Friday, September 19, 2008

Of quandaries and conundrums!

This post has been brewing for quite some time(which implies that it's a bit behind its times) but as issues go, this is one of the "immortals", so...

The issue of course, is Kashmir. Now I know that half the world has written on Kashmir and the other half has responded in the past couple of weeks. Amidst this cacophony of (often unbearably sanctimonious) noises, the issues involved, the players concerned and the human tragedy of it as usual, gets merged with the innumerable sound-bytes, the live reports, the dramatization and the studio debates- a truly post-modern condition. An Indian(interested albeit) living in the South of the country, has few options besides trawling through tons of information and making suppositions in the hope of gaining insights most others would not mind missing.

Of the many voices(and noises), two articles fascinated me the most. Both are by writers I avidly follow and sometimes disagree with. The interesting thing about Arundhati Roy' article/essay in "The Outlook" and Praveen Swami' s piece in "The Hindu" was the way in which these two views encapsulated the dilemma of those who follow this country's story yet keep all eyes open for the many crimes that are perpetuated in the name of nation, progress and duty.

It is true that neither of these writers can be compared. Arundhati Roy is a "professional dissenter", an individual who has made a career out of asking questions of the state(often in most eloquent/dramatic terms) and going for the jugular of the state whenever she has perceived it going against a specific moral standard. Praveen Swami is the quintessential establishment journalist, a prolific writer on issues of terrorism and Kashmir and often quoting what Ms Roy contemptuously refers to as "the inevitable "Intelligence" sources". Swami, on most occasions is an "unbiased" journalist-he critiques the state, Hindu/Muslim/Sikh fundamentalists, opportunist political figures, in short everybody. Roy, on the other hand, is at her best when she attacks the very foundation of the state, the very beliefs that a lot of the middle class cherish-in fact a reader often feels that the attack sometimes becomes a theatrical device with a will of its own.

The last paragraph was necessary as an explanation to the very obvious difference that shouts itself out when someone reads the articles. Arundhati Roy sees the protests over the Amarnath Shrine Board as reflective of the overwhelming anti-India sentiment among the populace of Kashmir. As she puts it "The separatist leaders who do appear and speak at rallies are not leaders so much as followers". Swami on the other hand, writing a lead-page article, analyses the whole issue through the angle of two of the prominent separatist leaders of the movement, Syed Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Roy advocates the separation of Kashmir from India(for the sake of both entities). Swami writes in the tradition of the classical analyst, seeking damage control, solutions short-term and long-term but never for a moment even considering the idea of any radical change to India's territorial integrity.

It is unfair(especially to Swamy who has analyzed many other aspects of the struggle) to compare these two articles. Yet these two, in some senses, embody the split that often characterizes the thinking of an "open-minded" individual. A cursory reading of Roy is enough to feel the intensity of the struggle, her arguments on the stupidity and malice of the "Deep State" are to say the least, spot-on. Yet it is obvious (even to her?) that the Indian state cannot let go of Kashmir. Doing so will endanger the very concept of the country. The fragile glue that holds it together will vanish, leaving acrimony,vengeance and despair in its wake. India will cover Kashmir with a blanket or grip its throat and render it mute but will never let go of Kashmir. To do so will take the lid off similar cans of worms and spark off a million mutinies. We are all complicit in this act of silencing. We who enjoy the facilities of the Indian state, we who choose to disagree with it in the forums provided by it, Ms Roy who accuses the state, I who accuse her of being complicit in it....

This is not an attempt at constructing a Foucalt-ian nightmare. Nor is it a cry in the wild about "who will change the system". What I am wondering about is where to place the appeal to the "moral" that Roy excels in, in the context of our own explicit/implicit involvement and approval of the mechanisms of the Indian state. Or perhaps the question is whether dissent of Arundhati Roy's kind is of any value except as a theatrical prop. Swamy represents a line of argument which enables one to avoid these issues. According to this, Kashmir becomes a multi-player chess board. All players make mistakes, others take advantage of them, our job is to examine our mistakes, redress them and ensure victory. This argument begins and ends with the proposal that Kashmir is ours and we must keep it although we must also treat the Kashmiris as we would want them to treat us.

Swamy's argument seems like the best of two worlds. India gets to keep Kashmir and also keep it on "civilized" terms. It is convenient and enables one to take on the moral aura of being an honest critic. It is classic journalism. Roy' stand is, if I may say, convenient as well. Things have not reached a state where advocating the separation of India and Kashmir will get a writer thrown into a state dungeon. Her stand is that of the ultimate radical. It is pointless to pose, in that context, whether what one suggests is realistic or not. Or even whether radicalism of this sort is, at the end of the day, a way to just wear a bigger moral aura by criticizing the ones who wear them.

