Tag Archives: Army and police

Next time, electing a sarkar from Great Nicobar

[ Daily News and Analysis, 29 Apr 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 22 May 2014 ; Millenium Post, 2 May 2014 ; Echo of India, 7 May 2014]

At the very outset, I should make my position on certain things very clear. I believe that there are many, many ways of being human – none of them being ‘better’ or ‘worse’, ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’, ‘forward’ or ‘backward’ than others. There is no rank order of ‘civilizations’, cultures, millenia and the like. For that matter, I am not sure what ‘civilization’ means, unless you define it by a set of arbitrary parameters and ascribe those parameters some kind of inherently positive value, just because you fancy them. This line of thought may be particularly irritating to those who, after their unfortunate birth in brown-land, were born-again when exposed to White people’s worldviews. But the irritation of such dwijas (twice born) is irrelevant. They would have been altogether irrelevant if a deep democracy were able to function in the subcontinent. I hope such a time comes soon, before the dwijas are able to stamp out all diversity and cultural rootedness from this world. I hope they are soon kicked off the centre-stage that they have occupied for too long, by keeping the people out by sheer power. Till such time, before the story of the hunt is rewritten and the lions still lurk, some will continue to make hay. But let me get back to the many many ways to being human.

Now that we have the clap-trap about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ humans out of the way, let me come to the ongoing elections to the Indian Union parliament. Using the principle of one-man one-vote, this exercise seeks to present an opportunity to the people to determine and influence the nature of the power that will rule over them. But that is not all. This exercise also relegitimizes (kind of like license renewal) the structure and apparatus that imposes itself on the people. Thus power structures seek legitimacy by offering a pre-determined amount of decision-making power. It does not give all powers to the people. For example, the people who are supposedly the only sovereign in this schema cannot alter the ‘basic structure’ of the Indian Union constitution, even when fundamental rights of the individual are protected.

The crucial part of such schemes is that they are all-pervasive. The intense focus of resources and energy by modern nation-states on maintaining and defining territorial limits is not accidental. Within that zone, it is supreme. Which is precisely why territories where such monarchic supremacy is not established are sources of unending paranoia for the powers-to-be. The smokescreen of people’s welfare is used to unleash the non-pretentious forces of a nation-state – money and military. In places where people don’t live, powers dangle the notion of ‘strategic importance’.

We are born from our mother’s womb. We are born where our mother lay pregnant with us. When we are born, we are as human anyone else. This is before there is consciousness of the state, constitution, Gandhi, Nehru, tricolor, New Delhi, etc. Is it a pre-condition of being human that these notions have to be built up within our heads for an individual to be considered fully human? Clearly not. Our bloodlines and human consciousness predates all flags and constitutions and gods willing, will outlive them too. So one has a right to be fully human and not be impinged upon, counted, exercised power upon, demanded loyalty from by institutions like the nation. One has a right to exist in the land one was born upon, to mingle in the society into which one is born or welcomed, live a glorious life among one’s kins and so on. Institutions that place themselves as mediators of these rights, without being called to mediate, are inhuman and anti-social in a very fundamental sense. They may well be legal, depending on how many guns back up the self-imposed mediator. Legality is different from justness– only the people can create the latter. No paper document written in their name can.

Whether one votes or not votes or boycotts it, all of these positions are vis-à-vis the voting process and the state that sponsors it. The all pervasiveness of such schemes means that you will be counted, not matter what – you will be classified, even if you don’t belong. Lack of ‘consciousness’ is not an option and in any case, irrelevant. Institutions that intensively survey uninhabited islands, wrap the remains of the dead in distinct flags, ‘teach’ loyalty through school syllabi do face a problem when they face people who regard the state as alien. Some of the indigenous peoples of Andaman and Nicobar Islands like the Shompen are such aliens. But they are ‘Indian’ citizens, irrespective. Are they proud of Gandhi? Do they respect the tricolour? Do they have a stake in Siachen and Sir Creek, given what happens there is done in their name too? Do they believe in ‘unity in diversity – given that their numbers have sharply dwindled ever since they were ‘claimed’ as ‘Indians’? It is from the perspective of the Shompen people of the Great Nicobar island that the all pervasive state starts looking not so pervasive – a hint that there is an outside, even when high resolution maps and detailed anthropological surveys have been done. This ‘outside’ consciousness is an extremely dangerous thing. Hence, when the Shompen people voted in Indian Union elections for the first time, whatever that act means, there was a sigh of relief at the deepest heart of the state. A portal to an outside, however small, was technically sealed. There is an outside and there will always be an outside. It comes with every child who is born. Hence there is a persistent and dangerous glimmer. To live without certain indoctrinations makes a dynamite of a people, even if they don’t ‘know’ it. The distance from birth-rights to full-citizenship is a journey that requires surrender of rights, without consent or with indoctrination that there is no outside.

