Category Archives: Pushpa Iyer

Pushpa Iyer is the Director of the Center for Conflict Studies. She specializes in identity conflicts, non-state armed groups, civil wars, peace processes and peacebuilding in post-war societies. She is currently a faculty member at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Living in the Trap of the Past

by Pushpa Iyer

These were days of mayhem in Gujarat twelve years ago. From February 27 to March 1, 2002, this northwestern state in India, Gandhi’s home, became a graveyard of the minorities – the Muslims. Massacred, raped, and hounded out of their homes, their charred homes that is, Muslims overnight became third if not fourth class citizens. The perpetrator? The state. Ruled by a narcissistic and ideologically motivated chief minister, Narendra Modi (of the Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP), his vision of a dominant Hindu nationalist identity that denies equal space for minorities has made Gujarat a deeply divided society – politically, socially and economically.

Recently, I listened to the victims (Muslims) of the 2002 violence who were recounting their past (yet again!) for the benefit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt. Their emotions, twelve years on, were still (unsurprisingly) raw. “They forced me on the table and stripped me. I was left with only my blouse on. At that moment I heard my brother-in-law scream and saw his throat being slit,” Saira sobbed as she recounted the events of that fateful day when she lost her brother-in-law, sister-in-law and her son, a promising 24-year-old studying to be a lawyer.  “Modi is a criminal, DSC_0070he is responsible for our sorrow, for our son’s death. I will never forgive him till I die and he will remain answerable to the higher powers when he reaches the other world,” said her husband with tears in his eyes. Rupa Mody broke down repeatedly as she remembered those ill-fated moments when she lost consciousness when a brick hit her on the head and she lost hold on her son, who has been missing since that day.

It was a roomful of people living in their past. Saira and her husband are ghosts of their former selves. They eat only when their grumbling stomachs can no longer be ignored, they cannot enjoy their surviving daughters or grandchildren, and they live adjacent to the graveyard where their son is buried – in fact they look out through their window at their son’s grave many times a day. Rupa’s future involves her son walking back into her life and nothing else.

The struggle for justice – legal justice – has been the primary recourse of human rights activists in the state. For the victim, recounting the past becomes synonymous with the struggle for justice. For the activists, the past as told and remembered by the victims is the only way to explain their strategy of “Justice first, Reconciliation later.” The risk is in the symbiotic relationship that has reached a point where if the victims did not exist, the activists would not, thus making them indirectly victims too. And international attention that can be garnered only as long as the victim images are kept alive makes the entire world community victims of the past too. At the same time one must acknowledge that if it were not for these activists and for the international community, the voice of the victims would never have been heard. No wonder then that the past is a trap, a trap with frosted glass through which the future looks blurred.

This does not mean that the victim needs to stop being a victim or needs to stop remembering. Not the mothers whose sons have gone missing or were killed, not the women who were molested and raped, not the fathers who identified the charred bodies of their sons and not the survivors who are still haunted by horrific images. They do, however, need help to not remain trapped in the past. But, who will help them out of the trap if everyone around them is a victim too? If those around them remain on their own perch of victimhood they begin to facilitate the process for the real victims to remain trapped in their past.

It is necessary therefore, to separate the “real” victims from those who have acquired victim status. Becoming a victim through the victimhood of others is dangerous. It makes one develop a moral superiority; where injury to self is as painful as the injuries to the real victims and where the mantle of victimhood becomes comforting.

Those fighting to free victims from the trap of the past must stop being victims themselves. In remembrance of all the victims of the 2002 violence, here is wishing that memories of the past re-define the future of Gujarat without its people being trapped in those very memories.

Ushering in 2014!

by Pushpa Iyer

A few years ago in my New Year greetings to friends and colleagues, I went on a tirade against the word “happy” in Happy New Year. “What was there to be happy about?” I asked everyone. People (especially children) were dying in violent conflicts around the world; no one (especially powerful nations) was interested in working for peace and individuals (especially the rich and privileged) continued to breathe in their bubble, oblivious to the suffering of the rest of humanity as they screamed in drunken joyfulness “Happy New Year” in midnight celebrations. My email greeting that year was definitely angry, depressed and sad.

2013 was no different for most of the world – even as we usher in this new year, 2014, we have reports coming in of children being beheaded in war (attention Central African Republic), homeless people suffering in the bitter cold (attention Japan), unchecked rapes and unsympathetic responses to “victims” (attention India, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo and everywhere), child soldiers unwelcome into families (attention Colombia), LGBTQ communities (attention Uganda) spewed with hate…the list goes on. I wonder if you have lost a child to senseless violence in 2013, would you want someone to scream  “Happy New Year” to you on Jan 1, 2014? Leave the past behind and begin fresh? Without your child? Really?

