A Case for Memory Against Forgetance

13 02 2014

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting

Milan Kundera

There is an interesting petition circulated in social media addressing the director of IIT Madras to stop inviting people like Teesta Setalvad. (I have already posted my version of the chain of events that happened there)  I liked the like, and could not help but laugh for a few seconds. It accuses among other things, ideological bias and that the person in question has dubious credentials. Now, I do not intend to write any rebuttal to this petition and would like to support the free expression of opinions, even the silly ones. Also it is a known fact that people with a definite Hindutva ideology have had given several lectures in my own institution, and continue to do so. In fact, I am not worried about any kind of ideology question as long as a person talks sense, and is ready to engage in a proper discussion. I suspect this petition comes from the frustration of a few people, because they were unable to cause damage despite, the unruly behaviour demonstrated during question and answer (Q & A) session that followed Teesta’s lecture. But this is not my concern as there is a much bigger problem that lurks above us like the sword of Damocles. It is the tone, tenure, presumptions and sheer dehumanised rot, that oozed out from some of the questions that were raised during the Q & A. I write this post to address only one question- why we should never stop to forget such genocidal acts like Delhi 1984, Kashmir 1989, Bombay 1993 and Gujarat 2002, among many others which have plagued our existence as a nation.

All reputed human right activists, especially those who work for inter communal harmony and for delivering justice to the under dog, have invariably been demonised by a section of jingoists from the majority group. Take the case of Asma Jahangir from Pakistan. She has remained a crusader for delivering basic human rights to Hindu minority in her country. The ones who dislike and spread hatred against her are so predictable. Does that ring a bell? Or do remember what Franklin D. Roosvelt said “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made“.

It is often said that the most touching and tragic picture from Mahabharata is Gandhari’s trip to Kurukshetra after the war. A mother who has remained  blind voluntarily ever since her marriage, identifies the bodies of her sons and grand sons from their dismembered parts. Many poets, fiction writers and painters have chronicled this, ever since. Every war, whatever be the ideals for which it will be fought, however principled the protagonists happened to be, will invariably end up in a heap of dismembered human bodies, churning out  a feast for the hawks, while an ocean of sorrow for the beloved ones. There are no just wars. Let us pause for a while and ask this question- what did Mahabharata teach us? The glory of doing a so-called duty even if it involves murder, or that there can be no glory in such horrendous acts of violence? Now, take out the ethical dilemma pertaining to dharma and see a communal riot with a naked eye. How many Gandhari’s, sung and unsung, roamed in those killing fields? How many children? How many women raped and tortured? How many lives, families and dreams shattered?  If these gory images makes you feel uncomfortable, let me remind you there is a reason why Gandhari vilap is the  most unforgettable part from our epic. And it is not the brutality of that image, but because it serves as the best reminder to the horrors of such acts of violence;  why they should never happen.

If according to Bible, men cannot live with bread alone, so it applies to wealth or the new found slogan- development. I am not being cynical here for there is no denying that development is important. But this is to suggest that no amount of economic prosperity is a substitute to justice. In a constitutional democracy it needs to come from the very institutions that promises to deliver it. Most victims of communal riots that happened in India ever since Independence are denied of exactly that- justice. Why is that so? Now, here is where we need to understand the situation which is pretty much the same in most developing countries.

Institutional bias is an alien term for most people belonging to a majority or the dominant community, in any nation. In India, this translates to the upper caste, upper class, heterosexual  Hindu men. This becomes Sunni Muslim men in Pakistan or Bangladesh. For people who do not belong to that category, it is a fact of life that they face almost everywhere, every time. During such acts of madness as a communal riot, the vulnerable is always at the receiving end. In addition to this, the cases are not often reported or when they insist, their narratives are labelled as fictional or biased. This has happened invariably during every instance of communal violence, some at a larger scale than others. The point our Hindutva brethren never understand or pretend to ignore, even while using the Hindus of Pakistan or Bangladesh card is that their henchmen is doing exactly the same as their Muslim counterparts in these countries do.

