Sunday, February 26, 2006

Peace of Justice

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar:Peace of Justice

If there is justice there will be peace. Nine men from Baroda were sentenced to life imprisonment by a special court in Mumbai for a massacre of innocents (known as the Best Bakery case) during one of the most terrible communal riots in our history, the Gujarat carnage of 2002; and every Indian can declare with pride that he or she lives in a nation that has not only democracy, but something more: institutions of justice that deliver in matters of honour, truth, life and death. A democracy is much more than counting votes once in five years. A democracy is about rights and wrongs each living day. The peace that democracy delivers, therefore, is a positive, creative, enhancing peace, not the peace of the graveyard that settles like a pall on nations condemned to dictatorship.

Democracy is about civil society and equality, of high courts as well as a scene I witnessed in a 7 a.m. Indian Airlines flight I took from Mumbai to Delhi on the morning of writing this column: an airhostess taking special care of an elderly Muslim man with a cap and a beard who was unsteadied by age as he walked uncomfortably into the aircraft. He was not at all wealthy; this could have been his first flight, perhaps taken for medical reasons. The airhostess gave him more help and attention than she offered anyone else. This is equality and civil society without prejudice in India. The Gujarat carnage is part of the truth; the airhostess is part of the larger truth. India is not secular because it is democratic. India is democratic because it is secular.

In a democracy, elections may be the court of first as well as last appeal, but there is so much space in between. Governments are unstable in a democracy, which is an excellent thing; but society is stable, which is even better. Governments are stable in a dictatorship, but society is unstable, constantly simmering under the pressure of a forced calm, and threatening to erupt at the slightest crack in the edifice. Those in power did everything they could to subvert justice in the Best Bakery case, using authority to try and undermine the judiciary and money to change the evidence. The police are a mighty force in India, and never mightier than when they attempt to become the law. Governments bullied and bribed witnesses who were poor and vulnerable: I would not be too harsh on the poor and vulnerable, for we have very little idea of what constant, daily pressure by the police can mean. The important, and vital, point is that justice survived the malfeasance of the system; perhaps that is the only point. The courts were assisted by the dedication and sheer, determined obstinacy of civil society leaders like Teesta Setalvad, who refused to be defeated by the acquittal of the accused by a court in Gujarat, and went to the Supreme Court. One of those sentenced to life imprisonment, Sanjay Thakkar, begged for mercy once the judgment was announced. He once must have thought that his mentor, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, would succeed in saving him from retribution. Thank God for Teesta Setalvad and the Supreme Court.

And thank God for a free media too.

There were two judgments on the murder of Jessica Lal, in which the prime accused was a rich thug called Manu Sharma, son of a former minister of the Union government of India, no less, Vinod Sharma. There is little purchase in naming the political party to which he belonged, for all parties are infected with this insolent, brutal Delhi plague. The facts are simple, and their simplicity itself is evidence of how Delhi’s ruling elite believes that it can get away with murder after it has got away with theft. Jessica Lal, a model, was shot dead in public in a restaurant owned by Bina Ramani. It was a crime of power, wealth, corruption and arrogance: power was the means to wealth, wealth was the source of corruption, and corruption is the reason for this murderer’s arrogance. The murderer took out a gun in full public view, shot Jessica dead and walked off. As simple as that. The case was widely reported. On 21 February additional sessions judge S.L. Bhayana acquitted Sharma. The judge was hapless if not helpless: he explained that the three key eyewitnesses had turned hostile.

The media delivered the second judgment on this case. It refused to accept the judicial verdict. One of the truths of Delhi is the fact that the police believe that they are employed not only to implement the law, but also to twist it according to their will. The media refused to let police get away with their lucrative indolence in this case. Every newspaper gave headlines that accused the authorities of corruption. No editor, of print or audiovisual media, consulted anyone else. Each editor reached his or her own conclusion, and the conclusion was similar. The stench of corruption was too strong for even the most cynical nose.

