Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Antidote for Terrorism

There seems to be a common perception that terrorism is the new threat that faces the world. The United States, under President George W. Bush, launched a "War on Terror." In its name, two countries were invaded, the draconian (by civilised standards) Patriot Act was passed, and a set of other initiatives designed to fight terrorism. Although terrorism is by no means a trifling problem, the casualties of this war have been increased budget in security and the abeyance of some of our civil liberties. Admittedly, terrorism has taken a hard knock in areas where intelligence confirmed their existence, but that is no reason to sit on our laurels - the very nature of terrorism is that it retreats in visiblity to regain its advantage of invisibility and hits again at other unsuspecting targets.

It is perhaps time to think our strategies on combatting terrorism. For one, vast armies have been shown to be somewhat impotent against it. Secondly, to evade the high tech surveillance net, many terror groups have reverted to old fashioned low tech solutions - instead of mobile phones, they use drop boxes; instead of email, they meet in person. Third, terrorism is not particularly different from regular crime - save the one difference of public and political statements in their choice of targets, terrorists are by and large common criminals albeit some with better resources. The fact remains, however, that even the mightiest army in the world, the US, has no answer when the terror groups originate from rogue states. A nuclear Pakistan has allowed terror groups there a modicum of security against an Afghanistan-style invasion by either the US or India (in 1999). Arabia, though not technically a rogue state, is a powder keg in that as home of Sunni Islam's two holiest sites, action against it could set off a worldwide orgy of Islamist violence (supported by apologists both Muslim and academic).

So what can be done differently? There is no one answer, obviously, but one proposition is to scale back the rhetoric and tackle it based on the facts on the ground. Clearly, there are multiple levels to the problem but each needs its own solution. At the ground level, states should train and arm police better. Despite its size and complexity, India is a relatively under-policed country with about one police officer for each 1,200 citizens (national average - some states are better) as against the usual 1:250 ratio found in most western countries. Despite this, there are some 113,000 sanctioned positions for the post of beat constable that are unfilled. The reason for this is that many politicians ensure that only those who bribe them or who belong to the "right" caste or faith get selected to become a police officer. The absence of professional standards for all but higher-level police positions ensures that several entrants have matters other than the security of citizens as their first priority. In all too many cases, the police are tasked with ensuring the financial and political interests of their patrons often at the expense of the public interest. In the situation where India finds itself as one of the three focal points for jihadi terror (together with the United States and Israel), it would appear self-evident that the training of the police force would be given a high priority. Yet till now, six decades after the British left, there is zero - repeat zero - training given to police constables or indeed any member of the police force below the level of assistant superintendent, usually the junior most position formerly held by a British officer. Then, as now, those further down the chain were not trained except in the most rudimentary way. After all, it does not take a high IQ to learn how to wield a stick or bark out warnings to the public. Small wonder that the quality of the police force is, to put it charitably, uneven. It is a tribute to the civilizational values of the Indian people that despite this weakness in its administrative architecture, public order is relatively high, especially when compared to their neighbors. Even in the UK or in the United States it will be seen that crimes involving Indian-Americans are much less frequent in number than those involving those from countries that have sought to shed the heritage of India and embrace Wahabbism and its attitudes, such as Pakistan and increasingly Bangladesh. For example, even though Mumbai was swamped by torrents of rain at about the same time that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, there was none of the law and order breakdown in Mumbai that was witnessed in New Orleans.

The district superintendent of police (DSP) is the key officer in each district. Although DSPs are usually seconded to the state administration from the centrally recruited Indian Police Service (IPS), the power of transfer is wielded by the chief minister and the home minister to ensure the DSP's subservience to their dictates. It may seem fantastical but the reality is that the average tenure (within a district) of the superintendent of police in India is about six months. There are cases of police officers (usually those unfortunate enough to be honest) that have been transferred as much as 11 times in one year, thereby playing havoc with the education of their children and the stability of family life.

