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Doctor Terror. Surprised?

For the first time IT City Bangalore has found more than vague mention in an international terrorism plot. Not for the first time, though, the alleged perpetrators are relatively well-off and educated. After the failed Glasgow bombings, the question is: Are we missing something? And, what does this mean?

We still don’t know enough about the specific Islamic experience of Bangalore doctors Sabeel Ahmed and Mohammad Haneef. But the clichéd Indian boast that ‘there isn’t a single al Qaeda operative who is Indian’ is already being mocked by those whose politics wants Indian Muslims to be tarred by the same brush as the Saudis. On the other side, the apologists are doing everything to deny that any one of ‘them’ could be Indian. Doctors of Asian descent — already besieged by the UK’s announcement of ‘preferring’ European doctors to Indian and Gordon Brown’s latest statement urging more detailed ‘background checks’ on immigrants — are fearful. According to the General Medical Council register in the UK, of 90,000 overseas doctors, the biggest contingent of 27,588 is from India.

Information is power, and in this case, we are still powerless. But a few questions need to be articulated. First, there is the shock at well-educated men from Bangalore ‘taking to this kind of thing’. But is this an irony at all? As scholars Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey revealed last year about the WTC bombings in 1993, African US Embassy bombings of 1998, 9/11, Bali bombings in 2002 and the London train bombings in 2005, “all those credited with masterminding the five terrorist attacks had a university education and none of them had attended a madrassa.” Within the sample, the scholars found that 54 per cent had attended university (only 52 per cent of Americans have!) So to look at the uneducated and undernourished as the sullen perpetrators of violence has been discredited as an explanation.

A look at virtually all the older forms of violent (political?) activity — be it the bombings by believers in the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan in the 1990s or the Russian anarchists of the 19th century — has led to the conclusion that terror has always been a largely ‘bourgeois’ enterprise. Perpetrators of hate need technology to inflict violence of a scale to make an impact and the training to do so is available in modern institutes and through modern technical programmes.

An analysis by Marc Sageman (Understanding Terrorist Networks) concluded in 2004 that it was not the madrassas that were closely correlated with terrorists or terror, but modern western institutes where students from abroad can end up turning to militant Islam as a way to counter the alienation they experience.

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There is also an argument that Asians who go in for a technical degree often don’t get oriented to any history or social science and so are more vulnerable to odd explanations of the world they may encounter later. Then the information explosion exposes young sharp minds to all kinds of propaganda. While pornography gets all the attention, goes the argument, this other dimension of the information revolution might be the bigger threat to world peace.

Change — economic and social — especially in the developing world is taking place at a breathtaking pace. Unlike in the olden days, this is not the growth of the middle-classes who were driven by ‘higher goals’. Our approach to ‘modernisation’ and even ‘education’ no longer makes a case for ‘enlightenment’ or a ‘broadening of horizons’. The new middle classes quickly entering the ranks from a variety of social backgrounds are hungry to move up faster, and why not? But often, the degree, or even simply ‘fluency in English’ is a tool to get into the job market, make more money. It is important, therefore, to look at the social evolution of the new middle classes, particularly techies. It is a process different from the first burst of the modern English-knowing middle classes in India in the late 19th century.

‘Modernity’ in our societies is now limited to acquiring degrees and is just a way of enslaving one to the fruits of technology without imbibing the spirit that is central to ‘modernity’ — acknowledging the right of all citizens on this planet to co-exist as equals. Until this remains so, the same technology will also lend itself to others who are not a part of the genuine modernity project — to spread hatred.


India is no stranger to terror. We lost the Father of the Nation, two PMs and several citizens through the Punjab years, the anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984, demolition of the Babri Masjid, the turmoil in the North East, the Godhra train burning, the pogrom that followed it and the Bombay train attacks. When he met women journalists last week the prime minister said “we don’t want to create an environment where terror can take root.” So there must be vigilance and a more realistic approach to recognising the warning signs. The UK is now scoffing at its own “multi-culturalism”. This is also a knee-jerk response to the fact of terrorists flourishing in that country. Meanwhile, we await the chargesheets in the failed Glasgow bombing.

First published on: 11-07-2007 at 01:38:06 am
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