Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Israel’s war in Gaza: a case for international intervention

Sukumar Muralidharan

Early in July, with Israeli forces rampaging through Gaza, killing, maiming and destroying with gay abandon, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had a moment of revelation. A sightseeing trip through the rain forests of Peru was just the stimulus needed to see distant events with a new and blinding clarity. And as he reflected on the violence in West Asia from the vantage point of Peru’s tropical splendour, what occurred most strikingly was the sheer lack of purpose of it all. Violence was inherent in nature, but it was always underlined by a grand purpose of species preservation. The subtle equations of nature are preserved in the struggle between species for living space and the nourishment that the elements provide. A delicate balance between predator species and their prey is often sustained by the dynamics of evolutionary biology. But this balance requires that species behave rationally and respect their inherent instincts for self-preservation.

What was on display in Palestine however, was completely contrary to rationality. Israel had evacuated the Gaza strip, wrote Friedman, but the Palestinian Islamic resistance, Hamas, chose not to use the opportunity to build “a nest for its young there -- a decent state and society, with jobs”. Instead, it decided on the path of obduracy and violence, launching “hundreds of rockets into Israel”. The Palestinians could instantly “have a state on the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem”, said Friedman, “if they and the Arab League clearly recognised Israel, normalised relations and renounced violence”. But they were intent, regrettably, on little else than the destruction of Israel, even if it also meant self-obliteration. “Species that behave that way in the rain forest”, Friedman concluded ominously, inevitably “become extinct”.

Wish-fulfilment is often a powerful, though unconscious, motivation for writers. Friedman’s unquestioning Zionist loyalty has never been a secret and his column written in Peru seemed rather eagerly to anticipate a moment in history, that for Israel has been the only possible solution to the conflict in Palestine: the extinction of the Palestinians as a national community and their dispersal into distant corners of the Arab world as a people devoid of a specific historical identity. The Zionist construction of history first denied the existence of the Palestinians and then grudgingly came around to recognising them as an irritant, a people whose claims to the land they had lived in for centuries did not have any of the sanctity of divine investiture that the Jews enjoyed. The annals of Zionism are replete with statements by its champions – David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, right down to Ehud Olmert – advocating the “transfer” of the Palestinian people as the only viable solution to what was called the “demographic problem” of Israel. And just to ensure that the conditions were appropriate for the departure of the Palestinians – always prefixed with the proviso that it would be “voluntary” -- Zionism was prepared to make their lives under occupation a veritable hell.

Israel’s newest war on Gaza began on June 28, just over nine months after an evacuation of the territory was accomplished to much internal discord and a torrent of global praise for what were deemed the Zionist state’s peaceful intentions. The immediate provocation for the invasion was a Palestinian attack on a military picket in which two Israeli soldiers were killed and one captured. It is important to note that the target of the Palestinian attack was a military post, instrumental in enforcing the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza. Since the Palestinian national elections of February, the blockade has in its ruthlessness, managed to wed the lethal efficiency of U.S.-made weaponry to the savagery of medieval siege warfare. Effectively, the 1.5 million residents of Gaza have been deprived of the basic necessities of life since February, while being targeted with random and indiscriminate military strikes. The bombing of the Gaza beachfront on June 9, which killed seven innocent civilians and left the traumatised ten year-old, Huda Ghalia, as the sole survivor in a family of eight, may have shocked the world because of the media coverage it garnered. But Huda Ghalia’s trauma and tragedy have been played out repeatedly in the Palestinian lands since at least the last six years of the second intifada, which by the Palestinian’s avowal, will be their final uprising against colonialism.

By any applicable criterion of international law, the Israeli military outpost, engaged in illegal siege warfare against the population of Gaza, was a legitimate target. And the Israeli soldier captured on the occasion, Corporal Gilad Shalit, would be a prisoner of war, entitled to all the rights the status entailed. That indeed has been the burden of the Palestinian militants’ argument: that the release of the captured Israeli soldier is a matter to be negotiated by the Israeli government.

Israel has instead embarked upon a military rampage that has shocked the world. Gaza’s only electricity generating station was destroyed on the first day of the offensive. Roads and bridges essential to the movement of the civilian population and the sustenance of their livelihoods, soon followed, victims of high-technology ordnance manufactured in the U.S. On July 2, the London-based human rights group, Amnesty International observed after careful consideration, that the “deliberate attacks by Israeli forces against civilian property and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip violate international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes”. Israel was obliged under international law, to “take urgent measures to remedy the long-term damage it has caused and immediately restore the supply -- at its own cost -- of electricity and water to the Palestinian population in the affected areas”.

Effectively demolishing the argument that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was a demonstration of its peaceful intent, Amnesty observed: “High numbers of Palestinian bystanders, including women and children, have been killed and injured by Israeli artillery shelling and air strikes in recent weeks and months”. And with greater subtlety, the human rights group laid to rest the myth that Israeli military actions have been a legitimate response to Palestinian provocations. The situation, said Amnesty, “looks set to worsen in light of the end of the unilateral cease-fire which the armed wing of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups had been observing since last year”.