One important aspect of such crimes is that lack of justice as a precedent emboldens future crimes. Had the victims of Delhi 1984 riots -the Sikhs- received justice, the Kashmiri pandits been able to return to their home in peace, had victims of Bombay 1993 – the Muslims- received justice, at least the Sri Krishna Commission which gave a thorough report about the abuse of state power been acted up on, there would have been no Gujarat 2002. At least, nothing of that scale. This fact has been reiterated by many human rights organisations throughout India. The involvement of the state apparatus, policemen helping the rioters etc. are not isolated incidents.These have been reported in many other riots that happened in our subcontinent. That includes the anti-Ahammadiya riots, or the recent anti-Shia violence in Pakistan, the genocide in the then East Pakistan before the 1971 war, or the recent incidents of fundamentalists targeting minorities in the present day Bangladesh.

Last but not the least, if there are people who believe that such acts should be left alone, a word to them. If they believe in let the wounds heal, I would advice them to think why we know so much about Holocaust. After all, it happened in 1940’s. Why are films or novels with its backdrop still reappearing? Is it some sadistic pleasure? Some do argue that it is because of lobbies, but the accurate answer in my opinion still remains no. It lies in a simple idea- lest we forget. Those crimes were not committed by aliens from space, but by people, often then respected ones. It is a reminder about our immense ability to get into a narrow identity trap and create horrific destruction. It is a reminder that it was we who failed. And this is not just about a Holocaust.There were crimes of the same or larger magnitude which have not been acknowledged so far and they should be.

I would like to end with these beautiful lines by the Pakistani Urdu poet, revolutionary and an uncompromising humanitarian- Habib Jalib. It is from the poem Dastoor, and speaks about the khule jhoot or naked lie that the sectarian violence abetted by the state was all over, and the wounds were healing.

“Phool shaakhon pe khilne lagey” tum kaho,
“Jaam rindon ko milne lagey” tum kaho,
“Chaak seenon kay silne lagey” tum kaho,
Iss khule jhooth ko,
Zehn ki loot ko,
Main nahein maanta,
Main nahein jaanta.

Who is afraid of Teesta Setalvad?

13 02 2014

The sane report

Teesta Setalvad gave a talk at Central Lecture Theatre (CLT), Indian Institute of Technology Madras, on February 10, 2014, between 5:30 and 7:00 PM. The question and answer session that followed was a pandemonium. A few people, probably with a Hindu right-wing background, tried to disrupt the programme by not allowing her to complete her answers. Their behaviour was not just indecent, but also highly undemocratic in denying any opposing view a space. The whole idea behind the drama was disruption rather than rational engagement to prove her wrong. Once they did not succeed, they have started a cry baby online petition urging the director to stop inviting people like Teesta. This is my account of things that happened there. I am not taking a position that there cannot be anything wrong on Teesta’s side with respect to the allegations levelled against her, for there is no way of knowing the facts for sure. But if we are to boycott people who have an otherwise long-standing proven track record, more than 90% of the politicians should never give a lecture in a university. None of the industrial giants or media mavericks can be eligible by that count. Therefore, my own position is that rather than censuring people or disrupting an engagement, people should learn to participate in a battle of ideas, no matter what the political inclinations are.

The insane report or who is afraid of Teesta Setalvad

Disclaimer:  Factual details are correct to the best of my knowledge and belief, while the interpretations and comments are matters of opinion. There is no intention to personally insult any individual and therefore I have refrained from taking names. But if the comments have somehow hurt the convictions or ideologies of any person or group, it is entirely intentional.

I live at a place where (for many) vanity level in the blood shoots up the moment you join. I’m not talking just about the garden variety vanity that usually comes from the privileged class or caste background or ideological hegemony. This is unique in the sense that a notion of intellectual superiority against and within the group, is so systematically cultivated, that many are fond of being pampered as the cream of the nation and a few among them take it seriously for no apparent reason. While, it is possible (and very likely to be true) that by and large IITians might have better technical skills, high ambition and confidence, the intellectual superiority if anything is a humbug. But then, as engineers we have every right to ask proof and so it should be. I welcome you to battle ground CLT. The match was between, the ones I would like to call as Self-proclaimed Samskaric Spartans (SSS), a well organised team of 15-20 angry young IIT men (and women*), and Teesta Setalvad, who I believe do not need an introduction. It was an uneven match. I mean, to be fair these hyper masculine alphas (and female comrades, if at all any) will not be a match to this lone crusader woman activist, even if they were 100 in number and much more samskaric, just  short of being athi-samskaric, i.e manhandling.

