Sunday, July 28, 2013

An Indian election, possibly to the dismay of those journalists transfixed by hype, is not a contest between Lord Rama and Bhagwan Krishna. In the real world, it is mostly between General Hocus and Admiral Pocus. The voter does not choose between two paragons of virtue. He takes a punt on what is available, warts and all.

Does this leave the electorate in serious depression? No.  The Indian voter, having abandoned illusion in the mid-1960s, is now beyond disillusion: feet on the ground, eyes open and ears tuned to that fine pitch that distinguishes fact from bombast, he scans politics with a reality-check laser beam. The next general election will not be decided by the froth of school-playground taunt and retort that dampens television screens every evening. It will  hinge on a challenge to democracy posed some 2500 years ago.

Socrates asked  a simple question: who prevails in a trial between a doctor and a pastry chef before a jury of children? For the Greek philosopher, who placed the virtue of logic far above the merits of popular will, the answer was a no-brainer: a landslide for cooks. But if Socrates had been born in 1947 and observed Indian elections with his rigorous intellectual diligence for over six decades, he would surely have seen the flaw in his thesis. Politicians may still offer either prescription or pastry, or indeed cake and more cake, but the jury has grown up. The voter understands the difference between a sweetmeat today and bread tomorrow. Every election after 1952 has been about delivery, not promise.

Jawaharlal Nehru did not win in 1957 by distributing free soft cheese. He was rewarded for hard decisions. No economic reform has been as important, or as dramatic, as land reform, the basis of food security.  Independence is a bitter joke if a nation has to beg for food to prevent starvation. The Nehru model extended to  reorganization of states to empower people, industrial cities that absorbed an emerging working and middle class, emotional and economic succour to refugees devastated by partition, and a foreign policy that minimised threats to a nation that had suffered colonized.  

By the 1960s, things began to fall apart on every aspect of the Nehru thrust - China, states, famine. In the case of China and Pakistan, friendship failed. The bigger mistake was fundamental. Congress forgot that every set of ideas demands the next set of ideas.
In 1971 Mrs Indira Gandhi offered a placebo. The balm had very temporary effect. The following three decades of despair exacted an extremely heavy price. Economic stagnation bred myriad forms of violence, from Maoist insurrection to communal and caste explosions. A stable government is possible only in a stable environment: every Union government between 1977 and 2004 was defeated. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee might have survived, for they offered economic promise, but they were consumed by violence of the 1990s. A fire takes longer to extinguish than to start.

Corruption leapt up from  margins to  central dominance. There were many reasons, but among them was the gradual realisation by politicians that job security was over. They made as much hay as possible during the brief sunshine in their careers.
The government of Dr Manmohan Singh, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi won in 2009 because enough voters were convinced that it would, given another five years, win India a place at the high table of the world's economy by raising growth and ensuring that its benefits seeped down to the impoverished base. Hope is the most dangerous thing you can betray. Growth in welfare was substituted by a cancerous spread in corruption. Nor could blame be transferred to subsidiary players. Among the accused was Robert Vadra, which took the story into the home of the most powerful family in government.
People expected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be a tough doctor in the Socratic mould. Instead, in his second term, he turned out to be another pastry cook.

The Indian voter could be forgiven for turning cynical. He has, fortunately, only abandoned emotion - not fully, of course, but in sufficient numbers to create a different pattern. The voter has become an accountant.  Minor exceptions apart, every election now delivers a clear mandate. Opinion polls  manage to indicate a trend, but are far less successful in estimating the extent of victory, as even a casual look at  Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Bihar, Goa, Punjab, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal or Karnataka proves. The message is obvious. No government can take recourse to an alibi for non-performance. Victors swirl in  silk at the time of coronation but are  left with a thong when accountability kicks in. The Indian voter has become cool, which is the perfect temperature for democracy.

