Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In the Jaipur Tamasha, India Lost

I began 2012 with a personal resolution that I would try to not write about India for the next few weeks. The reason is simple: my relationship with my country is a dysfunctional, obsessive one. Like an addict, I try to wean myself off it but with the first whiff, I am back neck-deep, flailing, drowning, furiously and hopelessly in love, clinging to it even while it continues to humiliate, abuse and batter me. Yes, India is my first, only and forever abusive lover! No surprises then, the Jaipur Literature Festival tamasha managed to blow my new year's resolution to smithereens even before the first month is out.

Any way, here goes....

There are many aspects to the complete tamasha that has unfolded in Jaipur, and I do mean apply the word with all its colourful, gloriously populist, condescendingly elite connotations.  Like Waiting for Godot, the catalyst for the tamasha has remained off-stage, and for those of us who believe in creative freedom and the rule of law, or love words and stories, Salman Rushdie's absence is a tragedy.

The tamasha  was manufactured primarily by Rajasthan's state government (led by that ever shining bastion of liberal thought, the Congress party), ably abetted by the party machinery and embedded corporate media, and benignly watched over by Her Highness Lady Sphinx and her two heir-lings. Between them, they  manufactured reports of a threat to Rushdie's life: apparently, as the now-discredited story goes, Mumbai underworld had taken out a supari on the writer's life and three gunmen were on their way. Rushdie was thus convinced to cancel his visit.  A point to note here is crucial: at this point, the state government had actually not raised the legal issue of his presence at the festival but merely used security as a barely credible cover for its decision.  The state also managed to compound its idiocy by finally disallowing even a video-conference with the writer, again on 'security' grounds although, in all fairness, they could have kept all those policewallas who had been called to provide security to Oprah around.

Of course, various other parties including the BJP, with eyes on the UP assembly elections prize, jumped on the bandwagon. Not surprisingly, today, with much ipso facto courage, Sheila Dixit, Arun Jaitley and various others are inviting Rushdie to various other parts of India, especially Delhi, presumably to offend cosmopolitan Dilliwalas in ways those rustic Rajasthanis couldn't bear or have tea with HH Lady Sphinx who shall say more nothing!

On to the second act: the festival started and four writers showed the courage of their convictions and read out from The Satanic Verses, only to find themselves muzzled not by the state government but cowardly organisers. And yes, it is necessary to point out that the organisers of the festival could have taken a far stronger stance which would be backed by Indian law: there is nothing as far as I can find, and although I am no lawyer, I have checked with colleagues in the profession, that bars anyone from reading out excerpts from the work, or indeed the entire novel in entirety. The same organisers then expanded their role by issuing a stern press release and making utterly ridiculous statements about how the four writers had read the excerpts without the permission or knowledge of the organisers. Really? Now writers must clear the content of their presentations a priori with literary festivals? So much for freedom of speech then!

On the sidelines, or perhaps it ought to be the chorus line, of the tamasha of course, there has been much hand-wringing by various Indian literati in various media.  The usual faces and names have written blog posts and editorials, done rounds of television studios, and made grandiose statements that can only be distinguished by the degrees of hypocrisy and feigned passion. However, in the clamour, a basic point has been lost: freedom of speech is a cherished quality for any civilised society and even more crucial for a democracy but it is threatened as much by a cowardly state, and an unthinking mob, as it is by the hypocrisy of its apparently loyal defenders. 

For decades, India's liberal elite has tried to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds (yes, had to throw in a hunting analogy, just for my UK readers).  They have selectively chosen their causes and battles on the issue of freedom of speech, rallying behind their own social peers and off-springs and always from the comfort of their plush homes, while silencing those they feel are beneath them.  After all, it was Khushwant Singh who advised Penguin India against publishing Rushdie's novel in the first instance. It was a Congress government, backed by all the diamond-dripping and khadi-wearing socialites who banned the import of the novel into the country. And it is the same elite that has stifled any reasoned, nuanced debate about freedom of speech in the country, choosing to turn even this basic precept into a tool for gaining political advantage!

Much of our media and intelligentsia are so closely tied to the country's political establishment that they have forsaken any ability to take a stance that may be intellectually rigorous and ethically sound (here, the organisers of the festival are a good example: to maintain their position as embedded cultural elite in Delhi, they must bow to their political patrons).

And yes, let me be very clear,  it is critical that we in India discuss freedom of speech in an open and nuanced manner. Since the mainstream media has forsaken its role in the process or at least given up any ambitions of making a complex case, it is up to the citizens ourselves.

Even the most absolutist supporters of freedom of speech realise that there are reasonable limits. There are some clear cut instances that are self-evident: shouting fire in a crowded theatre is one such example. We may even argue that reporting on army's gun positions during a war (as happened during Kargil) is another case for  limiting freedom of speech, although this already takes us towards the slippery slope and national interest alone, and especially determined by the state, cannot be the sole determinant of the issue. Here we go more into the area of ethics and personal responsibility that are matter for another post, although sadly, in current times, much is said of rights and very little of responsibilities.

