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On 11th September 2001, the world witnessed perhaps the most horrifying act of aggression­ since possibly the events of the Second World War. Osama Bin Laden, the man behind the act is now dead and his corpse is being tossed around unceremoniously by the foaming waters of the North Arabian Sea, like flotsam from a wrecked vessel – never to be discovered and never to be washed ashore. Considering the magnitude of the crimes he masterminded and the number of innocent lives that fell prey to the acts of the organization that he led, it is but fitting that not only was he finally hunted down after years of untiring effort, but also that he died at the hands of soldiers of the very nation whose people had suffered untold sadness and misery at his hands. The biter has been bitten, the Americans have avenged themselves and a sense of justice seems to pervade the world.

Justice, however, is one thing that seems to be missing from this latest episode in the ‘War on Terror’. My greatest regret at this entire affair is that Bin Laden could not be (or was not) captured alive and put to trial for his crimes. Increasingly, reports seem to point to the possibility that he was unarmed at the time of his death and that the American forces were in a position to capture him alive, that there was very little opposition from those inside the compound where Bin Laden lay hiding and yet he was shot dead. If these reports are to be believed, then ‘Operation Geronimo’ amounts to what Noam Chomsky calls a political assassination, committing which the Americans have failed to live by the example they set before the world 66 years ago at the Justizpalast in Nurnberg. Opening the trial of the Nazi war criminals, the American prosecutor Robert H. Jackson had remarked: That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power ever has paid to Reason. Even as the specifics of the covert operation to kill Bin Laden remain unclear to the general public, it is to be hoped the American forces had enough cause to put him to death and dispose of his body so hastily, and that Power did not overcome Reason when they came face to face with the man who had come to symbolize Evil in today’s world the same way as Hitler had done half a century ago.

For what could have been more fulfilling than the sight of a defeated Osama Bin Laden sitting in a prisoners’ box and being judged by the same procedures of law that are applied to a bag-snatcher or a sneak-thief? A courtroom is a great leveller, and a trial would have cut him (and the cause he espoused) down to size instead of dignifying his crimes by killing him ‘in action’ and thereby giving him what his sympathisers are calling a martyr’s death. More importantly, it would have proved to him, and his followers who are still at large, that the world in spite of their best efforts still believes in the concept of civilization and the rule of law, and that the way it would mete out justice to them differs significantly from their own perverted breed of justice that they mete out to those who disagree with them.

Be that as it may, Osama Bin Laden is dead and we must turn to reflecting on what his death implies for the world now. Regardless of whether his supporters are able to build a memorial to his death, Bin Laden was and will remain the most powerful and enduring symbol of organized terrorism and what it can achieve. The fact that he was eventually killed might deter those who fear death as a consequence of their crimes, but in the business of terrorism, such people are in a minority. Bin Laden took terrorism to a whole new dramatic level and the sheer derring-do of the events of 9/11 will continue to inspire many terrorists for a long time to come.

I find it difficult to conceive of a time in the future when terrorism will cease to exist. As long as there is a great imbalance of social development and political power in the world, organized violence will continue to exist in some form or the other. Today we choose to call it Islamic Terrorism, but it is fundamentally not different from what was once described as the Crusades a few hundred years ago or ‘The Holocaust’ more recently. ‘Terrorism’ and the ‘War on Terror’ will continue with increased vigour in the foreseeable future, more so because the two share a symbiotic relationship, and there is no force strong enough to restrain them. In fact, the resources that catalyse them are ever increasing – social disparity, hegemony of one nation over the other, and our technological capability to destroy and kill – while the restraining forces – voices of sanity and moderation – are increasingly on the decline.

