Saturday, February 02, 2008

Let’s stop living a lie 27 January, 2008

“Until India is able to view itself and its history dispassionately, reject the twin failures of socialism and non-alignment, modernize its Muslim citizens and bring their aspirations in line with those of the Hindu majority, it will likely remain an underachiever” concludes Sadanand Dhume in the latest issue of the influential American journal, Commentary. I found this irritating, especially now that we are doing so well economically. As I thought some more, however, I had to agree with this unhappy verdict. We all need to acknowledge our past failures publicly. Only then will we stop repeating mistakes or reforming by stealth. Only then will we mature as a nation.

As for rejecting socialism, the opportunity arrived on 8 January when the Supreme Court issued a notice to the government to respond to a petition which questions the propriety of employing “socialist” in the preamble of our Constitution. The court also asked the Election Commission why every political party must swear to “socialism” before it can be registered. Appearing for the petitioners, Fali Nariman asked the court to do away with the compulsory socialist vow. “It is hypocritical to say that you believe in it when you don’t,” he said. “One can always have a political party that has capitalism as its intent, and why not?”

The bench, headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, raised an interesting question. “Why do you define socialism in the narrower sense as the communists do?” it asked. “Why don’t you go by the broader definition… which mandates the state to ensure social welfare measures for all the citizens… as a facet of democracy?” Nariman did not reply. The answer to that question, of course, is that we must use words in a clear manner. Ever since Marx “socialism” has had a very precise meaning--the “public ownership of the means of production”. Most Indians do not subscribe to this ideology any longer.

BR Ambedkar explained in 1948 why we must not use “socialist” in our Constitution: “[How] society should be organized in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether… It is perfectly possible… for thinking people to devise some other form...which might be better than the socialist organization.” The Constituent Assembly agreed with Dr Ambedkar and we decided to call ourselves a “sovereign, democratic republic”. But Indira Gandhi amended the Constitution during the Emergency and inserted “socialist” in the preamble. Later the People’s Representation Act was amended and now every political party has to pledge allegiance to socialism to gain recognition.

Well meaning Jawaharlal Nehru set out to create socialism, but we got statism instead. The state assaulted our right to property, whose victims, it turns out, were not the rich but poor farmers from whom the state acquired land forcibly (as Nandigram taught us). Socialist control on industry brought License Raj, which bred black money and damaged our moral character, making us one of the most corrupt societies in the world. Socialist labour rules shattered accountability among state employees. Hence, above-average people in government produce below-average results. And so, even the pretence to offer decent public services has gone. The saddest truth is that our socialist state did not work on behalf of the people but on behalf of itself.

The Supreme Court has now given us chance to look at ourselves in the mirror and reject the mistakes of our past. Until we do that we will keep living a lie and perform below our potential.

Terror in the neighbourhood 13 January, 2008

When a celebrity dies one has to put up with a certain amount of media hype, but after Benazir Bhutto’s death what struck me most was the singular lack of remorse in Pakistan There was plenty of grief, even some regret, but no remorse. Remorse is different from regret. When a child is accidentally hit by a car, an onlooker may feel regret, but the driver feels remorse even though it was not his fault. The regretful person says ‘too bad, it happened’; a remorseful person is scarred, sometimes for life. Nehru expressed remorse when Gandhi died. Yudhishthira’s remorse helped reconcile Hastinapur’s torn society although he wasn’t responsible for the war in the Mahabharata. General Musharraf, I think, lost a fine opportunity to achieve reconciliation in Pakistan.

As Indians, our main interest in Benazir’s death relates to terrorism. There is a respectable view that if Benazir had lived and ushered in democratic rule, terrorist attacks on us would have declined. The premise is that democracies are better at fighting terrorists than dictators because terrorists have to contend with public pressure which is absent in dictatorships. I am not convinced. True, a democracy like the United States has successfully prevented a terrorist attack since 9/11. This is the result of a strong will and very effective execution. However, India, also a democracy, has failed. We have had 20 external terrorist attacks in the past three years, the latest on New Year’s Day at Rampur when 7 CRPF men died. And we have failed to curb domestic Naxalite terrorism.

India is, unfortunately, a ‘soft state’ where the government’s writ is weak and its implementation ability weaker still. BJP blames the Congress Party for appeasing Muslims, which it believes, is responsible for UPA’s poor record on terrorism. The BJP’s own record, however, was not much better when LK Advani was Home Minister. As in most things, politics is not the issue. Our problems stem from a lack of accountability in delivering public services. The answer is administrative reform. We need to unify security agencies; provide security of tenure to agents; empower them; invest in technology; train them to respect human rights; promote the best. This will raise their morale and our ability to fight terrorism.

