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Saturday, May 08, 2021

Managing the rage

Bad ideas are driving out reasoned ones, and politicians are forced to respond to noise rather than substance. Our exasperation is justified. But a fog of exasperation will not add to the analytical clarity that is needed at this moment

Written by Pratapbhanumehta |
December 2, 2008 2:24:23 am

All the intoning calls for action in the face of the Mumbai terror strikes can barely disguise the underlying sense of helplessness and anger we are experiencing. A lot of it is justly directed against the politicians. Their cumulative destruction of the Indian state has left us with few options. Not one single representative of the people could even find the right words that spoke to the complex of emotions their constituents were feeling. Those speaking the language of bravado, talking two eyes out in revenge for one, seem more interested in mayhem, than solving a complex problem. Those speaking the more anaemic language of police reform, intelligence, etc, have no credibility. We will even take the call for action to death. But there is also somewhere an inchoate recognition that these terror strikes have not exposed just one agency or another. They have brought out how fragile our systems are at so many levels, and our complicities in perpetuating their weakness. How much of this anger is self-directed? Amidst this breakdown and carnage there have been so many tales of personal heroism and sacrifice. But in a sense those stories heighten our despair, not diminish it. For recourse to a language of personal sacrifice is at one level a sign of the failure of systems. Our collective weaknesses push people to their deaths, and then we see in their sacrifice our triumph.

There is no shortage of advice: everyone has become a security expert, has suggestions on reforming intelligence systems, etc. But this is not much of a source of confidence. For this discourse reflects three of our cardinal weaknesses. The first is what might be called rank amateurism. Amateurism is not a statement about the personal qualities of individuals; it is about the propensity of people to make context-less suggestions, without any rigorous determination of their effectiveness and feasibility. One hesitates adding to the list, because there is already a cacophony of them. The real question is not the articulation of suggestions: it is who carries them out, how and in what context. Our media has brave individuals, but very few that can rise above the level of supercilious editorialising and amateur speculation. The reason it matters is this. Bad ideas are driving out reasoned ones, and politicians are forced to respond to noise rather than substance. Second, our exasperation is justified. But a fog of exasperation will not add to the analytical clarity that is needed at this moment. There is a story about the Bundela hero Chattarsal, who asked his guru for advice on how to mount his campaigns. The answer was apparently one word: “intelligently”. The answer remains true now as ever; and the worst thing we can do to ourselves is let the clamour for action cloud sound judgment.

The second weakness is that we are looking for silver bullets. Some heads had to roll. But the truth is that this enormous challenge will require work on so many fronts: from police to education, from rethinking geopolitics to redrafting military strategy, from engaging with politics to changing urban institutions. This kind of argument is often seen as a recipe for paralysis. But the opposite is true: it gives us all something to do (and tests how sincere we are about the problem): a simple thing like a working fire response system is a contribution to this effort, as is reform of legal services, reform of our science and R&D establishments. This is not to say that far-reaching military and law and order measures are not required. But terrorism is a different kind of war. Like all wars it requires the mobilisation of most of society, but it does so in a different way. What makes it so fearsome and insidious is that it capitalises on weakness in any part of the system; it can make its effects felt through any domain. A whole interlocking chain of institutions and support systems have to be in place to combat it, not merely police or intelligence.

The third weakness is the way in which we think of analogies. These analogies are more misleading than illuminating. For instance, we are drawing the wrong conclusions from 9/11. If there is anything we should learn it is not the bravado side of the American response. Despite Guantanamo, if anything, it was the fact that most of their domestic institutions retained deep credibility (vigilantism was not tolerated for instance) that allowed that society to pull through domestically. But their external response was a disaster. Three countries are still beleaguered by extensive violence and US objectives have still not been achieved. The global problem of terrorism has been exacerbated rather than diminished.

In any terrorist attack there is an over-determination of motives. Terrorists were tempted by a soft target like India, hoping to cause communal mayhem. But there is also a sense in which this attack is a pre-emptive strike against Obama’s likely foreign policy. That policy was premised upon putting more pressure on Pakistan to cooperate on its western frontier, which in turn depended upon all being quiet in the east. The protean character of terrorism has this uncanny ability to open up one new front each time. The Americans, for their entire prowess, have not been able to control the region. Terrorism is an international problem that demands a coordinated solution. But we have in recent years consistently fallen prey to the illusion that America will treat the terrorism that afflicts us as seriously as it takes its geo-political objectives in Afghanistan.

If we want to test the sincerity of the Pakistani state, and the American resolve to take our problems seriously, we can demand a series of concrete measures (like handing over people against whom we have credible evidence). The US has no serious history of pressuring the Pakistani decision-makers on matters relating to India in a way in which it really hurts. Contrary to the general assumption that this incident will lead the US to put more pressure on Pakistan, the opposite may turn out to be true. The first anxiety in Western capitals is not protecting India’s interests; it is to make sure India-Pakistan tensions do not boil over. In that substantive sense terrorists have re-hyphenated that relationship. But the general point is that we cannot make easy assumptions about global geo-strategy. We will have to do our own thinking. But before we show our bravado we better be sure that we are intelligently prepared for a battle that will have to be long but subtle.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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