Posted by sepoy on August 16, 2011 · 2 mins read

I have a new piece up at The National, Pakistan: why the US must think outside the 'military' box:

A decade after the events of September 11, we continue to know little and understand even less of Pakistan. This despite the fact that we are entering a golden age of production of knowledge on that same nation. But there is a critical distance between knowledge and understanding.

“They understand that they must not understand,” commented Robert d'Humières on British imperial troops back from the fronts of Africa and Asia in 1905. The British soldier, he mused, was wary of bad analysis, of ill-perceived contexts — best to act; best to focus on ways to act. Rudyard Kipling, the prominent commentator on all things imperial before and after the beginning of the 20th century, agreed with d'Humières (he was Kipling's French translator) and wrote that “to understand everything may be to pardon everything, but it also means to commit ­everything”.

There is a flexibility of action and intention that is possible only in the lack of knowledge. To understand fully is to be constricted, imperially speaking. The empire must not understand for that understanding carries with it a price that is simply too dear. Therein lies the distance between knowledge and understanding at the core of all imperial ventures. Knowledge is created, in heaps and mounds, by the empire — this is clear. However, understanding is something quite different.

Kipling's warning is apt — if the empire understands the position of the colony, the condition of colonialism itself, it cannot maintain any lie about either its civilising mission nor its emancipatory one. Hence, the must of d'Humières. Understanding Pakistan requires an empathetic move that remains outside the bounds of knowledge production by the empire.

This concluding para came courtesy of my dearest Babu who sent me the d'Humières quote. I abused it myself, however. Would love to hear your thoughts.

I think that my last three pieces have really been all about the same thing: knowing/understanding. Read all! or buy my book!