There is no reason yet visible why this pattern should not hold in either the state polls this year or the general election next year.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Day of Judgement

The Day of Judgement

Human nature, when in a good mood, takes pride in saving a fellow being from impending tragedy. A good case can now be made for saving a person — including one with an inhuman record — from continuing farce. It is time we organised a mass petition to end the presumed trial of Sajjan Kumar for inciting murder and mayhem during the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi 28 years ago. For nearly three decades he has escaped justice through one legal feint after another, abetted by authorities. This happened again last week. Why pretend? Send a simple message to the victims of 1984: Abandon hope, all ye who enter the Indian judicial maze.

As politics buzzes towards another general election; as conversation and opinion polls chase each other along an entertaining circumference; as reasons advance and propositions retreat; as issues climb on the graph of voter-impact, and reasons get dissected with a surgeon’s scalpel, one gut cause for popular anger seems to have eluded the attention of pundits and their hangers on: justice.

The wide spectrum of justice can breed paradox. Take the tragedy of mid-day meal deaths in Bihar. The rage of the poor is obviously legitimate. The principal and cohorts who poisoned impoverished children with insecticide are not mere criminals driven by greed; they have, at some sub-conscious level, a pathological hatred for the dispossessed, as if the poor do not deserve more than a dustbin. But at least one consequence seems bizarre. Bihar’s teachers have gone on strike after the episode, arguing that serving meals is not part of their duties. They too claim to be victims of injustice.

Is there a rational connect between both grievances? Yes, collapse of government. The Supreme Court orders governments to provide meals in schools. The state government has neither the infrastructure, nor the will to create one. It makes no effort to match intention with ability. This is not a question of money. The cost of a meal is only a small percentage of resources needed to finance administrations that have bloated across the land.

No state government can afford to accept this truth, for that would be political suicide in a democracy. So it does what it has learnt to do, encourage a practice built on compromise and theft. A meal scheme for children needs a professional process that can be held accountable. Instead, government throws some money at teachers who are allowed to do what they want. There are cuts along the way as money travels from capital city to district headquarters, and then to the principal. Everyone is not as brutally dishonest as those in charge of the Chhapra school, or there would have been such calamities more frequently. But the system is wont to treat the poor as sub-human. The poor, they believe, eat dirt in their homes; why should they get any better in school?

A horrifying tragedy has exposed death by poisoning. There is a greater horror that has not hit the headlines: the slow poisoning of hundreds of thousands of children who are getting rotten food, just short of visible worms and insecticide. Slow death does not make news.

Injustice is not new in India. What is new, and long overdue, is demand for redress. Tribals have been marginalised for centuries, ever since they lost political control over their natural habitat in the green belt of forests along the midriff of India. Feudal India had no time for them, except occasionally as security slaves. Colonial India had no time for anyone except compradors. But even democratic India was indifferent or exploitative. The tribal demand for justice is being heard through guns.

Others have not turned to violence — yet. The poor still have some faith in democracy, and express their anger in elections. But a ruling class tends to treat time as an endless resource. Within the folds of time is an ignition box, which must be defused or it will explode.

Corruption is another synonym for injustice, for it is robbery of people’s resources. Corruption is not exchange of wealth between the rich; it is the people’s money accumulating in limited pockets. The teachers in Bihar were not paying for meals from their salaries; they were siphoning off money collected from taxes. Those mobile companies who bought spectrum at deflated prices were also stealing from the national purse.

Justice is neither expected nor offered in a dictatorship, which is why it becomes such an intense demand when a dictator falls. But justice is intrinsic to democracy. An ordinary crime is punished through law; political culpability meets its fate in elections. When justice is denied, it lingers in the mind; you can dull its edges, as in the Sajjan Kumar case, but it will haunt you from some corner of the national conscience. Every election is a judgement on justice. The verdict may not be perfect, but it works.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu nationalist

When logic snaps, rational discourse stumbles. Why is it perfectly acceptable to applaud a Muslim nationalist, but denigrate a Hindu nationalist? Either both terms are right,  or both wrong.

Mahatma Gandhi gave "Muslim nationalism"  institutional credibility when, in the fractured decade after the Khilafat movement, Muslims who believed in him formed the All-India Nationalist Muslim Party on 27 and 28 July 1929, with Dr M.A. Ansari at the helm. Our present vice president, Hamid Ansari, belongs to this family.   

