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Listening To Grasshoppers

Genocide, Denial And Celebration
It's an old human habit, genocide is. It's a search for lebensraum, project of Union and Progress.

Listening To Grasshoppers
Listening To Grasshoppers
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

I never met Hrant Dink, a misfortune that will be mine for time to come. From what I know of him, of what he wrote, what he said and did, how he lived his life, I know that had I been here in Istanbul a year ago I would have been among the one hundred thousand people who walked with his coffin in dead silence through the wintry streets of this city, with banners saying, "We are all Armenians", "We are all Hrant Dink". Perhaps I'd have carried the one that said, "One and a half million plus one".*
[*One-and-a-half million is the number of Armenians who were systematically murdered by the Ottoman Empire in the genocide in Anatolia in the spring of 1915. The Armenians, the largest Christian minority living under Islamic Turkic rule in the area, had lived in Anatolia for more than 2,500 years.]

***
In a way, my battle is like yours.
But while in Turkey there's silence,
in India, there is celebration.
***

I wonder what thoughts would have gone through my head as I walked beside his coffin. Maybe I would have heard a reprise of the voice of Araxie Barsamian, mother of my friend David Barsamian, telling the story of what happened to her and her family. She was ten years old in 1915. She remembered the swarms of grasshoppers that arrived in her village, Dubne, which was north of the historic city Dikranagert, now Diyarbakir. The village elders were alarmed, she said, because they knew in their bones that the grasshoppers were a bad omen. They were right; the end came in a few months, when the wheat in the fields was ready for harvesting.

"When we left...(we were) 25 in the family," Araxie Barsamian says. "They took all the men folks. They asked my father, 'Where is your ammunition?' He says, 'I sold it.' So they says, 'Go get it.' So he went to the Kurd town to get it, they beat him and took all his clothes. When he came back there—this my mother tells me story—when he came back there, naked body, he went in the jail, they cut his arms...so he die in jail.

And they took all the mens in the field, they tied their hands, and they shooted, killed every one of them."


Araxie and the other women in her family were deported. All of them perished except Araxie. She was the lone survivor.

This is, of course, a single testimony that comes from a history that is denied by the Turkish government, and many Turks as well.

I am not here to play the global intellectual, to lecture you, or to fill the silence in this country that surrounds the memory (or the forgetting) of the events that took place in Anatolia in 1915. That is what Hrant Dink tried to do, and paid for with his life.

***
Most genocidal killing from the 15th century onwards
has been part of Europe's search for lebensraum.
***

The day I arrived in Istanbul, I walked the streets for many hours, and as I looked around, envying the people of Istanbul their beautiful, mysterious, thrilling city, a friend pointed out to me young boys in white caps who seemed to have suddenly appeared like a rash in the city. He explained that they were expressing their solidarity with the child-assassin who was wearing a white cap when he killed Hrant.

The battle with the cap-wearers of Istanbul, of Turkey, is not my battle, it's yours. I have my own battles to fight against other kinds of cap-wearers and torchbearers in my country. In a way, the battles are not all that different. There is one crucial difference, though. While in Turkey there is silence, in India there's celebration, and I really don't know which is worse.

In the state of Gujarat, there was a genocide against the Muslim community in 2002. I use the word Genocide advisedly, and in keeping with its definition contained in Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The genocide began as collective punishment for an unsolved crime—the burning of a railway coach in which 53 Hindu pilgrims were burned to death. In a carefully planned orgy of supposed retaliation, 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered in broad daylight by squads of armed killers, organised by fascist militias, and backed by the Gujarat government and the administration of the day. Muslim women were gang-raped and burned alive. Muslim shops, Muslim businesses and Muslim shrines and mosques were systematically destroyed. Some 1,50,000 people were driven from their homes.

Even today, many of them live in ghettos—some built on garbage heaps—with no water supply, no drainage, no streetlights, no healthcare. They live as second-class citizens, boycotted socially and economically. Meanwhile, the killers, police as well as civilian, have been embraced, rewarded, promoted. This state of affairs is now considered 'normal'. To seal the 'normality', in 2004, both Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani, India's leading industrialists, publicly pronounced Gujarat a dream destination for finance capital.