This anger was not limited to the police. It was also addressed to the New Class that has become a running, cancerous sore of Delhi. It consists of rich, political or pseudo-political (by which I mean hangers-on of political progeny) thugs who are brimming with black money, and who are convinced that they are a phone call away from safety if they get into trouble. Their cars are a menace on the streets; their behaviour a menace to social life; their criminal side a menace to life. They are the middlemen of deals, the scum that has become obese thanks to cuts from the billions that are spent by the government each year in purchases. Their behaviour might have been funny were it not so deadly. Many of them actually behave like villains from the screen, flaunting their power as if there is no accountability in Delhi’s ravenous jungle, and never will be. The media was also saying that Manu Sharma, a perfect example of this class, would not be permitted the luxury of indifference.

By Friday, the Delhi High Court had summoned the files of the Jessica Lal case from the Delhi police. This too was recognition of injustice.

Standards change; yesterday’s scandal becomes today’s morality; we stop asking questions in the name of friendship, or in the hope of a good time; the culture of consumerism becomes the primal law; your dress becomes your address. Sab chalta hai. Anything goes. Delhi is the world’s largest glasshouse: who shall throw the first stone? But there comes a moment when you no longer care whether the glasshouse remains intact or shatters. If that glasshouse is going to protect the killers at Best Bakery or the murderer of Jessica Lal, then it is time it got shattered into smithereens. Civil society rose in both instances. It threw stone after stone in the Best Bakery matter, rousing the conscience and the best instincts of the highest judiciary. It rose again in the matter of Jessica Lal, and the Delhi High Court has taken the initiative. But one stone was not sufficient in Best Bakery; and one stone might be insufficient in the case of Jessica Lal as well. The establishment has a very very thick hide, thickened further by the belief that the public has a very very short memory. The establishment has an invaluable weapon in time. The media woke up in the immediate aftermath of injustice. How long will it remain awake when the files wend their slow way through the courts, impeded by procrastination and fudge? Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty etc, but how eternal is eternal? The Delhi High Court has asked Delhi’s police commissioner to send a status report in four weeks and said it will hear the matter on 19 April. Six weeks is a pretty long eternity in media terms. We will see if media has the tenacity of a Teesta Setalvad or not.

The dead do not return. But they will haunt us until there is justice.

-Back to main

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A middle-aged government

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By M.J. Akbar : A middle-aged government

Let me first record my deep pangs of envy whenever I see a column written by an American. There is never a shortage of fresh subjects for him or her. That, as you are aware, is the first law of columns: stay as far away from your last theme as possible. Repetition equals boredom and boredom kills a reader faster than stupidity. In America the highest authorities step in to rescue a dull week. Vice-president Dick Cheney shot up his good friend Harry Whittington instead of quail, to give an example, guaranteeing the wastage of a few forests of newsprint in comment. The most exciting thing an Indian vice-president does, alas, is write his autobiography. He also presides over a House of Parliament in which an MP might tear his hair or tear his shirt. It says something about Indian political culture that tearing one’s shirt can be more revealing than an autobiography.

Indian politics is more exciting than an Indian government, but the adrenaline of politics follows a bell curve. It peaks around elections and disappears into the slough of despond after the results. Politicking is a continuous activity, full of sliced backs and hypocritical fronts; politics is continual. We journalists are fortunate that elections now come around at fairly regular intervals, and that the Election Commission stretches each one to its maximum tensile strength, stopping the process just a step before complete and sudden breakdown. The longer the political game the more the number of fouls, errors, wrong passes, egomania and hopefully a penalty or two. That’s the stuff of headlines and sermons, the meat and potatoes of media. The Indian government, in contrast, just hums along, making announcements that interest no one, and pronouncements that are either innocuous or illusionary. How much staccato can you get from a hum?

But at least a hum makes some noise. A transition makes none. That is why no one has noticed a remarkable transition in Delhi.

The Union Government of Dr Manmohan Singh has slipped into middle age.

In a very important sense, that is literally true. Everyone knows that time flies, except when it stands still, which can be even more painful. Two years have disappeared since Dr Singh ushered in yet another dawn in the history of our democracy. A government is elected for five years. Delete the last year for goose pimples and jitters as everyone moves into election mode and goes into best-behaviour, and you are really left with only four years. So we are smack into the middle of this government’s natural life.

