Listening To Grasshoppers:
Genocide, Denial And Celebration
A lecture in Istanbul on January 18, 2008, to commemorate the first anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink, Editor of the Turkish-Armenian paper, Agos.
I never met Hrant Dink, a misfortune that will be mine for time to come. From what I know of him, of what he wrote, what he said and did, how he lived his life, I know that had I been here in Istanbul a year ago I would have been among the one hundred thousand people who walked with his coffin in dead silence through the wintry streets of this city, with banners saying “We are all Armenians”, “We are all Hrant Dink.” Perhaps I’d have carried the one that said “One and a half million plus one.”
I wonder what thoughts would have gone through my head as I walked beside his coffin. Maybe I would have heard a reprise of the voice of Araxie Barsamian, mother of my friend David Barsamian, telling the story of what happened to her and her family. She was ten years old in 1915. She remembered the swarms of grasshoppers that arrived in her village, Dubne, which was north of the historic city Dikranagert, now Diyarbakir. The village elders were alarmed she said, because they knew in their bones that the grasshoppers were a bad omen. They were right; the end came in a few months, when the wheat in the fields was ready for harvesting.
“When we left my family was 25 in the family”, Araxie Barsamian says, “They took all the men folks. They asked my father “where is your ammunition?” He says, “I sold it”. So they says, “Go get it”. So he went to the Kurd town to get it, they beat him and took all his clothes. When he came back there – this my mother tells me story – when he came back there, naked body, he went in the jail, they cut his arms...so he die in jail.
And they took all the mens in the field, they tied their hands, and they shooted, killed every one of them.”
Araxie and the other women in her family were deported. All of them perished except Araxie. She was the lone survivor.
This is of course a single testimony that comes from a history that is denied by the Turkish Government, and many Turks as well.
I have not come here to play the global intellectual, to lecture you, or to fill the silence in this country that surrounds the memory (or the forgetting) of the events that took place in Anatolia 1915. That is what Hrant Dink tried to do, and paid for with his life.
The day I arrived in Istanbul, I walked the streets for many hours, and as I looked around, envying the people of Istanbul their beautiful, mysterious, thrilling city, a friend pointed out to me young boys in white caps who seemed to have suddenly appeared like a rash in the city. He explained that they were expressing their solidarity with the child-assassin who was wearing a white cap when he killed Hrant.
The battle with the cap-wearers of Istanbul, of Turkey, is not my battle, it’s yours. I have my own battles to fight against other kinds of cap-wearers and torchbearers in my country. In a way, the battles are not all that different. There is one crucial difference though. While in Turkey there is silence, in India there’s celebration, and I really don’t know which is worse.
In the state of Gujarat there was genocide against the Muslim community in 2002. I use the word Genocide advisedly, and in keeping with its definition contained in Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The genocide began as collective punishment for an unsolved crime – the burning of a railway coach in which 53 Hindu pilgrims were burned to death. In a carefully planned orgy of supposed retaliation, 2000 Muslims were slaughtered in broad daylight by squads of armed killers, organized by fascist militias, and backed by the Gujarat Government and the administration of the day. Muslim women were gang-raped and burned alive. Muslim shops, Muslim businesses and Muslim shrines and mosques were systematically destroyed. 150,000 people were driven from their homes.
Even today, many of them live in ghettos – some built on garbage heaps – with no water supply, no drainage, no streetlights, no healthcare. They live as second-class citizens, boycotted socially and economically. Meanwhile, the killers, police as well as civilian, have been embraced, rewarded, promoted. This state of affairs is now considered ‘normal’. To seal the ‘normality’, in 2004 both Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani, India’s leading industrialists, publicly pronounced Gujarat a dream destination for finance capital.
The initial outcry in the national press has settled down. In Gujarat the genocide has been brazenly celebrated as the epitome of Gujarati pride, Hindu-ness, even Indian-ness. This poisonous brew has been used twice in a row to win state elections, with campaigns that have cleverly used the language and apparatus of modernity and democracy. The helmsman, Narendra Modi, has become a folk hero, called in by the BJP to campaign on its behalf in other Indian states.