The initial outcry in the national press has settled down. In Gujarat, the genocide has been brazenly celebrated as the epitome of Gujarati pride, Hindu-ness, even Indian-ness. This poisonous brew has been used twice in a row to win state elections, with campaigns that have cleverly used the language and apparatus of modernity and democracy. The helmsman, Narendra Modi, has become a folk hero, called in by the BJP to campaign on its behalf in other Indian states.

As genocides go, the Gujarat genocide cannot compare with the people killed in the Congo, Rwanda and Bosnia, where the numbers run into millions, nor is it by any means the first that has occurred in India. (In 1984, for instance, 3,000 Sikhs were massacred on the streets of Delhi with similar impunity, by killers overseen by the Congress Party.) But the Gujarat genocide is part of a larger, more elaborate and systematic vision. It tells us that the wheat is ripening and the grasshoppers have landed in mainland India.

It's an old human habit, genocide is. It has played a sterling part in the march of civilisation. Amongst the earliest recorded genocides is thought to be the destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War in 149 BC. The word itself—genocide—was coined by Raphael Lemkin only in 1943, and adopted by the United Nations in 1948, after the Nazi Holocaust. Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as:

"Any of the following Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."


Since this definition leaves out the persecution of political dissidents, real or imagined, it does not include some of the greatest mass murders in history. Personally I think the definition by Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, authors of The History and Sociology of Genocide, is more apt. Genocide, they say, "is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator." Defined like this, genocide would include, for example, the monumental crimes committed by Suharto in Indonesia (1 million) Pol Pot in Cambodia (1.5 million), Stalin in the Soviet Union (60 million), Mao in China (70 million).

All things considered, the word extermination, with its crude evocation of pests and vermin, of infestations, is perhaps the more honest, more apposite word. When a set of perpetrators faces its victims, in order to go about its business of wanton killing, it must first sever any human connection with it. It must see its victims as sub-human, as parasites whose eradication would be a service to society. Here, for example, is an account of the massacre of Pequot Indians by English Puritans led by John Mason in Connecticut in 1636:

Those that escaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyre, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente thereof, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice....


And here, approximately four centuries later, is Babu Bajrangi, one of the major lynchpins of the Gujarat genocide, recorded on camera in the sting operation mounted by Tehelka a few months ago:

We didn't spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire...hacked, burned, set on fire...we believe in setting them on fire because these bastards don't want to be cremated, they're afraid of it.... I have just one last wish...let me be sentenced to death...I don't care if I'm hanged...just give me two days before my hanging and I will go and have a field day in Juhapura where seven or eight lakhs of these people stay...I will finish them off...let a few more of them die...at least 25,000 to 50,000 should die.


I hardly need to say that Babu Bajrangi had the blessings of Narendra Modi, the protection of the police, and the love of his people. He continues to work and prosper as a free man in Gujarat. The one crime he cannot be accused of is Genocide Denial.

Genocide Denial is a radical variation on the theme of the old, frankly racist, bloodthirsty triumphalism. It was probably evolved as an answer to the somewhat patchy dual morality that arose in the 19th century, when Europe was developing limited but new forms of democracy and citizens' rights at home while simultaneously exterminating people in their millions in her colonies. Suddenly countries and governments began to deny or attempt to hide the genocides they had committed. "Denial is saying, in effect," says Professor Robert Jay Lifton, author of Hiroshima and America: Fifty Years of Denial, "that the murderers did not murder. The victims weren't killed. The direct consequence of denial is that it invites future genocide."

Delhi, 1984: Congress contribution to India’s genocide history

Of course today, when genocide politics meets the Free Market, official recognition—or denial—of holocausts and genocides is a multinational business enterprise. It rarely has anything to do to with historical fact or forensic evidence. Morality certainly does not enter the picture. It is an aggressive process of high-end bargaining, that belongs more to the World Trade Organisation than to the United Nations. The currency is geopolitics, the fluctuating market for natural resources, that curious thing called futures trading and plain old economic and military might.

In other words, genocides are often denied for the same set of reasons as genocides are prosecuted. Economic determinism marinated in racial/ethnic/religious/national discrimination. Crudely, the lowering or raising of the price of a barrel of oil (or a tonne of uranium), permission granted for a military base, or the opening up of a country's economy could be the decisive factor when governments adjudicate on whether a genocide did or did not occur. Or indeed whether genocide will or will not occur. And if it does, whether it will or will not be reported, and if it is, then what slant that reportage will take. For example, the death of two million in the Congo goes virtually unreported. Why? And was the death of a million Iraqis under the sanctions regime, prior to the US invasion, genocide (which is what Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, called it) or was it 'worth it', as Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, claimed? It depends on who makes the rules. Bill Clinton? Or an Iraqi mother who has lost her child?

