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4

Sunny Singh makes a very intriguing and perceptive observation about the Arab Spring and the rash of self-immolations that it brought.

She points out that while self-immolation is known culturally in say India or among the Tibetan Buddhists, it is a very important taboo in Islam. Not only is suicide forbidden, but mutilating a body - dead or alive is another big no-no. Self-immolation is not a part of Islamic cultures, which see suicide as sin and even suicide bombings are largely justified by fringe beliefs as an act of jihad, but most Muslims will not be able to reconcile with it as acceptable.

Yet these self-immolations, almost flamboyant in both method and breaking of deep cultural taboos have been everywhere the Arab spring touched.

At this point, it is important to read her post to understand the religious, cultural and historical nuances she brings up.

When I read it, the first thought that struck me was that when something on such a scale, and totally unexplained happens, there is a good reason to look at what could be happening on an unconscious level and what immediately stands out to me, as it did to her is the symbolism. The very public statement being made.

The other thing that stood out to me was that if we look beyond the obvious, and choose to define our own lens for the circumstances rather than that of religion or culture alone, then there are threads in common with the self-immolations in Tibet, the women's self-immolations in Afghanistan, and the historical stories of self-immolation from India.

Now, at this point it is important to say that I am describing a landscape of perceptions, looking at how the unconscious mind may be working. The unconscious works in images and sensations rather than logic. So I am trying to look at those, rather than logic too. For example "suicide is useless because nothing is solved" has no place in this view I'm trying to describe.

About the circumstances:

1. One common factor that stands out instantly is the loss of autonomy. Most of these countries are dictatorships reeling under the choices of dictators or other autocratic rulers with little recourse. Particularly the Afghanistan women, but not men - is a quite telling instance. They feel helpless to influence their own circumstances.

2. The oppressor is perceived as having no concern for them as humans and deserving of consideration. (the "perceived" is not to debate the guilt or innocence of oppressor, but to describe what may appear to the victim)

About the method of suicide:

1. It breaks free of the perceived inability to change circumstances.

2. It grabs attention, so it is a statement.

3. It symbolizes the helplessness as an erasing of the identity from the scene. A charred, dead body has neither the personality nor the look of the person. Like the charred body is there, but means nothing - the live body was there, but meant nothing.

4. It is painful and long drawn rather than, say - a suicide bombing - which as Sunny points out also erases the identity from the scene.

5. It is an angry, torturous, deliberate act.

A hypothesis is that the person feels impotent to change their circumstances. There is a lot of anger at failure to do so. Anger directed at self for failing. The method of death is also a self-punishment for that. There is a need to be heard - to "register" and a willingness to pay a high price for it with pain and death after other options have failed - thus the very visual, dramatic death. The breaking of religious taboo also signifies the breaking free from imposed limits - so I think in that sense the taboo actually makes the act more desired. It is an angry condemnation of the oppressor by creating loud, difficult to ignore illustration of their unacknowledged actions destroying the person.

I disagree with Sunny about this being the symbolism of a suicide attack rather than self-immolation. I think a suicide attack is different in several key ways:

1. Object of anger - self immolation has two clear objects - the oppressor and the self. The punishment of the oppressor is in "exposing" his oppression, powerlessness, a possible intent that society or another more powerful will bring justice. In that sense, it marks the oppressor and attacks self. A suicide-attacker is either angry with the world at large or a person, with or without anger with self. The primary target of punishment is not self - the goal is to erase the presence of others. Also there is no element of self-punishment/pain intended - how it happens may be different. The death is intentionally quick.

2. The person may be cornered if at all, but is not defeated and will go down fighting. The self-immolator has acknowledged his powerlessness, but wants it known.

3. I perceive a suicide attack as resulting from anger rather than desperation, but there may be many reasons - including peer pressure to be a hero.

There are other perceptions too, but now that the "track" is open, I am sure you can think of them yourself.

Moving on.

The unconscious may not be consciously known, but it communicates. The symbolism is unconsciously registered by others too. So I want to look at the movements. Will look at the Afghan women separately.

Self-immolations marked the start of most. People understood the suffering the man was making known, and took it up. They also related with it deeply, because they could recognize it in their circumstances - so they were unconsciously on the same team (and in real life circumstances as citizens too). Others may have recognized the expression as appropriate for their circumstances and self-immolated too. Self-immolations dotted the process, giving voice to the suffering and in that sense adding power to the movement too.

There were no suicide bombings. This was a crowd of oppressed and defeated people at the end of their rope without the resources or inclination to attack the oppressor, leaving it to those able to take up the cause on their behalf. And I include the Tibetans in this.

Another connection I make is with India's Jan Lokpal Andolan. Very similar frustrations, massive mobilization of people. The only difference being that the people still had the right to be heard. There was one self-immolation attempted, but overwhelmingly, people were taking up the cause rather than giving up. I think this is also an important aspect of democracy - however dysfunctional in the moment.

However, the element of suffering manifested as fasting - without any attempt to erase identity. The identity had presence in a democracy, but the suffering hunger echoed the suffering deprivation (scams, inflation, etc) at the hands of the oppressor.

