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Don't go all chicken

The other evening, I found myself at a restaurant in the Indian Habitat Centre chomping and gnawing on a chicken wing right down to the bone. For me, that kind of thing is standard operating procedure. And yet, I stopped midway when I realised that sitting at the table next to me was Maneka Gandhi. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Oct 22, 2011 22:21 IST
Indrajit Hazra

The other evening, I found myself at a restaurant in the Indian Habitat Centre chomping and gnawing on a chicken wing right down to the bone. For me, that kind of thing is standard operating procedure. And yet, I stopped midway when I realised that sitting at the table next to me was Maneka Gandhi.

I instinctively put the semi-chewed chicken piece down. For a few seconds, I felt awkward eating (fantastically cooked) flesh and bone with the knowledge that someone who's not only a vegetarian, but who also finds meat-eating abhorrent, was sitting a few feet away. A brief hiatus later, however, I remembered the sanctity of sovereignty - the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a geographic area, in this case, my body - and resumed my vicious attack on a marinated piece of chicken.

I reckoned that even as Gandhi was justified in holding her views on non-vegetarianism and protesting against violations of basic animal rights (that includes the right not to be killed and eaten), in the territory held by me, I was free to do things my way.

(For the record, at no point in the evening, did Gandhi interfere with my dinner. By simply ignoring my loud appreciation of non-vegetarian dishes, she impressed me by showcasing her belief in the supremacy of sovereignty.)

Two days later, the issue of sovereignty cropped up again. This time, it was in the context of the capture and death of Muammar Gaddafi by Libyan rebels. Many here ignored the news out of genuine disinterest, a news channel preferring to air Narain Kartikeyan endorsing a car battery while the story was breaking elsewhere. But there were many others who reacted to the mobile phone-captured visuals of Gaddafi being dragged and roughed up with shock. A human - however dastardly he may be - was shown being tortured and killed and then his lifeless body put on display on a shopping centre meat freezer. All without the usual courtesy shown to the dead.

The standard reaction to the unsavoury death of a dictator, especially one from the West Asian-North African region, is to go all 'anti-imperialist'. The Americans and their boy scout allies go in and intervene, messing up the whole sovereignty thing. They did it in Afghanistan when they ran the Regime Change® programme; they did it in Iraq when they repeated the algorithm.

But unlike Saddam Hussein's departure, Gaddafi's ouster and death were carried out by Libyans on their own. Well, in the manner of the Republicans (with Soviet and French support) during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, or in the way of Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army from outside British Indian territory in the 1940s (with Japanese support). Sure, without Nato and US support, the rebels would have ended up being chewed by Gaddafi chicken wing-style. Sure, the Americans and others who have been doing business with oil-sloshing Libya want a piece of the pie now.

But just because many countries are lining up to get discounts and hoping to get bail-out coupons to fix the economic crisis in their own backyards in post-Gaddafi Libya (as they had been benefiting earlier while Gaddadi was king) doesn't mean that the Libyans didn't do their own Arab spring cleaning. It would have been swell to have Gaddafi alive to tell us his bit of the story and to make many governments squirm about their dealings with the despot who once bankrolled Pakistan's nuclear programme, funded the IRA and blew up a passenger airline over Lockerbie in Scotland killing 270 people.

But in Libya they do things differently. 'Differently' to many non-Libyans, that is. So in the spirit of sovereignty, if some of us found western intervention in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Saddam-ruled Iraq terribly rude, who are we to go against what most Libyans in Libya are celebrating over?

Martin Buber, the Austrian philosopher, pointed out how the erosion of empathy - feeling for fellow humans - arises from "people turning other people into objects". The ability of an overwhelming number of suddenly empowered Libyans to treat Gaddafi as an object to be trampled upon is the same as Gaddafi's genius for turning his enemies over his 42-year rule into easily disposable objects. Which in turn isn't that different really from my ability - and Maneka Gandhi's inability - to dehumanise a chicken.