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Monday, December 15, 2008

Terrorism as Civilisational Paranoia

Randomness and unpredictability are the defining characteristics of terrorism; the way it selects its targets, the manner in which victim-hood gets displaced and dispersed from those under threat to society as a whole are of the essence of its diabolic hold on our imagination. One may not have done anything to hurt the cause of the terrorist and yet be sucked in the vortex of revenge and retribution as it happened in Mumbai recently, where revelers, business travelers, party goers or ordinary commuters were cut down by a hail of gunfire. The loved ones that they left behind to mourn did not have even so much as a faint reason to attribute their misfortune to. The terrorist attacks, have succeeded in instilling fear and anxieties in the minds of not only the Mumbaikars but of the country as a whole, about the ability of the state to ensure their protection against these depredations. Mumbai’s anguished cry- enough is enough- has been taken up, amplified and finds a resonance all over the country. Make the police more efficient is the rallying war cry. The prayers seem to have been heard-not here, not yet any way-but in Hein Reich Boll’s nerve wracking novel The Safety Net.

Fritz Tolm’s election as the President of the “Association", which is the consortium of all the industries of Germany, makes him the most visible symbol of capitalism. His position automatically earns him the tag of the enemy and a place on the hit list of the radical group, alternative society identified merely as “They” which is perhaps just as well, because the discourse on terrorism is largely couched in shadow hints metaphors, unprovable claims, plausible deniability etc. The threat is undefined, yet perpetually present because the suspects include members of the family as well. As the safety net is spread farther and wider to apprehend the assailant before he strikes, the placid and tranquil suburb transforms into a schizoid world; the people stand designated in their fate either as the terrorists or the terrorized, presided over by the ever present security apparatus. The Safety Net is the finalized and teleological promise of comprehensive and fool proof security. But it comes at a price. The lives of the protectees are no longer their own and they must live and die, marry or mate under the gaze of the omniscient, omni present security, like so many fish in a gold bowl. And yet the all-encompassing security, this achieved utopia of a carcereal society fails to reassure. "The best that we can do is to acknowledge that we are prisoners-that we will perish in security perhaps from security", rues one of the characters.

Meanwhile, even in this highly sanitized world Sabine, the daughter of Fritz, gets “impregnated” outside her marriage. It is in keeping with the whole atmosphere of the novel where even inch of that space which we call private – the conversation between spouses is monitored- the whole issue is treated only as a lapse of security, and not as a breach of trust between the spouses “only the security people can know who the father of our grand child, is if the surveillance is really functioning”. The lover incidentally is Herbert Handler, her guard. On the other hand Breur’s nice little escapade, which did not hurt any one gets blown up with unfortunate consequence, “If we hadn’t been living in a palce, that was always swarming with cops, it would never have got out”. The decadent world of the rich and the spoilt with their fetish for porn and promiscuity is stood on its head and in the ironic trade off the it is only the policeman protectors who have the opportunity for adultery because they have invaded every one’s privacy while carving out a large private space for them selves.

The cops have taken position allover, but still fear takes up permanent residence, living secretly in the bones of the denizens and an undemonstrative distrustfulness to ones neighbour becomes the necessary attitude to have in your survival kit. All ready in our terror stricken cities paranoia in medicinal doses is being prescribed to keep ones sanity intact as the checklist of “to do” and “not to do” increases after every terrorist incident. In the Safety Net somebody reads a book called Castro's Path and immediately attracts silent, icy, hostile and grim looks" as if they were ready to strangle me any minute", which is chillingly close and contemporary. One can be taken off the flight, detained, grilled and deported for lesser crimes: from finger printing to thought reading, from surveillance to racial profiling, whatever the security apparatus can dream up is translated into a gadget, but how can one stop a nihilistic thought arising in some head, some where specially if he has been so thoroughly schooled in the ethic of hatred. “Holger I was, the time bomb; he had become a stranger to her……”They"-who-probably Bev too, had fed something into Holger that was more dangerous than the stuff used to make bombs. Holger was in urgent need of-treatment…… obviously the boy had the bomb in the brain…. How to handle him-hands not words, might be able to heal him". . . Veronica the potential assassin gives up at the last moment but the issue of the bomb in the brain lies unresolved. .
That's how it is. Guns and surveillance are all right but shouldn't we be addressing ourselves with much greater urgency, than we have done so far, to devising an equitable global order, which ensures freedom, equality and liberty for all. The absolute numbers of the starved, disenfranchised, depoliticized, the waifs and refugees, the stateless and asylum seekers of the globalized world order are growing, just as newer records are being notched up for personal wealth. Terrorism is a mere “side show” compared to these problems, says Prof Walter Laquer the acknowledged authority on such matters. The systems and institutions built over the years to contain these pathologies and come to an equable association in healthy ways seem to have become immunodeficient. Alienation starts with the first letter of the alphabet, A, and addressing ourselves to this problem must be one of our first tasks to stem the tide of terrorism.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Making the Police Count

