Sunday, December 14, 2008

Two points of madness

Two points quickly made themselves apparent in the wake of the recent madness that was the attacks on Mumbai, starting November 26th. One, people – articulate, moneyed, powerful people – are upset and frantic to ensure that something like this does not happen again. This, I understand.

What I do not understand are certain extreme, juvenile and surprisingly lazy demands from grown-ups who should be able to think through the consequences of their words.


Such a word, this one. We use it during cricket matches. We use it to describe a counter-terrorism operation. We use it to describe a terrorist strike. We use it to describe a verbal spat. We use it to describe separatist movements. We use it to describe non-separatist armed conflicts. We use it to describe breaking marriages.

War. On the front pages of the newspapers, everyday. Editorial teams putting together a checklist of things we should do to our neighbours. American politicians helpfully announcing in public that India plans to strike terror camps inside Pakistan (gee thanks!). Calls for compulsory military training... The rationale for these howls for war is that we are already at war and since we appear to have leads that point to a Pakistan-based terror group’s involvement, we should go invade the country. The ‘teach them a lesson they won’t forget’ rationale.

I sometimes wonder if this generation, the one that has not really lived through a real full-blown war, has begun to crave one. One of those things. Like disaster tourism, crisis tourism, the need to experience the thing physically. There was Kargil, but then Kargil was so far away. An inaccessible spot where the only people really threatened were the guys in uniform and the poor locals who had nowhere else to go. We saw the coffins on TV. We heard the boom-boom. But it wasn’t tangible, was it?

I remember asking my family about war once. I asked them for their memories because I had none. They all wrote back with faint, brushing encounters. The 1962 war. The 1971 war. My grandmother, knitting for the soldiers. Black paper on the windows. Windows tightly shut, dim lighting. Rationed sugar. Food rations. Strangers showing up at school to take kids away from the classroom, under the pretext of war.

And that was then. Before either nation had the nuclear option. Even if we don’t nuke each other, can you even imagine what a modern war would be like?

When the city was attacked by ten men with rifles and bombs, who were firing randomly, upon people of all religions and nationalities, we felt like the whole city was being held hostage. We hated the fact that other people died. But more than anything else, we hated the fact that we couldn’t go on living. That we were forced to be afraid. Afraid of eating out, taking a train, afraid of just being you and not knowing why you are a target. And if I was scared then, I am terrified now, when my country seems to be dragged towards the brink of war. Yet, I notice a glibness sneaking in, an easy, childlike enthusiasm for some fireworks. A 'War, finally!' attitude.

Can you imagine war, I want to ask people? Cowering inside your own house, perhaps feeling it shake, sticking black paper on windows, feeling like a target, day and night. Do you not understand the concept of ‘carpet bombing’ and ‘civilian targets’? Do you think that, while our soldiers are sent off to do battle at the borders, we will be able to sit around sipping coffee, making music, shopping at Linking Road? Do you think Bombay (or Delhi or any other major city) will not be a target? Can you imagine how afraid you will be then, because your kids are in school and you won’t know whether you should just pull them out until things are better, or what? Can you imagine contemplating a pleasant stroll down to the sea when there are bombers flying past, inches away from your bedroom window?

Three nights of a crisis, more or less in a limited part of South Mumbai, and we had an emerging black market for drinking water! And you want this country to go to war?

Who are we fooling about the real purpose of such a war? It is an extremely juvenile imagination that assumes that the extremist outfits based in Pakistan will be sending their cadre to enlist as jawans. It will be the same poor lot on that side, fighting because someone else has called for a war. It will be their little babies at risk. Their farms and schools and hospitals and hotels. And because we are such kindred cultures, they too will have people selling food and fuel on the black market. Probably drinking water too. And, I suspect, they will also try smuggling sugar across the border.

War, they want! War with who? The extremists across the border have been bombing their own country, for god’s sake! Those who came with bombs didn’t come in the name of a neighbouring country. They came from the nation called the lust for power, the nation of the psychologically damaged, whose leaders rarely sign up for suicide missions.

