Aditya Sharma turned 13 when he lost a parent in the Mumbai attacks. He held a specific community responsible for his father’s death, only to realise years later that “hate isn’t worth it”.
Today he is working towards opening an orphanage for children from that very community. Because of his intellectual journey, he’s a hero for us today, so when he says “the world is all about love”, let’s attempt an interpretation.
What is love? Is it another word for empathy? Is it the opposite of indifference? Is it the absence of fear? Is love the enemy of hate? And, whatever it is, can love be as powerful a motivator as anger?
Events such as 26/11 make us angry because when innocents die, it seems that hate is defeating love.
For four years now, we have been inviting you to the Gateway of India, on every anniversary of the attacks, to evaluate your view on the power of love and the power of hate. And to provoke a dialogue between the humanist and the extremist inside each one of us.
In any attack — whether foreign, like 26/11, or homegrown, like the ones we saw in Colombo and Christchurch this year — the root cause is a twisted mind radicalised with extremist thought. Today, on the 11th anniversary of 26/11 and on the 150th year of Gandhi, let’s pause and reflect just how geared our environment is to promote extremism.
Our media has moved from broadcasting to narrowcasting, where channels are dedicated to audiences based on ideologies rather than demographics. Digital media creates filter bubbles of content and virtual communities of like-minded opinions.
Which is why every time I watch the stories of these 100 survivors that we have interviewed, I am amazed at how these individuals — who have suffered such unimaginable loss — have channelised the hatred and destruction, choosing to build something of value to society.
In our world, increasingly divided between, as Jonathan Sacks says, a right wing that reminisces about a penultimate past that never was and a left wing that dreams of a utopia that never will be, these are individuals who, in spite of their irreversible loss, choose not to hate. Who, when confronted with the choice between revenge and letting go, choose — instead — to look ahead. In the face of despair and destruction, they don’t search for someone to blame but take charge, pick up the pieces, and choose to rebuild.
These are powerful markers of humanity in any place, any culture, but I’d like us to reflect: To what degree does being Indian define how these incredible individuals dealt with adversity?
A Harvard case study done on the behaviour of Taj employees (on 26/11) concluded that one reason they behaved so unpredictably selflessly was that Indian Hotels’ HR policy was to hire people who are likely to be from joint families and who display respect for elders because they imbibe the Indian value of putting others before themselves.Of the 600 employees of the Taj hotel, not one left his or her post. In fact, many staffers escorted guests to safety and then went back in to help others. They had no reason to do that, many of them even lost their lives.
It’s been famously — and accurately — said that whatever you can rightfully say about India, the opposite is also true. But one thing we do know is that we as a country have always been deeply spiritual and devout. But an increasing cohort of young Indians look at events such as 26/11 and feel disenchanted by religion, given that terror attacks are often connected with religion.
It’ll be a shame if the Indian millennial turns a blind eye to religion because then it leaves the battleground of religion to those who weaponise it — that is, the extremists.
Which is why today, more than ever, we should not view religion with apathy or disdain. Instead, it’s up to each one of us to find meaning in ancient texts and philosophy, rather than judge religion based on the most twisted interpretations that some have adopted.
For, each one of us, at some point, has to make that deeply intimate choice. A personal and yet universal one as to which path should we take between the faith of the extremist, the religion of the moderate, and, yes, even the belief of the non-believer.
We would consider our endeavour successful if, upon listening to these stories, you are encouraged to think of what Indianness is, and how integral we would like love to be in our identity.
I am not for a moment suggesting there’s no need for a deterrent. Even our gods are depicted with their respective weapons of choice. And especially given our neighbourhood, our armed forces must continuously be growing smarter and stealthier. However, we mustn’t let the ability to attack prevent love from being our first line of defence. Because history has shown that one without the other is unlikely to be successful.
Robert Grenier, the CIA’s former station chief in Pakistan, said that the United States’s drone programme created more terrorists than it eliminated. Perhaps Maharashtra’s ATS understood this, when as The Indian Express reported six months ago, it started its counter-radicalisation initiative, a concentrated effort aimed at transforming extremist youth through patient counselling and training. The programme today boasts of 120 youths successfully deradicalised without firing a single bullet.
If, on the other hand, our society turns more extreme — and if we keep finding it harder to be friends with the people we disagree with, then I think we are disrespecting the sacrifice of all those brave men and women who put their lives at stake to keep our country safe.
My most heartfelt gratitude is to those of you who picked up the pieces of your hearts that shattered 11 years ago and let us in. We understand the enormous responsibility we have when we point a camera at you and ask you to share your lives’ most vulnerable moments. We ask because it’s important — and because only you can put into reality what Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars/Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that./Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Your stories prove that even though there are a few misguided foolish individuals who think they can decide how we should die, they must know that they cannot decide how we will live.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 6, 2019 under the title “Our first line of defence.” Goenka is executive director, The Indian Express Group. This is an edited transcript of his speech at the “26/11: Stories of Strength” in Mumbai.
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