Dignity for the exploited, the hounded, the paperless, the Other

Tag: justice

The cost of silence is murder

They murdered a man in Dadri, a small town in India I had never heard of, and it made me think of Greifswald, another town of sixty thousand, host to one of the world’s oldest universities. The university’s name was changed in 1933 to Ernst Moritz Arndt on the instructions of Hermann Göring, a decorated soldier of the First World War, whose nationalist credentials can scarcely be disputed. Arndt too was a bit of a nationalist, and adolescent boys may be forgiven for admiring one of his ideas, “Da ist Freiheit, wo du in den Sitten und Gesetzen deiner Väter leben darfst; wo dich beglücket, was schon deinen Ureltervater beglückte”. (Freedom is where you can live according to the customs of your fathers; where you are made happy by that which made your most distant ancestors happy)

That is the connection to Dadri – for the man they murdered was Mr. Mohammad Akhlaq, 50 years old, a blacksmith and a Muslim. While he was resting at home with his family, so the accounts go, an accusation was made in a nearby Hindu temple that he had killed a calf and consumed its flesh. The cow being holy to Hindus, this outraged the faithful, and they found their way to his home, dragged him out of bed, and beat him to death with bricks and sticks. They also attacked his son, and the female members of his family. The men who murdered him were probably not scholars of Arndt, but they would have agreed with his ideas on freedom, for is India not their land, and are not the Muslims outsiders, with foreign ways? In their romantic view of ancient India, cows were treasured, and slaughtering them quite unthinkable. When they heard of Mr. Akhlaq’s alleged transgression, they decided that mercilessly beating him and his family would pave the way to a return to a nobler age. They dispensed with contemptible innovations such as due process, tolerance, privacy, and respect for human dignity. The rumor of a basic value of the community being outraged is reminiscent of Göring’s goons who spread tales of the ritual killing of (Christian) children by Jews as part of a vilification campaign that resulted in loot and murder.

A man was torn from his home and viciously torn apart by a mob – but that is not the saddest and scariest bit. That questionable honor belongs to the reaction that ensued. At least one journalist titled his piece, “No beef consumed in Dadri murder”, and the local authorities confirmed that the meat found in Mr. Akhlaq’s home was “simply mutton and not beef”. A man was murdered, but the “local authorities” thought they would best serve by running tests to identify foodstuffs, and the press considered it a vital enough angle for the headline. A common refrain on Internet comments was along the lines of “Yes, well, but what about that other incident where a Hindu person was attacked?” Another appears to complain about “liberals” letting down the side by tarnishing the national image. The word “liberal”, standing for “person daring to put individual freedom and human dignity ahead of national or racial interests” appears to have the same connotation in some circles as did the appellation “intellectual” back in the Soviet Union. The police showed up, arrested some suspects, which lead to more violence, and shocking statements made by politicians. All that notwithstanding, the most detestable reaction was silence. Bertolt Brecht’s verse, inspired by the era of Göring, comes to mind: “Was sind das für Zeiten, wo ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist, weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!” (What terrible times are these, when an ordinary conversation about trees is almost a crime, because it tacitly implies an acceptance of the injustice around us!)

Mr. Akhlaq is beyond our help. His death is yet another warning that we may not stay silent, not just when the mob is gathering in an unknown provincial town, but when we hear the intolerant remarks at the breakfast table in our own homes. Quite harmless remarks, and everyone is entitled to an opinion, surely, and it is tiresome to have a political debate over a casual utterance. Yet every unchallenged remark disparaging a certain group of humans confirms a certain antagonistic weltanschauung, and someone will pay with blood. Surely, this we have learnt.



The flag is a pernicious distraction

Indien bild

August 15, 1947 — called the Day of Independence for a thousand million people, although it is a bit of a misnomer, for India was created on that day, in a sense, and so could not be made ‘independent’ of anything. Of course, Indies is ancient — and even if we take the recent historical view of India, ‘independence’ was accompanied by two massive chunks of land, almost a million square kilometers, breaking away.