The truth is, people are calling for war because war is easily spoken of, and rarely experienced. All those people who are talking about aggressive action and military training, will they also agree to a compulsory stint in the armed forces? Will they let their children be put into uniform and sent off marching to lob a grenade or two across the border? Nobody minds getting a little toughie training. It adds to our sense of security. But just take a look at the composition of our armed forces. Take a look at what percentage of our officers come from the elite 1%, or even the upper middle classes. Take a look at the average soldier and what sort of options he had and why he signed up at all. He isn’t looking to save our collective backsides. He doesn’t lunch at the Oberoi and he sure as hell does not want to go to war. He’ll go if he has to, but I think he would appreciate it if we don’t sacrifice his head to humour a nation’s hurt ego.

And since we are on the subject of nations, there is that other point of madness: the calls for boycotting of elections, or worse, the notion that our cities and states are better off being ruled by CEOs. Corporates. Because ‘politicians’ are filthy so and sos, and we don’t want any of them.

If there is anything that scares me more than talk of war, it is this sort of talk that wants us to renege on our pledge to ourselves. To stop being a democracy. To turn into a theocracy or a collective of monarchies.

What on god’s earth is this ‘India’? A nation of what? A democratic nation? A sovereign, secular, socialist republic? That was the idea, yes. And look what we’ve done for over sixty years. We voted for religion. We voted for caste. We voted for sub-caste. We voted for class and privilege. We voted for whoever our parents or in-laws voted for. In short, we voted for ‘us’. That is, when we bothered to vote at all.

And now you have the gall to say: vote for ‘nobody’!

Why? Didn’t like your mug in the great national mirror called parliament? The Lok Sabha, the Vidhan Sabha, the city councils, the municipality: this is our face and if it smells like our unwashed armpits, it is because we like to bury our smuggy faces in our armpits so often.

I overheard a conversation in the train, recently. One woman telling another (in the first class compartment) that they should make friends with a third girl, who happens to work with the railways. Because, just in case they ever got caught ticketless, they could call her up and ask her to speak to her railways colleagues and get them off the hook. This is us. This isn’t our bureaucrats or our politicians. Us.

I am both appalled and wearied by the incessant chant, calling for heads to roll in the government, the police and intelligence. This blaming of politics and bureaucracy is just extremely lazy talk.

How blind are you that you cannot see that those heads are really ours? Our states, our cities already have CEOs. They are called ministers. The only difference between a minister and a corporate-style CEO is that the latter pretty much owns you, and you have almost zero power over him. He can fire you. You cannot fire him. Is this what we want India to become? A place where some rich dude rules us, can get rid of us, can silence us, and we cannot do anything to dislodge him?

If we don’t want this, then why do we keep saying it? Why have we gotten to the point that we cannot admit to ourselves that we are actually afraid of our responsibility in this great, big (and yes, flourishing) democracy?

We are, politically speaking, such an ignorant country that it makes me cringe to think of it. Forget elections. Many of us cannot even name our own prime minister and president and the local councillor or MLA. The vast majority of this country simply does not know! A lot of this has to do with illiteracy, yes, but a lot of it also has to do with not wanting to know. And it’s not just the poor and the illiterate. It is because anyone who can afford to takes pride in saying ‘Oh, but I am not a political person’. We want to cut ourselves off from the business of running a nation, or a city. We want the government to function like some sort of sub-contractual service provider. We don’t have leaders because we don’t want leaders. We wanted thekedaars; we got thekedaars!

Which is why I am doubly disturbed by this ‘vote for nobody’ campaign. Yes, I heard about 49O, and I know it is supposed to pressurize our political parties into choosing better candidates. But I am deeply concerned about the language used. To encourage people to vote in patterns that ensure that no clear winner emerges in any constituency is not a very healthy trend in a democracy. It is a lazy trend. It is lazy to just say ‘I choose nobody’ when you should be making an informed choice.

What is ‘nobody’? A ‘nobody’ is a negative. It is a political black hole, the kind that doesn’t do much for people who need light and gravity, both. Perhaps that is what they mean when they say ‘vote for nobody’. Perhaps this is our new face. A nobody face, which does not pretend to stand for anything and makes no excuses for its own ignorance or inaction.

And guess what, I too have had enough. I am tired of having to deal with a philosophy that seems to equate doing nothing with having done something.