The world today is organized around artificial constructs like religion, nation and race – constructs that we have chosen to make a part of our identity and from which spring all the emotions that are at the root of our unhappiness. Bertrand Russell[1] wrote that “if in the modern world communities are unhappy, it is because they choose to be so…because they have ignorances, habits, beliefs and passions, which are dearer to them than happiness or even life.” That these words are as relevant now as they were at the close of the Second World War is a sure sign that we have failed to acquire wisdom at the same pace as we have acquired knowledge. We stand today as the most intelligent and cannibalistic species on Earth.

The images of the collapsing twin towers will remain with us as terrible reminders of the horrors that man is capable of inflicting upon his own species, very much like the images of the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the black and white video footage of the bodies that tumbled out when the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Dachau were opened. But even in the midst of all this misery, if we are to make our lives worthwhile  in the present, we must live in the hope of a different world in the future. We must live in the hope that men will learn to value life more than they are fascinated with death.

Above all, we must live in the hope of a day when generations to come shall treat those images with utter incredulity and not look at them with the sense of painful acceptance that we, our parents, and their parents, have been accustomed to.

 


[1] Reflections on My Eightieth Birthday by Bertrand Russell

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The brutal massacre of 76 CRPF personnel in Dantewada last week should have shocked our conscientious nation out of its summer torpor with a far greater jolt than the events of 26/11 in Bombay, but such has not been the case. After all, anything that is not covered live on TV fails to deserve our attention nowadays. We didn’t see any live footage of bombings, nor could we hear any gunshots from behind the reporter’s back, and neither was there any ‘survivor’ to narrate his bloodcurdling experience. All we were treated to was an array of 76 neatly arranged corpses, after all the action was already over. Moreover, most of us didn’t even know that a place called Dantewada existed on our map before the events unfolded. Our lukewarm reaction to the massacre should therefore, in all fairness, be excused, and we should be allowed to pursue our voyeuristic interest in Shoaib Malik’s second marriage and Shashi Tharoor’s prospective third. With so much happening around us, one can hardly expect us to remain with one incident for too long. Sarcastic as this may sound, it is unfortunately the reeking truth and only goes to show that we like to put our money (and attention) where the drama is. 26/11 was high drama, and on that scale, Dantewada was a passing short sketch and does not even deserve a handy nickname like “6/4” or “April Massacre”. So subdued was the public interest in this event that it was left to the CRPF alone to declare the day as Martyr’s Day (in a function telecast only on DD).

Collective public response to any event is predictable and is guided by the same laws always and everywhere and the mass media generally plays a pivotal role in moulding it. Passive response to an act of terror is one thing, but to sympathise with the perpetrators is a very different thing altogether. What defies understanding is the behaviour of certain members of the so-called ‘civil society’ who pose themselves as voices of the collective conscience and are generally designated by the term ‘intellectuals’. A closer study of their antics reveals that they are neither conscientious nor intellectual. In the particular case of the Naxal movement, these individuals have always taken the side of the Naxals and consistently criticized any attempt by the state to enforce the majesty of the law upon these criminals. A casual survey of the backgrounds of such ‘intellectuals’ reveals that they are mostly practitioners of what we call the liberal arts, who may now have lost their former verve, and have taken up the cause of misguided and brainwashed people in a desperate attempt to remain relevant in the scheme of things. (Arundhati Roy fits this description to the tee, and Aparna Sen’s latest movie convinces me that she too is headed the same way).

To all such self-proclaimed champions of civil society, one must pose a few straightforward questions: What comprises ‘civil society’? Do the armed forces of the state, who risk their own lives to protect the lives of civilians, not belong to this category? Are they not civil, and do they not belong to society? The usual justification that the intellectuals offer for their support to the Maoists is that the acts of violence committed by them is their way of revolting against decades of neglect, deprivation and oppression, and therefore, their conscience prohibits them from condemning these acts. Do they even realize that in so saying, they are positioning themselves in the company of those who support violence as a means of salvation, including terrorist outfits like the Lashkar, Al Qaeda and the Taliban?

