Ab booye gul, na baad e saba/ maangte hain log,/ Woh habs hai, ki loo ki dua/ maangte hain log
(People no longer seek the fragrance of the gentle morning breeze, they pray for dry, hot winds to break the suffocating stillness.)
Well, the people of New Zealand, led by their Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, have brought a gust of freshness. They handled the racist, Islamophobic outrage in Christchurch with such nobility and compassion that the gates of hope may well have opened.
Heaven knows the Nobel Peace Prize has in recent years been in urgent need of some value addition. The Cold War and its aftermath clearly politicised the prize. The Nobel Committee has a chance to restore to the prize some of its lost élan. The Prime Minister of New Zealand deserves the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
Such tragedies generally fall prey to judgmentalism, preconceived and motivated. The causes are obscured, until another occasion rises for us to scream our lungs out, being judgmental.
I have made a study — the subject of a book — of events like Christchurch, a bit of which I share here.
When Phoolan Devi, the low caste “mallah” (boatwoman), shot dead 22 high-caste Rajputs in the village of Behmai, 80 km from Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh on February 4, 1981, she had taken the law into her own hands. This she had done because no law enforcement agency had come to her rescue when the very same men had locked her in a room and taken turns, repeatedly, to rape her over weeks. It was gross injustice she was fighting.
During the British Mandate over Palestine, the Jews formed Haganah, a secret, militant organisation — with guns, hand grenades, etc — to protect Jewish enclaves against “Arab gangs”. Why was Haganah formed? Perceived injustice. In 1939, the British produced a White Paper restricting Jewish immigration. That is when the French-built liner, Patria, carrying nearly 2,000 Jews to Mauritius, was sunk off Haifa, killing 267 people. Later, the group’s offshoot, Irgun, bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 28 British soldiers. Both were ghoulish acts. But would Menachem Begin, a member of Irgun and later Israel’s Prime Minister, have seen it this way? According to their lights, Begin and indeed the entire Haganah outfit were fighting British injustice.
April 13 will be the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. Reginald Dyer’s character or a psycho analysis will not shed light on whether or not police action was required on a scale which killed over 1,000 people. The official British figure was 379 dead. Punjab’s lieutenant-governor Michael O’Dwyer justified the military action on administrative grounds. This is not the way Udham Singh the nationalist saw the massacre. He turned up in Britain and shot dead O’Dwyer on March 13, 1940 at Caxton Hall. It was injustice that he was fighting.
At his trial Udham Singh said: “He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I crushed him. For a full 21 years I have been trying to wreak vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job.” There are a series of such incidents which the State would have considered acts of terror. The perpetrators have been celebrated as martyrs and patriots, including the iconic Bhagat Singh. They were fighting an unequal battle against injustice.
The examples I have touched upon are of people who had experienced injustice, suffocated and, presumably, had waited for their time. But the perpetrator of the Christchurch outrage is in an entirely different category. He experienced no injustice. His phobia, like that of his fellow murderer from Norway, Anders Breivik, derives from the contemporary curse called the global media. They have been fed on versions of the post-Soviet Union, the post-9/11 wars in which millions were killed and displaced. But Tarrant and Breivik have seen these stories covered by a media which has mysteriously cast the victims as villains. Jean Raspail’s novel Camp of the Saints shows destruction of Western civilisation through Third World immigration. This becomes Tarrant’s nightmare. Australian Senator Fraser Anning is, alas, in the same league.
I was witness to the launch of the global media in Baghdad in January-February 1991. Operat-ion Desert Storm was covered live by Peter Arnett of CNN. Not to comprehend the significance of this event is to miss out on the nature of international affairs in the post-Soviet period. Remember, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989; and the Soviet Union came down like melting ice cream in 1991. This was the first time in human history that coverage of a war was brought live into our drawing rooms.
The coverage divided the world into two hostile camps — the triumphant West and the defeated, demoralised Muslim nations. This critical division got amplified exponentially as the two intefadas erupted, followed by the four-year-long Bosnia war, which once again brought the brutalities being heaped upon the Bosnian Muslims, day after day, into the world’s living rooms. The climax came, of course, with the 9/11 wars and the unbelievable fireworks over Afghanistan.
With each war and the accompanying global coverage, the West-Muslim divide widened. It was this atmosphere so thoroughly saturated with Islamophobia which shaped the minds of Breivik and Brenton Tarrant. Leaders like George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard cynically used this “othering” of the world’s Muslims as a strategy for Western cohesion. The fear of terrorism, real or simulated, resulted in the loss of status of foreign offices. Intelligence agencies acquired fresh saliency. Be wary on that score, Madam Prime Minister.
In India, the sheer hypocrisy of the elite shrouded and thereby aggravated a corresponding division between non-Muslims and Muslims, stoked by our television anchors. The new liberal economic policies of the 1990s demanded a multiplication of television channels. This also coincided with accelerated communalisation after the fall of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Capitalism and communalism joined hands and set the national agenda conducive to the consolidation of Hindu nationalism. In the ranks of these nationalists, one would find folks galore willing to give a sympathetic quarter to Brenton Tarrant.