However, the situation gets very muddy when it comes to art. A point made consistently by various sides has been that Rushdie's novel "offends sentiments" of a particular religious community. Similar cases have been made about Tasleema Nasreen (although I found the quality of writing more offensive than the content in that case!), Rohinton Mistry who apparently offended all of Mumbai, A.K Ramanujam who offended Hindus by studying the many versions of Ramayana and lauding the ancient Indic tradition of multiplicity.  Then of course there is the case of the much lauded MF Hussain who apparently offended Hindus with his paintings to become a martyr of free speech, and yet wilted at the sign of first Muslim protests to cravenly withdraw his film Meenaxi from theatres.  And lest we forget, Bollywood songs have managed to offend shoemakers and paan-sellers as well!

As the cases above demonstrate, there is no dearth of people willing to take offence, and only logical way forward is for the state to first take a clear and principle stand on freedom of speech.  The state must not begin to determine - either in practice or theory - which of the many offended groups must take precedence, although this arbitrary policy has yielded a great deal of political capital all around in the past 60+ years.

However, beyond the state, the onus for taking a clear and principled stand also falls on the nation's intelligentsia, artists and opinionmakers.  This means established writers, artists, critics and scholars need to speak out for the right to free expression for all, based on a principled stance, and not only when they find a convenient situation or in favour of those they agree with.  Unfortunately, at the moment, they function more as collaborators and enablers of the state in stifling freedom of expression!

And finally, there is the citizenry. In general, the discussions and blogs have been frank, intelligent, innovative. Discussions both on and off line have demonstrated that political parties in the country may be in for a big surprise as increasing numbers of citizens are stepping away from the politics of offence.  Again, I have noticed the difference in opinion between the self-avowed representative and leaders of Indian Muslims and Muslim citizenry itself: many leaders are in for a total shock in not too distant future!

At the same time, I must say I have been deeply disappointed by some of the discussions on this topic on-line, even though I am the first to admit that using on-line engagement is a flawed form of sampling a population. There is a mirror reflection of Islamist fringe to be found amongst the fringes of the self-professed Hindutva supporters. I found their ignorance of their own traditions and texts disappointing, but was horrified by their brash refusal to actually bother learning anything about their heritage. If their hubristic "right to remain ignorant" is any indication of those who take offence, then I sincerely hope this post offends them deeply.

But more than anything else, I am terribly saddened that in the tamashaa that unfolded in Jaipur, there was only one loser: India. I hope in these times of competitive offence taking, somebody other than me takes offence at that!

Full disclosure: perhaps some of my critique of the hypocrisy of India's liberal cultural elite may appear harsh but I have had first hand experience of them over the years. My favourite moment however involves a top editor who wrote me an email breaking the publication contract for a novel which she deemed too controversial. Many of the same names who regularly and hysterically defend free speech told me' off the record' - when the book did come out - that they could not review it for the same reasons. To all of them, don't worry, the book has done very well in India and abroad, in spite of you and despite zero controversy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Self-Immolation Protests in Arab Spring: Why and Why Now?

This post is meant to raise questions about an aspect of the Arab Spring that has confused me since the very beginning. I must state right at the beginning that I do not have the answers, or even the inklings of an answer. I am hoping to get a discussion started so I can begin to understand this phenomenon, so apologies in advance if you are disappointed!

As is well-known now, the uprising in Tunisia began with a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, setting himself on fire in protest against the humiliations and hardships he faced daily.  The act triggered off mass protests, leading to the removal of the country's long time dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, which in turn ignited mass protests across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, bringing down two more dictators in 2011 and rattling the regimes of pretty much every other despot.

During the same period, a strange and disturbing pattern has emerged in the region: protest by self-immolations.

In Tunisia, there were 107 incidents in the first six months of 2011. Algeria reported multiple incidents as well through 2011, with at least four deaths.  In the immediate aftermath of the Tunisian uprising, there were similar incidents reported in Egypt as well, although these seemed to dwindle once Mubarak stepped down. A scan of these incidents in Egypt seems to place them in the days soon after the Tunisian revolution with a marked decline once the January 25th movement kicked off (perhaps closest to copycat acts as discussed later).  In the first three weeks of 2012 alone, there have been the cases of a man in Jordan and a depressed mother of a prisoner in Bahrain, both of whom died, as well as five protesters in Morocco, two  of whom remain in serious condition in the hospital.  In 2011, there were cases of self-immolation reported in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Syria, so covering a rather large range of geography and conditions.

One aspect of these incidents are that many of these involve people protesting quite small yet significant acts of injustice: trouble in claiming pensions, electricity being cut off, protesting the right to food or shelter, or simple dignity as in case of Bouazizi.  Much of the press both in the region, as well overseas, has attributed self-immolation protests to the despair felt by the people and their anger at quotidian humiliations. No doubt, both of these play a significant part in these acts, although they are by no means sufficient as explanation.