If the situation that prevailed was one of a “unilateral ceasefire by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups”, what then could Friedman and others of his ilk mean by their constant harping on the “hundreds of rockets that are fired into Israel”? The answer is not far to seek. The rockets that are fired are essentially home-made weapons – no more sophisticated than firecrackers – that have had minimal military impact. Their significance indeed, has been little more than symbolic. Even as the organised political forces in Palestine declared a ceasefire in the expectation that Israel would reciprocate, individuals outside the control of these groups have kept up their symbolic gestures of defiance. Their argument is very simple: Israel has never been in the business of reciprocity and it would be foolish to expect the Zionist establishment to reverse course now.

The Israeli response, as always, has been disproportionate and indiscriminate. According to an assessment of the situation by the U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, between November and December 2005, the Palestinians launched an estimated 283 home-made rockets into Israel. None of these caused any casualties. In supposed retaliation – though the more credible argument would be that theirs was the original provocation – the Israel Defence Force (IDF) conducted 124 air-strikes and fired 544 artillery shells into Gaza. And all these actions had seriously lethal implications. The number of Palestinians killed in Gaza since the so-called Israeli withdrawal, has been, in proportionate terms, considerably more than in the worst days of the occupation.

In December 2005, belying all claims of a withdrawal, Israel declared parts of northern Gaza a “no-go” area, where its forces would feel free to fire and kill without warning. Palestinian fishermen setting out to sea are routinely fired upon by the IDF in incidents involving loss of life. And routes of entry and exit from Gaza are under the ironhanded control of the IDF. The consequence of withdrawal in other words, has been little else than to convert Gaza from a site of brutal military occupation into the world’s largest unsupervised prison.

This was exactly how things were meant to be. Friedman and others of his stripe who argue that the Gaza withdrawal was a gesture of peace, are guilty of the worst form of disingenuousness. Indeed, the moment it was announced, the Israeli gameplan was denounced as a dilatory tactic to deny the Palestinians true sovereignty and retain indefinite control over the strategically more important West Bank. Such indeed was plainly stated by the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon’s principal political aide, Dov Weisglass. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on October 8, 2004, Weisglass effectively laid out the hidden agenda of the Gaza withdrawal. By late-2003, as he recounted matters, Israel was deep in a quagmire. The bloody confrontation with the Palestinians had dragged on three years at considerable damage to Israel’s international image. The US was still firmly committed, but time was not on Israel’s side. The economy was stagnant and domestic dissent was growing. It was just a matter of time before international opinion, already considerably alienated, crossed the crucial threshold and began to think of sanctions against Israel as a distinct possibility.

In the circumstances, the Gaza withdrawal was a tactical master-stroke, which presented a semblance of real concessions to the Palestinians, while preserving Israel’s core strategic interests in the West Bank. The peace negotiations, Weisglass chortled, had been cast away, into an indefinite limbo. Referring to an exchange of letters between Sharon and U.S. President George Bush early in 2004, Weisglass described how the US had with little demur, endorsed Israel’s essential interests in the West Bank.

Though intended as an overture towards the restive constituency of settlers that saw the Gaza withdrawal as a treasonous ceding of Israel’s divine patrimony, Weisglass’s long and candid exposition of Israel’s agenda for Palestinian statehood attracted considerable international attention. Rather than offering the Palestinians the possibility of an honourable peace, the purpose as plainly stated, was to put the “peace process into formalin”, i.e., to preserve a dead organism as a laboratory specimen to be displayed whenever it suited Israel’s interests.

With its occupation forces having pulled out, Israel has felt at liberty to wildly escalate its retribution for real and imagined acts of defiance. The only difference is that, at least until the June 28 invasion, the violence was administered by fighter aircraft and helicopters from the safety of the skies. If the Palestinians have refused to be cowed down, that is only a tribute to the undying character of their struggle, which a morally anaesthetised world would happily bury in oblivion, if it were not for the visible brutality that Israel continues to visit on innocent civilians.

If the criteria for “humanitarian intervention” employed when the western powers launched successive wars of dismemberment against Yugoslavia in the 1990s were to be applied today, Israel would long since have been placed under international guardianship and its political leaders indicted for war crimes. On June 6, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning Israel's military operations in Palestine as a clear breach of international humanitarian law. The newly established body of the U.N. resolved by a margin of 29 against 11, with five abstentions, that it would send a fact-finding mission to Gaza.