There are many ways in which we react to middle age. There are those for instance who worry much more about what is on top of their heads rather than what is inside. They welcome middle age by filling bathroom shelves with hair dye and spending extraordinary amounts of money on hair transplants. Others give way to the indifference of sag, letting their appetites do the talking and their stomachs do the bulging. Dr Manmohan Singh is lean and has not interfered with his hair. He has accepted middle age with realistic pessimism. I don’t think he quite has the courage to acknowledge a misspent youth. If you examine the record you realise, with a bit of a start, that government has virtually stood still for two years, rotating upon its hidden anxieties and apparent contradictions. Witness the evidence in two key areas, which could have formed the reputation of this government and perhaps reformed India in the process.

Its economic policies are still trapped in a tug of war between the critical periphery, the Marxists, who are right in Bengal and left out elsewhere, and a shrinking core, the Congress. Two years ago there was upbeat talk of reform with a human face. The face has been promised a facelift that might or might not become a reality in 2015. Economic reform is still in embryo, waiting for sufficient heat to facilitate its emergence.

Similarly in the crucial area of relations with Pakistan there is stagnation. President Pervez Musharraf, for all his extraordinary worries, has been more articulate, imaginative and original in the search for options on Kashmir. (Note: I used the word "options", not "solutions"; but the search for peace can only be done through the cluster of options.) Delhi’s response has been as swift and inept as a kneejerk. Heaven knows who does the thinking in Delhi. I rather suspect no one. The old foolishness of treating Pakistan as a "failed state" that will crumble under the pressure of its own fissures seems to have returned. Hence the strategy of stall, pretend and buy time. This middle-aged government has not heard of spectacles, so it has lost the vision it once possessed, and which Dr Manmohan Singh epitomised in his early days. Don’t expect anything spectacular anymore.

The rational Dr Singh seems to have concluded that he cannot be sure of how much time he has left. He wants to use the remaining bit of his term in office to do just one thing, and perhaps not much more. That one dimension is to improve relations with America. He genuinely believes that the final equation between India and the United States, once the give and take has been worked out, will shift the balance in India’s favour. India’s nuclear status will be recognised, and India’s economy will benefit from flows of capital and technology. There is nothing wrong with seeking good relations with America, and everything right about it. Only the very stupid would object to this on principle. On the other hand, you don’t have to be very wise to realise the merits of the old adage: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Dr Manmohan Singh, spurred perhaps by the thought that time is running out (middle age angst, really) is moving at a speed that seems reckless to many thoughtful Indians who worry that India’s most precious national asset, its nuclear military capability, is being compromised in the process. If this feeling becomes a conviction, this middle-aged government will not get passage to any other age. The Indian street has been nourished by the view that America is a democracy at home and a dictatorship abroad (I heard this again from an official at Mumbai airport on the morning of writing this column).

Indians do not make good stenographers. They simply do not like taking dictation.

High drama is good for journalism and columnists, but not necessarily so for the country. A middle-aged government should be averse to risk. They do say that one is most vulnerable to fatal heart attacks in middle age.

-Back to Main

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Answer is Gandhi

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: The Answer is Gandhi

Sequence and consequence do not always follow the same logic: the publication of the gratuitously offensive cartoons against the Prophet of Islam (you can translate that, literally, to the Prophet of Peace for Islam means peace) has already resonated through contemporary events. It will also echo far into the future. Any single day’s newspaper was sufficient to indicate that simmering resentment against the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, for instance, found a reason to escalate into anger. There are too many questions around this conscious provocation by an irresponsible Danish newspaper, fuelled by a less than comprehensible Danish government, and not enough answers.

The first question must surely be the simplest one: Why? More than one answer has been offered. One editor of the paper appeared on European television and said, so primly that he was on the verge of sounding pompous, that the cartoons were not meant to hurt Muslims but only to represent, through an image, that a number of Muslims had become terrorists. This is the sort of argument that sounds reasonable to a neutral mind until you pare open the first layer of deception. If that was the purpose, why not use an image of Osama bin Laden? Why use the image of the Prophet, which by itself is offensive to a faith that rejects, very strongly, any iconography or deification? We have published cartoons on Osama fairly regularly in our papers without anyone raising any objection.

