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The measure of our strength

The The terrorists who attacked Mumbai on 26/11 wanted to attack the Indian state. Instead,they unwittingly ended up displaying the power of the Indian people.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
November 26, 2009 2:09:19 am

The The terrorists who attacked Mumbai on 26/11 wanted to attack the Indian state. Instead,they unwittingly ended up displaying the power of the Indian people. It is difficult to forget the vivid sense of anger,helplessness,that this colossal national humiliation,carried live on TV induced,in all of us. Ten orchestrated attacks,one hundred and seventy three deaths,more than three hundred injured.

The barbarism of the act was horrific enough; but the sense of profound sense of vulnerability and foreboding it produced was perhaps even stronger. No one expected that the state could always prevent such attacks. But that it did not even have the minimal capacity to respond at any level was shocking beyond belief. Even more vivid was the disjunction between the bravery of so many police officers and civilians that day,and the deep corruption of the system that sent them to their needless deaths. The staff at both hotels was extraordinary in their bravery and good sense,while the state slept. We had police officers who were willing to die doing their duty; but not state officials who could buy bulletproof vests that were not sub-standard. The rage we felt was palpable; but the depth of our discontent was directed more at our own state than the perpetrators.

Foreboding and anger could have been a combustible mix,just the sort India’s enemies were waiting to exploit. The standard narrative of the year since 26/11 casts it as typical transition of citizens from anger to indifference. But this is simply wrong. Instead what shone through was the sense of self-possession on display. American politics after 9/11 was so marked by fear,that it allowed political discourse to be captured by it. India,instead had elections the day after,and choices were exercised with the coolest heads possible. There was no clamour of revenge externally or internally. This was not because we are weak,but because there was a much more clear-eyed sense of the limits of force and the complicated politics of violence.

But what made this self-possession possible was the absolutely extraordinary dignity with which the victims of this horrible affair conducted themselves. Watch any clips of the survivors or those who lost their loved ones,whether the families of the slain police officers; the hotel staff; or even the extraordinary poise of ten-year-old Devika and the first thing that strikes you is their self-possession. There is unfathomable grief that we should not pretend to even understand. But more strikingly,there is not a trace of self-pity or a wallowing in victimhood. Instead,their quiet dignity and strength was a message to terrorists: even in the face of extreme provocation we have the power to deal with the world on our own terms. This message was for more effective than any sabres the state could have rattled.

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And this was exactly the strength that allowed them to cut the sense of presumption anyone in power might have about the Indian people. The greatest strength they demonstrated was their refusal to be used by politicians; for once even Narendra Modi was rendered speechless. But politicians will do their best to dissipate these gains. The attack showed the sense in which Mumbai is a truly world city: in the range of sympathies it elicits,in the diversity of people who have made it home. But if the kind of unanswered parochialism that is creeping in Maharashtra politics triumphs it will be a bigger blow to the spirit on display 26/11 than anything outside powers can inflict.

The fact that there has not been another attack of similar scope for a year may or may not be a cause for reassurance. The one place perhaps where the state has channelled the anger constructively is the home ministry. By all independent accounts,this is one ministry which is systematically putting in place measures and institutions that might serve us well in the future. Admittedly,this was a ministry starting with an abysmally low base of performance after years of neglect. How far these improvements will go remains to be seen. But there is an important issue on which the government has fully abdicated its responsibility: of telling the Indian people the truth about this event. The one hurried inquiry into this remains classified,ostensibly on the grounds that it might influence ongoing prosecutions. But the government owes it to the victims to at least ensure that there is one authoritative diagnosis of this event. Truth is the least of the tributes their courage demands.

There are so many other layers to this extraordinary event. Each life involved is a reminder about how global impact shapes every individual. The event has also given us complicated narratives about global terrorist networks,whose lines extend from Karachi to Chicago,with Italy and Canada in between. But the face that we put on this atrocity,Ajmal Kasab,is so eerily commonplace that it unsettles all our easy assumptions about what produces an atrocity like this.

26/11 was also an event in a geopolitics whose lines have become very convoluted. For all the global sympathy this attack elicited,we should be under no doubt about one thing. We are fundamentally alone in this fight. The Americans may share our objectives at the highest level of abstraction,but they certainly do not share our priorities. Indeed,India should worry that what little political sympathy it gained globally has dissipated; and how quickly mention of 26/11 moves into a construction that India’s attitude has been the source of the problem in region.

Pakistan is beginning to have a serious internal debate about its future. But its elites are still too enamoured of a narrative that presents Pakistan as victim constantly under threat,to be able to really come to terms with what it needs to do to restore the region to sanity. In short,we will be living in a fool’s paradise if we outsource or slacken our defence and security. But the chaos in Pakistan,and the American activities should not obviate the need for us to do our own political thinking on the future of the region.

There is disappointment that the surge of civic anger we saw in the aftermath seems to have dissipated. But it was always unrealistic to expect that to last. But if 26/11 is not to become another one in an endless series of fatalities,we need to keep asking the question: how can a people who have much to be proud of,be endowed with a state that has much to be embarrassed about?

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research

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