Death of the middle ground
JVhy is it that we reject complexity and moderation in favour of simplistic, knee-jerk responses to the most important issues of the day?
HIS YEAR, December 13 made me despair. And not just because it marked five years since terrorists stormed into India's Parliament. The disquiet was born from the two defining images of the day. First, there was the small group of elderly women, huddled together uncertainly at Rashtrapati Bhawan, as the selfstyled chief of an anti-terrorism front ceremoniously presided over their grief. The women were all married to men who died protecting parliament from terrorists. Now, here they were, returning their husbands' gallantry medals to protest the delay in hanging Mohammed Afzal. As the images beamed live on national television, the cameras lingered on the bewildered faces of the little children who held on tightly to their mothers' hands. It was just the perfect picture postcard of pathos and the cue for the BJP to erupt into self-righteous rage in Parliament. Just a few hours later, and only a couple of miles away, a very different sort of tableaux were on parade. And here, there was no uncertainty at alljust unbridled contempt and anger for India's democracy, India's legal system, and, of course, India's media. These were the voices of some of the country's finest lawyers, writers and thinkers, and people whose talent I have much respect for (clearly the compliment is not returned). But listening to them was a terrifying expertence - as they drew up their long list of villains who had supposedly pushed Afzal into his present predicament, not just did they sound frighteningly intolerant; they made us all sound al about the trauma of serving as soldier in the shadow of war. At different times in history, I have offended both sides equally, inviting reprimands from government agencies and threats from the radicals. But I like to believe, I have been true to the story. Or, take the case of Mohammed Afzal. Just weeks ago, in this very column, I wrote that he must NOT hang. I said that while he may have been a facilitator in the Parliament attack, the death sentence was not a punishment commensurate with his crime. I went so far as to say that had the security agencies caught one of the terrorists alive, he would have been on death row, not Afzal. And yes, I also agreed that the tinderbox that is the Kashmir Valley could erupt in flames, were he to be executed. But because I also argued that none of this was sufficient reason to trash India's legal system or to paint Afzal as an entirely innocent victim, it wasn't LISTEN WITH PREJUDICE: Because I argued that Mohammed Afzal's trial was not sufficient reason to trash India's legal system or to paint him as an entirely innocent quite good enough for those campaigning to save him. victim, it wasn't quite good enough for those campaigning to save him So here's what's happened since like The Enemy. homosexuality, well then, you must be then: several BJP politicians have acI don't know about you, but I found leftist enough to support quotas for cused me ofbeing irresponsible and a OBCs too; if you are a nationalist, you wishy-washy liberal who is soft on termyself unable to connect with either end of· the debate. A complex issue can't possibly talk of human rights vio- rorists. And in a book of essays pubhad clearly been contorted by both lations and the political alienation in lished by those lobbying for him, I (along with the editorial director of sides, just so it could fit into their sim- Kashmir; and if you are empathetic ple, watertight categories. And the about the death of a soldier in a this newspaper) have been attacked for subtext reminded me of the cowboy grenade explosion, you're just an intel- being a reactionary and unjust. . swagger of the world's most powerful lectually deficient jingoist. And so it But life goes on. As I write this, Texan - either you are with us, or you goes on and on - claustrophobic cate- NDTV has received a CD of Afzal's sogories that only cage the intellect while called confession to the police; a "conare against us. . pretending to reaffirm it. fession", he later said, that was induced This was the reason for my despair For those of us who struggle to in- by torture, and then retracted. We spent on December 13: the death of the midhabit the middle ground, we know it hours debating what the fairest way to dle ground. We wear our democracy like a badge k ow comes at a cost - and that cost is use the contents of the CD was, and fiof honour. And yet, think about it: u equivocal .unpopularity. Since we nally, decided that we would use his every significant debate in the country don't conform to anyone's expected wis- "confession" only in juxtaposition with swings only between extremes. Surely dom we are rejected by all sides. the statement he finally submitted in free thinking is the cornerstone of any Take my own case, for example. In court. The idea was to highlight the strong democracy. But in India, we con- 1 9, my reports from the frontline of many ambiguities and contradictions stantly dress up people in labels of ei- the war in Kargil seemed to polarise of the case. ther and or, and then expect them to public opinion about my work. Many But sadly the voluble extremists on take predetermined political positions. saw me as a deeply loyal Indian; others either side have left us virtually no So, if you are a secularist, it's manda- di missed me as a screeching senti- space to explore these ambiguities. Truth, as the cliche goes, almost altory to hate the BJP; if you are a femi- mentalist who had glamorised nationnist you must support the Women's alism. But, as the years have gone by, ways comes in shades of grey and Reservation Bill; you can't call yourself neither label has always stuck. My re- makes the middle ground its home. a liberal if you confess that the debate ports from the Kashmir Valley have un(Barkha Dutt is managing editor, around capital punishment confuses derlined the intense alienation of ordiNDTV 24x7. Write to her at: you; if you signed a petition to legalise nary people, but have been as email@example.com)