Colourful 2014 in fiery sparklersI am not questioning whether we should be happy ringing in 2014 or that we dare hope that it is personally a better year for each one of us than 2013 but it is in the display of unbridled joyous celebrations at the time of ushering the New Year wherein lies my problem. To me, it seems almost insensitive and definitely unnecessary. Yes, some of us do have a lot to be grateful for or at least the fortitude to look forward to better times in the New Year. But, can we make the effort to celebrate in moderation (taking the time to define what moderation means for us) our gratitude for all the good that came our way in 2013? And then STOP? As I watch mobs with champagne bottles in hand, jump up and down screaming as they usher in the New Year, all I want is to do is to beg them to spare a thought for the people who were seeking protection from bullets, shells and drones at that very same minute. And I ask that when you are standing in freezing temperatures, bundled up in the best of winter coats, boots, scarves and hats to usher in the New Year, take a moment to remember all those for whom New Year’s Eve is nothing but just another very cold night out in the open with no accessories to protect them. Just cutting back a tiny bit on our excesses could keep someone warm all through 2014. And sometimes, just pausing a little in our display of extreme “happiness” (I suspect it is a display of happiness as defined by the culture of the privilege than real happiness) goes a long way in showing respect for those who cannot celebrate or leave behind the traumas of 2013.

I live amongst a community of entitled; I am surrounded by human beings who have no qualms or maybe no awareness of how much privilege they have and for whom spending life indulging in excesses is the norm. I know that my perception of the world’s sorrows through their lens of privilege gives me a skewed image of the universe, making me angry, sad and depressed all over again about this year’s celebrations. With that caveat, I would say to my immediate community and others who are as privileged as them “I wish you the best for 2014 but I wish more that you would be able to acknowledge your privilege and I wish even more that you do not see the need to flaunt your “happiness” even if it goes against your peer culture, when there is so much sadness and pain in the world.”

Best wishes for creating a more humane 2014.

Labels of Violence

by Pushpa Iyer

Well, India is in the news again for the wrong reasons! Tarun Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka (meaning “sensation”) magazine has been accused of the rape of one of his employees. Tejpal and Tehelka rose to become upholders of India’s moral conscience through investigative journalism in the early 2000s. Their exposé of various issues led to the downfall of powerful officials in the government and other sectors, gaining support from the NGO sector – the other sector that is the vanguard of India’s moral and liberal crusades.

The woman accusing Tejpal of “rape” rhetorically asks if she is ready to see herself as a rape victim, as law has classified the act committed on her as rape. Even if the law has that prerogative, she laments that victims are denied the right to decide how they want to be labeled. She is of course correct; the underprivileged, the discriminated, the minority and almost certainly the victim is never given that right.

Labeling has the intended and unintended effect of imposing vulnerability, effectively disempowering the “victim,” leaving them with no choice but to respond. No response leads to assumption of acceptance. If they do act (lawfully and without turning violent), they are described as a leader, a strong and courageous/brave person and often one of principled character as victimhood imposes moral superiority. An individual violated might need our support but there is a thin line between support and the imposition of our crisis-handling approach on them.

What if the “victim” does not want the label of strong – experiences weakness, is reduced to tears frequently, wants to just curl up and has no courage to face the world (at least for a while)? They cannot but be strong because they risk disappointing everyone who has made them into a symbol of courage and resistance. They have to go with the flow. Sure, many of them may turn into natural leaders – ones who lead by example, impact other people’s lives and in turn give courage to many. However, I would argue that it is still their actions that are courageous or strong or morally superior. By labeling them instead of qualifying their actions, we are imposing on them the label of “hero-victims.” And, not all victims are fortunate to become “hero-victims.” Most remain obscured in both their experiences and in their courageous responses.

What if a victim, like the journalist in India, said, “I am afraid for myself, scared of the world, drown sometimes in self-pity and feel completely alone in fighting for justice for myself.” How would all those people standing on the streets protesting for justice for her, in all the din they create and all the labels they use as placards, hear or see her?

It is time to stop the labeling and imposing expectations on “hero-victims.” Instead, let the “victim” lead and let us follow them in their fight for justice. In the meantime, without having a “hero-victim,” let’s continue to crusade against all forms of violence against women. That would be true justice for her, the human being.

