When luck runs low
Results fall far short of attempts made
Like the raw spinach in the pot
Cooked, reduced to a spoonful.
– Shiromani Mahato in ‘Karma aur bhagya’
| (Photo Credit: Orijit Sen)
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sincerely believed in its ‘India Shining’ slogan, but the Indian voters failed to find much merit in this lofty claim. Yet voters opted for the gung-ho chant of ‘Jai ho!’ adopted by the Indian National Congress in the parliamentary elections of 2009. Fundamentally, both calls are variations of the same self-congratulatory theme.
The BJP applies a coat of nationalist gloss over its Hindutva agenda while the Congress sings the song of globalisation in a patriotic tone. The posturing of the former is ‘Bharatiya’ and the latter’s is ‘Indian’; together, they represent a sizable section of the middle class that has begun to dream of superpower status complete with nuclear bombs, ballistic missiles and a bullish market. In their perception, the challenge lies not in tackling poverty but stifling the aspirations of the poor, so that there are as few obstructions on the road to ‘prosperity’ as possible. Hence, public enemy number one of the current government is Binayak Sen, the paediatrician, public-health specialist and human-rights activist in Chhattisgarh.
While Sen challenged the state and was sentenced for it, across the border in Punjab province, Governor Salman Taseer’s own bodyguard gunned him down with the calculated calm of an executioner. Taseer had taken up an equally weighty challenge: to sever the judiciary from religion. Whether the secular Muslim and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader would have succeeded in undermining the fundamental premise of his state is now a moot point, after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani has unequivocally ruled out any change in the country’s infamous blasphemy laws.
Tyranny of laws
During the last week of December, a district court decided that Sen was guilty of sedition for helping the Maoists in their fight against the state. The global outcry over the patent injustice of the Indian penal system in this case will probably win Sen a reprieve in the end, but it should be pointed out that every grassroots activist cannot hope to elicit a statement of support from the likes of Noam Chomsky and Amartya Sen. Activists will in future have to think twice before crossing the arbitrary line of acceptable conduct drawn by the security forces. In that sense, the media attention that the case has attracted has served its purpose.
Limits to freedom in any imperial domain are drawn where the sovereignty of the political and judicial systems begins – in highly institutionalised societies, sovereignty lies in the system rather than in the people. Yet Sen’s case has made it even more apparent that laws do not function in a social vacuum, but are made and implemented by human beings who have internalised prejudices and norms of behaviour from the larger society. A clear example of this is the continuing inclusion of the sedition clause in the Indian Penal Code, which is a conscious decision and follows in the British tradition of seeing the citizenry as subjects to be monitored and regulated. But it would be wrong to put all the blame on the judge who found Sen guilty of sedition, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself has decided that Maoists are the greatest security threat to the country.
In a country at war with its own people, benefit of the doubt becomes a dangerous concept. It is pointless to plead for freedom for Sen without arguing for the repeal of the archaic Rajdroh laws – a relic of the monarchical era – once used against Mohandas K Gandhi. Unfortunately, there is a political consensus in India that dissent is dangerous for the unity, integrity and stability of the New Delhi empire – and it is not just the BJP and Congress, but even the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that considers deviance from national consensus a criminal offence. That could be the reason West Bengal and Gujarat have begun to adopt similar policies to court the capital and suppress the masses.
The trajectory of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is no less disheartening. Its genesis goes back at least to the Constitution of 1956 that declared Pakistan to be an Islamic republic. Military dictator General Ayub Khan did succeed in deleting the ‘Islamic’ qualifier from the Republic of Pakistan in 1961, allegedly at the insistence of his US patrons; but the relief proved to be short-lived, as he had to accept the adjective under pressure from purists. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared Islam to be the state religion, ostracised Ahmadiyyas as apostates, and introduced blasphemy laws to please the sheikhs of the Arab world and win their sponsorship for his pet project – a nuclear bomb, even if his people had to eat grass to get it.
For all his faults, General Zia ul-Haq merely took the process of Islamisation to its logical conclusion, and abolished the idea of religious freedom altogether. Incidentally, no Pakistani ruler since Gen Ayub – neither the putative moderniser General Perez Musharraf nor the democratic icon Benazir Bhutto, let alone Mian Nawaz Sharif – has been able to gather the courage to challenge the relevance of religious laws in contemporary polity. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 might have settled the sovereignty question in the Western world forever, but Islamic countries continue to believe that god is the only arbitrator of fate for everyone. It is not surprising that, for a majority of Pakistanis, the murderer of Taseer is a hero.
Part of the explanation for the continuity of sedition laws in India or the legal relevance of sacrilege in Pakistan has to be found in the failure of their leaders to live up to the promises made during the Independence movement. Hindu as well as Muslim Indians wanted freedom, but they are shown the trophy of being a superpower while they remain trapped in the circle of poverty, ignorance and institutionalised inequality. A section of Indian Muslims had struggled for the right to lead lives of dignity in an independent country, as they feared that they would have to suffer humiliation under Hindu domination in independent India. They are being asked to keep faith in the sovereignty of god and wait until judgement day for redemption, as the state they had wished for is transformed into a theological entity.
Fatalism – a doctrine that holds that all events are predetermined in advance, and that human beings are powerless to change them – once had a powerful hold over Southasia. Its leaders could sleep well with the belief that everything would turn out all right in the end. Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, bodyguards and killers of Indira Gandhi, did not want to wait for god’s justice. Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, the suicide bomber who claimed the life of Rajiv Gandhi, among many others, embraced death under the conviction that she was killing and dying for justice. It is unlikely that gunman Malik Mumtaz Qadri had personal scores to settle with Salman Taseer; he apparently fired 26 times at a defenceless target for a ‘higher cause’.
Southasians need to revisit the spirit of the Independence movement and engage in some introspection regarding the journey of the last 63 years. Sometime, somewhere, there was a fork in the road, and the leaders at the helms decided to forego the path to peace and pursue the highway of prosperity. Society and polity in both countries will continue to pay the price for their choices until the political will for a course correction appears on the horizon.
C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and the Republica daily.