By Swapan Dasgupta
Last week I revisited some stomping grounds of a misspent youth. Much had changed in the past three decades but some things are timeless. In a week that has witnessed a huge emotional outpouring over the killing of nine Turkish ‘peace activists’ by Israel in the waters off Gaza, the campuses are once again basking in the proverbial ‘cause’ of the season.
Those who attended a British university in the late 1970s will doubtless recall the wave of excitement and indignation triggered by the police action in Soweto, South Africa. The excitement owed to the optimism that civil unrest would lead to the final collapse of a state built on insidious racial segregation; and the indignation rested on the horrible news of protesting schoolchildren being gunned down.
To be supportive of the struggle to end apartheid was a no-brainer. Yet, there were some activists who felt that expressing solidarity and boycotting South African goods wasn’t enough. Mainly drawn from far-Left groups that nurtured a deep frustration at their inability to make political headway on their home turf, these activists felt that picketing South Africa House on Trafalgar Square and participating in the genteel anti-apartheid movement wasn’t enough. They sought the excitement of direct action.
The question was, how? It was patently ridiculous and too dangerous for a concerned undergrad to go into the bush in Angola or Mozambique and join the armed struggle. The African National Congress was not known to encourage an International Brigade modelled on the Spanish Civil War experience. So the next best radical thing was to raise money for the purchase of weapons.
A close British friend, who combined his love for Africa with an untiring enthusiasm for (lost) causes, took it upon himself to raise money for the purchase of a Land Rover that could be used for the ‘armed struggle’ in South Africa. Throughout the long, hot summer of 1976, he traipsed the black ghettos of London, organizing fund-raising events. He even discovered an ultra-radical black South African, disenchanted with the ‘moderation’ of the ANC, who could be entrusted to carry the money to the guerrilla camps and oversee the purchase.
It turned out to be a colossal misadventure. A large sum of money was no doubt raised and handed over to the visiting liberation warrior. Having taken the money from the gullible Westerners, the guerrilla took a flight from Heathrow and simply disappeared. And that was the last any of us heard about either him or the Land Rover.
I couldn’t help recalling this farcical encounter with a noble cause while being inundated with saturation media coverage of the “massacre” of well-meaning peace activists. The Palestinian struggle has long been a hot issue in campuses ever since the keffiyah became a ubiquitous fashion statement for the radical chic. For a generation to whom Vietnam and South Africa is history, Israel is the new hate object. It is seen to be racist, a lackey of imperialism and insensitive to all suffering. Had it not been for the Holocaust (which the likes of President Ahmadinejad of Iran deny), Israel may also have been honoured with the Fascist label.
Hatred of Israel has given some people a cause that is about as potent as saving the planet from global warming. Some 300 of these motivated individuals—a ragtag body that included vegetarians from the Isle of Wight, a long-forgotten peace campaigner from Northern Ireland, some disoriented Trotskyists, long-distance Islamists and others whom Lenin would have dubbed ‘useful idiots’ — joined 400 Turkish Islamic radicals in an adventurist endeavour to break the three-year blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
To the international ‘peace activists’, the flotilla of six ships carrying food, medicine, books and toys, may have been a genuinely humanitarian gesture. To the Turkish activists who drove the mission, it was a feature of domestic politics and linked to Ankara’s cautious repudiation of its ultra-secular inheritance. The flotilla was a premeditated act of provocation, with a handful of Turks desperate to achieve martyrdom. Israel was aware of the dangers but fell into the trap with uncharacteristic ham-handedness. It handed out a famous victory to militant Islamism.
The diplomatic fallout of the latest twist in West Asia will be played out at a rarefied level in the coming months. However, what needs more careful monitoring is its likely psychological effect on the impressionable. The romance of struggles waged elsewhere could well drive purposeless and alienated individuals to discover the virtues of fighting for the ‘underdog’ in Kashmir, Afghanistan and Chechnya. There are enough people in the West who want to be a Che Guevara, transcending national boundaries, this time waving a green flag. The Gaza experience has provided them a new, attractive script to fame and martyrdom.
Sunday Times of India, June6, 2010