We will not bother to vote. We will not bother to create lobbies that pressurize governments into listening to our demands, even in non-election years. We will not vote for independents, because we are suspicious of their non-political antecedents. We will not find out how democracy really functions in this country. We will not even give generously to charity. We will ignore the Bhopal gas tragedy victims and their demands for a proper clean-up job. We will not spend half an hour visiting a municipality office to register a complaint. We will not pay our unskilled employees decent wages. We will not show up at our candidates’ doorsteps, demanding to know what happened to electoral promises, to remind them of what happens when people take loans but don’t pay up. And we certainly will not vote for those who actually have given their lives to social work and bringing change.

Instead, we will pay bribes, kickbacks, commissions. Or else, if we have the connections, we will use a high-up functionary in the bureaucracy or government to bail us out when we get into trouble. And we will go on moaning about the state of the nation and how it can all be fixed if we just stop voting and start making war.


Szerelem said...

Thanks for this Annie. All this jingoism and right wing posturing will do nothing has been terribly's almost like a large number of us are acting like spoilt children - not thinking on any consequences, looking at things with blinkers on, being utterly juvenile and selfish in the worst sense possible when that is the last thing that we really need.

Anonymous said...

Taink aage badain ke peeche hatain
kokh dharti ki baanjh hoti hai
fateh ka jashn ho ki haar ka sog
zindagi mayyaton pe roti hai

jang toh khud masla hai aik
jang kya maslon ka hal degi


The one who has loved and lost said...

It's a brilliant piece.
Thank you.

dawgit's World said...

A voice of reason in an un-reasoning landscape. Logic in the manufactured chaos of these times.
Excellent. A Big Thanks to you for speaking out. Maybe India can do without repeating the US's mistakes. Well, we can Hope.

Those who want War, should be those who are forces to fight it. -d

Madhat said...

* nods his head vigorously in agreement *

fishbowl said...

A lovely, much-needed post. People talk so flippantly of war, of change, of things that should be done.

Banno said...

You are so right. All those who speak of war have no idea of what it will mean to their lives. They just assume they will hire some people to go out and fight for them.

This post needs to be forwarded like crazy.

sumana001 said...

Annie, thank you for the words. We need them. Sumana.

Manish Bhatt said...

You should perhaps try to enter politics. We do need sane, rational people to lead this nation.

Anonymous said...

Well, What you wrote is emotie, but like an ailing company would tell its CEO, what we need more than to see one thing we are bad in, is a few effective steps to start getting back on track. It might be useful to analyse the country in entirety and think of ways to improve and how it could get done. Then comes the hard part,m kae people like Chidambaram, Rahul Gandhi and other future politicians read it. While this seems difficult, the reach of internet allows that possibility. It is claimed by Obama's staff that he spent hours reading the posts ( screened once by others ) people wrote on his website.

agnom_teenup said...

you have my vote

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Abso-bloody-lutely sums up my thoughts. Thanks.

And thanks to Bhupinder for the fragment from Sahir.


Phitaymaun said...

Brilliant. Thank you for this! Since this comment comes from across the border it maybe heartening for you to know that the sentiment felt here by the intelligent few is pretty much exactly the same. While the masses act like war mongering barbarians, scratching their armpits as they spew baseless rhetoric about glorious histories and divine guidance and death and destruction and a faith which supersedes everything else, there are those of us who realize that war ultimately is an acknowledgment of our own failure as civilized human beings.
It is heartening to read something of such rational and logical reasoning in these volatile times. If only majority was capable of thinking like this...

On a more personal note, i just realized what makes your writing special, not only do you write beautifully, with a balanced mix of feeling and fortitude, you articulate your opinions extremely well as well. But even more importantly your thought process is remarkably astute and logical which gives what you write an air of authority which i particularly admire. This piece in particular is extremely relevant to both our nations which are so similar in nature and in culture and in all things that define a society that its heartbreaking to know how much hatred we can muster for one another as soon as the opportunity to do so presents itself.

You have my respect.

Pareshaan said...

Wow - you hit the nail on the head - HARD.
Excellent, almost wants to make you care - Excellent.
I am left wishing that I could say you are wrong and that I am a different kind of Indian, that we are a different kind of people.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Can feel your anger and frustration come through. It appears to me that all the war mongering is nothing more than some grandstanding. We simply cannot (CANNOT) afford a war.
However, simply BECAUSE the Parliament reflects us, heads needed to roll. Yes, our heads, as you say, but they needed to roll nevertheless.
Why? Because we have grown to be a "chalta hai" democracy. Live with your problems, live with terror, just the way you've got to live with bad weather.
So, it's a start: taking responsibility of protecting our nation.
And something tells me, a whole lot of people will vote come 2009.
I hope I am right. And I hope you are right, too!
Thanks for this post.

