IF YOU want to hear the Indian story, listen to the sound of silence once the roar of the explosion has ebbed away into time. India’s weakness is institutional. We have not found the means, although doubtless there is the will, to prevent terrorist action of the most brutal sort, in the cavernous heart of our most vaunted cities, whether it is aimed at shoppers in a public bazaar in Delhi on the eve of Diwali or worshippers at the Sankatmochan temple in Varanasi.
India’s strength is the reaction. One is referring to the reaction of the people, for the reaction of the authorities is almost perfunctory: a lot of initial bustle, and then the hope that yet another tragedy will disappear, unwept, into the misery of dusty files. There is anger in the popular reaction, for only the supine do not get angry. But this anger does not degenerate into hysteria.
The terrorist has two objectives. The first is immediate: he seeks to leave pools of blood on the streets. The second is strategic and perhaps more important: he seeks to lace the lines, the thin lines that separate communities, with poison. The Indian people know that communal peace is the best answer to vicious terrorism, and the only way to frustrate the strategic design.
A self-proclaimed separatist group from Kashmir has claimed responsibility for the terrorism in Varanasi. The simple response is that the future of Kashmir cannot be determined by injecting fear in Varanasi. Those who think they can weaken the resolve of India do not understand the depth of India. This depth is not just geographical and demographic; India also has great reserves of psychological depth. That is what both Hindus and Muslims of Varanasi displayed when they were tested.
The test is becoming more difficult of course. There has been what might be called a fundamental change in the level of provocation. There is nothing new about Hindu-Muslim tension. Where there is a relationship, whether individual or collective, there will be both amity and the occasional spot of tension. Islam came to India through merchants and traders from the earliest days of the new faith, as it did later to South-East Asia, and Muslim communities appeared not only along the coast of Gujarat and Kerala but also in the interior cities of the North. Since then Hindus and Muslims have interacted commercially, socially — and politically. The first Arab-Muslim armies appeared in Sind in 711, the same year that the western momentum took Arab armies into Spain. But while Spain fell comparatively easily, the expansion of what might be called political space froze in the deserts of Sind. The Thakur principalities of Rajasthan, Punjab and Afghanistan maintained their power for another four centuries until Prithviraj was defeated in the second battle of Tarain (Prithviraj won the first battle of Tarain).
The story of kings is different from the narratives of people. The communal riot in its present manifestation is, by and large, a phenomenon of post-feudal India. Its causes form a pattern from the trivial to the significant, but are familiar enough to suggest that it is more often fomented rather than natural. What is undoubtedly true is that politics has been a principal agent provocateur, including the politics of democracy.
But whatever the cause, popular conflict very rarely extended to attacks on places of worship or deities: there was a sense that the sacred should be kept above conflict. This is not completely true, but it is largely correct. But the violence of terrorism is significantly different: it is aimed as much against the sacred as it is against the people. It does not require a degree in nuclear physics to appreciate that the Sankatmochan temple in Varanasi was selected in order to incite Hindu anger against Muslims, and inspire perhaps a Gujarat-style reaction. The variance is another clue in the argument that this attack has been planned by un-Indian if not non-Indian elements.
What the people preserve, so often the government manages to squander. Let me note a second institutional weakness: the remarkable tendency of governments to sound triumphalist long before any real victory is evident on the nearest horizon. The trumpets are always out to herald a mirage. In Delhi a mirage is neither a desert phenomenon nor a fighter plane; it is a working philosophy, a way of life.
For a few weeks now it has been commonplace to hear, including from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that Indian Muslims have rejected violence thanks to the therapeutic virtues of Indian democracy. As a proposition it has the merit of not only being virtuous but also broadly accurate. But what is largely true should not be misconstrued as being wholly true. There is also the danger that someone with an agenda might want to prove the opposite. But it seemed that this proposition was not put into circulation accidentally, or only because it was true. President George Bush’s entourage joined this catechism in preparation of their leader’s visit to India.
While this was of course a just and justified tribute to India, it was also part of the wider discourse to sell the future of Iraq as a democracy and thereby to rationalise the occupation of Iraq. Bush is searching for democracy these days in Iraq, rather than weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, democracy in Iraq is beginning to look more and more like a WMD. Be that as it may, Varanasi brings the agenda back to India, and its unsolved problems.
India is a nuclear power straining to become an economic giant with seriously solid military muscle, and with the proven capability of reaching its ambitions within a believable timeframe. It has a growing right to a place on the high table of world affairs, and the world, now led by the US, is taking this claim seriously. But India also faces a grave danger, one that could sabotage its dreams.
This danger is internal, not external. It is a problem of governance, not of the people. It is the danger of an institutional ego that sends the government’s head into the heady superstructure of nuclear clouds, and, through an opposite of the gravitational pull, lifts its feet high above the harsh realities on the ground. The ground is swarming with cancerous problems. Varanasi is only an instance: security is so porous that terrorists who operate out of Kashmir can disdainfully slip into Varanasi and set off blasts that kill and maim hundreds. The real tragedy is that the perpetrators will never be found. The police has now become accustomed to alibi punishments: a few scapegoats to be sacrificed for public consumption in the hope that immediate passions are assuaged.
There is a parallel network of violence operating in India. No one really knows if Naxalites, spread across the breadth of the country, have linked up with separatists in Kashmir and Assam or not. All of them certainly have a common purpose, which is the destabilisation of government and governance.
Poverty feeds violence, and subsistence-level poverty is still the fate of four hundred million Indians. Communal anger is always hovering as a menace over stability, its noxious fumes wafted by despair. This too is shrouded in silence, but it is a different kind of silence. The story of India can be heard in both kinds of silence.
Eminent intellectual and author M J Akbar is the editor-in-chief of The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle newspapers