If you take still another example from around the same time - the Occupy Movement. Here, you see neither the physical suffering, nor the attempt to erase identity. You see an element of challenge rather than self-denial/deprivation. Taking risks with being attacked by the system, occupying spaces of power - in some kind of echo of the arbitrariness and inequality? Didn't follow the movement so much, so these are very general impressions rather than nuances - more important for what was not seen as compared with the other protests. This is a democracy, with also a somewhat functioning public welfare system - identity and no desperate deprivation or immediate threat of it.

At the root of these perceptions of deprivation and denial happening worldwide, is what I think Sainath points out in his lecture on mass media and mass reality - rising inequality, food prices, inflation and add to it collapsing economies and floundering corporates being bolstered by public resources, when the public itself is reeling.

The Afghan women's oppressor is not the government, but society and it is a very gender specific oppressor. So you don't find Afghan men self-immolating so much as the women. The Afghan men have their voice in their democracy - again, however dysfunctional - even the fact that "it is supposed to be like this" is often enough for someone to claim that space in need. The protests in Pakistan, for example.

On the other hand, women with their severe social restrictions, an extremely chauvinistic culture and little hopes for bettering their circumstances choose self-immolation largely as a means of escaping domestic violence. The rest of the symbolism remains the same, except the people taking up the cause are far fewer, because women's rights is not as widely identified with a subject and you find more of their champions among the social workers, though there are instances when locals - both men and women have protested when they identified with the victim.

In summary, I think there is a scale of dissent or protesting distress. The easiest method is chosen. Where the victim has voice, they speak up. Where there is no government listening, they rebel. If there is hopelessness, there are public self-immolations. It is about agency, in my view. They may be seeking acknowledgment that they suffered and they matter. Or "proving" the genuineness of their distress and hopelessness that goes unheard with everything they have - their life itself and a painful death in order to make that one statement that matters.

2

When words that convey extreme contempt are used, they ought to be used with responsibility, if at all they must be used. For, is not telling people what to think an insult to their ability to reach conclusions?

This post is about an article by Sujata Anandan where she essentially calls Anna Hazare a Tin-pot dictator and condemns his dictatorial policies. I would like to address several things in her article.

Flogging of alcoholics

As the wife of an alcoholic and an occasional drinker myself, I see drinking alcohol and alcoholism as two different things with little in common other than the consumption of alcoholic beverages. For example, a regular drinker could comfortably visit Ralegan Siddhi to cover this epic news and have a drink later after returning home. An alcoholic would travel to the nearest town to find a bar, try to wriggle out of the assignment altogether, sneak in his bottle or finish it fast and return to an environment where alcohol is possible.

You cannot reason with an alcoholic. I mean, you can, but it becomes irrelevant when it is time to drink. It is also not only about the mind. The body forms a dependency and doesn't function properly without alcohol - this is how "medical licences" for alcohol happen.

It takes what many recovered alcoholics call "hitting rock bottom" or overwhelming and undeniable bad consequences for an alcoholic to undertake the overwhelming effort to fight his/her own body and mind to quit. Most alcoholics go to their graves without ever attempting this fight. Others try, lose momentum and lapse.

In other news, while drinking alcohol may be a personal choice, alcoholism is a social, economic and security menace. Alcoholism is almost always associated with domestic abuse - not even because the person is evil, but he is simply too drunk to care that others hurt because of him, and he always wants things his way, because he is too drunk to deal with  anything. They destroy domestic relationships, make enemies out of friends, deprive dependents - particularly children or resources that should rightfully be theirs for nurture.

Alcoholics will buy alcohol no matter what. It isn't a multiple choice question, unless you are talking which brand. They will switch to cheaper brands, dubious quality, spend their last dime, borrow, steal, prostitute themselves or their wives, whatever it takes to get their quota. It is a compulsion. Alcoholism itself is a dictatorship.

Drunk drivers on the streets are a risk to more lives than their own.

I don't see alcoholism as a personal choice, if it damages other people. It is far worse than say exposing people to passive smoke.

While I don't agree with the method of flogging, as someone who has read extensively on alcoholism, I can see how a rural environment lacks absolutely any leverage that is "legal" to prevent this damage to families. For a population of alcoholics amounting in the millions, we barely have enough affordable support for de-addiction in cities. Leave alone villages. Obviously, there is a point where you either bend rules, or watch many people suffer the consequences of one person's alcoholism. Would I have done it the same way? I don't know.

But this is far from a dictatorship. In focusing that Anna "sometimes" flogs alcoholics, it is easy to overlook who is doing it other times. Sure, it is human rights abuse according to fancy, imported ethics. So where are the facilities that an alcoholic can be arrested and rehabilitated if found in a village where alcohol is banned? Is it more "human rights" friendly to get an alcoholic arrested, likely beaten by the cops instead, accommodated in some prison while the country's over burdened system waits for his case comes to court? Or should this glorious Sharad Pawar experiment be ignored - I thought she liked it, but it shouldn't be enforced?

