Ten years ago, after the 9/11 attacks, many commentators in Europe and USA expressed dismay at the way some Palestinians were seen celebrating the planes crashing into skyscrapers. Today, when Americans are shown dancing in front of the White House to rejoice at the execution of Osama bin Laden, dissenting voices in mainstream media have been few and far between. After all, America has shown the world yet again that “there is nothing we cannot do”, as Barack Obama succinctly expressed it. He should know, being a law student himself and a Nobel Peace Laureate. But since today the USA sets the precedent for the civilized Western world to ensure that “justice has been done”, one is left wondering what justice constitutes of.
Summary justice, as delivered in the Osama bin Laden case, is nothing new to Homo sapiens. Indeed, some evolutionary researchers have often posited that violence is inherent in our genes, a controversial claim giving rise to heated debate. Given the fact that we are descended from apes(if you believe in evolution and disregard religious sermons that predict the end of the world on specific dates), there is a substantive body of evidence that shows that humans do bear the seeds of aggression. But the point is, are we not capable of getting out of this tendency?
The anthropologist Desmond Morris had suggested that on the whole, human beings are an amazingly peaceful species given our huge population. Most certainly, for every act of savagery there are many acts of kindness and cooperation. But we can surely do better given the current state of politics and the prevalence of the ‘might makes right’ philosophy that we continue to adhere to regardless of the much vaunted progress we like to espouse.
Two recent killings in Bengal, one of an environmental activist and another of a nine year old child accused of stealing a watermelon, illustrate that perhaps in India, we have not moved much beyond the times when we were indistinguishable from apes. Massive inequality in wealth, social status, basic amenities, job opportunities and immense corruption in governance has ensured that death by lynching or mob violence is a fact of life in this country. It was Antonio Gramsci, the philosopher, who had expostulated eloquently on the concept of ‘cultural hegemony’ as a means of maintaining the capitalist state. In India, of late it seems capitalism has become a force for empowerment and enjoyment of upper classes and the English speaking middle classes. Whilst the merits and demerits of capitalism constitute a huge platform for debate, one can safely say, any system that breeds ignorance, arrogance and disregard of one’s fellow beings is a flawed set up.
When was the last time you read someone like Palagummi Sainath writing on poverty? How many pages in a slick city newspaper address concerns of the rural disenfranchised, women’s issues, tribal issues, farmers’ issues, concerns for human rights, the dismal state of education in rural India or the children who dance on the streets like performing monkeys in front of India Habitat Centre in Delhi to earn a few paise? Are they a part of shining India? Seems not.
And when due to systematic deprivation by the very same forces that were granted power to do good for these people, the disenfranchised, revolt or take up arms, they become enemies of the state. And the state, whether it is India or USA, does little to hesitate in its effort to mete out summary justice to prevent the apple cart from getting upset. The killing of wildlife activist Amit Jethwa in Gujarat last year for opposing limestone mining, the constant harassment of activists opposed to environmental destruction caused by proposed Special Economic Zones in different parts of the country, the killing of villagers opposing power plants by police in Andhra Pradesh, the skirmishes surrounding Vedanta in Orissa are but a small sampling of the ongoing social struggles in India. The common thread surrounding all these cases is of course, violence and the prevalence of summary justice.
But, are not the pesky environmentalists opposed to progress? And the gun toting villagers terrorists? And has not inequality been with mankind since the dawn of time? Are not the critics of the current status quo of money worshipping merely naysayers and hopeless pessimists? And have the revolutionaries also not caused death and destruction in their pursuit of justice? Having faced summary justice themselves, have they not indulged in the same process themselves to attain their own goals?
These are valid questions, all relevant but since two wrongs do not make a right, they not absolve the state and those in power from their misdeeds. Neither do they condone killing of civilians by armed groups fighting for self determination and a dignified social status. What they do show is that inclusive growth and development are needed if we have to keep violence and anger in check. And it has to be kept in mind that not all forms of violence relate to social deprivation. Some forms of violence are plainly sadistic but reflect summary justice all the same. A very common form of bravado in India is the mass lynching of a thief whereby even a passerby who has absolutely nothing to gain or lose from the act of theft will deliver a punch to the thief to ‘teach him a lesson’. Disturbing footage of an alleged criminal being dragged down the street in India reveal that despite our deep seated religious orientation, we seek vengeance at the slightest possible opportunity.
In the international context, bullying and mass murder are justified as long as your victims do not belong to the so called First world. Therefore, killing of an unarmed man is welcome, but leaders of states that have killed hundreds and thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, go around with inflated chests signing their autobiographies. What reaction would emanate from the Western world, as Noam Chomsky has suggested, if Iraqi commandos raided George Bush’s residence, killed him and dumped his body in the Atlantic Ocean? How many cruise missiles would be sent to pulverize cities if Buckingham Palace had been targeted the way Gaddafi’s compound has been in Tripoli?
The biggest weakness of summary justice is it spares some big criminals at the cost of one or a few. And if killing solves crime and terrorism, then perhaps it is time to put the lessons of the Nuremberg trials to rest. If one recalls that the murder of social activist Shankar Guha Neogy led to the acquittal of all but one of the gang that was responsible for assassinating him, then one perhaps gauges a the nature of reality. The decision of the Canadian government to deny a former Guantanamo bay inmate a chance to speak about his experiences also indicates the application of the principle, “What we say, goes”, regardless of the morals or ethics of the position.
But even after all this gloom and doom, there are rays of hope. Decency still exists in the world. In the midst of all the jingoism surrounding the Osama bin Laden episode, there have been notable voices of dissent. Geoffrey Robertson, the lawyer who has defended Julian Assange of WikiLeaks has stated that justice was not done by executing bin Laden. In the wake of the Osama bin Laden hysteria, political commentator Noam Chomsky, speaking of “American exceptionalism”, writes that, “Were it not for the fact that easy suppression of one’s own crimes is virtually ubiquitous among powerful states, at least those that are not defeated and forced to acknowledge reality. To take just one, of great current significance, consider Obama’s terror weapons (drones) in Pakistan. Suppose that during the 1980s, when they were occupying Afghanistan, the Russians had carried out targeted assassinations in Pakistan aimed at those who were financing, arming and training the insurgents – quite proudly and openly. For example, targeting the CIA station chief in Islamabad, who explained that he “loved” the “noble goal” of his mission: to “kill Soviet Soldiers … not to liberate Afghanistan.” There is no need to imagine the reaction, but there is a crucial distinction: that was them, this is us.”
Summary justice can also lead to torture before trial. As someone who has personally supported and been part of the Bradley Manning Support Network, I cannot emphasise strongly enough that this young soldier has been subject to summary justice even before trial. The fact that he has now been moved to a new facility does nothing to negate his previous maltreatment.
Lastly, why worry? Why not let these acts die a natural death and get on with life? After all, public memory is short and the dead will soon be forgotten by the time the next IPL season arrives in India. The law of the jungle(or more appropriately the law of modern ‘civilisation’ whatever that may mean) will continue to have prevalence. Visa and Mastercard will continue to do business, as agents of American foreign policy delivering summary justice after the WikiLeaks expose. Rabindranath Tagore answered the question long ago, “The maltreatment of any human being is a maltreatment of myself.” History may continue to be written by the winners who believe in summary justice but today’s digital age ensures dissenters will occupy a few pages too. That is some justice, may not be summary, but at least poetic.