Since the United States is the richest and most powerful country in the world, it has assumed the privilege of being the World's Number One Genocide Denier. It continues to celebrate Columbus Day, the day Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, which marks the beginning of a Holocaust that wiped out millions of native Indians, about 90 per cent of the original population. (Lord Amherst, the man whose idea it was to distribute blankets infected with smallpox virus to Indians, has a university town in Massachusetts, and a prestigious liberal arts college named after him).

In America's second Holocaust, almost 30 million Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Well near half of them died during transportation. But in 2002, the US delegation could still walk out of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, refusing to acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade were crimes. Slavery, they insisted, was legal at the time. The US has also refused to accept that the bombing of Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden and Hamburg—which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians—were crimes, let alone acts of genocide. (The argument here is that the government didn't intend to kill civilians. This was the first stage in the development of the concept of "collateral damage".) Since the end of World War II, the US government has intervened overtly, militarily, more than 400 times in 100 countries, and covertly more than 6,000 times. This includes its invasion of Vietnam and the extermination, with excellent intentions of course, of three million Vietnamese (approximately 10 per cent of its population).

None of these has been acknowledged as war crimes or genocidal acts. "The question is," says Robert MacNamara—whose career graph took him from the bombing of Tokyo in 1945 (1,00,000 dead overnight) to being the architect of the Vietnam War, to President of the World Bank—now sitting in his comfortable chair in his comfortable home in his comfortable country, "the question is, how much evil do you have to do in order to do good?"

Could there be a more perfect illustration of Robert Jay Lifton's point that the denial of genocide invites more genocide?

And what when victims become perpetrators? (In Rwanda, in the Congo?) What remains to be said about Israel, created out of the debris of one of the cruellest genocides in human history? What of its actions in the Occupied Territories? Its burgeoning settlements, its colonisation of water, its new 'Security Wall' that separates Palestinian people from their farms, from their work, from their relatives, from their children's schools, from hospitals and healthcare? It is genocide in a fishbowl, genocide in slow motion—meant especially to illustrate that section of Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which says that genocide is any act that is designed to "deliberately inflict on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part".

The history of genocide tells us that it's not an aberration, an anomaly, a glitch in the human system. It's a habit as old, as persistent, as much part of the human condition, as love and art and agriculture.

Most of the genocidal killing from the 15th century onwards has been an integral part of Europe's search for what the Germans famously called Lebensraum—living space. Lebensraum was a word coined by the German geographer and zoologist Freidrich Ratzel to describe what he thought of as the dominant human species' natural impulse to expand its territory in its search for not just space, but sustenance. This impulse to expansion would naturally be at the cost of a less dominant species, a weaker species that Nazi ideologues believed should give way, or be made to give way, to the stronger one.

The idea of lebensraum was set out in precise terms in 1901, but Europe had already begun her quest for lebensraum 400 years earlier, when Columbus landed in America. The search for lebensraum also took Europeans to Africa: unleashing holocaust after holocaust. The Germans exterminated almost the entire population of the Hereros in Southwest Africa; while in the Congo, the Belgians' "experiment in commercial expansion" cost 10 million lives. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the British had exterminated the aboriginal people of Tasmania, and of most of Australia.

Sven Lindqvist, author of Exterminate the Brutes, argues that it was Hitler's quest for lebensraum—in a world that had already been carved up by other European countries—that led the Nazis to push through Eastern Europe and on toward Russia. The Jews of Eastern Europe and western Russia stood in the way of Hitler's colonial ambitions. Therefore, like the native people of Africa and America and Asia, they had to be enslaved or liquidated. So, Lindqvist says, the Nazis' racist dehumanisation of Jews cannot be dismissed as a paroxysm of insane evil. Once again, it is a product of the familiar mix: economic determinism well marinated in age-old racism, very much in keeping with European tradition of the time.

It's not a coincidence that the political party that carried out the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, was called the Committee for Union & Progress.

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