As genocides go, the Gujarat genocide cannot compare with the people killed in the Congo, Rwanda and Bosnia, where the numbers run into millions, nor is it by any means the first that has occurred in India. (In 1984, for instance, 3000 Sikhs were massacred on the streets of Delhi with similar impunity, by killers overseen by the Congress Party.) But the Gujarat genocide is part of a larger, more elaborate and systematic vision. It tells us that the wheat is ripening and the grasshoppers have landed in mainland India.
It’s an old human habit, genocide is. It has played a sterling part in the march of civilisation. Amongst the earliest recorded genocides is thought to be the destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War in149 BC. The word itself – genocide – was coined by Raphael Lemkin only in 1943, and adopted by the United Nations in 1948, after the Nazi Holocaust. Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as:
“Any of the following Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Since this definition leaves out the persecution of political dissidents, real or imagined, it does not include some of the greatest mass murders in history. Personally I think the definition by Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, authors of The History and Sociology of Genocide is more apt. Genocide, they say, “is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator.” Defined like this, genocide would include for example, the monumental crimes committed by Suharto in Indonesia (1 million) Pol Pot in Cambodia, (1.5 million), Stalin in the Soviet Union, (60 million), Mao in China, (70 million).
All things considered, the word extermination, with its crude evocation of pests and vermin, of infestations, is perhaps the more honest, more apposite word. When a set of perpetrators faces its victims, in order to go about its business of wanton killing, it must first sever any human connection with it. It must see its victims as sub-human, as parasites whose eradication would be a service to society. Here for example, is an account of the massacre of Pequot Indians by English Puritans’ led by John Mason in Connecticut in 1636:
Those that escaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyre, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente thereof, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice...
And here, approximately four centuries later, is Babu Bajrangi, one of the major lynchpins of the Gujarat genocide, recorded on camera in the sting operation mounted by Tehelka a few months ago:
We didn’t spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire…hacked, burned set on fire…we believe in setting them on fire because these bastards don’t want to be cremated, they’re afraid of it…I have just one last wish…let me be sentenced to death…I don’t care if I’m hanged...just give me two days before my hanging and I will go and have a field day in Juhapura where seven or eight lakhs of these people stay...I will finish them off…let a few more of them die...at least 25,000 to 50,000 should die.
I hardly need to say that Babu Bajrangi had the blessings of Narendra Modi, the protection of the police, and the love of his people. He continues to work and prosper as a free man in Gujarat. The one crime he cannot be accused of is Genocide Denial.
Genocide Denial is a radical variation on the theme of the old, frankly racist, bloodthirsty triumphalism. It was probably evolved as an answer to the somewhat patchy, dual morality that arose in the nineteenth century, when Europe was developing limited but new forms of democracy and citizens’ rights at home while simultaneously exterminating people in their millions in her colonies. Suddenly countries and governments began to deny or attempt to hide the genocides they had committed. “Denial is saying, in effect,” says Professor Robert Jay Lifton, author of Hiroshima and America: Fifty Years of Denial, “that the murderers didn’t murder. The victims weren’t killed. The direct consequence of denial is that it invites future genocide.”
Of course today, when genocide politics meets the Free Market, official recognition–or denial–of holocausts and genocides is a multi-national business enterprise. It rarely has anything to do to with historical fact or forensic evidence. Morality certainly does not enter the picture. It is an aggressive process of high-end bargaining, that belongs more to the World Trade Organization than to the United Nations. The currency is geo-politics, the fluctuating market for natural resources, that curious thing called futures trading and plain old economic and military might.
In other words, genocides are often denied for the same set of reasons as genocides are prosecuted. Economic determinism marinated in racial/ethnic/religious/national discrimination. Crudely, the lowering or raising of the price of a barrel of oil (or a ton of uranium), permission granted for a military base, or the opening up of a country’s economy could be the decisive factor when Governments adjudicate on whether a genocide did or did not occur. Or indeed whether genocide will or will not occur. And if it does, whether it will or will not be reported, and if it is, then what slant that reportage will take. For example, the death of two million in the Congo goes virtually unreported. Why? And was the death of a million Iraqis under the sanctions regime, prior to the US invasion, genocide (which is what Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq, called it) or was it ‘worth it’, as Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, claimed. It depends on who makes the rules. Bill Clinton? Or an Iraqi mother who has lost her child?
