Sunday, November 27, 2011

We Are All Soni Sori

Not long ago, I was in mofussil UP for a cousin's wedding. We woke up one day to a commotion. My aunt was arguing with the sabziwallah about a payment she thought she had already made to him. He was pleading she hadn't.

A family friend, a police man, grabbed the sabziwallah by his collar and slapped him black and blue. Didn't ask anything, didn't hear anything, just beat him up. The poor man left humiliated and in tears.

Shellshocked, I harshly protested the violence. My friend told me this is how he and his colleagues deal with "these people" all the time, and that I should keep out.

This is the heartland of India's political culture, the region where several Prime Ministers have found their respective paths to parliament. There's a lot of baggage here - caste and class, history and tradition. The modern State is here too - it wears the wardi and beats people up.

Of course, it turned out, my aunt was mistaken about having made the payment.


In his seminal book, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama told us we were witnessing the end point of mankind's ideological evolution, that liberal democracy had prevailed in the clash of ideas.

Independent India has been on the right side (for most part) in this clash. Whatever challenges the Indian State confronts, we know, it will eventually prevail due to the superiority of its ideas.

All Maoists have is a discredited ideology. Religion-based separatism is not exactly the world's cup of tea. Finally, Hindutva is so ideologically bankrupt, it can't even convince devout Hindus of its purpose.

India is impregnable. This is a wonderful thing. But, it also makes the brutality of its State instruments extremely dangerous. This brutality is here to stay and there is no escaping it. We can endure the murderous ways of all manner of cults and movements because we know they will eventually fade away. But how can we possibly cope with the murderous ways of a State that is here forever?

This is Dante's inferno.


India's defense budget in 2011 was ~$36 Billion. The budget for police was ~$9 Billion.

I don't have the data on this but I'd wager more Indians die each year just from murder and violent politics than from war or terrorism by foreigners.

Police in India are resource deprived. This leads to bad recruitment, weak training, sub-standard equipment, stress filled facilities, poor wages, limited accountability, shattered morale, and non-existent leadership. Let's not even talk about outdated laws, political interference, and a broken justice system.

Police find themselves trying to survive in a brutal environment. To this end, they can really only rely on the nobility of our constitution, the authority of their wardi, the command of their superiors, and the brotherhood of their peers.

This must be a highly insular, morally corrupting, and terrifying context to operate in. As Milgram experiments have shown, even moral people can be coerced into "obeying authority figures who instruct them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience". And as William Golding describes in The Lord of the Flies, terror creates the perception of a beast that has to be viciously destroyed for survival.

Does it surprise any of us that men in these conditions would psychologically succumb to slapping an innocent sabziwallah, shattering shins of under-trials, shooting dead college girls, watching passively while mobs lynch Indians pleading for their lives, and now - engaging in the most vile (alleged) sexual torture on Soni Sori?


For too long, India's middle class has looked away. After all, the police are instruments of our State, the people they torture are not like us, and they have surely committed crimes for which they deserve to be harshly treated. Besides, they are likely making false allegations any way.

The sheer moral bankruptcy of such thinking is self-evident.

We don't fear evil because it is dancing on the screams of, what my friend in UP called, "these people". What I didn't tell you is that he also said the police could do the same with me - and I, with all my means and vocabulary, could do very little while they trample all over my constitutional rights.

It may not seem it but, at the wrong time in the wrong place, I could be Soni Sori too.

And because my tormentors would be the instruments of a State that will always be here, so will my tormentors. Waiting for me. Waiting for you.

This, ironically, is how impregnable India will fall. From deep within, at the hands of its own protectors.

Better men than I have written about this topic. All I can do is plead that we make police reform the highest priority of our nation. Thank you for reading.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reflection on 26/11

Indians don't wish ill of Pakistan. Rather, we are apathetic to its fate. The only thing we really care about is expanding prosperity and security for our people.

Pakistan sought and obtained divorce. Sixty four years on, Indians are glad. Other than a few lunatics, most Indians are relieved Pakistan's 180 million are not part of our national life.

If Pakistan is burning itself down, we care about it as much as we care about Rwanda.


To the extent, Pakistan has presented itself directly to India, it is through war. Interestingly, for all our angst about this, India has already prevailed.

This in spite of the apparent Pakistani belief that each of their soldiers is equal to ten of ours :p

There are good reasons for this. While Pakistan has inflicted a painful cost on India, it hasn't been nearly enough to derail our economic advance. And while India has seemingly been passive, it has craftily expanded the war from lonely glaciers and crowded bazars to the high tables of economic globalization.

Arrival of nuclear weapons in the region has prevented outright conflict. For Pakistan's commando generals, this means we are now in the era of - what Steve Coll called - Ghost Wars. These are fought mostly in the shadows and, on occasion, on world's television screens.

What their tunnel vision misses is that, while still painful, such terrorism no longer terrifies. When something is expected, it doesn't shock any more. It still hurts, but more like a rubber band snap than a scorpion sting.

Anything more than a scorpion sting risks provoking all out war. Anything less than a rubber band snap is futile. The terrorist finds himself deterred into a range of tactics that are too weak to hurt India while sufficiently ghastly to make the world recoil from Pakistan.

India has wisely portrayed this dynamic as Pakistani terrorism against Indian economy. This is a real powerful narrative that doesn't require India to compromise on her values. Sixty four years after the war began, the increasingly globalized world sees India as an emerging economic superpower while routinely calling Pakistan a failed State. Easy to see who has prevailed.

The definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior while expecting different outcomes. By this definition, Pakistani huqmaran have not only lost the war, they have lost their sanity too.


I disagree with those who call on India to match Pakistan's murderous ways.

We have an approach that is already very effective. All we need to do is to keep reinforcing the narrative of Pakistani perfidy in every possible forum - in this, we are aided by Pakistan's galactically stupid conduct. Each terrorist gambit of theirs only serves to make our point. You'd almost think Pindi and Aaabpara are agents of New Delhi!

Each time we ask Pakistan to arrest and bring to justice the perpetrators of Mumbai, they come across as dragging their feet. It doesn't take a 150 IQ to see how self-destructive this conduct is.


Where we really should focus, is hardening our defenses against Pakistani terrorism. We need ever higher walls to hold back their pawn soldiers - not bridges to engage their killer brass.

We need homeland security of the sort that has prevented attacks on US since 9/11. I favor adopting the 1% doctrine on these matters.

We need police reform to focus on real terrorists rather than gunning down college girls and pretending this somehow makes us safe.

We need to ensure that our economic growth brings prosperity to Indian muslims and that they emerge as role models for the newly democratizing Islamic world.

We need our media and political elite to stop hobnobbing with Pakistani elite merely because they can offer titillating sound bites and scandal fodder.

As private Indian citizens, we can do even more. Indians are now an integral part of the global economy and culture. This gives us unique visibility and influence over flows in capital, trade, and ideas. We should deploy this power to deny Pakistan wherever we can.


My Pakistani liberal friends call such views of mine hate.

They tell me these views only serve to strengthen the grip of army and obscurantists on their national discourse.

They ask me to engage the good in Pakistan and stand with civilians in Government.

I believe these are great prescriptions for Pakistani liberals to follow. It's their country and they should fight to preserve its honor. Nothing will give us in India greater happiness than the day Pakistani liberals prevail.

In the meanwhile, we have to take steps to protect our people and prevail over enemies.