The Cowardice Of
being able to fortify justice, they justified force.”
1984. Mumbai 1993. Gujarat 2002. Nandigram 2007. Signposts of pathology
on the putrefying landscape of Indian politics. What sort of a future
does this sequence of events portend for this beleaguered country? A
red thread of publicly endorsed savagery runs through the heart of these
chilling episodes of recent Indian history.
is so central to our shared destiny that if we lose ourselves in the
deception of numbers – of merely comparing the number of rapes,
murders and so on – we will tragically miss the key point and
bind ourselves to a frightful fate we might otherwise still be able
to forestall. Outright barbarism knocks on our doors and we do not hear
it. The public relations experts, image consultants and media managers
(not to forget intellectual apologists) are hard at work making us deaf
and blind towards obvious injustices.
in many shades. It is saffron here, red there, and saffron, white and
green elsewhere. In each case of state terror listed above a different
party was in office. In one and every case, elected leaders forgot their
public duty, donned their party attire and defended the crimes committed
by their cadres. In Delhi in 1984, the Prime Minister of the day had
declared that the earth had shaken after a great tree had fallen. In
Mumbai in 1993, the Chief Minister was of the view that the city would
have burned had the leaders responsible for unleashing the mobs been
arrested. In Gujarat in 2002, “every action had an equal and opposite
reaction”, in the words of the Chief Minister. And now, we have
the Stalinist Chief Minister of West Bengal boasting that “they
have been paid back in their own coin” (the invisible Maoists
case innocents were maimed, murdered, raped and rendered homeless. The
state failed in its primary function – of ensuring the physical
security of its citizens. In no case did the honorable men in office
take any responsibility and think it fit to resign their posts –
the only act which could ever entitle them to name the crimes of their
political rivals in similar circumstances. Quite evidently, our leaders
have no faith that they will be returned to office, were they to signal
their dissent and protest by resigning. Even more to the point, they
believe that even barbarism is fine if it adds to the power of their
party, “religion” or nation. And even more cynically, they
calculate that the public, after making a few angry sounds, will lapse
We are still
childish when it comes to learning certain things. We take our moral
cues from others and, for all our education, follow the leader blindly.
As usual, the trouble in human societies starts from the top. For some
decades now, Indian ruling elites have looked towards Washington to
show the light. President Bush Jr. set a shining example before the
whole world when he announced the doctrine of preventive war in 2002,
empowering himself with the right to attack any country in the event
of even a suspicion of their plans to harm the national security of
the US. He did just that to Afghanistan and Iraq (with consequences
all too obvious to belabor).
Here in India
we are very skilful at emulating the white man’s vices (never
his virtues). Little wonder then that our leaders feel entitled to exempt
themselves from elementary moral sense. And evidently credit the public
with even less of it.
In a mediocre
age, men and women in public life find themselves capable of justice
only if it is in fashion. Their primary loyalty is to moral fashion
after all, not to justice. As in every other age they look after their
moral appearances – but only to the extent that they don’t
appear too tardy in a mirror already darkened by the misdeeds of their
In the Spring
of 2002, the same Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was “ashamed of the
role played by the Prime Minister in tackling the Gujarat killings”,
just like to L.K.Advani’s affronted sensibilities, the CPM has
“nuked the farmers in Nandigram” today. If only Advani had
visited the Muslims of Behrampura and Naroda Patiya with the same compassion
he is showing to the peasants of Sonachura and Gokulnagar today! He
would have seen just how well the Muslims had been nuked by his Bajrangi
sense of shame has dutifully taken leave of him in a timely way today.
“It wasn’t possible for police to go” to Nandigram,
he explains. Did the invisible Maoists prevent them? How did the cadres
(mobilized apparently from as far afield as Purulia and Burdwan) do
it? With what right can the government go on if it has such a seemingly
incompetent police force to maintain law and order in the times that
matter? How does it transpire that it trusts the militarism of its cadres
more than the capacities of the police force? Who supplied the cadres
with automatic machine guns? How come the same police is so efficient
at raining repression on artists and intellectuals in the streets of
Home Secretary (who should know) has “not heard of any Maoist
arrest.” Either he is plain wrong or the CPM leaders are lying
and indulging in public fantasies about Maoists. All the partners of
the CPM in the ruling alliance are pointing fingers at it not merely
for not controlling the bloodletting but for in fact instigating it.
Witnesses – those of them who have been allowed into Nandigram
by the cadres – are reporting tales of plain horror. There is
evidently plenty for the CPM to hide. Human rights teams have their
task cut out.
visited the land of Gandhi five years ago, tyranny today stalks the
earth where Tagore once sang.
no greater tragedy for the famed democracy than when the state goes
into hiding from time to time to enable narrow political victories for
its supine functionaries. It is a typically Indian pattern of state
terror and violence which repeats itself with almost predictable frequency.
To enable quick, opportunistic political gain, a party in office uses
its lumpen cadres to unleash violence on defenceless innocents, with
the active or passive cooperation of the police or paramilitary forces.
The crimes are not even acknowledged to be so, suitable justification
supplied to defend the misdeeds. All parties need male, unemployed youth
to keep the blood-stained pillars of power in place (one reason why
unemployment suits the political parties and is thus not going to go
It also makes
public hypocrisies perfectly transparent and leadership ever so unworthy
of credible respect by the public. How can the Prime Minister be holding
out the threat to internal security posed by extremists in the politically
forlorn states of Chhatisgarh or Jharkhand if he indulges the state
terror of his political partners in Bengal or if he ignores the evidence
of state terror in another state, recently made public by brave endeavors
of investigative journalism? And how does the CPM expect any credibility
in the eyes of the public if it offers the nuclear deal to its UPA allies
in exchange for being granted the privilege of not having its ugly sins
in Nandigram investigated and exposed? Has Washington become less of
an imperial monster in the past few weeks? Is this the way a responsible
political party would participate in policy-making of the greatest importance
to the future of the nation?
What is pathetic
to behold is the abject opportunism with which each of the major political
parties make appropriate indignant noises about the crimes of their
rivals for a while, only to recede into eventual inaudibility. And of
course a studied, calculated silence about their own crimes.
is in fashion, values in public life recede quietly into oblivion and
the polity faces a historic crisis of moral imagination. The most prominent
political actors are only left with the freedom to act in ways which
make their otherwise apprehensive rivals breathe a sigh of relief –
since they are not the only ones with skeletons colliding noisily in
their closets. Not one has the courage to stare into the mirror of terror.
And not one has the faith that were s/he to resign s/he would live to
fight another day.
In the world,
cowardice arms itself. And having done so, it is too busy defending
its own aggression to exercise the liberty of feeling, thought and reason
which alone can enable human beings to become fully human – by
recognizing, honoring and celebrating the existence of others.
is yet another signpost on the rapid descent into growing barbarism
in India. It betokens an across-the-board bankruptcy of imagination
which makes the use of illegitimate force to tackle conflicts the default
measure. The leaders have made themselves helpless because of their
customary cowardice. It is time for the public to wake up to the urgent
responsibilities of civilized citizenship.
Shrivastava is an independent writer. He can be reached at
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