I remember a 4-panel cartoon. At first, a bear stands in a jungle. Then some trees are cleared, encroachers arrive. The bear looks on. Finally, everything is ‘clean’ and someone is taken aback that there is a bear in the midst of ‘civilization’ and asks where it came from. The bear was always there. I am sure they created a ‘sanctuary’ for the bear thereafter. May be it will start speaking Hindi and English and straighten up its spine when the band plays Jana-Gana-Mana. With enough ‘aspiration’, it might go on to sing ‘the world will live as one’. There wont be any bears left any more. Such is progress in a world without outsides.

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Filed under Army / police, Democracy, Foundational myths, History, Home, Identity, India, Nation, Polity, Power, Rights

Myth of the safe scribe / The subcontinental freedom of press-oppression

[ Open Magazine, 2 May 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 8 May 2014 ]

On April 19th, bullets fired by ‘unknown’ gunmen injured Hamid Mir, acclaimed Pakistani journalist, columnist and political talk-show host for Geo TV. His brother alleges that Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI is behind the attack. Known to be a strong votary for democratic rule in Pakistan and consistently against religion-inspired militancy, he has never been in the good books of the intelligence establishment. The subcontinent is a dangerous place, especially for people who consistently speak truth to power. This danger can often be in the form of threat to life, especially if you are in media expressing the right thing at the right time. Since I write for daily and weekly newspapers in Pakistan, I happen to have acquaintances in Lahore and Karachi who have over time become close friends. I have met some of them. One of them is Raza Rumi.

My Pathan broadcaster friend Wajahat S Khan had introduced me to Raza Rumi. It was Raza who first welcomed the idea of me publishing in The Friday Times, the Najam Sethi–edited weekly. Raza was and still is a consulting editor with the publication. It is important to state that quite a view of my pieces published there have been quite critical of the human rights and civil liberties situation in Pakistan and I believe that the editorial team is in no small measure responsible for that. Raza has been very active in Indo-Pak peace initiatives and as the Director of the Jinnah Institute, a think-tank, has been a key participant in Track 2 dialogues of all sorts. He has an ongoing love affair with all things Delhi and especially revels in the bygone cultural space of North India that encompassed Delhi and his favourite city and hometown, Lahore. He had recently published an exquisite travelogue, Delhi by heart. I was among the people he shared his manuscript with for comments, before it was published. On March 28th, I heard that Raza had been shot at by a group of ‘unknown’ assailants. He survived. I suspect that his views, which have always been supportive of greater regional cooperation in Southasia, and especially between Pakistan and the Indian Union, are not entirely unrelated to the reasons of this attack.

After anchoring is television show, Raza Rumi was on his way to the Data Darbar shrine. That was when bullets rained on his car. His driver succumbed to the gunshots while his bodyguard was seriously wounded. For a long time, he has been one of the most vocal champions of secularism in Pakistan. He has stuck his neck out for the continued repression of the hapless religious minorities of Pakistan who have very few real supporters. Probably the most consequential stance vis-à-vis the attack on him, Raza Rumi has been one the staunchest critics of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other extremist Islamic groups that are directly opposed to his vision of a pluralist and harmonious society. Specifically, the Express Media group, for which he often writes and whose TV channel he does his show for, has been attacked five times with 3 staff members being killed in a attack earlier this year. Raza Rumi has appealed to the government to provide him security and prevent him from becoming the ‘victim of an ideology asserted with bullets and bombers’. Most TV channels in Pakistan basically underplayed the incident and conveniently reported about Srinivasan and IPL.

Now there is a feeling perpetrated by Delhi-based ‘watchers’ and other peddlers of the ‘idea of India’ that things are radically different on this of the Radcliffe, that this is some kind of a safe haven for journalists and fearless reporting. Of course, the usual exceptions apply. Local journalists in ‘disputed’ territories of the Indian Union have been paying with their life and limb for decades now. You can be beaten up with bamboo canes and dragged along the road by the Indian police and Central Reserve Police Force if you interview protesting students or take pictures that the powers-to-be don’t want being taken – as Azhar Qadri of Kashmir Tribune and Showkat Shafi, a Srinagar-based freelance photojournalist found out in painful ways. These are not exceptional events but simply illustrative. Delhi journalists who go visit often enjoy embedded junkets masquerading as reporting. As for foreign journalists who might be critical – they are simply classified as persona-non-grata and are denied entry into the Indian Union, as was the recent case with the famous American journalist David Barsamian. A closer look tells us that the threat to journalists is more widespread in the Indian Union and not only limited to separatist insurgency-hit areas.

