Inside the Fourth Estate

Are Indian journalists too star-struck to ask the tough questions?

ByAnand Ranganathan
Inside the Fourth Estate
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History that is written by the victors is peddled by the vanquished.

It’s the showpiece event of the 2012 India Today Conclave. The warm-up acts have done their bit and retreated gracefully. The crowd is twitchy and anxious. Storm’s a-comin’. But where’s he? Where is-…there!

A hush descends as the mass murderer walks up the stage and takes his seat on the plush armchair. He has blood on his hands but they are not red. He has the devil in his eyes but they appear angelic. This is going to be fun, he thinks. And he is right.

Henry Alfred Kissinger was born in 1923, in a Germany struggling to recover from the burden of the Great War and its impossible treaties. The Weimar Republic, like the Reichsmark, had crumbled to dust. Once again, the hapless Fatherland was in search of a son who could save him from ruin. What dad found, instead, was a psychopathic delinquent who promised Lebensraum and a thousand-year Reich. Sensing danger, Kissinger fled Nazi persecution and arrived in the USA in the autumn of 1938. A sharp mind, his brilliant academic career culminated in a doctorate from Harvard where he chose to remain and teach International Affairs. But post-war America was insatiable in its appetite for those who could make sense of the world that it now ruled, and Dr K switched jobs frequently – an unassuming academic one day, a shrewd political advisor the next – until President Nixon made him the National Security Advisor. The year was 1968. From that moment on, and until the day he was relieved of his White House duties in 1977, Dr K orchestrated criminal bombings, countless assassinations , subterfuge, kidnappings , realpolitik mumbo-jumbo, illicit regime changes , dog-eat-dog détentes , diabolical statements, zero-year prequels, and other sundry atrocities any tin-pot dictator would be proud of. All what was needed to pull off the dystopian Clockwork Orange, it seems, was an Agent of the same colour; Kissinger was only too happy to oblige. It really is quite remarkable how one single man managed all this in such short a span of time – all this and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Strange but Dr K always reminds me of Dr B, the prisoner in Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story, who, in his desperation to beat the sheer monotony of his existence, is forced to play chess with himself, an ordeal that he narrates thus: In chess, a game of pure reasoning with no element of chance, it is a logical absurdity to play oneself. The basic attraction of chess lies solely in the fact that its strategy is worked out differently in two different minds, that in this battle of wits Black does not know White’s schemes and constantly seeks to guess them and frustrate them, while White in turn tries to outstrip and thwart Black’s secret intentions. If Black and White together made up one and the same person, the result would be a nonsensical state of affairs in which one and the same mind simultaneously knew and did not know something. In fact what is presupposed by this kind of duality of thought is a total division of consciousness, an ability to turn the workings of the brain on or off at will, as though it were a machine. Playing chess against oneself is thus as paradoxical as jumping over one’s own shadow.

In my desperation I attempted this impossibility, this absurdity. I had no other choice if I was not to lapse into absolute madness or total intellectual inanition. Playing in the abstract realm of the imagination, I had to speak with two minds, my white mind and my black mind. Each of my two selves had to vie against the other, and each conceived its own ambition, its own impatience, to gain the ascendancy, to win. After each move as White, I was in a fever to know what Black would do. Each of the two selves exulted when the other made a mistake and became exasperated at its own bungling.

My pleasure in playing became a desire to play, the desire to play became a compulsion to play. I had forgotten how to eat. My only physical sensation was a terrible thirst. I could no longer sit still for a second. My eagerness to win, to dominate, to beat myself, gradually became a kind of frenzy. I trembled with impatience, for one chess-self always found the other too slow. I began to berate myself – “Faster, faster!” – when one wasn’t quick enough with a counter-move. I walked up and down with fists clenched, and I sometimes heard, as though through a red fog, my own voice addressing me with hoarse and ill-tempered exclamations of “Check!” or “Mate!”

Henry Kissinger, I suspect, was bored by the cerebral vacuum that surrounded him. He was after all serving in the Nixon administration. And it is then, while he played chess with himself, that he became a mass murderer. Innocent men and women, especially when they were from a far away land, were nothing but chess pieces for Kissinger. He played with their lives, and the Kissinger that held the black pieces always lost. Hundreds and thousands of such “savages” and “barbarians” – his words not mine – were murdered and their lands scorched. The man who once famously said “Power is a great aphrodisiac” never made love, only war.

The crimes are too many, the space little. Thank God (oh, the irony!) for Christopher Hitchens. His book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, and a 2002 film by the same name, are definitive accounts of each of the hyperlinked atrocities above; the recently released Kissinger cables and Nixon tapes are only the proud new additions to Dr K’s skull collection. I suggest you start with the film, and if you can live through it without wanting to drag your fingernails down your cheeks, move on next to the book. Read it slow, passage by passage, crime by crime. Picture that familiar cracking baritone, with words appearing leisurely through thick rings of cigar smoke – then turn off the night lamp and imagine the hundreds and thousands of Cambodians gasping for air, their ribs showing through the pulverised skin, their mouths wide open, their screams unable to reach the perpetrators or their conduits. If still in doubt, trespass over to the cables and the tapes. These are official White House documents and recordings, authorised by none other than the President of the United States of America. Their authenticity – unlike the Radia Tapes – cannot be wished away by the protagonists as doctored trash.