The Maoists do not believe in the way of life that we are accustomed to. In the words of their late ideologue Mao Zedong himself, “War is the main form of struggle and the army is the main form of organization”. In a society guided by this principle, Mao goes on to say that “armed agrarian revolution will be the key in the creation of the unending flow of armed revolutionary forces from the mass of the peasantry, which will lead towards establishing the invincible people’s army. The protracted people’s war will advance towards victory by liberating the vast areas of the countryside first and then encircling and finally capturing the cities”. No sane person can remain unmoved by such a horrific agenda. By this definition alone, the Maoist movement is terrorism in its most pristine form – bloody, macabre, calculated and ruthless. However, in most discussions on this issue, we hear it said that there are two sides to this debate; that the root cause of the violence is the state’s apathy towards the backward tribal districts, and that use of force to counter the Maoists is not a justified course of action and will further alienate the tribals from the mainstream of society. At best, such an assessment is unrealistic and naïve.

A garden can overgrow due to neglect and in due course become a haven for snakes and pests of all kinds. Unknown to the landlord, the snakes multiply and organize themselves and one day bite his own children to death in a show of audacity. The landlord understands that a stitch in time could have prevented this disaster, but now that the situation is beyond his control, does he try to strike a deal with the killer snakes and try to explore options of peaceful coexistence with them, or does he protect himself and the rest of his family by razing the undergrowth and flushing out the vipers once and for all? To my understanding, the Maoists are no different from these virulent snakes, and need to be smoked out of their hiding places in the jungles and brought to task. If lack of development be the reason for the growth of the Maoist menace in backward areas, then they are admittedly monsters of our own making, but nothing should compel us to tolerate monsters beyond necessity. They are no Robin Hoods of modern day, championing the cause of the poor and killing only the rich. Their only agenda is terror, and they kill rich and poor alike. They terrorize the villagers, force them into compliance with their demands, extort money from businessmen to feed their own minions and buy illegal weapons. They destroy schools, hospitals and police stations and subvert every attempt at development. They revel in the backwardness of the people they claim to defend, for that is what keeps them going. I do not know of a single characteristic of theirs which distinguishes them from the Taliban of Afghanistan, just as I do not know of a single reason why we should not deal with them in the same way as the world dealt with the Taliban.

Opponents of war rightly describe recourse to violence as abdication of reason, but in breaking the backs of the Maoists, we shall not be abdicating reason, but forcing reason down the throats of those who have long abdicated it. However, for this war to have a meaningful and lasting impact, its aim should not be to merely eliminate the miscreants, but to substitute them with a contented and industrious people who shall have no reason or inclination to take up arms in future. Undeniably this is a war that we have brought upon ourselves through decades of inaction, malgovernance and skewed development, but if there be any meaning left in the vision of India as a land ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’, then we must fight this war to a logical conclusion.

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Another terrorist attack, and it’s time for the well-rehearsed Typical Indian Reaction Drama to play itself all over again. There will be outraged home ministers describing the incident using the most fancy adjectives (horrific, barbarous, dastardly, reprehensible, audacious, ‘insidious’ and the like), foreign ministers assuring the press that at least this time around talks with Pakistan will be halted and ‘stern action will be contemplated against the perpetrators’, conscientious news channel editors ‘cutting through rhetoric’ and delivering ‘verdict’ on every politician and agency caught sleeping on the job right on our TV sets 24 by 7, not forgetting at intervals to remind us that we, the empowered citizens, can make a difference by sending an SMS or two to a five-digit number, and finally, there will also be the occasional jester or clown to lighten the mood of the Reaction Drama with his ingenious comments and sound bites. The jesters of 26/11, if we remember, were Messrs R.R. Patil and V.S. Achuthanandan, and this time, it is Uddhav Thackeray who seems to have made up his mind to hog the limelight for the whole of 2010, Khans and IPLs notwithstanding. How else does one justify his latest gag about the Pune blasts having occurred because of the police being diverted by the government to guard Shah Rukh Khan’s house? Assuming for an instant that there is an iota of logic in this statement of his, the obvious question that arises is why Shah Rukh Khan had to be given extra protection in the first place, but we do not ask this of Mr Thackeray, for by now we have come to accept his role as a political jester and react to his utterances likewise.

