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Missing: the Indian State

So the next time the bombs go off and we quiz our netas on allegations of ‘security lapses’, we should also ask them when security agencies will stop being treated like their political fiefs, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Sep 20, 2008 02:32 IST

Frankly, the Home Minister’s so-called sartorial self-indulgence is so completely beside the point. If ever there was an example of how to trivialise matters of life and death and bring them down to an absurd level of banality, we saw it this week. Who cares how many times Shivraj Patil changes his clothes or whether his tailors think his style of dressing has altered over the years? Apart from spawning a million sms jokes on wardrobe malfunction, what does any of it have to do with whether we feel safer as a nation? If we have our eye on the needle and thread, surely the question to ask instead is whether a stitch in time has saved nine?

And there, all of us must face the flak: the UPA for showing an absence of leadership and for being much too wishy-washy about groups such as Students’ Islamic Movement of India (Simi); the BJP for leaping on an opportunity to offset the feel-good factor of the nuclear deal and play on the vulnerability of the middle class; and you and me, for ranting and raving at hapless men in khaki about how long the security checks are at airports and cinemas, while meekly surrendering to the same scrutiny on trips to America and England.

In its defence, the UPA’s TV-savvy rhetoricians have repeatedly argued that the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) never managed to keep India’s Parliament safe from an audacious terror strike or prevent a plane hijack that facilitated the freedom of Maulana Masood Azhar. And the 90-day detention period (without conviction) for suspected terrorists provided under the current law, they say, is longer than the global norm.

So, why then, is there a near consensus on the fact that the State looks weak, helpless and unable to act? Serious and legitimate questions have been raised about whether the Home Minister is the wrong man for the job. But the paralysis goes well beyond one ministry.

The truth is we have never seen the urgency or energy we expect from the government. Routine condemnations against ‘nefarious anti-national’ designs have come to sound like clichés. Wordy warnings to Pakistan no longer soothe our frayed nerves, especially now that the ‘foreign hand’ is in tango with a domestic, homegrown one. We worry about who is in control when the Congress spokesperson and head of an important reforms committee advocates the need for a new law, but the cabinet rejects the demand.

We wonder why we have to hear what the Prime Minister thinks through sarkari hand-outs of his speech at a Governors’ conference. Think of the number of times President Bush has gone on national TV or radio in the aftermath of terror strikes against American citizens. When a terrorist rips through the everydayness of our lives and takes away our sense of ordinary well-being, we need more than ever to be enveloped by a sense of community and belonging. A dialogue with the State, or those who represent it, becomes imperative, but is almost never forthcoming.

We especially worry when news leaks out that the two political leaders who oppose a ban on Simi, both head parties with a strong Muslim vote base. Terrorists, we know, will win, if an unspoken religious subtext defines and divides our political class. If manipulative religious politics stops the UPA from acting firmly, the same brand of communal politics comes in the way of the BJP being able to project itself as a benign benefactor. So, when the UPA refuses to ban Simi, we know that minority politics has something to do with it. And when the BJP wants Pota but won’t even consider a ban on the Bajrang Dal, we know that its anti-terror ideology can be perceived as a dangerous euphemism for the politics of hate. Both positions leave us weaker and the terrorists much stronger.

This week of terror has been underlined by violent attacks on Christian minorities and their places of worship in three states, all governed by the BJP or its allies. Bajrang Dal workers on the ground have shown no coyness in coming on camera and taking ‘credit’ for the assaults. As the state governments of Orissa and Karnataka make the mandatory promises of stern punishment, the Bajrang Dal has threatened that worse could follow if religious conversions continue. For the first time in 20 years, Christian institutions across the country shut down to protest against the targeting of their faith. It’s a dangerous, frightening polarisation that could split India down the middle and make a mockery of our much- vaunted secularism.

In either case — the UPA’s failing fight against terrorism or Orissa and Karnataka’s failing attempt to keep the peace — there is the scary sense of the State losing its writ, or perhaps its will to govern. And while our politicians trade charges with alacrity and flair in breathless TV debates, not one party has delivered on the much-needed promise of police reforms. The ‘Model Police Act’ that frees police chiefs from political control by making their tenures fixed and giving them the power to decide on postings and transfers of subordinate officers, is yet to be implemented by any state or party. This is despite a Supreme Court order that asks all states to implement the guidelines.

So the next time the bombs go off and we quiz our netas on allegations of ‘security lapses’, we should also ask them when security agencies will stop being treated like their political fiefs. It used to be that when the country was at war, domestic squabbling would automatically take a backseat. No longer. These days, it feels like India is at war with herself.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)