February 23, 2020
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Not This, Not This!

Since we, as a nation, take immense pride in our Upanishadic traditions, why don’t we ask questions?

Not This, Not This!
Illustration by Saahil
Not This, Not This!

The Sanskrit expression ‘neti, neti’ is an ancient philosophical method from the Upanishads to help the seeker gain wisdom. Literally, it means not this, not this. A precursor to the apophatic or negative theology of the West, this Hindu or Buddhist catchphrase allows the quester to reject what is wrong to arrive at what is right.

Since we, as a nation, take immense pride in our Upanishadic traditions, why don’t we ask questions? Why don’t we say neti, neti, and keep pushing the frontiers of wisdom? Why don’t we reject the form and embrace the essence? But then, we are being told not to ask questions at all, particularly about the army.

What is special about our army? Most of our soldiers are sons of farmers, so are we all—children of farmers, once, twice or several generations removed from the farms of our ancestors. As teachers, politicians, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, judges, lawyers, cops and journalists, we regularly fail. So, it is silly to ass­ume that we won’t fail when we bec­ome sol­diers. As a society, we have let ourselves down many times.

 Every time a bridge collapses, a train derails, a plane crashes, a riot breaks out, an Akhlaq is lynched, and a fire accident kills helpless pat­ients in an intensive care unit, we fail as a society. But we learn from our failures because we ask questions, we try to make people accountable, punish the negligent and hope that we don’t repeat the mistakes.

If we hadn’t asked questions of the army, there would never have been an expose of the jeep scandal, Bofors or the coffin scam. Our army is as eff­icient or as clean as the rest of the society. There are ketchup colonels, daal generals and other scamsters waiting to be outed in every section of our society. To put it rather simplistically, till motorists stop at traffic signals in Srinagar or Kanyakumari, Ahmedabad or Guwahati, we can safely assume that our society is not a law-abiding one.

When we know for sure that we as a society cheat—on the road, in the examination hall, while selling milk—we need to be doubly careful about our army. A clerk pocketing a few rupees or his boss making a bit more is, at least, not life-threatening, but if a man with a gun goes berserk and fakes an encounter, the victim could be any one of us. A bullet fired wrongly wouldn’t be able to distinguish between a patriot and a Pak-sympathiser. So, we need to ask questions repeatedly, regularly, to ensure that our guns are trained at the enemy and not our children.

It is equally important to keep a close count of the humongous defence budget. There could be a Quattrocchi lurking behind every piece of artillery that we buy, spending money that could otherwise have gone into feeding and clothing thousands or lakhs of poor children. The very idea of someone dying for the rest of us is a spiritual experience. But even psychopaths and Islamic radicals claim martyrdom as their raison d’etre.

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