Strangely enough or may be it is not that strange that fame works for you, in terms of protection – in terms of how long you hold out. If Raza Rumi were a local reporter in Swat or Waziristan, saying what he has been saying and also doing local reporting, we would have crossed his 10th death anniversary by now. Or he would have long left for the UK or USA. Or he would have done what most people end up doing – simply shut up, change the reported subjects, change his views, change vocation. In the Indian Union, the complicity of media is sustaining abuse of power makes the powerful in media quite safe in this sense. Far from a life threat, they might even end up as parliamentarians. But for the honest and fearless reporter on the ground, things are often very different.

Chhattisgarh ranks high in the list of areas where threat to reporters is very high. ‘unknown’ people on a motorbike shot Umesh Rajput of Nai Duniya dead near his home in Raipur. He had been receiving threats to stop doing the kind of reporting he was doing. In Dantewada, Bappi Ray of Sahara Samay was harassed after he interviewed a farmer who had been assaulted by the District Collector. Naresh Mishra of Zee TV was badly beaten and Azad Saxena and Venu Gopal were kidnapped for hours together to prevent them from reporting from the village of Tadmetla. Surpiya Sharma of Times of India also faced the denial of entry. According to Reporters Without Borders, an international media freedom-watch organization, police rammed the car of Bastar Impact editor Suresh Mahapatra and several other journalists. The disturbing commonality lies in the finger pointing at the police and government security forces as being the criminals behind these crimes. A journalist is attacked to deny the people’s right to know the truth. What might be the kind of crimes that need to be hidden away from public view that the state agencies feel that it is worth the bad-press that comes from bloodying journalists?

Chhattisgarh is not the lone bad apple, though the rot there is particularly offensive. The killing of Shehla Masood, Right To Information (RTI) activist and blogger, in Bhopal created some furore, especially in light of the fact that she had been harassed by the police for sometime. On 10 February this year, officers of the Indian Reserve Battalion at the Kangla Fort beat Arindam Chaoba Sharma of Imphal Free Press ferociously. In recent times, reports of killings and grave assaults on journalists come in from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Karnataka – the list goes on. It extends even to the Andamans where the police have continuously harassed Denis Giles, the editor of Andaman Chronicle, ever since he broke the now-famous story of poachers and outsiders sexually exploiting Jarawa women.

At least eight murders of journalists have been reported in 2013. This was the year when the Indian Union slipped to an abysmal rank of 140 out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters with Borders. However smug may be the claims of the power elite in terms of freedom of expression and hence, the freedom to express freely, this rank represents its worst point. As for a reality check, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, two basket-cases in the Anglo-American worldview, do marginally better than incredible India. If this is the state of freedom of expression, a fundamental right under Article 19 of the constitution, then one should reflect very critically about what happens to this right when one drives 10 miles away from Mumbai or Delhi. If it is any consolation to a warped mind, Pakistan ranks 158 in the list. The neighbor has managed to make the power-centres unsafe too. As for India, “Criminal organizations, security forces, demonstrators and armed groups all pose a threat to India’s journalists” – the Reporters without Borders report said. In that list, the security forces are the ones that have greatest impunity. Surely the violator of liberties with the greatest impunity is the most serious threat to securing the freedom of expression of people. Raza Rumi, in a public statement, appealed to the state for protection. Where do potential victims of state agencies in India turn to?

If truths are security threats for the powers to be and security forces are engaged in curbing people’s right to know the truth, it is a sad commentary on state of the republic undergoing the world’s most elaborate exercise in representative democracy.

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Filed under Army / police, India, Media, Pakistan, Scars, Terror

Close encounters of the inhuman kind / Of Sarfaraz Shah, Ishrat Jahan and the need for empathy / When protectors turn predators / The great danger of state ‘security’

[ Daily News and Analysis, 9 Jul 2013 ; Express Tribune, 9 Jul 2013 ; Millenium Post, 5 Jul 2013 ; Echo of India, 9 Jul 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 10 Jul 2013 ; Kashmir Images, 10 Jul 2013; The NorthEast Today, August 2013 ]

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of India has found that Ishrat Jahan, the 19 year old woman killed in an ‘encounter’ in 2004, was not a terrorist. It also found the involvement of senior officers of Gujarat police and the Intelligence Bureau (IB). Rest assured, no other case of ‘encounter’ involving the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Gujarat Police will be heard of in the near future. Everyone learns from past mistakes – institutions learn even faster to cover up tracks. However, the expose or ‘investigation’ of the CBI by the IB has more to do with a breach of trust – that sacred compact of looking the other way.

