09 August, 2006, Frontline
A crass and hysterical nationalism is taking hold among a section of the Indian middle class in response to the Mumbai blasts. This nationalism is paranoid. It considers India uniquely vulnerable to terrorism because its state is exceptionally soft, pusillanimous and "cowardly". At the same time, it wants a militant response – armed attacks on Pakistan. Its votaries say it is not enough just to suspend India-Pakistan talks; India must teach Pakistan "a lesson". Some advocates of this view have strong sympathies for Hindutva and harp on the "timidity of Hindus", a phrase the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) fondly uses to explain why India has been repeatedly subjugated by "aggressors". But even if the communal element is excised from this view, its essential content remains unaltered. It advocates a particular model unfolding before our eyes – namely, Israel's aggression in Gaza and Lebanon, after the arrest of one-third of the Palestinian Authority's Cabinet. India would be "effete", unlike Israel, if it fails to respond to threats to its security with all-out punitive attacks.
This view was encouraged by the state's confused initial response to the Mumbai blasts. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's address to the nation did not reflect the gravity of the destruction in Mumbai, which is of the same order as Madrid 2004, the world's worst recent terrorist incident, next only to 9/11. In a recent English-language television programme in which I participated, the anchor asked whether India should follow Israel's example. While the participants argued against this on differing grounds, 94 per cent of the audience agreed with the proposition through email and SMS responses. In keeping with such extreme opinions, the government hardened its stand and cancelled the Foreign Secretary-level meeting, issued belligerent statements, rounded up hundreds of Muslims, and mindlessly banned access to blogs on the Internet.
It is of vital importance that we view the Mumbai blasts in perspective and formulate a rational response that defends the interests and security of the Indian people. To start with, it is not at all clear that the attacks exposed India's "exceptional" vulnerability. A similar attack could well have occurred on suburban trains in Paris, New York, Moscow or London and produced similar damage. True, the Mumbai suburban rail system is even more crowded than the New York subway. But it is nearly impossible to prevent such attacks altogether. Beyond a point, no state can anticipate such events, screen passengers, check all unattended baggage, and so on. The very pace of metropolitan life makes such checks impracticable.
India lags behind in quickness of response, in sounding warnings and providing emergency services. We have failed to create the infrastructure necessary to deal with mishaps such as train coaches falling on tracks, which need to be quickly cleared, and so on. There is a strong case for installing inexpensive closed-circuit television cameras at important transport hubs. But this is not a watertight guarantee that terrorist attacks will never occur. No state, however powerful, especially a democratic one, can provide 100 per cent security or guarantee absence of violence. It can take precautionary measures, be more vigilant, and improve police efficiency and procedures. That is where India fails badly.
Secondly, the response of the Mumbai and railway police was tardy and meagre. Citizens themselves had to rush victims to hospitals and arrange for blood much before the state acted. There was public anger that the state was not doing enough or being responsive. This grievance is legitimate.
However, a rational long-term response to terrorist violence can only be based on systematic investigation to establish the identity of the culprits, their motives, and their internal and external links. Only thus can a responsible government conclude that the terrorists received encouragement or help from abroad – in the present case, Pakistan. But senior officials, including National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, rushed to judgment and selectively briefed the media alleging that the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Students Islamic Movement of India and other organisations allegedly supported by Pakistani clandestine agencies were involved. Most national newspapers duly echoed such views based upon mere guesswork and speculation.
The assessment that Pakistan was behind the Mumbai attacks is open to doubt on two grounds. In the past too, similar allegations were made. Yet, in no major case have the culprits' identity or links with Pakistan been fully established and convictions secured (an exception being the Parliament building attack case, now under appeal). Accusations about their links with "sleeper cells", or agencies operating through Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal remain unsupported under Indian laws of evidence.
The second reason pertains to recent developments in Pakistan and in India-Pakistan relations. General Musharraf is under tremendous pressure from the U.S., other Western powers and China to demonstrate that he will take on jehadi groups and comply with the anti-terrorist commitments he made in 2004. It is hard to believe, at this point in the evolution of the India-Pakistan dialogue, that it makes sense for Pakistani agencies to risk wrecking the dialogue process by encouraging or instigating gross violence such as the Mumbai bombings.
It is possible that some "rogue elements" of the Inter-Services Intelligence could have done this. But the central issue is Manmohan Singh's assessment that the sheer scale of the attack points to external involvement. Any number of Indian groups with no live contact with foreign agencies is capable of getting hold of explosives and planting them. Such groups learn by watching others in different parts of the world. Enough hatreds and injustices exist in Indian society, which can explain the kind of ideological pathologies that encourage them to visit violence on innocent civilians. It is a terrible, very sick, pathology. But such groups exist.
