Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A tenuous anniversary (August 15, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

From as far back as I can remember, Independence Day has become the occasion for collective self-flagellation. In the Sixties and Seventies, when the country was undergoing crippling shortages, the August 15 editions of newspapers were full of despondent articles by former freedom fighters lamenting that their sacrifices had all been in vain. “This country”, a friend’s father bemoaned, much to our mirth, “should never have been given Independence.”

No one, not even the resident grouch, is likely to say anything so outrageous today. Regardless of all the moaning about crumbling infrastructure, rampant corruption and divisive politics, India has moved on from the time Western writers prophesied its imminent descent into anarchy. India, for all its unfulfilled potential, is not going to become another sub-Saharan Africa. On the contrary, the international community now believes India is on the threshold of take-off—if only a few self-goals don’t ruin it all. There is a can-do determination running through the country, fuelled by the emergence of a truly indigenous, somewhat consumerist, popular culture.

Yet, today, for the first time since Independence—and I don’t say this casually—India is confronted by a unique terrorist threat that has the potential of negating the achievements of the past 60 years. I am, of course, referring to the type of terrorism we witnessed in Mumbai on July 11, in Varanasi last April and in Delhi last October.

What makes this terrorism more dangerous than, say, the Khalistani terrorism of the mid-Eighties or the infantile Naxalite disorder in West Bengal in the early-Seventies?

For a start, India’s earlier experience with terrorism was geographically limited. True, the Sikh separatists did assassinate a Prime Minister and exploded a few deadly bombs in Delhi. However, by and large, this was a movement confined to Punjab. There are no geographical bounds of today’s terrorism. Its tentacles are local, national and international.

The authorities haven’t succeeded as yet in identifying the perpetrators of the Mumbai blasts. However, the preliminary arrests and the scope of their inquiries indicate that the conspiracy involves terrorist modules all over India, the neighbouring countries and West Asia. In other words, global terrorism has now acquired local footprints.

Second, it is clear that the motivations of those who were responsible for 200 deaths were religious. We can go and on about terrorists not having any religion and Islam being a religion of peace and brotherhood. Yet, it is undeniable that as far as the terrorists were concerned, waging war on India was a religious obligation. Jihad, to them, was not an act of self-purification, as some theologians disingenuously claim; it was a calculated act of warfare.

Third, the objective of the terrorists is millenarian and, consequently, does not lend itself to any half-way political settlement. They have no territorial designs, unlike the Kashmiri separatists; they are committed to the destruction of an entire way of life and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. Even their commitment to Pakistan, which many people mistakenly believe is their prime motivation, is ephemeral and tactical. These terrorists would equally celebrate if the state of Pakistan comes crashing down. “I don’t believe in Kashmiriyat”, Asiya Andrabi, the leader of the Islamist, Kashmir-based Dukhtaran-e-Milat, declared in a recent interview to Outlook, “I don’t believe in nationalism. I believe there are just two nations—Muslims and non-Muslims.”

Is it possible to have a dialogue with such people or allay their concerns with economic sops?

Finally, and this is the most distressing aspect, there is mounting evidence that the terrorist modules—whether attached to SIMI, Lashkar-e-Toiba or something equally bizarre—have survived because of political short-sightedness and community cover. Most of the modules that have been unearthed so far haven’t been based in remote jungles but amid overcrowded ghettos. This would not have been possible unless families and a section of the community, however small, viewed them with indulgence. The pressure mounted by the “community leaders” on the authorities to go slow with their inquiries and the willingness of the “secular” politicians to oblige suggest that the Muslim leadership wants to be in a state of wilful denial. They haven’t realised that it is in their self-interest to surgically detach the terrorists from the community.

The additional tragedy is that the rest of us would also like to pretend that terrorism is just a bad dream—limited to West Asia and Heathrow airport—that will have a happy ending as long as we keep our nerve. It is this misplaced optimism that makes this Independence Day so terribly unreal.

(Published in DNA, Mumbai, August 15, 2006)

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