But is there a lesson that Ishrat Jahan is teaching us?  Staying clear of trouble is what Ishrat had done all her life. That did not prove quite useful. I maniacally walk in straight lines – only son, propertied family, the curly-haired dreamer, and old parents – lots to lose that I deeply love. Fright as a method of silencing is as old as inhumanity. And I am not immune to fright. But does walking straight help?  Does it ensure safety – of life and property, as they say? If Ishrat Jahan wasn’t safe, who is? There were the words– Pakistan, terrorism – words that do not need proof for culpability. Though I inhabit that cool vantage on an iceberg, Ishrat’s murder is a rare peek into that world in the submerged part of the iceberg, icy and ruthless. And what I see scares the hell out of me.

Those involved in Ishrat Jahan’s murder are not small fry. They include quite a few higher ups entrusted with enforcing the law. Why are those people who are more likely to murder and torture than ordinary citizens so thoroughly over-represented among the ranks of certain state-funded institutions? Why are they almost always ‘protectors of law’? What is this ‘law’ that it protects? What are its contours? Is this law to be read in between the lines of the constitution? Is this law to be found in the umbra and penumbra of the constitutional guarantee to life? And still they talk, fashionably, gracefully, fashionably – like Pythia, the oracle at Delphi. If one person knew that Apollo did not speak, it was Pythia. Unbelievers always have a way of becoming priests.

Only if one eavesdrops on the players at the top, then the code in which they talk to each other, codes that are not to be found in the formal rulebook. In an interview aired by the BBC, journalist Andrew Marr asked Noam Chomsky during an exchange on Chomsky’s views on media distortion of truth, how could Chomsky know for sure that he, a journalist, was self-censoring? Chomsky replied, “I don’t say you’re self-censoring – I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” And it is the production of this believer-citizen that is essential for ‘encounter’ murders to go unlamented for very few enjoy the spoils of being an cynical insider. The insiders may come in different colours, shapes, sizes, tongues and even faiths, but unless they shared a contempt for habeas corpus and veneration for this ‘other’ rule-book, they would not be sitting where they are sitting.

Similar to what Michael Moore said, I have never been slapped by a Pakistani army man for I was walking too briskly on Srinagar streets, never been murdered in broad daylight in the streets of Imphal by special forces from Pakistan, never been kidnapped in Gujarat by the Inter Services Intelligence, never been tortured for days together in jails by Sindh Police, never been detained, blindfolded and then shot through the head by a Pakistani Army man. But there is no opportunity for competitive gloating to be done here by Pakistanis either. For the near-daily murder and torture of pro-independence Baloch youth are now too numerous to deny. For Ishrat Jahan of Gujarat and Chongkham Sanjit of Manipur share just too many things with Sarfaraz Shah, gunned down in Karachi in broad daylight by the Pakistan Rangers. Sarfaraz’s howls, his pleadings, the utter helplessness in front of the law enforcement agencies, that moment when the gun fires, that look on the face of Sarfaraz a moment before he is shot – a look that shouts out ‘Please’ in a way that would make the Himalayas crumble if the gods were as benevolent as they are said to be  – these are all too familiar on the other side of the Radcliffe. Something else is familiar – that the Rangers will not pay for their crime. There is far too much that is common between the subcontinental badlands – commonalities that make a mockery of the exclusive pride that some seem to possess.

Every time we ignore an extra-judicial murder, it brings us that much closer to being a cold reptile. We have a stake in this. ‘The freedom of others extends mine infinitely’ said a famous graffiti from Paris 1968. And when this ‘other’ is the one where all our collective prejudices and hate converge, ensuring that ‘other’s’ freedom has ripples everywhere. The flood of empathy needs such ripples now. We owe it to us and to the Ishrat Jahans and the Sarfaraz Shahs of the subcontinent. We must never forget what Avtar Singh ‘Paash’ had articulated so poignantly years ago.

‘Jey desh di surakhya eho hondee hai
key be-zameeree zindagi lei shart ban javey,
akh di putli vich han ton bina koi bhi shabd ashleel howe,
tey man badkaar ghadiyan de samne
dandaut’t jhukiya rahe, tey saanu desh di surakhya ton khatra hai’ ( If a life without conscience is a pre-condition of the country’s security, if anything other than saying ‘yes’ in agreement is obscene, and the mind submits before the greedy times, then the security of the country is a danger to us).

*** DNA version ***

The man-eater insignia is so ubiquitous in the Indian Union that the pack of maned carnivores appears docile. In moments of tricolour pride, they may even look like protective mascots. The possibility that they might have been staring down at you all this time is an unsettling thought. I maniacally walk in straight lines — only child, propertied family, the enchanting curly-haired one, the old parents — lots to lose that I deeply love. Fright is a silencing method as old as inhumanity.