And what will we, the audience-participant of this Drama, do? We will ‘follow’ the developments on the TV as informed citizens, send that occasional SMS or two, or in keeping with the latest fad, ‘tweet’ our opinions into cyberspace (wherever that is) which will largely revolve around wondering what our Agni missiles are doing in their silos when there is work to be done on the other side of the border. Last time around, candle-light vigils were in vogue, but this time perhaps the incident is not big enough to warrant one. After all, 9 deaths are not the same as 190, and our reaction must be commensurate with the death toll. Once the appropriate period of anger and restlessness at being unable to change things is over, we retire from the show and get back to the grind, while our conscientious news editor resumes his discussion of oil prices, fiscal deficit and Padma awards. A country of 1.1 billion moves on, minus 9.

We, as a nation, people and government alike, have learnt to tame our shock and grief and outrage in proportion to the death toll. This is something that I find profoundly disturbing, for it betrays our impatience with the problems of our country, and our ignorance of their nature. Every time something sensational like a bomb blast takes place, we hanker for more drama and more action, and when we see that anything along the lines of a war is not in the offing, we throw down the TV remote, curse the decision-makers, and move on to seek excitement elsewhere. What we look for in the TV sets and newspapers is sensation and not solution. It is but obvious to the meanest intelligence that most terrorist attacks happening in our country are coordinated and carefully planned, and the ultimate masterminds of each are the same individuals with the same convictions, loyalties and patronage. Be that as it may, it is not easy for India to put an end to all this at one go. To begin with, our internal security was never of the same level as those countries which have been able to curb terrorism effectively. We are only just beginning to tighten up the security system, and in a country like ours, it takes time. Like a five-day crash course in slimming which only looks good in ads but never really works out, India’s security and intelligence can not come to par with that of America’s overnight. We will have to pay for the intervening period with many more attacks and many more lives. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, we should learn to accept our limitations and get on with the hard task of setting things right and learning from mistakes.

One such knee-jerk reaction is Mr Chidambaram’s ruling out intelligence failure as a cause of the Pune attack. This is not expected of a minister of his caliber and I can not help but wonder if he is trying to imply that he knew the precise time and location of the attack beforehand, and that the intelligence did not fail, but rather something else did, which prevented him from accosting the plotters of the attack in spite of having identified them, or defusing the bomb in spite of being aware that it had been planted at the cafeteria! One does not doubt the minister’s intentions or integrity, but he should own up to the fact that despite his efforts, his intelligence agencies could not prevent the incident and that would be a perfectly acceptable statement. We on our part and particularly our ‘voices of conscience’ in the media must realize that as home minister of India, his is one of the most difficult jobs in the continent, and that he can not be expected to work miracles.

Over the grand entrance archway in the North Block of Lutyens’ Delhi which houses Mr Chidambaram’s home ministry and other important ministries, there is inscribed a famous aphorism attributed to the 19th century English writer C.C. Colton. The Raj-era architects of the building, in keeping with the aspirations of their race, built the portal so high that the writing above can hardly be noticed by the busy bureaucrats and ministers crossing underneath with too much to occupy their minds. The building was designed as a hall of power, as it is till date, but what the inscription reads is very humbling and worth pondering:

“Liberty will not descend to a people; a people must raise themselves to liberty; it is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.”

It is imperative not only for the powerful few who pass beneath this inscription, but also for the countless others who bring them to power to understand its meaning and realize that a lot of work needs to be done, many sleepless nights to be endured, many fights to be fought, and sadly, many lives to be lost before we can earn our liberty from those who hold it hostage. Our greatness as a people will lie in accomplishing this task silently, with least tears shed and fewer fingers pointed.

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