From an Indian viewpoint, what is perhaps most significant about this resolution is simply the fact that India voted in its favour. After years of shameless kowtowing before the U.S.-Israeli agenda of depriving the Palestinians of their basic political rights and identity, India has awoken now to the responsibilities it owes to people elsewhere, struggling for their freedom from colonialism. This is a major gain, but it has been vitiated by commentary in the bourgeois media – reminiscent of the BJP Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh’s infamous statement after a visit to Israel – that India’s support for Palestinian national rights is a concession to “vote bank politics” at home. This variety of political idiocy clearly needs to be combated and defeated, if the commonsense and morality of India’s foreign policy is to be retrieved from the slough that it has been plunged into, by the recent ardour for courting the U.S.-Israel neo-imperial axis.

July 11, 2006

Mandal II and the Media

Sukumar Muralidharan

A recently concluded survey of the British media found that of the senior journalists with decisive influence over news priorities and editorial policy, a significant majority is drawn from a narrow, privately-schooled, Oxbridge-educated elite. Indeed, as British society becomes more diverse and the political system grapples with the challenge of inclusion, the media – if a comparison were to be made with similar data from the mid-1980s – has tended to become an enclave of class privilege. In the words of a report in the Guardian, the dominance of the upper crust is strong enough to ensure that it is “difficult for those from other backgrounds to get a foothold”.

These findings from distant shores were published at roughly the same time that a decision by the Indian government to set aside a fixed proportion of seats in the higher education system for classes of citizens disadvantaged by history, had ignited a debate on the quality of representation afforded by the institutions of Indian democracy. Among the institutions that came in for an examination – even if rather hesitantly and fleetingly – was the media. A survey prompted by the controversy, found that in a sample of 315 journalists in the national capital with the authority to determine media agendas, not one belonged to either a Scheduled Caste or Tribe. No fewer than 49 per cent of the sample was drawn from the Brahminical strata. And if all caste Hindu groups were to be considered in addition to the so-called dwija or twice-born, their share in the total is no less 88 per cent.

Where Scheduled Castes and Tribes are concerned, the argument over affirmative action was settled as part of the nationalist compact which brought India its independence. That the media should remain innocent of any participation from these classes, well into India’s sixth decade as a sovereign, self-governing nation, should surely be occasion for introspection by a social institution that has pretensions to objectivity and fairness in its self-assigned role of determining national priorities. Curiously though, the main English-language newspapers in the country had little space or time for this particular survey on the social origin of journalists.

It is a far from settled point that where one comes from determines what one is. That notion of determinacy is completely antithetical to all conceptions of individual liberty. It could be a valid proposition though, that a psychology of conformity could operate within large aggregates of individuals. Particular individuals could well transcend the limitations imposed by the circumstances of their origin and their accumulation of lived experience. In large groups though, personal commitments and convictions may well get submerged in the overriding pressure to do what is accepted.

To talk about the media today is to deal with complexity and multiple meanings. Variously perceived and described, the media is today a source of information and entertainment, as also the midwife of a union between the two. For a growing number, it increasingly serves as a forum of self-expression. In most studies of the modern media as a social reality, a self-serving myth, continues to hold sway. The media in this portrayal is the institutional bearer of the social right to free speech. This is a happy scenario, except for a minor quibble: the media derives its profits not from delivering information of value to an audience or from serving as a forum for a democratic exchange of views, but from delivering an audience of value to the corporate advertiser. The media arena is not a competitive marketplace where information and ideas are allowed a free run so that the best among them rise to the surface. Rather, it is a carefully controlled environment to ensure the most favourable circumstances for advertisers to sell their wares to carefully screened and selected audiences.

Evidently, perceptions of media neutrality and integrity often lie in the eyes (and ears) of the beholder. The notion that the mass media as an entity merits a distinct field of study originates with the proliferation of the print industry in the early 20th century, followed by the pervasive spread of broadcasting in the years after World War II. The early approach focused on media content and the impact this would have on public perceptions. The role of the media would also invariably come in for scrutiny when certain alarming or disintegrative tendencies, such as an upsurge in violent crime, became manifest in society. These would typically be accompanied by suggestions that the media should play a constructive and ameliorative role, though it has never been clear how best this function is discharged: through reporting things as they are, taking a moral position, or simply avoiding the subject altogether.

Similar is the dilemma that arises when dealing with the functioning of the media in a context of social conflict. Is the function of accurate reporting uppermost, even if it is disconnected from moral judgments? Or is an ethical posture inherent even in the most dispassionate account of any event or sequence of events? Does a well-considered effort at ascribing responsibility for a state of inequality, which does not hesitate to name winners and losers, aggravate an already inflamed situation? Or does it, by focusing attention on the sources of injustice, impel society at large to grapple with the viruses within its fold and root them out?

If any convincing answers have been devised to these questions, they are yet to be elucidated. Neither are they evident in the existing practice of the media. Publishing media content that is in conformity with a placid and uncontested paradigm of social evolution would be acceptable conduct, because it serves elite interests and safeguards their social preeminence. Anything that departs from this idiom would be behaviour warranting stricture and quite possibly, sanction.

