Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Critical Choices… When the soul of a nation hangs by a thread

There is a moment from the Steven Spielberg film Munich that I cherish. In this particular moment, the bomb maker Robert is beginning to have doubts about the morality of killing the persons whom the Mossad held as responsible for the brutal killings of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. And so it is that Robert says ‘We're Jews…Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong….Suffering thousands of years of hatred doesn't make you decent. But we're supposed to be righteous. That's a beautiful thing. That's Jewish. That's what I knew, that's what I was taught and I'm losing it. I lose that and that's everything. That's my soul.’

This cinematic moment has been replaying itself in my head over and over again ever since the drama around Kasab’s punishment erupted in the Indian media space. It would be worthwhile for us to examine this issue of capital punishment for Kasab from the doubts that Robert has in Munich. Robert captures the dilemma perfectly in his phrasing. Suffering, even if for a thousand years, does not make us and our actions righteous. Thus the real sufferings of those who lost family and friends through the violence in Bombay, and the alleged sufferings of the Indian nation are not reason enough to justify the Indian state’s killing of Kasab. What we should be the real focus of our debate is what the killing of Kasab will do to all of us as Indians. This is what should be the focus of our discussion. And this is what Robert realizes after he has sufficient blood on his hands; that all that killing is making him loose his soul. And at the end of the day, the loss of his soul is too much to bear.

The loss of our collective souls and the loss of the humanity of the Indian nation-state is what we stand to loose through the State killing Kasab. The Indian judicial system assures us that capital punishment is to be awarded only in the ‘rarest of rare cases’. This may in fact be true, where a higher court may hold that a decision granted by a lower court was irresponsible and overturn the sentence of capital punishment. But this is not the point. The point is what does the presence of the death punishment do to us as a people of the legal system.

The Kasab case is a wonderful example of what is being done to us. No one will deny that we have been turned into an audience in this particular case.And the audience in this particular case has been turned into a blood thirsty mob, crying and screaming for the blood of this man. This audience is presented with actors, such as the prosecutor in the case, Ujjwal Nikam, who argues, contrary to the supposed ‘rarest of rare cases’ principle, that all terrorists should be given the death penalty. In the environment that has been generated in this particular drama event, what has been done is to convince so many Indians that indeed terrorists should be given the death penalty. What we do not realize though, is while in Kasab’s case it can be proven that he was stomping around Bombay spraying people with bullets, this is not necessarily the case with every alleged ‘terrorist’. The justice delivery system can sometimes go wrong, the wrong person implicated, the reasoning of courts clouded by fear and nationalist sentiment, and innocent blood can be shed.

Further, a situation where we start baying for blood and believe that all terrorists should be given the death penalty allows for State killings outside the law. Take for example the case of the Batla House ‘encounter’. We know now that the boys killed in the Batla House shootout, were innocents, and victims of a fake encounter. Fake encounters are a fact of life in India, where numerous Muslim boys are routinely dragged and shot. Tribal boys too, under the suspicion that they are Naxals. And let us not forget the trouled areas of the north-east. Allowing for the death penalty creates a certain callousness in our souls, where we shrug off these deaths. Even if we do not shrug these off however, we should remember that we are responsible for these deaths, in allowing for the existence of the death penalty.

What we should constantly keep reminding ourselves is that Kasab is not the point in the debate that is emerging. The point is the soul of the Indian population. The point is not what we can or will do to Kasab, or what he deserves. The point is what will become of us after he is gone. The attempt of the criminal mastermind is to breed bad blood between peoples. Thus either Kasab, or the forces that sent Kasab on his mission, intended that there be tension and escalating violence between the people of India and Pakistan. The idea is to create a state of permanent tension within India. If we kill Kasab, and do so after the kind of frenzied calls for his blood that have marked his trial, then Kasab will not have died in vain. He and his directors will have succeeded in the larger campaign that they have in mind. What we will have done, is to convert the peace loving people of India into a blood thirsty mob. Create a by-and-large gentle, trusting people into a suspicious collective of witch-hunters. The real victor of any battle is the one who winds up with the options. The option still rests in our hands, and we can determine the real extent to which Kasab has impacted on us. To allow Kasab and the forces he has been made to represent to transform us in this manner is to allow them to win and have the final laugh.

It is true that we have to deal with Kasab one way or the other. The way the system operates is to punish him. If one is thinking of punishment, and the inclination is towards death, then allow me a suggestion. The suggestion is that of social death. Let his name be struck from the records and his name never be spoken again. The violence he wreaked will not be mentioned, his efforts will have been in vain. At the same time, let us reach out to those who have been impacted by the violence he and his colleagues effected. In doing so we will strengthen the bonds of loving brotherhood that reputedly make India the nation that it is, and the country it wanted to be at the start of its independence.

