A death, foretold

THE VALUE of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.“

Those words have been running through my mind on loop since yesterday. Words that pithily, pitilessly, hold up a mirror to ourselves and to our standing as citizens in “the largest democracy in the world”. We are just a vote, to be sought once in five years and to be ignored in the interregnum. And it is this realization that, finally, has brought people in their millions out on the street – rising prices, falling employment, the inequities of the CAA/NPR/NRC are merely the symptoms of that much larger disease; the disease of a democracy that does not value its most fundamental unit: the citizen.

Vemula, a sentient human being, a dedicated student, a young man with aspirations, has been reduced to a statistic (23rd Dalit suicide in premier institutions), to a documentary (the Death of Merit), to yet another “anniversary” on the grim calendar of blood-spattered memory, read his last letter again, slowly; the final words of a young man so “desperate to start a life” that he ended up ending it.

YESTERDAY was also remarkable for a speech made at the ongoing Raisina Dialogues – the 5th edition of a conference of global thought leaders the MEA, under whose aegis it is organized, says is themed around ‘Navigating the Alpha Century’; a forum that is designed to articulate India’s policy on vital issues, including national securit.

“What we saw in Kashmir, we saw radicalisation happening… These people can still be isolated from radicalisation in a gradual way, but there are people who have been completely radicalised. These people need to be taken out separately and possibly taken to some deradicalization camps. We have deradicalization camps going on in our country.”

That is General Bipin Rawat, inaugural holder of the newly created post of Chief of Defence Staff, telling the world that India has – has, not is planning – its own version of China’s infamous ‘Vocational Education and Training Centers’ in the Xinjiang region.

It is worth noting that the Chinese camps were the outcome of a “people’s war on terror” first announced in 2014; that they are internment camps operated for the purpose of “indoctrinating” Uyghur Muslims since 2017.

Note that shortly before this speech, Rawat spoke of following in the footsteps of America post 9/11.

“We have to bring an end to terrorism and that can only happen the way Americans started after the 9/11 terror attack. They said let’s go on a spree on global war on terror.”

Now connect the dots. The man who heads the defence forces in the country is calling, first, for a ruinous external war (Against who, exactly? The General leaves that unsaid, leaving the identification of the target to our own internal prejudices) – never mind that the model he wishes to emulate has cost the United States an estimated $6.4 trillion and counting, and resulted in the loss of an estimated 480,000 lives.

And as a corollary, he wants to institutionalize the ‘deradicationalization camps’ – a slightly more politically correct phrase for the infamous Nazi concentration camps. Again, the key questions are left unvoiced, and unanswered: Who identifies those in need of such ‘deradicalization? Under what laws? What is the standard of proof that you have been ‘radicalized’?

What does the ‘deradicalization’ program (which, according to the General, already exists) comprise of? Where are these existing camps, when were they founded, who is in those camps now, how were they identified, under whose oversight do these camps run…? (There is scope, and need, for an RTI here).

And one final question: What sort of man has this government elevated to the specially created post of the head of defence services?

Sidelight: Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, now in India on a charm offensive that has included paying floral tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, announcing a $1 billion investment  (while on which, someone should ask about the $3 billion investment announced three years ago), and tweeting maudlin word salads, ran into multiple headwinds.

For starters, his attempts to get a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi hasn’t worked (thus far), for reasons both political and economic. Then, Minister for Commerce Piyush Goyal, using the forum of the Raisina Dialogue, said Bezos’ promised investment was no big deal – a statement that has irked Indian and international investors.

“Until now it used to be a matter of pride to announce such big investments into India,” said the chief executive of an MNC. “But if this is the response companies are going to get from the current dispensation, they will think twice before making or announcing investments here.”

Years of reading headlines announcing investments, and then looking in vain for some sign that the announcement yielded actual results on the ground, have made me dismissive about such announcements. On this, I belong to the ‘Put your money where your mouth is’ school of sceptics. But even so, to hear the minister for commerce diss a major global businessman at a global forum was unusual – until you connect the third dot:

The response was this:

Chauthaiwale is the BJP’s ‘In-Charge, Foreign Affairs Dept’, per his bio. He is point person for the BJP’s attempts to reach out to Indians abroad and to get them to participate in pro-CAA rallies. And basically, he is with this response taking Bezos out behind the woodshed to administer a spanking for the negative coverage Modi and the BJP have been getting in the Washington Post. Just one more instance — adding to the earlier one involving MEA S Jaishankar and US Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and the recent instance where a BJP lawmaker suggested that Satya Nadella of Microsoft needs to “get educated” in the wake of the CEO’s remarks about the CAA and immigration — that speaks to show how thin-skinned this government is, how intolerant of questioning.

