Thursday, Sep 29, 2022

Away from the spectacle

To face up to 26/11, we need to confront the murderous identity politics that led to Partition, still deforms Pakistan and weighs India down.

Updated: November 30, 2018 12:29:19 pm

The nature of the 26/11 attack, its reach and scale, its televised vividness, and its subsequent political significance, makes it a pivotal event in the politics of the Subcontinent. It is constantly remembered to mourn the victims, and to acknowledge the city that bears the scars of this national humiliation.

Yet in a strange way, the remembrance of 26/11 has itself produced a different kind of amnesia. Bombay lost its identity twice. Its renaming to Mumbai was a sign of its politics becoming parochial. The renaming of its iconic film industry “Bollywood” was a sign that this increasingly vernacularised politics paradoxically took cultural referents from America; Indian culture could be measured only in the context of globalisation. In a way, the designation 26/11, with its constant allusion to 9/11, was understandable: Both were acts of terrorism that inflicted suffering in a politics of spectacle. But the consequence of this iconic remembering has been that the history specific to the Subcontinent is in the danger of being lost.

26/11 was an event of its times. But it was also an event in the continued and tragic aftermath of our own history: Partition. Partition may have been inevitable. But its scars continue to destroy Pakistan and still inflect the politics of self-esteem in India. To own 26/11 in our own history, and not as some simulacrum of globalisation, will require the Subcontinent to come to terms with the lingering effects of Partition — a discourse of nationhood and politics that is still being played out, in different ways, in Pakistan and India. If we want no more victims, that politics will have to confronted.

The attack did three things. First, it, almost forever, seemed to destroy the possibility of a sensible rapprochement and modus vivendi between India and Pakistan. The Manmohan-Musharraf framework was the closest the Subcontinent came to putting forward sensible ideas to mitigate rather than deepen the tragedy of Partition. 26/11, in some ways, put an end to those kind of efforts, for more than a decade now. It accomplished what it hoped: That talk of peace becomes nearly impossible.

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Second, it was also an important moment in laying bare the emerging character of the Pakistani state. Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism was a well-known fact. But at least for India, characters like Hafiz Saeed became in some ways the front face of the Pakistani state rather than its shadowy undertow. It became harder for the international community to ignore Pakistan’s actions. But Pakistan’s continued defensiveness on terrorism, instead of leading to decisive reform, led to its politics taking a turn for the worse. The more it is spurned by the international community, the more Pakistan presents itself as a victim; the more it presents itself as victim, the more it strengthens reactionary forces inside Pakistan.

The old adage, what you do unto others shall come back to haunt you, is truest in the case of Pakistani support for terrorism. But while the US response to Pakistan was shaped by its own imperatives, the chain of discussion 26/11 unleashed made it inevitable that Pakistan would be more isolated, and the isolation would make it more dependent on China.

In India, the political aftermath was complex. One part of the amnesia that the subsequent history of 26/11 has induced is the fact that India’s response was mature. The United States was weakened by an overreaction to 9/11. As Shivshankar Menon noted, despite immense pressure to take military action against Pakistan, India acted with wise restraint. The strategic dividends that accrued to India because of its sobriety were immense. In the face of public pressure, it took an act of political courage to keep our eyes on the long-term consequences of our actions, and not succumb to immediate provocations, not to reproduce the terms of action which the terrorists set for us.

But in a way, perhaps, that triumph was to be shortlived. It is true that it would be nearly impossible for any government of any party to fail to visibly respond to a 26/11 kind of provocation. But what 26/11 did was to convert important elements of the Indian foreign policy into obsessive spectacle. The problem of terrorism and cross-border attacks is a tricky one, and so long as we have an insecure state like Pakistan, it will continue. But the strength of our responses began to be measured not by long-term deftness or goals, but by the need to produce spectacle.

The much vaunted surgical strikes, or making the cross-border raids on Myanmar public, was a new watershed in Indian politics. The consequences of this are fraught. It is true that often our hands were tied in relation to Pakistan because of the assumption that India could not inflict counter damage. So the capacity to project the idea that there will be costs to Pakistan is important. But in making the response so tied to the politics of spectacle, and immediate domestic politics, we have cheapened the currency of response in two ways.
It has been hard to shake off the suspicion that our responses have less to do with effectiveness and more with the need to be seen to be doing something. And by making the currency of terrorism so ubiquitous in our domestic politics, by freely accusing all kinds of politicians and citizens of supporting Pakistan, we have made public discourse on terrorism more myopic. We mistake short-term successes for long-term solutions. This has also produced an incoherence in our Pakistan policy, where actions have become about us making a statement, not about achieving objectives.

India is in a difficult situation. The domestic political economy of Pakistan makes it a nearly impossible country to handle. But it is for this reason all the more important that our thinking about 26/11, or future terrorist attacks that will inevitably occur, not be shaped by the same desire to produce a counter spectacle, and passions in domestic politics. The wisest and most effective responses will happen behind the scenes.

Public surgical strikes may satiate us for a while, but they should not take our eyes away from the fact that the situation in Kashmir is now immeasurably worse than five years ago. And there is a thread that links 26/11 to the broader history of the Subcontinent. The true tribute to victims of 26/11 will be when we stop using them for political ends, and confront that long history of murderous identity politics that led to Partition, that deforms Pakistan, and still weighs India down. We need to own our history, not just manage events for television.

The writer is vice chancellor of Ashoka University. Views are personal. (Illustration by CR Sasikumar)