This brings up the issue of the relationship between the media as a commercial institution and the public that it caters to. In turn, this requires that at least two other models of media behaviour be considered. The first of these could be called, taking Dennis McQuail’s widely cited formulation, the “ritualist” model, which emphasises not “the transmission of information across space” but the “maintenance of society in time” and the “representation of shared beliefs”. And then there is the “publicity” model which approaches the media less as a source of information than as a device of drawing and retaining visual (or aural) attention. This in turn, serves the direct economic objective of increasing revenue earned from an audience. This model emphasises that “mass communication is liable not to be communication at all, in the sense of an ordered transfer of meaning”. Rather, it is more about “spectatorship” in which the “fact of attention often matters more than the quality of attention”.

In 1990, when the Indian media faced its first significant challenge on the question of affirmative action for the “socially and educationally backward classes” (SEBC’s), it responded by invoking the sacred trope of a seamless Indian national identity and denouncing the divisiveness of caste. “Class” is the term used in the clause of the Indian constitution that enables the State to undertake schemes of protective discrimination, as also in the 1980 report of the Mandal Commission which coined the term “other backward classes” to distinguish its target group from existing beneficiaries of affirmative action. But “class” has invariably translated in official pronouncements into “caste”, raising fears that the ghosts of a primitive, ascriptive social order were rising again to haunt India’s halting but brave efforts at modernisation.

In its tone, editorial comment in the English language press – which exerts an influence far exceeding its reach in India – then tended to the view that all was going well until the government of the day gave into an opportunistic whim. Editorially, the Indian Express (August 9, 1990) condemned the decision as “ruinous” and gloomily forecast a “further deterioration of the state apparatus and heightened social tensions” as the first consequence of a “crassly opportunistic” move. The Times of India (TOI) similarly, commented (August 9, 1990) that the Mandal recommendations on job reservations in the central government, threatened to undo “at one stroke” all that had been achieved over four decades of independence, in building a “modern, egalitarian order”. Reservations, the TOI continued, would “enshrine casteism, undermine meritocracy and excellence, and work against the creation of a pan-Indian identity”.

Notions of progress, it has been said, are remarkably congenial to those ascending the scale of income and wealth. But no matter, the TOI was willing to concede that the backward classes could be helped to improve their “competitiveness” – again, that favoured term of the upwardly mobile – through the provision of “abundant educational, health, nutritional and other social welfare benefits”.

Having identified the augmentation of “competitiveness” within the backward classes as a national priority, the media then lapsed into a phase of inattention. When “structural adjustment” kicked in as official economic policy in 1991, the Indian media joined in eagerly with the chorus of acclaim. The withdrawal of the State from domains where its interventions were not essential, the media confidently forecast, would enable it to more effectively meet the basic needs of a wider mass of the population. In its turn, the easing of the onerous burden of taxes that the more affluent had to bear, would reignite the spark of entrepreneurship, since individual self-aggrandisement was the most effective incentive available for productive economic activity. As the size of the national product increased, the diminution in rates of taxation would more than pay for itself in buoyant tax revenues, empowering the State with ample means to address its basic welfare commitments.

As the decade of the 1990s wore on, it became increasingly evident that these initial prognoses were disastrously askew. The limitless self-aggrandisement of individuals was very much a reality and the media found considerable satisfaction recently in reporting that in a world where the celebration of wealth had become the reigning cult, India had perhaps the fastest growing number of billionaires. But few have concerned themselves with the inconvenient facts that India has also had a rapid growth in economic inequality, perhaps next only to the U.S. and China. The correlation with the rapid fading out of the social sectors from governmental attention is yet to be drawn. But future scholars will probably make the effort to draw the necessary links between growing inequality in India – as both cause and consequence – and the precipitate drop in governmental welfare expenditure.

A 1996-97 report by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) documented how educational infrastructure in the country was in an advanced state of decay. It was allowed to sink into oblivion with scarcely an acknowledgment from the media. In 2002, the Supreme Court directed in response to a set of very energetic petitions from concerned citizens, that the right to food was a basic entitlement the State had to protect. As a first step, it directed all state governments to introduce midday meal programmes in schools. Financial stringency would not be permitted to stand as an alibi for failure. The state governments had to “cut the flab” and the central government was obliged to help meet shortfalls in resource availability. Since then, there have been patchy and sporadic efforts to comply with the judicial directive, intended to serve the dual purposes of enhancing both nutritional standards and school enrollment levels. These have been far from adequate and periodic social audits, have put together a valuable documentation of governmental failure in meeting basic social obligations. These again have failed to excite the media very much.

The reasons are not far to seek. Beginning from around the mid-1990s, the global media began to acknowledge the undeniable fact that the cult of individual affluence also meant that celebrity narcissism would be the wave of the future. The interests and aspirations of the socially disadvantaged were of little consequence, since editorial content had to be moulded in accordance with the perceptions of the rich and the powerful. Editorial distinction may lie in the inclusion of diverse sections of the population in the priorities of the media. But commercial success lay in adapting editorial content to advertiser needs, in shifting content towards fashion, lifestyle and entertainment.

