I just boarded a plane from Delhi to Mumbai, and was hit hard by a startling new reality — the way India travels will never be the same again. The Bombay blasts have confirmed all our worst fears: the faceless enemy spares no one; the unseen, but long arm of terror can reach out to grab any one of us; and we will have to change the way we live to outsmart the opponent.
Terrorism is no longer merely the morning headline; it has infiltrated our world to become a permanent companion in our everyday lives.
Of course, we will still board the trains, hop on to that flight and be proud of the swanky, new Metro — the business of life will not be halted. But as we watch the security lines grow at the X-ray points, empty out our pockets of pens and pennies, walk through metal detectors and wonder if machines will keep us safe, we all have a sense of looking over our shoulder.
That’s why, for the first time in years, I wonder whether the India-Pakistan peace process is tenable at this moment.
It’s an unusual doubt for someone like me to have. For years, I have fended off the frowning disapproval of bureaucrats and the angry scepticism of viewers and readers to argue that peace cannot be a prisoner of terrorism. Like many others who track Kashmir, it was my belief that each time we allow an isolated attack of violence to derail the dialogue, we are doing exactly what the terrorists’ masterplan has scripted for us.
And over the years, even hard-nosed government negotiators had come around to the same view. So when terrorists targeted ordinary passengers getting set to board the first bus across the Line of Control, India and Pakistan declared that the wheels of peace would roll out just as planned. Last year, on the very evening that bombs ripped through the heart of Delhi, a team in Islamabad signed an agreement to open relief centres along the border. We applauded this and called it a new maturity in the peace process. Even after the Varanasi blasts, neither side stepped back from the fragile framework of talks.
So what has changed?
Quite simply, public opinion, which I suspect has already raced ahead of policy. It is true that great leaders must always walk a few steps ahead of popular thought. It is equally true that ordinary folk like you and me are notoriously fickle, and our essentially dysfunctional response to Pakistan makes for a contradictory love-hate relationship. So no one is suggesting that the governments of Islamabad and Delhi move to the erratic beats of street opinion.
On the contrary, every milestone marked in the turbulent history of the two countries is because someone had the courage to be controversial — whether it was Vajpayee’s bus ride to Lahore or Musharraf’s declaration that “self-governance” for Kashmir was a way forward.
So, politicians who have the temerity to take a risk can often dramatically shift the paradigm of conventional thought. Ironically, nothing illustrates this better than how dramatically Indians have changed in their response to the Kashmir conflict.
A few years ago, one of my reports from the Valley almost didn’t make it past the censors at Star TV. My argument was that modern politics had betrayed history — Kashmir never got the autonomy it was promised under the treaty of accession. To make my point, I argued that the Valley had always been different from the rest of India; that even after Independence, it had retained its own flag and state Constitution. But such was the alarm that the word ‘autonomy’ evoked at the time that the editorial minders at the channel wouldn’t permit the report without some cuts.
Today such paranoia would be unimaginable. A rare display of imagination by the political leadership (both the NDA and the UPA) has slowly, but dramatically, altered the ordinary citizen’s response to the conflict. On a recent online poll on NDTV, more than 70 per cent viewers said self-rule or autonomy was an acceptable way forward in Kashmir.
I believe that fatigue had met flexibility mid-way to create a brand new mindset; most Indians simply wanted to move on.
But here’s the problem. The new tolerance was possible as long as it was about Kashmir. Sadly, but truly, the Valley is still pretty much a ‘never-never’ land for most people. Everyone has their favourite stories of summer by the boulevard, nights in Highland Park’s discotheque and skiing down the slopes of Gulmarg. An older generation of Indians is quite happy to consign these stories to memories, pulled out now and then in the spirit of nostalgia, and younger India just doesn’t care that much.
Modern India’s self-image is defined by its robust and proud presence on the global stage. So, when grenades blow up a bazaar in Srinagar, it’s a reality too far removed to cause much concern. If anything, the continued violence in Kashmir only intensifies the impatience in this generation to find a solution and close the chapter. But attack India’s financial capital — now, that’s another matter. That’s India’s future under assault.
We are so relieved that India has not erupted into religious riots after the blasts that perhaps we have romanticised the stories of resilience. Of course like Delhi, and Varanasi before it, Mumbai has bounced back and fought hard. But as we salute its spirit, have we paused to hear its anger?
I sense that there’s raw, volatile anger simmering just under the surface, not just in Mumbai, but in much of urban India. We are convinced now that our lives have changed; that, like New York and London, our days too may now be marked by coloured warnings on our television screens — red for high alert, yellow for stay indoors, green for safe. Is that what the future looks like?
And what if the bombings had taken place while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Pakistan? Would the day after still have escaped a backlash? There are no easy answers. To walk out of the peace process is to strengthen fundamentalists and terrorists across the border. To continue talking in this environment is unproductive and foolish, and will only create the perception of a State that doesn’t care that its people are being killed.
There’s just one thing I am sure of: the government must be transparent in its investigations. We don’t need fake encounters, staged killings or convoluted leaks by spooks in the IB. Just the facts, please.
To fall back on easy rhetoric this time would be for the State to play rabble-rouser.
And the stakes are simply too high.