Deep Shall We Dig?
25 April, 2004
A young Kashmiri friend was talking to me about life in Kashmir. Of
the morass of political venality and opportunism, the callous brutality
of the security forces, of the osmotic, inchoate edges of a society
saturated in violence, where militants, police, intelligence officers,
government servants, businessmen and even journalists encounter each
other, and gradually, over time, become each other. He spoke of having
to live with the endless killing, the mounting `disappearances', the
whispering, the fear, the unresolved rumours, the insane disconnection
between what is actually happening, what Kashmiris know is happening
and what the rest of us are told is happening in Kashmir. He said, "Kashmir
used to be a business. Now it's a mental asylum."
The more I think
about that remark, the more apposite a description it seems for all
of India. Admittedly, Kashmir and the North East are separate wings
that house the more perilous wards in the asylum. But in the heartland
too, the schism between knowledge and information, between what we know
and what we're told, between what is unknown and what is asserted, between
what is concealed and what is revealed, between fact and conjecture,
between the `real' world and the virtual world, has become a place of
endless speculation and potential insanity. It's a poisonous brew which
is stirred and simmered and put to the most ugly, destructive, political
Each time there
is a so-called `terrorist strike', the Government rushes in, eager to
assign culpability with little or no investigation. The burning of the
Sabarmati Express in Godhra, the December 13th attack on the Parliament
building, or the massacre of Sikhs by so called `terrorists' in Chittisinghpura
are only a few, high profile examples. In each of these cases, the evidence
that eventually surfaced raised very disturbing questions and so was
immediately put into cold storage. Take the case of Godhra: as soon
as it happened the Home Minister announced it was an ISI plot. The VHP
says it was the work of a Muslim mob throwing petrol bombs. Serious
questions remain unanswered. There is endless conjecture. Everybody
believes what they want to believe, but the incident is used to cynically
and systematically whip up communal frenzy.
The U.S. Government
used the lies and disinformation generated around the September 11th
attacks to invade not just one country, but two and heaven knows
what else is in store.
The Indian Government
uses the same strategy not with other countries, but against its own
Over the last decade,
the number of people who have been killed by the police and security
forces runs into the tens of thousands. Recently several Bombay policemen
spoke openly to the press about how many `gangsters' they had eliminated
on `orders'. Andhra Pradesh chalks up an average of about 200 `extremists'
in `encounter' deaths a year. In Kashmir in a situation that almost
amounts to war, an estimated 80,000 people have been killed since 1989.
Thousands have simply `disappeared'. According to the records of the
Association of Parents of Disappeared People (APDP) in Kashmir more
than 3,000 people have been killed in 2003, of whom 463 were soldiers.
Since the Mufti Mohammed Sayeed Government came to power in October
2002 on the promise of bringing a `healing touch', the APDP says there
have been 54 custodial deaths. But in this age of hyper-nationalism,
as long as the people who are killed are labelled gangsters, terrorists,
insurgents or extremists, their killers can strut around as crusaders
in the national interest, and are answerable to no one.
The Indian state's
proclivity to harass and terrorise people has been institutionalised
by the enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). It has been
promulgated in 10 States. A cursory reading of POTA will tell you that
it is draconian and ubiquitous. It's a versatile, hold-all law that
could apply to anyone from an Al-Qaeda operative caught with
a cache of explosives to an Adivasi playing his flute under a neem tree,
to you or me. The genius of POTA is that it can be anything the Government
wants it to be. We live on the sufferance of those who govern us. In
Tamil Nadu it has been used to stifle criticism of the State Government.
In Jharkhand 3,200 people, mostly poor Adivasis accused of being Maoists,
have been named in FIRs under POTA. In eastern Uttar Pradesh the Act
is used to clamp down on those who dare to protest about the alienation
of their land and livelihood rights. In Gujarat and Mumbai it is used
almost exclusively against Muslims. In Gujarat after the 2002 state-assisted
pogrom in which an estimated 2000 Muslims were killed and 150,000 driven
from their homes, 287 people have been accused under POTA. Of these,
286 are Muslim and one is a Sikh! POTA allows confessions extracted
in police custody to be admitted as judicial evidence. In effect, under
the POTA regime, police torture tends to replace police investigation.
