On Friday, terrorists set off bombs at law courts in several cities in Uttar Pradesh. As the news of the blasts trickled in, the response of most news organisations was to mobilise all resources and to plan for extensive coverage. TV channels flashed ‘Breaking News’ bulletins on their tickers and rushed correspondents and camera crews to the sites of the explosions. Researchers worked the phones lining up experts on security issues for the discussion programmes that would be telecast live that evening.
And indeed, if you watched the news on Friday evening, you would have noticed that many channels led with the blasts and the usual suspects were interviewed saying the usual things (the Pakistan hand; intelligence failure; need for preventive detention laws etc).
But by late evening, a curious flatness had overtaken the reports. Anchors and guests alike seemed to be merely going through the motions. It was almost as though the channels had worked out that no matter how important they thought the story was, viewers didn’t really care.
I suspect they were right. By Friday night, everybody was aware of the blasts but few people were talking about them. There was a distinct sense of déjà vu, a sense that we had all been here too many times before to be really shocked or horrified.
I thought back to the other blasts that had occurred in the last few years. The Diwali blasts in Delhi two years ago left the nation shocked and traumatised. The Bombay bombs in July 2006 made us sit up and take note. The Varanasi temple explosion horrified us when we saw the TV footage of pools of blood and severed limbs.
But, try as I might, I could not think of a similar response to more recent blasts. The Hyderabad bombs caused serious damage but they left much of north India unperturbed. The cinema blast in Chandigarh made the front pages for a day before fading from public memory. And now these UP bombs too have left the nation largely unmoved.
Were we, I wondered, becoming more and more immune to the efforts of terrorists? Had we been so brutalised by the violence that we had ceased to care for the innocent men and women who perished in these explosions? Had we become a cold, uncaring society, unable to summon up any outrage when terrorists struck with impunity in the hearts of our towns?
Eventually, I decided that I was both right and wrong. Yes, we have become brutalised by the violence and immune to the suffering. But, on reflection, I’m not sure that this is entirely a bad thing. Perhaps the most appropriate public response to terror is a sad and weary shrug of the shoulders, a silent tear that is never shed and a quiet determination to get on with our lives.
If this sounds too harsh, too stone-hearted and too unfeeling — which it probably does when it’s stated so baldly — then, let me explain why I think that the great Indian public have got it right intuitively and why shock and horror are no longer the best responses to terrorism.
First of all, let’s accept that this kind of casual terror has now become a pattern in India. We may not see a repetition of a terrorist attack on the lines of the Bombay blasts of 1993 or the Parliament attack of a few years ago, but there’s no doubt that we are going to have to live with the threat of bombs directed at civilian targets.
Some terror plots may be foiled but many will succeed. And bombs will go off and people will die — whether we like it or not.
Secondly, let’s also accept that there are forces at work here who will not be easily stopped. I don’t want to make a knee-jerk association between Friday’s bombs and the violence in Calcutta earlier in the week till we are sure who was behind the UP blasts.
<b1>But we do know that the trouble in Calcutta was instigated by Islamist extremist groups some of whom had links with the Islamist groups that were active in Nandigram — Taslima Nasreen was merely the cover for a much deeper and more dangerous agenda. We know also that previous blasts have been linked to Islamists who operate outside of the framework of the democratic system.
These groups are not going to give up. It is true that some of them are assisted and financed from across the Pakistan border. But given that General Musharraf seems unable — by his own admission — to prevent Islamic extremists from wreaking havoc in his own country, it is unlikely that he has much control over their activities in India. So, no amount of diplomatic pressure will lead to the total withdrawal of Pakistani support. Moreover, the Bengal groups seem to be financed by elements within Bangladesh, which, in any case, is sliding into lawless anarchy. And finally, let’s not pretend that all of the terror comes from abroad. Like every other country — Britain, for example — we have our homegrown, indigenous terrorists.
So, there are no quick or easy solutions. We must be prepared for more bomb blasts, more staged riots and more incidents of violence — at least in the short to medium term.
Thirdly, we must recognise that the rise of religion-based extremism is not necessarily a measure of the failure of Indian secularism any more than the violence in, say, Nagaland in the 1960s marked the failure of Indian federalism. In the 1980s, when Sikh militants targeted Hindus, pulling passengers off buses and shooting them, angry Hindus claimed that we were too soft on religious minorities. This view created a climate that led first to the disaster of Operation Bluestar and then the shameful massacres of innocent Sikhs in Delhi. That angry response was not just immoral, it was also counter-productive. Eventually, Punjab healed because effective policing was accompanied by secular, democratic solutions. Today, it seems hard to believe that Indian secularism was ever in peril because of Sikh secessionism.
So it is with Muslim extremism. Anger and retribution only breed similar responses. Bal Thackeray’s demand that his Shiv Sainiks take revenge for the anti-Hindu violence that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid led to the darkest moments in Bombay’s history — the massacres of blameless Muslims and the chilling retaliation in the form of the serial blasts. Similarly, as horrific as the massacre of
kar sevaks in Godhra was, the slaughter of Muslims that followed was a shockingly immoral response.
In the end, retaliation serves the extremist cause better than the act of terror that provoked it. Because, rather than allowing the security services to target the actual extremists, a violent majoritarian response targets innocent members of minority communities who then become more sympathetic to the extremist agenda.
All this leads inexorably to a single conclusion: it’s better to be brutalised than to be angry; better to seem uncaring and immune to the activities of the terrorists than to be provoked into a violent response; and better to let the extremists feel that they do not have the power to deflect us from conducting our daily lives rather than to give them the satisfaction of seeing us cower in fear as they set off their bombs.
Long before the US launched its much-hyped war on terror, the UK suffered regular terror attacks from an organisation of violent religio-political extremists: the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
I was a student in London in the 1970s and still remember the weekly bombings and the tragic deaths. Bombs would go off in restaurants and pubs. Tourists were killed when a device went off in the middle of Harrods. Public figures were murdered in cold blood: Airey Neave, Ross McWhirter, Lord Mountbatten etc. In the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher narrowly escaped death when the IRA blew up a wing of the hotel she was staying in for her annual party conference.
The situation was far, far worse than anything we have seen in India. And yet, what I remember most about that period was the response of the British. They knew that they put their lives at risk each time they took a train, entered a cinema or went to a shop. But they never let the IRA get to them; they never changed the pattern of their daily lives; and they never mounted a hysterical public retribution against innocent Irish people who lived in England. And eventually, when the problem was solved by a mixture of policing and democracy, their confidence in their own way of life was vindicated.
That, I suggest, is the way we should react to the bomb blasts that now occur every week. Of course, we should demand that the terrorists are apprehended. But we should not react with fear, horror, shock or anger. We should look the problem in the eye and get on with our lives anyway.
It may sound brutal or unfeeling. But it is the only way.