About a month ago, a video-clip emanated from Kashmir, which shook the nation (or at least it should have). In the video, shot clandestinely from what appears to be a cell-phone camera, an Indian Army cavalcade (comprising of a gypsy and an armoured vehicle) is seen passing by. However what is disconcerting about the video is the fact that a man, dressed in traditional Kashmiri outfit is found tied to the anterior of the gypsy and in the background is heard the ominous ‘All stone-pelters will meet the same fate’. This video become the epicenter of social media comment wars and newsroom debates, and rightly so. The people in support of the action by the officer of the Indian Army lauded the soldier for showing outstanding presence of mind and skill in handling the situation and called for all stone-pelters to be similarly treated, while calling for the officer to be decorated. People on the other side of the spectrum (fondly called anti-nationals) called the Army out on the egregious violation of human rights and demanded an impartial probe. The debate was polarising, but as was evident, the people on the latter bandwagon were a microscopic minority. That an Indian Army officer could no nothing wrong, seemed to be the dominant rhetoric.
And this was not an isolated incident. Over the years the Army has enjoyed ostensible impunity in its dealings with terrorists and civilians alike. Any criticism of the army has been met deftly by the government and the public, which one must concede stands firmly behind the government in this regard. A colonoscopy of this incident would show a deep-dark truth which no one today wants to talk about. The mutation of India, from a peace loving, democratic country to an increasingly martial and militaristic society, looks imminent.
Bravery: Brave is what brave does, not what brave wears
At the core of this disillusionment lies a skewed definition of bravery and chivalry. For some time now the Army, the paramilitary and sometimes the police have been at the epitome of what can be described as bravery. Despite their shortcomings, the common man looks at these institutions with awe and wonder, and accepts without questions their actions. Somehow bravery has been confined to the realm of people with guns and broad shoulders. While respect for the Army is important, such a veneration of the Army serves no purpose and should have no place in democratic societies. This points to our gravitation towards a martial society.
Such a classification ignores or refuses to take into account the bravery shown many lesser humans. RTI activists, social activists and reformers, journalists etc also constantly work in environments which are tense and require immense courage. That fighting at the battlefield or an outpost, miles away is the sole definition of bravery does immense disrespect to hundreds of these activists who lose their lives fighting for justice.
Greece and the martial spirit
Ancient Greece is known today in the western world as the harbinger of democracy and all the values at the core of democracy. However Greece was a highly militaristic society, with the Praetor, being more often than not a General of the Army. Socrates was a public intellectual and philosopher who dared to question the militaristic spirit of the city-state of Athens. In his dialogue with Generals of the Army chronicled by Plato(another philosopher of renown) in a Socratic dialogue called ‘Laches’ Socrates seeks to define bravery. The generals dole out several definitions like ‘Bravery is standing up and fighting’, ‘Bravery is the endurance of spirit’ etc. Socrates refutes those definitions by finding deep flaws in them (as is natural in any Socratic dialogue). He reminds the generals of the retreat that the Athenian army had to undergo to later strike back with vigour. The dialogue ends in ambiguity, but one thing stands out. Bravery in the battlefield cannot be the sole definition of bravery and cannot be the only attribute we as a society should hold in high regard.
However much like public intellectuals today, Socrates was much defamed and ridiculed, for standing up to long established values of martial glory and ultra nationalism. He was ordered to commit suicide by a consuming Hemlock, after a jury comprising of Athenians voted in majority that he was guilty of disrespecting the state. How similar is the scenario to today’s India? Have we not condemned reasonable intellectuals and philosophers to the periphery of society and dehumanised them with the tag of ‘Anti-National’. When Barkha Dutt, a journalist who despite her shortcomings redefined journalism by showing great courage during the Kargil war, bringing us news from the battlefront, today questions the moral turpitude of the officer in the aforementioned events, she is viciously trolled on social media and her character assassinated by trolls. The parallel drawn here though deeply saddening is incorrigibly true.
Human rights and the Armed forces
This post is in no way shape or form a verdict on the Army. It is an important organ of our polity and the bravery and hard work of its soldiers is par excellence. However the army much like all organs in our polity has deep problems which the common man wants to ignore. The Army has allegedly carried out numerous conspicuous human rights violation in the North-East, Kashmir and elsewhere. And by abuses one doesn’t mean abuses on militants or dissidents, but rapes and torture of civilians and minors who had little to do with the conflict. Similarly in Naxal infested areas of my state the paramilitary has allegedly tortured tribals and branded them as Naxal sympathisers.
This is not to discredit the great work they have done, but merely a call for justice. That one can while respecting an institution and its great work, still call for accountability and impartial probe of excesses of power is something India should understand.
Tagore and Nationalism
Among the foremost critics of this kind of nationalism was none other than Rabindra Nath Tagore. In his series of lecture tours across America and Japan and elsewhere, later collected in his work ‘Essays on Nationalism’ Tagore warns against nationalism which pits community against community and race against race. ‘I will never let patriotism triumph over humanity’ Tagore used to say. That ultra nationalism corrupts a society, stifles free speech and kills creative destruction was Tagore’s message. The recent Supreme Court order enforcing the compulsory singing of national anthem (composed by Tagore) before movies in Cinema Halls and a government notification issuing a directive for ‘differently able people’ to show due respect during national anthem if they can’t stand, when seen in this backdrop is incredibly ironic and even laughable.
So what must one do to reign in these martial nationalistic tendencies? Frankly the question has no easy answer. When the government endorses, even fans such actions and its social media brigade surreptitiously feeds this information in the minds of the youth, it is difficult to extricate a society from its martial spirit. When the defence minister speaks of abrogating India’s no first use policy in nukes, destroying in a moment a legacy of non-proliferation, there is little that can be done. But public intellectuals and activists should keep speaking up, because much like Socrates, great ideas and literature, transcend time and age.