Thursday, February 11, 2010

The devil’s advocate? By Radha D’Souza

February 8, 2010

First published in Sanhati

It was a bizarre spectacle, Karan Thapar interviewing Dr. Binayak Sen on CNN-IBN on Maoist violence in India. See the interview here:

The subject of Maoist violence, more than any other at present, agitates the powers that be, including the media. The choreography of the debate follows a similar pattern. Invite a respectable person(s) for a “debate” on the issue of violence, lure them into believing they are invited because the media wants to present a contrary point of view; once there, corner the person, prevent them from making their point of view, heckle them if necessary, and somehow wring a statement, even if by slip of tongue, that can be bandied about as endorsement for the military offensive against the Maoists, as a moral justification for the so called “war on terror”. This desperation for moral endorsement from respected citizens like Dr. Sen, is itself evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the powers that be.

Dr. Sen tried, heroically, to make the point that one third of the people of India suffer from chronic malnutrition, that over 50% of the Adivasis and 60% of Dalits are bordering on starvation (dear readers, put these numbers in perspective by bearing in mind that India is one-sixth of humanity), that over 50% of India (1/12th of world population) is undernourished, and that state policies that create and sustain the conditions for this mass starvation fall within the definition of “genocide” in international law. One would have thought that the enormity of what Dr. Sen was saying, and its implications for what we have become as a nation, made his point of view, at least, worth listening to. But no, Thapar had lured Dr. Sen into the platform to wring a public condemnation from him against Maoists, and he was determined to do that come what may. Half the nation may have turned into semi-starved ghosts, but we need to condemn Maoist violence, first and foremost, to feel morally good about ourselves; and it was Thapar’s job to make the nation feel they stood on high moral ground. Any competing ethics, or higher moral principle, would deflate the performance choreographed for the nation.

“I am not talking on behalf of the Maoists. I am talking from the point of view of a human rights worker”

Dr Sen said as he tried desperately to stand his ground. Again and again he tried to make the point about state violence.

“I will come to the state. I promise you and I will handle the state later but first I want to hear you clearly say that annihilation which is an acceptable and justified policy of the Maoists is one that you completely, totally condemn”

Karan Thapar persisted, literally putting words into Dr. Sen’s mouth. Note too his words “I”, Thapar, “want you to clearly say…” etc. Of course Thapar never came to the state as he promised, we knew he wouldn’t, there is only that much time allocated for a show, and that time was up. The show was never about hearing Dr. Sen’s point of view; it was a choreographed performance to corner a respected citizen into endorsing the moral justifications touted out for the state’s military offensive. Ironically the show was called the “Devil’s Advocate” –Karan Thapar, the Devil’s Advocate?

No, this is no time for humorous asides. Let’s turn to the moral outrage. Ethics is important, and moral awareness is the essence of being human. It is important we do not walk away from ethics, especially when there is a widespread perception among ordinary Indians that the nation has lost its moral compass. Thapar too is bound by ethics. Basic principles of media ethics require that an interviewee is given an opportunity to make his/her point of view clearly, that their views are not misrepresented, that there is no ulterior motive or collateral purpose, and to ensure that views of the interviewee are fairly represented. Thapar clearly breached rules of fairness and representation in media ethics. Paradoxically, there appears to be a correlation between the length of the code on media ethics in India and falling ethical standards in the media. When there were no codes we had a vibrant independent press. Over the years as scepticism about the media has grown so has the length of the code from one page in 1992 to 112 pages today (see Norms of Journalistic Conduct, Press Council of India, 1992, 1996, 2005, 2010). Let’s not judge this only through narrow legalistic lenses.

We are proud of the spiritual foundations of our society a tad bit more than others. In the Indian tradition, when we invite a guest we are required to show him/her due respect, and treat them with some indulgence. Amartaya Sen wrote about how we are an “argumentative society” and about how the ethos of public debate goes back a long time in our history. In a moving scene at the end of the Kurkshetra war (in the Mahabharata), the philosopher Charvaka publicly accused Krishna of bringing ruin upon the entire society by his actions. Everyone heard him out, including a subdued Krishna. Clearly Dr. Sen was Thapar’s athithi (guest). But Thapar was not going to let any Western legal principles of media ethics, any Indian codes of athithi dharma (codes of right conduct towards guests) or the glorious Indian cultural traditions of public debate to get in his way. Freedom of the press it appears is freedom from all constraints: legal, cultural, ethical. Are we surprised that so many ordinary Indians feel the nation has lost its moral anchor?