It's quicker, cheaper and ensures results. Talk of cutting back on public
Last month I was
a member of a peoples' tribunal on POTA. Over a period of two days we
listened to harrowing testimonies of what goes on in our wonderful democracy.
Let me assure you that in our police stations it's everything: from
people being forced to drink urine, to being stripped, humiliated, given
electric shocks, burned with cigarette butts, having iron rods put up
their anuses to being beaten and kicked to death.
POTA courts are
not open to public scrutiny. POTA inverts the accepted dictum of criminal
law that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Under POTA
you cannot get bail unless you can prove you are innocent of
a crime that you have not been formally charged with. Technically, we
are a nation waiting to be accused. It would be naïve to imagine
that POTA is being `misused'. On the contrary. It is being used for
precisely the reasons it was enacted. Of course if the recommendations
of the Malimath Committee are implemented, POTA will soon become redundant.
The Malimath Committee recommends that in certain respects normal criminal
law be brought in line with the provisions of POTA. There'll be no more
criminals then. Only terrorists. It's kind of neat.
Today in Jammu and
Kashmir and many North Eastern States the Armed Forces Special Powers
Act allows not just officers but even Junior Commissioned Officers and
Non-Commissioned Officers of the army to use force on (and even kill)
any person on suspicion of disturbing public order or carrying a weapon.
On suspicion of! Nobody who lives in India can harbour any illusions
about what that leads to. The documentation of instances of torture,
disappearances, custodial deaths, rape and gang-rape (by security forces)
is enough to make your blood run cold. The fact that despite all this
India retains its reputation as a legitimate democracy in the international
community and amongst its own middle class is a triumph.
The Armed Forces
Special Powers Act is a harsher version of the Ordinance that Lord Linlithgow
passed in 1942 to handle the Quit India Movement. In 1958 it was clamped
on parts of Manipur which were declared `disturbed areas'. In 1965 the
whole of Mizoram, then still part of Assam, was declared `disturbed'.
In 1972 the Act was extended to Tripura. By 1980 the whole of Manipur
had been declared `disturbed'. What more evidence does anybody need
to realise that repressive measures are counter-productive and only
exacerbate the problem?
this unseemly eagerness to repress and eliminate people, is the Indian
state's barely hidden reluctance to investigate and bring to trial,
cases in which there is plenty of evidence: the massacre of 3000 Sikhs
in Delhi in 1984, the massacre of Muslims in Bombay in 1993 and in Gujarat
in 2002 (not one conviction to date!); the murder a few years ago of
Chandrashekhar, former president of the JNU students union; the murder
12 years ago of Shankar Guha Nyogi of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha
are just a few examples. Eyewitness accounts and masses of incriminating
evidence are not enough when all of the state machinery is stacked against
cheering from the pages of corporate newspapers inform us that the GDP
growth rate is phenomenal, unprecedented. Shops are overflowing with
consumer goods. Government storehouses are overflowing with foodgrain.
Outside this circle of light, farmers steeped in debt are committing
suicide in their hundreds. Reports of starvation and malnutrition come
in from across the country. Yet the Government allowed 63 million tonnes
of grain to rot in its granaries. 12 million tonnes were exported and
sold at a subsidised price the Indian Government was not willing to
offer the Indian poor. Utsa Patnaik, the well known agricultural economist,
has calculated foodgrain availability and foodgrain absorption in India
for nearly a century, based on official statistics. She calculates that
in the period between the early 1990s and 2001, foodgrain absorption
has dropped to levels lower than during the World War-II years, including
during the Bengal Famine in which 3 million people died of starvation.
As we know from the work of Professor Amartya Sen, democracies don't
take kindly to starvation deaths. They attract too much adverse publicity
from the `free press'.
So dangerous levels
of malnutrition and permanent hunger are the preferred model these days.
