Food for Thought
Sense and Sensitivities
In the wake of the recent carnage in Mumbai, in addition to the understandable outpourings of anger and outrage, there has been the ominous emergence of some who seek to exploit the tragedy for their own ideological or party political purposes. Narendra Modi of Gujarat and the BJP politician Arun Shourie have been among these, the latter expressing his warmongering stance in a memorable outburst at the Rajya Sabha, where he demanded revenge on Pakistan in the form of an entire jaw in exchange for a single tooth! There is a clear risk that such belligerence will prevent Indians from effectively analysing and contextualising the attacks, as the prominent author Arundhati Roy has urged them to do in her essay, “The Monster in the Mirror”.
Initially, in its eagerness to appear tough, and placate those who accused the Congress of being “soft on terror”, the government announced its decision to beef up the anti-terror laws, by doubling the time for which suspects could be detained and adding other hard-line measures. While the plans to extend the detention period stand in the draft currently proposed, two important elements of the amendments have been dropped due to opposition from Congress allies. These were the proposals to make confessions before a police officer admissible as evidence, and the suggestion that suspects could be considered guilty until proven innocent. While there are those in India who strongly supported the latter provisions, the fact remains that one does not have to look as far afield as Abu Ghraib to see how “confessions” could be obtained by unscrupulous police officers; furthermore, the idea of presumption of guilt is essentially against the accepted principles of Sub-continental jurisprudence.
Communal violence in India has marred its image as a secular and democratic country.
Overblown rhetoric from some politicians has been mirrored by irrational knee-jerk reactions at other levels. For example, the Indian courts initially faced difficulties in finding a lawyer willing to represent the surviving terrorist, Pakistani gunman Mohammad Ajmal (aka Qasab). In November 2007, the Bar Council of India had written to all the state bar associations instructing them never to deny legal aid to terror suspects; and senior lawyers have reiterated that every accused person has the right to be defended by a lawyer of his choice. But now a leading Mumbai-based lawyer, Rizwan Merchant, is planning to file a public interest litigation to the effect that “terrorists should never be given an opportunity to defend themselves”.
The joint police commissioner Rakesh Maria earlier asserted that the state had to help Mohammad Ajmal obtain legal counsel but had not yet decided how to go about it, since lawyers in Mumbai had so far refused to take his case. While appreciating the sentiment behind the lawyers' decision, the fact remains that in order for due process to be ensured the accused must have representation in court, unless he decides to defend himself.
Meanwhile, the views held by people like Rizwan Merchant are not only illegal and inflammatory, they also sound an uncanny echo of the US's attempts to justify the legal black hole of Guantanamo Bay by arbitrarily deciding that so-called “enemy combatants” (an utterly fictitious term) are not entitled to due process of law. Contrast this attitude with the initial refusal of Indian Muslims to carry out burial rites for the dead terrorists on the grounds that they did not consider them real Muslims. That symbolic protest spoke volumes…
Despite sabrerattling on both sides of the border since the horrific attacks in Mumbai took place, sanity has largely prevailed at the government level. India's foreign minister, while urging more definitive action from Pakistan has nevertheless admitted that terrorism is not a problem that can be “switched on or off”, and needs to be dealt with “patiently”. The truth is, in order for any anti-terror strategy to be effective in a country like India it will require proactively bringing on board the majority of India's domestic Muslim population. They are the ones potentially best placed, in terms of both information and influence, to avert such attacks.
For the Indian people, and the country's political establishment, this means actively reaching out, and acknowledging uncomfortable issues that include the well-documented deprivation and alienation of Muslim communities within an India that is making giant strides in terms of economic and technological development, and is well on its way to achieving future superpower status. According to a government report produced by a former Indian chief justice, Muslims are now worse off than the Dalit caste, those known as “untouchables”, with 52% of Muslim men being unemployed in comparison with 47% of Dalit men; the corresponding figures for Muslim women stand at 91% unemployed in comparison with 77% of Dalit women. Given factors like this, the report's observation regarding the increasing ghettoisation of Muslims is unsurprising. Even more worryingly, the report states that the branding of Muslims as anti-national terrorists and agents of Pakistan “has a depressing effect on their psyche”, leading them to live in “a sense of despair and suspicion”.
As part of its house-cleaning, the country must also come to grips with the long-festering issue of Kashmir. For a nation that so proudly wears its badge as the world's largest democracy, that long-promised referendum has been deferred for an unconscionably long time. As the author Tariq Ali states, circumstances like this, combined with the “political imagination” of official India, which seeks to deny the likelihood of home-grown terrorism, fails to recognise the very real danger of radicalisation among young Indian Muslims “who have finally given up on the indigenous political system”. In his view, official India resists these realities because it “would imply that the country's political physicians need to heal themselves”. Ali adds the chilling warning that India's Muslim population, consisting of 14% of its billion-strong numbers, constitutes a very large minority that “cannot be ethnically cleansed without provoking a wider conflict”.
Addressing these issues means no longer turning a blind eye to the legacy of unmentionable events such as the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent deaths of hundreds of Muslims in its aftermath, or the horrific carnage of the orchestrated anti-Muslim pogrom that took place in Narendra Modi's Gujarat, even as BJP made claims of “India Shining”. It is of course true that Muslims are not the only minority that has experienced the fall-out from communal tensions and Hindutva politics the recent brutalisation of Christian communities in Orissa immediately springs to mind, along with the marginalisation of adivasi communities, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the ongoing upper-caste Hindu violence against Dalits; all of these bring into question India's claims of democracy and secularism.
India must come to grips with the long-festering issue of Kashmir.
It is true that there is and can be no justification for terrorism, in this context defined as the taking of innocent lives, and it is worth remembering that that principle must be equally applied, whether it is fundamentalist aggression by various religious groups (in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Israel, etc.) or state-sponsored killings of civilian populations in these or any other parts of the world. The fact is that until such an equality of approach is sincerely adopted, there will continue to be groups of people determined to use brutal and violent means to avenge their grievances - whether real or imagined.
Our only hope of preventing such terrorism is to show a degree of fairness and sensitivity as majority populations, and to reach out to minority communities in order to address some of the root causes of such alienation, thereby effectively shrinking the recruiting pool for the extremists. History has shown that terrorism is a complex political problem; it cannot be solved by military means alone nor by any amount of aggressive rhetoric. And as the author Amitav Ghosh points out, regardless of the aims of the terrorists, the rest of us need to remember that defeat or victory is not determined by the success of the strike itself; it is determined by the response. And there lies the real challenge for us all.
(to be concluded next week…)
All facts and figures taken from The Independent (UK), The Telegraph (India), India Today, NDTV, Amitav Ghosh's “India's 9/11? Not Exactly”, Arundhati Roy's “The Monster in the Mirror”, Asra Q. Nomani's “Muslims India's new 'untouchables'” and Tariq Ali's “India's Leaders Need to Look Closer to Home”
(R) thedailystar.net 2009