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I DISSENT, SO I AM

The current state of affairs in the United States, Israel and India proves that when democracies degrade themselves, the resulting damage extends beyond their borders. The subversion of democratic principles and precepts inevitably affects all democracies since each draws sustenance from the other’s ideals, from the integrity with which these are implemented, and the will with which mature societies reject despotism.

The reverse is equally true. The arrogance of unprincipled leaders and their contempt for constitutional constraints engenders political and moral relativism of the worst kind which affects similar societies by coarsening their sensibilities to principled governance. In much the same way, healthy democratic practices exert a positive influence on them.

What the world is witnessing today is the perversion of a unique ideal by the above three, situated thousands of miles from each other. Since we live in an age of communications, with sophisticated information technologies perfected to influence – even deceive – people, few realize how seriously the foundations of democratic societies are being undermined by these exemplars who are betraying their social and political ideals. They are now set on a course which could unravel the checks and balances they had so impressively established to safeguard their people’s freedoms. American society has withstood many attempts in the past to derail its democratic institutions. The system triumphed over willful efforts of those to whom open governance was anathema. But the September 11 attacks on American symbols of financial and military power put an end to all pretensions of civilized response to such exigencies. Sadly, the American public, unnerved by the suddenness of the September events, accepted the Administration’s every move to trample on its rights, with much of the media falling over itself to perpetuate the myth of patriotism. As if patriotism required a people to give up their civil liberties, racial equality, a fair criminal justice system, and freedom of expression. As if patriotism conferred on arrogant leaders the right to snuff out thousands of innocent lives in distant lands.

Since some of these indignities affect the lives of American people, it is clearly their business. But democratic ideals have a larger constituency; they cannot be modified to serve only a single nation’s interests. They call for acceptable norms of conduct because the rest of the world is also concerned, since every action of a major power directly or indirectly affects others as well.

This principled obligation has been dispensed with after September 11, a fact which was highlighted a few days ago when American unilateralism emerged from the closet in speeches by Colin Powell and Paul O’Neill at the World Economic Forum on February 1. They had the effrontery to announce to the delegates that the US would go after terrorism alone, even if it meant militarily attacking countries it designates as rogue states. The message to everyone – whether allies or opponents – was clear: what was required of them was complete acquiescence as willing vassals of Washington. As an American friend put it to me: "The role of the allies is being defined in Afghanistan. We Americans create the rubble and our allies clean it up. They will fall in step to our drumbeat, or else! Their task is straightforward – to invest and profit from resources in rebuilding an environment safe for corporate America." Oil fields in the neighborhood, pipelines, military hardware, bases – you name it.

Military adventurism, aimed at dominating or coercing weaker nations is just one of many ways in which a wayward democracy, no longer moored to its Jeffersonian principles, can damage other democracies, since it is not only physical damage which befouls the lives of people. Other precedents set can be equally disastrous to the direction taken by open societies. Israel exemplifies this self-evident truth. If America is prepared to attack any country it declares a rogue state, what prevents Israel from bombing Palestinians from the air, assassinating their leaders, and denying Palestinians the right to exist in their homeland? America is the inspiration for Israeli unilateralism; for terrorism by the state which Washington fully backs. Ironically, when the Jewish people were fighting for their homeland in Palestine in the 1930s and part of the 40s, their underground was declared terrorist in the Western world. Now, of course, Yasser Arafat is the prime terrorist, that is, when he is not being received at the White House. Double standards gain respectability when backed by military power.

But a recent expression of dissent in Israel has come in the form of a refusal by 50 officers and combat reservists of the Israel Defense Forces to serve any longer in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. "We shall fight no more…to rule, deport, destroy, blockade, exterminate, starve, and humiliate" the Palestinian people, they said in a public letter which Yediot Ahranot, Israel’s largest newspaper, published on January 29. "The price of occupation is the loss of humanity in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and the corruption of the whole of Israeli society," the letter said. This in essence is what democracy is about. And because principled dissent exists in Israel – as it does in the US and India – there is hope for these countries.

My own visit to Israel was an unforgettable experience. I landed at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport on October 17, 1967 – just four and a half months after the Six-Day War. I spent the first night in Haifa’s Dan Carmel Hotel and the picture that has stayed in my mind ever since is of two old men sitting contentedly on a bench in Haifa. That picture symbolized a number of things for me: the right to spend life’s last years in peace and dignity, the security of a cherished homeland, the rewards of perseverance and faith, the end of a long search. The two men represented the story of a dispersal which began after the Babylonian captivity two and a half millennia ago.