Since the United States is the richest and most powerful country in the world, it has assumed the privilege of being the World’s Number One Genocide Denier. It continues to celebrate Columbus Day, the day Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, which marks the beginning of a Holocaust that wiped out millions of native Indians, about 90 per cent of the original population. (Lord Amherst, the man whose idea it was to distribute blankets infected with smallpox virus to Indians, has a university town in Massachusetts, and a prestigious liberal arts college named after him).
In America’s second Holocaust, almost 30 million Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Well near half of them died during transportation. But in 2002, the U.S. delegation could still walk out of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, refusing to acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade were crimes. Slavery, they insisted, was legal at the time. The U.S. has also refused to accept that the bombing of Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden and Hamburg – which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians – were crimes, let alone acts of genocide. (The argument here is that the Government didn’t intend to kill civilians. This was the first stage of the development of the concept of “collateral damage”.) Since the end of World War II, the U.S. government has intervened overtly, militarily, more than 400 times in 100 countries, and covertly more than 6000 times. This includes its invasion of Vietnam and the extermination, with excellent intentions of course, of 3 million Vietnamese (approximately 10 per cent of its population).
None of these have been acknowledged as war crimes or genocidal acts. “The question is,” says Robert MacNamara – whose career graph took him from the bombing of Tokyo in 1945 (100,000 dead overnight) to being the architect of the Vietnam War, to President of the World Bank – now sitting in his comfortable chair in his comfortable home in his comfortable country, “The question is, how much evil do you have to do in order to do good?”
Could there be a more perfect illustration of Robert Jay Liftons' point that the denial of genocide invites more genocide?
And what when the victims become perpetrators, as they did in the Congo and in Rwanda? What remains to be said about Israel, created out of the debris of one of the cruelest genocides in human history? What of its actions in the Occupied Territories? Its burgeoning settlements, its colonization of water, its new ‘Security Wall’ that separates Palestinian people from their farms, from their work, from their relatives, from their children’s schools, from hospitals and health care? It is genocide in a fishbowl, genocide in slow motion – meant especially to illustrate that section of Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which says that genocide is any act that is designed to “deliberately inflict on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part”.
The history of genocide tells us that it’s not an aberration, an anomaly, a glitch in the human system. It’s a habit as old, as persistent, as much part of the human condition as love and art and agriculture.
Most of the genocidal killing from the fifteenth century onwards has been an integral part of Europe’s search for what the Germans famously called Lebensraum, living space. Lebensraum was a word coined by the German geographer and zoologist Freidrich Ratzel to describe what he thought of as dominant human species’ natural impulse to expand its territory in its search for not just space, but sustenance. This impulse to expansion would naturally be at the cost of a less dominant species, a weaker species that Nazi ideologues believed should give way, or be made to give way, to the stronger one.
The idea of Lebensraum was set out in precise terms in 1901, but Europe had already begun her quest for lebensraum four hundred years earlier, when Columbus landed in America. The search for lebensraum also took Europeans to Africa: unleashing holocaust after holocaust. The Germans exterminated almost the entire population of the Hereros in South West Africa; while in the Congo, the Belgians “experiment in commercial expansion” cost 10 million lives. By the last quarter of the 19th century the British had exterminated the Aborginal people of Tasmania, and of most of Australia.
Sven Lindqvist, author of Exterminate the Brutes, argues that it was Hitler’s quest for lebensraum – in a world that had already been carved up by other European countries – that led the Nazis to push through Eastern Europe and on toward Russia. The Jews of Eastern Europe and western Russia stood in the way of Hitler’s colonial ambitions. Therefore, like the native people of Africa and America and Asia, they had to be enslaved or liquidated. So, Lindqvist says, the Nazis’ racist de-humanization of Jews cannot be dismissed as a paroxysm of insane evil. Once again, it is a product of the familiar mix: economic determinism well marinated in age-old racism, very much in keeping with European tradition of the time.
‘Union’ (racial/ethnic/religious/national) and ‘Progress’ (economic determinism) have long been the twin co-ordinates of genocide.
