Met the New Delhi-based Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Gilani a month ago. Gilani spent several months in Delhi's Tihar jail in 2002, charged under the Official Secrets Act. What produced these charges is a story in itself. Benighted authorities who raided his house stumbled on documents on his PC on Indian troop deployments in Kashmir, and used that to accuse him of spying for Pakistan. Of being a terrorist.
Never mind that these were publicly available documents that Gilani had downloaded off the Internet, as you can. Never mind that the Director General of Military Intelligence told the Government the documents had "no security value." And anyway, all that's a story for another time.
In January 2003, Gilani was finally released because there was simply no substance in the charges against him. Not even a government venal enough to make empty accusations against the man -- the then BJP-led Indian government, good riddance to that shambling gang -- could find, or manufacture, evidence to substantiate their charges.
But if his release told us some things, Gilani's experience in jail told us some others. In interviews (one's here, don't miss learning why the Bible is popular in Tihar), he described how he was beaten and abused by fellow prisoners, because they saw him as a terrorist. A traitor.
He was denounced as a traitor, that is, by criminals. One of his attackers is serving a 80 year sentence for three murders, if you please.
Something about a murderous criminal calling someone else a traitor and a terrorist -- quite apart from Gilani's innocence -- strikes me as perverse. You?
Well, you say, but that's just thugs in Tihar. But consider that we are surrounded by leaders who have multiple cases against them for everything from murder to rape to cheating to rioting; who have been named in innumerable inquiries for their parts in some of our country's darkest moments of terror. In other words, we are surrounded by leaders who in every way, except a presence behind bars, are indistinguishable from Gilani's once-compatriots in Tihar jail.
Yet these leaders regularly trumpet their own patriotism, pronounce that others are traitorous, even lead us in saluting that proudly fluttering symbol of patriotism, the Indian tricolour. Now if an inmate of Tihar did those things, we would scoff at the scoundrel. But somehow we are willing to swallow it all from other scoundrels who are just as venal, but who have turned to politics, and patriotism, instead. Their sure route to evading justice, of course. Their last refuge, naturally.
And so when I think about Iftikhar Gilani, two things come to mind. First, I can't decide which is worse. His treatment by murderers in jail? Or his treatment by the vile government that sent him there?
Or maybe I can decide which is worse. I have decided.
Second, all this is why patriotism turns my stomach. I'm obsessed with it, but it turns my stomach.