Friday, October 12, 2012

The Reascription of Hurt: When Abu Gharaib came to Kashmir

[This paper was presented at the conference The State of Hurt: Sentiment, Politics, Censorship organized by Sri Venkateshwara College at the South Campus, University of Delhi in October, 2012.]

The Political Case Study of Matilda

Hilaire Belloc, the Anglo-French writer of the last century, wrote about the particular relationship the concept of hurt has with its public recognition. He wrote about the shadow that necessarily falls between the experience of hurt and the act of its acknowledgment by others. His poem Matilda Who Told Lies, And Was Burned To Death was apparently a cautionary tale meant for children but he laid within it an utterly adult political equation. This equation helps us understand some links between the different branches of the Indian State and the experiences of hurt in Kashmir.

The best way to read a cautionary tale is to avoid the caution and to savour the drama. In sum, the poem is this: Matilda is a young girl with a particular character flaw – she lies a lot. The first time she lies and cries fire all of London’s fire-brigades misinterpret her call to be real and come to her rescue, sousing a perfectly good house with gallons of water. The second time when her crisis call was actually real, the disreputed Matilda keeps on shouting from her house windows and no one on the streets buys her version of the story. ‘That night,’ Belloc writes, ‘a fire did break out’, something did happen, but the onlookers purposely disbelieved it. By the time her aunt came back, both Matilda and the house were burnt. 

What is interesting in Belloc’s poem is not so much that Matilda once lied about her hurt, but that the hurt itself is always subject to its recognition. All experiences of hurt are intimately tied in with the patterns in which they are recognized by people and institutions around you, whether the onlookers on the street or the fire-brigade of the State. And more notably, if you can play around with these patterns of recognition, that is, if you can disgrace a young girl as a perpetual liar, then you can effectively play around with the experience and consequences of her all too real hurt. The poem hangs on more on how you recognize hurt than hurt itself. 

In May 2004, by the time American television network CBS’s 60 Minutes and a Seymour Hersh article in The New Yorker, had already broken out the story of the extensive torture in the Abu Gharaib prison, the American secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld managed to quibble a response not so much to the hurt of the Iraqi prisoners but, what was more important to him, to the patterns of recognizing that hurt. What he did was quibbling over words and their technical meanings. ‘What has been charged so far,’ he said, ‘is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture…I'm not going to address,’ he said point blank, ‘the ‘torture' word.’ 

It is precisely this understanding that once you appropriate the perception of hurt, you can effectively control any political crisis it might trigger, that makes the Pentagon use the choicest of euphemisms, effectively hollowing out words, effectively censoring their actual content. This is the understanding that made Rumsfeld call ‘torture,’ ‘abuse’. And when the Iraqi prisoners were kept awake for more than a hundred hours, at which any confession can be extracted from any one, which the medieval inquisitors called tormentum insomniae when they used it against suspected witches, this same practice Pentagon chose to christen with an inoffensive term used by doctors when they cure American suburbans of insomnia: ‘sleep management’. And it is again this understanding that made one American teenager – I suspect there are many more – think that ‘water-boarding’ somehow involved water-skis. 

However there is another layer to Belloc’s poem, which gives us an important clue about how different parts of the Indian State contend with the Kashmiri expression of hurt. And that clue is this: when Matilda faked the fire, the city responded, and when Matilda cried herself hoarse with the actual flames nearing her, the city was indifferent. What the poem really rests on, over and above Matilda’s habit for lying, is the necessary mismatch between the call for help and the outlook of those to whom this call is directed, its drama lies in the space of this breach. It suggests that there is nothing intrinsic or natural in the experience of hurt that will lead to its public recognition, that reaching this recognition is actually a political process. That between feeling the hurt and getting it acknowledged lies a vast space of political permutations. 

It is in this space that my argument lies, a space given to distortion, to twisting of perceptions, to re-ascription of causes of the hurt, to the very misidentification of the hurting body, to finally obscuring the very category of ‘what did happen’. It is because of this space that lies between hurt and its cognizance by others that in September, 2010, one Kashmiri in the town of Tangmarg, as he was interrogating the habitual Indian claim of Kashmir being its integral part, asked the deputed Indian all-party delegation: ‘Why don’t you feel our pain if we are a part of your body?’ His question substitutes the premise of a natural connection – a part of your body – with an enquiry that is unmistakably political in nature – why don’t you. Hurt does not simply or naturally tend towards its identification. Between these two falls a shadow. 

When Abu Gharaib came to Kashmir

In the same month when the Kashmiri in Tangmarg asked that question, something else happened in Kashmir. In fact a cluster of virtual events happened. These evidenced how various limbs of the Indian State use censorship for managing political crises precipitated by the expression of hurt by Kashmiris. And integrated with the acts of censorship they use a language of hurt that is re-choreographed for their own purposes.

