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Death of the middle ground

Why do we reject complexity and moderation in favour of simplistic, knee-jerk responses to important issues, asks Barkha Dutt

india Updated: Dec 17, 2006 00:28 IST

This 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 self-styled chief of an anti-terrorism front ceremoniously presided over their grief. The women were all married to men who died protecting the 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 all — just 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 experience: 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 like The Enemy.

I don’t know about you, but I found myself unable to connect with either end of the debate. A complex issue had clearly been contorted by both sides, just so it could fit into their simple, watertight categories. And the subtext reminded me of the cowboy swagger of the world’s most powerful Texan — either you are with us, or you are against us.

This was the reason for my despair on December 13: the death of the middle ground.

We wear our democracy like a badge of honour. And yet, think about it: every significant debate in the country swings only between extremes. Surely free thinking is the cornerstone of any strong democracy. But in India, we constantly dress up people in labels of either and or, and then expect them to take predetermined political positions.

So, if you are a secularist, it’s mandatory to hate the BJP; if you are a feminist, you must support the Women’s Reservation Bill; you can’t call yourself a liberal if you confess that the debate around capital punishment confuses you; if you signed a petition to legalise homosexuality, well then, you must be leftist enough to support quotas for OBCs too; if you are a nationalist, you can’t possibly talk of human rights violations and the political alienation in Kashmir; and if you are empathetic about the death of a soldier in a grenade explosion, you’re just an intellectually deficient jingoist. And so it goes on and on — claustrophobic categories that only cage the intellect while pretending to reaffirm it.

For those of us who struggle to inhabit the middle ground, we know it comes at a cost — and that cost is unequivocal unpopularity. Since we don’t conform to anyone’s expected wisdom, we are rejected by all sides.

Take my own case, for example. In 1999, my reports from the frontline of the war in Kargil seemed to polarise public opinion about my work. Many saw me as a deeply loyal Indian; others dismissed me as a screeching sentimentalist who had glamorised nationalism. But, as the years have gone by, neither label has always stuck. My reports from the Kashmir Valley have underlined the intense alienation of ordinary people, but have been as emotional 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 quite good enough for those campaigning to save him.

So here’s what’s happened since then: several BJP politicians have accused me of being irresponsible and a wishy-washy liberal who is soft on terrorists. And in a book of essays published by those lobbying for him, I (along with the editorial director of this newspaper) have been attacked for being reactionary and unjust.

But life goes on. As I write this, NDTV has received a CD of Afzal’s so-called confession to the police; a “confession”, he later said, that was induced by torture, and then retracted. We spent hours debating what the fairest way to use the contents of the CD was, and finally, decided that we would use his “confession” only in juxtaposition with the statement he finally submitted in court. The idea was to highlight the many ambiguities and contradictions of the case.

But sadly, the voluble extremists on either side have left us virtually no space to explore these ambiguities.

Truth, as the cliché goes, almost always comes in shades of grey and makes the middle ground its home.

(Barkha Dutt is managing editor, NDTV 24x7)
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First Published: Dec 17, 2006 00:28 IST