As Nations, we are NOT United

By Pushpa Iyer

The news out of Syria yesterday has been too much for me to take. It is not possible to see pictures of dead children, babies really, and not have my core belief in humanity badly shaken.

Reports say that of those killed, in what is now known as the Houla massacre, over 30 were children. They were stabbed, shot or bludgeoned to death with blunt objects. One must pity the human beings that actually stabbed, shot or bludgeoned a child to death. Really, they have to be past redemption, so twisted that they deserve nothing else but our pity.

My condemnation is reserved for the powers that are: especially the members of the security council of the UN; for the slow response of countries in the Middle East and the US in taking a stand against the violence in Syria. Seriously, this level of violence has been going on for over a year in the country! I condemn countries like Russia and China who vetoed any UN intervention in Syria because they felt the proposals did not balance out and penalise the opposition forces in Syria for using brutal force. They are right and maybe even more justified in fearing any kind of ‘humanitarian’ intervention given the tragedies of the ongoing ‘intervention’ in Iraq. However, what do they propose as a solution? Why do nation states not give a thought to what happens to the mandate of the UN every time we have one country oppose a UN led action or worse, when member countries pursue their own agenda in spite of UN principles? Is this not ‘our’ world and do we not all have a responsibility in ensuring the world is a more peaceful place?

The UN is based on a principle of collaboration. But, collaboration is not something nation states value today unless it economically benefits the collaborators. The UN, I am sure, was a wonderful idea post World War II. A league of newly formed nation states all of whom went through the horrors of war and depression. Today, that shared horror of experiencing violence is gone and somehow some nations have ‘become’ superior to others. Is not collaborating with member states of the UN the best way to show hegemonic power?

When nation states fail to put on a united front through the UN, it simply means we have to accept that each nation knows best how to deal with their internal problems. Obviously, we know the consequences of such an approach. Maybe it is not the right mechanism or maybe it needs total revamping to deal with established nation states; states that have developed ‘histories’ since their formation post World War II. They are no longer fledgling states that require UN guidance. Maybe we need some other mechanism to empower all states enough so that communication amongst them can happen without anyone feeling threatened; maybe we need to focus on mechanisms through which hegemonic powers are curtailed. We need to start thinking what these institutions might be and what they might look like. Hopefully we create or transform existing institutions into ones that seek mitigation and management of violence and are not so arrogant as to aim for resolution of ‘other’ people’s conflicts.

I am outraged by the news from Syria. The UN and the international community has failed us so many times. How many more babies need to die for us to respond collectively seeking an end to violence?

Are you listening, President Rajapakse?

By Pushpa Iyer

There was a time when, in the Sri Lankan Diaspora, the voices of the Sinhalese were subdued amongst the strong voices of the LTTE supporters and in the infighting between the Tamils. How much has changed since then.

This past Saturday, I heard the loud voices of the Sinhalese Diaspora at an Amnesty International sponsored event in Palo Alto, California. Amnesty had decided to screen the UK Channel 4 documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’. As someone very familiar with the conflict in Sri Lanka, I am certain that both the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE committed atrocities against the Tamil population during the final stages of the war in May 2009. However, the point of this film was to show how much and how disproportionately the Tamil population, mostly innocent civilians, had suffered at the hands of the Sri Lankan military during those hot summer days. The film does refer to the LTTE using Tamil civilians as human shields and shooting them for trying to flee.

Amnesty officials repeatedly stated that the film was only intended to generate conversation. They stressed that they condemned all acts of violence and human rights abuses committed by all parties, including the LTTE, and explained that they hoped for an impartial inquiry into all human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Their approach, they said, was to pressure the international community, especially the US, to force the Sri Lankan government to accept an international war crimes inquiry.

Barring some occasional snickering, the hall was very quiet while the documentary was being screened. But at the end of the film, the Sinhalese community in the audience erupted. They discredited the speakers, accused Channel 4 and Amnesty of taking sides, and insisted that we, the audience, watch the counter-film prepared by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence. They threatened, intimidated, or silenced Tamils and others in the audience who spoke up asking for space to express their opinions. The film has brutal, heart wrenching footage. It is impossible to imagine that fellow human beings would be unmoved by what they saw. However, that seemed to be the case on Saturday evening.