Normally, it takes about six months for the district police chief to understand the local law and order situation as well as the capabilities of his or her personnel. After that, a minimum tenure of three years is needed to ensure that such knowledge as well as one's efficiency and motivation is reflected in performance. Sadly, those given such long tenures within a district are almost always officers who are ultra-obliging of the whims of their political masters. Clearly, at least in matters of police administration, things change very slowly in India, if at all. The registration of false cases against political and personal opponents and the immunity given to friends of the powerful is endemic in India. The only saving grace is that the disease of maladministration in most parts of India is (as yet) nowhere near the levels reached in Pakistan and Bangladesh, two countries where Wahabbism has found secure nests and from where the Wahabbis seek to infuse their poison into India's 157 million Muslims.

Although corruption is a problem, it is hard not to have empathy for the average policeman whose salary is around Rs. 8,000 in Bombay, one of the most expensive cities of the world. As a result, policemen (and women) are forced to seek other sources of income to make ends meet for themselves and their families. Sadly, the standard of living of the (honest) police constable in India has been reduced to but a tad above that of a street beggar. He has no training, no housing and certainly not a living wage. The wonder is that despite such neglect by those in authority, the police in India work an average of 16 hours per day and manage to keep the country within the ranks of the more stable in the world. Again, a huge part of the credit goes to the culture of India that ensures that the inhabitants of a millionaire's mansion can exist peaceably next to a teeming slum, with not even a single guard for protection. This can be compared to, for example, South Africa or Russia where the rich are forced to barricade themselves inside of fortresses to ensure their survival.

When we come to weaponry and equipment, the events of November 26-28, 2008, demonstrated on live television the police force's lack of firepower. For ten crucial hours they faced trained terrorist commandos while armed only with sticks or, at best, World War II vintage rifles. Except for the third of the police force that is now used almost entirely for the security of the country's political and official elite, the rest are pitifully armed. Also, such a high proportion of the total force set aside for the ritual assembly of police officers along different points of a VVIP's route and at the VVIP's meeting places is unreasonably high given that the total number of the worthies benefiting by such manpower.

During the 2009 election season, when Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi filed her nomination papers in the Rae Raebareli constituency the country's television audience was witness to the sycophancy of senior administrators towards their political bosses, a level that must surpass even the high levels of subservience recorded during the period of the Raj. The director-general (DG) of the Special Protection Group (SPG) was seen on television running alongside the car ferrying Sonia Gandhi to the town's election center. What was the DG (SPG) doing at the time? Was he monitoring the situation and assessing threats? Or keeping in touch with his personnel from across the country tasked as they are with the protection of numerous worthies including the prime minister? Not exactly. He was brushing away rose petals from the vehicle's hood! A crucial national security task indeed and certainly one deserving of the DG (SPG)'s undivided attention. It speaks well for the 58-year-old's level of fitness that one of the most senior police officers in the country was able to keep pace with Sonia's vehicle, albeit with a slight bout of panting towards the end.

Were such obsequious behaviors towards those in power be atypical they would not be a cause for worry. But they are becoming the norm. At least four major commissions have given suggestions for police reform - principally rescuing the force from the death-grip of the politicians - but they have been ignored. Politicians have taken care to pay lip service to the idea of a better police force - as Jim Hacker in Yes, Prime Minister reminds us, sometimes, you have to look as if you are trying to solve something but not actually solve it. An article in the Times of Indian in September reported on some basic facts about the police in India:

* Existing manpower -- 14.5 police personnel per 10,000 of population
* Desirable position -- 22 police personnel per 10,000 of population
* Gap between existing and desirable strength -- 5.96 lakh police personnel
* Total number of police stations -- 14,000
* Police stations in rural area -- 8,000
* Gap between existing and desirable strength in rural areas -- 3.4 lakh police personnel
* On an average, a cop gets in-service training only once in 20 years against the desirable norm of one in-service training every five years
* Total number of policemen in states -- 16 lakh
* Total 99,000 cops got in-service training in 2004; 69,000 in 2005 and 51,000 in 2006 -- decreasing trend
* Home ministry estimates that states will need Rs 25,808 crore annually for next five years to meet gaps in police strength and training

The police continue to act as the personal militias of the powerful rather than the guarantors of law and order for the ordinary citizen. According to a study done in Rajasthan Police Service, the self-perception of police was also found to be negative, as they themselves felt overworked, unappreciated and victims of political manipulation.  Unless the police in India are given the manpower, the remuneration and the equipment and training needed to evolve into a modern and professional force they are at risk of being ineffective against not just the average pickpocket but the next boatload of terrorists from Pakistan.