India has a huge amount to gain from the peace process with Pakistan. It would be foolhardy to make it a hostage to speculation about Pakistani involvement in terrorist violence. In any cultural, economic or social interaction, India stands to gain more than Pakistan. Apart from launching bus and train services, India has received an assurance from Musharraf that the Kashmir issue would be discussed on condition that there can be no redrawing of boundaries. The more we blame Pakistan, the more obsessively we look for "the foreign hand", the farther we get from the task of looking inwards, to examine what is wrong with our police, intelligence agencies and criminal justice system so that we can address some of the cesspool of grievances in which violence and extremist ideologies flourish.
The "hit-Pakistan-teach-Pakistan-a-lesson" clamour is a complete negation of any reasonable, balanced, mature and sober approach to the Mumbai blasts – just as was the 10-month-long military mobilisation after the Parliament building attack, which achieved nothing. What gives the demand a dangerous edge is the advocacy of Israel-style militaristic approaches. Its proponents admire Israel for unleashing high levels of violence upon its adversaries when threatened. But, to start with, Israel is not a state that respects international law. It has the longest history in the world of violation of Security Council resolutions, such as 242 and 338, as well as the World Court judgment on the apartheid wall. India cannot and should not emulate it. This will encourage terrible lawlessness and violence in our own neighbourhood.
Secondly, what Israel is now doing is illegal, immoral and politically disastrous. The roots of the current conflict go back to Israel's recen
t liquidation of Abu Jamal Samhanada, newly appointed security-chief of the Interior Ministry of the Palestinian Authority. This was calculated, as many past Israeli actions, to provoke. It brought on retaliatory attacks from pro-Hamas militants with crude home-made Qassam rockets which inflicted minimal damage. In response, Israel launched devastating attacks on civilians, including a picnicking family of eight. The ensuing violence eventually led to the killing of two Israeli soldiers and the capture of one.
Under international law, it is perfectly legitimate for people under occupation to militarily target occupying military personnel, although not to abduct them. But Israel has itself practised abduction and kidnappings and made hostage-prisoner swaps, as in 1968, 1983, 1985 and 2004. In June, it took one-third of the Palestinian Cabinet hostage. It escalated its attack on Hamas with a view to destroying its entire military infrastructure. Israeli troops cut off Gaza's water and power supply and inflicted collective punishment on civilians who were in no way responsible for the earlier attacks or abduction. Cutting off electricity means cutting off refrigeration – and people's food supplies.
Israel has since invaded Lebanon, in response to a Hizbollah raid on its forces. One need not justify Hizbollah's actions to note the sheer disproportion of the violence Israel unleashed on civilians. More than 380 were killed in 10 days. The number of Israeli casualties is not even one-tenth this number. Israel targeted civilian installations in Beirut and devastated its infrastructure. Israel hopes to weaken decisively the Hizbollah militarily and further the objective of establishing a Greater Israel, which annexes large parts of the West Bank.
This objective can only be achieved if Israel destroys all regional challenges and unilaterally draws – for the first time ever – its national boundaries after dividing up Palestinian territory into a series of Bantustans through the apartheid wall. To do this, it must claim that there is no Palestinian agency with which it can negotiate. Israel's withdrawal from Gaza even while continuing with the colonisation of the West Bank must be seen in this perspective. To these ends, Israel has inflicted cruel forms of collective punishment, as well as large-scale violence, upon non-combatant civilians. Collective punishment is impermissible under international law, as are sieges of cities, which starve them of food and water – the state of Beirut today after 15 years of recovery and revival as one of West Asia's liveliest cities. Israel's unconscionable military offensive is an act of international brigandage linked to expansionism. Those who want India to emulate Israel assign the most obnoxious motives and purposes to our state. Obviously, they see nothing wrong with expansionism, aggression, occupation, disproportionate force, hostage-taking and outright assassination of suspects – actions that are punishable under international law.
India is being asked to follow Israel's bellicose, lawless and brigand-like conduct on the presumption that "shock-and-awe" methods, although excessive, disproportionate and immoral, successfully deter future terrorist attacks. However, this presumption has been repeatedly falsified. Israel's coercion has failed to deter adversaries or generate security for Israeli citizens. In fact, the moral force of the first Intifada derived from the determination that Palestinian youth showed when fighting the mighty Israeli military with nothing more than stones.
Israel is one of the world's most militarised societies: more than 576,000 of its 6.5 million people serve in its armed forces. The country probably has the world's highest density of surveillance equipment such as X-ray machines, closed-circuit cameras and explosive detectors. And yet, suicide-bombers infiltrate populated high-security areas and kill. Such is the deep sense of injustice, injury, insult and resentment that Israel's excesses have created among its neighbours; that its own citizens cannot remotely hope to become secure in the absence of a just settlement of the Palestinian question.
It should be demeaning for India even to think of following a model based on devotion to violence and cultivation of hatred and prejudice. It is a sign of the moral and political degeneration of the Indian elite that it has stooped to clamour for attacks on Pakistan, without even establishing its complicity in the Mumbai carnage.
It is incumbent upon all those who value sanity, sobriety and principle in public life to counter such crass and extreme militarist nationalism. Such extremism is the stuff of fascism.
Copyright © 2006, Frontline.