47 per cent of India's children below three suffer from malnutrition,
46 per cent are stunted. Utsa Patnaik's study reveals that about 40
per cent of the rural population in India has the same foodgrain absorption
level as Sub-Saharan Africa. Today, an average rural family eats about
100 kg less food in a year than it did in the early 1990s. The last
five years have seen the most violent increase in rural-urban income
inequalities since independence.
But in urban India,
wherever you go, shops, restaurants, railway stations, airports, gymnasiums,
hospitals, you have TV monitors in which election promises have already
come true. India's Shining, Feeling Good. You only have to close your
ears to the sickening crunch of the policeman's boot on someone's ribs,
you only have to raise your eyes from the squalor, the slums, the ragged
broken people on the streets and seek a friendly TV monitor and you
will be in that other beautiful world. The singingdancing world of Bollywood's
permanent pelvic thrusts, of permanently privileged, permanently happy
Indians waving the tri-colour and Feeling Good. It's becoming harder
and harder to tell which one's the real world and which one's virtual.
Laws like POTA are like buttons on a TV. You can use it to switch off
the poor, the troublesome, the unwanted.
There is a new kind
of secessionist movement taking place in India. Shall we call it New
Secessionism? It's an inversion of Old Secessionism. It's when people
who are actually part of a whole different economy, a whole different
country, a whole different planet, pretend they're part of this one.
It is the kind of secession in which a relatively small section of people
become immensely wealthy by appropriating everything land, rivers,
water, freedom, security, dignity, fundamental rights including the
right to protest from a large group of people. It's a vertical
secession, not a horizontal, territorial one. It's the real Structural
Adjustment the kind that separates India Shining from India.
India Pvt. Ltd. from India the Public Enterprise.
It's the kind of
secession in which public infrastructure, productive public assets
water, electricity, transport, telecommunications, health services,
education, natural resources assets that the Indian state is
supposed to hold in trust for the people it represents, assets that
have been built and maintained with public money over decades
are sold by the state to private corporations. In India 70 per cent
of the population 700 million people live in rural areas.
Their livelihoods depend on access to natural resources. To snatch these
away and sell them as stock to private companies is beginning to result
in dispossession and impoverishment on a barbaric scale.
India Pvt. Ltd.
is on its way to being owned by a few corporations and of course major
multinationals. The CEOs of these companies will control this country,
its infrastructure and its resources, its media and its journalists,
but will owe nothing to its people. They are completely unaccountable
legally, socially, morally, politically. Those who say that in
India a few of these CEOs are more powerful than the Prime Minister
know exactly what they're talking about.
Quite apart from
the economic implications of all this, even if it were all that it is
cracked up to be (which it isn't) miraculous, efficient, amazing,
etc. is the politics of it acceptable to us? If the Indian state
chooses to mortgage its responsibilities to a handful of corporations,
does it mean that this theatre of electoral democracy that is unfolding
around us right now in all its shrillness is entirely meaningless? Or
does it still have a role to play?
The Free Market
(which is actually far from free) needs the state and needs it badly.
As the disparity between the rich and the poor grows, in poor countries
states have their work cut out for them. Corporations on the prowl for
`sweetheart deals' that yield enormous profits cannot push through those
deals and administer those projects in developing countries without
the active connivance of the state machinery. Today Corporate Globalisation
needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, preferably authoritarian
governments in poorer countries, to push through unpopular reforms and
quell the mutinies. It's called `Creating a Good Investment Climate.'
When we vote in
these elections we will be voting to choose which political party we
would like to invest the coercive, repressive powers of the state in.
Right now in India
we have to negotiate the dangerous cross-currents of neo-liberal capitalism
and communal neo-fascism. While the word capitalism hasn't completely
lost its sheen yet, using the word fascism often causes offence. So
we must ask ourselves, are we using the word loosely? Are we exaggerating
our situation, does what we are experiencing on a daily basis qualify
When a government
more or less openly supports a pogrom against members of a minority
community in which up to 2,000 people are brutally killed, is it fascism?