Jeff Bezos should go home tell Washington Post what is his impression about India,” Chauthaiwale told Reuters. “The Washington Post editorial policy is highly biased and agenda driven.”

What astonishes me about these knee-jerk attempts at brow-beating is this: What do they think a win is, in such a situation? ‘See, we ticked him/her off’ — is that it? Does that suffice? Because surely anyone with even half a brain can see that such muscle-flexing never ends well, not when applied against those over whom you have no coercive state instruments to use. I mean, what exactly are you going to do to the Washington Post next — cancel your subscription? Reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: Never pick a fight with a fellow who buys ink by the gallon and paper by the ton.

I’ll leave these thoughts here for now, and come back later in the evening to add a list of links worth reading. (Oh, and you add your links, too).

PostScript: A couple of hours after I’d written of the various comments made about Jeff Bezos, comes this response:

The promise to create one million new jobs over the next five years comes at a time when unemployment in the country has risen to decades-long highs. A CMIE report put unemployment at 7.7% in December 2019; alarmingly, the sharpest uptick is seen in rural unemployment. The Economic and Political Weekly had in December done a deep dive into India’s unemployment situation, which is worth a careful read. And Livemint reports that a government battling a crippling cash crunch is likely to create 16 lakh fewer jobs in 2020. The growing distress is manifest in scenes such as this:

And against all of this, what the government choses to do is pick a fight with someone who holds out the promise of job creation, rather than sitting down with him to work out ways in which the process — assuming there is serious intent behind the announcement — can be speeded up. Ironically, this, at around the same time:

This whole thing reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the gallon and paper by the ton.”

Reading List:

  • Adding to the chorus of universal condemnation, Nature magazine has an essay calling on the government to stop the violence in India’s universities and colleges. The bit that stands out: “Many of the government’s supporters are upset that university students, academics and scientists are also opposing the new law. But they must know that freedom of expression is core to a university’s mission; that the ability of citizens to protest peacefully against government policies is a right, not a privilege; and that the state should provide protection for such dissent. Without it, no opposition would be able to present its case to the public — as members of the current government and its supporters did in the years they were out of power.”
  • The Davinder Singh saga continues to throw up questions — as in this piece examining the 2017 encounter on the basis of which he was awarded the President’s Medal.
  • Bhim Army chief Chandrasekhar Azad has finally been granted bail. Some of the conditions attached are appalling; most notably the rider added by Judge Kamini Lau of the Tis Hazari Court that Azad cannot visit Delhi for the next four weeks in light of the upcoming elections. Azad meanwhile was received outside jail by his supporters, and proceeded to the Jor Bagh masjid.
  • Sadaf Jafar, who was recently granted bail, speaks to Outlook magazine about the treatment she endured in jail, and her stories are horrific.
  • Going back to the earlier story involving General Bipin Rawat and the “radicalization camp”, Sanjay Sipahimalani uses the book A Bookshop in Berlin to look at life in Nazi Germany. See if this passage resonates: “On Kristallnacht, Frenkel witnessed Jewish shopfronts being smashed and interiors burnt and looted. “Whoever tried to defend himself or to save his property was manhandled and abused. This time, there were bloody, murderous encounters. Everything took place under the very noses of an uninterested police force.”
  • A story on the wave of protest comics that have appeared in the wake of the anti-CAA protests
  • Time magazine takes an in-depth look at the phenomenon of women fronting the anti-CAA protests
  • IMPORTANT: Official documents contradict the MHA’s claim that Aadhar numbers will not be collected as part of the NPR process.
  • In The Print, freelance journalist Ashutosh Bharadwaj accesses reports filed by the Uttar Pradesh police on the Hindu Yuva Vahini — the private army founded and led by Ajay Singh Bisht, on the back of which he rose to power. It is, to put it mildly, scary. And symptomatic of the rot in India’s biggest state.
  • On Muhammed Ali’s birthday, read this lovely Twitter thread about the boxer’s interaction with Bertrand Russell against the backdrop of Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam war. Also read this post recalling the time the famed boxer came to Madras, as it was then, and met then Chief Minister MG Ramachandran.
  • Via Tushar Gandhi’s Twitter stream, we learn that this government has ordered that images shot by legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination have been removed from Gandhi Smriti. Suparna Sharma has a detailed, timely blogpost on the issue. And these are a selection of the photos:

PS: Here, breaking now, one final sorry postscript to the utterly unnecessary confusion created around the Bezos visit to India.

The thing about bullies — when outed or confronted, they twist themselves into pretzels to back down. How on earth could his statement — made on the stage in course of the Raisina Dialogues, where everyone could see his lips move and the words come out — possibly be “taken out of context”? Alternately, what according to him is the “context” in which he said what he did, and what is the “context” of this about face now?

See you tomorrow.