The problem is when one realizes that the present and the future are a combination of what the both of these divergent views suggest. The problem is when one sees that what is "morally" obvious is politically impossible and what is politically advisable is "morally" disreputable. It's not a new quandary. In fact it's as old as politics itself. Just that every once in a while it hits you hard leaving you bleeding and worse completely in the dark.

My profound apologies if these sounded like existential moans! That was not the intention.

P.S. A pretty powerful article by a critic(note the Indian-occupied Kashmir at the bottom) also beginning from an analysis by the media and going on to making some effective points(and some disputable ones).

P.S 2- I am generally bad with typos but this post had an unbelievable number of them. Most of them have been sorted out(I hope).


Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. So you, too, join half the world in writing about Kashmir. :)
Made for interesting reading, tho'.

I'm with you on this:

"We are all complicit in this act of silencing. We who enjoy the facilities of the Indian state, we who choose to disagree with it in the forums provided by it, Ms Roy who accuses the state, I who accuse her of being complicit in it...."

I find it interesting that Roy's opinions are often described as 'posturing'. Her writing was/is always political, so her stance on issues doesn't really surprise me. Do we find radical opinions/ dissent from 'unattached' individuals 'posturing'? Remember her famous exchange with Ram Guha many years ago, in The Hindu was it?

I think it is possible to find inconsistencies in just about anything and everyone. Take blogs for instance. They are supposed to be great vehicles of free speech, forums for voices that might not otherwise be heard. And yet, many such bloggers who talk about free speech will have comment moderation enabled. Ironic isn't it - attempting to control who gets to speak?

What else can we do but posture?

Prasanth said...

And you have joined the other half that has responded :P

To begin with sources, here is a list of articles/interview that comprise the significant parts of the Guha-Roy debate.

First of all, I did not intend to critique/interrogate the stand point of either writer as much as the stand that a reader(read me) who is open to both has/wants to take. I for one, see both the truth in Roy's article and that in Swami's piece while also realizing that the two come from diametrically opposed philosophies. The idea of trying to integrate them is what causes all the above mentioned quandaries

I too believe that there is the something very fascinating about Arundhati Roy's non-fiction. Part of it lies in the amount of moral indignation she inspires through her writing. This is what is described as hyperbole, "theatrical prop"(from my own post) or 'posturing'. We would like to leave all of this to politicians, activists and their like. Writers are permitted to display such tendencies in their fiction. But journalists or those who adopt that style are often expected to be "objective" and "dispassionate". The reasons to view anything that does not conform to this stand with suspicion could be:

1) The belief that summoning moral indignation must inevitably be accompanied by a visible focusing of that spirit to some cause. So we permit politicians or activists to harness this sentiment but are a bit unsure when journalists do so.

2) The belief that dramatic,"partisan", (for want of a better word) writing is not the ideal way to address an issue. The ideal way is to debate it, state/list pros and cons and argue it out "rationally".

Arundhati Roy has broken the boundaries created by many of these beliefs. She has consistently engaged in "journalism" but her style of debate does not match that of the traditional journalist or scholar. It provokes, pierces and leaves bleeding wounds on the page. Thus most of the debate around her stems from the issue of where to place her--writer? writer-activist? writer-journalist?

My problem is not so much with her writing as much as with the fact that her writing has become one of the staples on our critical firmament. It has become convenient and fashionable to read Roy and quote her. Of course everything gets institutionalized but there is nothing as jarring as institutionalized indignation.

This is no way complete..but still.. :)

Anonymous said...

Ummm, I agree with your analysis of why an apparently non-rational stand is viewed with suspicion. However, I personally think words like 'rational'and 'objective'are dicey, and well, subjective. :)

Swami was on CNN IBN a lot during the time of the Ahmedabad blasts and what I observed with interest was the way he would insist on the veracity of his 'sources' of info to claim superority over opposing views. Sort of ties in with what you said about the 'objectivity'of journalism. But I wonder how many of these sources would stand the test of objectivity?

And by the way I did not mean to suggest that you were criticizing Roy's stand. Was just making an observation on how she is generally perceived. About her being institutionalized - well yes, she gets a lot of publicity, but not really serious attention, perhaps?

Prasanth said...

Funnily enough Swamy first really burst into popular imagination ;) through his expose of fake encounters conducted by the Army. There have also been rumors connecting him to the Intelligence Services.

As for paying attention to Roy, I agree that she isn't(at least now a days) heard with much attention. But then, is it necessary to be treated/heard seriously to be institutionalized (a la the celebrity and all)? :)

Worth an Mphil..possibly 2 :)

Pooja said...

Enjoyed the post and the follow-ups, too.

Prasanth, excellent take on both sets of views. Bravo!

Prasanth said...

Thanks a lot Pooja! :)