At a national level, it is perhaps a better idea to coordinate the efforts of various agencies. One thing India does not lack in is bureaucracy, and there are umpteem departments and agencies working in the same field to secure the Indian people from within and without. For example, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) perform the same role. Of course, the National Security Guards (NSG) seems to be the unit that does the grunt work after two bureaucracies have gone through the paperwork. On top of that, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have their own fiefdoms within the intelligence and security community. The Border Security Force (BSF), Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB), and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) also perform the same job - protecting the border from smuggling operations and infiltration. Then there are the state police. Bureaucracies need bureaucracies to keep them in line, obviously: the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) suggest better ways of storing police data, modernisation of the police force (good job there!), and other such things. What is sorely needed is a streamlining of Indian security operations. The collapsing of the agencies into a larger parent group and the sharing of information between them would be one small step in the right direction.

Finally, at a national level, there is perhaps the least that can be achieved. Trade with terror harbours such as Pakistan should be subject to a security tarrif; every opportunity should be used to remind the world of where the terror elements arise; strong partnerships must evolve between like-minded countries such as the Israel, France, Italy, Spain, Britain, and the United States (there is the danger of information leaks, of course). National policy must make every step that enriches the terror groups or their host nations more difficult - no cricket, more difficult travel permits (including Arabia), diversification of oil purchases and investment and research into alternative sources of energy such as nuclear power and hydrogen. At the same time, ties should be improved with moderate Muslim countries such as Jordan and Indonesia to give Indian diplomacy a voice and influence in the "dar al-Islam." Needless to say, these steps have to be taken diplomatically so as not to seem overtly hostile - whatever goodwill we do have needs to be maintained at all costs.

I have written in other articles (or discussions to articles) on the Centre-Right India blog that terrorism is a grassroots movement which cannot be defeated by state military might alone. The fight needs to be taken to the terrorists, at the lowest level they operate on - the hawaldars and beat police. Just like crime, or a virus, terrorism may never completely go away, for as long as a crime is committed for political reasons, terrorism will survive. That does not mean that, like crime (or a virus), it cannot be controlled or contained. It is time states took terrorism seriously and look at it as a criminal problem and not an ungodly apparition - it only gives the terrorists more power.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What Went Wrong?

The title of this article, taken from Bernard Lewis' famous book on Islamic societies, is perhaps not so much an exposition of what went wrong but how we ought to think about the present situation Islam has put the world in. I do not care to either denounce or defend Islam per se, but as someone interested in policy and social order, I am more interested in proposing a solution.

Scholars, journalists, policy makers, clerics, and even ordinary citizens around the world have been asking for the past thirty years (contrary to American perception, the world was as much troubled by Islamic terrorism before September 11, 2001) why there seems to be a surge of violence around the globe, carried out in the name of Islam. Indeed, there have even been televised debates held on whether Islam is a religion of peace or not. This, I believe, is the wrong approach and a largely irrelevant question. It ought to be obvious by now that any idea, however noble, can be corrupted and misinterpreted by people seeking their own gains. Christianity has the Crusades and the Inquisiton on its conscience; Marxism has the death of untold millions slaughtered by Stalin and Mao; democracy seems to cater to the mob and can easily be subverted as was witnessed during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Furthermore, democracy certainly did not stop numerous other U.S. incursions over the past sixty years. Lest this be seen as an American problem, it is noteworthy to remember that democratic England seems perfectly comfortable with holding on to the Falklands, a stigma of their imperialism. Not all interpretations need be horrendous - Sufism, seen as a corruption of Islam by many, is an interesting and syncretic belief system that has coexisted harmoniously with its neighbours. Hinduism, despite degenerating from a highly intellectual belief system into a collection of incoherent superstitions and rituals, is yet to launch wars of cleansing and purification upon its neighbours.