Gandhi was father of an ideology that knit the groundwork of   modern India. His moral compass was set on a firm axis: politics without religion was immoral. Among the first to be impressed by this proposition were the maulvis who later banded under Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind; their alliance would flower during the non-cooperation struggle.  Hindu and Muslim are birth identities; they do not change, unless one becomes an atheist. But nationalism, a political concept, can vary. Gandhi did not. From 1915, the year he entered Indian public life, to 1948, when he was assassinated, he believed that India must be a land where all faiths co-existed as equals, guided by sarva dharma sambhav.

Gandhi's nationalism was the antithesis of communalism. He was distressed to the point of agony by the slow drift within the Muslim elite towards separatism. This culminated in partition when  Jinnah reduced "Muslim nationalism" to "Muslim nation". It was a visible reduction, philosophically, intellectually and finally geographically. Gandhi promised Muslims honour and equality in a nation from Khyber to Chittagong; Jinnah's prescription eventually reduced Pakistan to a  sliver of land on either side of the Indus, wracked by fundamentalism and riven by insecurity.

The difference between "Hindu nationalism" and "Hindu nation" is equally uncomplicated. If anyone wants to be a Hindu nationalist, offer a warm welcome; if the call is for a Hindu nation, point out that religion is ineffective as a basis for nationhood. Pakistan is a good example. Indeed, if religion worked as a glue, why on earth would there be 22 Arab nations? Hindu extremism existed in Gandhi's time, but it never got much traction beyond the fringe; and it could not, ipso facto, seek secession.

Gandhi would have been puzzled by any suggestion that Hinduism  was an obstacle to secularism; his Hinduism was an inexhaustible well of brotherhood, just as his colleague  Maulana Azad offered Islam as a superb rationale for inter-faith harmony.  Both used a faith-influenced dialectic almost unconsciously. Hindu-majority India is not secular because Gandhi was secular; Gandhi was secular because India is secular.

Gandhi was proud to be a  Hindu. He promised Ram Rajya, not some variation of a fashionable western dictum, whether Marxist or Fabian. Ram Rajya was a metaphor for prosperity and equality, not subjugation. Gandhi did not  shy away from caste. His tongue only partly in  cheek, he told the Shafi faction of the Muslim League on 22 February 1931: "Brethren, I am abania, and there is no limit  to my greed. It had always been my dream and my heart's desire to speak not only for 21 crores but for 30 crores of Indians." He was answering the charge that he spoke only for Hindus.  

Nor did Gandhi's disciple and heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, think  that the prefix 'Pandit' would stain his status as a secular  icon. Privately, Nehru was more agnostic than believer, but learnt from Gandhi that he could not sneer at, let alone abandon, his Brahmin identity. India is a land of the faithful. Those who today feel 'Pandit' might be an embarrassment have not seen Durga Puja in secular Calcutta.

Strangely, those Muslim League stalwarts who were determined to parade every mark of their religious identity as a fundamental right, spread the canard that Gandhi's Ram Rajya would enslave  Muslims. We see variations all the time, among far lesser beings, as  vocal networks control debate, and stoke a fear psychosis that suits those who think the Muslim vote is better sought through fear than development.  

The insidious power of hysteria sent Indian Muslims en masse towards the separatist Muslim League in the 1946 elections.  Gandhi was reviled and taunted along the way. An important caveat is necessary, however. The 1946 franchise was restricted; only about 11% had the right to vote: landowners, rate-payers,  graduates; the elite. How would elections have gone if Gandhi's masses, the poor, who often have better political judgement than those better off,  had voted?

Faith does not make us communal, human nature does. A politician has as much right to be a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian as any other citizen. Any doubt  about an aspirant to power can be cleared by a simple question: is he committed tosarva dharma sambhav or not? If the answer is unclear, vote for someone else.

