Monday, Dec 11, 2023

Mistaken Identity

Mistaken Identity

Identity discourse makes it impossible to talk about positions, because we are too busy talking about the persons who implicitly embody or explicitly espouse them.

File Photo

Is the Indian state a rogue state? It doesn’t take a political analyst of genius to dismiss such a statement as not just an extreme characterisation, but a patently false assessment, of what continues to be a relatively free and fair state amidst the global crisis of the rule of law, democracy, and rights-based governance. But let this not become an opportunity for self-affirmation and self-congratulation, which is what the bulk of responsible political analysis in this country often amounts to.

It is easy to point out how we are not just in a better situation than the Libyas and Sudans of the world, not to mention our beleagured neighbours in South Asia, but also hold something over the US, Israel, China and the whole of the EU taken as a unit. From the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi to the most recent defeat of fundamentalist forces in the 2004 general election, Indian commentators on the state of their own state are too happy to find reasons to assume a moral high ground with respect to other nations, those lacking, poor things, their own tryst with destiny.

But it is precisely freedom beset from all sides by unfreedom that has to be watched over with the greatest care. It is exactly those values and practices of Indian politics and statecraft we cherish the most -- to the point of gloating about them -- that call for our most incessant attention. We do not have, arguably, our own Palestine, our Chechnya, our Tibet, or our Iraq. Even in the Northeast and Kashmir, in Gujarat and in the Narmada Valley, where the state of exception prevails and the Indian state wears its least humane, least law-abiding, least liberal face, the logic of the nation-state has not been stretched to breaking point -- not yet.

But the fact that thus far the Kashmiris and the Nagas are not alienated to the point of secession, or communities ravaged on account of communal violence, say, or detrimental development projects, have not taken up arms against India: these are not reasons to celebrate. What we need to work towards, rather, is a state that does not turn against its own people, reducing Indians to internally displaced persons, hiving off entire sections of the population, like the Pandits, into camps and camp-like spaces, and treating as less-than-citizens either individuals or groups that lack robust mechanisms of self-preservation and self-representation for a variety of historical, cultural or economic reasons.

It is because the Indian state is by and large and in principle not an offender against basic rights and dignities, that its few crimes and misdemeanours merit the sharpest criticism. The predicament of S.A.R. Geelani is condemnable in all events. What makes it egregious is that it unfolds in a context where we all like to think that such things cannot -- and do not -- happen.

Geelani did indeed have an articulate section of civil society rally around him when he was first sentenced to death in the Parliament attack case. Lawyers, academics, film-makers, writers and all sorts of concerned citizens did everything in their power to get the Dhingra indictment reversed in the High Court, and they were successful in their campaign to have an innocent man walk free.

But again, the question is: Why did there need to be an All India Defence Committee in order for Geelani to get justice? Had the law taken its proper course, the police not jumped into the fray with unconscionable zeal, and sectors of the media not contributed to the baseless hysteria against Geelani, this kind of special pressure-group need not have been formed. What is the relationship of the AIDC to the everyday functioning of the institutions that are supposed to maintain law and order, and to the criminal-justice system? Why should there be a suggestion about the need for a CBI inquiry into the February 8th shooting incident, when the police is there to do its job?

If the state is going to resort to exceptional instruments like POTA and TADA, civil society too, is going to have to come up with tactics that do not have reference to the law in its normal description. For effectively, the message sent out the moment POTA or one of its variants kicks in, is that the law as we ordinarily understand it is in under suspension: in the given circumstances, deemed exceptional, the police is endowed with extra powers, a citizen’s rights are curbed, and no questions or criticisms are entertained because the very existence of the state, not to mention its integrity and its authority, are perceived to be under threat. When the law retreats into the state of exception, what happens to the armour of citizenship? It must be repeated: it falls away. We are left exposed to the excesses of the enforcement agencies, and this is precisely the fate that befell Geelani on December 13, 2001.

And Geelani is only an index -- in the sense of being a pointer -- to what happens to citizens every time that there is a suspension of the rule of law, to be replaced by any kind of "special" regime, howsoever short-lived: a state of emergency, the diktat of the armed forces, or the paramountcy of the police. Time and again, in India and in the world at large, this much is evident -- policing and humanitarianism, state atrocity and civil society vigilantism, are two sides of the same coin, namely, the state of exception to the rule of law.

A perpetrator of exceptionalism, like Narendra Modi, a victim of it, like S.A.R. Geelani, and a crusader against it, like Nandita Haksar, are all, equally, the symptoms of a systemic breakdown, signs that the state is abdicating its stake in and its commitment to the law as the default preserver and guarantor of our rights. True, Tihar Jail is not Abu Ghraib. True, the suspension of the law doesn’t happen everyday and it doesn’t happen everywhere in the vast and complicated political landscape of India, but wherever and whenever it does, some of us consider it our responsibility to point it out.