When women of that community are publicly raped and burned alive, is
it fascism? When authorities see to it that nobody is punished for these
crimes, is it fascism? When a 150,000 people are driven from their homes,
ghettoised and economically and socially boycotted, is it fascism? When
the cultural guild that runs hate camps across the country commands
the respect and admiration of the Prime Minister, the Home Minister,
the Law Minister, the Disinvestment Minister, is it fascism? When painters,
writers, scholars and filmmakers who protest are abused, threatened
and have their work burned, banned and destroyed, is it fascism? When
a government issues an edict requiring the arbitrary alteration of school
history textbooks, is it fascism? When mobs attack and burn archives
of ancient historical documents, when every minor politician masquerades
as a professional medieval historian and archaeologist, when painstaking
scholarship is rubbished using baseless populist assertion, is it fascism?
When murder, rape, arson and mob justice are condoned by the party in
power and its stable of stock intellectuals as an appropriate response
to a real or perceived historical wrong committed centuries ago, is
it fascism? When the middle-class and the well-heeled pause a moment,
tut-tut and then go on with their lives, is it fascism? When the Prime
Minister who presides over all of this is hailed as a statesman and
visionary, are we not laying the foundations for full-blown fascism?
That the history
of oppressed and vanquished people remains for the large part unchronicled
is a truism that does not apply only to Savarna Hindus. If the politics
of avenging historical wrong is our chosen path, then surely the Dalits
and Adivasis of India have the right to murder, arson and wanton destruction?
In Russia they say
the past is unpredictable. In India, from our recent experience with
school history textbooks, we know how true that is. Now all `pseudo-secularists'
have been reduced to hoping that archaeologists digging under the Babri
Masjid wouldn't find the ruins of a Ram temple. But even if it were
true that there is a Hindu temple under every mosque in India, what
was under the temple? Perhaps another Hindu temple to another god. Perhaps
a Buddhist stupa. Most likely an Adivasi shrine. History didn't begin
with Savarna Hinduism, did it? How deep shall we dig? How much should
we overturn? And why is it that while Muslims who are socially, culturally
and economically an unalienable part of India are called outsiders and
invaders and are cruelly targeted, the Government is busy signing corporate
deals and contracts for Development Aid with a government that colonised
us for centuries? Between 1876 and 1892, during the great famines, millions
of Indians died of starvation while the British Government continued
to export food and raw materials to England. Historical records put
the figure between 12 million and 29 million people. That should figure
somewhere in the politics of revenge, should it not? Or is vengeance
only fun when its victims are vulnerable and easy to target?
takes hard work. And so does Creating a Good Investment Climate.
that just around the time Manmohan Singh, the then Finance Minister,
was preparing India's markets for neo-liberalism, L.K. Advani was making
his first Rath Yatra, fuelling communal passion and preparing us for
neo-fascism. In December 1992 rampaging mobs destroyed the Babri Masjid.
In 1993, the Congress Government of Maharashtra signed a power purchase
agreement with Enron. It was the first private power project in India.
The Enron contract, disastrous as it has turned out, kick-started the
era of Privatisation in India. Now, as the Congress whines from the
side-lines, the BJP has wrested the baton from its hands. The Government
is conducting an extraordinary dual orchestra. While one arm is busy
selling the nation's assets off in chunks, the other, to divert attention,
is arranging a baying, howling, deranged chorus of cultural nationalism.
The inexorable ruthlessness of one process feeds directly into the insanity
of the other.
the dual orchestra is a viable model. Part of the enormous profits generated
by the process of indiscriminate privatisation (and the accruals of
`India Shining') helps to finance Hindutva's vast army the RSS,
the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the myriad other charities and trusts which
run schools, hospitals and social services. Between them they have tens
of thousands of shakhas across the country. The hatred they preach,
combined with the unmanageable frustration generated by the relentless
impoverishment and dispossession of the Corporate Globalisation project,
fuels the violence of poor on poor the perfect smokescreen to
keep the structures of power intact and unchallenged.
peoples' frustrations into violence is not always enough. In order to
`Create a Good Investment Climate' the state often needs to intervene
In recent years
the police has repeatedly opened fire on unarmed people, mostly Adivasis
at peaceful demonstrations. In Nagarnar, Jharkhand; in Mehndi Kheda,
Madhya Pradesh; in Umergaon, Gujarat; in Rayagara and Chilika, Orissa;
in Muthanga, Kerala. People have been killed.