On the night between 8th and 9th September, 2010, a video, captured through a cellphone camera, started circulating on Facebook sites and Youtube channels that was tagged ‘Kashmir – India’s Abu Gharib [sic]’. The video shows four Kashmiri boys being paraded naked by Indian policemen and paramilitary forces in a Kashmiri village. Step by step, this is confirmed. With every passing second, the video populates its own context, giving possible hooks to peg its veracity. You notice the khakis and the olive green fatigues of the escorting policemen who are abusing the boys in Hindi or Urdu. The policemen – their accents, abuses, language – are north Indian. We take another step and soon discover from one of the policeman that the four boys have made the police chase them since the morning, so this enforced nakedness, this open parade to the police station or the camp is a humiliating retribution and over the three minutes or so of the video, it is this humiliation which expands and hangs over every second of the low quality recording. They pass the freshly harvested village fields and towards the end of the video, the women of the village see the boys and can be heard lamenting. You take another step in giving a world to the contents of the video. The language of the lament is Kashmiri – Hata Khodayo, akin to Oh God. The video offers another marker: the site of this humiliating passage is Kashmir.

When the agents of hurt belong to a militarized State the expression of that hurt by the people is not a simple opportunity of intervention + self-legitimation for the State but instead a political crisis. This crisis is sought to be diffused by the subdivisions of the State by an array of at least three kinds of overlapping tactics – censorship, both covert and overt, denial and finally the one which is the shrewdest, the very appropriation of the language of hurt in order to infinitely defer accountability. The rest of my work in this paper involves outlining these tactics through which the State and Central government ministries and Indian security forces manage political crises in Kashmir and which finally expose the ungainly and split life of the State, with its different branches – for example, the Home ministry and the State Human Rights Commission – offering different versions of the same story and different desired ends.

Conversations with Kashmiri friends over the last few years have given a picture of how surfing the internet in Kashmir is a particularly odd experience. One of them said it was always like opening a book with a few pages missing. At times, and these times come not infrequently, the whole book goes missing for a while. This simile of the book missing its pages elaborates the tactic of covert censorship. Within hours of the upload of the Kashmir’s Abu Gharib video, it began its hide and seek with the online viewers. Over the next few days it would disappear arbitrarily from the Youtube channels which uploaded it. The Facebook posts that linked to the video vanished, even user discussions of the video which happened to mention the title faded away. 

I remember it was the second year of my PhD and I was trying to access the video from my hostel room in London. Many times, the video link I would open would become defunct within a matter of hours. A Delhi based writer, writing two days after this video came to light explained my problem. He wrote that this disappearing act ‘suggested what has been suspected for some time, that the Indian State – or some of its ‘organs’ – ‘lean’ on platforms like Facebook and Youtube to ensure that content that is problematic for its image simply gets erased.’ This suggestion was only confirmed with the suppressive Information Technology Act the year after. But that week, the collective effort of many users, Kashmiri and otherwise, ensured that, through repeated downloads and uploads, the video has an extended life despite it being followed by an invisible censor.

However, once it had dug its heels on the internet, different elements in the Indian State adopted a second tactic. They, like the onlookers on Matilda’s street, purposely disbelieved what they saw. In this headstrong tactic of denial, we come upon a concept of belief that is not so much an empirical exercise with the given text but instead a political investment in it, which always makes it yield its content selectively. The breach between seeing and believing was reopened into a space of political contestation. 

‘A senior police officer in the Valley,’ the Indian Express reported, said it looked like an 'old video' as if the age of the recording tempered its content. Southward in Delhi, the Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram immediately usurped the language of trust and potential trustworthiness, posing the specter of authentication. He said ‘No one has been able to authenticate the video so far’ and that he had asked security agencies to find out whether anybody featuring in the video had spoken out. Chidambaram waits for the moving image to be confirmed by particular voices. The visual text itself is hollowed out. By itself it shows nothing at all, always needing external sanctification. This trait of the moving image is mined politically. ‘Until it is authenticated,’ Chidambaram said, resting on a deferral, ‘and the persons identified, I think it would be unsafe to rely on such a video.’ The Outlook reported that the Union Home Minister ‘did not elaborate on what steps were being taken to ascertain the authenticity of the video’. The idea of authenticity then is as much a political deployment as it is a laboratory process. This was confirmed when the CRPF spokesperson Prabhakar Tripathi was quoted as denying the authenticity of the video in all perpetuity, thus making the actual determination redundant  – ‘Such a thing,’ he said, ‘is not possible in Kashmir,’ adding that ‘this video can never be proved to be genuine.’ Here deferral shows what it is nesting within itself: denial.

However, the third and the final tactic that different parts of the Indian State adopt is the one which interests me the most because it is the most crafted, the most difficult to sieve out. This is when they appropriate the very language of hurt and transform it etiologically, that is, they play with the idea of what causes hurt. In the young graphic novelist Malik Sajad’s short piece ‘The Kashmir Intifada’ he has an Indian army soldier address the media during the stone-pelting days earlier on the streets of downtown Srinagar in the summer of 2010. The soldier’s statement captures the form of the Indian security apparatus’ tactic wonderfully whereby it re-ascribes the cause of the hurt, finding it somewhere else, and in doing so distances itself from it. ‘Our strategy,’ the soldier says speaking to the media, ‘is to shoot at legs so as to disperse the protesters. The trouble is kids there are short of height, so our bullets and tear-gas shells hit them on their heads.’ In this statement, the cause of hurt takes flight. It bounces away from the fingers of the paramilitary forces who press the trigger on the stone-throwing and sometimes unarmed boys. It jumps far from the official policies of an excessively militarized State that facilitate such a strong reaction to stones. And where it comes to rest, oddly enough, is on the very bodies of the protestors and to their apparent divergence from the dictated norm of how tall or short young boys should be. What happens is that the cause of hurt is first delinked and then slotted elsewhere conveniently. 