I heard one Sinhalese woman yell, “I lost half my family in this war,” followed by fits of giggles with her friends on having successfully played a role in disrupting the meeting. I really listened to her, because yes, I am sure she and her side have suffered a lot in the years of violence. However, my question to her is: after you lose half the members of your family in a war, are you pleased when you see and know that many from the ‘other’ side (innocents like you) lost half their family because of ‘your’ side’s acts of violence? Do you really believe that an horrific end was what the Tamil people deserved? Would you explain it as Tamils facing their karma? Do you feel justice has been served? Do you sleep better now? Are you able to celebrate ‘your victory’? I sat there wondering if it was possible for any woman to not be outraged upon seeing the naked bodies of women who had been gang raped being tossed irreverently into trucks while the soldiers made crude comments. Apparently, some women can.

I am convinced that empathy is a skill with which most of us are not born, and I strongly believe that it is important that we all work hard to acquire it in order to qualify as a decent human being. Empathy is what teaches you that a ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy is a doomed strategy. I am also certain that empathy alone can play a huge role in ending violence.

The Sinhalese in the crowd succeeded in their mission to disrupt the meeting. The police were called, and over fifteen of them descended into the hall and made us leave the premises in less than ten minutes.

So, Mr. Rajapakse, let me be honest. I have never been impressed with your approach or your actions and now having witnessed the boisterous and belligerent behaviour of your country’s citizens (read: Sinhalese) last Saturday, it is obvious to me that you have failed. Your strategy to militarily wipe out the LTTE at great human (read: Tamil) cost has failed to “resolve” the conflict that has plagued your country for over forty years. The divide between the Sinhalese and Tamils is as wide as ever.

Force is never the solution. It is a simple lesson, Mr. Rajapakse.

What is NOT Democracy

By Pushpa Iyer

In September 2011 David Barsamian, an American Radio broadcaster and writer, was deported from New Delhi airport on arrival. Immigration officials cited a 2009 violation of his tourist visa (which he used to report on the situation in Kashmir) as the reason for why they now banned him from the country. A ‘side’ fact is that Barsamian has travelled to India regularly over the past 40 years and has commented on many hot spots in the country, including Kashmir. Needless to say, his stories and analysis do not coincide with the government’s narrative.

Barsamian was not the only person to be refused entry into the world’s largest democracy. Professor Shapiro, a US based academic, was refused entry citing the same reason – ‘violation of visa’. Many argue that it was largely because his Indian born wife, Angana Chatterjee, also a US based academic, happens to be the co-convener of International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir. Recently, Gautam Navlakha, a human rights activist, was denied entry at Srinagar airport also because of his writings and comments on the Kashmir issue.

So, would securing research and journalists’ visas resolve the problem? Probably not; instead of deportation, visas would be denied. Academics in general, and journalists in particular, gather information in all places and at all times. While some of them tend to take on an activist’s role after gaining first hand knowledge and experiences of those in conflicts, others are, by default, analysts who depend on such information for strengthening their academic credibility.

All of the above cases come from India, but the fact is that every country today, including the US and UK, routinely keep academics, activists, and journalists from entering their borders. That democratically elected governments feel the need to keep individuals who are critical of them off of their soil definitely represents politics of fear. Governments fear those who have the power to tell the world the “truth”.

It is politics by fear because it basically threatens anyone presenting views opposing the government with more severe repercussions than deportation. This is captured in the words of Barsamian in a Tehelka report: “I have my fingernails, no welts on my back, no electric shock. I am safe and sound unlike some others”. And, it is politics for fear because actions such as deportation are meant to deter people from openly questioning the government. Fear is an emotion, represented through the emotion of hate and by adopting defense mechanisms and aggressive postures.

So, if this is what democracies do, then what gives them the right to morally challenge and attack dictatorships, theocracies, and autocracies which also treat those who question their rulers as “enemies”?

Can India, as the world’s largest democracy, try setting an example? Can she transform her politics to tolerance, openness, and respect for those who tread her soil? Because, let us be clear: the politics of fear, by fear, and for fear is NOT democracy.

Independent South Sudan: Freedom? Really?

By Pushpa Iyer

It is hard to describe the euphoria I witnessed during the Declaration of Independence celebrations in Juba. When the South Sudanese flag went up for the first time, the crowds went wild with joy and spontaneously began chanting “Bye, bye Bashir”.

People were bidding their final adieu to a political leader who symbolized the oppressive policies of the Khartoum based government of Sudan. Africa’s largest country was split into two and the flag symbolized this separation and the birth of a new country. This was ‘freedom’. Slogans such as “Free at last” and “Freedom at last” were visible on electronic displays, banners, posters, and newspapers.

The excitement during the flag hoisting was infectious, and yet as I stood among the crowds in the open grounds, burnt and dehydrated by the scorching sun, I could not avoid silently asking: “Freedom? Really?”

