Saturday, September 24, 2016

Unsent letters

Mad at Pakistan? Writing it down helps cool the brain

(Published today in Business Standard)

Dear Pakistani state,

In diplomatic terms, as we all know, you’re a sovereign power, an ally of both the US and China, and an important player in the fight against terrorism. In reality, though, as we all know, you’re a regional nuisance, and a massive pain in the neck of the world.

You could be best known for your ancient historical sites, your music, wildly popular television soaps, good food, and wonderful writers. But your defining cultural export, today, is religious fundamentalist terrorism.

You behave like the jobless, emotionally unstable neighbourhood resident who spends his days drinking and thrashing his family, and his nights setting fire to the neighbours’ cats. When called to account, you lie about it loudly, while stroking your nukes.

All this makes you difficult to like; a BBC poll a couple of years ago placed you second to the bottom on a list of favourably viewed countries. But then, you aren’t in a popularity contest. You’re too busy acting out childhood traumas, like the perennial adolescent who can never get over blaming his parents. Go ahead and make blustering speeches at the UN—everyone remembers you for stuff like Mumbai 26/11, and hosting Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. You keep talking about how Pakistanis are the greatest sufferers of terrorism, but not only do you gladly harbour vipers like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, you enthusiastically defend them; and your poisonous terror training camps attract jihad-happy wannabes from all over the world.

You get away with sponsoring terrorism in India because the option to this endless, blood-soaked tit-for-tat is for India to go full-on postal—and we don’t want to do that, because we’re not mental. Your low-grade tactics are enough to keep us bleeding, but not enough to provoke war. You know perfectly well that it if came to that, if it came to full-on postal, mental, stupid, unnecessary, conventional war, you would lose.

Yet, you suggest that India is killing its own soldiers to make Pakistan look bad. It makes you sound nuts—but after years of playing the aggrieved whiner, all you can really do is pretend that you like riding your hand-reared tiger-turned-maneater. No matter what the world says, no matter what the evidence, no matter how much it costs your own country, you’ll keep going back to your nasty little theocratic-geopolitical project, glorifying death, spreading terror among innocents, provoking contempt and fury, and bringing the consequences of your bloodlust down mostly on the shoulders of your own citizens. Because you don’t seem to know any other way to be.

Cheers, and go stick your head in a bucket, 

Dear India,

Well, it felt good to say all that. Now for us.

All you patriots raring to ‘teach Pakistan a lesson’—I really can’t think of a more self-defeating way to honour the dead soldiers in Uri than to send a ton more live ones off to get killed. Quit screaming for them to be sent to slaughter just because you’re feeling righteous, sitting in the news studio or on the internet in your civvies. You’re confusing having a tantrum with looking manly. If you’re feeling patriotic, go to a military recruitment office and sign up your own butt.

To the military: We appreciate everything you do for us civilians. Nobody’s perfect, and soldiers risk their lives by definition; losses are inevitable. But we need to know that you’re doing your very best by our soldiers, from equipment to infrastructure to intelligence to training to command. From what we’re hearing in the aftermath of the Uri attack, it’s not clear that this is true—and if it is, then your best is not yet good enough. Pathankot is still fresh in our minds. The point is not to berate the military—what do I know, sitting on the internet in my civvies? But I can, in my civvies, justifiably ask what the military is doing to maximise our soldiers’ chances in a dangerous part of the world.

As for our politicians: Nobody is forgetting that you don’t help with your handling of Kashmir, where you seek to quell with brute force, instead of working to win over an understandably disgruntled population. Now that the Prime Minister finds himself squeezed between rashly muscular electoral promises and considerably more nuanced ground realities, we can only hope that he will find an ‘Indian’ enough virtue in a measured response, even if it exposes his rabid hyper-nationalism project for the hollow, dangerous sham that it is, even if it turns hothead political friends into hothead political enemies.

Pakistan lives to provoke, but we have much more to gain from standing down from a position of untenable aggression and putting our own house in order instead.


