As Mumbai recovers from the carnage of last week, the predominant emotion on the streets is not sorrow or despair. What comes through most strongly is the anger of its citizens. And frankly, how could they not be angry? Their city has been brutally ravaged, their iconic landmarks targeted, their people used as gun fodder. Anger is a natural response in the circumstances. What surprised me, though, was the target of that anger.
Their rage wasn’t directed at the terrorists. No one was raving and ranting about these murderous fanatics who had tried to destroy everything we hold dear. Nobody was asking, “How dare these people target us?” or “What do they want from us”, or even “Why do they hate us so much?” No, all the anger was focused on our politicians. They were the ones being berated for having betrayed us; being attacked for having let us all down. They were the ones being flayed for allowing this to happen.
At a certain level, this response was understandable. In times of crises, when we feel helpless, we tend to turn on authority figures whose job it is to protect us. And certainly, there is no doubt that the politicians did fail. What was alarming was the way this outrage was expressed: in terms of civil disobedience with people threatening not to vote, not to pay their taxes. As everyone from Page Three celebrities to movie stars lined up in front of TV cameras to have their say, one thing rapidly became clear. Our reaction to a terror strike was to hit back hard — not at the shadowy perpetrators of this massacre but at the politicians who we blame for having turned India into a soft State.
As I watched these images being played out on the TV screen, I flashed back to the last time people were out on the streets in a similar manner, protesting a terrorist strike against India. The year was 1999 and terrorists had hijacked an Indian Airlines plane — IC 814 — and flew it to Kandahar in Afghanistan. They demanded the release of some of their fellow murderers languishing in Indian jails in exchange for the lives of the passengers.
How do you think the government responded? Did it refuse pointblank to engage with the hijackers? Did it refuse to allow its citizens’ lives to be used as currency by the terrorists? Did it announce that India would never negotiate with terrorists or give in to their demands?
Of course, it didn't. And we all know why. It was because the people were out on the streets demanding that the government give in to these demands. We all remember the scenes of sheer hysteria played out in the media. Relatives of the hostages weeping outside Race Course Road, shrilly demanding that their loved ones be brought back no matter what the price, their pleas and anger magnified by the news channels that provided them the oxygen of publicity round the clock.
The government of the day capitulated to the pressure of its people and the then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh flew out to Kandahar with three terrorists who were released in exchange for the hostages. Since then, one of the released terrorists, Maulana Masood Azhar, is back fomenting hatred against India in his jihadist-recruitment speeches. And another, Omar Sheikh was later implicated in the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
In retrospect, the decision to release these terrorists shames us all. But can we repudiate our own culpability in this shameful episode? At no point did we, the people of India, ever tell our government in unequivocal terms: do not give in to these terrorists. Never ever did we tell our government to take a tough stand.
Yes, India has exposed itself as a soft State where dealing with terrorists is concerned. And the politicians must take the blame for that. But we the people must bear some measure of responsibility for having helped create this soft State. Let's not forget that at the end of the day, a government is only as strong as its people.