Dilemmas on Right to Self-Determination – II

For dogmatic Leninists and Maoists too, the lack of democracy in the ‘solution’ is not a problem, and the moral dilemma is resolved very easily with the mantra that ‘the violence of the oppressor must never be equated with the violence of the oppressed’. It is worth examining this formula more carefully, since it has been used as a cover for many ghastly atrocities. Its unstated premise is that those who are oppressed in one relationship are always and in every relationship the victims of oppression, and can never be oppressors. This may be true in fairy tales, but real life is more complicated. For example, a male worker who is oppressed by his employer may come home and thrash his wife. According to this formula, the male worker is still ‘the oppressed’ in the relationship with his wife, and we must never, ever, equate his brutality to her with the oppression he faces as a worker, even if he kills her. But where does this reasoning lead us? The Zionist state of Israel has made extensive use of it to persuade the world that Jews, who were subjected to genocide in the Nazi holocaust, cannot possibly be guilty of violence against the people of Palestine; it denounces as ‘anti-Semitism’ any comparison of the ghettos into which the Jews were herded with the ghettos into which the Palestinians have been herded, because (of course!) one must never equate the violence of the oppressors (the Nazis) with the violence of the oppressed (the Zionists).

To break out of this dilemma, we need to be able to deal with more complex equations, and admit that the categories of ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ are not only not mutually exclusive, but may work in opposite directions even in the same relationship (e.g. white woman, black man). Once we do this, it becomes crystal clear that what is often justified as ‘the violence of the oppressed’ is actually the violence of oppressors, albeit different oppressors from those who are seen as being ‘the enemy’. For example, the LTTE’s violence against Sinhalese and Muslim civilians, Tamil dissenters and Tamil children whom they recruited forcibly, was all the violence of the oppressor. The Taliban’s violence against women and ethnic and religious minorities is the violence of the oppressor. Only where the violence is directed strictly towards actors inflicting violence on a community can we talk of the violence of the oppressed: Vietnamese shooting down planes that were dropping bombs and napalm on their towns and villages, South Africans fighting against the Apartheid state, and so on. Yes, in such cases we should not equate the violence of an imperialist/colonial state with the armed resistance to such violence. But we can say this only when we have examined each case to see who the victims of the so-called ‘violence of the oppressed’ are.

Blanket support for those who are seen to be fighting for the oppressed is the surest way to turn them into oppressors even if they are not oppressors already. It also creates a hierarchy of rights between ‘us’, whose have human rights, and ‘them’, who have none. In this view, a Tamil child killed by the Sri Lankan army has human rights, while a Sinhalese child killed by the LTTE has none; therefore the former killing is a violation of human rights, the latter is not. University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2007 (Martin Ennals Award 2007) precisely because they risked their lives to challenge this discriminatory conception. By documenting – and condemning – human rights violations by all the warring parties, they not only provided a source of information far more reliable than the propaganda of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, but also provided a moral compass to guide Tamil democracy acivists through the quagmire of gruesome atrocities.

Unlike the Maoists, Arundhati Roy is not comfortable with the assumption that sharing a platform with Geelani amounts to an endorsement of his politics, although that conclusion would be the normal one. Asked this question in an interview, she replied, ‘Speaking for myself, I disagree with many of his views, and I’ve written about it. As for him being involved in the internecine battles within the Kashmiri leadership – yes that’s true. Terrible things happened in the nineties, fratricidal killings – and Geelani has been implicated in some of them. But internecine battles are a part of many resistance movements. They are NOT the same thing as State sponsored killings. In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) and Black Consciousness had vicious fights in which many hundreds were killed, including Steve Biko. Would you say then, that sitting on the same platform as Nelson Mandela is a crime?’ (Choudhary and Roy 2010).

There are three things wrong with this strange defence. One: Roy is surely the first person to accuse Nelson Mandela of having had a hand in the death of Steve Biko. Biko was killed by the Apartheid state in 1977, while Mandela was serving a twenty-seven-year prison sentence imposed by the same state: how could he possibly have had anything to do with it? It was not an ‘internecine battle’ but a state-sponsored killing, which, as Roy says, is NOT the same thing. (Incidentally, isn’t ‘internecine battles’ a euphemism for the murder of rivals, not so very different from the euphemism of referring to state assassinations as ‘encounters’? Both ‘internecine battles’ and ‘encounters’ suggest that the two sides are engaged in mutual combat, whereas the reality is that one side is gunning down the other in cold blood.) Two: Mandela was fighting against an Apartheid state in which discrimination against non-Whites was written into the constitution; by contrast, Geelani is fighting against the Indian state, whose constitution affirms non-discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, sex, etc. And three: Mandela was fighting for a democratic state whose constitution would guarantee non-discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, sex, etc, whereas Geelani is fighting for a theocratic state whose constitution will guarantee discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, sex, etc. So it is not a crime to sit on the same platform as Nelson Mandela, but sharing a platform with Geelani is not quite as blameless. To acknowledge the tragedy of the expulsion of the Kashmiri Pandits while sharing a platform with a man whose politics would make them (at best) second-class citizens without political rights certainly seems inconsistent. Fighting on two fronts – against the state on one side and a self-styled liberation group on the other – is difficult and dangerous, but sometimes there is no other option, as Tamil democracy activists found. Perhaps the same is true of the struggle for democracy in Kashmir.
-(To be concluded)