This is buttressed by the "freedom of press" argument, a view endorsed so strongly by the media of continental Europe (but not, repeat not, by British media) that sensible publications like Le Monde have reprinted the cartoons twice. Far be it for me to decry press freedom. It is my bread and butter. But I have yet to come across a nation or society that offers freedom of expression without the qualification of libel or similar safeguards. One of our editors asked the Danish embassy in Delhi to let us know if they had any libel laws. They promised to get back to us. We are still waiting. But text is not difficult to find in the age of Internet. I quote from Section 266B of the Danish penal code: "Any person who publicly or with the intention of dissemination to a wide circle of people makes a statement or imparts other information threatening, insulting or degrading a group of persons on account of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation, shall be liable to a fine, simple detention or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years." Section 140 adds, "Those who publicly mock or insult the doctrines or worship of any religious community that is legal in this country, will be punished by a fine or incarceration for up to four months."

This is as civilised as it gets. The reason for such legislation is not a history of abuse against Islam, but a history of virulent anti-Semitism, for which Europe holds some kind of pernicious record. I warmly applaud such laws which protect Jews from verbal and image-barbarism. There are laws in Europe by which anyone denying the Holocaust can end up in jail, and a poor British historian is in an Austrian jail at the moment for doing so. Excellent. Then why is the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, pleading helplessness? He did not have to convict anyone himself, for the very good reason that he cannot. But he could have easily referred the matter to his own country’s judiciary and awaited their decision. During the long months when nothing happened over the cartoons this would have been sufficient to calm Muslim unease over the insults. The cartoons appeared on 30 September. There was no public reaction in October, November, December and most of January. But there was official reaction. The Saudi and Libyan governments withdrew their ambassadors. The Danish Prime Minister, who is desperate for a peaceful dialogue now, held no press conferences then. Eleven ambassadors of Muslim countries wanted to talk to him. They got a polite letter which they construed as a snub.

One reason for the anger is the conviction of gratuitous bias against Muslims. It has now emerged, thanks to a story in the Guardian, that the same Danish newspaper rejected a series of cartoons against Jesus some three years ago because they were deemed to be offensive. It was the correct decision. Journalists like the editor of the German publication Die Welt, who has gone on record to say that the publication of the cartoons is "at the core of our culture" would not find enough freedom in his press to publish a cartoon (produced in a British newspaper, the Independent, in January 2003) showing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dining off Palestinian babies. I am a journalist too, and would not publish it either. But the editors of continental Europe have suddenly broken into paroxysms of moral indignation at any attempt to question their right to publish offensive cartoons against Islam. Freedom of press was not trotted out to defend nastiness against Jesus or indeed Israel’s Prime Minister. To do so now is mendacity.

The International Herald Tribune of 9 February reported that Fleming Rose, cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten (the Danish newspaper that started the controversy) told CNN that his paper was ready to publish cartoons of the Holocaust that were being encouraged by an irresponsible Iranian newspaper, as if two wrongs added up to a right. His newspaper, however, quickly denied any such intentions.

I was in Britain last weekend when this storm was raging. I don’t think that British newspapers have any less desire for a free press than their Continental counterparts. And yet, none of them published the cartoons, although there was doubtless pressure to do so. The BBC (more accurately known as the British Boredcasting Corporation) did a typical weaselly sort of fudge, showing a bit and then removing the image so that it could claim to have it both ways, but no one was very impressed. Instead, newspapers from across the ideological spectrum, from the Observer on the left to the Sunday Telegraph on the right, published powerful and moving accounts of what it meant to respect the faith of the other. The British media, which is not wimpish and which can be the most aggressive in the world, can today claim the respect of Muslims because of its restraint. British Muslims today feel closer to their country.