Armed with this reading of history, is it reasonable to worry about whether a country that is poised on the threshold of “progress” is also poised on the threshold of genocide? Could the India being celebrated all over the world as a miracle of progress and democracy, possibly be poised on the verge of committing genocide? The mere suggestion might sound outlandish and at this point of time, the use of the word genocide surely unwarranted. However, if we look to the future, and if the Tsars of Development believe in their own publicity, if they believe that There Is No Alternative to their chosen model for Progress, then they will inevitably have to kill, and kill in large numbers, in order to get their way.
In bits and pieces, as the news trickles in, it seems clear that the killing and the dying has already begun.
It was in 1989, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the Government of India turned in its membership of the Non-Aligned Movement and signed up for membership of the Completely Aligned, often referring to itself as the ‘natural ally’ of Israel and the United States. (They have at least this one thing in common, all three are engaged in overt, neo-colonial military occupations: India in Kashmir, Israel in Palestine, the U.S. in Iraq.)
Almost like clockwork, the two major national political parties, the BJP and the Congress, embarked on a joint program to advance India’s version of Union and Progress, whose modern day euphemisms are Nationalism and Development. Every now and then, particularly during elections, they stage some noisy familial squabbles, but have managed to gather into their fold even grumbling relatives, like the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The Union project offers Hindu Nationalism (which seeks to unite the Hindu vote, vital you will admit, for a great democracy like India). The Progress project aims at a 10 per cent annual growth rate. Both these projects are encrypted with genocidal potential.
The Union project has been largely entrusted to the RSS, the ideological heart, the holding company of the BJP and its militias, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. The RSS was founded in 1925. By the 1930s, its founder, Dr Hedgewar, a fan of Benito Mussolini’s, had begun to model it overtly along the lines of Italian fascism. Hitler too was, and is, an inspirational figure. Here’s are some excerpts from the RSS bible, We or Our Nationhood Defined by M.S. Golwalker, who succeeded Dr Hedgewar as head of the RSS in 1940:
Ever since that evil day, when Moslems first landed in Hindustan, right up to the present moment, the Hindu Nation has been gallantly fighting on to take on these despoilers. The Race Spirit has been awakening.
In Hindustan, land of the Hindus, lives and should live the Hindu Nation...
All others are traitors and enemies to the National Cause, or, to take a charitable view, idiots...
The foreign races in Hindustan... may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizen’s rights.
To keep up the purity of its race and culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races – the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here... a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.
(How do you combat this kind of organized hatred? Certainly not with goofy preachings of secular love.)
By the year 2000, the RSS had more than 45,000 shakhas and an army of 7 million swayamsevaks preaching its doctrine across India. They include India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former Home Minister and current leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani, and, of course, the three times Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. It also includes senior people in the media, the police, the army, the intelligence agencies, judiciary and the administrative services who are informal devotees of Hindutva – the RSS ideology. These people, unlike politicians who come and go, are permanent members of government machinery.
But the RSSs' real power lies in the fact that it has put in decades of hard work and has created a network of organizations at every level of society, something that no other organization can claim.
The BJP is its political front. It has a trade union wing (Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh), women’s wing (Rashtriya Sevika Samiti), student wing (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) and economic wing (Swadeshi Jagran Manch).