In India we have a historical tradition ambivalent to violence. It goes back to Ashoka Maurya in the 3rd century BC. A Gandhian friend of mine suggested recently that Manmohan Singh might be in Ashoka’s mould. I reminded him, however, that Emperor Ashoka in his 12th Rock Edict warned the forest tribes against terrorist acts and to be wary of his ‘power even in his remorse’. Thus, even a state based on the ideology of ahimsa could be effective against terrorism. George Orwell may not agree. In his famous essay, ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, Orwell wrote that ‘it is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard from again’. That is to say, Gandhi’s methods might have worked against the British, but they would not against Hitler; nor against terrorists.

It’s is our bad luck to find ourselves next door to what the Economist calls the ‘most dangerous place on the earth’. As we cope with this thought, remember our ability to survive and flourish depends less on ideology and more on institutions. Although terrorists may be ideologues, countering them requires a very professional law and order machine. Our own machine is crying for reform. I don’t think Benazir would have made much difference. We have to solve our own problems.

Forgive and move on, Dec 30, 2007

A few weeks before Narendra Modi’s re-election, JS Bandukwalla asked Muslims in Gujarat to forgive the 2002 killings. He said, “Forgiveness will release Muslims from the trauma of the past. It may also touch the conscience of Hindus, since the crimes were committed by a few fanatics in the name of Ram. Most important, it may give Gujarat a chance to close the tragic chapter of 2002 and move on.” Is Professor Bandukwalla’s magnanimous gesture a viable alternative to retributive justice? My first reaction is “No, the guilty must be punished”. But something inside me says that forgiveness might actually work better than revenge. Punishment is, after all, revenge sanctioned by the state.

In her book Forgiveness and Revenge, Trudy Govier argues that revenge damages the human core when one exploits others’ suffering to satisfy oneself. It is also obsessive and escalating. Forgiveness, on the other hand, establishes a new relationship with a wrongdoer. After the war in the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira forgives Dhritarashtra instead of punishing him. With that he releases Hastinapur from the burden of resentment, bringing closure to the old enmities. Emperor Ashoka walked the same path. Gandhi found forgiveness empowering since it made one see the wrongdoer in a new light.

Revenge is a sort of wild justice that runs in the human heart. If a good person suffers, then the bad one must suffer even more—this idea is embedded in one’s psyche. Consciously one denies it, proclaiming, “I'm not that sort of person”. Yet unconsciously one applauds when a villain gets his due. Literature is full of examples--Achilles’ rage in the Iliad, Ashwatthama’s reprisal in the Mahabharata, Chillingworth’s cold, calculated vengeance in Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter. In the movies people are always trying to get even—see Kill Bill. Retribution also drives politics--Dalits in India and Blacks in America want to right the catastrophic wrongs of untouchability and slavery. Revenge fulfills a legitimate human need, bringing a “profound moral equilibrium when people pay for the harm they have done,” says Susan Jacoby in Wild Justice.

Human beings have long wrestled with the right relationship between crime and punishment. When we lived in tribes, collective vendetta was the only justice. But as we moved into civil society, crimes became an offense against society which only the state was allowed to punish. In the 19th century, Utilitarians campaigned to rehabilitate criminals. But in the past fifty years public opinion has turned in favour of retribution because rehabilitation programs failed in prisons. The U.S. Supreme Court also brought back the death penalty in 1976. Today’s debate in America is more modest--about ensuring that judicial sentences are fair and proportional to the crime.

Although forgiveness is of limited value in individual criminal justice, it sometimes works in the case of collective events like riots, wars, and historic wrongs. Hence, it is worth giving Professor Bandukwalla’s idea a try. Those who believe in legal accountability will disagree, arguing that healing and communal trust will only be restored in Gujarat once the guilty are punished and victims’ right to reparations have been fulfilled. But I think that just as Nelson Mandela’s South Africa was healed through reconciliation, so might Muslims wounds in Gujarat and even Sikh wounds from Delhi’s 1984 riots. With one caveat, I think--an apology from the other side must accompany forgiveness. Having just been re-elected, it would be fitting for Modi to apologise to Gujarat’s Muslims in return for forgiveness. After that he should focus on rehabilitating victims and bring a tragic chapter to a close. Now, here’s a hopeful thought for the New Year.