A silent shame

August 09, 2010

‘If 50 people were shot dead by the police on the streets of London what would the British government do?” This sharp question was how Pertie greeted me on my return from Britain last week. I mistook his inquiry for levity but he soon cut me short. “Would Cameron keep silent, appear unconcerned and unaffected, or would he fall over himself explaining and apologising?”

I realised Pertie had an important point to make. Whatever the cause and the necessity, how should an elected government — and, more specifically, an accountable prime minister — respond when security forces in Kashmir end up killing the very people they’re intended to protect. But before I grappled with his question I tried to deflect it. “The CRPF did not intend to kill,” I began. “They were forced to shoot to control rampaging crowds. And remember they were themselves under attack. They were being mercilessly pelted with stones.”

I think Pertie snorted. At any rate he seemed to dismiss my response with contempt. “What do you mean they didn’t intend to kill? Do you know that almost every single one of the 50 people killed were shot above the waist? Many were shot in the head. And remember the protestors were only throwing stones. Is shooting to kill the best, leave aside the only, way of tackling such protests?”

Pertie’s argument seemed difficult to counter. I sensed the need for a tactical retreat. So I quickly changed subjects. “Why do you ask how David Cameron would handle a similar situation in London? What’s that got to do with things?”

“Because our prime minister, Manmohan Singh, hasn’t said a word. Literally not a squeak. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know or care. Or as if Kashmir doesn’t count or isn’t part of India. I simply can’t fathom this silence. It’s inexplicable.”

“Well,” I said, startled by this sudden realisation. “Perhaps he doesn’t want to further inflame matters by saying anything. Perhaps in the circumstances silence is the most sensible course of action.”

“You can only say that because you’re not a parent. But if your kids were shot dead by policemen and the government had nothing to say you’d be livid. These were innocent children. Some of them were not even teenagers. And yet the government can’t bring itself to express regret!”

Once again Pertie had me stumped. Democratic governments need to respond to such tragedies no matter how difficult, tricky or sensitive. Silence is never the answer. “But what should the PM have done?” It was a genuine question.

“Express deep regret, share his anguish and even, yes even, apologise.” “Apologise?” My tone clearly conveyed my surprise. “What sort of apology do you mean?” “Even when something is essential and unavoidable you can apologise for having to do it. But in this case killing young people was neither essential nor unavoidable. It was gratuitous and uncalled for. So an apology is all the more necessary.”

I suddenly remembered that Singh apologised in Parliament for the Sikh killings of 1984. Even after 20 years he felt the need to do so. He wasn’t in anyway responsible yet this is what he said: “I bow my head in shame.”

Today, in contrast, when he is the PM, he is silent. For all intent and purposes his head is held high. I wonder how the people of Kashmir — and, in particular, the parents who’ve lost their sons — feel when they notice the difference?

The views expressed by the author are personal