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     Volume 8 Issue 53 | January 16, 2009 |

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Food for Thought

Sense and Sensitivities

Part IV

Farah Ghuznavi

The brave efforts of some of the staff at the railway station was incredible, as they struggled to thwart the attackers.

Despite the political opportunism and cries for vengeance that have inevitably followed the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, there are many who have called for a rational response that does not give in to jingoism and nationalistic rabble-rousing. And there are also signs of hope - India's responses to Pakistan regarding the Mumbai attacks have not been as excessively reactive as they might have; and hawkish statements from rightwing politicians were sharply toned down after the state elections which followed on the heels of the terrorist strike.

For perhaps the first time, Indians have gone to the polls immediately after a terror attack and voted not in favour of vengeance, however tempting, but to reward good governance and effective leadership. The Hindu fundamentalist BJP went on a major publicity offensive after the tragedy in Mumbai, issuing blood-spattered advertisements which stated “Brutal terror strikes at will, Weak government, Unwilling and Incapable, Fight Terror, Vote BJP” (sic). The party was expecting to exploit the outrage of the masses for their own benefit, but the strategy essentially backfired especially in the capital Delhi, where voters came out in large numbers to support a leader and a government that had “visibly improved the city”. Overall, Congress surpassed its own best-case scenario by winning a comfortable majority in the Assembly for the third time in a row. And while the BJP managed to hold on to power in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, they lost in their heartland of Rajasthan. Perhaps that is why the likes of Narendra Modi are heard less stridently on the political stage these days.

There have also been many examples of individuals standing up for their principles - notably the widow of the highly regarded police officer, Hemant Karkare, who flatly refused Narendra Modi's offer of compensation. Given that her husband was an honest, highly ethical officer, and the family have been living on an “un-augmented” government salary, it was impressive that she did so. Perhaps her emphatic decision was reinforced by the memory of how Modi's Hindutva clique hounded her husband over the Malegaon investigation prior to his death. Mrs. Karkare now hopes to set up an NGO to teach children secular values because “it is important for them to learn these things while they are young”.

While the terrorists may have wanted to “shock and awe”, it is worth remembering the ordinary people who were relegated to the shadows throughout the siege. The bravery of some of the staff at the railway station was incredible, as they struggled to thwart the attackers. One man spent several precious minutes warning passengers on the incoming trains not to take the main exit from the station, but to use the other exits, in order to escape from the terrorists. He continued to make the announcements over the PA system even after the attackers realised what he was doing and tried to target him; in the process, he undoubtedly saved dozens of lives. Equally amazing were the actions of Tukaram Ombale of the Mumbai Police, who grabbed the barrel of Mohammad Ajmal's AK-47, taking all the bullets in his chest to enable his fellow officers to overcome the militant. If not for Ombale's sacrifice, Ajmal would never have been taken alive, providing the crucial link to those behind the attacks.

Moving stories emerged from survivors' descriptions of how hotel staff had put their own lives at risk to help guests. The favour was returned, in one case, where a couple (both doctors) dragged an injured staff member into their room, providing treatment that kept him alive for eight hours, until they were rescued. This spirit of generosity was also reflected in the decision taken by the families of foreign victims to donate the compensation they received to supporting local victims of the massacre instead. Many of those victims, it is worth remembering, were themselves Muslim including almost one-third of the victims at the railway station. Not that this bothered the attackers!

At a time when the voice of the moderate Muslim desperately needs to be heard, I was also struck by one man who went out to join the vigil for the Mumbai victims. He spoke out clearly saying that those who killed in the name of religion like this could not be considered true Muslims and would go straight to hell for their actions. The prayer cap he wore clearly gave away his own religious affiliation, and I couldn't help thinking that it was brave of him to venture forth in the midst of the turmoil that was gripping Mumbai at the time, to make sure that he was there to stand up and be counted.

The others at the vigil displayed no visible sense of unease at his presence, any more than he appeared worried about wearing his religion on his sleeve, so to speak.

They were all people of good faith, whatever individual faiths they may have belonged to, understanding that Indians needed to be united in the aftermath of such a tragedy not manipulated by divisive nationalist and/or communal politicians. It must now be hoped that the governments of India and Pakistan show the same rationality and common sense in dealing with each other, and with the particular sensitivities involved on both sides of the border.

The fact is, India is well within its rights to demand greater action from the government of Pakistan. There have been many instances of supposed crackdowns on extremist outfits, which have merely resulted in the same group of people engaged in the same activities resurfacing with a different name and signboard. But India also needs to be rational in considering what it is demanding from its neighbour. The truth is that no matter how bullish its rhetoric, Pakistan remains a fragmented state on the verge of collapse, weakened by internal infighting and not quite sure who's in charge of anything anymore.

As the recent attack of Taliban militants on the outskirts of Peshawar showed, the Pakistani government is clearly far from in charge of its own territory. The insurgents torched dozens of supply containers intended for western forces in Afghanistan, setting ablaze some one hundred trucks in the process. While the Pakistan government has belatedly taken retaliatory action against these ambushes, it remains to be seen how effective their efforts will be.

So while India may feel that the arrest of senior operatives of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and proscription of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa is not sufficient in terms of action, the fact is that Pakistan itself has been on the front line of extremist attacks, and must now walk a careful balance between the warring elements manoeuvring within its superstructure. Any unexpected backlash could send the country spiralling into anarchy, and the last thing that India needs is an imploding nuclear neighbour on its western border.

In recent weeks, the world has heaved a sigh of relief as Pakistan climbed off its high horse, acknowledging its responsibility in terms of the role played by some of its citizens (rogue or otherwise) in the Mumbai attacks. This process should be further facilitated by the recent Indian decision to share some evidence with the Pakistan government. Yet while there may be some truth to President Asif Ali Zardari's claim that the militants who attacked Mumbai were “non-state actors”, the fact remains that Pakistan, for its own survival, must find an effective way of taking action against extremism within its borders. The country is merely reaping what it has sown in the last few decades, notably in terms of its support for the Taliban - a Frankenstein which has now moved into its master's home.

In the past, both countries have been belligerent in their tone on issues related to cross border activities, as well as of course Kashmir. But to deal with the very real terrorist threat that faces South Asia as a whole requires cool heads and a genuine commitment to addressing the issues. It is worth recalling the words of John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address so many decades ago, “…let us begin anew remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear but never fear to negotiate.”

The people of India have clearly demonstrated, most obviously through the recent election results, that they want to see better governance and greater security for all Indians. That can only be achieved through genuine cooperation, not through warmongering and macho role-playing. And without seeking a justification for terrorism, the problem must be assessed within its historical and actual context if it is ever to be properly understood, and effectively addressed. So I for one am hoping that common sense and common humanity prevail across all the relevant national borders in the region.

All facts and figures taken from The Independent (UK), The Telegraph (India), India Today, NDTV and Siddhartha Deb's “The Mumbai that didn't make the news”


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