Young Khushi Jha rides on the stretcher with her father Sri Rang Jha who was injured in Connaught Place by a bomb blast on September 13
The first thing I did when I heard the news of Saturday’s bomb blasts was to call my college-going daughters. The Greater Kailash M-Block market is just about one and a half kilometres from where we live and it is not unusual for my girls and their friends to hang out there on a Saturday evening. It wasn’t only parents who felt that clutch of panic at that time. Dear and loved ones from across the country and even abroad called later. You never know.
There is a certain terrible randomness in the way people are struck down in such incidents. They may have been window-shopping, on a family outing, at work or just hanging out. In a city where 3,000 people die in a year from road accidents, chance plays a larger than life role in our lives. But when people are out to kill you with bombs and guns, the odds are much shorter.
As a journalist getting into harm’s way is an occupational hazard. But, with the reportorial years behind me, the physical risk I face is as much as that for any other citizen of Delhi. And that has not been insubstantial in the last quarter century.
An uncle of mine died, the sole casualty, of a bomb blast outside Palika Bazar in the summer of 1990. A few years earlier, another actually faced a terrorist who fired at him from the road, and missed, as he stood on the balcony of his first floor house in Chittaranjan Park.
But it is not the personal risk that you worry about the most. For the dead it no longer matters. It is about those who are left behind — the trauma of losing a spouse, parent or child, of making ends meet, or the battle of those maimed to live with scars within and without.
On Sunday morning I took my dog to her long-time vet. We never discuss politics, and he somewhat apologetically broached the subject of the blasts. “The feelings against Muslims are going to go sky-high,” he ventured. I responded with the somewhat cliché-ridden statement that a community should not be blamed for the actions of some individuals. But I knew what he was talking about. I told him of the arbitrariness of the casualties, and the Muslims who died or were injured, but it is true that the overwhelming bulk of people killed were Hindus. I took another track which he understood immediately.
The police would pick up ten Muslim boys, beat them up and after they were released at least three would be ripe for recruitment by the Indian Mujahideen or whichever group that came looking for them. Could we live with an alienated Muslim population, in permanent conditions of suspicion and civil war?
The Sangh Parivar believes that a hard line on terrorism, focusing on Islamic extremism, will help consolidate the majority Hindu community behind the BJP. They are playing with fire if they think that this will be a costless exercise. Their first assumption is that draconian laws alone can combat terrorism.
Their second is that isolating the “guilty” community and applying relentless police pressure will end terrorism. Just what happens when a community is put under such a pressure cooker is evident from what is happening in Palestine and Lebanon. Relentless and disproportionate force has so hardened the communities that even the most hard-line Israeli will concede that his countrymen are no more secure today than they were thirty years ago.
Mr L.K. Advani speaks of the efficacy of POTA. The strident campaign of the BJP of course hides the fact that in its watch there was no let-up in terrorist incidents, and at the time POTA was there. And instances of misuse were so blatant that there was little outcry when the Congress-led UPA government repealed it. A stringent anti-terrorist law does have a place in an overall strategy of fighting terrorism, but what Advani and Co seem to suggest is that it has a central role. This is simply not true. The biggest problem is politicians themselves who have used such laws to imprison rivals and other inconvenient political groups, not terrorists.
The second problem is that the people who would apply the act are our policemen who have built up a formidable reputation for corruption, arbitrariness and brutality. A law is only as good as the institution that would apply them. And ours are rotten to the core. People can buy their way out of a murder charge, be framed for a narcotics crime, and be labeled a terrorist at someone’s whim. The act will provide the police an easy option of “solving” terrorist crimes by railroading innocents, because its provisions will make confessions before a police officer admissible in court.
Residents of the capital city which has seen waves of terrorist attacks going back to the 1980s, have, in a sense, gotten inured to such attacks. In that sense the terrorist project will not succeed: There will be no communal violence after an attack and neither will people rise in revolt against the government of the day. There are hundreds of families that would have been touched one way or the other by terrorist incidents in the last twenty-five years. They have learnt to live with their pain, physical or otherwise. But stoicism is a virtue of people, not of governments.
The system must be flexible, willing to learn and have the ability to reform itself to meet the challenges of the day. The Union Home Secretary is on record to say that the system is learning from each incident. Maybe on 13/9 the police did display more order and the hospitals were more responsive. But, by and large it was difficult to say that the response was as professional as it should have been. Actually, the Union Home Ministry, the intelligence apparatus and our police departments have shown little inclination to change. The post-Kargil reforms have largely remained on paper. Compare this to the enormous restructuring that has taken place in the US where a new anti-terrorism law has come with an entirely new Homeland Security department and a reshaped intelligence apparatus.
Leave alone the nuts and bolts of bureaucracies and laws, there is no evidence on the ground that our system understands the nature of the challenge. A section of the young in our Muslim community has been infected by the virus of militant radicalism. They have to be isolated and neutralised. This may sound clinical, but it is not because we are dealing with human beings, societies and communities. Eliminating the terrorist virus requires force, but only at the micro-level.
At the macro-level the need is to more closely integrate our Muslim community into the national mainstream. As of now, they feel that their entire community is under suspicion and their sense of rejection from the body politic is growing. Unfortunately, some political formations are not helping, and indeed, encouraging the process by demonising the Muslims in a bid to consolidate what they believe is the Hindu majority vote bank.
The war against terrorism cannot be fought cheaply, it cannot be fought symbolically through laws like POTA and it cannot most certainly be fought by dividing communities. The only way to fight terrorism is through a just war. Such a war has to use instrumentalities that may be tough, but fair and able to discriminate between the guilty and the innocent.
Just as a terrorist attack is about indiscriminate murder, counter-terrorist action must be about discriminate force, based on the rule of law.
This article was first published in Mail Today September 16, 2008