Perhaps a more suitable approach to one of th most pressing issues of the day - Islamic fundamentalism - is to ask what needs to be done to protect laws, institutions, and values that non-islamic societies hold dear. Democratic openness, never challenged until now, has become the Achilles heel of modern secular society. Without pointing fingers to Muslims specifically - the Christian Right is a brewing problem no one seems to be keeping an eye on due to the immediacy of Islamic terror - it can be objectively agreed that Islamic countries have an abysmal human rights record. In Saudi Arabia, women still are not allowed to drive, nor are they allowed to venture out of the home without being escorted by their son, brother, or father. In 2002, Saudi policemen stopped 15 girls from leaving a burning school building because their hijabs were not worn properly. In April 2008 it came to light that some months prior, a Saudi woman was killed by her father for chatting on Facebook to a man. In the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, it is believed that 3-4 women per month are killed in honour killings. Over the course of six years, over 4,000 women have fallen victim to this practice in Pakistan from 1999 to 2004. More recently (in 2005), the average annual number of honor killings for the whole nation ran up to more than 10,000 per year.  In Iran, despite its rich history with ample examples of intellectual openness, it is safer for women to wear the chador lest a basij accost them. Political terror has, over the past 30 years, become synonymous with Islamic groups. Womens' rights are rarely, if ever, respected in Islamic countries.

It is perhaps easier to dismiss problems internal to Islam (such as womens' rights, homosexual rights, or honour killings) more easily than the outward manifestation of terrorism. Politically, this is the easier option. However, it still points to fundamental rifts in basic values. I am truy intrigued by how apologists for Islam will come forth readily and in great numbers, claiming that acts of terrorism are done by a few radicalised minority who do not represent "true" Islam. These same apologists are scarcer when it comes to condemning acts of terror or openly taking a stand against the radicalised "wrong believers" by advocating and working towards reforms within the system. Instead, the outsider is fed with asinine claims of Islamic "feminism" and how women are protected in Islam. Suddenly, the hijab becomes, not a symbol of oppression, but one of liberation. Personally, I am not opposed to any item of dress, however outlandish it may be, provided it does not hamper security or functionality. it is worth mentioning though, that the same tolerance apologists for Islam ask of secular societies when it comes to wearing the hijabis not extended to secular values such as freedom of expression. Cartoons of Mohammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2005 became the focal point of a worldwide orgy of violence and mayhem. The argument suddenly became one of hurting the sentiments of the Muslim community and the values of self-censorship. To be fair, Hindu brigands were no less tolerant of MF Hussain's paintings, but a dollars and cents evaluation of the scale of destruction, the lives lost in the chaos, and the geographic extent of the disturbance reveals the extent of radicalisation in the two communities. Another marked difference between these two events is that there was an outcry against Hindu intolerance in the latter case but no such protest is yet to be voiced in the former. Such behaviour is not reserved for dhimmis or kafirs - Taslima Nasreen's book launch was attacked in Hyderabad by members of the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) in 2007. Her mistake? The audacity to criticise the plight of women in Islamic societies such as Bangladesh (on this topic, she has written much - her autobiographical four-volume Amar Meyebela, Utal Hawa, Ka, and Sei Sob Ondhokar, Lajja, for which a fatwa calling for her assassination was issued, and Shodh).

Of course, what "true" Islam is remains a matter of speculation as both the radicals and the apologists accuse each other of not keeping to the "true" faith. However, for all claims of Islam as a religion of peace, there is no doubt that there are a number of questionable lines in the hadith as well as the Qur'an. Any attempt to get rid of such lines is seen as heretical. The question arises, why is there no reform movement? Hinduism went through several reforms to outlaw atrocious practices such as Sati and the mistreatment of widows. The Vatican apologised to the Jewish community in 1998 for its role in the Holocaust. Why is there no evidence of similar measures by the Muslim community? It is not my place to demand reforms in Islam. However, I do have the right to demand that as long as I live in a free and secular society, all citizens are treated equally and that Sharia not be implemented. I have the right to demand that I be allowed to express my ideas freely (another hypocracy is that Islamic countries do not allow missionary work, while they expect secular and non-Islamic states to allow freedom of religion for their conversions). It is also my right that subversive methods employed by the Islamic community be aggressively countered, not by violence but by enforcing the law (which would presumably have restrictions on discrimination based on religion).

Ultimately, policy analysts should not care whether Islam is a religion of peace or not - it is merely a matter of intellectual curiosity better left to scholars. Policy should dictate a firm defence of liberal values, applied equally to all citizens. It is not of immediate concern to civilised states what the barbaric medieval states do internally. Political correctness should not be allowed to spin facts on the ground, that many acts of political violence are being carried out in the name of Islam - "true" or not is not our concern but the casualties are. Trade, issuance of visas, etc. should be informed by our values and reciprocity. For example, Islamic missionary work should be banned as long as non-islamic missionary work remains banned in Islamic countries. Free speech should be actively defended and any attempts to subvert its practice should be dealt with severely. Visas should be controlled to countries with a track record of human rights violations. Noise ordinances should disallow the use of megaphones in the muezzin's calls to prayer.