Does walking straight help? Does it ensure safety of life and property? If Ishrat Jahan wasn’t safe, who is? But then she was Muslim. Then there were the words– Kashmir, terrorism, Pakistan — incandescent words of certitude that stick to one’s skin till they char the flesh down to the bones. But I have never been slapped by the Pakistan military for walking too briskly on Srinagar streets, never been murdered publicly in the streets of Imphal by the 10th Balochistan Rifles, never been kidnapped in Gujarat by the Pakistani intelligence, never been detained in West Bengal, blindfolded and then shot through the head by a policeman from Pakistan. Who should you be scared of — you, of the right religion and a law-abiding, flag-saluting, Dhoni-cheering, Raanjhanaa-adoring, jhamela- avoiding citizen of the Union of India?

Ishrat’s death shows our collective helplessness and what is possible. One such death is a deep ocean of unredeemable injustice — injustice that brutally squeezes out the milk of human love out of a mother till blood oozes forth. That it is possible to kill with impunity with multiple higher-ups involved. That it is possible to expose that with ease if power-politics demands so. Ishrat is exceptional in that her murder had some scavenge value — she posthumously has become a wedge that ensured ‘investigation’. Very few such ‘encounters’ have this wedge-like quality — usually the four lions hunt together. The animals are at their vilest in plainclothes and not in khaki, just like real news is what transpires between panelists during a talk-show break.

The detailed understanding of the anatomy of ‘encounter’ that has been displayed by the principal political parties is sinister. It is akin to the knowledge that police has about every crime in a locality, but ‘solves’ specific ones based on self-interest. Then there is the deeper layer of being complicit in the crime. What does this tell us about other ‘encounters’.

Some very big-shots are involved in Ishrat Jahan’s murder. What is this monstrous system that is designed to provide upward mobility and gallantry rewards for the scum of the earth? Why are those people who are more likely to murder and torture than others found mostly among the ranks of certain state-funded agencies? Why are they almost always ‘protectors of law’? Is the Constitution really an ornate cover to some deep law of the state for whom ‘encounter’ murders are ordinary policy?

Every act of private gloating by that demon within some of us that cheers a Muslim death brings all of us that much closer to being a cold reptile. There is an acute need for a flood of empathy to sweep away our collective prejudice and hate. Where is the purifying flood? Where is mother Ganga when she is needed the most? She owes it to us and to the Ishrat Jahans whose cases would never be reopened.

I do sincerely hope that the Mother-goddess Durga will secure us against ‘security’. There is no buffalo — only 4 lions in sight that she thinks are her own. When will my demon-slayer mother open her third eye?

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Filed under Army / police, Foundational myths, India, Our underbellies, Religion, Rights, Scars, Terror

A naked sendoff / Remember Rituparno / Owning Rituparno Ghosh’s death

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), June 14-20, 2013 – Vol. XXV, No. 18 ; New Age (Dhaka), 10 June 2013 ; The NorthEast Today, July 2013 ]

The recently deceased acclaimed Bengali film-director Rituparno Ghosh (31 August 1963 – 30 May 2013) went to the same school as me, the very populous South Point High School of Kolkata. He was a couple of decades senior to me. It was at one time the largest school in Asia. My secondary standard graduation class was nearly 800 strong. One thing our school used to do very well (before it turned ‘Indian’ from ‘Bengali’ in the post  economic ‘liberalization’ era of the 90s) is that it did not inculcate ‘values’. The value of this lack of school-instilled ‘values’ has stood many alumni of the school in good stead throughout their lives. For one thing, it made unlearning easy, if one wanted to. Due to lack of values, reverence was shallow and hence irreverence was easy, if one wanted to. Rituparno Ghosh represents one of the best products of our school – more by omission than by commission. She made films primarily in my own mother-language and also lived in South Kolkata, where I am from. When media outlets all over India give front-page space to the death of a film-director whose primary film medium was not Hindi, it is important we pay more attention. There are only a few in the subcontinent who will command such widespread mourning in these times when the Bollywood = Hindia = India equation has gained serious currency. Rituparno Ghosh was one such. They don’t make ‘em like that any more. Or to put it more correctly, in an increasingly monocultural nation-state, it is getting ever harder to make them like that. Her death also made it to the front page of newspapers in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. People in Pakistan may only be acquainted with him, if at all, through his Hindustani productions. I would invite people from Lahore, Karachi, Lyallpur and elsewhere to do what you know best how to, so that the Youtube ban in Pakistan does not stand between Rituparno and you.

She started his life as an ad-man and was tremendously successful at that. Then he ventured into film direction and, as they say, she never looked back. If one’s diet of films is limited Bollywood, it would be hard to know that Rituparno is widely regarded as one of the best film directors of the subcontinent in the post Satyajit Ray generation.  Chitrangada, Kashmakash , Mumbai Cutting (segment “Urge”) , Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story), Abohomaan , Shob Charitro Kalponik , Khela (as Rituparno Ghosh) , The Last Lear , Dosor (The Companion , Antarmahal: Views of the Inner Chamber, Raincoat , Choker Bali: A Passion Play , Shubho Mahurat (An auspicious time), Titli (The First Monsoon Day ), Utshob ( The Festival ). Bariwali ( The Lady of the House),  Oshukh ( Malaise ),  Dahan ,Unishe April (as Rituparno Ghosh) , Hirer Angti ( The Diamond Ring) – the long list of films are a testament to the immense fecundity of the director. But it was just not about the number of films. Over the years, his films had one 12 National awards in India and also awards in film festivals of Berlin, Locarno and Chicago among many others. He also write the story and the screenplay of many of his films.