Hindus and Muslims have lived with one another as long as Muslims and Christians have. You can go through the literature, popular songs or journalism of India and you will not come across a Hindu writer insulting the Prophet of Islam or a Muslim writer insulting a Hindu God. This does not mean that either has changed his faith. It merely means that in India we have a culture that respects the right of another to believe in a different creed, and values a neighbour’s sentiment as much as his own.

The Danish Prime Minister began to perspire only when Muslims across the world started to boycott Danish products. His God is commerce, so the only retribution he understands is an insult to that commerce. Muslims who think that violence is the answer, have got it wrong. Violence is wrong in itself, and counterproductive. A boycott of Danish products is far more productive.

Who did we Indians learn this from? Mahatma Gandhi, of course. His challenge to the British empire began with a boycott of British goods. It was only when he made a bonfire of the coloniser’s cloth did the world’s mightiest empire begin to shiver. It is not too difficult to live without Danish cheese, or even Bang and Olufsen. One would, in fact, like to extend the logic. If you have to buy a European product, buy British. That would be a nice way of saying thank you.

The Danish Prime Minister is searching for answers. But in order to get the right answers you have to ask the right questions. Here is a suggestion, Mr Prime Minister. Do not worry about the enemies Denmark has made. Worry instead about the friends Denmark has lost.

- Back to Main Blog

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Goliath Called David

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by: A Goliath Called David

Relax. The days when the world turned to America to solve its problems are waning. America is now turning to the world to solve its problems, particularly when it needs help to clean up little pools of mess created by hyperactivity in those regions fortunate or unfortunate enough to possess oil.

Take relations between Washington and Delhi. America used to be the big bogey on Kashmir. Delhi was constantly haunted by the ghost of CIA wandering through the Kashmir valley, and the body of diplomacy chasing the ghost. American policy now has much more to do with how India can help America strategically, than with how the Indian arm can be twisted by means gentle or harsh. That, I believe, is why we might be missing the point of American ambassador David Mulford’s recent remarks to Indian media.

Not being privy to the inner dynamics of the Mulford mind, I can suggest four theories about why Ambassador Mulford rang alarm bells on the nuclear deal prior to President George Bush’s visit to India in early March.

No. 1: Mulford is a businessman, sent to Delhi in a grace-and-favour posting because he is a friend of Texas’ principal patriarchs. Like the famous protagonist of Gone With the Wind, the ultimate in American-south fiction, frankly, my dear, he doesn’t care a damn.

No. 2: Mulford is tired of the job. He is not particularly young, and there are personal problems that he would rather attend to at home in the US of A. Such remarks are one way of reminding the State Department that any arbitrary spray of verbal bullets would be far less damaging in America because they wouldn’t travel very far.

No. 3: This is a nuanced ploy, crafted by someone very clever in the Bush office, a sophisticated variation of good-cop-bad-cop and a new dimension to the Ugly American syndrome. In this theory, if Mulford mucks up the atmosphere really badly, expectations are lowered, which sets the stage brilliantly for Bush. After Mulford, anything that Bush says will sound better and positive, and everyone can claim that the Bush visit has been a grand success despite lower fulfilment levels.

No. 4: Mulford is telling the truth.

Pardon me for sounding naive, but I have a feeling that the last is correct. Mulford is doing no more than telling it like it is.

Ever since Dr Manmohan Singh returned from his last visit to Washington, clutching a piece of paper in his hand, the Delhi establishment has set about trying to convince India that there is indeed something called a free lunch in international affairs, that Washington has accepted India as a virtual sixth nuclear military power, and an ally, if discreet, in the emerging confrontation with China. Implicit in this conjecture was the assumption that America would no longer treat Indian and Pakistan nuclear military power as equal realities; that India would be permitted to float into superpower category and Pakistan dealt with after the new equations had been formalised with Delhi.

It is not difficult to buy the services of drums in Delhi, and a few free airplane tickets are sufficient to generate a lot of noise. The orchestra plays to the baton of the administration and to an audience heavy with media, for dissemination is crucial. The great thing about Indian democracy, however, is that you can never buy off everyone; and critical analysis finds its way into the intellectual space and public discourse with a persuasive power that can never be matched by purchased voices. And so the first optimism of a great leap forward in US-India nuclear relations has been slowed by reality checks: the leap is sort of frozen in mid-air, uncertain whether to travel forward, return to base, or simply descend to ground at the point where it is frozen.

