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Now it’s Delhi

Terrorists have once again taken a warped agenda and incarnated it into senseless violence. None of the platitudes...

Written by Pratapbhanumehta |
September 15, 2008 12:53:49 am

Terrorists have once again taken a warped agenda and incarnated it into senseless violence. None of the platitudes that we usually take recourse to can hide the profound sense of vertigo the continued spate of terrorist attacks is producing. A geography of ordinary commerce, M. Block Market, Connaught Place, Karol Bagh, like numerous familiar spaces in other cities, is being converted into a geography of dread. The state’s ability to abide by the fundamental tenet of its contract with citizens, providing basic security, is appearing increasingly hollow. The taunts directed at its functioning make a mockery of its legitimacy. Our sense of ideology is being increasingly unsettled. What do these groups want? These groups allude to jihad. But what sort of a jihad is this, characterised by rank cowardice and bereft of even the diabolical martyrdom that usually characterises such visions?

There is the appeal to a fight for justice. But what sort of conviction is this in the justice of one’s cause that it can be articulated only anonymously, and can speak only the language of bloody revenge? Then there is the narrative of victimisation: portrayals of a community at the receiving end in assorted episodes from Babari Masjid to Gujarat. But this narrative of victimisation seems to become simply a pretext. It has its own self-fulfilling logic, so that everything that happens is simply more grist for the victimhood mill. Every political party, every state organ, every media intervention is portrayed as one vast conspiracy to reduce Muslims to victimhood, as if there are no spaces left to address legitimate grievances.

There is something of a subterfuge by which these groups contrive to create an impression that they are nothing but voices of the oppressed. If this is a battle on behalf of Muslims, what sort of a battle is this? For if nothing else, these acts make life more, not less difficult for Indian Muslims. It is as if the terrorist is besotted more with the cult of violence than genuine care for Muslims whom he uses as a pretext. “Irrational terror,” Camus once wrote, “transforms men into matter.” This is exactly what terrorists propose to do, convert citizens, including their fellow co-religionists, into fodder for their own designs. This is not an ideology as much as a “dare” — daring the state, daring ordinary citizens, daring democracy. Its object is its own impunity.

There is also the sheer elusiveness of the group in question. It seems more of a state of mind than an organisation. Indeed, each touted success in apprehending a master mind, as apparently the Gujarat government did, seems not to affect the prospect of the next attack. There are also few convincing profiles of the perpetrators. They subvert prior expectations, and resist easy psychological profiling or sociological analysis. In that sense this is a genuinely political project, an act of culpable choice. While we can console ourselves that terrorism will remain numerically marginal, in a subtle psychological sense it will exercise a far-reaching influence.

The silver lining is that so far the backlash this dare intends to provoke has not occurred. It is clear that these groups do not appear to have an interest in justice; they have an interest in polarisation. In so far as this polarisation does not become visible, at least something of a resistance to terrorism is being offered. When fresh scenes of violence invade our television screens again, this may seem to be scant consolation. But it bears repeating that avoiding a politics of reprisal is a necessary ingredient both of combating terrorism and ensuring we are not reduced to the same moral plane. But it would be the height of complacency to assume that somewhere under our characteristic modes of coping, resilience, fatalism, escapism and even denial, there is not a seething revolt brewing. How it will be articulated will be one of the defining questions of our politics. But a lot of it will be directed against the state.

In a way the terrorists’ e-mails have hit an exposed nerve: their taunting the state is something, if we did not know the source, we would be tempted to share. There are still numerous brave and inventive individuals trying to secure us. And the public understands that this is a difficult challenge to tackle. What citizens cannot understand is how the most visible expression of our will and the most potent instrument of our security, the state, appears in such disarray. The unseemly spectacle of parties squabbling with each other, the Centre and the states grandstanding, the national security advisor and the home minister at odds on the legal instruments necessary to combat terrorism, the complete absence of any sense of urgency in combating this menace, politicians openly feeding excessive narratives of victimisation that give terrorism aid and succour, and the inability of any national leader to assuage the people that they sincerely understand their anxieties, will add up to a deep sense of disquiet. No state has more experience of handling terrorism than India, yet there seems to have been no institutional learning, reorganisation or innovation in dealing with it.

So many obvious things to be done, creating cross-party structures to evolve a shared understanding of the problem, better coordination between the Centre and the states, legal reform, more imaginative forms of engagement with different communities to enlist their proactive help in defusing this phenomenon. The disquieting challenge is going to be this. While there may be widespread revulsion against terrorism, what will be the form of politics that will overcome the sense of victimisation that is now creeping in on all communities? How will we break the vicious circle the Indian Mujahedeen have identified: that any action taken by the state, investigation or punishment will be taken as further evidence of victimisation? Can the state overcome the accusations from all sides that it is partisan in the prosecution of its core duties? It may turn out that our biggest vulnerability is not communalism; it is a state structure now floundering for credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness.

Repeated terrorism is effacing the individuality of the victims, now converting them into a mere statistic. Or if their individuality emerges, it is in the grotesque use made of their pictures by certain television channels, as if victims’ bodies were fodder for their presentations. In the long run the enduring structures of our society may withstand these assaults to snap them. But for the foreseeable future those who claim the freedom to kill seem to have great resourcefulness. Our faith, on the other hand, is hanging by a thread.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi express@expressindia.com

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