I would refer the reader once more to Agamben, this time on the state of exception, but apparently the use of political theory in political analysis breaches an unwritten rule of engagement in English-speaking sections of the Indian public sphere (or so the theoretically-challenged would have us believe). Thankfully the vernacular press never desists from looking for, and deploying, all the theoretical tools it needs to make sense of the political phenomena in which we are continuously immersed. Public culture in small towns and cities all across this country is not averse to intellectual practice; nor can I think of a single vibrant sub-culture of debate, from Poona to Kolkata, from Chennai to Mysore, from Varanasi to Srinagar, where "erudition" would be levelled as though it were some sort of an allegation against an ideological opponent!

The premise of the accusations against Geelani, as now of the attacks, ranging from the comical to the misguided, against those who set out to decipher the meaning of a Geelani in the language of national politics, is neither political fact nor political theory, but, unfortunately for the state of debate in the English-language media, identity. Identity discourse makes it impossible to talk about positions, because we are too busy talking about the persons who implicitly embody or explicitly espouse them.

As a colleague of mine said to me, "Identity is the mud that muddies the water". So, a man who is Kashmiri is more likely to be a terrorist. A woman who writes in his defense is more likely to be a Marxist. The state from which Geelani, as protagonist, hails, the university at which I, as commentator, work: these incidentals assume an exaggerated and misplaced importance, and the issues -- Why was Geelani presumed guilty in the original case? Who is trying to kill him now? Why has his life been rendered so precarious? Does the analogy of the homo sacer illuminate Geelani’s predicament? Do we need to remain alert about the condition of our rights and liberties? Is our state a source of succour or of persecution? -- be damned.

Geelani’s ethnicity is a sure-shot predictor of his lack of patriotism; my institutional affiliation is code for what surely must be my ideology. An article about Geelani ought not remain focused on Geelani; it ought, in fact, to explain everything from Partition to Godhra, from Azharuddin to the Shankaracharya, because let’s face it, all politics on the subcontinent boils down to the irreconcilable conflict of Hindus and Muslims. From the left and from the right, from the majority community and from the minorities, from the government and from the people, so many seem to think that who they are stands in for a coherent argument, who speaks is more significant than what gets said, and that serious political analysis should or will deteriorate into a mud-slinging match, to return to my colleague’s apt metaphor.

Indeed, in this vicious context, the reference to the Nazi state and to the denizens of concentration camps is far from random or irrelevant: the Holocaust was precisely the end-point of identity politics.

The figure of the homo sacer, as a species of political being labouring under a ban -- in the dual sense, banishment and abandonment -- comes out of the history of ideas in ancient Rome. Does that make it a priori less theoretically useful than, say, a symbol of persecution in the Mahabharata? (Take your pick: would you like to be colonized by the West, or a Hindu revivalist? Actually, in the interest of getting a job in the American academy, I’d like to be a Christian fanatic: let’s talk about the crucified Jesus as the Man of Sorrows. Or, better yet, in the service of political correctness, let’s look at Primo Levi’s most oppressed Jew in Auschwitz, called, in camp jargon, with deadly irony, the Muselmann -- the Muslim). Oppression knows no civilizational boundaries; neither, necessarily, can dissent. If analogies will not come from our diverse cultures, our multiple histories, and from an array of inter-twined traditions, how will we construct a hermeneutics for the present?

It is laudable that all kinds of expected and unexpected interlocutors have registered their reaction to Prem Shankar Jha’s and my own analysis of the figure of Geelani on the web-pages of this magazine. Some of them, especially those from the Hindutva right, seem to prefer an idiom of vituperation that often falls over the edge of severe criticism into abuse and obscenity. At this point they do themselves out of a hearing. Why anyone would be so vindictive as to be debarred from engaging in the conversation altogether is hard to fathom, since the idea, presumably, is to say one’s thing and have it reach the widest possible audience. Abusive language is self-defeating: it is not just, as in this case, a vehicle of questionable to condemnable political views, it is also a tactical mistake. Other voices maintain a veneer of civility, but either chase red herrings, or substitute identity for rationality, or remain innocent of rigour, or all of the above.

Geelani could be read as supportive of Kashmiri independence. Maybe so, but should this get him a death-penalty? Geelani called his co-accused on his cell-phone. Does this prove he wanted to blow up our Parliament House? I offer up political commentary on the state of the law and the limits of state power. Does this make me a spokesperson for the man whose predicament occasions my analysis? I believe that the state in a democratic nation is at every moment answerable to the citizens for its actions as for its omissions. Does this make me a left fundamentalist? The judicial arm of our triadic state appears to stick closer to the letter of the law than the executive arm. Does the competence of the one compensate for the errors of the other?

What kind of ridiculous charges are these, and why do we expend our national energies in the trade of insult and the commerce of injury instead of maintaining our grip on the issues? I guess Geelani and by extension, those who speak about him, must needs be tried by fictional lawyers, because real lawyers would know right away: there is no case here, milord.

I fear that in place of keeping a close watch on what threatens to become a widening gap between our entitlements as citizens and the dangers to our citizenship from the escalating exceptionalism of our state, the anti-intellectual intellectuals of this country are wasting their time, and ours, making statements that smack of poor politics, poor scholarship, and poor taste.

The author is with the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University.