Such self-congratulation always seemed fantasy-driven, if not amateur. Ambassador Mulford may have been publicly provocative to those who did not want to hear the facts, but he was only restating the facts that any honest reporting from Washington could have confirmed to the foreign ministry. Nuclear policy is not controlled by the White House alone, and while the White House, which is the executive wing of government, must of necessity use gloss to shade the difficult parts, there is no evidence that it sees the future of India in quite the same way as the ring around Dr Manmohan Singh. Did the Delhi establishment hear nothing from Senator John Kerry, who was in India only days before the Mulford remarks? Senator Kerry is a Democrat, and the man who might have been President if a few people in Iowa or Ohio thought so too. Kerry was not in Delhi because he had nothing else to do, or because he needed a winter vacation. He was in Delhi, with the full knowledge of the White House, to deliver a specific message: that the questions being raised were bipartisan, and, when you took the pretty phrases out, they were essentially about just one thing: fissile material.

Look at the conundrum from another perspective. Suppose India had not been a nuclear military power, would there have been any fuss at all? If India had a nuclear power plant in every city of the country, dedicated only to peaceful purposes, there would have been a queue of merchandise merchants sitting outside 7 Race Course Road hawking their wares without much regard for the views of the White or Green or Saffron House. The core issue is the military arsenal, and the basic message from Washington is this, cold and simple: separate military facilities from energy facilities; open the latter for continuous inspections so that they cannot ever be used for military purposes; and then freeze the capabilities of the military plants to levels that we can monitor now and reduce later. This is the project in simple English. Translate into any language you fancy. For reference, check why the discussions between Nicholas Burns and Shyam Saran failed in December.

America has double standards on nuclear arsenals in the case of only one country, Israel, and is beginning to pay a credibility price. Iran has made a few things clear in its confrontation with the United States and many Western nations over nuclear power. Iran’s preamble might be self-serving: example: We have not attacked another nation for two hundred years. So what? That does not guarantee that you will not attack another nation in the next two hundred years. President Ahmadinejad’s destroy-Israel rhetoric is unacceptable and counterproductive, but its core argument is finding echoes across the world. The Saudis, surely the best ally America can hope to have in the region, have said quite categorically that Iran’s nuclear potential cannot be divorced from the reality that Israel is a major nuclear military power, and unilateralism is not going to be permanently acceptable. This is why the big powers who sat in London and Vienna to discuss referral of Iran to the United Nations suggested that Israel could also be mentioned. The United States has rejected the idea, but the idea did not come from America’s enemies.

It was inevitable therefore that America would make Iran the test of India’s ability to compromise. For the moment, the government has bought peace with the Opposition by arguing that an international consensus is developing on Iran, but this is only the beginning of the story. John Negroponte, National Intelligence director, accepted in a rare appearance to the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iran had not developed nuclear weapons yet, and was still years away from any realistic ability to do so. There is time for the arguments to develop, and more than one case to be made. Caution is a far better weapon than self-congratulation.

Pakistan is critical to American interests. In fact, as a wise former diplomat in Delhi pointed out, Pakistan should keep quiet and wait: whatever deal was finalised with Delhi would become a fact with Islamabad as well. This seems much more realistic than the wish that America would rubberstamp India as the only nuclear power in the region.

Ambassador Mulford’s term will get over, and he will go. He will be only the first; in a couple of years, none of the authors of the present arrangement, if it becomes law, will be in power. But the problems will not go with them. The nuclear policy of India is not, and has never been, the policy of one government. It is national policy, and therefore non-partisan. It must be conducted with care, consultation and support from all sides of the Indian Parliament and the Indian people. In government, you always have to juggle with the ball, and drop it at your own risk. When you juggle with the nuclear ball you drop it not just at your own risk, but at the risk of the nation as well.

-Back to Main Blog