December 12, 2005

Simply Khaki, reviewed

My review of Simply Khaki: A Policeman Remembers, by the retired police officer E.N. Rammohan, appeared in DNA yesterday (Sunday December 11). Here it is.


Halfway through Simply Khaki, the phrase finally wears. "I told him firmly that ..." writes Rammohan. He writes it so often, particularly in the first half of his book, that it's not just that it begins to grate. It loses any meaning.

You must understand, see, that Rammohan was a tough, no-nonsense officer, incorruptible and always aware of the right way through tangled problems.

So he tells people things firmly. It wears on page 151, when an official wants to plant opium on two accused. This illegality, Rammohan will not hear of. He tells the officer so, firmly. By this time, he has done it so much, to so many people, that it erodes this book. How many times, and in how many ways, must an author remind us that he "consigned the [odious] letter to the wastebasket", or that he "took a bold decision", or that he "was not concerned with the Railway Minister's or his grandfather's orders", or that he "was very firm in my objections"? How many times before it overshadows all else that's worth reading here?

Writing your memoirs is, by definition, an act of the ego. Yet the challenge, surely, is to ensure your ego does not intrude. So much in a cop's career is instructive; what a pity that the cop cannot resist selling his virtue to us as well.

And yes, much about Rammohan's career is instructive, eye-opening. The most interesting phases of his career were in the Northeast -- as a young officer and before and after retiring -- and in Kashmir for two years in the '90s. From each of these troubled parts of India, he has insights that would benefit not just his professional colleagues, but all of us. To be Indian these days, at least in some ways, must be to understand what is happening in these areas, and what that says about this country. Yet how few of us do that.

Rammohan did. Two examples are all there is space for.

First, Rammohan writes about infiltration into the Northeastern states. He makes a clear case that this is a major headache, not least because of the logistics of policing the border. But he also offers a keen look at the tangled political mess those states are in, and therefore of the danger of taking the one-dimensional view of their situation that so many do ("it's the illegals from Bangladesh", or "it's the Christianity"). There is resentment there on all kinds of fronts: of Bengalis both Indian and Bangladeshi, of Muslims from Bangladesh, of caste Assamese Hindus, of different tribes, on and on.

In one case, Rammohan writes:
    The Meitei Rajas used to ... indulge in depredations in the plains of Cachar and East Bengal. They brought back young boys to work as slaves ... [They] intermarried with the Meitei girls and the Meitei Muslim community was formed. They were known as Pangals.

This, as a background to some attacks on Pangals which led Pangals to form a "small militant group of their own."

Just another militant group. How do you govern such a hornet's nest?

Second, he makes an attempt to understand, and then explain to us, the mindsets in Kashmir that have torn that gorgeous land apart. Here's a quick vignette of history:
    Some of the early Muslim rulers were fundamentalists, but there were also tolerant kings like Budshah, who brought back Hindus who had fled the valley because of atrocities by fundamentalist rulers. It was only when the British sold Kashmir to the Dogra kings that the Hindu rulers started discriminating against the Muslims in the valley. ... [T]he hardline Wahabi school of Islam ... started the Hizbul Mujahideen, the first religiously motivated insurgent group in Kashmir.

The thought comes to mind: oh for a modern-day Budshah! To bring back Hindus who have fled in recent times, and to shove the Hizbul Mujahideens back in the dark holes where they belong.

Rammohan is frank about the misdeeds his men commit in Kashmir and elsewhere, and the effect that has on people. This is not meant to paint these forces black -- what's also clear here is the pressures they work under -- but to applaud Rammohan for understanding what it means to run a police force in places like these. Not many of us would be as frank, but a lesson from this book is that perhaps it is time for that. Time for fresh, searching and honest thinking on what ails these corners of India.

In general, all through this book, Rammohan is nothing if not frank. That makes his regular "I told him firmly" even harder to understand. Makes you wish his editors had, in their turn, told him some things firmly. Then this would have been a more impressive book by far.


David Boyk said...

Maybe the thing to do with mujahideen and other extremists is not to "shove them back in the dark holes where they belong," but to realize that the people who join extremist groups weren't always fanatics; then, with that knowledge, make fanaticism less enticing and rewarding. You can't just bomb people and shoot at them forever; viz. Vietnam, Iraq, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Israel. Maybe if there were more realistic alternatives to fanaticism in Kashmir - if the Indian and Pakistani governments made sure that there were jobs, schools, health care and peace - then people wouldn't turn to radicals for support. Not just that, but Indians will be better served if they realize that keeping Musharraf popular, peaceful and in control is in their interest. Right now, the alternative is much worse, both for Pakistanis and Indians.

The Outlook had an article a few weeks ago that succinctly makes that argument, and William Dalrymple has an excellent piece on madrasas in this week's New York Review of Books that leads me to think that there's more to fundamentalist recruitment than just insanity.

Dilip D'Souza said...

David, I was not happy with that line, because it's not what I mean and think about this situation; but I wasn't careful enough on re-reading to rewrite it as I would have preferred. Thank you for catching me on that. I cannot agree with you more, re: bombing and shooting at people forever, and about Musharraf.

Actually it's not even what Rammohan himself thought (as I understand his book). He thinks you have to be firm with terrorists and criminals, but he says more than once that the real battle is in people's hearts and minds, and the heavy-handedness is losing us that battle.