How many crows in Agra?

May 30, 2009

Death tolls in conflict and a postscript on the LTTE after Prabhakaran

How many people died in the Sri Lankan conflict? 65000? 35000? 20000? 120000? 200000?

The only possible answer and then, not really one, is: Depends. What is the start point? Are we counting bodies on a battlefield? Bomb blast victims? Those who died while in flight? Those who died because refugee camp conditions were dreadful? Elderly parents who died of grief? And are we counting deaths on both sides? What is the methodology of our body-count?

Some ethical questions too. The emphasis on a head-count suggests that death is the primary measure of the intensity of a conflict. By such a reckoning, life-altering injury, separation from family, displacement, loss of property and loss of citizenship do not count. There is also the suggestion that the “horrible-ness” of a conflict is in direct proportion to its death-toll. The long-term systematic systemic destruction wrought by protracted conflict is just what happens along the way.

Of course, no sane person would suggest any of these things. Nevertheless, we spend an awful lot of time debating and quoting numbers that cannot possibly be accurate, either in and of themselves or as a measure of a conflict’s horrors.

These three links are about an emerging controversy over how many died in the last campaign in Sri Lanka. Check them out:

Over 20,000 died in S.Lanka rebels’ defeat-paper, Reuters, May 29, 2009.
Sri Lanka Denies Report on Civilian Deaths, VOA, May 29, 2009.
Sutirtho Patranobis, World may never know Sri Lanka death toll: UN, May 30, 2009.

Suppose they were to pinpoint the exact number, what would we be able to do? Declare the war truly grave at a certain threshold? Restore a percentage of the dead to life? Provide everyone with compensation (but can we actually compensate them)? Will we actually prosecute those who did the killing on both sides? And how would we even begin with that? More useful to try and ascertain who died, how, to make sure their families have a way to go on. More critical, to make sure there is no reason for the conflict to be revived.

There is a story about the Emperor Akbar and his wise and witty minister Birbal that I always think of when numbers take over the human story. On a leisurely stroll, Akbar wondered aloud how many crows there must be in Agra. Birbal instantly replied: 18407 (or pick your favourite number). Akbar was startled: Really?
Birbal was confident. Birbal’s confidence annoyed the Emperor. He thundered: If you are wrong, I will have you beheaded.
Unfazed, Birbal suggested that the Emperor commission a crow census. It would prove him right. After all, he said, if there are more crows than the number I have quoted, it is because they are visiting their Agra relatives. Fewer suggest that Agra crows have left town to visit their relatives elsewhere.
What could the Emperor do but laugh at his minister’s wit, and the subtle way in which he pointed out that it was really a futile quest?

This obsession with numbers that characterizes conflict reportage is misplaced. It is not the aggregate that counts as much as the lost individuals that make up that aggregate.

A final word this Sunday morning on life after Prabhakaran.

P.K. Balachandran, Split wide open among Tigers, New Indian Express, May 30, 2009. (Unfortunately, this link will be good for only about a week.)

The LTTE has been extraordinarily good at fundraising and now after Prabhakaran, there is a predictable rivalry to control the organization’s future, its constituency and most important, its treasury. Will the LTTE’s remaining leaders destroy themselves and what is left of their dead leader’s aura among supporters by fighting over the spoils?

Will we see Oliver Goldsmith’s words play themselves out in this organization as it copes with changed—and straitened—circumstances:
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

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