Friday, February 7, 2014

Of Billy Budd, Ishrat Jahan and Democracy

Herman Melville’s unfinished novel, Billy Budd, tells of a young sailor kidnapped off an American ship, The Rights of Man, to serve on the HMS Bellipotent.

The year is 1797, two decades after the American Revolution put in place the world’s first democratic government.

The story is blatantly allegorical.

The Rights of Man is the title of Thomas Paine’s enormously influential book supporting the new American ideology; the name of the British ship, Bellipotent, is Latin for “Potent in War.”

Looking at his own ship sailing away, Billy shouts, “Good-bye to you old Rights of Man!”

On the warship, he has no rights.

Its Master at Arms, envious of Billy’s sunny innocence and instant popularity with the crew, accuses him of planning a mutiny. Billy, too tongue-tied to express his outrage, hits the man, causing a fall that kills him.

The Captain of the Bellipotent knows that Billy is innocent but sentences him to hang. The official Gazette report of these events justifies the punishment by presenting Billy as a villainous foreigner who stabbed and killed the Master at Arms as part of a planned mutiny.

More than a century after Melville wrote the novel (during the run up to the Spanish-American War that brought the Philippines under American rule), the HMS Bellipotent is once more entrapping, defaming and killing innocents.

The “War on Terror” has become the rationale for democratic governments to do inexcusable things to “suspects” who have done nothing and have no recourse in the face of false accusations and stealthy murder.

In the United States, the illegalities of the prison at Guantanamo and the “renditioning” of suspected terrorists to torture in other countries have disappeared into a penumbra of acceptance as dirty but necessary realities. Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance have woken a larger section of society to the misuse of elite power, but the head of the NSA can still get away with saying that journalists who question his agency are helping terrorists.

In India, the kidnapping and cold blooded murder of 19-year old Ishrat Jahan and the wrongful imprisonment of the accused in the Malegaon blast case have become national scandals, but remedial action has been inconsequential.

The CBI has now charge-sheeted four officers of the Intelligence Bureau in Ishrat’s staged “encounter” killing, but it seems prosecution will require the consent of the Law Ministry.

If the government does not allow prosecution, it will be justly accused of joining the conspiracy, not just for murder but also for inflicting grievous damage to Indian democracy.

Not only should the four IB officers be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, the Government must use the case to subject the inner workings of the Intelligence Bureau to stringent examination and reform.

Established in the colonial era as an instrument of oppression, the IB operates today without legal basis or a shred of accountability, either to Parliament or to the Executive branch.

The need to bring the agency within a democratic and accountable framework is urgent, for it is slated to have a vast new system of electronic surveillance.

I do not have to guess what such a system will do, for as a journalist writing on controversial matters, I am subject to close surveillance and continuing interference.

The most recent example was yesterday.

Both my phones stopped working shortly after I emailed their numbers to Kishore Mahbubani (who I had known as Singapore’s Ambassador at the United Nations), so that we could arrange to meet during his visit to the Festival of Ideas in Goa.

Every call I make brings on a fruity voice announcing “network congestion.” One phone occasionally flashes a sign that “Active call redirect has been activated.”

This is the least of the transgressions I have endured over the past year, but that story will be told in a book arguing that if we do not get the IB into an accountable framework it will mean the death of Indian democracy.

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