The word hurting always means two things. The body that is in pain but also the entity that causes pain. Hurting both as a state to be in – for instance, my leg is hurting – and also a verb – hurting someone else. Linguistically, to be hurting is to be at once confusingly both the agent and the victim of hurt. When it comes to the militarized assortment that is the Indian State in Kashmir it makes a life out of what could have been just a harmless duality of words. When the video of Kashmir’s Abu Gharaib was being shared on social networking and video sharing websites, various branches of the Indian State found the cause of hurt in this instance not in the actions within the video but in the very sharing of it. The very next day of the circulation of the video, a police spokesperson told the PTI that this circulation can spread ‘disaffection among the people’. ‘A formal case,’ he added, ‘is being registered against the YouTube and Facebook networks and investigation is on to locate the persons responsible for uploading this baseless and malicious clip.’ The tactic of denial here meets the more advanced tactic of shooting the messenger who carries that which you either deny or whose authenticity you place in the far future. Effectively replacing the hurt persons of the Kashmiris within the public domain, the State police offers its own wounded body of ‘law and order’, vulnerable to 'disaffection', vilifying by this account the sharing of the video as a cause by itself for spreading hostility among the Kashmiris. Sharing here is revised and spoken of as propogating, the emphasis shifts from the heinous content to the act of sharing, from the message to the medium – ‘Action shall also be taken,’ the same police spokesperson added, ‘against other organisations who tried to propagate it [the video]’. In this etiological transformation, the cause of hurt becomes the very speaking of it. In the immediate aftermath of the Abu Gharaib pictures, Donald Rumsfeld similarly identified the sharing of pictures itself as illegal, as a process that by itself causes hurt, and went on, not denying their content but certainly their representativeness, to call them un-American. ‘In the information age,’ he rued, ‘where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon’.

For the elements within the State, the hurt sentiment is a politically valuable entity or a self-legitimating device only if it comes from the right quarters. If not, then it is destabilizing and must immediately be contained. When the 2010 video started circulating, Chidambaram immediately asked for the persons in the video to speak up. He curtailed the wider implications of the video, directing himself towards even as he was obscuring its particularities. In September 2012, something similar happened. When the Home department of the J&K State government rejected the widespread testing of DNA from the mass graves identified by the State’s own Human Rights Commission as possibly containing the dead bodies of disappeared non-combatant civilians, it asked again for this category of the impossible particular. ‘We can’t go on digging all the graveyards,’ Secretary B.R. Sharma said. ‘If not pointedly specific, at least we need some clue, some direction from the relatives of the missing people where they think their disappeared kin might be buried.’ He is asking for information that is almost impossible to give. In fact this whole drive towards the particular is far from the intention of discovering it and instead defers this discovery. Which is what made the Secretary go on to say one of the most paradoxical statements I have heard in recent times: ‘There is a need for closure to all this,’ he said, and then added, ‘we also want truth to come out’. 

The Home Department reasoned out its rejection of the HRC demand for DNA testing by the now familiar reascription of the cause of hurt. From the event to its sharing. From the act of injustice to the very process of asking for justice, so much so that the latter is seen as aggravating the hurt rather than being its salve. The random collection of the DNA from the graves would be, the report said, an ‘academic exercise’ that would ‘hurt the local sentiments’ of the people. Continuing with this expedient appropriation of the vocabulary of hurt, it added that this testing would ‘attract undesired media attention, cause prolonged trauma to the people, and can also act as a trigger point/event for causing serious law and order disturbances.’ In this Home department’s etiological experiment with hurt, the body of the dead Kashmiri civilian lying in the mass graves is eclipsed in favour of the body of the law and order that becomes the primary object of State protection. Here, the claim of being wronged rests with the latter. What should be evident to us is that the vocabulary of hurt is slippery. It passes through many hands making it mandatory for us to constantly sieve out one instance from the other, the vocabulary from its user. Rather than indifference to some instances of hurt and intervention in others, like of Belloc’s onlookers who let Matilda burn, we must keep an eye out for the premise of hurt each and every time it appears. This premise, as I have argued, is never simply obvious because it is a necessarily composite thing - never originating only from the hurt body but also from the way it is brought to cognizance by others. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

When they sent him back to Germany

'Atomkraft? Nein Danke' 'Nuclear Power? No Thanks'
In February earlier this year when the Tamil Nadu police first detained and then deported a German national because of his alleged ‘links’ to the anti-nuclear protests at Koodankulam, it should have merited at least a side glance at Germany’s own history with the question of nuclear energy.
Poor Sonnteg Reiner Hermann, 49, had aroused the suspicions of our police because he stayed at one of the‘lesser known lodges’ in Nagercoil city in Tamil Nadu. Pity he did not arouse our interest in his country’s bold policies with regards to nuclear power.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan happened on 11thMarch, 2011. An earthquake and a 15-meter tsunami cracked open the vulnerabilities of a nuclear plant, leading to multiple equipment failure, meltdown and release of radioactive material. Seeing the helplessness of Japan in this crisis, the German people were quick to learn. By the end of May that year, their pressure had already made the Bundestag decide to completely phase-out its reliance on nuclear energy. By 2022, it resolved that all its plants would be put to sleep and the country’s energy grids would be nuclear-free.