It took the resurrection of Mandal, this time in the shape of reservations for backward classes in institutions of higher education funded by the Central Government, to reawaken media interest in the gigantic defaults of social welfare policy through the 1990s. Initial editorial comment tended to be fairly uniform in its emphases. By providing preferential access to higher education, the government had effectively reversed priorities, said the media. Defending against the perpetuation of inherited disabilities was undoubtedly a national priority, but these needed to start with the basics of the learning process. Higher learning should be reserved as a domain where merit alone prevailed, where selection processes were entirely free of extraneous concerns. This national priority would not conflict with others, such as the redressal of the iniquities of history, if opportunities for all sections were to be equalised through a universal and non-discriminatory system of school education.

The patronising flavour in these editorial recommendations was not missed, their inherent suggestion that the backward classes were yet to prove themselves worthy of the professions, since they were yet to pass the threshold of school education. Rather than hammer home this theme and risk a further alienation of public sentiments, the media then chose a line of retreat. In an early editorial, the TOI argued (May 31, 2006), that the available data base for public policy on affirmative action was seriously flawed. This made a “caste census” in India a “necessary evil”. Later, the same newspaper (June 14, 2006) deprecated the fact that ad hoc decisions had for long held the field when “the need of the hour” was a “coherent justification” and a “clear roadmap for future policy on reservations”. Since several of the classes that had reservation benefits through earlier generations had graduated out of backwardness, there was a case for a continuing process of review of the list of beneficiaries. And the quantum of reservations itself needed to be revisited, since a “blind application of the maximum permitted reservation .. speaks very poorly of government policy”.

The Indian Express though remained fundamentally unreconciled to the notion, arguing that reservations threatened to fatally erode India’s potential to contribute to the global knowledge economy, where its competitive advantages were well established. In a June 5 editorial, it poured scorn on the political opportunism of ambitious individuals that had ostensibly triggered off the furore. It warned that the “space for liberal policymaking (had) been won after a long political fight”. In the course of this struggle, the more “intelligent leaders” of Indian politics, had realised that “quality and efficiency, in most fields, cannot simply be mandated by fiat”. This hard fought gain, the IE bemoaned, was at risk of being squandered in the pursuit of political advantage by ambitious individuals.

The Economic Times which clearly would have preferred not to address the issue, belatedly awoke to the merits of an alternative to the reservations process that has for long been established practice in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Editorially, it urged the Central Government to “universalise” the JNU admissions model, “which awards booster points for various kinds of backwardness..”. “Scarcity accentuates social fissures”, it warned, and any a priori segregation of seats for particular classes would deepen the sense of grievance among those who did not have the privilege to call themselves “backward”.

Editorially, The Hindu (May 25) urged that three imperatives be borne in mind in implementing reservations. The commitment that discrimination in favour of the backward classes would not diminish opportunities for others, needed to be operationalised. This meant that the central government, “must get serious about strengthening (the) physical and academic infrastructure” of the institutions that it was directly responsible for. “Funds”, the newspaper commented in defiance of the parlous arithmetic of the central budget, “should not be hard to come by, given the buoyancy in revenues”. Second, the newspaper urged that in “the larger interests of the nation”, certain institutions “need to be retained as islands of excellence, their entrance standards uncompromised even by socially desirable goals”. And finally, the central government should steer clear of the political trap that several states had fallen into, of viewing affirmative action as merely the institution of quotas. A far more serious approach towards basic education was essential if the ultimate purposes of protective discrimination were to be met.

The concern for basic education of course, was awakened within the national media only when the disadvantaged staked a claim to a place in the bastions of higher academic excellence, which were ostensibly the arena that would prepare the best of India’s youth to take on the challenges of globalisation. Editorially, the media tended in relation to its reaction to Mandal I, to adopt a more restrained tone of comment with the second visitation. But editorial comment is perhaps the lesser role that the media plays in moments of deep social turmoil. By far the more decisive influence is exerted by the tone and content of its news coverage. And in this respect, some of the biases that were blatantly in evidence during Mandal I have resurfaced, though with noticeably greater restraint. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the life and death of an individual who came to be seen in many ways, as a symbol of the agitation against Mandal I.

Rajeev Goswami died on February 24, 2004 aged 33, his passing marked by a few cursory mentions in the media. The image conveyed to the world on his death was drawn not from recent times, but from that moment in 1990 when he set himself afire in spectacular and violent rage at Mandal I. That fateful moment lived with Rajeev Goswami till the end. The cause of his death was internal organ failure arising from burn injuries suffered in 1990.

His injuries lived with him, but the message that Rajeev Goswami sought to convey proved transient. Parties across the board, after a period of connivance with the anti-Mandal demonstrations, began an anxious project of accommodation with the backward class assertion that Mandal epitomised. The Supreme Court put its own imprimatur of constitutional validity on the Mandal recommendations in November 1992. And by then, the media itself had turned its back on the incendiary rhetoric of the agitation.