Let those Indians who want to pray, do so; let those who want to watch television instead, switch on.  Faith is a freedom.  Let us celebrate this freedom with a smile, not a snarl.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Money shouts, conscience merely murmurs

Money shouts, conscience merely murmurs

Would you walk?
Think about it. You have time, which Stuart Broad did not, when he was batting for England on the third day of the first Ashes Test in a fierce game which was certain to produce a result, and where, therefore, every single run counted in double digits. Stuart Broad had to choose between honesty and expediency in those instinctive seconds between a vociferous appeal and the umpire’s decision after he nicked a ball to first slip. He realised what everyone saw, except for the umpire who, being eyeless, shall be left nameless. Broad knew he was out. Honour demanded voluntary departure from the crease; he chose to wait for the jury to make a mistake even when he knew he was guilty.
For you, lolling on a sofa, or, if a cricket junkie, watching the match on television, any debate with conscience may seem merely theoretical. But is it any the less important? For the debate is about values. Is honesty dispensable? Are survival and success the only priorities in life?
Cricket, like existence, is not always black and white. There are situations in which a batsman has every right to hold his ground against a chorus of theatrical appeals, because he is genuinely uncertain, most often in a leg-before-wicket decision, or when a catch has not gone cleanly to hand. Innovations like the technology-driven third umpire have been created to find light through grey space. But Stuart Broad’s case is worth mention precisely because there was huge daylight between black and white. He was out. Everyone on the field, and millions outside, knew the truth.
Honour was once essential to the spirit of cricket. Bad behaviour, caused by temperament or the pressures of sport, was a discrepancy. No one has ever wanted to fail through the long history of human endeavour, and yet cricket looked down upon success without honour. In the larger field of life, honour bred the honours system, which was society’s way of recognising merit. You could, of course, occasionally buy your way to a gong, for money always talks. But money used to speak in a whisper. Today it shouts. The little murmur of conscience is lost in such noise.
Cricket was always proud to place itself on a pedestal, even when inconsistencies existed lower down. Till the 1950s, there was obnoxious class distinction, in which the amateur entered the field through the club gate, and professionals used a turnstile. A gentleman considered payment beneath his dignity, largely because he had enough money. The professional, from the working class, could not afford to take a week off from his job. But during the game honesty was not divisible by class.
We claim to live in a more egalitarian age, but we have turned “professional” into a synonym for amorality. Broad was exonerated because of his “professional” approach, as if honour is now a derisory hobby of the parson or a preacher.
In 1980 India and England played a Test in Mumbai to commemorate the jubilee of the BCCI. India’s captain was the courteous, gentlemanly G.R. Viswanath. England was led by the gentlemanly analyst Mike Brearley. At a turning point in the match, England wicket-keeper Bob Taylor was given out leg before. Visibly upset, he hung around in obvious protest. But there was obviously no review system. Viswanath, to everyone’s surprise, overturned the bemused umpire and asked Taylor to play on. He did, and helped England win the Test. Was that the holy moment when the world of cricket saw the light? No. Since then, it is the tough school of thought which has taken over the game. Some cricketers still at the crease have resisted the trend. Australian Adam Gilchrist famously walked against Sri Lanka in 2003, and South African Hashim Amla does not linger if he knows he is out. But both have an old-fashioned look about them.
So would you walk? The question is larger than cricket. Ministers, ordinary, extraordinary, chief or prime, do not walk when exposed as corrupt, or when atrocious administration kills children after a mid-day meal. Do those on lower rungs of power, whether secretary presiding over a department, or clerk guarding a file, walk away from a bribe? Do business executives walk away from offering one? What prevails in the constant battle between commerce and conscience? If we all walked away from temptation, wouldn’t the world be a nice little Utopia?
The first commandment of contemporary religion is unambiguous: Thou shalt win. Everyone, as the saying goes, loves a winner. There is a second commandment: Thou shalt not be so stupid as to get caught. There is no third commandment. If Stuart Broad were only a cog in a game it might not matter, but he is also a role model for millions of young people. If survival by any means can guarantee heroism, then surely plain old morality sucks.