But despite the remarkable achievements of the new state of Israel, and the many-faceted appeal of the Israeli personality, I was dismayed by the increasing savagery of Israel’s response to Palestinian protests within her borders. It was at odds with Israeli courage and endurance, even more so since the cold-blooded killing of unarmed stone-throwing Palestinians, was unbecoming of a people who had been relentlessly persecuted themselves over the centuries. Even that response was far less barbaric than the brutality which is now being visited on the Palestinians under Ariel Sharon. It is a reflection of his and the American leadership’s contempt for democratic decencies.

In India too, disregard for decencies in public life is increasing – a process to which the US has unwittingly contributed through its own indifference to its citizens’ Constitutional safeguards. As each of our central ministers: Home, Foreign and Defense, not to forget the Prime Minister, return starry-eyed from a Washington pilgrimage, our policies and new laws take on a more vicious instrumentality. The rationale offered is that if the US – the world’s oldest democracy – can take such harsh measures to safeguard the national interest, why can’t we? The enactment of POTO (Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance) is thus justified. All, of course, in the name of fighting terrorism. Isn’t this how America and Israel too are justifying their transgressions?! Gore Vidal has said that "Political decadence occurs when the forms that a state pretends to observe are known to be empty of all meaning. Who does not publicly worship the Constitution? Who, in practice, observes it at all?"

It wouldn’t be as dangerous to a democracy’s well-being if a wayward Bill was the only threat it faced. Such legislation can be defeated in Parliament. But if Parliament itself became an assembly of parliamentarians with criminal records – as is happening in India – how long can democracy survive? When religious fundamentalists occupy positions of power, and provide political support and cover to errant policemen prone to torture, rape, liquidate and secretly cremate innocents – all in the name of fighting terrorism, is civilized governance possible in such an environment? How does democracy survive when even honourable men of integrity end up supporting criminal acts by the security forces – either because they approve of them or are afraid to condemn misdeeds – and corruption runs rampant through government agencies?

It is important to raise these questions before constitutional governance is hijacked altogether. The saving grace in India lies in the higher echelons of the judiciary which has exerted its legal and moral authority to correct the wayward acts of our political establishment. Even the most cynical-minded see the Supreme Court as one of the few institutions of hope whose just rulings, from human rights and state terrorism, to environmental degradation and constitutional transgressions, are landed by those whose faith in just governance is at an all-time low. As for the print media – the watchdog of a democratic society – except for two or three independent newspapers of integrity, the others are aligned with various political parties either for the crumbs they can get, or because their owners have been coerced. So there is a familiar ring to Howard Zinn’s observation on the US press in the February 11 issue of The Nation. "The much-heralded ‘free press’ of this country, by its failure to report fully on the terror visited daily on the people of Afghanistan, has become a handmaiden to the US government, and bears some responsibility for the continuation of this spurious ‘war on terrorism’, or the deaths and mutilations reported in this article." If our papers – many of whose editors fawn on police officers with bloodied hands – were to objectively report on the indignities visited on Indian citizens, there would be fewer people joining the ranks of terrorists today.

Zinn’s article presents meticulously assembled accounts from various newspapers and agencies to give Americans glimpses of the tragedies inflicted on the innocent women and children of Afghanistan. He writes with compassion on America’s war on Afghanistan: "…for the Afghans we will have to imagine the hopes and dreams of those who died, especially the children, for whom 40 or 50 years of mornings, love, friendship, music, sunsets, and the sheer exhilaration of being alive were extinguished by monstrous machines sent over their land by men far away. My intention is not at all to diminish our compassion for the victims of the terrorism of September 11, but to enlarge that compassion to include the victims of all terrorism, any place any time, whether perpetrated by Mideast fanatics or American politicians."

Democracies will endure so long as the Bernard Lowns, Howard Zinns, Gore Vidals and the Noam Chomskys are around to expose the politicians’ excesses. India too needs more dissent, more persons of substance to stand up to dishonest politicians, more men and women who refuse to be seduced or coerced by the system. And leaders who have the foresight of a man like Abraham Lincoln who made the following observation in 1864 – almost 140 years ahead of his time: "…..We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood….but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."

Published in the Asian Age
Uploaded Feb 10, 2002 1939 w.

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Patwant Singh

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