The Rajeev Goswami tragedy had many dimensions, some of which were encapsulated in official statistics. Since he made his emblematic political statement, employment in the central government has fallen from 3.4 million to 3.3 million. New recruitment has taken place, only to replace retiring employees or others voluntarily leaving government service. Assuming rather generously, that there is an annual attrition rate of 5 per cent in central government employment, the jobs at stake in a regime of 27 per cent reservations for backward classes would number around 40,000. This is literally a drop in the ocean in relation to the tens of millions who enter the work force every year, most of whom fall back on some form of unorganised sector work.

Was Rajeev Goswami's sacrifice only about safeguarding the claims of “merit” to an infinitesimally small enclave of secure employment? Or was it about a larger cause? If the quantitative parameters alone are considered, the sacrifice was obviously not worth it. And that is not a retrospective judgment, since there were any number of voices counselling moderation on precisely these grounds, at the time the anti-Mandal agitation was most virulent. Whatever else, all those who participated in the violent disturbances in 1990 cannot plead lack of knowledge as an alibi -- least of all the media which instigated the agitators with unbridled rhetoric.

From the first stirrings of unrest on the street in August 1990 till Rajeev Goswami's paroxysm of rage on September 19, official spokesmen sought at several junctures to calm the student disturbances. The number of job opportunities that Mandal I would directly impinge upon, they said, was limited. The purpose of the recommendations was not to underline caste exclusions in Indian society, but to dissolve these by empowering sections that had drawn an unlucky number in life's lottery.

The message failed to win a receptive audience in sections that were rampaging through the streets of various north Indian towns. For this, the media bears a large part of the responsibility. The Indian Express, edited then by an individual who was later a member of the Union Cabinet, delivered its judgment mid-August, pronouncing the anti-Mandal agitation a clear “defence of the national interest”. Far from counselling restraint and a measure of sobriety in assessing reservations as official policy, it exhorted the agitationists to “spread and intensify” the disturbances.

Late-August, the same newspaper was denouncing the official effort to mitigate the sense of grievance within the student community. Central Government jobs may be just a small fraction of total employment in the country, but that was not the issue, said an analyst in its columns. What was of concern was the huge preponderance of central government jobs within “organised sector” employment.

The burden of the official rationalisation was that “organised sector” employment was not the only area of interest. There was a whole “unorganised” world outside, that needed to be accommodated in the formal structures of bureaucratic power. But with the media unequivocally behind it by this time, the anti-Mandal agitation was conspicuously displaying its contempt for the unorganised sector. Students from Delhi's elite colleges were trooping to the dhobi-ghats on the Yamuna riverfront to exercise their laundry skills in full view of the national media; others chose strategic street corners to sit with shoe-shine kits to offer their services to any passer-by.

An elitist contempt for all the livelihood recourses of the “unorganised sector” was evident in this pattern of public demonstration. By this time it was evident that “Mandal” had tapped into the populist vein essential for the sustenance of any mass movement. “Anti-Mandal” meanwhile had lost its moral compass, making too explicit a statement of disdain for the vast majority of the country's population. Inevitably, the momentum of the agitation was beginning to die out within a month of the policy announcement by the central government. Rajeev Goswami's suicidal violence on September 19, 1990, brought it back to life.

Rajeev Goswami survived that attempt, though not its long-term effects. He was the first to tempt death in the anti-Mandal cause. But the first to actually die was Surinder Singh Chauhan. This self-immolation happened a week after Rajeev Goswami's abortive attempt. Chauhan's death throes were recorded on film by a mysterious photographer who happened to be on the spot just at that time, equipped with a camera. This photograph was prominently displayed by most national newspapers, in violation of the well-accepted media convention, that photographs of the act of suicide are not to be published for fear that they could set off copycat attempts.

The image of Chauhan's self-immolation was conveyed to the newspapers by a confederate of Rajeev Goswami. On September 19, 1990, when Rajeev Goswami brought the anti-Mandal agitation out of its stasis, he was accompanied in his project by a colleague called Laxman Singh Tomar, who ostensibly suffered serious injuries, but survived. Tomar was the source for all the photographs published in the national English-language media of Chauhan's suicide by fire. The media was aware of this curious twist in the anti-Mandal agitation, as is evident from the fine print reporting of the event. But the media chose to wilfully disregard all the conventions about responsible reporting in that charged conjuncture.

In the retrospective judgment of the Indian Express, Rajeev Goswami was initially the symbol of the anti-Mandal agitation, but finally its fall guy. He failed to see that the older artifacts of merit and excellence were thin disguises for inherited privilege; that the inclusion of diverse sections of a plural society in all spheres of national endeavour was a desirable end in itself, one that contributed significantly to boosting achievement. Yet, this moment of revelation came to the media without any of the attendant inconveniences of accountability. It took little wisdom though, to conclude that Rajeev Goswami was finally, the victim of conniving politics and media irresponsibility. That the sordid drama of 1990 has not been reenacted in the context of Mandal II is testimony to a growing sense of social responsibility within the media. But the fact that some of the troublesome old tendencies persist, is evidence that the awakening is yet incomplete and perhaps, far too slow.