I have used this interview to exemplify how ethics gets confounded in the media and in public debate, but the point can be extended to all sorts of public debates in the Indian media today. If the job of the media is to inform and educate, that purpose is defeated either because viewers and readers are left bewildered as a result, or condemned to vitriolic mindlessness. The first is the basis for cynicism and the second, for fascism. This production of mindlessness requires closer scrutiny.

Institutional and individual violence

At the heart of the controversy over Maoist violence is an issue that is foundational to modern societies, an issue that Thapar went out of his way to ensure did not register in public minds: the difference between institutional and individual violence. Only human beings can make ethical judgments because only human beings have a psyche capable of moral differentiation. For that reason in criminal trials, for example, intention is decisive. Institutions are not human beings, they are literally “mindless”. Institutions are complexes of laws that structure society and allocate people their places within it. When an institutional system is founded on violence, violence becomes the necessary condition for the continued existence of those institutions, in other words, the institution cannot survive without violence, it becomes like the proverbial vampire that will die if it cannot suck blood. This type of violence is fundamentally different from individual and group violence. However brutal, or obnoxious, or vicious it may be, individual violence is still human violence, it involves the mind, rightly or wrongly, and it invariably invites contestation over ethics in society. Institutions founded on violence, on the other hand, will collapse if violence is taken away. Individuals in charge of institutions must, therefore, continue to engage in violence if they are to save the institution from collapse. Let me exemplify this.

In a controversial TV interview to 60 Minutes (5/12/96) Lesley Stahl the TV host, when questioning the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on U.S. sanctions against Iraq, asked her:

“We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”

Her reply was:

“I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

This statement scandalised a large cross section of people in the United States and elsewhere. Imagine by some miracle if a total pacifist were to occupy the White House. It is estimated that sixty percent of the American economy is directly or indirectly dependent on defense. Corporate America: the Lockheeds, the Boeings, the Northrops, will collapse like a pack of cards, taking with them the thousands they employ. Most technological innovations of the West that invest their institutions with so much power and capabilities are the result of militarism. Even banal things like food packaging, gyms and exercise regimes, dietetics, aging research, are driven by militarism. The internet and the communication technologies were military innovations. The incorporation of civilian and military uses of technologies through dual-use policies makes the intermeshing of militarism and economy virtually inseparable. The entire society is organized in a “warlike way” to use Marx’s phrase. In such a military-industrial-finance-media complex waging war becomes a necessity for survival of those institutions. If Iraqi children die in their millions in the process, it is sad, but necessary. Albright was not wrong. She was speaking as Secretary of State for the US state and economy. Her only ethics, if there was one, was to save those institutions from collapse.

Our messiah of peace in the White House will have to reorganize life in America, bottoms-up, get people to plant potatoes and cabbages, run their own local communal power plants, dismantle the supermarkets and get them to preserve and cook their own food, and turn them into a community of people affiliated to land, instead of a community of interest groups affiliated to different types of market institutions. The messiah of peace will, without doubt, be branded a trouble maker, a revolutionary, a terrorist, even a Maoist perhaps, who knows. He will without doubt be liquidated before long. Only the people of America can undertake such a task, and that too only when they feel so committed to building a non-violent society that they are prepared for the sacrifices, and violence and bloodshed the task will necessarily invite.

The Indian armed forces are the fourth largest in the world. Unlike the United State, the Indian military has been used primarily against the Indian people: against Kashmiris, Nagas, Assamese, North-eastern peoples, Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, or… Maoists. This is a fundamental difference between capitalist nations like the US, and India. The Indian state must colonise its own people to remain affiliated to the military-industrial-finance-media complex that rules. Is the price worth it? The NDTVs and the CNN-IBN journalists are too terrified to pose this question to the ministers of the Indian state as Lesley Stahl did with Madlinene Albright. Understandably so. Colonising one’s own people is far more terrifying than colonising all those “out there” somewhere.

