodwill, want to know what sort of role, if any, the United States can play in forestalling threats to world peace.
The politicos in Washington are not similarly inclined to seek out advice. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Richard Cheney seem to have the world figured out, knowing instinctively who the good guys and the bad guys are. For them, as for President Bush to whom they are the central advisers, it is all a matter of stopping terrorism against the United States: 'If you're not with us then you are against us'. This is tied to the corollary that if terrorism is visited upon Americans, it is evil; if terrorism targets those who are not American, it is regrettable and maybe even bad - or maybe only the ways things are.
But the American public wants to learn about what might be, what should be, done. Enter Amitav Ghosh. Enter Salman Rushdie. Both men are remarkably thoughtful, and both are brimming with insight. The concerns of each, however, are almost diametrically opposed to the other.
Mr. Ghosh reported that the notion of empire is resurgent on both left and right in America and Britain. His assessment is accurate: "Those who embrace the idea of empire frequently cite the advantages of an imperial peace over the disorder of the current world situation." But, Ghosh argues, the peace-making function of empire is triply compromised. First, resort to empire is compromised by history. In the twentieth century the imposition of peace almost inevitably provoked enormous conflict. As Ghosh writes, "The peace of the British, French and Austro-Hungarian empires was purchased at the cost of a destabilization so radical as to generate the two greatest conflicts in human history: the world wars."
Second, empire is compromised by internal logic, as Ghosh brilliantly argues. "In a world run by empires, some people are rulers and some are the ruled: It is impossible to think of a situation where all peoples possess an empire. On the other hand, the idea of the nation-state, for all its failings, holds the great advantage that it can indeed be generalized to all peoples everywhere."
Third, empire is undermined by its own inbuilt dynamic of endless expansion and relentless assertion. "An imperium also generates an unstoppable push toward overreach, which is one of the reasons it is a charter for destabilization."
Ghosh is eloquent in reminding us all, post-colonizers and post-colonized alike, that imperial ambitions lead to catastrophe. In particular, he questions whether intervention by powerful nations can, in the long run, do anything more than destabilize the world by creating a new colonial imperium convinced of its right to exert control over the nations of the world. Even with the best of intentions, imperial interventions ultimately undermine the national autonomy of every country but the superpowers.
Mr. Rushdie, seems, seems, to be responding to Ghosh. He abjures the general to look at the specific, the present ongoing conflict over Kashmir. He sees a narrow partisan political agenda impelling Prime Mister Vajpayee to nationalism and militancy in order to position the BJP so that it can win out in the next general election. Further, he sees this as a repetition of Mr. Vajpayee's previous militancy over Kashmir, which also took place shortly before general elections were forthcoming.
Rushdie clear-sightedly compares this to the similarly narrow partisan political agenda impelling President Musharraf. Mr. Musharraf needs to satisfy the very Islamist radicals who sided with him when he overthrew President Nawaz Sharif. That overthrow, Rushdie reminds us, was justified on the grounds that Mr. Sharif reined in Muslim terrorists, instead of insisting upon national autonomy, when the Americans pressured him to do so. (The American baseball player Yogi Berra, who often slaughtered the English language, nonetheless came up with memorable bon mots in his verbal confusion. One of them, Rushdie would assert, is appropriate to both India and Pakistan today: 'It is dij' vu all over again.')
These partisan agendas of the current leaders of India and Pakistan are propelling both nations ever closer to war and, indeed, nuclear confrontation. In this context, Rushdie maintains, "The point is to make the world safer for us all. The situation can only be stabilized if India and Pakistan are both forced to back away, preferably to outside of Kashmir's historic, unpartitioned borders."
He goes on to suggest that an imperial solution may be necessary, even as he echoes Ghosh's concerns about such a step. Rushdie says, "This 'hands off Kashmir' solution will have to be externally imposed on the reluctant principals and will require that a large peacekeeping force be sent to the region to support Kashmir as an autonomous area. But who in the West wants that - it's just the old colonialist-imperialist power trip, isn't it?"
But his Ghosh-like question raises other questions, especially given the context: the possibility of a nuclear war of tragic proportions. And so Rushdie asks, "What's the alternative? Do you have a better idea? Or shall we just stand back and keep our post-colonial, non-imperialist fingers crossed? Will it take mushroom clouds over Delhi and Islamabad to make us give up our ingrained prejudices and try something that might actually work?"
It is possible to imagine these two essays in the American media as adda* in a disembodied form. It is as if the two of them, Salman and Amitav, are sitting across the table from one another in the Indian Coffee House, initiating an intellectual-political discussion which dozens of onlookers are privileged to hear.
It is impossible to say who is right. Nothing could be more laudable than trying to prevent a nuclear holocaust - unless it is trying to prevent the world from falling back into a regime of militaristic colonialism.
It is possible that if they talked on in this adda in the American press, the two interlocutors might come up with common ground. After all, Ghosh acknowledges that "there can be no doubt that political catastrophes can often be prevented by multilateral intervention, and clearly such actions are sometimes necessary," even though he proceeds to once again remind us that even the possibility of securing intervention can itself initiate violence.
Perhaps their common ground might be the necessity for the international community to intervene in the affairs of autonomous nation-states when nuclear conflagration or genocide might result if such intervention were absent. Perhaps they might agree, in the long metaphysical night, that the only way to guarantee such intervention would not re-establish an imperial order which no one (except self-aggrandizing imperialists) wants, would be to initiate such intervention through the United Nations. And to insist that such intervention be carried out with troops under the leadership of the UN - not First-World - military command. Perhaps they might agree that United Nations intervention will only work if nations can put aside (however unlikely this may seem) considerations of their own partisan advantage in the interest of preserving world peace and the human dignity of all people.
Perhaps. Their adda might continue, should continue, into the late hours of the night. Our collective future may well depend on how we resolve the thorny problem of disentangling intervention and imperialism.
* "Adda" is a Bengali term for extended and informal intellectual conversation.
The writer was Fulbright Visiting Professor of English at Calcutta University. He is an author and columnist.