July 5, 2006

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Israel: A Genocidal State by Origin and Intent (An Article from June 19, 2006)


It would be a gross error to condone as an accident, Israel’s June 9 shelling of a beach in Gaza city, which killed seven innocent civilians and left the traumatised ten year-old, Huda Ghalia, as the sole survivor in a family of eight. Just as it has proven a costly mistake for the world to accept Israel’s explanation and self-exculpation in the case of the 1996 Qana massacre, when hundreds of women and children in a U.N. refugee camp in southern Lebanon were killed in a sustained and indiscriminate barrage of artillery and aerial bombing.

Yet the record of global insensitivity to Israel’s atrocities on the Palestinian people, with literally hundreds of similar crimes in the past being overlooked, leaves no room for optimism. Conniving western governments and supine third world elites have shown altogether too great an eagerness to accept Israel’s claim that the thousands of Palestinians killed for the crime of resisting the unending occupation of their land, can all be tarred with the same brush, of being either terrorists or their accomplices.

The successive Israeli massacres carried out over many decades of occupation, have not been random or unconnected events, since they are all joined in the original intent with which the Jewish state was created, which was nothing less than the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The world community has for long stood mute witness to all the overt expressions of this genocidal intent. The global conspiracy of silence after the Gaza beach massacre is further testament to the complicity of world governments in an unending sequence of crimes against humanity.

Unapologetic as ever, Israel commissioned a military inquiry into the Gaza incident, and came up with the perfectly ridiculous claim that the killing of Palestinian civilians was a a self-inflicted tragedy, caused by a mine that the Islamic resistance movement Hamas had, with evil intent, concealed under the sands of the beach. It was a fact, said the official inquiry, that the Israeli army had been shelling parts of Gaza city just before the massacre on the beach. True also, that the Israeli navy had been patrolling the Gaza waters and unleashing random volleys of high explosives in the direction of the seafront. But the shrapnel that had been recovered from the site of the atrocity, the Israeli government claimed, did not match with the ammunition used in these operations. The only conclusion that seemed warranted in the circumstances, was that Hamas had conspired to kill its own, for the transient pleasure of embarrassing Israel.

The entire charade of accountability by the criminal Zionist state was exposed within a matter of hours by respected international observers. And the Hamas government of Palestine responded to the Jewish state’s crime with a swift condemnation and a vow to resume military operations after an 18-month long suspension. A military response that would “shake the earth” was promised. The unbridled rhetoric would have come as no surprise to the world community, which has been immersed in Israeli propaganda about Hamas as an embodiment of theological evil. There was of course, a more inconvenient fact that the Hamas response brought back to public attention: that far from being the agents of bestial cruelty on innocent civilians, the Palestinian resistance had been observing a ceasefire for all of 18 months. Despite several provocations from the Israeli side, including the charade of its withdrawal from Gaza and its loudly proclaimed intent to redraw the map of Palestine to ensure that Israel remained a state with a “stable Jewish majority”, the ceasefire was maintained. But these inconvenient facts were soon submerged in the theological discourse that Israel has so successfully deployed to wipe the Palestinian people out of existence.

Visiting his patrons in Washington DC in May, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the U.S. Congress and to a standing ovation, and reiterated the mythology that stands at the foundation of the Zionist enterprise: that the Jewish people have a divinely ordained right to the entire land of Palestine. He refused to countenance any situation in which he, as the leader of the Jewish nation, would cede any part of the “land of our forefathers”. “I believed, and to this day still believe, in our people's eternal and historic right to this entire land”, said Olmert.

The clear and undeniable purpose of these locutions is the delegitimisation of the Palestinian people’s right to the land they have lived in for a virtual eternity, and the raising of a dispersed Jewish community’s claims to the status of divine writ. But if the matter had been determined in a divine court of law, it would not be out of place to wonder, why Olmert was still intent on making a pretence of interest in mundane earthly processes of negotiation.

This was the other major motif of Olmert’s speech to the U.S. Congress: that Israel would be compelled by earthly circumstances, to draw its borders unilaterally, thereby committing an unpardonable offence against the divine will. It was Israel’s fervent desire to achieve this abridgment of divine purpose “hand in hand with a Palestinian partner”. But it had been the unfortunate experience of all the supposedly good faith negotiations that Israel had entered into, that a credible partner for peace on the Palestinian side has failed to emerge.