Germany has an old and robust people’s movement against nuclear energy. The very day after Fukushima, 60,000 Germans protested against nuclear energy forming a 45-km human chain from Stuttgart to the Neckarwestheim power plant. By the end of the same month, a quarter of a million Germans marched against nuclear energy in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne and Munich. Chancellor Merkel’s cabinet finally responded to this public opinion that had been evolving ever since 1975 when the tiny community of farmers and priests in the village Whyl, lying near the wine-growing area Kaiserstuhl, resisted the government plans and police force to set up a nuclear plant locally. After the Chernobyl disaster in Prypiat (now Ukraine) in 1986, whose radioactive cloud covered large parts of Germany, the no-nuclear resolve only strengthened.

By 2012, Germany has already laid out a different blue-print for energy. It spearheads a movement among many other governments towards a far greater reliance on renewables. Even Japan, a heavily industrialized economy like Germany, has mooted going no-nuclear by 2040 and if this were to happen, it would be learning as much from its own experience as from Germany's example. Angela Merkel made it clear that ‘as the first big industrialized nation’, Germany is going to achieve ‘such a transformation’ by investing in more research on renewables to make them more extensive, more cheap (they are already cheaper than nuclear plants), by expanding its on and off-shore wind-mill fields and by carpeting larger areas with photo-voltaic plates for tapping solar power. This idea has already bred results. From a mere 6.3% in the year 2000, renewables now account for more than 25% of Germany’s energy needs making it the world’s first major renewable energy economy.

Which is all a roundabout way of asking that when the Indians interrogated that German man on his Koodankulam links, did they know that we could take a leaf from the German commonsense on nuclear power? Did they wonder why we are so ready to consume technologies that his country is abandoning to its trashcans? When they deported him, did they know that they were sending him to a safer place? Finally, did they acknowledge that where the Bundestag stopped, the villagers in Koodankulam take one step further asking not only for ‘safe’ energy but one which respects the idea of the commons – the idea that land, coastlines and the sea, and everything they produce, will be determined by and belong to everyone, not only the controlling nuclear lobbies? Did they send the 'foriegn hand' back with this homegrown idea?

(thanks to Amitava Kumar, Inayat Sabhikhi and Anusha Hariharan)

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Foreboding of Autumn: Aamir Bashir’s Harud

If you work with silence as your frame, every sound gets registered. If you choose scarcity as your form, every little detail is capable of a surplus. Aamir Bashir takes this formal technique and builds from it his film Harud that matches, shot by shot, the gravitas of its subject, carefully ‘seeking dignity,’ as he puts it, ‘in a violent place’.

Harud is set in Srinagar. It is about a Kashmiri Muslim family coming to terms with the disappearance of their son Tauqir. The film takes place in that breach which refuses to close when someone in the family is enforcedly disappeared by a power that is almost beyond redressal. In each shot, Tauqir’s younger brother Rafiq and his parents Fatima and Yusuf are seen attempting to adequately mourn a loss that they do not know the final shape of, that they necessarily cannot know the final shape of. When someone dies, you mourn their death. The certainty of their going away is the vehicle of the mourning. When someone disappears, even that certainty is withheld from you. You live a kind of daily life in which no hope remains uncontaminated with despair, where the object of your loss is both perpetually retrievable and permanently lost at the same time. In such an anchorless world, we see Rafiq and his family trying to find directions, but as if with a compass that is missing the lodestone.

When he was asked to give a brief synopsis of the film to an interviewer in 2010, the year this film released, Bashir summarized that Harud, or Autumn, ‘is about decay, it’s about psychological decay, and you see this…through the family, primarily through the protagonist…Rafiq’. The film could not have released in any other year. 2010 was its necessary place in time. It was in the summer of that year when this decay, so acutely shared among so many in the valley, transformed and erupted from the hands of thousands of Kashmiri boys on the streets of Srinagar, most as young as Rafiq, who picked up stones and hurled them at police and paramilitary forces on whose shoulders the Indian occupation in Kashmir rests. The film begins with this real time footage of stone-throwing. These young men on the streets provide the film its epigraph.   