To state that something has gone wrong with Islam makes the implicit assumption that there was something right with it in the first place. It is indeed the case that Ibn Sina, al Farabi, Ibn Rushd, and many others contributed greatly to world civilisation during the Islamic Golden Age. However, even then, the Mu'tazilites were persecuted and their work was not freely propagated. Those who experimented with and contemplated other belief systems were ostracised from the community if not killed - Sufis are one example, but the irony is that the first Muslims to come to India via the trade routes circa 680 CE were escaping the persecution of the Umayyad Caliphate! It is indeed a miracle that science and philosophy flourished in such a repressive system. Nevertheless, even that system no longer remains. it is not correct for us to ask that Islam be reformed, but we can demand that in non-Islamic societies at least, it remains a system which one can opt out of. Too long has secular society put up with religious zealots in the name of liberalism; too long has it feared to defend its values.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lessons in Advanced Citizenship

So Arundhati Roy is an idiot. Yes, we all knew that...what's new? In her never-ending quest for notoriety, Roy recently visited Kashmir in the aftermath of the civil unrest there. While there, she spoke to locals in small gatherings and severely criticised the Indian government for the atrocities it was committing in the state. She further stated that the disputed territory of Kashmir was not an integral part of India. The next morning's newspapers covered her comments and there was an outcry across the emotionally stunted nation. “How could she say such nasty things about India?” people wanted to know. As was to be expected, the observation was very quickly made by a lobotomised individual that Roy could get away with such talk only in a free country like India, and had she been in Pakistan she would not have been cheeky enough to pull such a stunt.

The Indian Home Ministry is reported to have told the police in New Delhi that a case may be filed against Roy for sedition. Clearly, it thinks that there is enough evidence to charge Roy under Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code, which states, “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.” Ironically, freedom of speech in India, though enshrined in the Constitution of India as a fundamental right, is actually curtailed. Although Article 19(1)a gives the freedom of speech and expression to every individual, sub-clause (2) restricts the freedom whereas it pertains to “reasons of "sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, preserving decency, preserving morality, in relation to contempt, court, defamation, or incitement to an offence.” If the Union Minister for Justice, Moodbidri Veerappa Moily, is any indication of the laws in India, the Minister described Roy's remarks as "most unfortunate". He said: "Yes, there is freedom of speech...but it can't violate the patriotic sentiments of the people."

Upon learning of the possible case pending against her, Roy cleverly used the media opportunity to lambast the Indian government some more. In a statement she released, Roy declared,"I spoke about justice for the people of Kashmir who live under one of the most brutal military occupations in the world; for Kashmiri Pandits who live out the tragedy of having been driven out of their homeland; for Dalit soldiers killed in Kashmir whose graves I visited on garbage heaps in their villages in Cuddalore; for the Indian poor who pay the price of this occupation in material ways and who are now learning to live in the terror of what is becoming a police state." In an interview, she went on, "Some have accused me of giving 'hate speeches', of wanting India to break up. On the contrary, what I say comes from love and pride. It comes from not wanting people to be killed, raped, imprisoned or have their fingernails pulled out in order to force them to say they are Indians.” Roy continued, “Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds. Pity the nation that needs to jail those who ask for justice, while communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looters, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor roam free."

Speaking at a seminar on ‘Wither Kashmir: Freedom or Enslavement?’ in Srinagar, Roy said, “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact.” She declared that she was proud to associate herself with “resistance movements” across India and counselled Kashmiris to “consolidate the gains” of the recent four months of anti-India agitation. “The power concedes nothing unless it is forced to,” she said, and demanded demilitarisation of Jammu & Kashmir, urging Kashmiris not to join the State police and the Central Reserve Police Force. “India is behaving like a colonial power and suppressing one community at the hands of the other,” Roy ranted on. “They are sending Nagas to Kashmir and Punjabis to Manipur.” Roy didn't spare Prime Minister Manmohan Singh either. “The Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy,” she claimed, “has not been elected.” Roy is known not only for her controversial speeches but also her equally polemical writings.

