Monday, Dec 11, 2023

In A Free State

In A Free State

I am outraged by the brazen, murderous attack on the life of S.A.R. Geelani, but I feel even more violated by, and take strong exception to, some of the statements by apparently well-meaning commentators...


I am sure Ananya Vajpeyi means well, and I share her belief that "if Geelani is grievously wounded (no matter who aimed the barrel of a gun at him), it is our freedom that lies bleeding at the door," but when she asserts, "Geelani was suspected of being part of a plot to attack the Indian legislature for reasons that had nothing to do with his overt or covert political activity: he was of Kashmiri origin and in contact with relatives still living in the Valley, he was a Muslim in the regime of a BJP-led coalition government," it leaves a very bad taste in the mouth, to say the least.

Let me point to Outlook's own reportage on the subject which reminds us that "the cops had managed to trace them on the basis of calls made to the terrorists' cellphones".

The same is repeated even by Prem Shankar Jha in his defence of SAR Geelani:

"The only evidence brought against him at his trial is that "from the study of printouts it also came to notice that all these mobile numbers (Guru's, Afzal's and Gilani's) were also in contact with each other just before the attack on Parliament on 13.12.2001".

I entirely agree with Jha and all those who rightly protested the arrest of SAR Geelani in the Parliament attack case, but it would be obvious to all that to invoke one's being Muslim or Kashmiri "in the regime of a BJP-led coalition government" is as pathetic and absurd a charge as Mohammed Azharuddin claiming that he was being involved in the match-fixing scandal because he was a Muslim. I feel personally violated and deeply insulted by this cheap gimmick. Yes, the Delhi police, under pressure to solve a high-profile case, grievously erred, to say the least (more about that some other time), in going by merely circumstantial evidence, but the fact that he was exonerated and released in fact brings me to my more urgent problem with Ms Vajpeyi's piece.

Which is that that she seems to blithely elide the fact that senior journalists and respected members of the Indian civil society spoke out in protest and that competent lawyers fought his case and, more importantly, that he was released by the High Court -- which also, by the way, alluded to the fact that the evidence linking Geelani to the attack was the phone conversation he had with Afzal and Hussain, which, it pointed out, "by itself, and without anything more on record ... is not sufficient...." -- should in fact restore our faith in the Indian state. Indeed, even senior lawyer Ram Jethmalani welcomed Geelani’s acquittal, saying the verdict "will restore the confidence of J&K’s inhabitants in the integrity and competence of the Indian judicial system".

But Ms Vajpeyi would have us believe otherwise and make it analogous to some figure in ancient Roman law and indict the Indian state itself:

The homo sacer is placed under a ban – that is to say, he is banished from the company of other men, and at the same time abandoned by the legal and juridical order. This state of banishment and abandonment renders the life of the homo sacer less than the politically-defined and legally-protected life of a citizen: he is reduced to what Agamben calls "bare life" or "naked life". In this state, which lies outside the realms of both politics and the law,

the homo sacer may be killed, without any entailment in the form of punishment or reward, by anyone who wishes. The killing of this person is neither a crime (for no law is broken), nor a sacrifice (for no ritual is fulfilled). The ban excludes him from both human law, which governs the sphere of political activity, and divine law, which governs the sphere of religious activity. The life of the homo sacer is less than a life; consequently, it can be extinguished with impunity..

Consider this startling fact: S.A.R Geelani is the homo sacer of the Indian state, which seeks to bolster its fragile sovereignty by sequestering this man, chosen at random, from every discourse of law, justice, politics or religion, and killing him, plain and simple, because it can.

Much as one sympathises with what has happened to Mr Geelani, it seems absolutely ridiculous to me that someone would even seek to draw an analogy with the very pitiable and pathetic -- and, in this case, irrelevant -- home sacer.

Geelani has not been denied recourse to the legal and judicial process. The civil society has rallied around him. The courts have given him justice (even if we can all, in a different debate, bemoan the fact that an innocent man was harassed and that he and his family suffered). It is therefore strange that Ms Vajpeyi should claim that Geelani "effectively has been rendered less than a citizen, and deprived of his fundamental rights, his legal protections, and his proper place in the body politic".

It is obvious, but it needs reiterating for those who might get taken in by rhetoric, that the "armour of citizenship" has not fallen "away from Geelani" even when he declares grandiosely that the "Kashmiris want their state to be unified, and independence from both India and Pakistan". (I would be accused of being a sarkari musalman, a BJP partisan or, worse, a Sanghi and the colour of my knickers might become the subject of discussion if I were to point out that Mr Geelani's notions of azaadi seem garbled at best, and that what has befallen to Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley -- or the Shias in PoK and the Northern Areas and Gilgit -- is actually more akin to what Ms Vajpeyi so grandiloquently describes as the fate of the homo sacer, so perhaps I better desist, for now at least).

