Saturday, December 25, 2010

People Like Us

Twitter is abuzz about Binayak Sen. Mostly outraged that the good Doctor has been condemned to life in prison for crimes against the Indian State.

His case intrigues me. The confused volley of arguments made in his favor suggests a deeper reason for why his case has so exercised the anglophone Indian mind. I want to briefly address these arguments then talk about why it is that we feel such empathy for him and why this is profoundly dangerous for our republic.

First the arguments. From reading of twitter, I see at least six arguments that have been made.

First, that he is a good man caught in bad circumstances. Well, he put himself in these circumstances willfully. He deliberately built links with people who are responsible for extreme acts of violence not just against the State but anyone even among the people they seek to represent who opposes their ways. He knew full well that the Maoists have declared war on the Indian State and that past experience suggests the State will eventually crush them. This is not a valley of flowers he was entering but a war zone. Bad things happen to even good people in war zones. Cry me a river.

Second, he has done a lot of good for a lot of people. I salute him for this. But good people do bad things all the time. His good deeds may eventually be an argument for mercy and commutation but are not evidence of innocence. Indeed, his guilt is compounded by the fact that he rashly risked all the good he was doing on the ground to pursue a selfish political agenda. Did he not see that his patients in the tribal areas needed him more than the Maoist elite? I bet he did, but delusions of grandeur made him pawn his healing touch for the steel of the gun.

Third, the State's evidence is lacking & even fabricated. This is entirely plausible in today's India. But, surely, those of us here who haven't seen such evidence can't opine on it. The only legitimate venue for making this argument is the courts (both sessions and appeal). Only they see the entirety of the evidence and can arrive at appropriate judgements based on it. We can't possibly second guess the court based on fragmentary and agenda-driven tweets or magazine articles. Trial by media would end whatever semblance we have of the rule of law.

Fourth, our justice system is compromised. Sure. This is a major sore spot in India for we aspire to be a nation of laws. This is something that does require all of us coming together, regardless of our political belief. But turning this specific case as a trial of the justice system seems weird. Lots of people are railroaded every day by our justice system - what is so profoundly unique about this case that requires an extraordinary intervention by the civil society? I don't see anything myself.

Fifth, others in politics & bureaucracy are equally guilty or worse. OK - let's go after them all. What's that got to do with Dr Sen's guilt? Surely, the fact that others are getting away does not imply that the guilty in the net ought not face consequences.

Lastly, sedition is itself a crime that should be outlawed. Perhaps so. But that is again an argument to be made in the parliament (if & when it's in session), not in the wild west of twitter & our compromised media.

These arguments are interesting not only because none of them stands up to scrutiny but that there are so many of them. It's as if Dr Sen's defenders are making a volley of arguments hoping one or more may stick and that his simple to understand guilt is diffused by the complex veil of sophisticated arguments.

Why does India's anglophone elite feel such empathy for this man that they engage in such argumentation? I'd posit it's because he is like many of us but much more. Well schooled and articulate, he shunned the comforts of urban life to go into less privileged communities. He inspires guilt in many of us for our lack of similar initiative. At core, most of our elite is left-leaning and his is in many ways the ideal life they aspire to in their inspired moments. Hence, the inevitable outrage when the hero falls apart because his feet are made of clay. The outrage is less about Dr Sen but about themselves - it allows them to assuage their guilt and move on tomorrow to the next episode of BB4 or Munni or whatever else it is that amuses them in their comfortable but guilt-ridden lives.

This is unremarkably kitschy conduct except for the danger it represents for India. Maoists are not Gandhians with guns. They are waging war on our State and their vision for the future affirmatively is not freedom. Indeed, they are guilty of keeping the regions where they roam shackled to poverty. There is limited investment that would create jobs, no law and order that's crucial for day to day life, and a traumatized generation growing up in the midst of war. Not only is the present awful, the future has also been poisoned.

Maoists need to be crushed but they can't be unless the Indian elite sees them as the enemy. By "them" I don't mean the local foot-soldiers they send out to kill and die. I mean the people like us - like Dr Sen - who inspire empathy in the people of twitter and media. This empathy at a personal level prevents us from seeing through to the evil that they represent. How can we defeat it if we see the devil as the victim?

This is what we must all ponder. There is war ongoing and we need to take a black & white stand. The grey will get us all killed.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


For polemicists, pundits, & politicians Kashmir is a career - a gift that keeps on giving. For people on the ground, it's their home that's on fire.

In a recent Hindustan Times essay on the topic (, educator Sabbah Haji of Doda emotionally asserted her Kashmiri identity, and said she doesn't feel Indian. Her words mean a great deal more than those of interlopers like Arundhati Roy who use the issue to principally further their celebrity or shrill voices on the internet for whom Kashmir is yet another stick with which to attack the Indian State.