In almost every
instance, those who have been fired upon are immediately called militants
(PWG, MCC, ISI, LTTE). The repression goes on and on Jambudweep,
When victims refuse
to be victims, they are called terrorists and are dealt with as such.
POTA is the broad-spectrum antibiotic for the disease of dissent. This
year 181 countries voted in the U.N. for increased protection of human
rights in the era of the War on Terror. Even the U.S. voted in favour
of it. India abstained. The stage is being set for a full scale assault
on human rights.
So how can ordinary
people counter the assault of an increasingly violent state?
The space for non-violent
civil disobedience has atrophied. After struggling for several years,
several non-violent peoples' resistance movements have come up against
a wall and feel quite rightly, they have to now change direction. Views
about what that direction should be are deeply polarised. There are
some who believe that an armed struggle is the only avenue left. Others
increasingly are beginning to feel they must participate in electoral
politics enter the system, negotiate from within. (Similar is
it not, to the choices people faced in Kashmir?) The thing to remember
is that while their methods differ radically, both sides share the belief
that (to put it crudely) Enough is Enough. Ya Basta.
There is no debate
taking place in India that is more crucial than this one. Its outcome
will, for better or for worse, change the quality of life in this country.
For everyone. Rich, poor, rural, urban.
Armed struggle provokes
a massive escalation of violence from the state. We have seen the morass
it has led to in Kashmir and across the North East.
So then, should
we do what our Prime Minister suggests we do? Renounce dissent and enter
the fray of electoral politics? Join the roadshow? Participate in the
shrill exchange of meaningless insults which serve only to hide what
is otherwise an almost absolute consensus? Let's not forget that on
every major issue nuclear bombs, big dams, the Babri Masjid controversy,
and privatisation the Congress sowed the seeds and the BJP swept
in to reap the hideous harvest.
This does not mean
that the Parliament is of no consequence and elections should be ignored.
Of course there is a difference between an overtly communal party with
fascist leanings and an opportunistically communal party. Of course
there is a difference between a politics that openly, proudly preaches
hatred and a politics that slyly pits people against each other.
And of course we
know that the legacy of one has led us to the horror of the other. Between
them they have eroded any real choice that parliamentary democracy is
supposed to provide. The frenzy, the fair-ground atmosphere created
around elections takes centre-stage in the media because everybody is
secure in the knowledge that regardless of who wins, the status quo
will essentially remain unchallenged. (After the impassioned speeches
in Parliament, repealing POTA doesn't seem to be a priority in any party's
election campaign. They all know they need it, in one form or another.)
Whatever they say
during elections or when they're in the Opposition, no government at
the State or Centre, no political party right/left/centre/sideways has
managed to stay the hand of neo-liberalism. There will be no radical
change from "within".
Personally, I don't
believe that entering the electoral fray is a path to alternative politics.
Not because of that middle-class squeamishness `politics is dirty'
or `all politicians are corrupt', but because I believe that strategically
battles must be waged from positions of strength, not weakness.
The targets of the
dual assault of communal fascism and neo-liberalism are the poor and
the minority communities (who, as time goes by are gradually being impoverished.)
As neo-liberalism drives its wedge between the rich and the poor, between
India Shining and India, it becomes increasingly absurd for any mainstream
political party to pretend to represent the interests of both the rich
and the poor, because the interests of one can only be represented at
the cost of the other. My "interests" as a wealthy Indian
(were I to pursue them) would hardly coincide with the interests of
a poor farmer in Andhra Pradesh.
A political party
that represents the poor will be a poor party. A party with very meagre
funds. Today it isn't possible to fight an election without funds. Putting
a couple of well known social activists into Parliament is interesting,
but not really politically meaningful. Not a process worth channelising
all our energies into. Individual charisma, personality politics, cannot
effect radical change.
However, being poor
is not the same as being weak. The strength of the poor is not indoors
in office buildings and courtrooms. It's outdoors, in the fields, the
mountains, the river valleys, the city streets and university campuses
of this country. That's where negotiations must be held. That's where
the battle must be waged.