However, what escapes understanding is the emergence of this specific act of protest in a region where there is no tradition of self-immolation for any reason.  First of all, suicide is unacceptable under Islam, which is one reason that suicide attacks have been so heatedly debated in the region and have only a grudging acceptance by most mainstream Islamic scholars (this is not to say that there are not ample supporters of the tactic in both religious and political circles). The point is that even suicide attacks can be justified only thinly on theological grounds and by specific schools of Islamist thought; most groups - including (in)famously the Palestinians ones - use the practice for a range of strategic and tactical purposes, especially political/societal survival, retaliation and competition.  More importantly, suicide attacks build on earlier historical memories and ideals, and are often explained as the latest manifestations of militant heroic martyrdom, and thus within - albeit on the margins - of older martial traditions of jihad. It is precisely this final reasoning that is employed by contemporary theologians to make sense of this tactic.

However, the case of self-immolation is quite different. It clearly violates the Islamic principle of not violating the body and/or corpse, especially one's own. It cannot be fit into any militant heroic martyrdom tradition as it is an act of protest turned entirely upon oneself.

Indeed, it may only vaguely fit Durkheim's concept of 'altruistic suicide', despite the attempts by the media to fit these acts into a 'martyrdom' narrative. Much of the media and activist narrative around self-immolations is that some how they were acts of protest, motivated by defiance or a Durkheim-ian 'over-integration into the society' and therefore a sense of responsibility towards the larger collective. Instead, if anything, these acts, at least on a closer look seem to be closer to Durkheim's definition of the 'fatalistic suicide,' one that he had even in 1897 dismissed as of little consequence to modern societies (how premature that was!!).  However, it is fatalistic suicide that Durkheim had associated most with 'over-regulation' or moral or physical despotic excess, noting that it occurred amongst populations who felt their futures were blocked and their natural passions oppressed.

However, self-immolation is not simply an act of fatalistic suicide. It is a particularly public way to self-destruct, holding within the act itself incredible expressive, symbolic potential, which is the primary reason for its longevity in certain societies. As an act of protest, and perhaps more closely linked to Durkheim's notion of altruistic suicide, it is deeply rooted within the Indic traditions as well amongst various Buddhist societies of Asia. After all, it was the monks of South Vietnam immolating themselves in protest in 1963 that brought the term into common usage in western media.  Again in India, it has been used in protests, with the Mandal protests seeing some of the most prominent incidents.  In the past few years, Tibetan monks have continued the practice as a form of protest against Chinese occupation.

Yet none of this makes sense why this act has emerged in the MENA region, in cultures as diverse as Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt? Or indeed why it has emerged in the region at this particular time. There is little by way of influence or motivation or trajectories that I can find for self-immolations as a form of protest in these countries. Moreover, the region, as far as I can see, does not have any historical tradition of self-immolation, not only for protest but for any reason at all.  Even if we took a misplaced essentialist stance that the region is tied by Islam as a binding factor (a fallacy in itself), we would be left wondering why then a significant amount of the population would choose to defy the religion's crucial precepts.

Again, if we attempt to write these off as fatalistic suicides, we are left wondering why the people across an extraordinary range of backgrounds, cultures, genders, and ages would choose the same method?  If these are to be considered copy-cat acts, and we may well agree that the immolations in Egypt in January 2011 could well count as such, we are left wondering at the gaps of time or indeed the complications in the cluster contagion that create reasoning anomalies (I could be wrong here so expert dissent is very welcome).  How would we explain Bouazizi self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010 as a point of contagion for Badriya Ali's act in Bahrain in January 2012. The copy cat explanation begins to seem a little too pat to hold water, at least for me.

Furthermore, there is the aspect of media narrative and attention. It is true that Bouazizi's act was immediately declared an act of martyrdom by political activists, but there is little evidence that he had acted out of political principles. Moreover, if we consider the acts following his as copycats, then what triggered his own choice of self-immolation as the method of self-destructive protest?

Self-immolation is a particularly horrific and public act of suicide, but it is also primarily an act of expressive violence. It has few instrumental goals that can be served, beyond the self-destruction of the individual. In contrast to the Buddhist monks of Vietnam or Tibet, whose social and moral status imbues them with greater symbolic potency, or the students in India where a long tradition of self-immolation provides a moral legitimacy to the act, in MENA region, these are in some ways lone acts, excised from the theology of the dominant religion and alien to the cultural ethos of the societies of the actors.  As far as I have been able to research, there have been no fatwas or other theological support from Islamic clerics or schools for these acts (not a surprise!).  The declarations of martyrdom have been generated primarily from the activists, who in many countries listed above are still battling for not only political space but also legitimacy, so their impact can be queried.

The question of why self-immolation and why now remains thus unanswered.  The press may call it a result of daily humiliations, or attribute it it lack of jobs; political activists may declare these political acts of martyrdom,  but these are justifications not explanations of the phenomenon. I can only hope we don't need many more of these for that explanation to emerge.

Full disclosure: I explored the concepts of heroic martyrdom, self-immolation and altruistic suicide in my last novel so this is a topic that I have long attempted to understand.

Final note: I asked on twitter about the topic and want to thank the following for their insights and thoughts: @FouadMD, @princeofthenile @Thabet_UAE for their generosity in discussing the topic with me.