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.