Israel does not, unfortunately, have a partner who will share the burden of breaching the divine writ that the Jewish people should eternally hold all of Palestine. But there is little that is divine about the fate that the Jewish state has chosen to visit upon the people of Palestine. Five months after Hamas won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections -- which were strongly advocated by Israel and the U.S. and certified as free and fair by all credible international observers -- Israel’s brutal policy of “closure”, which is little else than a variant of medieval siege warfare, continues to exact a heavy toll of civilian life in occupied Palestine. Taxes collected by the Israeli occupying forces have been withheld from the legitimate government. International aid has dried up, driven by the Israeli propaganda that Hamas as a terrorist organisation does not merit the patronage of the civilised world.

A consequence of this international programme of ostracism coordinated by Israel, has been that the Palestinian Authority, built up through the years when the late Yasser Arafat was led into one dead-end after another in a futile quest for peace with Israel, was starved of funds, plunging civic life in the occupied territories into an unprecedented crisis.

The demonisation of Hamas is all too reminiscent of the manner in which Israel first engaged, then neutralised, and finally finished off Yasser Arafat as a leader of the Palestinian national struggle. Ever since the Oslo peace accord was concluded in 1993, Israel made a pretence of engaging Arafat in negotiations, finally abandoning the charade with the Camp David summit hosted by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000. It then successfully floated the fiction that the rejection of its supposedly generous offer was an indication of bad faith on the Palestinian part, which justified the recourse to the harshest military means to quell the resistance to its occupation.

Arafat had to be isolated and finally done away with, because he would not yield on the fundamental demands of the Palestinian national struggle: Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the restoration of Arab sovereignty over all of East Jerusalem, and the recognition, at least in principle, of the right of all the refugees created by successive waves of Israeli ethnic cleansing, to return to their homes. These are precisely the points that Hamas today insists on as irreducible demands, which cannot be bartered away by any representative body of the Palestinian people. Contrary to the fiction assiduously propagated by Israel, Hamas has long since recognised Israel’s right to exist, but within the international borders that prevailed prior to the six-day war of 1967. The success that Israel has had in tarnishing Hamas’ record, strongly recalls the effrontery with which it misrepresented the historic change effected by Arafat in the Palestinian national charter in 1988, committing the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) he led to a two-state solution which would explicitly recognise Israel’s right to exist within the 1967 boundaries.

While Arafat was alive, he served as an effective buffer against the Israeli game-plan to instigate a split within Palestinian ranks and quite possibly, foment a fratricidal battle for supremacy between the PLO and Hamas. Mahmoud Abbas, alias Abu Mazen, his successor as leader of Al Fatah, the dominant faction within the PLO, has not been quite so scrupulous about respecting the need for unity within the Palestinian struggle. In October 1995, Abu Mazen was responsible for sealing a plan for a final settlement with Israel. Negotiated with Yossi Beilin, then a member of the Israeli cabinet, the plan has been described by people in the know, as a “shameful document” which effectively left all illegal Israeli settlements on occupied territories intact, and in place of restoring Arab sovereignty over East Jerusalem, designated a village quite remote from the city as the future Palestinian capital. The Beilin-Abu Mazen plan was, perhaps, accepted by Arafat. But when he found that Israel intended to stick to the terms of that blueprint, and if anything, only alter it further to Palestinian disadvantage, he chose the honourable course of walking away from the charade of the peace negotiations.

Obviously chafing since Hamas’ landslide victory in January, Abu Mazen has now hit upon the tactical ploy of calling a referendum which would seek to determine the majority opinion among the Palestinian people on the future of their national struggle. Drafted by highly respected freedom fighters, currently languishing in Israeli jails, the so-called “prisoners’ plan” calls for recognising Israel’s right to exist within 1967 boundaries. Though not averse to the principle, Hamas has opposed the referendum plan, which it views as an unnecessary concession to a racist outlaw state that is yet to recognise the Palestinian people’s right to exist. Moreover, Hamas has rightly judged that the referendum embodies a disingenuous design by Abu Mazen and his backers in the west, to overturn the results of the January parliamentary elections and establish an entirely new principle of political legitimacy in occupied Palestine.

Israel and its cronies in the west, meanwhile, are doing their utmost to skew the political balance in favour of Abu Mazen. Affecting a deep sense of concern over the humanitarian crisis the closure policy has engendered, western governments have begun seeking a channel of aid disbursement that would push the legitimately elected Hamas government to the sidelines and lend more strength to Abu Mazen. And Israel has quite brazenly announced that it intends to ship significant quantities of arms and ammunition to forces loyal to Abu Mazen, ostensibly to meet the threat posed by Hamas terrorism. Till his dying days, Arafat successfully resisted the pressure from Israel to undertake the dirty work of policing its occupation and repressing his own people. Abu Mazen may not prove quite so steadfast. The closure policy has ensured that life for the Palestinian people today is a grim struggle for survival. As the fabric of civic life frays, tensions within Palestinian society are boiling over, threatening the entire West Asian region with unpredictable consequences. Never before has the need been quite so acute for freedom-loving people all around the world to intervene, bypassing the conniving governments of the west and the submissive and spineless governments of the third world.

June 19, 2006