One genocide can never “pale in comparison” to another. To compare two such acts is to trample over the teachings of Buddha and Gandhi. What was worse – the Jewish Holocaust or the Cambodian massacre? Nations that forget the sanctity of a solitary human life, nations that encourage victims to “move on” without having punished the guilty, are as culpable as the guilty themselves. Wounds left open never heal, they fester. How we deal with the perpetrators of these crimes, what we do to them, is what finally determines how just and moral we are. Justice is the one invention that separates man from beast.

The trials at Nuremberg, the trial of Eichmann, that of Charles Tailor, of Slobodan Milosevic, are a reminder that evil hasn’t been eradicated, it has only been ebbed. These are as much the trials of humanity as they are of human evil.

One man, though, has escaped justice . Far from being on trial, he is today a man celebrated and feted around the world. He advocates abolishing the International Court of Justice and other such mechanisms that have the power to convict mass murderers. He writes books on foreign policy and diplomacy, books that adorn the bookshelves of Indian intellectuals and diplomats. They hunt down Dr K in conclaves and conferences to break bread and say cheese, and once they have spotted him they vie for a little rubbing of the shoulder. What are they hoping for – that a sparking and buzzing stream of evil shall pass on through body contact?

The trial of Henry Kissinger remains a dream, but the celebration of Henry Kissinger is a reality.

In his book, Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer tried his best to water down his crimes, to sell to the world his version of the events that took place in Nazi Germany. He claimed he defied the orders of his defeated Fuhrer to raze Germany to the ground, to burn to cinders all that Lebensraum. He said he instructed the slave labour to go slow, to assemble wrongly, and misplace a few nuts and bolts so as to impede the churning out of the death machines. But the world knew better. The world knew that a cornered rat tries to climb the wall. Albert Speer, who worked gladly under Hitler, travelled with him, dined with him, listened to Wagner with him, was sentenced to 20 years rigorous imprisonment.

Karan Thapar, who normally revels in hauling his guests over red-hot coal – so much so that he has to write columns the next day explaining that this is what devil’s advocates do for a living  – the same Karan interviews Dr K for 30 minutes and forgoes conveniently the advocacy of the devil. What we get, instead, is Kissinger being hailed as some vine-covered foreign affairs oracle who stands on one leg and delivers diplomats from their ignorance . No such luck for the other Dr K (Khemka).

MJ Akbar, a journalist I admire a great deal, presides over the conclave showpiece event and never once in those 44 minutes of torture asks Dr K about his past crimes. Instead, warm eulogies like: “You have created peace in Vietnam” abound. Death and destruction are set aside as diplomacy is discussed.

Prannoy Roy, forever in the company of intellectuals, thinkers and Nobel laureates, titters and gushes as he confronts Dr K with cosy questions. “All of us have been dying for this moment, to listen to Dr K…can we please have a round of applause?” he cajoles the audience.

Sagarika Ghose, who claims to have conquered sensationalism with relentless application of sense, is only too happy to upload evidence of her brush with the good doctor.

Tarun Das, while lauding Dr K at the CII India Economic Summit for his wisdom (“Well, the Indians are bastards anyway.”), his thought leadership (“It is an act of insanity to have a law prohibiting the President from ordering assassination.”), his vision of the world (“The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.”), almost anoints him as Sir Edmund Hillary.

Shekhar Gupta, someone who has talked and walked to the ends of the earth and then some, organises an Indian Express Idea Exchange together with a slew of well-respected journalists, and with the sole exception of Coomi Kapoor, not one among them has the guts to prod Dr K on his ideas regarding morality and genocide . Barons exchanging barren ideas, on an earth that is flat.

Fareed Zakaria, hailed by the same Shekhar Gupta as the most prominent intellectual of Indian origin, just can’t get enough of Kissinger. Mundane questions about China or whether Putin is a thug, form the extent to which Mr Zakaria is prepared to stretch his hero. Not once do Cambodia or Chile or East Timor or Vietnam ever form a backdrop to his syrupy interviews.

Contrast this with how a bunch of college kids, armed only with their conscience, tackle Dr K on one of his dubious lecture circuits.

But what do these youngsters know – they aren’t foreign policy experts or anchors or op-ed writers. They are young and inexperienced. They haven’t been tutored on how to become journalists. Give them time, they’ll come around.

To look the other way is the job of an accomplice. It is to celebrate the loot. Journalists who look the other way are little more than Albert Speers, apologists and partners in crime. And just like Speer, every last one of them will write a memoir where black spots will be powdered, wrinkles oil-of-ulayed, dark circles photoshopped. Journalism dies when journalists fear to question not only others but also their own self. What’s the worst that can happen – that you’ll be picked up by your collar and thrown out the gravy train? Well, tough. Dust your backsides. Find your Pietermaritzburgs!

All his working life, Kissinger relished playing that same Great Game Kim had stumbled upon in Kim. If democracy is to have any meaning, it is crucial that its guardians don’t become pawns in the hands of criminals who’ve played such games.

Media isn’t Malgudi and journalists aren’t painters of signs. It is not enough to daub billboards with self-adulatory taglines like Experience Truth First, or Journalism of Courage, or Credibility over Chaos – they are as bewitching as “Selvel Ph: 9812432879”. Problem comes when experienced, courageous, and credible journalists think mass murderers are matinee idols.

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beaumont, IE, CII/WEF, Zimbio

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