Its front organization Vidya Bharati is the largest educational organization in the non-governmental sector. It has 13,000 educational institutes including the Saraswati Vidya Mandir schools with 70,000 teachers and over 1.7 million students. It has organization working with tribals (Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram), literature (Akhil Bharatiya Sahitya Parishad), intellectuals (Pragya Bharati, Deendayal Research Institute), historians (Bharatiya Itihaas Sankalan Yojanalaya), language (Sanskrit Bharti), slum dwellers (Seva Bharati, Hindu Seva Prathishtan), health (Swami Vivekanand Medical Mission, National Medicos Organization), leprosy patients (Bharatiya Kushta Nivarak Sangh), co-operatives (Sahkar Bharati), publication of newspapers and other propaganda material (Bharat Prakashan, Suruchi Prakashan, Lokhit Prakashan, Gyanganga Prakashan, Archana Prakashan, Bharatiya Vichar Sadhana, Sadhana Pustak and Akashvani Sadhana), caste integration (Samajik Samrasta Manch), religion and proselytisation (Vivekananda Kendra, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Hindu Jagran Manch, Bajrang Dal). The list goes on and on…
On June 11th 1989, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gave the RSS a gift. He was obliging enough to open the locks of the disputed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which the RSS claimed was the birthplace of Lord Ram. At the National Executive of the BJP, the party passed a resolution to demolish the mosque and build a temple in Ayodhya. “I’m sure the resolution will translate into votes”, said L.K. Advani. In 1990 he criss-crossed the country on his Rath Yatra, his Chariot of Fire, demanding the demolition of the Babri Masjid, leaving riots and bloodshed in his wake. In 1991, the party won 120 seats in Parliament. (It had won 2 in 1984). The hysteria orchestrated by Advani peaked in 1992, when the mosque was brought down by a marauding mob. By 1998, the BJP was in power at the centre. Its first act in office was to conduct a series of nuclear tests. Across the country, fascists and corporates, princes and paupers alike, celebrated India’s Hindu Bomb. Hindutva had transcended petty party politics.
In 2002, Narendra Modi’s government planned and executed the Gujarat genocide. In the elections that took place a few months after the genocide, he was returned to power with an overwhelming majority. He ensured complete impunity for those who had participated in the killings. In the rare case where there has been a conviction, it is of course the lowly foot soldiers, and not the masterminds who stand in the dock.
Impunity is an essential pre-requisite for genocidal killing. India has a great tradition of granting impunity to mass killers. I could fill volumes with the details.
In a democracy, for impunity after genocide, you have to “apply through proper channel.” Procedure is everything. In the case of several massacres, the lawyers that the Gujarat Government appointed as public prosecutors had actually already appeared for the accused. Several of them belonged to the RSS or the VHP and were openly hostile to those they were supposedly representing. Survivor witnesses found that, when they went to the police to file reports, the police would record their statements inaccurately, or refuse to record the names of the perpetrators. In several cases, when survivors had seen members of their families being killed (and burned alive so their bodies could not be found) the police would refuse to register cases of murder.
Ehsan Jaffri, the Congress politician and poet who had made the mistake of campaigning against Modi in the Rajkot elections, was publicly butchered. (By a mob led by a fellow Congressman). In the words of a man who took part in the savagery: “Five people held him, then someone struck him with a sword… chopped off his hand, then his legs… then everything else… after cutting him to pieces, they put him on the wood they’d piled and set him on fire. Burned him alive.”
The Ahmedabad Commissioner of Police, P.C. Pandey, was kind enough to visit the neighbourhood while the mob lynched Jaffri, murdered seventy people, and gang-raped 12 women before burning them alive. After Modi was re-elected, Pandey was promoted, and made Gujarat’s Director General of Police. The entire killing apparatus remains in place.
The Supreme Court in Delhi made a few threatening noises, but eventually put the matter into cold storage. The Congress and the Communist Parties made a great deal of noise, but did nothing.
In the Tehelka sting operation, broadcast recently on a news channel at prime time, apart from Babu Bajrangi, killer after killer recounted how the genocide had been planned and executed, how Modi and senior politicians and police officers had been personally involved. None of this information was new, but there they were, the butchers, on the news networks, not just admitting to, but boasting about their crimes. The overwhelming public reaction to the sting was not outrage, but suspicion about its timing. Most people believed that the exposé would help Modi win the elections again. Some even believed, quite outlandishly, that he had engineered the sting. He did win the elections. And this time, on the ticket of Union and Progress. A committee all unto himself. At BJP rallies, thousands of adoring supporters now wear plastic Modi masks, chanting slogans of death. The fascist democrat has physically mutated into a million little fascists. These are the joys of democracy. Who, in Nazi Germany would have dared to put on a Hitler mask?
Preparations to re-create the ‘Gujarat blue-print’ are currently in different stages in the BJP-ruled States of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.