2010 was also when the actual story of the disappearance of the Nadihal men – a story more terrible because it mirrored many more like it – had broken out. A Special Police Officer had offered army jobs to three young men in the Nadihal village. Mohammad, 19, an apple farmer, Riyaz, 20, a herder and Shahzad, 27, a laborer were given a paltry sum of money and were taken to a remote army camp in Machil where nine soldiers shot them down. This was done to claim the reward money that the Indian state offers for the killing of ‘militants’. In the script that the army wrote for its press release shortly after the massacre, this herder, laborer and apple farmer were found in the possession of three AK-47s, one Pakistani pistol, ammunition, cigarettes, chocolates, dates, two water bottles, a Kenwood radio and 1,000 Pakistani rupees. In the last quarter of a century in Kashmir, if a young man goes missing, you shudder to imagine the possible consequences he or his body has met, what official script he or it has been instrumentalized towards. The endless speculation makes you fall apart, the cost of conflict comes home with every living second without him who has vanished.

This is why Harud patiently bears out its each second. The film makes of allocating screen time to objects, scenes and characters an art, marking affiliation with how time looks like when in grief. The camera focuses long on the face, particularly the scorching eyes of Rafiq, played by Shanawaz Bhat. It rests gently and with an always uneasy calm on landscapes. It saddles together the unmatched beauty of the valley with its fragility, with the constant fear that attends the streets of downtown Srinagar and their inhabitants. This constancy of fear hangs like a fog which obscures the legendary beauty of the valley. In fact, the film, as Bashir claims, is about the exact opposite of beauty, it is ‘about decay’, that particular passage of time when beauty disappears slowly. Autumn for Bashir is both a season and a metaphor for this decay that takes its toll almost silently. No matter how beautiful that time of the year is, ‘in Kashmir,’ Bashir says, autumn ‘is also a precursor to dark winters’, one has to prepare for them, one has to be ready to cope with them. In one of the recurring sequences of the film wherein the camera follows Rafiq closely as he vends newspapers at dawn in Srinagar, he cycles past a shop of wrist-watches that has not yet opened. ‘Timex,’ the shop front reads, ‘Life is Ticking.’ Bashir keeps his screen time patiently ticking, every moment pregnant with apprehension, till it explodes in the last shot.

But the opposite of fear also stalks the valley, that is, the real antonym of fear, not tranquility, but courage. In 1991, Parveena Ahangar’s son, like Tauqir, had also disappeared. He was at his uncle’s home where he had been studying when he was picked up by the Indian security forces during a search and cordon exercise and was taken away in a van. Javaid Ahangar was nineteen then and Parveena never heard of him again. Through these years the grief has remained as raw as the day she lost him. She went from every police station she could find, to every interrogation centre, hospital and camp looking for him. During these searches, she met those who were her exact mirror images, scores of parents and relatives of men and boys who had been enforcedly disappeared in Kashmir. She invited them to make this search for their loved ones a collective one and in 1994 the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) was formed. Soon, those who joined APDP found that disappearances were not the crimes of a few aberrant officers of the police or the army, but that they were systemic and were implicit in the way an occupation structures itself on the land it arrogates. Families after families filed habeas corpus, literally ‘produce the bodies’, writs in the Srinagar high court most to no avail. In Harud Tauqir’s mother Fatima goes regularly for the sit-ins and protests of the APDP holding a portrait of her son. She is accompanied by many like her who face the fear of possibly outliving their own children, each holding on to the portraits. Rafiq accompanies her

If time begins to loom large when someone goes missing, that which is the visual becomes more defined. It becomes subject to an alertness that is pervasive and almost instinctive in the way that people see things around them in Kashmir. In fact, an alertness to all that is visible is the strategy of the DOP of the film, Shanker Raman, who is also one of the writers of its screenplay. A kind of alertness that people always have in zones of conflict, where every surface is capable of shock, where what you will see next cannot be predicted. As Raman shoots the calm surfaces of the valley, as he distills them into mind-bogglingly beautiful frames, the story he tells, keeps scratching these surfaces, his plot keeps exploring the crises into which these scenes plunge very often. In fact, the central conceit of Harud is also something which rests on the visual, on how we look, and how we strive to capture that which we look at – the camera. As a tangible object, it dominates screen time. As a plot device, it marks a watershed moment in the trajectory of Rafiq’s character. As a tool, it is how he engages with the world decaying around him.

Rafiq is part of an entire generation in Kashmir that has picked up the camera (or the microphone, or the pen). It is a generation of young film-makers, photographers, journalists, rappers and writers that have started telling the stories of Kashmir in the 90s, the decade they gave their childhood to. These stories and images were previously untold and unseen; they do not match the versions that circulate in Delhi’s big press circles or its parliament. These young men and women, based both in Kashmir and outside, have taken it upon themselves to distribute in any which way – whether leaking, publishing, uploading or shouting out – the stories of Kashmir’s autumn, that is, the stories of disappearances, of unidentified mass graves, of illegal encounters and of police violence on protests in the streets of Srinagar and in the snowed hinterlands of their valley. They give utterance to the word, one which remains graffitied on the walls of Srinagar (Rafiq cycles past it), azadi, and explore all that it could mean.

