Wednesday, December 10, 2008

After Bombay...

In the name of security our State could now take liberties with our…Liberty

Among the many stories that the Puranas contain, one tells us of the mythical churning of the ocean of milk. A task taken up by the Gods and the Demons, the process released a host of products, good and beneficial; and the bad and harmful. The violent episode in Bombay will perhaps be assigned a similar status in the mythology of the early 21st Indian century. An event of significant proportions, it has and will no doubt continue to, release both the good and the bad, even as its significance will either blown out of proportion, or sought to be placed in context.

Among those seeking to blow the event out of proportion are the forces of the Right, of which most of the news media are proving to be the vanguard. They argue that the episode in Bombay constitutes India’s 9/11. Amitav Ghosh in an op-ed in the New York Times has convincingly argued that we should dismiss this hype. The event was painful, but not 9/11, since the number of dead in NYC far exceeded those killed, and unlike the US, India has seen large massacres of the kind we saw in Bombay. (We cannot forget the massacres of Partition; the anti-Sikh riots; the anti-Muslim pogroms, most significantly those in Gujarat; the violence against Christians most recently; the displacement of tribal and rural peoples sometimes twice in a single generation; and never for a moment forgetting the daily violence visited on India’s dalit peoples). To put this event in perspective, a great number of persons have written essays and comments, indicating that while the violence and death that Bombay saw was shocking and calls for soul searching, we have to also remember that in addition to this violence, the vast multitude of India’s citizens suffer daily terror attacks, most often than not from the forces of their own State.

The desire to pin down the carnage in Bombay as India’s 9/11 speaks of at least two tendencies. The first, as already suggested, is to blow this one event entirely out of proportion. This desire stems primarily from the shock value that must necessarily be drummed up if television channels are to hold us enthralled, even as they continue to beam advertisements and whet our appetite for continued consumption. The bottom line basically reads; No drama, no consumption!

The other more disturbing tendency is the desire to use this event to demand for war on Pakistan, harsher laws for ‘terrorists’, and greater security and surveillance. Goa has seen a number of meetings hysterically demanding war on Pakistan. While we cannot ignore these calls, we are better served dismissing these calls, and sending these ‘patriots’ off to the loony bin for at least two reasons. The fools have no real clue what war means, and are highly unlikely to even serve if this war is initiated. Secondly, India is better served encouraging the democratic forces in Pakistan now struggling to recover from a military dictatorship. If the fool-hardy invasion of Iraq (and other countries by the US) has taught us anything, it is that invasions entirely preclude the possibility of encouraging the establishment of a democratic polity.

If this first demand does not (if we are lucky) materialize, it appears that the second and the third options most certainly will. The sensationalist media coverage that milked this tragedy has indicated that the Indian powder-puff elite are quite willing to allow for the setting up of a police state, if it will allow them to continue to live their ivory-tower (read 8-storey apartment building) existence. Indeed, as the differences between the ultra-rich and the poor in India grow wider, we will need more and more policing to maintain a semblance of law and order in this country.

A concerted effort is on right now to convince the average citizen that she is better off with harsher anti-terror laws and greater surveillance. Nothing could be further from the truth. The average citizen stands only to loose from this new-found security obsession. Greater powers to the police, harsher anti-terror laws and greater surveillance allow police and military force unrestricted power over suspects. It is not the terrorist that is the subject of most of these laws, but the suspect. As our experience in a number of recent cases has shown, all too often the suspect turns out innocent. Take for example the almost 100 odd people rounded up in Chimbel and Vasco. What was their crime? Nothing! They were rounded up merely on suspicion and not carrying identity papers. The harsher laws that are being called for really amount to an invitation for the abuse of human rights, and a persecution of citizens who are often time raising valid grievances.

The heightened security and surveillance that we see building up around us, are at the end of the day, useless and pointless. They serve only an aesthetic function; they assure us that we are being looked after. The price for this feeling, is the giving up of our freedoms. Take the example of the recently concluded IFFI. Post Bombay security was beefed up, but it was still possible for a host of people to slip inside of the festival arena without flashing their delegate card. The real impact of these efforts become clearer if one realizes that in the US of A and Europe, despite bomb scares and attacks, people are still allowed to walk in and out of airports, unlike in India, where a valid ticket holder is for some strange reason prevented from leaving the airport terminal once she has gotten in. what purpose does this serve? No logical reason, except to enforce a general paranoia, control the citizen, and show them that the State is in control. The exercise in Chimbel and Vasco represent the efforts of an ineffectual and illegitimate Government trying to pretend that it has everything under control. Since the persons rounded up are ‘small people’ no one is really going to complain.

The security of the people of India are better served if we pull our collective heads out of the sands we have stuck them in and question the State of our Republic. Is the average citizen truly being served by the State? Or is the State merely securing the interests of a small segment of the population? Why are there angry protests all over India, demanding not a harsh state, but a state that provides employment, that does not gobble up livelihood resources? What is the Indian State doing to ensure that minority groups ranging from Mulism, Christian to Dalit feel secure in a country that seems increasingly to not care about their security?

It is when we answer these questions, and redress the grievances of the majority of India’s population, that we will be able to stem the tide of violence that is continuing to grow in our country.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, December 11, 2008)

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