Death often creates a strange silence in a room that was laughing a moment ago. In this case, many Bengalis had been laughing to the blatantly hostile mimicry of Rituparno hosted by one Mir Afsar Ali, a comedian and anchor of sorts. In that ‘comedy’ show, there were hapless young men trying to keep a safe distance from a comedian mimicking Rituparno.  The portrayal of the queer as a predator on the hapless went by the name of mimicry. Laughter is the best medicine for diseases we wish to keep undiagnosed. Just that, now no one is laughing. This silence also matches the broad silence at what went by the name of ‘comedy’.  Honesty about the nature of our creatures would be a good tribute to Rituparno. And that involves none of the two silences.

As we talk about posthumous tributes, I remember one of Rituparno’s earlier films, Dahon. It was a story about the trials and tribulations of a woman who was molested on Kolkata’s streets. The real-life Bollywood style twist-in-the-tale came when the Chief Minister of West Bengal ‘directed’ the cheap posthumous drama of ‘owning’ the death of Rituparno. Death breeds selective memory. This Chief Minister had, only a few months ago, termed a rape on Park Street of Kolkata as a ‘staged incident’. Another MP from her party said that it was not a case of rape, but a ‘deal’ that had gone wrong. In Rituparno’s final journey, these are the people who scripted the show. When the government wanted to project sensitivity, few saw shamelessness.  No amount of fresh scented flowers can take the stench away from wreaths so rotten.

The sexual minorities in the subcontinent know better than many others how  police lathi feels inside their alimentary canal. The daily brutalization of sexual minorities is a frequent pastime for lions in khaki. Some of these lions were lined up beside Rituparno’s corpse in Kolkata. Rituparno’s on-your-face  ‘non-standard’ sexual identity, that made many squeamish, looked harmless, even absent, in death so much so that the police offered a ‘gun salute’. We were impressed.  The lathi has a spongy cuddly heart, you see.

Only the guilty is scared of nakedness. And to hide that, they gnaw at anything, even the shroud of a corpse. The guilty covers themselves in the shroud of the dead. This makes them a very peculiar kind of kafanchor – the kind that doesn’t even wait till the burial to steal the shroud in secrecy. Rather than the darkness of the night, such kafanchors like grand send-offs and flashing cameras. It offers the twin advantage of stealing the shroud from the corpse and showing it off to many others by wearing it right there. And looking very somber.  And almost comical. And yes, to laugh at that somberness would also be a tribute to Rituparno.

Such public spectacles add to the cesspool of vested interests that politics in West Bengal has become over the last 3 decades or so. Some would argue it was always so. But earlier there would be some distance. In moments of death, the leaders would become like the public and join them in remembering some worthy. Now that has become another cause to show who really runs the show. When a government cannot improve lives and deny rights of the people, spectacles over death become their forte.

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Filed under Army / police, Bengal, Gender, Obituary, Power

Mercenaries of today / When nationalism thrills, it kills / Subcontinental nationalisms –the forgotten debris of operations / Chronicle of a death foretold

[ The Express Tribune (Karachi) 13 May 2013 ; Millenium Post, 11 May 2013 ; The Northeast Today , June 2013 ; Echo of India, 14 May 2013 ; The Shillong Times, 11 May 2013 ; Daily Kashmir Images, 15 May 2013]

Formal learning about the past has a certain bias – discontinuities and differences are underlined more than continuities. This kind of a framing has a problem. It makes the human journey and experience look like some kind of a journey towards progress and betterment. So strong is this dogma that things happening later often take on positive hues just by the dint of having happened later, somewhat similar to the wisdom and respect that is accorded to people for being born earlier.