Let us remember that the judiciary which set Geelani free is very much a pillar of the Indian state. That is what distinguishes the Indian state from the rogue states that surround us, where the judiciary is compromised and civil society has been rendered impotent. It is not the time to address the issue of the status of minorities in our immediate neighbourhood, but let us not forget that it is the same derided and demonised Indian state, however imperfect, that finally delivered justice to Mr Geelani.

While one appeals to its highest judiciary, it would also be useful to also not forget that sometimes innocent individuals undergo tremendous personal hardships, as indeed Mr Geelani has (and may no one ever be in his shoes), but I would argue that this price is not too high when it comes to ensuring that the legitimacy of the state is ensured, for after all it is that and its instruments which provides us collective security. Instead of saluting the robustness of the Indian civil society and judiciary that steadfastly stood by Mr Geelani, all we get instead are these highly impassioned and highly illogical parallels, and, yes, lest we forget, some equally vacuous vituperations on how horrible the Nazis were and why they succeeded. All of that might get one laurels from liberal and confused academic circles abroad (and it would seem, here) but it insults the very intelligence of any dispassionate reader.

I therefore respectfully submit with due humility that while all the gyaan about the homo sacers et al is highly useful in increasing the general knowledge of those less privileged us who are not as erudite as Ms Vajpeyi, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the case under question. Even the fictional hack lawyer Perry Mason would have objected to these invocations of "Kashmiri and Muslim", BJP, homo sacers and Nazis on the grounds that it is all "incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial".

Indeed, au contraire, I would go to the extent of saying that Ms Vajpeyi's misplaced analogies do serve an unwitting but important function of reminding us of the role of the civil society in any mature democracy -- and that of the Indian civil society, I am proud to say, has been exemplary. And I must also place on record my compliments to Ms Vajpeyi for explicitly stating that she was not accusing the Delhi Police for this attempted murder.

I am in entire agreement with her, as I stated at the outset, that if Geelani is grievously wounded (no matter who aimed the barrel of a gun at him), it is our freedom that lies bleeding at the door. But leaving aside Ms Vajpeyi's article, the current "discourse" in general once again reminds us of the disturbing trends and questions that need urgent attention and engagement..

The presumption of police complicity and "staged encounters" raises its own set of questions and would require a more detailed examination, perhaps in another article at another time. The motive of this attack and the identity of the assailants and their patrons remains murky and unclear at this point, but do those who, unlike Vajpeyi, assert with conviction that the Delhi police or "rogue elements" in it are behind this attack realise that they are at least as guilty, if not more, of presumption without evidence, as Delhi police can be alleged to be in pursuing its case against Geelnai in the Supreme Court in the Parliament attack case? Or at least of gross, criminal negligence because it derails the whole discourse and debate that we should instead be having?

The role of the police, as always, leaves much to be desired, to put it politely, but one would expect more responsibility from "Delhi University teachers in Defence of S.A.R Geelani". Sadly, their approach reminds one of Mr Bush's "if you are not with us, then you are against us"..

Unfortunately, the same double standard seems to apply to issues that get picked up by polarised groups on either side of the fence. Be it Goa (just imagine the hue and cry if the recent coup by the Governor had happened when the "BJP-led coalition government" was in power), Godhra (contrast the reaction to the "interim" Godhra report released tactically before Bihar elections and the hushing up of the Nanavati Commission report on 1984 riots), grant of Padma awards (those on the hate list of the earlier government get awarded, as does, interestingly, Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad's wife) or, for that matter, let's take the Shankaracharya case (we buy the police version in that case but not the police version in the Geelani case? Why is the Shankaracharya assumed to be guilty? Should it only be left to those who are his followers or those who wish to make political capital out of this case to speak up in his defence? I would, en passant, also like to take this opportunity to place on record my appreciation for Mr Prem Shankar Jha, the sole exception in almost the entire English press, for having at least spoken out. )

What does it say about us as a people? That we are all partisan, prejudiced and polarised? That the selective screams and silences are deafening? And that the very concept of "secularism" and "civil society" sometimes does sound more than hollow? Perhaps the problem, as insightful commentators would remind us time and again, is not with the victims but their self-styled spokespeople? That perceived partisan attitudes might actually be coming in the way of seeking the truth and over the top charges may even be shifting the focus away from victims? That the sympathy for them may actually be getting diluted by the antipathy for those who presume to speak on their behalf?

This long rant is not to imply even remotely that those protesting the attack on S.A.R. Geelani should not do so unless other crimes of commission or omission have been redressed, but just to point out that some of their assertions actually would do a great disservice to the cause itself. The road to hell, we are often reminded, is paved with good intentions, and all those who presume to speak on behalf of entire communities or for such cherished ideals as liberty, fraternity and justice would do well to seriously introspect on the harm they have done to the very causes they speak to espouse. And that applies equally to the Islamic, Hindu, Christian, Sikh or, indeed, the Left or Right or secular fundamentalists.

Shabnam Ali is a post-doctoral researcher who works with disadvantaged children.