Cult of Hatred: Pulwama, Terrorism and the unsteady politics of Nationalism

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A convoy carrying CRPF personnel in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir, is infiltrated and attacked by a suicide bomber belonging to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, killing over 40 jawaans. This is one of the worst terror attacks faced by India in decades.

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Mobs and processions throughout the country proclaim Pakistan Murdabad: Death to Pakistan. Debates on television call for war.

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Veteran Cricketer-turned-Comedian and Politician Navjot Singh Sidhu condemns the attacks, and asks if it is justified to hold an entire nation responsible for the acts of some. He is immediately branded pro-Pakistan – and therefore, for many, anti-national – and faces massive backlash on social media and elsewhere. A day after the remark, Sidhu is speculated to be sacked from the television comedy show he has been associated with for years.

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Amid mob action by ABVP, VHP, and Bajrang Dal, two colleges in Dehradun – Baba Farid Institute of Technology, and Alpine College of Management and Technology – declare that they would not be admitting any Kashmiri students into their institutions starting the following academic year. Meanwhile, demands are made for the dismissal of all Kashmiris who are currently studying here.

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“How’s the josh?” echo the voices of the millions who are yet to recover from the hangover of the catchphrase from the propagandistic movie Uri and from our Prime Minister. There is talk in India that war is imminent, and even necessary – that Pakistan’s crime is so heinous that it demands blood, even if it has to include our own. “How’s the josh?” shout some mourners at a martyr’s funeral, weaving irony by calling for more war and battle – more bloodshed.
How can we possibly avenge martyrdom by creating more martyrs?

When on the 14th of February, terrorists killed over forty personnel of the Central Reserve Police Forces at Pulwama, the wave of anger and mourning rising in response coagulated into two extremely dangerous kinds of hatred – that against Pakistan, and that against the people of Kashmir. Unfortunately for nation, this cult of hatred appears to be unsuspectingly and consciously cultivated.

There are levels to the wrongness of the discussions we are having as a nation at this time of crisis. The fact that a blind chant for “showing Pakistan its place” is catching on makes one more and more aware of the acute impact of exaggerated nationalism under sway of the current government. In the environment of a constant us-versus-them that we are in today, very biased and miopic opinions are magnified and disseminated. The focus today is on building militaristically strong states – hence the inordinately high emphasis on defence and armament everywhere. When you bring this form of post-Cold War power-fetishism together with the polarizing forces of nationalism, a potent hunger for war is formed. It is this hunger that is being fed to the masses. At the core of it all, it is still a hunger borne of hatred.

It is a strange kind of hatred, too. It may be less evident in the case of Pakistan, whom Indian governments have strategically learnt to hate; apparently in order to survive; but whom the BJP has time and again wished to ‘bring back’ under the fold of an Akhand Bharat. The strangeness is even more pronounced in the context of Kashmir, whose people have been consciously othered even as every attempt is made to keep them within the confines of India. The infantilisation of Kashmir in the Indian political ethos is heartbreakingly paradoxical: the idea is that Kashmiris don’t know what’s best for them, they cannot fend for their own selves, and hence must bow to whatever forms of protection India, the looming patriarch, provides them – especially against Pakistan. However, no stone that leads some of them to gravitate towards rebellion and militancy is left unturned, with the AFSPA, the contentious ground of Section 370, and the constant associations of Kashmiris with Pakistan muddled together with the constant attempt to dissociate the two completely and antagonistically. The hatred that is cultivated when a Kashmiri youth like Adil Ahmed Dar – identified as the suicide bomber employed in the Pulwama attacks – reaches its most unreasonable peaks when all Kashmiris are associated with militancy and terrorism. Ironically, most Indians do see the flaw of that logic when faced with the anti-Indian Armed Forces sentiment that prevails in many parts of Jammu and Kashmir due to the actions of some of its men.

Unsurprisingly, then, when Navjot Singh Sidhu asks if it is correct to blame the people of Pakistan for the acts of terror outfits and its possible sponsorship by their government, Indians choose to ostracise him instead, forgetting his call for strong action against the perpetrators. We choose to mob up and say Pakistan Murdabad, and to denounce all Kashmiri within the state and elsewhere in the country, and to call for war.

Let’s try to remember what we are forgetting. Of course, taking firm action against the perpetrators is necessary. Firm action has already been initiated against Pakistan, first in terms of India’s withdrawal of the former’s status as Most Favoured Nation in trade and of hiking up the customs duty on imports from the country by 200%, and later in terms of a diplomatic push to Indian allies – already affirmatively responded to by the US, France, Russia and Iran – in restricting engagement with Pakistan. This economic pressure on the Imran Khan government’s already precarious financial position is supplemented by the high probability of Pakistan being blacklisted for terror financing under the Financial Action Task Force, which could have very serious implications. Thus, conditions are being created for Pakistan to take fast action against its terror-breeding enclaves, or to face international isolation on a scale that could wreck fatal havoc for the nation if substantiated. Pakistan has already called back their ambassador in India for consultation, a visible result of this pressure.