The Spartans, i.e. SSS, who do not have any connection with an entirely cultural organisation which has the last two letters in common with them, came to the venue early enough and spread out. Their punctuality is admirable should I say. The second thing which gave rest of us goosebumps was the perfect discipline that they maintained through out. After asking a question, they swarmed like bees pestering and making loud, often irrelevant and false, comments at will without letting the speaker complete her answer. Intimidation and bullying was the name of the game. These self-appointed generals of the king-to-be-crowned in what we were not aware till then as a court marshal room, was so sure about themselves, and apparently thought  that their superior sense of knowledge and justice, not to forget sanskar, was the only thing worthy of being shouted at will. After all, her answers are irrelevant!  She is only an extra mural lecture speaker, an invited guest, and how dare she question their convictions so openly and triumphantly? And yeah, Modi is an entirely non-partisan, champion of development (whatever that means) and even a democrat!

There was something really interesting going on. All of them had come up with a few specific questions on many points which were continuously used against her, presumably by her opponents. That was fair enough. But when she replied to each of their questions up to the point, the anger of the cream of the  nation just went up. I think these were some of the genuine questions going on in their minds.

  • Despite our best efforts, how dare you not get intimidated by our bullying?
  • How dare you answer our questions head on? Aren’t you a woman? As per Bharateeya samskriti, women should not counter question men!
  •  How dare you ask questions about our Bhagawan Modiji? Of course, we can ask any question about you and consider you shit!
  • We being the majority, should have the right to dictate terms in every engagement. If not, that is foul even if we are wrong. Actually, especially if we are wrong! How dare you challenge this status quo?

The match, as it turned out, was no match at all. The woman beat a bunch of hooligans like a cake walk. She did have crowd support, but would have done just as well without that. The behaviour of the SSS was so amazing that some of the senior professors pleaded to behave in a civilised manner. Well, actually not all of them. One did comment that  it seemed not all of us were civilised. And I’ll tell you that he was not referring to Teesta or the majority which maintained decorum and cheered her for the sharp rebuttals.

This was one direct encounter with fascism. I mean, if you could expect this from the so-called cream of the nation, why complaint about the behaviour of some monkey army or trisul dharis. But in the end, it also served as an eye opener for a few confused people. Yes, we really got a glimpse of how things might be done in the reign of their Bhagwan. Shutting down dissent, intimidation, ideology on steroids and absolute lack of rational capacity to engage.

After the battle, our Spartans were visibly tired but nonetheless whining non-stop. One of the stalwarts commented that he did not accept our definition of minority. I thought about it for a while. Now I understood, what his problem was. I wish, an MA student should have replied

What if we don’t agree with your Navier-Stokes equations? Does it make any less correct? Who gives a damn whether you agree with the definition of minority? Are you even qualified or well read to make an alternative yet intelligent definition? When you have loads of presumptions and nonsense drilled into brain through propaganda, no matter where you get your degree from, you are just an idiot. At least, show some capacity to engage in a dialogue.”

For the day’s game it was Teesta – 10, Hooligans (SSS)  – 0. But, I’m more interested in the message she passed on.  Never stop the resistance. If we do, it is not just us but the future generations which will die out of this cancer of communalism. And ever since the events unfolded, I have been asking this question- who is afraid of Teesta Setalvad?

*- Women supporter/s were present according to some, but disputed by others. Not sure.

On Indian History

2 05 2010

I have got into the reading spree once again; this time with a purpose. Ever since I started reading Indian history, various puzzles have haunted me. In fact, the tailor suited version of history from text books and many ‘standard books’ could never give a satisfactory explanation to the dynamics behind many a crucial historical events. I have taken up a project to quench my own curiosity.

The reading list of quite hefty and I don’t want to arrive at a half baked opinion based on a few books written from a particular school of thought. But I am not in a position to refer any primary sources and so the best I could do is to make the reading list wide and inclusive. Since the subject itself is hotly contested by various ideological affiliations, the task of separating rice from chaff won’t be easy either.

Okay, let me break the suspense although it won’t sound very interesting to most people. So expect a series on “Through the Eye of Partition: The birth and the Social dynamics of Communalist Ideologies in India“.