Sunday, February 1, 2009

Weapons of Choice

In chains and marked by black leather, the man writhed in agony as the corded whip lashed out like an angry tongue. Lying on his stomach on blocks of ice, the man’s face was etched with pain as his captors rained blows on his bare back… my wife changed the channel... just in time for us to catch another man standing in the face of an icy winter… the winter of hardships they call it, taking oath as he said “…our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.”

My thoughts went back to the man on the block of ice… Before being captured, he had exhorted his fellow “terrorists” (that’s what his captors called him and his associates) to pick up arms “for there was no other path left… to justice, to dignity and to freedom. This isn’t mindless violence… this is self defence, self expression and the only way to self determination. To arms brothers…” This man was not a Kashmiri jihadi or a naxal from Bastar, but, an intense young man who had seen innumerable atrocities being perpetrated on his people… a man who felt betrayed by the socio-political system of his time and the empty promises of his weak-kneed leaders… this man was Bhagat Singh – a man revered in post-independence India as an icon of the freedom struggle and the indomitable spirit of a shackled India; and yet a man whose ideology stands at loggerheads with the Gandhian philosophy that flutters alongside the tricolour as a symbol of our nation.

Around Republic Day and the 15th of August, TV channels usually run reruns of films about the freedom struggle and our war lore, competing with the parade of pride in a bid to inject a sense of nationhood. And, every time I happen to watch any of the better made movies about the freedom struggle, like Raj Kumar Santoshi’s “The Legend of Bhagat Singh” or Hemen Gupta’s “Anand Math”, I’m forced to wonder, what path would I’ve followed had I been born in that time? Would I, like my grandfather, have strived to be a good human being, perhaps even a successful one, albeit within the system, applauding in private the actions of our revolutionaries but being a ‘British law’ abiding citizen in public? Or would I have had the courage to follow my convictions to the very bitter painful end? Would the pain overcome my resolve? Would I have betrayed my comrades, my courage seeping out through the wounds in my broken body? And speaking of courage, were those Indians who fought the Great Wars alongside the British with valour and vigour any less brave than our freedom fighters? And yet, one man’s hero is another man’s traitor and another man’s terrorist, the other man’s hero… These questions will need answering later, but now, there’s another question that needs answering…

Bhagat Singh’s call to arms has echoed in the valleys of Kashmir, the forests of Nagaland and Chhattisgarh, the alleys in Gaza, the deserts of Iraq and, not too long ago, it had echoed in the ghettoes of Soweto as much as in the ghettoes that dot the United States of America… Today, as I watch a black man with a Muslim middle name being handed the reins to the greatest economic and military force in the world in what is celebrated as ‘a peaceful transfer of power’, these ghettoes echo to a different call… a call that says ‘Yes, we can!’

So, is that the answer to oppression and injustice? It might have taken black Americans more than 400 years, but, finally, the ballot seems to have given them more answers than the bullet. There was a time when black America had considered, even pursued a separatist’s path; there have been bitter and bloody revolts and riots and crimes fuelled by racial hatred and yet, not much had changed… the civil war changed the law, but it took far more for ‘a dream’ to become today’s reality. While America and India celebrate their constitutions this week, this question ought to be there in the mind of every man who uses a gun to fight for his cause – is this path the only path, and more significantly, is this path of violence truly the best path? Let’s go back to that man on those blocks of ice. Bhagat Singh’s greatest impact as a revolutionary leader was not in the shooting of a police officer or the hurling of a non-lethal bomb but his passionate courtroom speeches and his hunger-strike in jail which brought an administration to its knees and inspired the youth of an entire nation – a fast that arguably achieved and inspired far more than any of Gandhi’s.

More recently, the huge, relatively non-violent separatist mass movement in Kashmir during the land transfer row was another case in point. It galvanised tremendous support, not just in the Valley, but even in the rest of the country, especially amongst secular intellectuals and thought leaders… something that an insurgent’s bullet hasn’t been able to achieve even after decades of violence. How would the establishment in this country have reacted if Kashmiri separatists, instead of investing in insurgency, had gone the other way and gone on a state-wide hunger strike (as Bhagat’s example illustrates, there are hunger strikes and then there are hunger strikes that work)? With the world watching and without the usual anti-terrorist rhetoric, the government would’ve been hard pressed to lend more than just an ear to their voice…

But, does non violence and faith in the ballot always work? Would it have worked for the Kashmiri pundits when they were being hounded out of their homes in the Valley; or for Bosnian Muslims in the Balkans; or for the Tutsis in Rwanda or the people of Darfur? Is non-violence really a credible weapon in the face of ethnic cleansing and genocide? Unlikely! Against an opponent that seeks to dominate, we can debate and dissent, but against those who seek to destroy, one can only strike out in despair, in self defence… for survival first, and self expression and self determination last…

I return to you again, fellow insurgents, and ask of you this question – those whom you call your enemies, infidels or invaders, they may well be, but do they seek to dominate or do they seek to destroy? If the latter, none should stop your hand and strike you must; but if it’s fear of domination that forces your hand, beware, you can’t kill us all… Inspire faith in your cause, not fear of it and perhaps you’ll find both support and success. Can you win a war without firing a bullet against such an ‘enemy’? If you have the integrity of a Bhagat Singh, the fortitude of a Martin Luther King Jr, and the persuasive powers of a Barack Obama, I believe ‘Yes, you can!’


1 comment:

  1. I fully agree with your view that any groups of persons have the right to violent reaction if they face violence and are oppressed or suppressed by any other group of persons that make them unable to express their rights of free living. However, the violent retaliation has to be directed to the persons directly responsible for oppression and violence and not to the ordinary persons. This is one of the key differentiators between self-righteousness and terrorism.

    This world is unique in its diversity. None of us are capable of making anything as amazing as this diverse world, and we all know it. But, possibly many of us try to crush this diversity by trying to establish a rule of selfishness. We all love to hug everything that we call and believe to be like ourselves, and look down upon everything that is different - be it in look, language, food habits, or the culture and religion.

    The essential difference between self-righteousness and terrorism is simple. The terrorism aims to terrorize ordinary hapless persons in the society to make societies accede to their unjust demands. On the contrary, the self righteous groups try to establish their rights of living and expression through their own sacrifice and retaliation to violence and oppression meted out to them. The former is crime while the later is justified.