To commit genocide, says Peter Balkian, scholar of the Armenian genocide, you have to marginalize a sub group for a long time. This criterion has been well met in India. The muslims of India have been systematically marginalized and have now joined the adivasis and dalits, who have not just been marginalized, but de-humanized by caste Hindu society and its scriptures, for years, for centuries. (There was a time when they were de-humanized in order to be put to work doing things that caste Hindus would not do. Now, with technology, even that labour is becoming redundant.) The RSS also pits Dalits against Muslims and Adivasis against Dalits as part of its larger project.
While the ‘people’ were engaged with the Union project and its doctrine of hatred, India’s Progress project was proceeding apace. The new regime of privatization and liberalization resulted in the sale of the country’s natural resources and public infrastructure to private corporations. It has created an unimaginably wealthy upper class and growing middle classes who have naturally became militant evangelists for the new dispensation.
The Progress project has its own tradition of impunity and subterfuge, no less horrific than the elaborate machinery of the Union project. At the heart of it lies the most powerful institution in India, the Supreme Court, which is rapidly becoming a pillar of Corporate Power, issuing order after order allowing for the building of dams, the interlinking of rivers, indiscriminate mining, the destruction of forests and water systems. All of this could be described as ecocide – a prelude perhaps to genocide. (And to criticize the court is a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment).
Ironically, the era of the free market has led to the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in India – the secession of the middle and upper classes to a country of their own, somewhere up in the stratosphere where they merge with the rest of the world’s elite. This Kingdom in the Sky is a complete universe in itself, hermetically sealed from the rest of India. It has its own newspapers, films, television programmes, morality plays, transport systems, malls and intellectuals. And in case you are beginning to think its all joy-joy, you’re wrong. It also has its own tragedies, its own environmental issues (parking problems, urban air pollution); its own class struggles. An organization called Youth for Equality, for example, has taken up the issue of Reservations, because it feels Upper Castes are discriminated against by India’s pulverized Lower Castes. It has its own People’s Movements and candle light vigils (Justice for Jessica, the model who was shot in a bar) and even its own People’s Car (the Wagon for the Volks launched by the Tata Group recently). It even has its own dreams that take the form of TV advertisements in which Indian CEOs (smeared with Fair & Lovely Face Cream, Men’s) buy over international corporations, including an imaginary East India Company. They are ushered to their plush new offices by fawning white women (who look as though they’re longing to be laid, the final prize of conquest) and applauding white men, ready to make way for the new kings. Meanwhile the crowd in the stadium roars to its feet (with credit cards in its pockets) chanting ‘India! India!’
But there is a problem, and the problem is lebensraum. A Kingdom needs its lebensraum. Where will the Kingdom in the Sky find lebensraum? The Sky Citizens look towards the Old Nation. They see Adivasis sitting on the bauxite mountains of Orissa, on the iron ore in Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. They see the people of Nandigram (Muslims, Dalits) sitting on prime land, which really ought to be a chemical hub. They see thousands of acres of farm land, and think, these really ought to be Special Economic Zones for our industries; they see the rich fields of Singur and know this really ought to be a car factory for the People’s Car. They think: That’s our bauxite, our iron ore, our uranium. What are these people doing on our land? What’s our water doing in their rivers? What’s our timber doing in their trees?
If you look at a map of India’s forests, its mineral wealth and the homelands of the Adivasi people, you’ll see that they’re stacked up over each other. So in reality, those who we call poor are the truly wealthy. But when the Sky Citizens cast their eyes over the land, they see superfluous people sitting on precious resources. The Nazis had a phrase for them – uberzahligen Essern, superfluous eaters.
The struggle for Lebensraum, Friedrich Ratzel said, after closely observing the struggle between Native Indians and their European colonizers in North America, is an annihilating struggle. Annihilation doesn’t necessarily mean the physical extermination of people – by bludgeoning, beating, burning, bayoneting, gassing, bombing or shooting them. (Except sometimes. Particularly when they try to put up a fight. Because then they become Terrorists.) Historically, the most efficient form of genocide has been to displace people from their homes, herd them together and block their access to food and water. Under these conditions, they die without obvious violence and often in far greater numbers. “The Nazis gave the Jews a star on their coats and crowded them into “reserves”’, Sven Lindqvist writes, “just as the Indians, the Hereros, the Bushmen, the Amandabele, and all the other children of the stars had been crowded together. They died on their own when food supply to the reserves was cut off.”