School textbooks are interesting things and the vision of the world they impart upon you can years of unlearning – in most instances, complete delearning is not possible at all. It is from such school texbooks we get our ideas of history – at least that is where I got mine.  In that framing of the past via history, kings and their stories of building and losing kingdoms have centre-stage. The history that I read in school had a good dose of battles, wars, empire-building and such things. Avenging one’s sisters slighting, avenging killing of a father, avenging one’s own usurpation from the  throne and similar personal grievances of the royals were often presented as prominent reasons for war between kings. Of course these could not have been the only reasons, but these were presented as ‘sparks’ or ‘factors’ in the mix. The thought that often occurred to me in my childhood when I sat in the class was about the people who constituted the armies that fought these bloody battles. I can understand ties of caste, clan, religion and such – but for kingdoms and their armies that encompassed more than one such category (and most did), what was in it for most of the fighting men? Why would they march and fight because some big guy had been miffed by the actions of some other big guy. They held no personal grudge either way. It is not as if their king loved them any more beyond the service that they provided. In short, there was no love lost. The part-time soldiers knew that they were mercenaries.  That made them professionals. The ‘give’ and the ‘take’ were well defined – the professionals knew what mattered most was their own life. That is precisely why certain things were quite common. Mutinies were common. Desertion was commoner. Defeat of a king often did not result from some  great reversal in actual battle, by say being outkilled by numbers – but simply because most of the army ( that is to say, most of the mercenaries ) making a quick cost-benefit ratio calculation between sticking with their employer and fleeing. The subcontinent has produced countless such mercenaries. We now like to think of many of them as ‘veers’ and ‘ghazis’. The ’cause’ of fighting was, more often than not, as irrelevant to the armed man as the ‘prestige’ of a five-star hotel is to an underpaid bathroom-cleaner.

With the rise with nation-states and ideologies of nationalism, we now have an unprecedented phenomenon that has been sweeping the world, particularly for the last couple of centuries. I am referring to permanent standing armies and agencies for dealing with ‘external threats’ of nation states. There are hordes upon hordes of young people signed up in the army and other agencies, doing exactly what mercenaries of various hues have done in the past, with a crucial difference. Many of them vaguely think they have a cause (‘the nation’, its ‘security’ and ‘prestige’) which is better than the ’cause’ of his opposing party and that they do what they do not only for money and other material benefits. In short, they do not think of themselves as mercenaries. So much so that now the term ‘mercenary’ has become a nasty word. Now it is generally associated, quite tellingly, with ‘weak’ states or ‘non-state’ actors – in short, entities that do not have a strong ‘nation-state’ ideology.

All of what I have been talking about is about the employees – patriots or mercenaries. However, what about the employers? I am sure that a nice bathroom looks nice to the bathroom cleaner, the hotel manager and the owner.  But who among these benefits more from a bathroom cleaner saying ‘I love my job’, that is it not merely a matter of cleaning a bathroom but the ‘prestige’ of the hotel?

All such loves hinge on an assumption on the part of the employee – that there is something greater that the employer and the employee are both a part of, where the vertical employer/employee dichotomy vanishes and they stand side by side, as equals. This something is the nation and is held together by nationalism – the king of ‘glues’. Sarabjit Singh and Surjeet Singh were neck deep in the glue. The former is dead. ‘Tactical kindness’ from the state of Pakistan has saved the latter. The state of India denies their claims of working for it – certifying them as free-actors. The state of Pakistan ascribes free agency to its nationals who get caught or killed across the LOC and deny any connection. The mythical glue produced by the anthem, jhanda and the danda seems to loose potency during these times. Who endangered Sarabjit Singh’s life the most? Do we have anything to fear from those who endangered Sarabjit’s life the most (and I mean the Sarabjits in jails and under cover on both sides of the Radcliffe line)? Sanaullah has been killed too. People who did not know him name when he was living will now make him a martyr. Others will try to show why this was not a retaliation, or how Sanaullah’s death was less brutal than Sarabjit’s. In this nitpicking about the level of brutality and the arrow of causality, what gets brutalized is the dignity of human beings, who have rights that predate nations and nationalisms. A few lines from the Punjabi poet Avtar Singh ‘Paash’ (killed by Khalistani militants) may have clues.

‘Jey desh di surakhya eho hondee hai
key be-zameeree zindagi lei shart ban javey,
akh di putli vich han ton bina koi bhi shabd ashleel howe,
tey man badkaar ghadiyan de samne
dandaut’t jhukiya rahe, tey saanu desh di surakhya ton khatra hai’ ( If a life without conscience is a pre-condition of the country’s security, if anything other than saying ‘yes’ in agreement is obscene, and the mind submits before the greedy times, then the security of the country is a danger to us.)

Surely, anyone is free to take pride in the hotel, but they should know who is expendable, irrespective of their depth of pride.