We in India are more fortunate, however, because our task of building a non-violent society is much less daunting. It is less daunting precisely because fifty percent of our people, at least, are already outside the formal, institutionalised, globalised, militarist political economy. Many more, such as the urban poor for example, are only marginally or loosely tied to it. Of course, that is also the reason why they are being slowly starved to death, or driven to commit suicide, as with the two hundred thousand farmers. Only a numerically small, but economically powerful section is tied to the political economy of violence, and they must defend it come what may.

The violence of individuals and political groups pales into insignificance in comparison. The nation faces its worst crisis ever as swathes of land is auctioned off to powers that be and people turned into cannon fodder for the military-industrial-finance-media complexes of vampire states. The Maoists are desperate to get the message across to a nation besotted with the vampire, and they do it using desperate means. Are we going to shoot the messenger because we do not like the message, or, ostrich-like, bury our heads in the sand because we do not want to know about the message?

The message will not go away because we do not like how the message is delivered. If anything it will feed the vampire institutions with more blood. This has nothing to do with our revulsions for the methods of the messengers. Remember, institutions do not feel? They have no psyche? The message and the desperate messengers are part of the same problem, the problem of the political economy of violence. Paradoxically, the institutions founded on violence, the military-industrial-finance-media complexes, are the ones that preach the ideology of non-violence in unequivocal terms; and those who advocate peace with justice end up advocating violence. How are we to understand this paradox? We cannot say it is because the institutions are hypocrites because, if institutions are mindless, they cannot be hypocrites.

Merchants, people of the land, and political violence

In his book The Great Transformation, written during the World Wars, a time when states and economic institutions were collapsing, as now, Karl Polanyi points out that during the hundred years between 1815-1914, for the first time in their histories, European powers did not go to war with one another (except minor forays) and he inquires into the reasons for this extraordinary century of non-violence. The reasons he argues was “haute finance” the emergence of financial institutions that

“functioned as the main link between the political and economic organization of the world”.

Let us not rush to the conclusion that there was global peace during that time. Polanyi adds:

“They were anything but pacifists; they made their fortune in the financing of wars; they were impervious to moral consideration; they had no objection to any number of minor, short, or localized wars. But their business would be impaired if a general war between the Great Powers should interfere with the monetary foundations of the system.”

For the merchants, just the right level of war is good because it allows for sale of weapons and provides access to markets; but too much war destroys trading systems. In the merchant’s world view non-violence is a way of limiting and containing wars. Modern capitalism projects the merchant’s world view as the human world view: violence in economy through usury, expropriation, whatever; and containment of violence in politics through ideology of non-violence. See how the UN writes PEACE in large bold letters in its Charter, but retains veto powers with the victorious Allies in the Security Council? When the Cold War ended the Euro-American states hailed it as new era of peace for the world. The Pentagon, however, spent many anxious hours trying to work out what a defence policy in the era of peace should look like. After much deliberation, it adopted the “two-wars” policy. If somehow wars to be limited to two at a time, America would just about manage to survive peace. We witnessed great euphoria about peace simultaneously with new forms of militarism. The Pentagon’s logic makes perfect sense, but only to those who subscribe to the merchants’ world view or “haute finance” as Polanyi calls it. The recipients of violence are not merchants however, they are “people-of-the-land”; and their ideas of violence and non-violence differ fundamentally from those of the merchants’.

The Maori word “whenua” means land/earth and umbilical cord, and whanau, derived from whenua, means biradri or extended family from common ancestry. For people of the land, land is the umbilical cord that ties them to this world. Cut it, and it is like a new born child thrown away from its mother; it means certain death. People-of-the-land have always defended their land, non-violently if possible, violently if necessary, because land is life itself. This is the case with indigenous peoples anywhere in the world, and our own Adivasis and Dalits are no exception. It is not surprising therefore that with the new round of aggressive “haute finance”, with liberalisation and globalisation, indigenous peoples everywhere have been at the forefront of defending the land. People-of-the-land throw the peace plans of merchants, the “two-war” strategies of “haute finance”, the “rights based approach to development” and such, into disarray. The Adivasis and Dalits tar the shine on “shining India”. See the fifth Afghan war? The mandated territories of Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and many more that the League of Nations distributed to the Great Powers to keep the peace? Did the people-of-the-land quietly fade away with the years?