The camera that Rafiq stumbles upon in Harud was his brother Tauqir’s who had been a tourist photographer before he disappeared. In the two years after 2010, much noise has been made about the return of the tourists to the valley and their presence has been taken to mean that peace has come to roost here and that Kashmir has finally agreed to sign, no questions asked, on the covenant of perpetual belonging with India. Rafiq’s generation has made it amply clear that this calm is enforced and superficial, that this surface if stretched will not hold. It has not been easy for them to do this. The State government has attempted to censor online communication, has cracked down on facebook and twitter and has tarnished wikileaks, the nationalist media has ignored searing content that merits to be breaking news, dissenting individuals have been disallowed entry into J&K and several of the young, of the really young, have been put in jails on unfound charges and very often tortured. When Rafiq picks up the camera, he picks up that which photojournalists on the streets of Kashmir have been beaten up for picking, for stealing an image that does not fit into the narrative of peace that is being sold en masse to the rest of the world.

The tourist can never see what the Kashmiri sees. The tourists’ gaze is circular, he looks at that which others exactly like him also look at, so he only sees Dal Lake or its shikaras, in soft light and sanitized proportions, and he goes back to the hotel room at night. Above all, he leaves soon, and even when he comes to Srinagar, he comes mainly in spring or summer, not in winter or harud. Rafiq and his generation’s penetrating gaze cuts through the circularity of this gaze of the tourist. It does not look at the same places in Kashmir and when it does it does not look in the same, hurried way. They persevere with what they look at. They persist without hurry letting the places yield all their significances. When Rafiq photographs Dal Lake, as he does in an extended and central sequence in the film, he photographs a shikara with the paramilitary jawans sitting in it, each of their postures alert, each of their guns ready, and Dal’s silver waters extend for miles behind them. When you choose stillness as your frame, as Bashir and his protagonist do, you notice all the incongruities, that constant admixture of beauty and fear that becomes inevitable if you live in Kashmir. The images that Tauqir clicked – of Indian tourists in Kashmiri costumes – shied away from this admixture in selecting only the beautiful because the tourist desired only the beautiful. When asked why he chose a muted background score for his film, Aamir Bashir reasoned that he was ‘very conscious of the fact that’ he does not ‘hear any music in Kashmir [he meant Kashmir does not lend itself to an undemanding sort of music] because it is not that kind of a place anymore, in my eyes,’ he said, ‘it is not pretty anymore, there is so much mistrust in the air, it is such a dark place’. Does the tourist ever see the dark place in the place that he sees? 

Other than the stone-throwers of 2010, one other man gives Harud its epigraph. The last couplet of the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s Tonight is the first thing we see – ‘And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee – / God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.’ Earlier this year, when I met a close friend of Shahid’s in Srinagar, he spoke of everything about Shahid and Kashmir other than how the police and army squashed the militancy through the 90s and later, this he could not speak about, how the police and army did this was the point at which words left him, he said, I will begin to cry if I speak of it now, not here, we were sitting in a public café off M.A. Road, and he left those stories at that, at that brink of speaking. These are stories beyond all accounting which are now coming so searingly into light. These are stories that defy reason and the basic measures of compassion that we expect even from the worst, let alone the one’s (allegedly) own government. These are stories like that of enforced disappearances. Like how so many of the 2010 children went – even official records say that more than a hundred perished that year – of them, there were the stone throwers who met bullets as a reply for their stones, but of them were also the boys playing carom, boys returning from their tuitions, boys looking at the protests from a distance. 'A brigadier,' Agha Shahid Ali also wrote, 'says, the boys of Kashmir break so quickly, / we make their bodies sing, on the rack, / till no song is left to sing.' When you reside in Kashmir, you do not have to do a lot to be in the line of a bullet. Sometimes, you have to do nothing at all. Harud takes off from here and tells us that, going like this, a harsher winter awaits us in Kashmir.  

(Thanks to Sneha Krishnan)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Resisting the Second Childhood: Towards Universal Pension in India

Akhil Katyal
May 2012

Ashiya Begum, an elderly widow in Andhra Pradesh, had worked as a road construction labourer after her husband’s death. She recalls that when all the workers used to have lunch by the construction site, she tried to sleep under the bushes as there was no food and it was better than seeing others eat. When the pangs of hunger grew insistent, she would drink a lot of water and then tie her saree end tightly around her stomach and continue to work. At night if the children cried and she had nothing to feed them, she peeped out of her tent to neighbours' utensils and used to beg a glass of ganji (water which is to be drained out of rice once it is cooked) from them. Everybody got 5-6 spoonfuls of ganji before sleeping. Sometimes in the evening, after the road construction work, she cooked in other people’s houses. They gave her four rotis that the entire family ate…‘Even if I tell you (what we eat to survive),’ she told the researcher, ‘will you ever be able to feel what we eat?’
-          from the ‘Study on Destitution and Hunger’, Centre for Equity Studies, Delhi

Old age mostly inspires the sentiment of the universal in us, the aesthetics of the general, so much so that when we speak of the old, we often let go of the specific and relish statements that tend to be as wide-ranging as they could be naïve: the old are wiser, we say, the age is just a number, our frames turn more literary, more contemplative, it is the dusk of life, we think, or sometimes being metaphorical, we consider to be old to be in a second childhood. The last one is Aristophanes, no less.

