Of Martyrs and Patriots

When Delhi University student Gurmeher Kaur’s April 2016 campaign advocating peace between India and Pakistan was noticed by the Twitterati after she posted a photo with her holding a placard denouncing ABVP’s violence, it kind of turned the “pro-soldier right and anti-soldier left” debate on its head. The debate, in which apparently the Left has no argument patriotic enough for the Right, has for some gobsmacking reason continued to dominate Twitter for as long as I’ve been active on the site, or at least my own timeline. And like most arguments on Twitter, it barely makes sense.

The right-wingers, lovingly (just kidding!) called Bhakts, cry hoarse all the time about how you should not curse your life as whatever you’re going through, “the soldiers are dying at the border”. This expression, used in different phraseologies, is used to stifle even minor dissent against the government, government actions, politicians and ‘patriots’.

The expression gained traction after demonetisation was announced. The long queues and daily torments suffered by common people was coolly justified by saying “soldiers die for our country, can’t you even stand in queues for our country for a few hours/days/months?’ No matter how ridiculous it sounded, everybody, from fake (and I supposed paid) trolls to well-known government-friendly news anchors, all used the same argument, if it can be said that, and with a seemingly straight face.

When 20-year old Gurmeher’s last year’s campaign video became known a couple of days ago, the text on the placards she was holding was quoted, selectively quoted, misquoted, interpreted, and misinterpreted by sundry people like it always happens on Twitter. ‘Patriots’ had readied their keyboards to attack Gurmeher after her anti-ABVP stand, only to stop and think again, for she had turned out to be a martyr’s daughter. Damn it.

When the Leftists realised that the martyr thing could work in their favour, they began to play up the fact that she was the daughter of a solider who had died in action and was also supporting them against ABVP goons. That is after they had all along ridiculed the Bhakts ‘liberally’ for playing the soldier card all the time. The Right-wingers on the other hand, still anxious to retain their patriotic and pro-army credentials, were for a while at a loss as to what to do. But when they saw the last year’s video, all hell broke loose.

Bhakts were particularly bothered by one placard among several Gurmeher had been showing the camera one after another. It read, “Pakistan did not kill my father, war killed him.” Completely missing the context and not fathoming that she was making a larger point about war and violence, the message escaped their thick heads, and they went utterly berserk. There were some glorious responses which sum up not just Twitter but also current political discourse. “Your [Gurmeher’s] father would have shot you in the head”, “fucking commie”, “Bitch!”, “Randi” to mention a glittering  few. Trolling and flinging obscenities at a martyr’s daughter became the new definition of patriotism.

At the time of writing this, that definition is the current one.

The Art of Disagreement

I’m trying to be more active on Twitter these days as, first, the place is just so entertaining, and second, it is helpful with my profession. Although I’ve had an account for years, I got around to use it seriously only since last February, when JNU fracas bubbled up and spilled over primetime news. It was in those days I joined the almost daily ‘debates’ and saw for myself how intense and contentious Twitter could be. Before joining, I had loved to call  Twitter’Facebook for those who cannot write more than 140 characters’. In a way, I loved and hated Twitter in equal measure for what it was.

While it is often fun to interact with people on Twitter, especially those with more intellect and experience than me, there is barely any constructive discussion, and as often as not the people who are engaged in a conversation come with their own pre-concieved notions which they are reluctant to compromise with. Even worse, they think disagreeing with somebody is a bad thing, something which has no place in the society.

I am not committed to any ideology. I do not think any ideology is perfect or anywhere near it for that matter. I neither support the Left nor the Right. Political Centre does not suit me either. The only time I have participated in that mainstay of democracy, elections, I gave my vote to NOTA, for the simple reason that I did not find a suitable choice in the motley list of candidates. But that does not mean I despise politics. On the contrary, I take a lot of interest in it, and that’s one of the prime reason I use Twitter even after so hateful and rancorous it has become.

What I notice on Twitter is there is almost no appreciation of dissent. Here, I don’t mean just dissent against the state. I mean dissent in its literal form. It’s considered a big thing if people disagree. The argument between two dissenters usually ends in abuse and insult. Even the best of us are susceptible to this degeneration. Hardly anybody understands the art of disagreement. Everybody peddles their own narrative, other’s opinion be damned.

What we (and that includes me) need to understand is that disagreement is okay. It’s not an issue. If your worldview doesn’t match your adversary’s, you don’t have to go to great lengths in convincing them how you’re on the right side. You do not have to fling cusswords at them –  it won’t bolster your argument. They may be right in their place, you may be right in yours. Present your arguments with facts in a calm manner, let them present theirs. If they don’t, ask them so that they can support their argument. But if you don’t reach at an agreement, let it go.  As they say, let’s agree to disagree.

In this manner, I think we can make Twitter a much better place to have conversation than the cesspit it currently is.

