Friday, April 13, 2012

SRK and the INS

Now that SRK's second detention has acquired the status of a minor diplomatic incident, I want to add my two paise worth of questions to this:

1. It does not matter that the immigration officials at White Plains did not recognize Shah Rukh Khan. Even if they had, it was their job to check his documents. The real curiosity is that this was his second detention. Don't they keep records? Surely, they would have seen that this had happened before and he had been allowed to enter. On the other hand, this was White Plains, and maybe it just took two hours for someone to check them.

2. For every Muslim who has difficulties at US Immigration, at least some others must go through smoothly. What is it about this big Indian film star that raises a red flag to airport officials each time? Hard for most Indians to imagine, but an extremely curious thing. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Introspective confession of a silently fiddling worker ant

Things were not always like this.

I used to live in the world of daily news. I had opinions about what was going on, sometimes strong ones. I held and argued one position or another. I may even have experienced outrage.

And then at some point, something changed. The world became grey. Daily news became miniscule data points on longer-term perspectives. Outrage faded into observation. Opinion was replaced by study. I guess one way to look at it is that I became an academic. I do have strongly held values, but they became somewhat meta-political. What I am trying to say is they held in a place that was above the daily world of petitions and polemics.

On another journey, words began simultaneously to gain and lose value. And I began to abdicate the position of daily engagement. I didn't want to waste words on anything. I wanted to weigh every word before I spoke or wrote. I wanted silence in my spirit and I got it in my engagement with the world.

I still see my work as political but at two levels. The first is the life of the worker ant. These are the tasks I can perform to make a difference. They may or may not address the issue of the day. They may or may not make a large difference. But this is what I can do, and this is what I am going to do.

The other level is the long-term, aerial view, where my work seems to be to build analytical and rhetorical frameworks to say what I think I want to say in a given moment. I am not even sure how to describe this work because I am not sure what it is. But what it is not, is conducive to 100% certainty about anything--not events outside of me, not processes inside.

The grey universe of the worker ant is strangely similar to that of Nero, who fiddled while Rome burnt.



I know S.P. Udayakumar and I know him to be an honest person who combines academic skills and work with very real engagement with everyday development issues in his village.  I know his educational projects are especially important to him whether it's the school he and his wife run or the peace education courses.

Uday has been arguing against the Koodankulam plant since I first met him at a WISCOMP programme in 2004. In fact, I was then given his book on the Koodankulam plant and asked to write a short review for a WISCOMP newsletter. The book sat on my desk for years and now I have to excavate it from my bookshelf; I have not written that review. These have been my worker ant years.

But in the last few months, I have read about his struggle and wondered about my silence. And my journey.


Unlike a lot of people, I did not come into security studies through a fascination with war or because realist politics gave me a high. I actually came in as a pacifist and I have remained that, even when I have felt silenced or chosen silence.

When I was in college, in my last year actually, Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik were both working for TOI Bombay and along with a few scientists from TIFR and BARC, they started the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament. There was a small rag-tag group that used to attend those meetings, and I was one of them. I learned a lot from Praful and Achin and all those nuclear scientists that were at the meetings. I even wrote a presentation on Pakistan's nuclear weapons; it was during that research that I first discovered Doc Centre and how to use newspaper archives.

I went to Syracuse to get an MA. And I wrote my thesis on India's nuclear options. I also wrote on the nuclear-free zone proposal during my internship at the UN Department of Disarmament Affairs.  On my way home from Syracuse, I visited a friend in Tokyo. Her family took me to Hiroshima, a pilgrimage for any peace activist. I came back and worked with Bhabani Sen Gupta because I was impressed by his work on nuclear policy (although I worked on other projects).

I am not listing all this to claim expertise in this area (I am clear I have little). I am listing it to remind myself that there was a time when I was completely engaged with nuclear security issues.


That shifted. Everything I saw, read and experienced in the late 1980s and 1990s, drew me to issues of dissent, political community building and conflict within states. The push-pull between internal security and democracy, if you would. Supervised by a person best known for his work on nuclear policy--Stephen P. Cohen--I wrote about national integration, ethnic conflict, language policy and constitution making.

But not before I attended the 1993 Security, Technology and Arms Control workshop in Bhurban, Pakistan. Faculty at the workshop included people like Frank von Hippel, George Perkovich, Barry Buzan, Praful Bidwai and Pervez Hoodbhoy. Also attending were several people who are now prominent security experts in the region. The objective was to build capacity in young professionals to write and work on nuclear policy issues.

For me, apart from the friendships formed during our two weeks together, what left a lasting impression were different perspectives that emerged during conversations in and outside session. Gendered differences emerged between what we were discussing in session and what we listed as priorities for our countries in our own conversations. Regional differences became apparent, as people from south of the Vindhyas brought entirely different readings of political events to conversations.

After Bhurban, I never returned to reading or writing about nuclear policy or politics. There were too many questions in my head for me to have absolute positions about anything. And there were other issues that seemed more clearly pressing. Issues that were either translatable into research projects or educational tasks.

Actually, I did write once about this issue. I wrote for the RCSS newsletter right after the Indian tests. The questions were already there.

The heart remained where it was--pacifist, anti-nuclear weapons, sceptical about nuclear energy--but the rest of me quietly vacated that space.


Even last year when the horrific descriptions of Fukushima emerged, I remained where I was.

I felt uncomfortable in my silence. I knew I had the skills if I decided to re-engage. But I didn't and partly because I simply did not have the energy for what that would mean.

I stayed away. I did not even read everything that was being circulated or written. I did not even re-tweet or share on Facebook. Heck, I did not even 'like' people's posts. I am not a joiner, so I rarely sign petitions anyway.

And then nothing seems so black and white any more. My world is very grey. That may be a reflection of confusion, exhaustion or moral decline. Whatever, the fact remains that everything seems to come with a 'yes, but.'

Nevertheless, I have written this post a hundred times in my head. I have been that uncomfortable with my self-exile from talking about this issue.


The truth is I don't really know what to say about it. I do not have the time to wade through the mountains of text that are being written. I do not have the bandwidth to process all that information. And I do not have the audacity to take a position without truly understanding.

So here are some small things I want to say:

1. I know Uday and I believe he is an honest man. He would not take a position for any other reason than that he truly believed in it.
2. I think the evidence has been mounting for years that there is a problem with nuclear energy and that if Fukushima doesn't make us think, I am not sure what will.
3. I think Uday was also trying last year to get people to talk and explain in lay terms, to draw this out of the world of nuclear and security experts, and to get everyone to understand. I think that remains very important.
4. I also think that India's energy needs are very real and do need to be addressed. But absolute, non-negotiable positions and slandering are not the answer. More public conversations about choices--lifestyle choices and energy choices--are.
5. I do think all of us retain the right to disagree. The questions about Koodankulam are old, so why couldn't there have been less of the "Because I say so" or "Because someone else told you to ask" and more sitting down with the blueprint and discusssing. In public. I don't think suppressing dissent or making accusations about a "foreign hand" are appropriate responses.

That is all.


Will I re-enter this policy area, will I re-engage? I don't know. I don't know if I have the time, energy or frankly, the stomach. There are so many who have so much to say about so many things; is it even necessary for me to speak?

And this is the way that citizenship crumbles. We are silent, not because we acquiesce, but because we are busy or tired or bored. And thus, we acquiesce because we are silent.


I don't know if I am a worker ant or a silent fiddler, but I know however I am judged (by myself or others), I will carry a little bit of responsibility for all and any outcomes.