It is almost as if we formally link old age with the idea of summing up, always using it to make truistic statements not for a person per say but for a species. Most of the remarks about the elderly end up being an indistinct précis of what it means to be human, generally, as if the old cannot help but be representative of some general malaise. ‘The complete life, the perfect pattern,’ the English playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham wrote, overstretching an abstraction, ‘includes old age as well as youth and maturity. The beauty of the morning and the radiance of noon are good, but it would be a very silly person who drew the curtains and turned on the light in order to shut out the tranquility of the evening.’ (barf).

It is almost as if to be specific in relation to old people seems an anathema to us. Gerontology can be psychological, we concede, it can certainly be biological, it can even be literary, but we have instinctively arranged it in such a way that it cannot be that which we think of as political, that is, it cannot be about the varying public relationships between people and of people with their collective institutions. The old are made to stand in for all the forces of generality, for the civilizational, for the other-worldly, for the cosmic, but we get our knickers in knots if the old resist this and come to us as full-bodied, this-worldly political creatures.

It was mainly this presumption, one which does not count old people as important political factors, whether as contributors to the national economy or as petitioners to the government offices, that was exploded in the recently concluded Pension Parishad - the 5-day dharna in central Delhi where almost 3000 old people, representing their organizations from at least twenty different States, asked the Central government for a universal, non-contributory pension scheme of Rs. 2000 for all Indians above the age of 55 who are not already covered by pensions of higher amounts. It became more than clear from the first day itself that the campaign was framed not as a plea for charity – something that would have fit well with the benign view of the aged, hinted above – but as a demand for a fundamental measure of dignity and rights for the elderly in this country. One of the major slogans of the Parishad was: 'Har hath ko kam do, kam ka pura dam do, budhape mein araam do' ('Give work to every hand, give full pay for all work, give rest in old age').
Figure 1 'Har hath ko kam do, kam ka pura dam do, budhape mein araam do' ['Give work to every hand, give full pay for all work, give rest in old age'], Pension Parishad, New Delhi, 7-11th May, 2012. Photo Courtesy: Digvijay Singh.
Every speech that was made on the dharna stage, every song that was sung, every representation that came from different cities, towns and villages, had one strand running through them: that the aged definitely conceived of themselves within the umbrella of the political, that they positioned themselves as vital actors who were making a considered claim on their own State. These were the elderly who made specific, concrete demands to the members of the Parliament, to the President and the NAC, and who offered them a detailed roadmap of how to go about instituting such a scheme, and who, most importantly, were pushing for a vision of India as a country that would take each of its citizens along in its monumental bid for growth. The protestors were very clear that theirs’ is going to be one of more important campaigns of this decade, one which will decide on the future of India and whether it is able to harness its economic growth to strengthen its social security net and is able to provide food, shelter and other basic means of sustenance to all its citizens, not only to those who are BPL, not only to those who need it most, hence thankfully skirting these thoughtless categories that are increasingly compromising the way we can imagine inclusive progress in this country.

This campaign fills up a major lack in India’s pension economics. The campaigners argue that whereas employment linked pension is restricted to the elderly in the organized sector or to those who are among the rich and upper middle classes, the group that is most in need of old age pension remains without any framework of support in the old age. This is the unorganized sector which has been the backbone of India’s much talked about growth in the last decade. They are the ones who have literally carried it on their backs. There are millions of women and men like Ashiya Begum, who are undeniably at the centre of the process that makes the places in which we live and rest but who mostly inhabit the furthest corners of our concerns. The comforts of the well-off are always based on the strategic appearances and the disappearances of those who work for them: maids, vendors, rickshaw-pullers, cheap construction laborers, among several others. Between the year 2000 and 2010, the campaigners argue, the organized sector added less than 0.3% workers annually to their workforce, while the GDP of the country more than doubled, with the annual rate of more than 7.5%. It is blindingly clear that much of the contribution to this growth came from the workers in the unorganized sector, who would work in the most difficult physical circumstances and without adequate nutrition and rest. The universal pension, that guarantees at least half of the national minimum wages, would be the acknowledgement of the centrality of their work to a nation’s career. It would be a payback, a recognition, not a charity sop.

Figure 2 Pension Parishad, New Delhi, 7-11th May, 2012. Photo Courtesy: Digvijay Singh.
The campaigners are further resolute about the idea that the APL/BPL categorization has to be avoided to make this pension scheme truly effective. They rely on influential developmental economists such as Jean Dreze who have argued recently that ‘not only is the official poverty line extremely low and, hence, not meant as an eligibility condition for social support, identifying BPL [itself] is very difficult. A BPL Census invariably turns out to be a hit-or-miss affair. Third, someone who is poor today may not be poor tomorrow and vice versa, but the BPL lists are very rigid…Fourth, BPL targeting is very divisive; it undermines the strength and unity of public pressure for a functional PDS.’ This divisiveness of the APL/BPL categories is a massive roadblock especially in relation to pensions. Let us understand how.