Democrats and Dissenters

Having finished Ramachandra Guha’s latest book ‘Democrats and Dissenters’, I wanted to pen down a few thoughts. Unlike the other Guha book that I’ve read – the magnificently detailed and painstakingly researched ‘India After Gandhi’ – this one was a little vague. It is basically a bunch of seemingly unrelated essays cobbled together and divided in two categories: Politics and Society and Ideologies and Intellectuals. But essays even within a category often do not have a clear link, so I decided to read it not as a book but a collection of essays – which is not really a bad thing since the essays themselves are very readable.

As I read, I could discern a faint connection. Each essay in the book had something to do with difficulties, concepts, ideologies and individuals that have contributed to India’s ‘tryst’ with democracy. That was expected. While Guha is a true polymath, what he really excels is in the history of Indian democracy, in terms of its politics, sociology and economics.

The second part (Ideologies and Intellectuals) of the book is more focused, and except the very last essay, the entire part involves primarily little known (at least for me) but fantastic individuals who have shaped Guha’s thinking over the years and his understanding of modern India. Since I owe a lot of what I know about Indian democracy to Guha, it was interesting to read about the people he himself has been inspired from, and who have had a role to play in his outlook towards the world.

The book is informative and insightful, and Guha’s skillful writing ensures everything is simple enough for a layman like me. For those who are into Guha’s writing, and are interested in reading about India’s fraught and uneasy relationship with democracy, get rid of those second thoughts and get this book.

The Kashmir Conundrum

Look at the photo I have uploaded with this post and compare the idyllic beauty of the scene to the image the word “Kashmir” conjures up in your mind. In all likelihood, both would be substantially different. Maybe even polar opposite, such as in my case.

Ever since I have gained consciousness, I have barely heard anything good from Kashmir. For all of its beauty, everything about the place that comes in the press or even from what people talk about is downright depressing. Whatever good that does come out – like the “heart-warming” stories of Muslims helping perform the last rites of a Kashmiri Pandit-  is played up so much in the media that it appears that they are clinging to that nugget in order to forget – and make the people forget – everything else that happens there.

I knew little about what was happening in Kashmir for most of my life myself, and all I saw of the place was Bollywood stars dancing around in the gorgeous meadows and mountains of the Valley and frequent news reports of violence, riots, protests, human rights violations (those primarily in the international media), and so on – you know what I am talking about if you follow news regularly. Both images are in stark contrast to each other and epitomise how different the two Kashmirs are, and it is the latter, darker image that has stuck in my mind. But I think neither of these images quite explains Kashmir completely.

The point is simple: While Kashmir has been on the boil for most of its history after Indian Independence, the insurgency and following military crackdown started in late 1980s to early 1990s, and has continued almost unceasingly ever since.

Even the intervals which were – are – cynically termed as periods of “normalcy” by the state involve an occupation by a gargantuan contingent of the Indian Army. Living under armed forces cannot be nice. Soldiers are trained to fight in wars and against gun-toting militants. They know only one language, that of the bullet. They are not meant to be used in keeping civilians in check or quelling protests and riots. They just don’t have the patience for that. I used “contingent” fairly loosely in the first sentence of this paragraph, as a contingent is supposedly temporary, but withdrawal of the Indian Army from Kashmir does not look likely anywhere in the near future. By some estimates, there are a staggering seven lakh soldiers and paramilitary forces in Kashmir. And that number apparently excludes the police.kashmir-06

It is clear that the army calls the shots in Kashmir. The civilian government has little, if any, credibility in the eyes of most Kashmiris anyway. Whoever rules from Srinagar, they will always be seen as puppets of the centre. The 1987 Legislative Assembly Elections (which were shamelessly rigged by the state) are partly to blame, but that was just one time when the Indian government failed Kashmiris.

Kashmiris have been failed by the Indian government far too many times.

When I say “Kashmiris” here, I also mean Kashmiri Pandits, the ancient inhabitants of the valley who were killed, threatened, raped, and driven from their ancestral homeland as the Indian state with all its might watched helplessly. The perpetrators were never punished, and the promised rehabilitation did not happen – it has been a quarter of a century. All the tall promises made by the successive governments in their manifestos have stayed unfulfilled. Even the self-styled saviours of Hindu culture and civilisation – BJP and RSS – did absolutely nothing. A fraction of the Pandit population remains in the Valley, living an uneasy existence with Kashmiri Muslims, while the rest of them are scattered across India and the world, desperately clutching at their identities.

The recent killing of the terrorist Burhan Wani and the subsequent worsening (how much can it really worsen?) of violence is another wake-up call for the state. Do not treat it as something that will fizzle out to become “normalcy.” Chances are it would, but such incidents will happen again and again. For every terrorist eliminated by the security forces, Kashmiris would have a martyr to mourn. People – soldiers and civilians alike – will keep dying. The violence will never stop, not unless a solid solution is found. Kashmir, instead of being an “integral part of the country” we always wanted it to be, would remain a suppurating wound, guzzling money, resources and lives.