Enjoy the delicious fruits of survival. Don’t walk.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The real cost of a bribe

The real cost of a bribe

If, in 2002, a traffic cop in the fairy-tale town of Swat had booked a car speeding through its bazaar, NATO troops could have left Pakistan by 2003, Iraq might have escaped NATO’s invasion, Barack Obama would probably be an unknown Senator from Chicago and George Bush Junior’s presidential library in Texas would certainly have something to cheer about. But, according to Maryam, her husband Ibrahim al-Kuwaiti “quickly settled the matter”, and the bribed Swat cop never realized he had just let Osama bin Laden escape. Maryam was giving evidence before the Justice Javed Iqbal commission, set up to enquire into the events of 2 May 2011, when US Navy Seals flew three hours into Pak territory, found and killed Osama. Nothing works on our great subcontinent better than instant cash. Al-Kuwati, Osama’s most trust aide, knew that. This is the kind of authentic detail which makes a fabulous story so entirely believable.

Which bit of this enquiry report, spread over 336 pages, garnered from 201 witnesses, is beyond doubt, which is useful, and how many witnesses have spun out little gossamer tales hide truth in a silken web?

Trivia, as indicated, deserves its place in the footnotes of history. Osama, according to a wife, wore a cowboy hat to protect himself from aerial surveillance. Well: where do you buy a 10-gallon Texan hat in Abbottabad? Can’t bring it in the luggage from a Bora Bora battlefield, either. Perhaps she confused it with a baseball cap. We also learn that Osama sometimes shaved his signature beard as part of a disguise. True, this would be perfect deception, but how long would it take to get that beard back to its original majestic length? Presumably no one in that band of brothers and wives had the courage to click a mobile picture of Osama in transition, not even a young consort in a playful mood.

In 2005, after pit stops in five Pakistan cities, the Osama entourage settled into this military garrison town, in a house so visible that no one could see it. The property was bought with a fake ID; perhaps the traffic cop principle was operational again. Four electricity and gas meters were installed in that house; no one asked why. This might have a proper explanation. No one checks electricity meters in Pakistan, so why make an exception in Abbottabad?

The high wall surrounding the house collapsed in the 2005 earthquake, and rubble lay around for months, but no one bothered to enquire, or even see, who lived inside. If you want to raise one eyebrow, reserve your second for the next story. An official survey area listed this home as “be-chiragh” or uninhabited. The Iqbal commission knows the answer: it acknowledges something “more sinister”. In 2005, Pak intelligence “closed the book” on Osama bin Laden; there was “grave complicity (at an) undetermined level”.

That level was obviously former dictator Pervez Musharraf, for this is how decisions are made during army rule. There was no incompetence. There was complicity. Take just one fact: CIA gave ISI certain phone numbers to monitor; it did not. At each turn, Islamabad manufactured and sold a lie to the world. In the beginning came Musharraf’s repeated denials, often accompanied by the hearty laugh reminiscent of retired colonels in the old British army. At the end, when Washington declared Osama dead, a chorus of spokespeople was paraded before media, not least Indian television, to nudge-wink the suggestion that Osama’s capture was a joint US-Pak operation. America had long stopped trusting Pakistan on Osama. Justice Iqbal and his brave colleagues refused to seal a lie with interpretative approval, and deserve our unstinted praise. The episode, they say, indicates not just incompetence or irresponsibility, but something “worse”.

The commission touched one significant nerve when it analyzed the complete failure of Pakistan’s military defences on its western frontier, breached totally by America on that historic night of May 2. The Pakistan air force apparently learnt about Operation Neptune Spear only when it saw media reports. “In the premier intelligence institution,” the report notes, referring to ISI, “religiosity replaced accountability.” The meaning is not complicated. India is the only enemy.

Pakistan’s security regime defines sovereignty in what might be called Indian terms. This is not new; it claims Kashmir but calmly hands over a part under its control to China. America does not respect Pakistani sovereignty over its skies, and uses drones where and when it wants. Protest from Islamabad is token, if not hypocritical. Accommodation with China or America is justified by realpolitik, but any effort at adjustment with India, even along the Cease Fire Line, internationally acknowledged as the acceptable dividing line, is dismissed as “capitulation”.

