26-11

Violence, theirs and ours

‘Terror’ is an artifact of the theory of terrorism, a way of interpreting things in the world. Our eager embrace of the theory of ‘terrorism’ is deeply suspect

November 30, 2018 12:30:25 pm

“26/11” was our first televised terrorist event, just as Gujarat 2002 was our first televised “riot”, our own mini-genocide. Crucial to an understanding of both is the televised nature of the two events, 2002 and 2008 — the performance of violence, in extravagant, precisely flamboyant ways. Because, of course, what made “26/11” such hypnotic viewing were the visual elements — the telegenic terrorists, the gorgeous backdrops of the Gateway of India and the Taj, the helicopters hovering over the Jewish Centre in Colaba, commandos rappelling — and how we loved it! Journalists, hunkering down for the long haul, jostled for access, even as they compromised security in doing so; cops in aviator glasses photo-opped in postures of active futility, even as the Taj burned and burned; and people, necessary extras in this spectacle, continued to die.

Even before the last shots had been fired, the event had been christened “26/11” — and so slipped into the international directory of major terrorist events, our ticket to the Big League. Now we had our very own “9/11”. If anyone is tempted by the suggestion that the rhyming “11” is just a coincidence, consider the facility with which the 2006 terrorist event was christened “7/11” — even though it happened on the 11th of July, and not the 7th of November. That “11” rhyme is crucial — and, I suggest, fully of a piece with the pathetic longing for a seat on the Security Council. “Mumbai 11/26” doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?

It is now a full 10 years since the undeniably horrific attack: Time enough to get past the immediate rage and bewilderment. Still, we are a sentimental people, and so must go through the ritual finger-wagging — Pakistan bad, bad! — and the ritualised sorrow about the loss of innocent lives, but not, of course, about the guilty ones: A wrongly-directednamaaz-i-janaaza, as allegedly happened at Aligarh University, can invite a charge of sedition! (IE, October 13). But it was irresistible television and, as in the case of the SAS rescue at the Iranian embassy siege in London in 1980, only the terminally obtuse could resist the thought that since this was so good for ratings, it was a pity one had to wait for shadowy others to organise it. Surely a time would come — if it hasn’t already — when these things will be planned by network executives in coordination with TV schedules? Consider, for instance, the televised bombing of Baghdad in January 1991, perfectly timed to coincide with the tired New Yorker returning from work, and settling down in front of the TV with her first martini. Brilliant!

Don’t get me wrong — the whole event, from start to finish, was a dark tragedy, with ramifications that will outlast it by far. There are the 160 or so people who lost their lives. Then there are the policemen and others, notably Hemant Karkare, who were also killed. But the attendant brutalisation goes well beyond that sombre event — and comprehends both the victims and the survivors. So, there must be the people who will live with injury, live with the memory of trauma, of a nightmare unfolding in real time.

But, en passant, let us also remember the fake Ujjwal Nikam story about the “biryani” that was fed to the prisoner Ajmal Kasab, and caused a once-proud nation to salivate in impatient bloodlust: No more biryani! I am particularly taken with an image from the morning Kasab was hanged — chubby BJP mommas waved placards carrying an image of the adolescent Kasab with a noose around his neck, and these words: Aatankwadi Kasab ko phaansi, saare desh mein khushi. Pity the rhyme isn’t perfect.

However, beyond the televised tragedy, and the Great Power me-too-ism, there is a serious, nuanced point to be made about the rampant proliferation of “terrorism”. Violence is an inevitable concomitant of a certain version of modernity — the kind that is marked by extreme inequality, by an injustice that has been rendered unthinkable by dominant market ideologies, even as it deepens by day and by hungry night, by the ever-expanding empire of avoidable pain and suffering.

Of course, there are other versions of modernity, too. So, there is a modernity that is characterised by greater amenity, and equality, and expanding horizons. Delhi-dwellers may consider, by way of a quick example, the remarkable transformation that happens to the ordinary urban barbarian when he enters the Metro — as distinct from an ordinary train, on which a Junaid can be lynched for wearing the wrong kind of cap. On the Metro, the urban barbarian (as, I suppose, distinct from the Urban Naxal) is — briefly, temporarily — “civilised”. Then he returns to the everyday world of ugliness and brutality, and becomes appropriately feral, again.

Violence — normalised, routinised, coordinated by states, and only occasionally “criminally” explosive — is intrinsic to the toxic modernity that is on offer, globally. And “terrorism” is my suggested name for the ideological manoeuvre whereby one refuses even to think about the processes — diverse, conjuncture-specific, burdened by history — which underlie the more flamboyant and so, “criminal”, manifestations of this latent violence.

“Violence” is an objective fact, a thing in the world — common to torture, surgery and war. “Terror” is an artifact of the theory of terrorism, a way of interpreting things in the world. “Terrorism” is an ideology/technology for categorising — lumping and distinguishing — diverse manifestations of “violence” and even, apparently, non-violent resistance. In fact, the theory itself generates the “object” that it purports to describe. That is why attempts to define terrorism routinely fail, remain trapped in circular reasoning — as they say, one man’s terrorist is another man’s patriotic soldier, even martyr.

“Terrorism” is a powerful theory, not because it enables powerful or profound insights into the nature of the world, but because it enables the powerful to maintain their violent dominance, by delegitimising all resistance, violent as well as non-violent, as “terrorism”. Our eager embrace of the theory of “terrorism” is deeply suspect. A cabinet minister recently remarked that terrorist violence is the greatest threat to development. One could, with at least equal plausibility, say that a certain model of “development” is itself the greatest producer of terrorist violence, is itself terrorist. Being intrinsically violent, it provokes violent resistance. But even to suggest such an argument is, in our India, to invite the ridiculous charge of being an “urban Naxal” — an absurd formulation, eagerly adopted by the geniuses in the home ministry. (Incidentally, I have also never been to Bhima Koregaon and, Pune police please note, I read far too many books.)

Refusing to recognise nuance and diversity in the matter of violence, and so seeking to conflate all kinds of non-state violence, and even non-violent resistance, into the analytically impenetrable category of “terrorism” — and simultaneously to exonerate state violence — is, I suggest, a key characteristic of the ideological strategy of “terrorism”: So, it affirms, the violence that states do is not “terror”; but resistance to such violence, whether it comes from within, or across national borders, is. In our enthusiastic resort to this “terrorism”, in our calculated but myopic ignorance, we are once again being merely imitative.

Illustration by CR Sasikumar

The writer taught at the Department of English, Delhi University
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