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Bhushan has right to speak, but what he has spoken is wrong

Bhushan has right to speak, but what he has spoken is wrong

Author: R Jagannathan
Publication: Firstpost.com
Date: October 13, 2011
URL: http://www.firstpost.com/politics/bhushan-has-right-to-speak-but-what-he-has-spoken-is-wrong-106586.html#en

Nothing can be more despicable than the physical assault on Prashant Bhushan on Wednesday, where three goons claiming to belong to the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena roughed him up for his views on Kashmir.

Quite apart from using Bhagat Singh's iconic status in this country for completely nefarious ends, they have actually ended up giving fresh legitimacy to Bhushan's views on a referendum in Kashmir. Like anyone else, Bhushan has a right to air his views, and they have to be combated with counter-views, not blows and violence.

Bhushan's views are actually symptomatic of the new illiberalism of India's liberal elite. It is dated, and completely out of sync with today's realities. They are, in fact, worth refuting at some length.

But first an aside. For a man who says his prime focus is to get the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill passed, Bhushan has actually given lot of comfort for those who want to divide the Anna movement. I doubt if his views on Kashmir will get crowds out on the streets anywhere in India outside Kashmir Valley. This was needless distraction for the anti-corruption movement.

To come back to the main argument, this writer would like to emphasise that liberals have to learn a new kind of liberalism for the 21st century. Most liberals - or at least people who call themselves liberals - grew up in the 20th century when the state was growing more powerful by the day, and the individual less and less significant. But is that the reality today?

Today, the state is receding in most places. While the power of the state continues to grow, the countervailing power of individuals and small, committed groups is growing twice or thrice as fast - thanks to the velocity of information, the web, knowledge about lethal weapons, et al. A small group of committed Al Qaeda radicals have, in less than a decade, reduced the US to an economic mess and a nation frightened out of its wits about terrorism.

A small group of BBM users was able to outwit the London police force when they went into their orgy of looting two months ago.

For the last seven years, the UPA government has been ruling the country by kowtowing to every social group and is completely unable to take sensible decisions on energy pricing or subsidies for fear of what the people will say.

A small group of Team Anna partisans brought the government of India to heel in a matter of weeks. Liberals may not be amused by this careless trampling over democracy by street power, but this is the new reality that liberals must confront.

In this scenario, there may be no obvious villains or heroes. Heroes are those who happen to be in the right place at the right time in terms of public mood, and villains are those who happen to stand their ground when the herd is thundering off in a different direction.

Self-determination is passé. It is often disguised bigotry. When the state was all-powerful, national and regional liberation struggles had the halo of freedom and legitimacy. There was an implicit assumption that majorities must be crushing minorities and so freedom-fighters must be right. Moreover, there was the superpower rivalry aiding the effort of getting one group to fight another.

Today, we are all minorities because majorities and minorities are merely contextual and circumstantial. There is no monolithic majority in any country - in India or anywhere else. In the US, there is supposedly a WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) majority, but look how they themselves are locked in deathly combat over what the government should do, how to tax the rich, or how to bring the budget in balance.

Or take India. This is supposedly a Hindu-majority country. But is it? If you take the Dalits and tribals out, Hindus - or at least people willing to definitely identify themselves as Hindus in the religious sense of the term - may be just about half the population. But add the porous nature of our borders, the influx from Bangladesh, and the larger sub-continental numbers, and Hindus would actually be a minority in south Asia - which is one contiguous geography. A majority can be manufactured only if you distill geographies to your preferred ideas.

Even Muslims and Christians are not monoliths, and they have their own minorities - they have not only embraced caste and region, but also have their own pet definitions of who is a Muslim: Bahais and Ahmaddiyas are Muslim minorities within Islam.

Exclude religion, and the number of majorities and minorities multiply. Women are a minority in India. Gays are minorities, too. The pious are minorities in an increasingly irreligious India.

The point one is driving at is simple: no matter how you cut up a people, you are always going to have someone who is a minority. The dream of having your own state with your own majority is a flawed dream, and the sooner it is killed the better.

So what is the logic of giving Kashmiris the right to self-determination? The logic that there is a so-called Muslim majority in the valley? If being Muslim is reason enough for self-determination, Bangladesh would not have been born.

Our liberals like to talk of the Israeli atrocities on Palestinians, but will turn a blind eye to the uprooting of half a million Pandits from Kashmir Valley. Why not give them their own homeland in Kashmir, too? Why not a homeland for the Shias in north Kashmir, or a Buddhist republic in Ladakh? Why not create a 100 Dalitistans all over India - after all, who is worse oppressed than the Dalits in India?

The logic of dividing states on ethnic and religious lines is quite simply driven by an underlying bigotry that is masquerading as the right to self-determination.

There is no case for a referendum on Kashmir - and the majority there must learn to live in a diverse and secular India. We know the price we paid by agreeing to partition. Do we want to pay the same price again? A referendum will only give legitimacy to bigotry. Bigotry cannot be allowed to be legitimised by referendums. Or else, Modi's Gujarat would not have had to worry about 2002.

Which brings us to the next issue that concerns liberals: human rights.

Human rights abuses are the inevitable result of small groups turning bigotry into cause célèbre. Whether it is the US in Iraq and Afghanistan or the Saudis in Bahrain, or the Chinese in Tibet or Indians in Kashmir, the reality is that insurgencies and terror unleashed by small groups cannot be handled by the army or heavy handed police action. There has to be a political approach coupled with firm and fair police action.

The state is both too powerful and too weak to deal with determined groups without trampling on human rights. It is too powerful in the sense that it can pounce on ordinary people in search and destroy missions. But it is too weak in the sense it cannot ultimately ask its armed forces to sacrifice themselves for a national cause without giving them some immunity. This combination of strength and weakness is always deadly in undermining human rights.

Consider how easily President Obama is able to order the murder of American citizens who are part of the Al Qaeda or how some hapless villagers in Pakistan's tribal areas are subject to incessant drone attacks. Compared to that, India's presence in Kashmir is practically benign. We have not allowed any Indian to settle in this part of India in what must be construed as the highest act of self-denial by Arundhati Roy's so-called army of occupation.

The reality is human rights violations will happen in all such situations where determined groups confront the state violently - and being liberal in these circumstances means treating the state and violent groups on a par when it comes to human rights abuses.

It is easier to fight the state on human rights abuses than small groups - which can recoil on human rights campaigners. The reality is that human rights campaigners are more afraid of terrorists than the state. When non-state actors take the law into their own hands-as various RTI activists have found out to their cost-human rights campaigners are the first victims.

True liberals must, therefore, maintain equidistance from all violators of human rights. By merely targeting the state, they are no different from Team Anna which says 'Don't vote for Congress in Hisar', when the real battle is against corruption.

By backing the so-called Kashmir referendum, India's liberals are essentially backing an illiberal, non-secular nightmare. Prashant Bhushan is plain and simply wrong.

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