One of them, Pakistan, went on to fight, and be fought by, India in multiple wars and additional decades-long, systematic conflict, with the concomitant death and suffering of multitudes. Even before the wars, at the moment of ‘independence’, millions were uprooted from their homes, with mass-murder and rape. There’s an additional angle to it: Hyderabad State, a piece of land larger than England, did not become part of the new India on 15 August 1947, or even in the later months of that year. There also remained a Portuguese enclave for years afterwards, but a relatively small one. Much larger in territory were the Princely States, which, de jure, had been independent — if anything, independence was lost, presumably for millions. Considering the significant geographies of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Hyderabad State, and, more importantly, their millions of denizens, we must ask whether a brutal amputation and a partial agglomeration is to be celebrated?

However, perhaps we may ignore considerations of what are the de jure borders of which nations, as these notions are arbitrary, in any case — surely, what matters is the reality on the ground?

Instead of ‘independence’, then, let us celebrate freedom — the freedom to express an opinion without having goons come to our doorsteps, the freedom to be a woman or casteless person without adverse consequence, the freedom to speak one’s language without being disadvantaged in the job market, the freedom to participate in government, the freedom to access education and cultural resources, the freedom to question exploitative and unjust practices without fear of reprisal, the freedom to either worship certain Gods or refuse to join in communal adoration without being subject to genocide, and the freedom to use a toilet.

Unfortunately, these we cannot celebrate.

Indies has endured since millennia, in spite of a stream of invaders from a plethora of cultures — or perhaps they contributed to the story of India. India will survive. Far more precarious are individual freedom, human dignity, and social justice for many millions of her living residents. Till we succeed to establish them as norms, ‘independence’ is a hollow, pernicious celebration.

How long till the last slave?

“We were slaves for a thousand or twelve hundred years”

– Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, nominal representative of a billion-plus people, in New York to a rapt audience of many thousands.

A two-century margin of error is at least curious, if not an abomination, when cherished liberty is spoken of, surely?

Even if we may tolerate this frivolity, the statement reveals more. What happened in India in 800 – 1000 CE that apparently so strongly relates to the notion of ‘slavery’? Foreign invasions, yes; but by far not the first. Alexander came to India more than two thousand years ago. A hundred years before him, Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote of India paying homage to Persia, and that was earlier still, and must have been drawn in the aftermath of battles. Also, India, like Germany in later times, has always been a term perhaps best stated within quotes, because borders were not fixed, and there was no formal political unity.

The more recent invaders of 1000 CE were Muslims – Islam was relatively young – from the west, some with a religious bent to their marauding; some of them went on to found an empire that ruled a large chunk of what is commonly thought of as India. Perhaps that is why the Prime Minister, who belongs to a Hindu-leaning political alliance – in a part of the world where Hindu and Islamic philosophies have often bloodily clashed – picked that as the advent of slavery. Choosing the Islamic invasions as the starting point of a supposed Indian slavery might be defensible, but it is scarcely conciliatory. It is especially surprising coming from an acutely intelligent orator, and a little worrying given his great influence. Moreover, the past in its entirety belongs to all of us – the good bits, the glorious bits, the embarrassing bits, the absolutely despicable bits.

India saw so many invaders, travelers, traders and immigrants over the many millennia, and developed or adopted so many tongues, races, Gods, arts, and customs at meat, that the notion of identity, of ‘we’, is necessarily complicated, going far beyond the demarcation of land borders. Who was enslaved, who did the enslaving?

As an aside, the term ‘slavery’ itself is not very precise. Surely, we may not restrict it to the legally-sanctioned ownership of a human being? Are not some forms of exploitation the same as slavery, as well as some forms of forced dependence, and also institutionalized or widespread discrimination against certain groups of people on arbitrarily chosen grounds? The latter includes the caste system, racism in general, the outlawing of homosexuality, and the persecution of religious minorities, and those who rebel against taboos.

Going back to the original statement, ‘We were slaves for a thousand or twelve hundred years’: this is largely irrelevant – at least, it has become so since the time the people of France conceived of the ideas of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. What does it matter whether a nation is ‘free’, if large numbers of her citizens languish in unending misery and debilitating indigence, and are bereft of a voice, of justice, and of access to humanity’s cultural wealth? Indeed, the definition of liberty would have to be changed, before such a nation be deemed to be free. To insist upon a country being ‘free’ only because the ruling class has a few external characteristics in common with the exploited class, is anachronistic nationalism.

We have many freedoms, but we are slaves, all of humanity, and we shall not rid ourselves of this ghastly mark till every single one of us is free.