South Sudan does not produce anything; all of its food comes from Uganda. It has no big companies and no manufacturing industry. The country does not have a qualified workforce of its own and its service sector is owned entirely by outsiders – primarily East Africans and Asians. The country’s rich oil reserves pay for everything that keeps the country functioning. Again, all the oil refineries are in the North, and ironically, the day before Independence there were long lines in all the gas stations in Juba because of a Khartoum imposed blockage of fuel. So, how in the world is this freedom? How does not working mean ‘freedom at last’? Does dependency equate with freedom? What happens when oil reserves are one day depleted? How will South Sudan pay for what others do for them? Does replacing one oppressor with those who control socio-economic well-being mean freedom?

Freedom equals responsibility, and South Sudanese must recognise that being in charge and working hard for their future is what makes the freedom earned after five decades of war worthwhile and sustainable.

I smiled at the joy of the people but my uneasiness never went away. Only time will tell if this new country lives up to its national anthem of “South Sudan Oyee!!!”

A Licence to Kill: Casey Anthony Murder Trial

By Pushpa Iyer

It seems that the nation is obsessed by the Casey Anthony murder trial. Hundreds of people queue up overnight for a place in the courtroom. Only the first fifty are allowed in and scuffles sometimes take place. Media channels reporting live present not just the facts but also their opinion on daily courtroom drama, saying, for example, ‘Casey shed crocodile tears today’, or using the dehumanising term ‘Tot Mom.’

The media appears to have convicted Casey of the 2008 murder of her three-year-old daughter, Caylee. Caylee was not reported missing for over a month, during which time Casey lied about her whereabouts to everyone. As the trial progresses, Casey, it seems, is trapped in her own web of lies. But it is also clear that her family dynamics, if not downright dysfunctional, are outright unhealthy. Could the media entertain the thought that they may be looking at a very sick woman, a victim in her own right?

If one reads blogs or comments made by readers and viewers, it looks as if everyone is baying for Casey’s blood; that evil, heartless, and self-centred mother of a dead child. ‘Of course she cries’, says one, ‘she is afraid of getting the death penalty’, or ‘she knows she is never going to be able to party or participate in another hot body contest’. ‘Casey is a liar, a murderer and the absolute scum of this earth’, says another. It is no wonder that few are standing by the slogan ‘Innocent Until Proven Guilty’. People, it seems, feel they are well informed and that only they know best. Casey is judged not just because her alleged crime is morally reprehensible but also because they who judge have lost the ability to be fair and empathetic. They misunderstand their ‘duty’ to uphold ‘Justice’ – one of the pillars of democracy – by literally turning justice blind with their selective perception and hearing.

It is no surprise that many accept this media-centric democracy.

The question becomes: Could we really handle a true democracy if we had one? The bigger question, however, is: Would we even recognize it?

Introducing Wandering Thoughts

By Pushpa Iyer

These are Earth shattering times! Tsunami, Tornadoes, Volcanoes, Floods and Earthquakes are headlines pouring in from different corners of the world on any one given day. Simultaneously, headlines about wars, violent killings, hate, and anger that characterise the nature of our relationships with those we consider as ‘others’ are commonplace. Headlines describing the violent, barbaric and greedy qualities of men and women ironically makes some secure in knowing that we Homo sapiens, still have the power to shake the world. Others experience more insecurity; from their perspective, these headlines confirm that their world can be shattered by some privileged people who hold all the power.

There are also the less prominent headlines that tell us about peace in some tiny part of the world, about the goodness of people, and about the great achievements made to better our world. For some, these stories restore faith in humanity. Others pay fleeting attention; for them, the feel good factor is restricted to self, the courtesy does not extend to fellow humans.

Clearly, our experiences shape the way we read and internalise all the information coming our way. And sometime we are just confused with many conflicting images and messages. We therefore choose what we want to read, we retain what we think is relevant and conclude with our opinion which we may or may not choose to voice.

Expressing one’s opinion, during different stages of its formation, requires courage as it involves disclosing who we really are and what we really stand for. However, having a safe forum means we can be assured of people listening in the face of disagreement while we candidly express our personal values, beliefs and biases.

I sincerely hope that you use this forum, Wandering Thoughts, to build courage to exercise your right to have a voice. This also means that each one of us should make the effort to respect others’ opinion and maintain a healthy dialogue with everyone on the forum.

Wandering Thoughts is a collection of ideas, opinions and experiences that comes from us wandering through a myriad of Earth shattering events that we encounter. Together and through this forum, let us develop a deeper understanding the world and its people.