In the wake of such rancid verbal diahorrea from Roy, it is difficult to clearly see the issue in question here. Undoubtedly, many are angry at much of what Roy said. Furthermore, there is no doubt that not only does Roy have her history wrong, but she also does not understand the nation-building aspects of military recruitment and deployment not just in the Indian Army but armies worldwide. It is also quite clear that Roy is a naive person who is yet to see real brutality or denial of civil rights. However, that cannot be allowed to translate into anger instead of justice. As the law stands, Roy is clearly guilty. The outcome of any legal proceedings will surely find it to be so. But that is not what concerns me. The fundamental principle of the restriction of free speech and expression is what bothers me. In his classic defence of free speech, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill laid down what is known as the ‘harm principle.' It postulates that the only justification for silencing a person against his will is to prevent him from causing harm to others. It is to this powerful libertarian mid-19th century principle that we owe the idea that free speech cannot be proscribed merely because we find it disagreeable, and that curbs may be imposed only if such expression constitutes a direct, explicit, and unequivocal incitement to violence. Roy, for all her raving and ranting, did not cross this threshold – the law requires that direct connection between a defendant’s words and the harm done by others be shownClearly, there is no direct link between Roy and Kashmiri separatists or the Maoists. Roy's support of these heinous causes is unquestionably problematic to say the least, but she has not armed or funded them. However, laws cannot be enacted retroactively and this argument does not serve as a defence of Roy. It is, however, something that Indians should pay close attention to for the future lest India indeed become a police state. One would have thought that we had all learned our lesson from the Weimar Republic NOT to have such sweeping and powerful laws on the books.

So what are the problems with the restrictions placed upon free speech? Does freedom mean license? Of course not. However, to frame the debate as a choice between license and encroaching restrictions is the fallacy of excluded middles. Subject to the harm principle, freedom of expression should indeed be absolute. Let us quickly run through the specific restrictions placed upon free speech in India:

1. sovereignty and integrity of India – how is the sovereignty and integrity of India “violenced” by free speech? Sovereignty and integrity can be threatened by armies from without and terrorism and separatism from within. If free speech is not directly inciting a rebellion, it cannot be said to have done violence to sovereignty and integrity.

2. security of the state – the security of the state is covered by the Official Secrets Act. There is no need to place further restrictions on expression.

3. friendly relations with foreign states – friendly relations with foreign states are not maintained by sacrificing your core values or interests. India could probably maintain friendly relations with Pakistan by giving up Kashmir and with China by giving up Arunachal Pradesh...so why doesn't anyone consider that?

4. public order – if taken to mean wide-scale rioting, this falls under the harm principle and a legitimate restriction on free speech.

5. preserving decency – what is the empirical yardstick for measuring decency? There may be a few basic values we might all agree on, such as a ban on public nudity, but what formula does one use to measure decency or the lack thereof?

6. preserving morality – what is this, Saudi Arabia? Should we start stoning women and not let them drive too?

Indians have a choice – they can remain emotionally stunted, psychologically hurt by every little incident, or they can embrace democracy and advanced citizenship. But perhaps India is not ready for democracy, not with around 40% of its population illiterate and most of the literate population accustomed to learning by rote than actual intellectual engagement and original thought. Perhaps lessons in liberty need to be paid for in blood and not enough blood has yet been spilt on the subcontinent...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hair-Trigger Hysteria

One glaring difference between India and a mature democracy is that in India, any group with a grudge and the goons to back it can resort to violence or the threat of violence to shut down free speech. Extremist Hindu groups attack shops selling Valentine’s Day cards, fundamentalist Muslim clerics urge their followers not to sing the national anthem, and Christians attempt to shut down screenings of the allegedly blasphemous The Da Vinci Code. In this kindergarten of religious communities, freedom of expression has been one of the first casualties.

Maqbool Fida Husain is a Maharastrian artist with middling talent who managed to gatecrash into the limelight on the back of his controversial paintings. Two days ago, it was made public that the Government of the Arab state of Qatar has offered him citizenship (which he may not have applied for) and which has been accepted. The Husain case is yet another example of the hypocrisy that the Government of India continues to practice - on the one hand, freedom of expression is proclaimed, but on the other, the state has done an abysmal job of defending it.