Sister Sabbah, this is written for you by a fellow Indian. 

Compliments for courageously laying out your thoughts & feelings for the world to react. Forgive the tardiness of my response but I was busy with gulshan ka karobaar :p

This may sound strange but, while not exactly persuaded by what I read, I empathize completely. We may disagree politically but I believe engagement with voices like yours is crucial to moving forward.

You made three points in your essay each of which I'll respond to briefly.

First, you spoke about India's "heartless governance" and the heavy boots of our troops. When in Kashmir recently, I saw first-hand the unbearable suffocation that's become daily life for folks. It bothers me to this day and I don't even live there.

I'd suggest, however, that this is a tragedy not just in Kashmir but in many parts of India. We require significant reforms in the governing infrastructure of our State and the blunt force approach of our security mandarins. Instead of making this a cause for separation, however, shouldn't we come together to make things better for all of us? Leaving the world better for those who follow us is what politics is all about, isn't it?

Next, you spoke about being from a "generation of anger". Who wouldn't be? I can never walk in your shoes but have walked on your earth and fought my own rage. Regardless of what other good India may have done or that our anger is better directed at the retrogressive leaders of the secessionist movement, the fact that there is such anger is ultimately a mark of our collective failure. You have the right and the privilege to express this anger - like a sister does with her brother. But, eventually, you must let it go because anger is the most self-corrosive of all emotions. As you do so, believe me, your siblings from India's vast plains & plateaus will stand with you.

Finally, and most crucially, you wrote about your Kashmiri identity. You love India but don't feel Indian. Of course, no one can force any feelings on you. I respect your sentiment and don't see that as a reason to call you names. The cool thing about India is that all manner of sentiments are perfectly fine. Your Kashmiri identity is not one iota in conflict with Indianness. Greater conflict, I'd submit, would be between your Kashmiri identity and the Arabic desert that Mr Geelani wishes to impose on your verdant valley.

I don't write this to persuade you to change your notions but do want you to know that even hawks like me consider themselves your brothers and offer our understanding. This is no substitute for the angry years gone by but, hopefully, is a good start for happier years to come.

Let me be transparent. I don't support the notion of Kashmiri Azadi nor of any autonomy that would dilute the secular character of our republic. I don't believe Pakistan, or any other State, has any business poking its nose in what are internal matters among us. And I am convinced that, while there is understandable anger among Kashmiri people as acknowledged before, the violent jihad and stone pelting are manifestations of a Pakistan-sponsored psychopathy that must be crushed.

I say all this in candor so you can see that engagement with people like me is not only possible, it's the only way forward. Provocateur polemicists like Arundhati Roy who exploit your anger to further their fame and fortune may parrot your words, but they are not invested in resolution. What would they do with their time if this cause celebre were to fade away? Likewise futile are the shape shifting mobs on the internet who, in the name of liberalism, embrace any number of illiberal causes as long as these stand opposed to the Indian State. These voices too may echo your anger but they aren't really invested in your peace. Suffering of people on the ground is, at best, a tertiary issue to their madcap ideologies and purposes.

It may sound ironic but the best allies of the Kashmiri people in their quest for modernity and advance are people like me. We seek an honorable resolution because we gain nothing from extending anyone's misery - of the good people on the ground, of the security forces who toil in impossible circumstances, and of your progressive polity that needs time & space to find its voice. And we have far greater credibility with the broader Indian nation than the shrill activists would ever have.

So, what is this honorable resolution? Whatever its contours, it must preserve the best elements of your Kashmiri identity and India's liberal ideal. This is entirely possible - indeed significant elements of this have already been sketched out in the background. In broad strokes, the resolution would acknowledge Kashmiri political aspirations by granting the people greater say in running their affairs, recognize Kashmiri yearning to reunite with lost siblings across the LOC by simplifying people-to-people contacts, and preserve the sovereignty of the liberal and federalist constitution of India. Northern Ireland shows such a complex resolution is entirely practical.

What remains, frankly, is the dirty business of horse trading among key stakeholders to ensure their respective political interests are preserved in the new dispensation. This makes the present a very delicate moment that enemies of peace seek to sabotage. Inflaming passions at this stage by people like Ms Roy is counterproductive - something she herself, in her self-righteousness, may not fully recognize.

This is where we are, at a perilous moment of possibility. It may be that our reach exceeds our grasp but we sincerely reach for peace. We need impassioned young Kashmiris like you to stand with us to make it happen. You alone can leave behind obstacles to peace like victimhood, anger, and narrow notions of identity. Instead, if you find a way to feel empowered, forgiving, and at once Kashmiri and Indian, believe me, this will change the world.

This moment is a test for your generation - a stark choice between the haunting of the past and the calling of the future. Carpe Diem.