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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.

When I wrote my post on Kashmiri Pandits, a friend responded privately with a nugget of political insight – before the ethnic cleansing, Kashmiri Pandits did favor independence over merger with India. If that is true, then Pakistan did Kashmir a grave disservice by sponsoring the butchers who devastated them and turned them firmly pro-India.

That got me thinking about the the differences between Pakistan’s supposed support for Kashmir’s freedom, and its actual actions.

Please note, in the following observations, I have no particular opinion on what “should” happen with Kashmir, though I do see a disadvantage for India, the region and the world if Kashmir becomes independent and a target for Pakistan’s strategic depth. Not to mention, I am convinced Pakistan will not allow an independent Kashmir beyond getting it to separate from India.

Here is why.

1. When India and Pakistan got independent, Kashmir also became independent of sorts. It successfully negotiated its Stand Still agreement and while we can argue intent till the cows come home, the basic fact stands that the supposed “occupation” of Kashmir by India came after the occupation of Kashmir by Pakistan.

2. Regardless of whether the occupation was valid/popular or not or when it was signed, another fact that cannot be disputed is that it was a reaction to the Pakistani invasion/occupation and based on the understanding of a merger with India, unlike Pakistani occupation, which violated a Stand Still agreement they had made with Kashmir.

3. While there are no doubt many Kashmiris who fought for independence from India, militants from Punjab, Pakistan cannot be called Kashmiris.

4. Pakistan has initiated two “sly captures” of Kashmir territory since, which certainly cannot be called an indigenous Kashmiri independence struggle, since they escalated into wars between two armies.

5. Militants with pro-Pakistan agenda, comprised of Pakistanis (and other nationalities, trained in pakistan) have outnumbered and indeed hampered Kashmiri militants (who received far less assistance).

6. The ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits also came at a time when the voices in Kashmir demanding independence from both countries gathered momentum. If we add this insight that influential Kashmiri Pandits supported independence for their own reasons, it translates to not only an ethnic cleansing, but also a weakening of the political voice for independence (as opposed to merger with Pakistan – which the Kashmiri Pandits didn’t want).

7. Pro-independence separatists and moderates who have no specifci pro-Pakistan agenda have a disconcerting habit of turning up dead, being blamed on Indian Army and then being found out as work of militants or the unseen “hand”.

8. Rallies in Pakistan demanding conquering Kashmir from India via jihad have few Kashmiris – largely Punjabis.

9. Every conflict Pakistan has engaged in has been about land – specifically control over land and denying its citizens control over their land – be it the Balochs, be it the Bangladesh, be it the Taliban prop-up in Afghanistan (against both Soviets and later Afghans themselves) or be it Kashmir.

10. Pakistan’s idea of independence can be understood from Azad Kashmir, where freedom means political leaders must swear allegiance to Pakistan to have the rights to come to power.

11. Muslim Kashmiri who does not want to be identified points out that Kashmiri Muslims who are pro-India also get killed and many have migrated out of Kashmir too – which is even more ignored than Kashmiri Pandits.

12. He also points out that the area of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan has been heavily resettled by people loyal to Pakistan. Sunny Singh says something similar too – ‘azad’ Kashmir has been re-settled by Punjabi primarily ex-military personnel as part of a policy of demographic shift in contravention of a UN directive – while Pakistan publicizes demands for a plebiscite, it has itself violated conditions for it – conditions that were likely to lead to a “1947 like” result for independence.

Stray observations. I don’t believe for a minute that if Kashmir becomes independent, it will remain independent. It will either be attacked and absorbed into Pakistan, or it will become a puppet state like Afghanistan under Taliban – the dirty work and plausible deniability terrain.

Whether this means Kashmir should not be given independence? I don’t know. Having a potentially hostile neighbor cannot be reason enough to deny the right to self-determination. But this question gets muddied if we look at experiences of other territories of interest to Pakistan. Would it be human rights to leave them at the mercy of such? I don’t know that either.

I do know that there are atrocities happening in Kashmir, which are totally unacceptable as a long term state of existence (or short term for that matter) and they need to stop. My article on AFSPA talks about that.