Power to women to close down liquor shops

A little more research would have told this writer that this isn't an experiment by Sharad Pawar, it was an ammendment to the Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949 - her tin-pot dictator Anna Hazare is the one to demand it. Ralegaon Siddhi was the model on which the conditions were developed for banning liquor based on a vote by the women of a village - very dictatorial, huh? Nice style, calling him a tin-pot dictator, and attributing the result of his appeal as an experiment by someone else. It is obviously an article written by a gushing fan, but the facts stand there. Also the RTI, etc.

Banning alcohol and cigarettes

I smoke and drink, but as a citizen of a democracy, I also recognize the right of that village and its elected body for self-determination. With the number of people who smoke and drink, I don't think it is something that can be imposed by some freak dictator on the majority.

Which brings me to - this is the second mention of youth running away from Ralegan Siddhi rather than bear "dikkats". I only want to point out that with all the publicity the village got, as well as the massive mud slinging efforts mobilized, it should have been relatively simple to interview a few of those youth about the tortures they escaped. Surprisingly, months along, I'm still searching news for this epic article that would kill all support for Anna among youth, etc.

That said, I was a staunch supporter of the IAC movement, but I see it drifting away from the things about it I supported. However, this doesn't mean that our national sport of mud slinging is a good idea, and this is one big reason media today cannot be trusted for information in order to form your opinion. You are fed conclusions.

Thus, when an editor chose to do this, I thought why not debunk it, for no reason other than I value the freedom of thought and oppose vilifying anyone?

2

We are hearing storied of police brutalities all the time. Human rights abuses by armed forces. Hideous crimes against women by their own families or random society. Abuses, murders and what nots. Journalists and activists being killed.

We analyze fault lines, debate solutions, apply some, and invariably all fails to create change.

One reason that comes to my mind is that we are always thinking in fragments. As though each problem area is an island independent of other factors. Then our action itself is polarized. Often along lines of politics, but it can be religion, location, class.... We have movements that surge, even win, but we are not able to "hold the terrain" that we win. They are sabotaged by those who wish, because like our thinking of the problem being an island, the solution is an island too - isolated, with few anchors to real life - easily toppled once the big noise dies. We remain futilely doing the one thing we know - making laws and becoming a police state in blind hope of a fix.

Today, an article in the Guardian calls India the fourth worst place to be a woman in. That is part of the picture. Another fragment. The full story includes that we are the largest democracy and second most populous country in the world. That isn't just about worst place for women, but that's a heck of a lot of women.

Our attitudes are primitive. While in theory we have accepted that women are "equals", practically, that only means we have stopped opposing routine actions by women, "allowing them to enter the world of men, as long as they know their responsibilities". Women on their part are becoming more like men to create minimal waves. Extraordinary achievement still meets prejudice. A woman in trouble still cannot hope for justice or support. And these primitive attitudes are everywhere. Its all linked. Might is right is so entrenched in our very lifeblood, that we cower in front of aggressive people, try not to make waves, exert our power to overrule others.... and see this as normal life.

So, the cops that are abusing people are born of us, they die within us. Also the Armed forces, corrupt politicians, vampire corporate monoliths, the woman burners, child molesters, murderers, and all kinds of abuse that "gets away" with what they do, because we "civilized people" are too civilized to get into a brawl over it. On the other hand, the Malad murders also show that it can be very dangerous for us to challenge wrongs without systematic support.

These things cannot be fixed by laws, or any other isolated action. They are already illegal. There are too many words spoken. Much clutter, no clarity. What we need is to find our own capacity to think, our pride in ethics, tolerance for diversity and unwavering insistence on the existing laws to be enforced uniformly.

I make an arguement in an earlier article, that we need to stop transferring problem officials. That article is about cops, but really anyone. Like anyone else in the country, a person unwittingly assisting murder should be prosecuted, not shuffled out of the limelight. Also corrupt officials and other troublemakers. Transferring is only a new blank slate to write garbage on and removal from any possibility to make amends. It lowers the risk of being caught with wrongdoing. It allows illegal actions to plague society.

Similarly, as society, we must examine happenings we come across and make conscious choices about our responses. For example, not interfering in a domestic conflict is also allowing abuse to continue - silence becoming support. We aren't "doing nothing" we need to see we are "allowing" at best and "enabling" more likely. It goes for everything. Whether it is ignoring someone bribing a cop, or paying a bribe yourself. Whether it is driving on beside the malnutritioned child on the street begging for a living, or putting her there on the street. Or you may be the cool executive planning an office outing and selecting a vendor who will give you a cut on the bill. Every time we act like nothing's wrong, we are reinforcing that "this is ok".

Think about that.

We need more voices engaged in the country, leaderless voices whose knowledge of what they should do comes from within. Anchored strongly in a vision - not pseudo messages like that's the truth, but speaking up that that is not the truth, and that is what we want. Changing everything we touch in the direction of what we'd like to see.

The reality is that we are nothing like how we advertise. The sooner we own that without shame, the sooner we can begin changing it publicly. Each and everyone of us.