Right now those
spaces have been ceded to the Hindu Right. Whatever anyone might think
of their politics, it cannot be denied that they're out there, working
extremely hard. As the state abrogates its responsibilities and withdraws
funds from health, education and essential public services, the foot
soldiers of the Sangh Parivar have moved in. Alongside their tens of
thousands of shakhas disseminating deadly propaganda, they run schools,
hospitals, clinics, ambulance services, disaster management cells. They
understand powerlessness. They also understand that people, and particularly
powerless people, have needs and desires that are not only practical
humdrum day to day needs, but emotional, spiritual, recreational. They
have fashioned a hideous crucible into which the anger, the frustration,
the indignity of daily life, and dreams of a different future can be
decanted and directed to deadly purpose. Meanwhile the traditional,
mainstream Left still dreams of `seizing power', but remains strangely
unbending, unwilling to address the times. It has laid siege to itself
and retreated into an inaccessible intellectual space, where ancient
arguments are proffered in an archaic language that few can understand.
The only ones who
present some semblance of a challenge to the onslaught of the Sangh
Parivar are the grassroots resistance movements scattered across the
country, fighting the dispossession and violation of fundamental rights
caused by our current model of "Development". Most of these
movements are isolated and (despite the relentless accusation that they
are "foreign funded foreign agents") they work with almost
no money and no resources at all. They're magnificent fire-fighters,
they have their backs to the wall. But they do have their ears to the
ground. They are in touch with grim reality. If they got together, if
they were supported and strengthened, they could grow into a force to
reckon with. Their battle, when it is fought, will have to be an idealistic
one not a rigidly ideological one.
At a time when opportunism
is everything, when hope seems lost, when everything boils down to a
cynical business deal, we must find the courage to dream. To reclaim
romance. The romance of believing in justice, in freedom and in dignity.
For everybody. We have to make common cause, and to do this we need
to understand how this big old machine works who it works for
and who it works against. Who pays, who profits.
resistance movements fighting isolated, single-issue battles across
the country have realised that their kind of special interest politics
which had its time and place, is no longer enough. That they feel cornered
and ineffectual is not good enough reason to abandon non-violent resistance
as a strategy. It is however, good enough reason to do some serious
introspection. We need vision. We need to make sure that those of us
who say we want to reclaim democracy are egalitarian and democratic
in our own methods of functioning. If our struggle is to be an idealistic
one, we cannot really make caveats for the internal injustices that
we perpetrate on one another, on women, on children. For example, those
fighting communalism cannot turn a blind eye to economic injustices.
Those fighting dams or development projects cannot elide issues of communalism
or caste politics in their spheres of influence even at the cost
of short-term success in their immediate campaign. If opportunism and
expediency come at the cost of our beliefs, then there is nothing to
separate us from mainstream politicians. If it is justice that we want,
it must be justice and equal rights for all not only for special
interest groups with special interest prejudices. That is non-negotiable.
We have allowed
non-violent resistance to atrophy into feel-good political theatre,
which at its most successful is a photo opportunity for the media, and
at its least successful, simply ignored.
We need to look
up and urgently discuss strategies of resistance, wage real battles
and inflict real damage. We must remember that the Dandi March was not
just fine political theatre. It was a strike at the economic underpinning
of the British Empire.
We need to re-define
the meaning of politics. The `Ngo'isation of civil society initiatives
is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. It's de-politicising
us. Making us dependant on aid and hand-outs. We need to re-imagine
the meaning of civil disobedience.
Perhaps we need
an elected shadow parliament outside the Lok Sabha, without whose support
and affirmation Parliament cannot easily function. A shadow parliament
that keeps up an underground drumbeat, that shares intelligence and
information (all of which is increasingly unavailable in the mainstream
media). Fearlessly, but non-violently we must disable the working parts
of this machine that is consuming us.
We're running out
of time. Even as we speak the circle of violence is closing in. Either
way, change will come. It could be bloody, or it could be beautiful.
It depends on us.
(This is based on
the first I.G. Khan Memorial Lecture delivered at Aligarh Muslim University
on April 6, 2004.)