Thousands of lives have been lost in terrorist incidents in locales as varied and different as running trains, shopping centres, places of worship but these were hardly the places where merchant bankers, captains of industry, media barons, and the upper crust the citizens of the global order were likely to be in the normal course of business. Some de rigour noises were made but very soon it was business as usual. But the attack the Taj and other places, has forced them to take notice that our police forces are ill equipped, poorly armed, poorly paid, grossly overworked, and interfered with in the discharge of its duties by politicians. These facts and much else had been highlighted in 1978 by the Dharamvir Commission Report, which was based on extensive interviews of people through out the country. But it was not discussed beyond the narrow grove of the professional circles. On the writ petition filed by an intrepid police officer, the Supreme Court directed way back in 2006, that governments should initiate reforms in the structural, professional and attitudinal make up of police, but alas! It was not to be because it lacked the backing of powerful groups which can compel policy decisions. Therefore, the compliance of many states has been tardy. In a particular state the new police act takes away with the left hand which it gives with its right, and the security of tenure of senior officers becomes contingent on the ambiguous and amorphous “administrative reason” clause. As mentioned above 26/11 has ushered in such a sea change of opinion in favour of police that ordinary citizens, media men, are mouthing the concerns that have remained unheeded for decades. Of course these are music to the ears of policemen but while the nation is prepared to lend the police their ears one must raise some basics issues – how does the concept of police function in our society? Is it an apolitical, professional organization equally available to all, or is it an adjunct of the power apparatus? The urgent impetuosity to the concern underlines the realization that police protection fell short of the needs of that section of society also which so far took things for granted. Some hard and intense soul searching needs to be done here as to how to extend the service to the more numerous poor people as well who are equally entitled to police protection.

The primary duty of police is maintainenance of law and order and prevention and detection of crime. Law one can understand-law as laid down by the legislature and codified in various acts like CrPC etc but what is order? This is are not merely a rhetorical question. The crime of rampant kidnapping as well as communal disturbance are both threats to law and order. The police force of a progressive state came in for a lot of adverse notice for the alleged denial of protection to the minorities when they needed it the most but otherwise its record has been very good. The other instance will perhaps complete the story. Another state failed miserably in curbing the menace of kidnapping but the law and order situation in relation to the minorities left nothing to be desired! How does one explain this?

Stanley Mailgram a management expert conducted a series of obedience experiments in Connecticut in 1961 and advanced a hypothesis that human beings have a natural tendency to obey men in authority and they will even stoop to needless brutality and inhumane treatment of their fellow beings should they feel so commanded by an authority. In the light of above findings we can better understand the conduct of the police force in which obedience is drilled in day in and day out. The propensity of elements of police to cater to the wishes of people in power is the stuff of our daily experience but now it is official. A central investigating agency swore an affidavit recently to indicate that at least in one case the investigation of case the followed the dictates of political expediency.

The organizational culture of police puts too much premium on blind obedience, even psycho fancy. So it is not unusual to find politically adroit officers in key position, even though they may be professionally at sea. We will do well to remind ourselves that the CBI, the IB, and R&AW were first rate professional organizations and enjoyed a huge credibility till the other day. Any critically aware newspaper reader knows why they have lost some of theeir sheen as well as the trust of the people. So the Federal agency is all very welcome, and under the stimulus of the challenge facing us today, the right men with the right aptitudes will take it to great heights but what is the guarantee that it would not someday file the affidavit like the one mentioned above. Therefore, the senior police leadership of the day, and in days to come, needs to be put through a crash course in disobedience – to train them to say no to illegal orders, to refuse to make the organization available to the dictates of political expediency.

This brings us to our next concern. Why should the governments arm themselves with enormous powers of appointing top retired officers to cushy sinecures? It is believed that there may be more than a few thousands of such posts conferring the status-and attendant privileges - of union cabinet ministers, ministers of state etc all over the country ? In effect it means a huge promotion for the chosen one after his superannuation. But surely there aren’t that many to satisfy the craving of all. So how are they chosen? The appointment of even class four employees is strictly regulated and yet every now and then we keep hearing of scandals of irregularity in appointments at the behest of the ruling political establishment. Hence more often than not the “here” is bartered by functionaries at top most positions to secure the “hereafter”. So while we are planning to give better protective body armour and weapons to the first responders in the police force, serious thoughts must be devoted as to how to protect the senior most leadership, against the lurking temptation, which erodes its capacity to take decisions. The most obvious remedy seems to be to hand over these appointments also to the UPSC and the state public service commissions.

The enactment of tougher laws and granting more powers to police, are all right. But given the propensity of police to voluntary servitude to those in authority, a mechanism of thorough performance audit by a neutral body to fix accountability as has been directed by the Supreme court, must be immediately put in place,in both letter and spirit,so that cases of abuse of authority, and abdication of courage and responsibility are dealt with sternly and summarily. One must remember that legal narratives only put the imprimatur of state authority on existing power relations, and in our highly unequal society, with tougher laws the perils of abuse deepen for the minorities,and the weaker and marginalized sections of the society.

Is that the whole story? Unfortunately no. In any discourse on police inadequacy the role of the civil servant remains conspicuously unexamined. The DM is the head of criminal administration, the commissioner writes the ACR of SP and so forth, the DM reports on the performance and conduct of the SP to the government directly, and the Home Secretary can starve the police of funds, promotional avenues and treats the top police leadership as if they were mendicants on his personal charity. And yet when it comes to owning responsibility, like Eliot’s practical cat Mcavity, “whatever time the deed took place he was not there”. “Privilege without responsibility”, said Lord Beaverbrook “has been the prerogative of the harlot through the ages. ” It is high time we cried a halt to the harlotry of power all around.