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Filed under Army / police, Foundational myths, History, India, Nation, Obituary, Our underbellies, Pakistan, Power, Rights

Where is compassion for our own / Jail return tales / The underside of national pride

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Mar 2013; Millenium Post, 27 Mar 2013; Echo of India, Mar 2013; Frontier Vol. 45, No. 41, Apr 21- -27, 2013]

2 Italians came, shot 2 fishermen off the Kerala coast, got apprehended, were parked in a hotel and then they left for Italy. With the Italian government finally saying that they will not give back the 2 accused sailors in the Kerala fishermen-in-sea murder case, the ground was fertile for some reaping of patriotic crops. Nothing works better than some good-old Italian bashing to make ‘patriotic Indians’ out of us. The Italian government agreed to send them back, cutting short the tournament of competitive patriotism.  But for these Italians, how else could the homegrown saffron Goths, constantly plotting the fall of an imagined Roman regime in New Delhi, rehearse another episode of their ‘India, good or bad’ drama. How else could certain khadi-clad centurions grab this opportunity to show off intense love for peninsular fishermen? As the khadi and the saffron match each other’s love for fishermen, decibel for decibel, they also compete in actively plotting the destruction of life and livelihood of thousands of fishermen at Koodankulam, beating for beating, 144 for 144, arrest for arrest, tear for tear. Irony is not a very effective genre of public performance in the subcontinent. May be because there is just too much of it around us, making it plain and non-newsworthy. Just like hypocrisy.

Italy is not alone among European states in irking the mandarins of the government at Delhi. In a less publicized series of events, Denmark did it too. Was Sanjeev Bhaskar was right when he famously asked – is it ‘coz I am brown? Most probably not. One of the prime accused of the almost-forgotten Purulia arms drop case of 1995 is a Danish citizen Niels Holck (famously known as Kim Davy). Authorities of the Indian Union wanted him extradited. A Danish court said that the conditions in jails run by the Government of India are inhuman. Between 2001 and 2010, 14231 people died in police and prison custody in Ahimsa-land. Sadly, this is no foreign NGO data but statistics from the National Human Rights Commission. Mumbaikar Arun Ferreira closely avoided becoming a part of that statistic. If J.L.Nehru had received from the British the same kind of prison-treatment as Arun Ferreira received from the Government of India, he would have discovered another ‘India’. His fatherly letters to his daughter would have sounded very different. Actually, this is the ‘India’ whose power was transferred during Partition. Norwegians simply did not want to risk a rediscovery of this ‘India’. Incessantly claiming to be the world’s largest democracy probably did not help. The Danish court did not want Kim Davy to suddenly jump off from some height, hang oneself unnoticed, meticulously commit suicide deceiving the prison and police-folk or simply die of ‘unexplained’ internal bleeding. We would love to call this ‘racism’, that is, us minus some fourteen thousand.

Most of these 14231 deaths were due to torture, typically occurring within 2 days of being taken into custody. We will probably never know the exact details – your  ‘right to information’ has its limits. Unfortunately, the dead do speak – if not in words, then in numbers. The Government of India has no anti-torture law satisfying the United Nations Convention Against Torture guidelines. Denmark and Italy have such laws. The honourable and reasonable Government of India also promised that Kim Davy would be housed in a ‘special jail’ so that Danish fears are laid to rest. Browns are second-class for a regime jail that can give an undertaking to produce a ‘first-class’ jail, when it wishes, for international PR purposes. We browns are not fit for such treatment. No ‘India first’ Saffron-wala will accuse any Khadi-wala for this preferential treatment, or vice-versa. Third degree treatment is reserved for its own ‘nationality’. This predictable closing of ranks around this ‘India’ is deeply revealing about their sense of pride and patriotism.

The twisted sense of patriotism and the opportunistic use of the charge of ‘racism’ came together in producing another spectacle around which much tear was shed , much pride was hurt, many hearts bled and many  professional fire-eaters ate fire on camera. The daughter of a junior-level Indian Union embassy staff in New York was in police custody for less than 48 hours with others in the cell, due to a faulty investigation. The familiar parade of Saffronwalas and Khadiwalas came again, spouting pride and honour. P.Chidambaram (then home-minister), S.M.Krishna (then foreign-minister) and diplomats became vocal.  It was declared that a lawyer would be employed for the girl’s case and that they would ask for compensation for distress in custody. This is rather rich coming from the nation of 4 custodial deaths per day. Add to it the hundrerds of millions of days of torture, hopelessness, broken families, lost aspirations and insanity. Will our khadi and saffron patriots ask for such compensation? If one believes that girls case has merit (and I believe it has), then the whole exchequer has to be emptied many times over to pay back the citizens of the Indian union who have been brutalized by the state’s criminal justice system. Coming back to Italy, it’s alright to love or hate pizza. Lets not talk about pride being hurt and loss of dignity of the justice system. If there was any pride and dignity at all, it should have been hurt at least 14231 times in the past decade. One should have some shame to qualify as human.

What is this thing that changes even human physiology, numbing our compassion, making us cheering spectators of contemporary gladiator games? It is the civic duty of a nationalist. My nation is good. You, sir, are bad.

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Filed under Army / police, Diaspora, Nation, Our underbellies, Rights, Scars, Terror, Under the skin