‘How long are we expected to remain silent and watch the government mess up?’

on Tuesday, December 9, 2008

In a thoughtful analysis actor RAHUL BOSE discusses his response to the Mumbai terror attack

I have been affected by this attack on Mumbai personally – there is no doubt about it. When they cordoned off that area in Colaba, something broke inside me. That area has been part of my childhood and my life for many years now. There are a lot of memories - going for a run on Marine Drive, rugby and breakfast sessions at Bombay Gym, cracking open my first bottle of beer at Café Leopold, buying audio tapes and then CDs at Rhythm House, practicing and then performing at NCPA, watching the shows at NGMA, celebrating the Kala Ghoda festival, my first premier at Regal Cinema as an actor and then as a director – too many to list. I have been to the dome of the Taj, have seen that room and now to have seen it burning... a part of me has died – there is no denying that.

But in terms of response to the attack, my first response is that it has been an unprecedented psychological blow to a city and the psyche of its people. For 60 hours we were flooded with images of the attack every single second bringing the terror closer home. We watched and followed the drama of it all - there was a clear beginning, middle and end. We watched as the indiscriminate firing began, as blood was being spilled, as army commandos moved in, the ensuing gun battle, the destruction of iconic buildings – all of this was brought to us live for 60 hours. We have to live with those images now.

Compare this with the 1992 clashes, the 1993 riots, the 2006 blasts and the psychological impact of these was not as bad as the 2008 attack. The practical effect of the earlier attacks was people asking themselves if they can fish again in Mazgaon, if they can work at the stock exchange, or if they can re-open their shop in Zaveri Bazaar. But now, even though a smaller percentage of people are likely to frequent hotels like the Taj and the Oberoi, the terror feels more real. And that is no doubt thanks to the live streaming of images.

Second, let’s take a look at the political impact of these attacks. As a city, and I have lived here for 40 years, we have grown used to dealing with issues of health, no drinking water, no proper sanitation facilities, housing problems. We have lived through the floods and the pollution and the traffic very patiently. We are ready to make do with the government apathy, the tokenism of a handful of flyovers in 40 years. But the very least the government can do is to stop people who land in boats at Colaba carrying huge bags loaded with guns and grenades. They landed in Colaba, the heart of the city, not a deserted stretch of the coastline! And yet the government could do nothing to intercept them. To borrow a phrase from a television channel, enough is enough. How long are we expected to remain silent and watch the government mess up?

If this were not bad enough, some of the Hindu right wing organizations have been demanding the enactment of a more stringent law. What kind of a new law do we need to stop people who land up in boats carrying bags full of ammunition? Can we honestly say that we have explored the full extent and saturated the might of the existing laws to ask for more policing?

Already we queue up outside cinema halls, airports, star hotels and subject ourselves to scrutiny. We wait until they have checked us and our cars. We wait in long queues outside the cricket stadium and agree to leave our water bottles outside since they call it a security threat. We have been extremely patient and cooperative right through. And now when they want to increase the policing, increase surveillance by subjecting us to a new security act. We will be making the same mistakes that the American State made after the 9/11 attacks. Their knee jerk response has resulted in Guantanamo Bay, legalized torture, Patriot Act – all of which contributed to making it the most hated nation in the world. I believe that if we do decide that we need a new law, we need to move very slowly and with careful consideration of what the implications of such laws are for the people of this country.

My third response would be to recognize the bravery of the Mumbai Police, MARCOS, National Security Guard commandos. They have been lauded by ordinary people, by people trapped in the situation, the media – and they deserve every bit of the recognition. I have heard at least three accounts from people, who found themselves trapped inside the hotels, of how the commandos assured them complete protection; that as NSG commandos, they would take the bullets if the situation came to that. For two and a half days, they did not sleep – just went about their job as professionally as the situation demanded. I was following the coverage of the attacks very closely and I remember when the operation ended, the boys came out smiling, huddled around a flask of tea and drank from tiny plastic cups. They were happy with that – people who had risked their lives satisfied with those tiny cups of tea. For me, that moment and their smiling faces captured India and its generosity for me. It was heartbreaking.

There is another dimension that will manifest itself in the days that follow. The response to terror strikes dictates whether they have been successful or not. If the response is violent, irrational and uncontrolled, the strikes have been successful. If the response is calm, focused, patient, passionate and insistent, we have been successful. To that end there are a set of things we must not do. As a nation, we must remember that Pakistanis are not Pakistan state. The ordinary people on the street have nothing to do with decisions that the government takes. Let us not label and vilify the entire country and its people. If the cause for this attack is traced back to the Pakistani state, by all means we should demand compliance as dictated by international law.

But more importantly as a nation, we must make certain demands of our government. We could ask them to show us an anti-terror plan in 90 days and the ways in which they are going to implement that plan. This should be a preemptive measure that can be carefully considered if it is made open and available to public scrutiny.

We must demand police reforms – no government till date has had the spine to even consider or do anything about the police force in this country. And I believe we can force the hand of the government. If 1 million people assemble in Mantralaya in Mumbai, which government can ignore their demands? If 1 million people assemble in front of the Prime Minister’s Office and refuse to move till such a time when the anti-terror plan is announced publicly, how can the government ignore us? We have forgotten the culture of visible peaceful public protest and I believe now is the time to reclaim that culture.

While there is no running away from the fact that there is an instinctive bias to these attacks, there is no need to beat ourselves just because our social radars do not prioritize violence faced by a Dalit family in Khairlanji as easily as we might prioritize the violence faced by a loved one. I struggle hard to rectify the bias inherent in me, but I understand that people pick and choose battles to fight. There is no time or emotional energy to waste by decrying this selection of battles. We should instead engage in whatever battles people choose to be concerned about. We have no time to lose. We have to fight against the infringement of our rights even if that means we will be labeled unpatriotic by a few. And the fight has to be vocal, active, unflagging. No longer can we assume the silence of the past – we only have bloodied faces and bodies to show for that silence. If we want the government to act, there is no other alternative beyond citizens demanding action.