I do think that unless there is a space for feeling safe created, Kashmiri responses are going to be ones of panicked escape. It could be from the frying pan into the fire, or it could be from hell to paradise. We don’t know. What I do know is that even if we were to give Kashmiris freedom (or not), the desperate, survivalist state of mind and the resultant domination of public space by reactiveness (pro or anti India/independence/Pakistan will be detrimental to everyone’s interest, in every condition. This protection of human rights is as necessary for us as a democratic country, as it is for a thoughtful, responsible solution for Kashmir to eventually emerge.

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Note: A shorter version of this had appeared in print in Sunday's "The Free Press ePaper"

This morning was abuzz with the news our celebrated controversial painter M F Hussain was no more. Social media exploded with opinions. What stood out to my mind was that everyone had something to say. His depictions of our country and goddesses in the nude in 1996. A decade of protests, vandalism and court cases later, The man who was a part of India before its creation had given up our citizenship and moved to Qatar.

His death brought everything to the front again. Many criticized him and thought that those mourning him were excusing his behaviour. People spoke in support of him and thought it was a great pity that an artist like him was not allowed to flourish. Others respected him in death, but thought that he had insulted India. A few said that the government failed in creating safety for him.

Pritish Nandy wrote a series of Tweets in his memory describing him as a friend and artist. "Husain was one of my best friends and I shall miss him deeply. One of the greatest artists of our time. Few people had that zest for living as Husain. My walls are full of his notes and drawings left in my office when I wasnt there."

Sunny Singh was direct and vocal about intolerance. "So 'offended sensibilities' are not a particularly interesting or relevant criteria for art. If you dont like it, dont see/hear/read it. However in India the problem is shutting out of voices from public discourse which then leads to frustration and a stilted debate!"

Others remembered his contribution to India's post independence asthetic and how his thousands of paintings were shown in such a way that the rural masses could enjoy them.

"I cameaway myself because I am an old man and vulnerable to physical danger. It’s not just the cases. If I came back, given the mood they have created, someone could just push or assault me on the street, and I would not be able to defend myself." quotes an article from Tehelka about his move to Qatar.

As the day passed and more people joined conversations, and voices mellowed. Perhaps it was the dawning realization that here was a man who had produced thousands and thousands of paintings and the ones causing anger were a few.

Nitin Pai made it simple on twitter: "Always a good idea not let your politics get ahead of your humanity."

“He may have been controversial, but he was an Indian. So, his last rites should be performed in India,” said BJP general secretary Ananth Kumar.

“Damage may have been caused to modern art due to his demise. Thats all. May Allah give him peace,” Thackeray said. “As an artist, everyone has a domain and Husain handled his modern art with zeal. However, he ‘slipped’ while drawing paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses,” he added.

Raj Thackeray called Husain a “national asset” and said that all controversies related to paintings of renowned painter Husain should be laid to rest with his demise.

Javed Akhtar commented "A truly Indian artist has left the world misunderstood and back stabbed but thru his art he will out live all his adversaries."

A new understanding of the man and his relationship with India started to emerge. I saw M F Hussain as the great artist he was and recognized his dedication to his art. I pondered artistic freedom and how things may be misunderstood by an audience, when an artist is so lost in his art that he uses his own symbolisms and meanings. Can it be called a fault? Certainly his years and years of interest and keen knowledge of Indian mythology couldn't come without a deep interest and love. I didn't believe that he intended disrespect. While there is no doubt that he is responsible for his actions, perhaps we ought to respect an artist's right to stand by his creation and his intentions in the face of controvesy.

Content strategist Amrit Hallan puts it beautifully on his Twitter account "Maturity of a country manifests in the way it protects its artists, no matter how revolting."

We are failing to show ourselves as mature people. From Arundhati Roy to Baba Ramdev... we have lost the ability to allow a thought we don't like to exist. We have lost compassion and tolerance. We have lost the ability to question and clarify differences and make peace. In every case, we have polarized opinions.

As we honor this great son of India, who was older than the country itself, the best tribute we can pay him is learning to bridge chasms. Learning to be less fractured as a country.

Put up this version mainly because the edit used some quotes without attributions, so acknowledging them here.