The people and most politicians of Pakistan have inched away from anti-India obsession, but the military-religious pincer is so strong that even elected governments feel locked in, helpless. Peace between India and Pakistan is blocked not by ground reality, but by ghosts in the mind. In the meantime, worry about the cost of a bribe.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A history of the future


A history of the future

Life’s most traumatic cemetery is surely the memory of pain, for it is buried but not dead. Neither amnesia nor vengeance is a solution, although the timid find solace in the first and the violent seek options in the second. Individuals, communities, nations have to find the spirit that can liberate them from the bonds of past anguish, to discover a future in a new perspective that is something far more than a distorted reflection of fear.
It is not often that a Bollywood film can lay claim to that cleansing experience called catharsis, but Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a film made by Indians inspired by a vision of the future from the countless narratives of that terrible past called partition. They recognise the great dangers in single-tunnel truth, for it can so easily turn a script into a game of vindictive flames. But Milkha is not just another Friday release; its bleak landscape blossoms with many shades of subtlety woven into events and characterisation.
The box office is always tempted by simplicity. Good and evil must be caricatures. The formula is uncomplicated. Laugh in the beginning, cry in the middle, find relief at the end, go home happy. But this is a film about reality, not exaggerations. Nothing is overdrawn, nothing is underwritten.
Milkha’s childhood is destroyed by the slaughter of most of his family in the Punjab that went to Pakistan. Out of this holocaust emerge real people, not saints and sinners. Milkha runs, reaches a refugee camp in Delhi and finds his way through loneliness, despair and a lost first love, before discovering that unfathomable elixir of indomitable spirit that turns a child who might have become hardened criminal into an international athletic superstar. His best childhood friend, a Hindu boy who trudged to a Maulvi’s school with him, finds survival through another process, and who can say that this was less agony? The Hindu lives through 1947 by converting. The point is made simply, without fuss, without accusation or praise, as a choice human beings make when torn between life and death. One of the great tragedies is that nearly seven decades later, the few Hindus left in Pakistan are still sometimes forced into such an awful debate with their conscience.
There is no difference between Indians and Pakistanis; we are the same people, with the same weaknesses and strengths. If the two partitioned neighbours have evolved differently, it is because they are influenced by their root ideology. The ideologues who inflict violence within Pakistan have not understood a very simple truth: if your mission is to search for someone to hate, you will continue to find them. Yesterday they were Sikhs and Hindus, today they might be Shias or Barelvis or whoever interferes with some fantasy of an artificial purity.
Filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s sensitivity and genius is at its nuanced best when, almost surreptitiously, he depicts violence in all its myriad evil, including the many forms which we compartmentalize into “lesser” categories. The tight, ringing slap of a husband across the face of a wife who did not respond to a demand for instant sex in a refugee camp is also madness mixed with hatred. Milkha’s girlfriend is dragged, screaming, into an arranged marriage while he is away, trying to prove that he can succeed in something more than petty crime. When he discovers his loss, his old friend from the mohalla puts it plainly: you know how we Indians treat women. Sonam Kapur, in the role of girlfriend, appears briefly, perhaps spanning fifteen minutes of a film that exceeds 180. Any commercial movie which stars a missing heroine is blessed with calm self-assurance. I will not mention the denouement, except to indicate that it will surprise those who enter the theatre with pre-conceived notions.
Those who believe are all, in a sense, convicts of their conviction. The ideology of a humane spirit, soaring towards the unbelievable, is also infectious, and it lifts every aspect of this film. Farhan Akhtar has put in a performance that is beyond mere awards. The lyrics of Prasoon Joshi, the music of Ehsan-Loy are transformative. Both might work better in the film than outside, in cafes or radio, but that is an asset, not a liability.
Mahatma Gandhi is mentioned once, as a reason for a holiday. Perhaps this is deliberate, because Gandhi has now become synonymous with preachy, and no one has time for sermons. But Gandhi left us with a lesson that saved India in 1947 and the years beyond; and is now resonating through the world. Violence destroys both perpetrator and victim. Violence sucks compassion out of our heart, and turns it into a barren desert enveloped by the mirage of rage. Even violence in the cause of justice, which is necessary for order and civilization, can devastate beyond its purpose, as the final metaphor of Mahabharata tells us with unambiguous pain.