Peacenik citizen

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The extempore has no clothes

But that’s the least of our problems

(Published on September 10, 2016 in Business Standard)

On the subject of Jain monk Tarun Sagar’s much-glorified extempore speech to the Haryana Assembly, I’m okay with the naked bit. Monastic nudity is a powerful statement about detachment and spiritual striving, and it takes enormous commitment to walk around naked in a clothed world. Good for him. Course, it would be a much more convincing philosophical stand if Jain nuns also walked around naked, since they are also spiritually striving humans, but then religion is very clear about what it thinks of women and their bodies. Whatever—I’m okay with Tarun Sagar going starkers. But that’s the least important part of the whole thing, and it only clouds the issue.

It is nothing short of pathetic for a religious figure, no matter how little or how much clothed, to a) be invited into a house of secular democracy against the rules, and b) deliver a speech about how politics must be subservient to religion—like a wife to a husband. Instead of a howl of protest from lawmakers, whom you might expect to most cleave to their own powers, we got only oily enabling, in the form of a raised dais for Tarun Sagar. By the way, he was invited to speak by the education minister. #Facepalm.

When hapless Vishal Dadlani tweeted his disgust of the whole matter, packs of god-botherers immediately jumped down his throat and filed a police case for hurting religious sentiments. Instead of lawyering up and standing for the right to criticise religion and religious leaders, a right which needs to be repeated often and loudly, he put out a statement of cloying contrition and praise for Tarun Sagar’s ‘magnanimity’ in ‘forgiving’ him. While that’s disappointing, I don’t judge Dadlani—it takes so much time, energy, and resources to fight stupid court cases, that you can’t begrudge anyone for choosing not to sacrifice their peace of mind.

But surely somebody has to? Surely that’s what the state, which serves the Constitution and is meant to uphold the law, is meant to do? Fat chance. You couldn't hear yourself think for all the sanctimonious tut-tutting from Arvind Kejriwal and co. And while the opposition cried foul on Tarun Sagar’s speech, it was about what he said more than the fact that he was allowed in. At the end of the day, every single political party is a devoted boot-licker of religion and religious leaders. So don’t be counting on the police or the local MLA to help you out should you find yourself faced with an army of religious zombies clutching FIRs.

But it’s infuriating, and saddening. When did India become the place where religious leaders give speeches that politicians say cannot be criticised? Where a whole area in Mumbai has to restrict its diet because of one religious festival? Where the game Pokemon Go is slapped with blasphemy and hurting religious sentiments because it features virtual eggs at virtual places of worship? Because yes, that happened, hitting world headlines. Just remember, Hindu nationalists, that just because the world shakes our hand and invites us to parties and signs deals with us, doesn’t mean it isn’t pointing at us and laughing.

We’ve hit a whole new level of religious crazy. It’s not elevated, it’s not sacred, it’s not spiritually evolved, it’s not worthy of reverence and respect—it’s just flat-out crazy. And our leaders are too invested, too calculating, too venal, and too irresponsible, to call it out. As a nation we seem to be pivoting away from rationality and problem-solving, towards the anti-intellectual path of docility and problem-avoidance. Why are courts even admitting complaints like the Pokemon Go case? Aren’t we supposed to be interpreting law to expand rather than constrain freedom, and promote rather than undermine scientific temper?

But that principle seems like a long time ago, before religion became a pillar of state policy—unofficial, unsaid, but fully expressed. To sow religion in politics is to reap low-hanging fruit. it’s just too tempting for politicians to ignore.

Meanwhile, all the unctuous hypocrisy about respecting all religions is plain damaging. I don’t, particularly—religions strike me as overhyped spiritual-political pacifiers, administered by spiritual-political pacifier salespeople. I have no beef with them either, as long as they don’t try to impose themselves on me, and stay within regulated noise limits. But until Indians can not just criticise but lampoon religion, make comedy out of religious leaders, write or film factual and analytical work on religions and their leaders, respect people instead of religions, and develop a healthy skepticism of ‘stature’ and holiness, we will be at the mercy of whichever soft-headed bigot or autocrat manages to gain power.

Keep religion out of politics, for (as they say) god’s sake.