When words and rationality fail, one has to resort to fable and fantasy.
Almost 300 years ago, Jonathan Swift made ‘a modest proposal’ to the British nation. Erroneously remembered today as a writer of tales for children, Swift was in fact a fierce political satirist and fabulist, with a touch of misanthropy. Himself an Irishman, he proposed that allowing thousands of Irish children to die of malnutrition and starvation due to prolonged conditions of famine induced by the feudal system and British taxation, made for silly economics and a waste of resources.
In a faux econometric style, he presented his arguments in the tract, ‘A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents or Country and for making them Beneficial to the Publik’. In this disarmingly earnest sounding tract, he laid out the larger public and economic benefits of feeding and fattening the children first and then converting them into “a most deliciously healthy and nourishing food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled”. This, he claimed, was “a fair, cheap and easy method” for converting the children of Ireland into “sound and useful members of the Commonwealth,” rather than just letting them die on the street.
The work, anonymously published in 1729, provoked outrage and anger. But it also pricked that nation’s ‘collective conscience’ enough to help usher in wide-ranging and progressive British laws about food taxes, reforms in labour laws, treatment of children and their exploitation in fields and factories as well as reforms in education.
One invokes this story now in the context of what the Indian state is up to in Kashmir. What – I mean, WHAT – does India think it is doing in Kashmir? It seems to have become fatal to be below 25 there. According to figures released by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society, 99% of those killed and injured (41/1500) in the Valley by the security forces, in the week since July 8, are below the age of 25. And huge numbers of them have been blinded or are with serious chest or abdominal injuries due to reckless splaying from pellet guns by our brave paramilitaries and policemen.
For all the claims to a ‘demographic dividend’ that India boasts of – that almost 70% of our population is below 25 years old – and how that constitutes a developmental advantage, what we are seeing is a gleeful elimination of this social capital. Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ is certainly a better idea than this. Now that cow slaughter is banned in most places, planned, well-executed (sic) youth-slaughter-for-food programs in Kashmir can help enhance the protein deficiency amongst the starving masses in India. At least the killing of the youth there won’t be in vain. And – such joy – it won’t even be ‘beef’.
The kind of hysterical political and media celebration in India over the killing of 22-year-old Burhan Wani on July 8, was not just vulgar; it should be construed as incitement to war against unarmed civilians. The ‘collective conscience’ here works the other way – it drools with blood-lust. Stool-pigeons masquerading as journalists on prime time TV have now acquired a manic edge to their cheerleading. All sense of proportion seems to have evaporated. They feel no sense of shame in doing ‘high-fives’ over the encounter killing of a local hero posturing his bravado over social media, without ever being any real threat to the Indian establishment. Is the Indian state so clueless as to not realise that it does not need youngsters like Burhan Wani to recruit militants for a cause in Kashmir; the behaviour of the security forces is enough for that. And how this cricket and art loving boy turned into a ‘dangerous rebel’ as they are making him out to be, is of course, the same old tiresome narrative of having been brutalised at a younger age and, more recently,witnessing his own elder brother being hunted and shot dead by our ‘insecurity forces’.
There is a total mismatch between the Supreme Court’s ruling on July 8, withdrawing immunity for India’s armed forces in ‘disturbed areas’, and the army action in the Valley the very same night. The timing is ominous – as if the Army is cocking a snook at the judiciary through deliberate and wanton violence. The boy, though there was a prize on his head, once located and encircled, ought to have been arrested. If he was such a lynchpin as is being suggested, they could have harvested information from him. Instead, the forces (obviously in some panic) went trigger-happy and turned him into a martyr. And then they lost any semblance of ‘intelligence’ they may be credited with – they were caught totally unprepared for the furious gathering of over a 100,000 people who, despite strict curfew, turned out for the funeral. They were even less prepared for the spontaneous protests that broke out across the Valley – hordes of young people pouring out on to the streets in defiance of all curbs and facing off against armed soldiers with their slogans and stones.
This is when the Indian state sent for its pellet guns, categorised in charmingly euphemistic double-speak, as ‘non-lethal’. They describe it as if it’s merely a toy device that won’t hurt a soul. Consequently, without any intent to hurt, they splay into crowds like incense water is sprinkled over guests at a wedding. Now supposing, instead of incense it was acid? Nothing lethal. You only maim for life. You take away eyes. You perforate the lungs and liver and kidneys. You let the toxic lead pellets infect the blood stream. Oh no; not lethal at all. One hears of doctors in Kashmir going into utter depression at the sight of hundreds of youngsters with their face and torsos peppered with pellets – injuries that are likely to take a lifetime of treatment and convert the victims into permanent invalids. In utter disgust, artist Orjit Sen has used a visual from social media of a boy’s back that looks like a pin-cushion with embedded pellets and has given each pellet wound a geographic location – Baramulla, Pulwama, Shopian, Srinagar, Batmaloo, Anantnag, Tral, Pampore, Kupwara, Rajouri. You can list out all the locations in Kashmir on the boy’s back and still have pellet wounds left with no name.
