Thursday, Dec 08, 2022

Unending Tragedies

Unending Tragedies

The humiliation of 1962, the Rubaiya Sayeed hostage crisis, the Al Faran kidnapping of foreign tourists, IC 814... or even the recent abduction of the district collector of Malkangiri in Orissa and a junior engineer by Maoists...

This week, as I followed the abduction and release of R Vineel Krishna, the district collector of Malkangiri in Orissa and a junior engineer by Maoists, I was reminded of an old film, Judgement at Nuremberg. The film explores a complex issue centred on the Nuremberg trials held by the victorious allied forces after the end of the Second World War.

The film, partly based on the Katzenberger Trial is a fictional take on the trial of four Nazi-era judges who are, in a twist of fate, put on trial for their alleged crimes during the reign of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The moot question that the film explores is this: The German judges on trial were following the laid down constitution and laws of the Nazi government of its time. They had sent thousands, perhaps millions, of Jews and other races to the death camps in accordance with the infamous Nuremberg laws. So were they guilty, now that the government they had followed, sworn allegiance to and upheld the laws of, was defeated? Were they now to be treated as guilty, since they were being judged by their victors?

At a key moment in the film, the defence counsel of the four judges on trial makes a forceful argument: If his clients are guilty, then why isn’t the Soviet Union which signed an agreement with Nazi Germany, equally guilty? Why isn’t the Vatican, which signed a similar agreement with the Nazis in 1933, also guilty? Why isn’t Winston Churchill, who wrote a letter to The Times, London in 1937 praising Hitler, also guilty? And finally, why aren’t the host of American entrepreneurs, who profited by helping Hitler set up his armament factories, also guilty?

You may ask about the relevance of an old film, depicting a trial of a time long gone, to the abduction of a well-regarded district collector by a gang of armed insurgents who call themselves Maoists. 

But the debate that surfaced in the aftermath of the abduction in the media and the social networking sites makes the film and its dilemma quite relevant to Krishna’s abduction and the issues that have been thrown up by it. Just like the issues on laws, their interpretation and their consequences, the kidnapping, subsequent negotiations, and the eventual release have thrown up questions similar to those in the film.

Both discuss laws, policies and their juxtaposition at a particular moment in the timeline of a nation’s history. In a sweep it also raises questions about the relationship of a state with the people who call themselves its citizens. In the film, some of these citizens followed the Nuremberg laws that led to the extermination of six million other citizens — the Jews. In real life now, citizens like Krishna believe in the state. Not only does he believe in the state he has chosen to become its benign face in a forgotten corner of India:  he not only aims to help the very people who give legitimacy to the state by voting for it every five years but also the tribals whose cause is otherwise espoused by the Maoists. These Maoists are also citizens who, disaffected by the quality of governance, impatient at the pace — or, perhaps, even the lack — of reforms have challenged the might of the state with arms in the belief that the state and its construct is essentially wrong.

But all these constituents — be it the much-admired district collector, the hapless junior engineer, the tribals or the Maoists — are all competing for different interpretations of the meaning of governance and law. Like the Nazi-era judges in the film, who stood trial for their actions soon after the Second World War for upholding the Nuremberg Laws, all these above constituents will also stand on trial — perhaps not in a court of law, but in the court of history — when future generations sit in judgement on their actions today.

Depending on who the victor is, some will find the government guilty, some will argue that the laws that the government and its advocates followed were wrong (like the Nazi’s Nuremberg laws). Others will say that the Maoists were guilty for taking up arms against a legitimate state and challenging the tenets of the most holy document and the very heart of the great Republic — the Constitution of India.

Who will be held guilty, and who will be acquitted is beyond my capabilities as a part-time soothsayer. But what I wish to share is the wonderful debate this recent abduction opened up on alternate media platforms such as social networks like Twitter.

An influential blogger — Pragmatic Desi (aka pragmatic_d on Twitter) — has eloquently argued that “government shall not do anything, come what may that leads to a publicly visible capitulation of the state in front of the terrorists.” He also argues that “creating a fear of state retribution” will “deter such hostage-taking”. In a brief exchange of tweets, he also told me that the Maoists were terrorists, just like those in Kandahar or Kashmir and therefore, the government’s position must be consistent in dealing with such crises.

I agree. The government must have a consistent position. But there must be an understanding of the nuances of the conflict in this consistency. After all,  no conflict is similar and each has its unique complexities which is why it is impossible to maintain a one-size-fits-all policy, be it negotiation or even the state’s perceived capitulation.

During my intervention, some on Twitter were also upset with me because I invoked the terrible memories of the IC 814 hijacking that ended in Kandahar after the then external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, escorted four dreaded terrorists to their freedom. Many on Twitter immediately assumed that I was batting for a certain political ideology against another. But they were mistaken. Let me explain what 140-characters did not allow me to. My position was two-fold.

First, the nature of the conflict that gives birth to terrorism in Kashmir (and Kandahar) cannot be compared to the insurgency in India’s hinterland. The terrorism in Kashmir (and Kandahar) has elements of state-sponsorship from Pakistan. I believe that cross-border terrorism is bereft of any ideology other than the spread of terror. It is actively supported, financed and armed by a country that is now recognised as a prime example of a failed state.

Second, I invoked the IC 814 crisis as a reminder of the systemic failures that have always plagued our security establishment right from 1962. We, as a nation, continue to fail to learn from history and are therefore, condemned to repeat it.

In the context of the same abduction, a former member of the Indian Postal Service who rose to become the chief of our external intelligence agency, R&AW, tweeted that there cannot be any “state capitulation”. I agree, but he conveniently forgets the timeline of events. He forgets, that like his predecessors and successors, he was part of the very same system that “capitulated” and failed during IC 814 hijack.

He will not speak of it now and cite national security as an excuse for not participating in a public debate of the issue. He and those of his ilk refused to learn from the mistakes of the humiliation of 1962, the Rubaiya Sayeed hostage crisis, the Al Faran kidnapping of foreign tourists and many, many other similar situations lost in the pages of history. Today, comfortable in think tanks, travelling around in the seminar circuit, they are busy playing to the galleries with simplistic and populist postures.

A lot of heat gets generated in all the attendant brouhaha but what gets ignored is a pointed, systemic and public debate about the flaws in our internal security situation and the crying need for police reforms. The fact is that the NDA government and its leaders were done in by decades of neglect, inaction, incompetence of the intelligence agencies and the military, which preceded their tenure.

What could the NDA government do when their intelligence and military chiefs, hiding behind closed doors, sat quietly and pointed to the Cabinet Committee on Security that they did not have any assets, wherewithal or capabilities to launch a credible operation to rescue the very citizens they had taken an oath to protect?

So, the NDA leaders, running out of options, took the most honourable one, because they, as political leaders, knew the price they would have had to pay if the passengers on IC 814 were sacrificed on the altar of a tough "no-negotiation with terrorists" as state policy.

To every debate, to every crisis, to every polemic, there has to be a context. If that context is ignored, then we are at great peril. If we forget our histories, our timelines, then we stand to lose perspective. Vineel Krishna has finally come home. But is the state willing to learn from its mistakes, past and present?  Or is it condemned to allow history to repeat itself as an unending series of tragedies?