GhostOfTomJoad said...

During the '60 hours of uninterrupted coverage', this NDTV journalist kept 'wondering' whether the government would now have to consider war as an option. She kept 'wondering' until, in response to a question, a thankfully sane guest had to gently remind her that, with India and Pakistan being nuclear powers, even the suggestion of war was irresponsible.

But, then, we are a nation of hypocritical and irresponsible people. We want rights but no duties. We want privileges but no responsibilities. We blame the government but will not go out to vote. We complain about corruption but are eager to bribe and buy our way through life. Where I live, 95 per cent of the households have illegal water pumps installed on the main supply lines...this in a block of flats where a significant number of people are teachers and college professors! With such people to guide us, what can we expect?

Anyway, sorry about the very long comment...all this just gets me going :-)

Great piece!

1conoclast said...

sahi thappad maara hai bewakoofon ke muh pe!

Though I know you didn't intend it as a thappad.

I'm putting down a controversial para on my blog that's kinda related to this. Hopefully by Monday.

Kits said...

This is a brilliant post. I remember my Mom talking about war and people are talking about it like it is some kind of stupid video game. People don't know what war means and my mother's memories are enough to scare the crap out of me to never want that.

I keep telling people, Pakistan is a country like ours, full of people like us. They sure as hell don't want war.

Why should we fight and butcher innocent people in the name of war? I don't and will never understand the rhetoric of politics and war.

What happened in my city was horrible as it is. Those memories are never going to go away :( How we do move on (or try to) when war is encouraged by irresponsible media and politicians alike?

Arun.N.M. said...

Great and thought provoking post in compelling language.

I liked what you said about 'No Vote'. I always prefer voting for the lesser evil if you feel all are evil.
Especially liked the piece about 2 Ladies in First class Compartment.We have all become like that.But there is time to change.

ram said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

excellent and timely...was watching the Jago Re Ad the other day in television.."aap vote nahin de rahe tho so rahe ho!".. This vote activism is yet another breed of apoliticalness, because what we are facing is a systemic failure in most of the fronts and the remedy must address the root cause.

arvindh said...

Thank goodness for people like you. It is really scary to think of the number of people who easily get swayed by rhetoric and become cheerleaders for war at the drop of a hat.

Anonymous said...


Its late on this thread and it should be clear by now there is no war imminent. things are even cooler than after the parliament attack. But anyway...

I am against war but can understand the sentiment. with open war one gets to actually go out after the "perpetrator" while right now its a one_way war with the perps getting almost a free pass to go against us.

I wouldnt dismiss this as a craving for pain, or a glib delusion that we can go shopping while somebody fights the war for us.

When youre hurting continually, its not crazy to think about gritting your teeth and getting a painful operation done to get permanent, or even long-term relief.

Do bombers flying past the window feel a lot different from handcarried bombs blasting the basement every few months? i dont know.

If we are serious enough about war, maybe kindred souls like beKnighted will bestir themselves enough to save their poor lot from fighting us. In doing so, they may give these poor lot a better and more worhtwhile job, that of saving their country from the nation of lusting brain-damaged psychos they are infested with.

If the threat of war is the only thing that will concentrate their attentions to saving their country, I'm OK with it.

Because they have to give me better options to save mine.


Arun.N.M. said...

.Jai,The 'operation' you are contemplating can ever produce a 'permanent relief'? War or War threats will only help the Islamist gain more control in Pakistan and there by increasing the threat to India. No doctor will order a procedure with zero percent chance of success.

Anonymous said...

Nice article.... The way u clearly explained how certain people talk about war without thinking about the consequences. But, I think one of the main reasons for such a talk to begin with is the over enthusiastic flash news frenzy media. Nowhere( atleast among my friends and family) did I see anyone talking about a war.It is only the media mostly doing this job of creating unnecessary tensions, instead of starting some important discussions regarding how to pressurize pakistan to stop indulging in such activities.

Anonymous said...

Nice. Puts the things in prespective.

Bindhu Unny said...

You've given words to everybody's frusrtration. But all these 'war talk' and 'no voting' is a temporary reaction. It won't last long.

The Wandering Hermit said...

Brilliant piece..

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