Husain is no stranger to controversies. His depiction of Hindu deities in the nude or performing sexual acts enraged Hindu nationalists in 1996 (though the paintings themselves were from the 1970s), while he had to redact his film, Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004), owing to strong Muslim opposition to the song Noor-un-Ala-Noor (they claimed it was blasphemous as it contained lines from the Qur'an). Husain also found himself in hot water when he painted India as a nude woman (Mother India, 2006), the names of the states written on various parts of her body. Hindu nationalists have been behind many vicious campaigns against Husain, while some have petitioned that he be awarded the Bharat Ratna because "life and work are beginning to serve as an allegory for the changing modalities of the secular in modern India — and the challenges that the narrative of the nation holds for many."

Had this been the end of the matter, it could all have been chalked up to "crazy nationalists" and India's unique brand of two-faced democracy. Although he deeply regrets the way Husain was treated and forced into an exile because of mob culture, another Indian artist, Satish Gujral, has poignantly asked on the record whether [Husain] will be bold enough to treat icons of Islam in the same manner. Meenaxi was apologised for and withdrawn from the theatres the day after it was released, while Husain's paintings have gone on to sell for millions of dollars and breaking records at Christie's South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale.

In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of twelve cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad (salla Allaahu 'alayhi wa salaam) as a terrorist. Haji Mohammed Yaqoob Qureshi, a minister in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, publicly offered a US $11 million bounty for beheading the Danish cartoonists who had drawn the Prophet Mohammed. When Dinamalar, a leading daily in Tamil Nadu, reprinted the cartoons so that Tamilians can see what the brouhaha was all about, their office was stoned and four public buses were burned. The Government of India recalled their Ambassador to Copenhagen in protest. The following year, in the hi-tech city of Hyderabad, three legislators of a local Islamic party, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), roughed up Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi author critical of her country’s treatment of its Hindu minority and Islam’s treatment of women. Subsequently, the government of West Bengal state in eastern India had to call in the army to quell rioters in Calcutta, whose demands included Nasreen’s expulsion from the country. Again, the pusillanimous government made a feeble speech about hurting the sentiments of the public and requested the author to leave.

Just a few weeks ago, the Shiv Sena threatened to disrupt screenings of My Name is Khan because of Shah Rukh Khan's naive statements on Pakistan. In October 2009, faced with a similar threat from another political outfit, the same producer had to publicly apologise for a film in which characters used the anglicised name Bombay rather than the official Mumbai. The state government could not curb the activities of the rogue political party in either case. In another infamous incident in 2003, a mob ransacked a reputable research institute in the western city of Pune for helping an American scholar who wrote critically about Shivaji, a revered 17th century ruler. Neither the quest for greater historical accuracy nor freedom of expression curtailed their actions. In 1989, India became the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses – Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the author followed press reports of protests in India. It might be noteworthy to remember that Muslims are only about 13% of the country's total population. In an overwhelmingly Hindu country, it is intriguing why the government always bends over backwards to appease the Muslim vote.

Clearly, hair-trigger hysteria is not the monopoly of any one group in India. Like little brats, they threaten unpleasant consequences and demand attention and capitulation. However, it is of note that the government has acted against those "hurting the sentiments" of Christian and Muslim people but not against those acting against Hindu beliefs (on the issue of censorship itself, I have written previously - A Rudderless Party, August 25, 2009). Rushdie's book was banned, Nasreen asked to leave the country, and although a citizen filed a criminal case against UP Minister MY Qureshi's blatant lack of civilised behaviour, nothing came of the case. Nafisa Ali has been quite vocal about the rights of Husain, but she has nowhere been heard commenting on the Danish cartoons or Rushdie's unfair treatment. Hindu sensitivities are left to brigands to defend and clueless and unsophisticated retards that they are, outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, and the Shiv Sena fall into the trap and obfuscate the issue with their very presence. So freedom of expression is not only an iffy proposition for successive Congress governments and the Indian intelligentsia, it is also an idea that is applied selectively.

Obviously, it would be better if Indian politicians were literate and understood the laws they are meant to uphold, but in the meantime, can we please just expect the violations of our civic rights to be consistent?