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In Response to the Bamiyan destruction Oil in Canvas by Hemraj

Vinay Lal

All that is left of the statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan are fragments. Recent news reports suggest that these fragments are ending up in the bazaars of Peshawar, where traders are selling them to tourists. A report in the Hindustan Times on April 2, 2001, states that the dealers are convinced that these fragments would be prized in the same way as pieces of the Berlin Wall. No one doubts, notwithstanding the immense difficulties of German reunification and the resuscitation of neo-Hitlerite sentiments among considerable segments of the German youth, that the Berlin Wall had to come down, but surely we cannot say the same of the Bamiyan Buddha statues? By what reckoning did the Bamiyan Buddhas become a Berlin Wall for the Taliban? Moreover, when walls break into fragments, does it not behove us to ask how fragments can create their own walls? Are the stories that fragments tell necessarily fragmentary?

Writing shortly after World War II, Adorno described the fragments that make up Minima Moralia as reflections from a damaged life. Adorno did not think it merely impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz, all the grand Enlightenment narratives appeared to be so much debris, even offensive and chillingly optimistic. Not only had war devastated Europe, but his own civilised countrymen, the intellectual heirs and descendants of Goethe, Beethoven, Schiller, Kant, Hegel, Novalis, Herder, Schumann and Schubert, had descended to the nadir of human experience in dispatching, with all the energy and ingenuity that a regime enamoured of social engineering, the precise orchestration of life and bureaucratic efficiency is capable of, six million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and mentally ill people to their death. Adorno must have thought a good deal of fragments in those days: scarred lives, broken families, shattered buildings and charred landscapes stared him in the face and not less alarmingly the lofty hopes which promised the sovereignty of reason and saw the story of humankind as an increasing progression towards the attainment of liberty and democracy stood largely in ruins. His contemporary and fellow theorist, Walter Benjamin, who perished in the War and scarcely saw the worst of what the troubled project of modernity could sow, had nonetheless the prescience to declare, There is no monument of civilisation that is not at the same time a monument of barbarism.


The idea of fragments has a chequered history, and in recent years South Asian intellectuals have furnished some other fragments of the story. Gyanendra Pandey and Partha Chatterjee have reminded us that the nation has its own ‘fragments’, those sections which have been excluded from the enterprise of the modern nation-state, or are repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to claim the privileges attendant upon citizenship. Relegated to the periphery, these fragments women, religious and linguistic minorities, Adivasis, the lower castes, Naxalites and radical dissenters, among many others have at different times and in varying literatures been known as the oppressed, the excluded and the people without history. Thus, some scholars have asked whether Pandey’s article, ‘In Defense of the Fragment’, is anything more than a postmodern variant of what the Americans call ‘multiculturalism’, or an eloquent plea to allow minorities and the underprivileged their rightful place in the political and social life of the nation. It is sometimes suggested that the avowed attachment to such terms as ‘fragments’ is a sign of postmodern excess, yet another endeavour to decentre the grand narratives none is grander than the idea of the nation-state bequeathed by modernity. Yet, the customary terminology by which we seek to designate the excluded or in the idiom of the day the subaltern classes, scarcely conveys the resonance that the term ‘fragment’ does: around fragments lie the debris of much history. Whatever postmodernism’s disenchantment with the totalising narratives of nation-state and history history of which Europe is always the central reference point it is useful to recall that even the militant Hinduism of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad thrives on the idea of fragments. The most prominent, not to mention brazenly provocative, Hindutva Websites demonstrate an extraordinarily keen interest in those Hindu temples which are alleged to have been destroyed or reduced to ruins by Muslim invaders. The Hindutvavadis understand, perhaps more than their adversaries, that the more compelling and cementing narratives are written around tales of destruction, around the fragments which remain and betoken histories imagined as much as real. So charmed is the VHP by Hindu temples rendered extinct, mutilated or left in ruins that it construes these sites as the sure sign of a Hindu presence, a reminder of the fact that the Hindu has everywhere been the victim of more malignant and aggressive religions and ideologies.

But fragments do not a whole make, as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas so palpably demonstrates. What histories, counter-histories and myths can we, then, write from the fragments that remain of these Buddhas that, chiselled into the face of a mountain, stood forth in majestic silence for well over a thousand years? The most sustained modern myth about such acts of terror terror, not the terrorism that becomes the pretext for yet another display of American self-aggrandisement and chastisement, for terror it is when beauty is so cavalierly sundered apart is to suppose that they are expressions of feudal rage, a regression to the barbarism of the pre-modern age and manifestation of the ‘medievalism’ to which many underdeveloped nations are still believed to be bound. This argument is conjoined with the observation that one could not have expected otherwise from a regime which is sworn to uphold a rigid and puritanical conception of Islam, though the edict of February 26 These idols have been gods of the infidels handed down by Muhammad Omar, supreme commander of the Taliban, appears to furnish, to those who wish to read it as such, an indictment of Islam as a whole. Indeed, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas brings with astonishing ease to many lips the epithet, ‘Islamic medievalism’. If the dominant stereotypical conception of Islamic fundamentalism which gorges on tales of Taliban fanaticism, the evil genius of Osama bin Laden, global Muslim terrorist networks, the contamination of the noble idea of education in tens of thousands of madrassas, and the relentless subjugation of women and girls is to be believed, ‘medieval Islam’ is a wholly belaboured idea: Islam was always medieval. The ‘modern West’ and ‘medieval Islam’ are supposed to stand in natural and diametrical opposition to each other.

p. 1 p. 2 p.3 

Vinay Lal teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has edited Dissenting Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy (OUP, 2000), and his collection of essays on Indian history and culture, The Dialectic of Civilisation and Nation-State, is forthcoming from Seagull (2001)