And what of our own people-of-the –land? First we said, don’t fight, after Independence you will be okay, then we said don’t fight we will give you special place in the Constitution, don’t fight we will give you land reforms, don’t fight we will give you jobs in the factories that we build on your land, and now we are saying, don’t fight, we will kill you non-violently, by slowly starving you to death. Are we prepared to be party to an economy founded on cheap labour and confiscated land? Are we going to allow our land and people to be auctioned in the global bazaars? Are we people-of-the land? Or, are we not?

Dear readers, I can see many of you pouncing on me at this point, wagging your fingers and saying to me: but the Maoists are not Adivasis and Dalits. I will concede the point to the sceptical reader; I will agree that we cannot conflate Maoists with Adivasis and Dalits. But I must insist that you answer my question: are you people-of-the-land? Are you a bystander who watches your people and land auctioned in global bazaars? Or, are you going to defend it by whatever means you are capable of? If India is auctioned off, all of us, without exception, lose the ground on which we stand rightfully. Are you going to leave the your fate to the Vedantas and Stanley Morgans, up today, down tomorrow; or the military-industrial-finance-media complexes always on the prowl hunting for “rogue states”, today Iraq, tomorrow Iran, the day after India?

Do you want to be counted as the people-of-the-land, or, are you happy to remain a citizen who wants to be allocated a place in the institutions of the political economy of violence? The urgency of this question drives many to take desperate steps. When we fail to answer this question unequivocally we create the political spaces for Maoism.

Is there a difference between citizens and people-of-the-land?

Civilisation, Nation-State, and Comprador State

The Indian subcontinent is home to an ancient civilisation, a fact that people of the subcontinent are conscious of. The problem with such an inheritance is that we have to live up to it. A civilisation defines its place in the world, provides the people with their conceptual resources, their languages, forms their relationship to their natural environments, and helps people to locate themselves in society and to make sense of the world they live in. Citizenship, in contrast, is a relationship of individuals to the state which is an institution, a constitutional order that oversees a range of economic and political institutions. Clearly, we have forfeited our claims to be a civilisation if we cannot create the conditions that sustain life for our people. Actually we are not even a nation-state properly speaking, because a nation state integrates all its citizens, even the poorest, and most discriminated, in its military-industrial-finance-media complexes, in its institutions, from dole queues to defence. Nation-states bludgeon other states to keep their “civil society” integrated into the state machine. Can you see Germany or Sweden launching Operation Green Hunt against their poor? The Indian state in contrast leaves out half if population from its institutions, it leaves them to fend for themselves, and it is on the prowl, always, to confiscate anything they may have: their land, resources, labour, and starves them to death. The other half, it leaves to the vagaries of global markets, pledges them to the military-industrial-financial-media complexes, the real nation states. Juridical recognition alone is not enough to be a state. We are a comprador state, a dalal state, which will collapse if we start getting fancy ideas about our place in the world.

This is the reason why we are unable to respond to the present crisis. The Maoist say: constitutionalism has failed our people, and we say, true it has failed, but what can we do, let us try once more. The Maoists say: India has become a violent society, forty percent of our parliamentarians have a track record of violence, our democratic political parties have their militias, we kill freely in the name of Ram, our army with its vast arsenal has waged war against our people for sixty-three years, and therefore, they say violence is the order of the day. We say: all this is true, but you Maoists should not be violent.

The Adivasis and the Dalits (see, I am not conflating them with Maoists) raise a more fundamental question about human life, one that touches a raw nerve in modern societies. They say land and labour can never become commodities. That human life can only be lived out on land in relation with nature; that land, labour and nature are necessary conditions for human life; that it is not possible to gouge out “The Economy” from society and cast it into different sets of institutions, insulate “The Economy” from people. Doing this is violence par excellence. Civil society displaces people from land, and promises them a place in market institutions: labour markets, consumer markets, property markets, whatever. That capitalism is made possible, and underpinned by colonisation of land and labour, nature and culture. What do we say to them? We say: all this is true but let us turn to the very colonial inheritances for our conceptual resources, for knowing our place in the world, for nurturing our land and people. We are unable to think beyond ideas of liberal democracy, economic and political rights, individualism and constitutionalism, and all the conceptual, philosophical, ethical, legal inheritances we have from our colonisers. Macaulay must be laughing in his grave.

India stands at historical crossroads at present. The challenge it faces is the task of real and actual decolonisation: of the mind, of the institutions, of the political economy for the first time since Columbus set sail on that unfortunate voyage five hundred years ago; a daunting task by any measure. India cannot meet this challenge by turning the clock back, for the cycle of time rotates without beginning or end.