In such a situation, the idea of ‘limited war’ – which is unfortunately and alarmingly being advocated through the media – needs careful reconsideration. While all sorts of military action, if taken, could lead to a restoration or rise in the Modi government’s receding popularity right before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are to be held, war will also be detrimental to the Indian economy – even if conducted on a limited scale – in ways that could set us back by decades. Moreover, with the Donald Trump presidency in the US, chances for US intervention in an Indo-Pak militaristic conflict resolution are bleak, especially in context of the US wishing to withdraw completely from Afghanistan. In fact, in case of an escalation of conflict, China – who has strong ties with and major investments in Pakistan – will be the intervening party. This can lead to a complete overturn of the dynamics at play, and not in a good way for us.

It is also important to remember the human costs of war. Bloodshed and martyrdom cannot be avenged by its larger-scale repetition. While the military is ready to lay down its lives for the nation, it shouldn’t have to, in face of other alternatives. Thus, the cry for war seems like a bad idea on almost all fronts – a good idea only for nationalistic political players, and not the nation itself.

Let us refer again to Sidhu, who is on the receiving end of massive flak for making some well-reasoned arguments. Speaking to the media outside the Punjab Assembly where he is minister, Sidhu reminded the media that it was the BJP government in 1999 that released Masood Azhar, chief of the outfit which has taken responsibility for Pulwama, in exchange for Indians held hostage at Kandahar. Of course, Kandahar was a high pressure situation with the immediacy of nearly 200 civilian lives at stake, but the NDA government’s Crisis Management Group did let the situation elevate when it could have been resolved at Amritsar, where the hijacked plane carrying the hostages first landed. Sidhu’s remark thus indirectly leads us to another important aspect of assessing the Pulwama attacks that is amiss in the angry Indian political consciousness right now: that of questioning those responsible from within our system.

One facet of the current wave of nationalism is the equation of the government with the nation in absolution, which has given rise to a trend where citizens are discouraged from questioning the government. However, it seems highly unlikely that a security attack on such a scale could have been carried out without some kind of help from insiders. How was the Indian intelligence unable to respond to such activity, which requires intensive and long-term planning and was detected and warned against? It is impossible for the suicide bomber in a private vehicle make it to such a high security area with staggering the amounts of explosives employed in the attack without either gross negligence or corrupt associating from within. A truly benevolent brand of nationalism would push for questioning in regard to these intricacies so that justice can be sought for the martyrs and the nation, and further crises avoided.

Meanwhile, it is also important to be cognizant of the many divisive politics being played out behind the angry mask of anti-terrorism: the harassment and antagonism against Kashmiris in specific and Muslims in general in light of the attack is a result of a mentality that seeks to divide and rule. It only helps the cause of radical militants on one hand and religious nationalism on the other. It is imperative that we do not let these truly anti-Indian elements win.


A situation such as the one in India right now calls for rationality, not only on part of the government but on part of the citizens it responds to. It is important not to give into the instigatory narratives disseminated through the televised media and through angry mobs, but to push the government into striving for better, more effective solutions.

You may follow updates on the events around the Pulwama attacks here.

Not Sanju, But the Media: How the Sanjay Dutt biopic shifts its dishonesty onto other shoulders

Celebrated director Rajkumar Hirani’s biopic of controversial Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, Sanju, has hit the cinemas and been declared a massive box office success. However, not quite delivering the honesty promised by it, Sanju is Ranbir Kapoor’s shot to critical acclaim at best and a highly defensive hagiography of Dutt at its worst. But far more disappointing is the film’s lack of genuine efforts into creating a case for Dutt’s innocence. Instead, it relies heavily on techniques for inducing the audiences’ tendency to sympathise, and pushes all the blame over to the media.

 

In reality, this act of the filmmakers feeding our disgust for media sensationalism is also snidely influencing us into seeing the actor’s vices and misdeeds through the rosy lens of sympathy – and even endearment.

 

This strategic move against the media is underscored in the credit song of the movie, ‘Baba Bolta Hai Bas Ho Gaya’. The song has Ranbir Kapoor appearing alongside the very actor he plays in the movie: together the two Sanjus poke fun at the media for allegedly spreading fake news about celebrities; taunting their ‘sources’ and their exaggerations which create masala out of thin air to serve to the public; and finally, thrusting their newspapers straight at the camera. This slamming of the media could not be better timed, for the issue of fake news is indeed a pertinent question being recognised today. But for a movie like Sanju doing so, the reasons are not so noble.

The smartest part of this full-frontal attack at the media is that nothing it now says about the nature of the film itself will be paid any heed to. Of course, the primary goal of the move is to absolve Dutt of any blame whatsoever – and paint a misunderstood-at-best image of the star – by shifting it to the easiest possible target. Because a sizeable section of the Indian media is indeed deplorably sensationalist, anyone feels drawn to the idea of cursing at it. In reality, however, this act of the filmmakers feeding our disgust for media sensationalism is also snidely influencing us into seeing the actor’s vices and misdeeds through the rosy lens of sympathy – and even endearment.

