Monday, 14 November 2005

Saying it like it is

Here's a wonderful straight talking piece from the Indian Express

Terror's Jeru-Salem

Why in India, unlike in Israel, a terrorist means more than those he murders


Posted online: Monday, November 14, 2005 at 0000 hours IST

Abu Salem looked good in Saturday's Page 1 photographs. The security officials accompanying him looked a little bedraggled. For the families of the 257 Mumbaikars who died in the 1993 bomb attacks, that would have seemed wholly appropriate. For them, the extradition of Salem is not, as it is for the Indian establishment, proof of the state's persistence and cleverness. It is a reminder that the Indian state is soggy soft when it comes to responding to attacks on Indian citizens.

This may seem unfair not only to security agencies but also to neutral observers. There was after all months of patient, often hard-nosed diplomacy that got Salem out of Portugal. There is also the continuing efforts to get Dawood Ibrahim, who is a bad guy for even the Americans now. Didn't we also send a list of 20 most wanted mischief makers to Pakistan? Didn't we catch the chaps who attacked Parliament and then massed our army along Pakistan's border? Hasn't Manmohan Singh called Pervez Musharraf to express his strong displeasure at indications of "external involvement" in the pre-Diwali Delhi blasts? Aren't security agencies already hot on the trail of LeT terrorists thought to have planned and executed the pre-Diwali attacks?

All this and more surely don't indicate a soggy soft state? It does because all this is not the point. The point - this is the easiest to understand when any of us is a direct victim of terror and not a sympathetic observer - is how does the state fundamentally view an attack on its citizens.

How instinctively outraged is the Indian state when a bomb kills 40 holiday shoppers in a market? How deep is the feeling that such an attack is utterly unacceptable because it holds up to ridicule the state's primary remit - protecting citizens? To what extent does the state accept the argument that no matter how important the relevant policy/political constraints and strategies, the horror that follows the death of innocents and the compulsions that follow the challenge to authority must be the first inputs in any response? In short, does the Indian state have moral capacity and pragmatic courage? To put it even more briefly, is India like Israel?

This is, of course, an awfully politically incorrect thing to say. But the point here is not Israel's many sins of insensitivity towards the Palestinian cause. Just as the point about examining the Indian state's DNA is not this, that or the other investigative action. The Israeli state may really push the envelope when it comes to ignoring the suffering of another people, but it is almost matchless when it comes to empathising with the suffering of its own people. The moral capacity to feel deeply outraged and the pragmatic courage to do something about it is in the Israeli state's DNA. The Indian state lacks that particular trait.

It is fashionably "liberal" (a misnomer, as we shall shortly see) to say that the lack of this trait makes the Indian state a better entity. But those who are forever arguing that we must search for the roots of terrorism and not search and destroy the perpetrators of terror forget, or don't care, or don't know, that the state's moral and practical incapacity in the face of thugs-with-a-cause is symptomatic of a greater failing: The state doesn't respect citizens, it doesn't respect their liberties.

If the state that governs us doesn't deeply care if we die because of a terrorist bomb, how can it care if in our lives so many rights are circumscribed. Think about the callousness you have encountered from so many representatives of the governing class. Think about the boorish cop, the arrogant bureaucrat and the venal politician. Almost none of them subscribe to the foundational principle of a civilised society - that every individual and his rights count. That is why a state that is soft in its response to terrorism is not liberal, if we take liberalism to principally mean the recognition of the individual.

That is also why the state's responses to natural disasters are so horrendously ineffectual in India. We are not a sub-Saharan basket case with meagre resources and zero institutional capacity. The Indian state doesn't do as much as it easily can because the people are on its radar screen as an undifferentiated mass. Two thousand killed in an earthquake, 20 killed in a terrorist bomb and two killed in a hell hole of a public hospital - they are all, in the most dreadfully apt meaning of the word, statistics.

The only thing that has changed, although partially, in the state's treatment of its citizens is the scope of economic liberty. This is not a heartfelt change - as politicians and bureaucrats prove daily when they take decisions or talk reforms. But it's a change that was forced by a crisis and is perhaps irreversible.

The state may not particularly like the fact that a phone, a cooking gas cylinder, a car, or a home, is no longer an unattainable fantasy for many of us. But the cost of reversing the process that made these things possible scares it.

There in lies a clue about a possible corrective to the Indian state's responses to terrorism. The state has to be apprehensive about the cost of treating dead Indians as dead sheep. Who can scare it? We can. How can we scare it? By getting angry.

Treated for decades as a big blob of humanity, we have lost most of our capacity for anger. Sure, we get angry when power bills go up and when law suits threaten live cricket telecast. Sure, we get angry sometimes during elections. But we don't get angry at the quotidian reality of the state's brutal indifference to us as individuals. If we did, the day after the pre-Diwali blasts, Delhi would have been seething, not shopping. The pundits called it Delhi's resilience. Resignation was more like it.

No wonder Abu Salem looked so cool is those photographs. He knows that he means something as an individual to the Indian state. The 257 Mumbaikars he allegedly helped murder meant nothing.

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