So these are the people you call part of your nation – with whom you are so much in love that you don’t want to let go, even if it means killing and maiming them! Strange love. Jhuma Sen, in Kafila, has quoted this allusion to the kind of fatal love that Rahul has for Kiran in the film Darr, a reference pointed out by Sucheta De on Facebook. Hey, but that’s the story of a psychopath. India can’t be called psychopathic, can it? Yet, doubtless, there is much pleasure in playing the big bully. In campuses, ragging is banned. On TV they stream ads that ask citizens to intervene in and prevent domestic violence in the neighbourhood. But as a nation, we are not above a little rough stuff with those who do not want to ‘love’ the same compulsive map that you love. This is sheer cuckoo-land, to enter which you need no visas.
The truth is out there
The issue here is no longer of what the Indian state is doing in Kashmir. It’s clear that it has no clue. Bludgeon them into submission, is the prevailing wisdom. No point agonising over those ‘troublesome’ people. Dipankar Gupta suggests in a pop-sociological piece in the Times of India on Saturday that these are people for whom ‘militancy has become culture’ – as if, they have no serious issues and merely agitate for the sake of agitating, because, for them, it’s the substitute for a seasonal carnival.
It is also, perhaps, no issue that now they are turning the tourniquet and gagging the press. First it was a comprehensive decommissioning of internet and mobile phone services across the Valley. Now, both Kashmir Times and Rising Kashmir have their offices raided and sealed. With increasing international pressure and even the US joining in, they think silencing the press will draw attention away from what they are doing. Of course, with the Indian press, they didn’t even have to try. The rapidity with which news from Kashmir has been either ignored or pushed into the inside pages of our mainstream media, is a story in itself. All these are distressing, of course, but par for the course, and expected to be part of any army’s counter-insurgency strategy.
The worry really is what the average Indian citizen is thinking about this recurring propensity of her country to assault those, it claims, are its own people. Is it not strange that there has been no time since Independence when at least some parts of the country have wanted to secede? Does it not seem odd that an entire population is asked to ‘belong’ at the point of a gun? Has the Indian citizen licensed the government to do this in her name? Conversely, have we paid sufficient attention to the fate of our jawans, whose average age too must be around 25? We send out this bunch of lads – for whom the army or paramilitary forces is merely a desperate career option – stuffed with notions of virtue in martyrdom and, once an ‘enemy’ is pointed out, assuring them immunity from the consequences of their actions. We pump them up on airy notions of patriotism so that they can go out there and, in our name, kill and maim and torture and pillage and rape. Is this really right that we do this to our young? India possesses Kashmir by stationing 600,000 troops there.
Of course, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and such protections have till now insulated the army from the legal consequences for their behaviour. But all India needs is something like the recent Chilcot Report, which severely indicted former British PM Tony Blair for the needless war in Iraq – leading to over 450,000 civilian and military casualties, not to speak of endangering British lives. Indian politicians too are sure to find themselves thus charged soon enough. But the worry is about the young men who return to their villages and towns and homes after having spent a few years in devastating the lives of people in Kashmir. Their nerves are sure to be in tatters for having inflicted such unspeakable brutalities on a population that was, after all, only asking for the most basic of things – freedom. Will India, as a nation, have the wherewithal to handle this huge population of pathological cases who can live down the subliminal guilt of their uncalled for savagery while in uniform, only with even more psychotic violence when they return as civilians?
I doubt if there is any educated Indian who is unaware of what the Indian state and its security forces are doing in Kashmir. In the decade of the 1990s, one could have said people were unaware. But subsequent to the youth uprisings of 2008 and 2010, subsequent to the searing films made by documentarists like Sanjay Kak (Jashn-e-Azadi), Amir Bashir (Harud), Ashvin Kumar (Inshallah Kashmir), Iffat Fatima (Blood Leaves Its Trail) and others, none can pretend ignorance or innocence any more. And yet so many years of dead silence. Can we degrade ourselves any further by ignoring what our politics and our soldiers are doing in Kashmir?
In recent years, one has never tired of quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, from his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. ‘France’, wrote Sartre in the context of the French brutalities in Algeria, ‘in other days was the name of a country. We should take care that in 1961 it does not become the name of a nervous disease’. The French sat up and listened. It is time we, in India, paid attention. This too is a modest proposal.
Sadanand Menon is adjunct faculty, Asian College of Journalism and at IIT, Madras. He is currently managing trustee of the Arts Foundation, SPACES, Chennai.