Meditate, And Act

on Sunday, September 21, 2008

Yes, we need to draw firm lines. But India is a complex country, and we must do so with due thought
Mr. Tarun J Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief

BOMBS KILL individuals. Bigotry kills societies. Of course the equation is not so simple. Bombs are also the effect of bigotry, and often its cause. As India enters a new cycle of terrorism, it would do well to draw out some waters of wisdom from the forgotten wells of Punjab of the 1980s. As a state, as a people, we did so many things wrong in the first few years of that watershed decade that preliminary testings of separatist violence soon ratcheted up into a maelstrom of anger that consumed thousands of lives including those of a prime minister, a chief minister, a general, and scores of police officers, officials, artists and other luminaries. Briefly, the very unity of India came into question.

This time the test is more severe. Failing it can bring into question the very idea of India. The challenge — if we cut through niceties and political postures — is rather straightforward. How do you with ruthless efficiency combat those who practice terror, without bringing into play a widespread prejudice against a single community? On this count, in Punjab, the state had a very poor report card. For many dangerous years an ugly schism was allowed to take root between Hindus and Sikhs — two communities intimately bound by ties of history, culture, religion and matrimony. The schism gave the cult of terror cyclical lifelines; the schism made the 1984 Sikh carnage possible. It led to the desecration and destruction — by militant and state alike — of the Golden temple. It led some of the most eminent, liberal Sikhs — including Khushwant Singh — to round on the state for its dishonorable intent.

This time in the crosshair is the Muslim. If Sikh militancy was a ten-piece puzzle, then Muslim extremism is a thousand-piece one. Just in terms of scale: 14 million Sikhs then, 160 million Muslims now. But more pertinently, in the last twenty years there has been a growing narrative in India that has been trying to focus the Muslim as the “other”. It has done this using a mix of sentiment, rhetoric, myth, economics and history — both real and false. Its intent has been divisive; its intent has been oppositions. Tragically, in a country quick to cling to tribal identities — caste, community, language, region — the narrative has gained ominous purchase. Helping it along has been a global conversation brimming with apprehensions about Islam.

At such a time in history comes a story of violent young Muslim men planting bombs and creating mindless misery. For the state and the Indian people, the moment seems tailor-made to do everything wrong. To unleash a counter-attack that feeds into the crisis rather than contains it. To buy accusations and nail blame even before the charge-sheets have been filed and the evidence brought in.

We are in the moment of meditation before action. It must be given its full play. What the state must not do is strike out with grand alacrity — no matter the shrill exhortations of critics and media. What the state must do is calmly disentangle the pieces — understand clearly where it must apply force and where fraternity. What we are facing is partly a law and order problem and partly a political one. Neither piece will succeed if the other fails. Good law and order enforcement nabs the killer; good politics cleans up the terror nursery.

It can safely be said that the well-oiled acts of terrorism we are beginning to see arise from a counter-narrative being adopted — and propagated — by the “other”. Of victimisation at the hands of a state run by majority Hindus, of societal prejudice, of unjust security forces. It is played to the theme of the 2002 Gujarat killings, Babri Masjid, false encounters, Mumbai blasts cases, SIMI, all of it counterpoised with the excesses of the Bajrang Dal and VHP — with its chief orchestral instrument being the purity and pre-eminence of one’s own religion.

You would have to be an idiot to imagine that law and order alone can clean up this flaming soup. What law and order can do is to isolate the soup-stirrers, the bomb-makers, the killers. This it must do with determination and evidence. To make this happen the union government must provide men and materials, resources and federal structures. But for it all to work there must be leadership, inspiration, clarity. Anyone who has dealt with Indian intelligence and security agencies knows that the Indian political order has ensured that all these traits are out of supply.

What we don’t need is more draconian laws. This frenzy of demand is coming from India’s secure classes — who seldom have to contend with the excesses of the men in khaki. There is absurd talk of making confessions to police admissible as evidence. Even the white colonial did not go so far. In the twilight zone of a police station a man can be made to confess to anything. As a police friend once said, give me any man for 24 hours and I’ll get him to confess to 9/11 and the killing of JFK. There are enough laws in existence to do the job. Let’s put in place the vision and the will.

Also let’s not buy our own rhetoric about soft state and hard state. The truth is we are pathetically soft when it comes to the necessary virtues: health, education, infrastructure. (For perspective: more than 2 million children under five die every year because of malnutrition.) We have no will to make these happen. And we are hard when it comes to human rights, to dealing with dissidence — Kashmir, northeast, endless delays in courts, the abject condition of under-trials. Those who read upmarket English magazines should fall foul of the police to know how hard the Indian state can be.

Yes, we need to draw firm lines in the sand. But India is the most complex country in the world and we must draw these lines with due thought. Not only the state, even the Indian elite must not succumb to easy formulations. A refined, sophisticated elite questions and calculates the fall-out of all its words and actions. It understands that the framework of social compliance and decency is upheld by a few inviolate principles. In the case of the idea of India, these are liberalism, tolerance, equality, justice, individual liberty. A wise elite understands if the pillars crumble the roof comes down on everyone’s head. It understands when bombs explode they rip through the air indiscriminately.

As never before, India’s elite has a huge stake in pushing for the right thing. All around our shining enclaves a dangerous discontent is bubbling. Where the terror question is concerned, perhaps the right thing is to debate and pass stringent hate laws. To make prosecutable the fomenting of any kind of hatred in spoken or written word, or in actions. These laws must then be enforced without bias against every grouping that practises any form of bigotry, from SIMI to the Bajrang Dal to Christain extremists. In any society there will always be violence and resentment, but its catchment area must be shrunk, not continually expanded. All this requires a national consensus across political hues, a shedding of partisan planks. That may prove a greater challenge than catching a few fanatic bomb-makers.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 38, Dated Sept 27, 2008