The historian Mike Davis says that between 12 and 29 million people starved to death in India in the great famine between 1876 and 1892, while Britain continued to export food and raw material from India. In a democracy, as Amartya Sen says, we are unlikely to have Famine. So in place of China’s Great Famine, we have the India’s Great Malnutrition. (India hosts 57 million–more than a third–of the world’s undernourished children.)
With the possible exception of China, India today has the largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Dams alone have displaced more than thirty million people. The displacement is being enforced with court decrees or at gunpoint by policemen, by government controlled militias or corporate thugs. (In Nandigram, even the CPI (M) had its own armed militia.) The displaced are being herded into tenements, camps and resettlement colonies where, cut off from a means of earning a living, they spiral into poverty.
In the State of Chhattisgarh, being targeted by corporates for its wealth of iron-ore, there’s a different technique. In the name of fighting Maoist rebels, hundreds of villages have been forcibly evacuated and almost 40,000 people moved into police camps. The government is arming some of them, and has created Salwa Judum, a ‘peoples militia’. While the poorest fight the poorest, in conditions that approach civil war, the Tata and Essar groups have been quietly negotiating for the rights to mine iron ore in Chhattisgarh. Can we establish a connection? We wouldn’t dream of it. Even though the Salwa Judum was announced a day after the Memorandum of Understanding between the Tata Group and the Government was signed.
It’s not surprising that very little of this account of events makes it into the version of the New India currently on the market. That’s because what is on sale is another form of denial – the creation of what Robert Jay Lifton calls a “counterfeit universe”. In this universe systemic horrors are converted into temporary lapses, attributable to flawed individuals, and a more ‘balanced’ happier world is presented in place of the real one. The balance is spurious: often ‘Union’ and ‘Progress’ are set off against each other, a liberal-secular critique of the ‘Union’ project being used to legitimise the depredations of the ‘Progress’ project. Those at the top of the food chain, those who have no reason to want to alter the status quo, are most likely to be the manufacturers of the “counterfeit universe”. Their job is to patrol the border, diffuse rage, de-legitimise anger, and negotiate a cease-fire.
Consider the response of Shahrukh Khan to a question about Narendra Modi. “I don’t know him personally...I have no opinion...” he says, “personally they have never been unkind to me.” Ramachandra Guha, liberal historian and founding member of the New India Foundation, a corporate funded Trust, advises us in his book–as well as in a series of highly publicized interviews–that the Gujarat government is not really fascist, and the genocide was just an aberration that has corrected itself after elections (!)
Editors and commentators in the ‘secular’ national press having got over their outrage at the Gujarat genocide now assess Modi’s administrative skills, which most of them are uniformly impressed by. The editor of the Hindustan Times said, “Modi may be a mass murderer, but he’s our mass murderer” and went on to air his dilemmas about how to deal with a mass murderer who is also a “good” Chief Minister.
In this ‘counterfeit’ version of India, in the realm of culture, in the new Bollywood cinema, in the boom in Indo-Anglian literature, the poor, for the most part, are simply absent. They have been erased in advance. (They only put in an appearance as the smiling beneficiaries of Micro-credit Loans, Development Schemes and charity meted out by NGOs.)
Last summer, I happened to wander into a cool room in which four beautiful young girls with straightened hair and porcelain skin were lounging, introducing their puppies to one another. One of them turned to me and said, “I was on holiday with my family and I found an old essay of yours about dams and stuff? I was asking my brother if he knew about what a bad time these dalits and adivasis were having, being displaced and all…. I mean just being kicked out of their homes ‘n stuff like that? And you know, my brother’s such a jerk, he said they’re the ones who are holding India back. They should be exterminated. Can you imagine?”
The trouble is, I could. I can.
The puppies were sweet. I wondered whether dogs could ever imagine exterminating each other. They’re probably not progressive enough.