Gandhi wrote the history of the future, not a history of the past.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

When Chulbul Pandeys shoot first and whistle later

When Chulbul Pandeys shoot first and whistle later
M.J. Akbar

My one encounter, if that is the appropriate word, with a policeman who had washed his hands in cold blood, was in an empty Amritsar hotel at the height of the Punjab insurrection in the late 1980s. It is difficult to imagine now what Punjab was like then. The Golden Temple, wrecked by Operation Bluestar, had become a symbol of the broken Sikh heart. Terrorism, inspired by the dream of secession, acquired a raging justification . Amritsar was sullen by day and silent by night; fear haunted Punjab like a living ghost.

The IPS officer had come for a chat in the evening; only police vehicles moved after sunset. There was a look of almost unnatural calm on his face, and it was only in the middle of a largely onesided conversation that it occurred to me that this was the visage of narcotic serenity. Perhaps his nerves needed solace, or possibly his conscience. But when he spoke he did not quiver. He was on the front lines of a vicious war launched by elements who wanted to partition India again. It was his duty to destroy them first, he said with a thin smile that started on his lips but petered out midway. It would be gratuitous to mention his faith, but those locked in conventional wisdom would be surprised.

Much before Punjab this argument was heard in the North East; then repeated in Kashmir. As terrorism spread its footprint across India through the 1990s and first decade of the new century, reaching a horrific, televised climax in Mumbai when gunmen, armed and trained in Pakistani sanctuaries , a dilemma has ebbed and flowed through the tides of Indian public opinion. Can outlaws be contained through the binding laws of a liberal democracy ? Should right to life, a fundamental tenet of our Constitution, be extended to those who kill innocents , arbitrarily, bomb buildings, hijack aircraft, or target places of worship in order to inject poison into the demographic veins of India? Theory has the good fortune of living in a black-and-white textbook . Reality is grey. Terrorists thrive in shadow wars, protected by a paradox: since they are out of uniform, they can always claim innocence until the moment they pull a trigger. We forget the number of alibis that were floated even after something as self-evident as the 2008 Mumbai attack and some were repeated in Parliament by a Cabinet minister in the UPA government. Our security forces have to hunt in such treacherous fog. Their job is to succeed before the trigger is squeezed, to find Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins before they have succeeded, and to stop a thousand attacks on civilians during a festival or any other day. The Army has the umbrella of a special act to limit accountability in case of a mistake. The spirit of democracy argues against such privilege, but the visceral need for security against covert evil pulls in the other direction. The trouble with sanction for murder is that it brutalizes and breeds rogues, particularly in our police, where any moral code has been weakened by corruption and arrogance. Police have jailed and killed innocents, coerced money out of helpless victims, confident that politicians, themselves largely corrupt, will never find the courage to confront them. The worry is that public opinion often condones “Dirty Harry” methods, in which a bullet takes precedence over due process. When, in 1993, it became clear that criminals owing allegiance to Dawood Ibrahim were involved in the horrific Mumbai blasts, the city’s police were offered freedom of the trigger. Citizens approved, as did the Congress, Shiv Sena, BJP and voters. Films glorified ‘encounter specialists’ . The syndrome is no longer as gory, but Chulbul Pandey still shoots first and whistles later. In 2008 Delhi police killed young men at Batla House. This year, on May 18, a young man in custody, Khalid Mujahid, died in “mysterious circumstances” while being taken to Barabanki jail by the UP police; 42 of them, including senior officers , are under investigation. For years in Hyderabad and Malegaon, “suspects” have been jailed for years without proof of complicity in any terrorist act. Congress or Samajwadi Party were in power in these states. And of course BJP ruled Gujarat when 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan was killed by the police. There is no standard response. Let alone outrage, there is hardly any rage about Delhi, UP, Andhra or Maharashtra. Most people have probably chosen their sides over Ishrat Jahan. The CBI’s chargesheet is enough for those who believe she is guiltless. Others stress the IB version that David Headley, convicted of terrorism, mentioned her name; or wonder what she was doing in the company of three men recognized, even by the CBI, as terrorists.

