Authentic dissent

Print edition : January 26, 2007

The book describes its author's travels in India, Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet.

My articles on Kashmir appeared in an American magazine. Soon after they came out, officials from the Indian IB (Intelligence Bureau) visited my retired parents in India and interrogated them at some length about my `Pro-Pakistan' Proclivities... Senior Indian columnists denounced me as unpatriotic... "

One is saddened, but by no means surprised, to learn that such things happen in our democracy. Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre in New Delhi whose knowledge of the fast-growing documentation on human rights is of international standards, went through much worse. Pankaj Mishra's first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, won him instant fame.

It is his reportage and analyses in The New York Review of Books that earned him the ire of super-nationalist writers and the intrusive attention of the I.B. to the point that they descended on his aged parents and interrogated them about their son's "sins". One is reminded of the wantonly acerbic remarks two judges of the Supreme Court made about another literary figure, Arundhati Roy, in a contempt of court case.

In India, dissent does enjoy a latitude given to few in the Third World. But dissent that traverses way beyond conventional wisdom or questions policies on "sensitive" issues is visited with varying forms of displeasure from the Establishment.

This book describes its author's travels in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet. These are countries that "differ radically from each other in many ways but that seem to experience the same dilemma: how do peoples with traditions extending back several millennia modernise themselves?". He does not presume to sum up their experience, still less, to offer solutions, but rather attempts "to make the reader enter actual experiences of individuals".

In each place Pankaj Mishra dives well below the surface and offers interesting insights. Some of his experiences, such as the close police surveillance in Peshawar, cause no surprise. But some vignettes he offers provide important correctives: "Living in Benares in the late eighties, I was unaware that the ancient Hindu city was also holy for Muslims.... "

Rama's primacy in Ayodhya was "a recent development". For much of the medieval period, it was the home of the older sects of Saivites, and "many of the temples and sects currently devoted to Rama actually emerged under the patronage of the Shia Muslims who had begun to rule Awadh in the early eighteenth century".

Ramchandra Paramhans' sect "had originally been formed to fight not Muslims but Siva-worshipping Hindus... ". It was supported by the Nawabs.

The piece de resistance is the section on the killings of Sikhs in Chhattisinghpura in Kashmir on March 20, 2005, on the eve of President Bill Clinton's visit to India. It is in the chapter entitled "Kashmir: The Cost of Nationalism".

A Human Rights Centre in Ludhiana had punctured holes in the official version that militants were responsible for the crime. The author does the rest.

A rare factual error: It is altogether wrong to say that Nehru's "complacent belief in pan-Asian solidarity led to India's humiliation by China in 1962". There was no trace of that "solidarity" in the policies Nehru pursued towards China on the boundary dispute since 1950. Each side viewed the other with suspicion.

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