Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Fragility of Civilization

The definition of the term “civilization” can take many forms.  It is used here to describe a human society that has reached an advanced stage of development where members have generally agreed to live by certain rules that ensure a high degree of social, economic, and cultural stability.  What is of interest is the rapidity with which certain conditions can lead to the breakdown of civilization and produce aberrant human behavior that is almost beyond comprehension.

William Dalrymple provides an example of such a breakdown in an article in The New Yorker: The Great Divide: The Violent Legacy of Indian Partition.  The first Islamic conquests of Indian territory occurred in the eleventh century.  In Dalrymple’s telling these were historically considered more as ethnic conquests than religious conquests.  Peoples from other regions moved in and gradually assimilated.  Islam and the native religions managed to coexist for nearly a thousand years.

“….the last Mughal emperor, enthroned in 1837, wrote that Hinduism and Islam ‘share the same essence,’ and his court lived out this ideal at every level.”

“In the nineteenth century, India was still a place where traditions, languages, and cultures cut across religious groupings, and where people did not define themselves primarily through their religious faith. A Sunni Muslim weaver from Bengal would have had far more in common in his language, his outlook, and his fondness for fish with one of his Hindu colleagues than he would with a Karachi Shia or a Pashtun Sufi from the North-West Frontier.”

It would take a war, and the expected consequences of war, to begin a religion-based confrontation.  It became clear that World War II would spell the end of British control of India.  With independence becoming inevitable the competition for political dominance became more fevered. 

“Hindus and Muslims had begun to turn on each other during the chaos unleashed by the Second World War. In 1942, as the Japanese seized Singapore and Rangoon and advanced rapidly through Burma toward India, the Congress Party began a campaign of civil disobedience, the Quit India Movement, and its leaders, including Gandhi and Nehru, were arrested. While they were in prison, Jinnah, who had billed himself as a loyal ally of the British, consolidated opinion behind him as the best protection of Muslim interests against Hindu dominance.”

“From that point on, violence on the streets between Hindus and Muslims began to escalate. People moved away from, or were forced out of, mixed neighborhoods and took refuge in increasingly polarized ghettos. Tensions were often heightened by local and regional political leaders.

“The first series of widespread religious massacres took place in Calcutta, in 1946….The American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, who had witnessed the opening of the gates of a Nazi concentration camp a year earlier, wrote that Calcutta’s streets ‘looked like Buchenwald’.”

As the violence spread, it was concluded that the only solution was partition setting up two regions that would be home to the minority Muslim population.  These physically separated regions would become Pakistan and Bangladesh.  The British made the decision to depart as soon as possible and leave the natives to sort things out.  Chaos was the predictable result.

“Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.”

It is the violence that ensued that is so startling, a violence of unimaginable cruelty.  An ancient civilization had been provided stability by a foreign power for centuries.  When the British left, the social bonds that allowed (or coerced) differing populations to coexist dissolved and civilization ceased, for a time, to exist.

“Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented. In Punjab and Bengal—provinces abutting India’s borders with West and East Pakistan, respectively—the carnage was especially intense, with massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence. Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered.”

“Nisid Hajari, in “Midnight’s Furies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), his fast-paced new narrative history of Partition and its aftermath, writes, ‘Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits’.”

“By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead.”

As unimaginable as the violence was, it was not by any means unique.  In fact it is reminiscent of episodes in central Europe during World War II—just a few years earlier.  Niall Ferguson considers the origins of the violence that permeated the twentieth century in his history The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West.  Consider one example of a political situation that was analogous to that of India.

There was a region of mixed Ukranian and Polish populations.  These people coexisted for centuries while political rule resided in a far-off capital.  With the end of World War I and the subsequent redrawing of borders, the possibility that one group could gain political control over the other became real and the two groups began to segregate themselves politically if not physically.  During World War II the area was successively occupied by the Russians, the Germans, and the Russians again.  It was time to prepare for dominance in the postwar era.  The constraints of civilization disappeared and violence ensued.  Consider Ferguson’s description:

“The Ukraine was perhaps the most blood soaked place of all.  In Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), egged on by the Germans, massacred between 60,000 and 80,000 Poles.  Whole villages were wiped out, men beaten to death, women raped and mutilated, babies bayoneted....As another Pole recalled, ‘Stories abounded of Polish mothers being held by the Ukrainian Nationalists and forced to watch as their families were dismembered piece by piece; of pregnant women being eviscerated; of vivisected pregnant women having cats sewn into their bleeding abdomens; of Ukrainian husbands murdering their Polish wives; of Ukrainian wives murdering their Polish husbands; of Ukrainian fathers killing their own sons in order to prevent them from murdering their own Polish mothers; of sons of Polish-Ukrainian heritage being sawn in half because, the Nationalists said, they were half Polish; of children being strung up on household fences; of helpless infants being dashed against buildings or hurled into burning houses’.”

One could argue long over what the documented capacity of humans for cruelty means in terms of our fundamental nature.  Are we by nature violent with only the thin veneer of civilization keeping us barely under control?  Does the tumult of war and conflict force us to resort to violence, or does it merely provide the excuse for violent behavior?  Ferguson describes the period after World War I and extending through 1945 as a succession of ethnic conflicts.  One can argue that World War II didn’t really end until the victorious allies went about sorting the ethnically-mixed populations of Central and Eastern Europe back within national boundaries.  Can ethnicity itself be such a prolific source of bloody conflict?  Is religion even more insidious than ethnicity in dividing populations into identifiable groups?

The one thing that is clear is that circumstances can arise when the rules and regulations that keep a society functioning are nullified.  When that occurs, terrible things can happen before the blessings of civilization can be reestablished.  Have we settled down into such stable societies that excursions into communal violence are unlikely?  Unfortunately, the answer is a clear “no.”

The United States still struggles with discrimination and racial violence 150 years after that issue should have been resolved.  The Middle East continues indefinitely as a zone where religious and ethnic strife causes death, destruction, and political turmoil.  Developing countries around the world are burdened by religious, ethnic, and political conflicts.  These types of disturbances have always been with us.  However, there is the potential for disruptive change in the near future that could rival the twentieth century wars in terms of effect.

The one event (barring a massive asteroid strike) capable of causing worldwide disruption on a grand scale is global warming and the associated climate change.  Rising sea levels and coastal inundation, threatened food production, and massive migration to escape environmental changes will all follow sooner or later.  All countries will be confronted with dramatic effects requiring responses.  If those responses become confrontational rather than cooperative, the world could become a much nastier place.

Ironically, the first countries to come in serious, if not violent conflict over climate change are probably India and Bangladesh.  Given that the seas are rising, Bangladesh is subject to severe cyclones, and the majority of the country is less than 20 feet above sea level, the entire country seems unsustainable even in the near future.  A map of Bangladesh makes it clear that the 160 million residents have no place to go to escape environmental change except back to India.  The bloody partition will have to be thrown in reverse and the flow increased by an order of magnitude.

Our societies need to be strong and our governments need to be responsive to change.  Instead we are lulled into a false sense of security as we forget why we needed activist governments and a sense of civic duty in the first place.  The time will come and we may not be ready.

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