Only one thing is clear in this dust storm of fierce argument. We are not interested in truth. A complex reality has been distilled into campaign fodder in election season. Politics is the petrol that can turn such a fire into conflagration.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

A bus ride to interesting times


A bus ride to interesting times

M.J. Akbar

It’s the old London bus principle. Nothing happens for a long time, then suddenly three turn up at the same time. No decision is made by government for more than four years, and then a dozen come along, tripping one another on their way towards public discourse. You have to wonder why.
Congress has developed an odd habit since 2009: it indicates its mind before it has made up its mind. Telangana was comatose on a back-burner when, quite out of the blue, Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced a solution was imminent. When passions advanced, government retreated. Last year Sushil Shinde switched on a green light, and turned it to amber in January this year. Now Digvijay Singh, general secretary in charge of party secrets, has told us a final solution is in plain sight. We should believe him. A general election is also in plain sight.
If A.K. Antony is appointed General Manager, Repairs and Reconsideration, can elections be far away? First priority: send morality on holiday, and who better to do that than the most moral man in Cabinet. Jharkhand Mukti Morcha is the property of a family which can, with some justification, be described as corrupt. Not only do they take money, they also get caught, which is silly in our liberal corruption environment. But for ten seats in the state, all sins are forgiven. Joining Congress is a baptism; it bathes the sinner with salvation. JMM was corrupt and communal as long as it was scratching for power in the company of BJP. Perhaps this is good politics. We shall know only after voters have returned a verdict.
Antony has quickly extended a Congress hand again to DMK in Tamil Nadu, another state where it cannot survive without an ally. The DMK is in less of a hurry, and may not do so before election dates are announced. Congress is the only party that knows when, but if it is getting antsy, there has to be a reason.
But hurry is dangerous in politics. You can trip up if you have not planned how to negotiate the various traps that always lie on a plotted route. You hold one end of a map up, beaming at cameras, and the other end collapses. Has this happened with the CBI’s charge-sheet in the Ishrat Jahan case, probably the final effort to derail Narendra Modi after more than a decade in which every twist of the legal process has been exhausted?
CBI proclaimed Ishrat Jahan innocent, but admitted that the three men shot alongside her by Gujarat police were terrorists. Perhaps CBI and government thought that everyone who mattered, including media, would treat this as the final word. Then, quite unexpectedly, things began to go a bit wrong. The Intelligence Bureau, which is headed by Syed Asif Ibrahim, an officer with a fine reputation, refused to kowtow. A tussle broke out between IB and CBI over Ishrat Jahan. Facts emerged, which had so far been kept out of public purview: principally, that David Headley, convicted for his role in the organisation of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, had named Ishrat during his interrogation by the premier Indian investigation agency, NIA. Instead of leading an offensive, the government might be forced to clean up its own mess.
Hurry has affected the food security decision as well. This is definitely going to be the main plank of the Congress re-election campaign. Remarkably, however, the most vociferous opposition to this decision has come from parties that have always the pro-poor banner: the left. Prakash Karat, speaking for Communists, Mulayam Singh Yadav, speaking for himself, and Dinesh Trivedi, on behalf of Mamata Banerjee, dismissed the decision as nothing but an election gimmick. There is certainly no money in the current resource base of UPA government to implement this expensive programme. But Congress is more interested in making this the central promise of its next manifesto, than implementation. If it wanted implementation, it would have issued the ordinance in the first six weeks of UPA2, not in the last six.
Are we then looking at a November general election?
Congress has not taken a final decision, but it is clearing the way towards that possibility. It does not want to be subverted by events that may not be fully in its control, including the behaviour of the extended family that keeps UPA in power without much reward in return. Its haste is out of necessity, rather than will.

Complicated problems like Telangana however do not promise easy dividends, even if you take a decision. Nor will all the Band-Aid eliminate memory of corruption, end inflation, stop the rupee implosion, or reverse the sag in the economy. The only prediction that can safely be made is that the next general election, whenever it is held, will be the most interesting since 2004. Hop on to the bus in any case; the ride will be bumpy but exhilarating.