The Jews have constructed a history of thousands of years of suffering. And yet, as the Robert of the film Munich points out, the soul of Judaism lies in persevering in righteousness despite these sufferings. India is acclaimed as a spiritual land. It is to this heritage that it owes the obligation to realize that in killing Kasab it will loose the battle of righteousness and walk into a battle where the lines are scripted by the forces of discord on the other side. Like Dronacharya told Arjuna, focus on the eye of the bird in the tree, nothing else. Kasab at the end of the day is a part of the larger forest, the Kauravas even. Our goal, our true goal, lies elsewhere. But at this moment, it hangs by a thread. My prayers are for the soul that India risks loosing.

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 12 May 2010)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

On The Value Of Talk: Freedom of Speech, Journalists and Fascists

The third of May is marked as World Press Freedom Day. To commemorate this event, the Goa Union of Journalists (GUJ) put together a panel discussion on the topic of ‘Freedom of the Media and Rights of the Reader - Viewer’. To GUJ should go much praise for organizing the event. It allowed not only for an interesting discussion, but also allowed also the articulation of a number of concerns, regarding the security of the Goan press while on the field, as well as placing these concerns before the authorities that matter. In this latter regard, the presence of the current Inspector General of Police, Ms. Nanda was an absolute delight. Unlike some of her predecessors in this post, who were quite frankly uncouth, this lady is in fact a lady. Ms. Nanda is possessed of not just an articulate tongue but charming civility as well. Not only did she present her views in the panel discussion, but wonder of wonders, stayed through the entire event, listening to what other panelists and the audience had to say. May her tribe increase!

In the course of the event, two remarks gave reason to pause and contemplate. The first of these was the remark that the people we should be talking to were not present in the hall. The suggestion was that we were preaching to the choir and since we were all basically in agreement, there was not much of a point to the exercise. The second suggestion was that, there is always so much talk. All we hear is talk. What we need is action, else all the talk is wasted and pointless. It is these two issues that this column would like to respond to.

An interesting position to begin a response to these suggestions would be to address another dictum that is invariably preached to the press. ‘Report the truth’ they are told. ‘Stick to the facts’! This is easier said than done, given that there is no one single ‘Truth’. There are only points of view from which one can report an event. Each perspective provides us with one way to experience the reported event, and together, with all the conflicting reporting (that results from the different perspectives) we could perhaps hazard a guess as to the event. But the truth itself? The truth is something that we will never, ever fully grasp.

From this position then, we can move towards addressing the rather pessimistic suggestions that surfaced at GUJ’s commemorative event. The first suggestion, which implies a wasted exercise since we are all of one mind, assumes that we are all in fact in the possession of the truth. Our point of view (in this case, left leaning) is the final word and we are all in full and total possession of this truth. Since we are now in possession of this truth, what more is there to learn? Thus we come to these functions only to perform the moral obligation of swelling numbers and keeping up morale. Or so the story goes. If however, we dispense with this rather arrogant and frankly, deluded assumption, a whole other world opens up. We can realize that we share a certain perspective with other people. This perspective however, is always only partial, and additionally open to renewal. Situations and contexts could help us nuance this understanding. A new experience could cause us to shift focus and emphasis. An abandoning of this ‘truth’ assumption, allows us to be open to newer experiences and ways of looking at the world, even if it is from within the confines of our ideological team. It helps us to grow and learn.

Abandoning the ‘truth’ position allows us to arrive at another conclusion that would help address the other critical suggestion encountered at the GUJ initiated discussion. If one is unable to arrive at the truth, then one is unable to arrive at a solution. Indeed, if recent human political history has taught us anything, then it is that we should run a mile from those who promise us a final solution. These solution providers have cost us too many lives, and too much blood. Abandoning the truth position and recognizing that there are a number of perspectives on the problem, does not however necessarily lead to social, political or even intellectual paralysis. On the contrary, merely because we realize there is no solution, it does not mean that our point of view cannot lead toward alleviating the trouble. A little push here, some silence there, a pull at the right moment, and we could alleviate the problem. In this process, the problem does not remain the same. Thanks to our interventions, small and personal as they may be, the scenario, and hence the problem changes again. A whole new world once more opens up before us. Cause for more contemplation, discussion, and an attempt, be it private or communal, towards alleviation of the issue. Gandhi would have called this karma yoga. In eschewing the grand political mobilization, that has so often led us to social violence, perhaps it is the better solution.

The point that this column seeks to make, is that this general call for action, the kind that remarks on the pointlessness of discussion, is at the end of the day, a thinking that stems from arrogance and a tendency to fascist thinking. We should not forget that the leaders of State socialism were as fascist as their colleagues in Western Europe. Being left leaning therefore, does not necessarily make us better than the rightists. What is scary about the rightists is their refusal to dialogue, their firm belief that their point of view has a truth value, and their commitment to action, to see it through, regardless of the dissension that may exist around them. As good leftist boys and girls, we don’t want to go down that path do we?

(First Published in the Gomantak Times 5 May 2010)