[Video: the credit song to ‘Sanju’ pokes fun at a sensationalist media]

 

In fact, cinematic liberties; quite like the question marks used in news headlines which have been so attacked in the film; are a great way to simply do away with some crucial facts and details from the biopic in order to paint a rather likeable, honest-but-flawed image of the superstar. The very creation of emotional appeal in the film that makes it entertaining also renders it merely an appeal that bases itself solely on the audiences’ emotional understanding of the star. No stone is left unturned to portray him as an ordinary man – indeed, from ‘Sanjay Dutt’ he is changed completely into ‘Sanju’, with nothing in the movie showing the effects of wealth and stardom on his personality where there must have been at least some.

Even those things that the Indian society at large considers to be definitive signs of vice are presented to viewers as misguided virtue on the part of Sanju: from drugs and womanizing, to his connections to the underworld; things that are normally considered signs of a detestable character are shown as acceptable ‘mistakes’ through elements of comedy and fetishisation, even as these are not accepted as mistakes for literally anyone else who commits them — not such an ordinary man, then, is he?

Dutt’s character in the movie is essentially a man-child, who is just under so much pressure of living up to his parents’ expectations and legacies. This is made clear in an abundance of excessively emotional, and even slightly artificial scenes in the movie.

The angle of Dutt’s trouble with pressure and ‘bad choices’ is played out from the very beginning of the film, which starts with the launch of the star’s acting career and his drug addiction amidst the failing health and eventual death of his mother, the legendary actress Nargis. The first half of the movie follows only the trajectory of his spiraling into addiction, peppered with enough scenes of friendship and comedy that not only entertain adequately, but also ensure that the audience attaches itself to the character. This is because the second half relies purely on this attachment and subsequently, on the sympathy it is able to generate for Sanju – who, through a quick succession of events and scenes is convicted for possessing an AK-56 assault rifle and a hand in the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings, and then is able to acquit himself of any mal-intentions (and terrorist activity) by proving that at its worst, everything was the fault of the media’s thirst for creating masala. The AK-56s were acquired to protect his family from the threat of harm from those against father Sunil Dutt’s humanitarian work post-Babri Masjid: in the end, ‘Sanju’ is just a man deeply sensitive and emotional, who cares for his family and wishes to protect it.

 

Cinematic liberties; quite like the ‘question marks’ used in news headlines which have been so attacked in the film; are a great way to simply do away with some crucial facts and details from the biopic in order to paint a rather likeable, honest-but-flawed image of the superstar.

 

This image of the family man is, too carefully constructed through certain cinematic liberties of omission. While Dutt’s third wife, Maanyata (played by actress Dia Mirza), is portrayed as his rock throughout the scenes from the movie’s present; all mention of his first two wives and his eldest daughter is conveniently missing. The strong ‘differences’ – both personal and political – between Dutt and his siblings; especially Priya Dutt; are also omitted through the marginal presence of his sisters in the movie. After all, the very ploy of showing how Dutt only acquired the guns for his father and sisters’ protection requires all of them to not only have a great relationship with the star, but also be dependent on him. Priya in the film is bereft of any dialogues or real presence, but increasingly seen accompanying her father and brother in scenes from the second half – a deliberate move to counter the reality of their relationship. The movie also fails to mention the (later withdrawn) statement made by Dutt to the police about possessing some licensed guns apparently due to his love for hunting sports, in addition to the AK-56s. This omission can possibly be explained by the fact that the statement makes blurry the need for acquiring the weapon which he was convicted for possessing in the first place. Yet, in spite of all these discrepancies, the blame for dishonesty is put squarely on the media since the burden of proof of honesty is too much for the movie to attempt to address. It is notable that even Anushka Sharma’s character as the well-known biographer sought after by Dutt is unconvincing and relies solely on the ‘truth’ of the story that Sanju narrates to her himself. The logical end is that since it takes this biographer no more proof to believe in Dutt’s honesty, it shouldn’t take the audience anymore, either. It is ironic that the media, which reports news mostly on the basis of similarly verifiable sources, is attacked for doing the very thing by the film which the film itself does.

But perhaps the greatest device in the movie for Dutt’s redemption in the eyes of the public is his face in the movie: Ranbir Kapoor’s performance in his subsuming completely into the personality of Sanju overshadows most other things – good and bad – about the movie. Indeed, he makes Sanju’s vices and his mannerisms appear almost charming. Of course, the role of the charming man-child is Kapoor’s strong suit, but despite the limited script he does bring the character fully to life – any less than this performance would have likely led to the sympathetic angle falling through. In that case, the only thing that keeps Sanju‘s attack on the media standing and even immune to question is the convincing power of Ranbir’s acting.

All of this is not to say that there seems to be no truth in Sanju‘s attacks on the media’s sensationalist tendencies itself, but to put all the blame entirely on the news is too escapist of a movie that earnestly claims honesty. Percase if Sanju was presented more as the realistic ‘ordinary’ man that he was intended to be and less as the victim/saint, there would be more credibility awarded to this lambasting of the media. After all, there can’t be news without the newsmaker.


 

What did you think about Sanju and its take on the media? Feel free to share your views in the comments below!