That evening, I watched Amitabh Bachhan on TV, appearing in a commercial for the Times of India’s “India Poised” campaign. The TV anchor introducing the campaign said it was meant to inspire people to leave behind the “Constraining ghosts of the past.” To choose optimism over pessimism.
“There are two Indias in this country”, Amitabh Bachhan said, in his famous baritone.
One India is straining at the leash, eager to spring forth and live up to all the adjectives that the world has been recently showering upon us. The Other India Is the leash.
One India says “Give me a chance and I’ll prove myself”.
The Other India says “Prove yourself first, and maybe then, you’ll have a chance”.
One India lives in the optimism of our hearts; the Other India lurks in the scepticism of our minds.
One India wants, the Other India hopes... One India leads, the Other India follows.
These conversions are on the rise.
With each passing day, more and more people from the Other India, are coming over to this side...
And quietly, while the world is not looking, a pulsating, dynamic, new India is emerging.
Now in our 60th year as a free nation, the ride has brought us to the edge of time’s great precipice...
And one India, a tiny little voice in the back of the head is looking down at the ravine and hesitating. The other India is looking up at the sky and saying it’s time to fly.
Here is the counterfeit universe laid bare. It tells us that the rich don’t have a choice (There Is No Alternative) but the poor do. They can choose to become rich. If they don’t, it’s because they are choosing pessimism over optimism, hesitation over confidence, want over hope. In other words, they’re choosing to be poor. It’s their fault. They are weak. (And we know what the seekers of lebensraum think of the weak.) They are the ‘Constraining Ghost of the Past’. They’re already ghosts.
“Within an ongoing counterfeit universe”, Robert Jay Lifton says, “genocide becomes easy, almost natural.”
The poor, the so called poor, have only one choice: To resist or to succumb. Bachhan is right: they are crossing over, quietly, while the world’s not looking. Not to where he thinks, but across another ravine, to another side. The side of armed struggle. From there they look back at the Tsars of Development and mimic their regretful slogan: “There Is No Alternative.”
They have watched the great Gandhian peoples’ movements being reduced and humiliated, floundering in the quagmire of court cases, hunger strikes and counter hunger-strikes. Perhaps these many million Constraining Ghosts of the Past wonder what advice Gandhi would have given the Indians of the Americas, the slaves of Africa, the Tasmanians, the Herero, the Hottentots, the Armenians, the Jews of Germany, the Muslims of Gujarat? Perhaps they wonder how they can go on hunger strike when they’re already starving. How they can boycott foreign goods when they have no money to buy any goods. How they can refuse to pay taxes when they have no earnings.
People who have taken to arms have done it with full knowledge of what the consequences of that decision will be. They have done so knowing that they are on their own. They know that the new laws of the land criminalize the poor and conflate resistance with terrorism. They know that appeals to conscience, liberal morality, and sympathetic press coverage will not help them now. They know no international marches, no globalized dissent, no famous writers will be around when the bullets fly.
Hundreds of thousands have broken faith with the institutions of India’s democracy. Large swathes of the country have fallen out of the governments’ control. (At last count it was supposed to be 25%). The battle stinks of death, it’s by no means pretty. How can it be when the helmsman of the army of Constraining Ghosts is the ghost of Chairman Mao himself? (The ray of hope is that many of the foot soldiers don’t know who he is. Or what he did. More Genocide Denial? Maybe). Are they Idealists fighting for a Better World? Well… anything is better than annhilation.
The Prime Minister has declared that the Maoist resistance is the “Single largest Internal Security threat”. There have even been appeals to call out the army. The media is agog with breathless condemnation.
Here’s a typical newspaper report. Nothing out of the ordinary. Stamp out the Naxals, it is called.
This government is at last showing some sense in tackling Naxalism. Less than a month ago Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked state governments to “choke” Naxal infrastructure and “cripple” their activities through a dedicated force to eliminate the “virus”. It signalled a realization that Naxalism must be through enforcement of law, rather than wasteful expense on development”.
“Choke”. “Cripple”. “Virus”. “Infested”. “Eliminate”. “Stamp Out”.
Yes. The idea of extermination is in the air. And people believe that faced with extermination they have the right to fight back. By any means necessary.
Perhaps they’ve been listening to the grasshoppers.