The Cycle of Violence

Violence, no doubt, begets violence. We can all agree that the vicious cycle must be broken. But who should break the cycle? The case can be argued both ways: the state is violent therefore the Maoists are violent, or, the Maoists are violent therefore the state is violent.

To the best of my knowledge (and I am open to correction here) the Buddha was the first thinker to address this question directly. It is useful to recall the context in which he spoke about the cycle of violence and the onus of breaking it. He too lived in difficult times.

King Prasanjit, a follower of the Buddha, was attacked by Ajatasatru, a powerful king with expansionist ambitions. Ajatasatru mobilised a large army, defeated Prasanjit, confiscated his kingdom and took his people as slaves. Prasanjit fled and lived as a demoralised refugee, incognito. A merchant named Ananthapindika offered to finance Prasanjit and help him raise an army to regain his kingdom. Prasanjit took the merchant’s support, raised an army and defeated Ajatasatru. The defeated Ajatasatru pleaded with Prasanjit to end his life. Prasanjit took Ajatasatru, instead, to the Buddha instead and said: he attacked me, therefore I attacked him, but really I want nothing from him, I want to let him go. The Buddha agreed that Prasanjit was right in defeating Ajatasatru first, but equally, in wanting to free him, because the onus of breaking the cycle of violence is on the victor, the strong, and the more powerful. Note too, that Prasanjit does not see himself beholden to the merchant forever.

If we are to extend the analogy to our times, we must insist that the state, clearly the more powerful party, must cease its violence first, must stop displacement of people, stop forcible acquisition of land, stop unending suffering. Sadly, we live in a mindless modern state. If we could get the state to end violence we could stand on high moral ground and say to the Maoists what the Buddha said to Prasanjit and Ajatasatru: “Victory begets hatred; defeat begets suffering. They that are wise will forgo both victory and defeat. Insult is born of insult, anger of anger. They that are wise will forgo both victory and defeat. (The Life of Buddha, by A. Ferdinand Herold, tr. by Paul C Blum [1922])

It is a hallmark of civilisation that the strong, the more powerful, the better armed are called upon to renounce it first. We are not a civilisation any longer, we cannot think for ourselves about the destiny of our people and society. We take our moral cues from heads of nation-states: “war on terror”, “axis of evil” and such. The Buddha said:

The Killer begets a killer;

One who conquers, a conqueror.

The abuser begets abuse,

The reviler, one who reviles.

Thus by the unfolding of karma,

The plunderer is plundered.

We witness before our eyes the “killer begetting a killer”, and the “unfolding” of the karma of the conquerors and abusers and revilers and plunderers. But we live in strange times of equality, liberal rights, and individual freedoms, and somehow these lenses do not help us to see the difference between abuser and abused, between plunderer and plundered, between cause and effect, the begetter and the begotten.


In 1873, when India faced famines, starvation deaths, disease, and political unrest, another medical professional someone we would call a human rights campaigner today was invited to speak on the situation in India. She told the gathering:

It is not, however, more enquiry that is most needed. Enquiry and investigation are the curse of India, as of any country where we do not act up to the light we have : where evils are investigated and re -investigated fifty times over, simply as an excuse for doing nothing. […]Under the permanent settlement the share of the produce of the soil left to the cultivator is often too little for health. A process of slow starvation may thus go on, which so enfeebles the great mass of the people, that when any epidemic sets in they are swept off wholesale. Land is let and sublet to a degree unknown anywhere else. […]Such is the relation between the State and the ‘ creatures of its own creation,’ the Zemindars.

What is the answer given by modern ‘financial policy ‘ or impolicy ? […] Is it not as though we said : It is ‘ unsound financial policy ‘ to live unless you have money in your stocking […]?Is it cheaper to let a man ‘ get dead ‘ than to feed him or house him, on borrowed capital ? […].But one must live in order to be a subject for sanitary considerations at all; and one must eat to live. If one is killed off by famine, one certainly need not fear fever or cholera. [ “Life Or Death In India” Paper read at the Meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Norwich, 1873 LONDON :Harrisons and Sons (1874)]

That health professional and campaigner was Florence Nightingale. Fortunately for Nightingale, there were no NDTVs and CNN-IBNs at that time and she was allowed to complete what she had come to say.

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