First of all, it is never clear that the elderly people are not being neglected even in the well-off households. No BPL census, Dreze argues, can ascertain the distribution of resources within the family. The pension scheme as it stands in India today, restricted as it is by this idea of the poverty line, is neither universal nor adequate. Only one in every five person over 60 years old in India, a number that is hitting against ten crore, receives old age pension, attached as it is to the BPL criterion. This pension can be as low as Rs. 200 in some states and only about 50% of those eligible in our country get it. Further, this divisiveness produces tragic on-ground situations where an elderly person receiving this pittance of a pension is made ineligible for the benefits accorded to the BPL family, such as, if we take the example of Bihar where the pension rate is Rs. 200, an elderly person very often loses out on the Antyodaya scheme on account of being covered under old age pension, necessitating her to pay about 90 rupees more for 25 kilos of grain. Apart from this she also loses out on additional 10 kilos of grain. Such policy barriers can be life threatening for the elderly people living in that kind of poverty. A universal pension scheme that does not deny other PDS benefits is the only way forward to redress such dreadful situations, where sometimes old people have to wait for the deaths of other old people in order to become eligible for the smallest of amounts.

Figure 3 Baba Adhav, social activist from Pune who has been spearheading the Pension Parishad along with NAC member Aruna Roy. Photo courtesy: Digvijay Singh.

The other major demand that the campaigners are absolutely clear about is that the time for the universal pension scheme is now, that we cannot afford to wait any longer. At a recent television debate on this issue on CNN-IBN, Gursharan Das, the former Managing Director of Procter and Gamble, effectively brought together the opinions of the many who have been resisting even the fledgling welfare policies in India in the name of the ‘fiscal deficit’, he debated this timing of the Pension campaign with its representative Nikhil Dey, saying that ‘we have just been downgraded, the country is in a serious financial crisis right now, we should be cutting back on subsidies… a poor country,’ he said, ‘cannot begin to behave like a rich country’. Then he offered a necessarily far placed idea of when the timing could be right for such a scheme: this, he said, would be when the per capita income in India would be $5000 p.a., at least, till then, he said, ‘you cannot destroy a nation’s culture by creating entitlements’.

Nikhil Dey responded to Das with some obvious indignation but much precision. He offered examples of several low and middle-income countries that have instituted universal or near universal non-contributory old age pension systems. In doing so, he wanted to suggest that which should be painfully obvious to all of us: that there is no linear time-frame which can be operative in regard to this question, that we cannot wait till that mythical ideal time is upon us to institute such a scheme. There are several examples in which such a time-frame used to argue for deferral has been rightfully short-circuited. The country Lesotho, which has a per capita GDP that is about two-third that of India’s, pays the equivalent of 2300 rupees per month to its elderly as pension. Kenya with just half the per capita GDP of India pays over 1250 rupees per month. Even Nepal, with per capita GDP about one third that of India’s, pays a pension of 313 rupees per month to its elderly.

It is clear that we cannot defer this question. Not only have we to answer it now, we also have to add some other vital questions to our basket: for instance, if we say we cannot afford the 2 lakh crore p.a. that would be the cost of running this scheme, then we should begin asking as to how can we make it affordable? We should also ask if we can afford the lakhs of crores we give to the rich MNCs in tax subsidies, and whether, we can afford this entire current regime of taxation which is easier on the rich? We can then think concretely of employing a particular cess on those industries that have been the beneficiaries of the unorganized sector labour to fund the pension for those men and women who worked for it, for what is pension after all, Dey asked, if not ‘a part of your working life later extended to security’, thus, it is never charity, but as something earned throughout life. Finally, we have to counterbalance this question of financial affordability with the question of moral affordability and treat them always as one and the same question: ‘Can we afford,’ Dey asked at the end of the televised debate, ‘to let our elderly die without a concern?’ You cannot vaguely agree on moral terms on this scheme but backtrack on the question of finance. We have to mobilize the political will to create the resources for this scheme. This political will will never be a given, it has to be created, painstakingly.

Figure 4 Pension Parishad, New Delhi, 7-11th May, 2012. Photo Courtesy: Digvijay Singh.
One of the most difficult things about old age is always the effective invisibility that comes with it: the invisibility in public space, the invisibility in state policy, the increasing invisibility even in the spaces of the family. This is the kind of invisibility which creates the climate for understanding the old only in terms of inoffensive, general truisms rather than in specific, political details because they end up occupying only the shadowy edges of our lives. As more and more farmers and artisans are turned into daily wage laborers who migrate to bigger cities for livelihood, all in accordance to our changing economic policies, India has more old people living on their own than ever before. We have a population of about ten crore elderly people, more than one sixth of which live alone or only with another elderly person, their children having migrated for work. Often, these elderly people have to continue working far into their age brackets and have to stretch their physical limits in order to have any chance of survival. If they were to stop working, many of them would starve to a lonely death, as is vouched by the fact that most number of deaths from cold-waves, homelessness and starvation in Indian cities are those of the elderly people. We have to create a climate in which the elderly can make a shattering re-entry into the terrain of visibility, into our cities, onto our pavements, into our policy documents and most importantly into our ageist imaginations. The path towards their dignity has to be laid out with this fundamental guarantee of financial independence. The Pension Parishad is only the beginning of this long overdue redressal. After all, at its root pension has the Latin etymon of pendere, which is to weigh. What we make of this campaign will decide how India weighs its own elderly, in what esteem it holds them, whether and how much it makes them count.