Dec 15, 2008

India - No time for revenge

Kalpana Sharma

Ever since the terrifying terror strike in Mumbai on November 26, many of us have strained hard to find some voices advocating peace. The overwhelming chant is one demanding war and revenge. It is reminiscent of other times, in other places. In the United States post 9/11. And an echo of that is heard in the India of today.

But after 9/11, there were also strong, public, prominent voices calling for peace, for sanity, for restraint. Some of these individuals were pilloried for flowing against the tide. Yet, they stuck to their convictions. Many of those who spoke out were women.

Robin Morgan, an award-winning American feminist writer wrote in the days after the terror strike, about the mood in New York. “The petitions have begun. For justice but not vengeance. For a reasoned response but against escalating retaliatory violence. For vigilance about civil liberties. For the rights of innocent Muslim Americans. For ‘bombing’ Afghanistan with food and medical parcels, NOT firepower.” She urged people to write to newspapers, use the Internet to talk about the root causes of terrorism. “Ours are complex messages with long-term solutions — and this is a moment when people yearn for simplicity and short-term, facile answers.”

Manufacturing consent

In India too, we have seen how our media forces facile answers. You are compelled to answer “yes” or “no” to questions that have pre-determined answers. You are asked to express “in 30 seconds” why you believe it would be wrong to provoke a confrontation with Pakistan. Then, what you say is misinterpreted and before you can respond, the subject is changed.

As a result, we have been inundated with expressions of aggression, often born out of ignorance. We are being forced to listen to opinions of people who have rarely engaged with issues that confront Indian society outside such times. And we are being informed that the “mood” of people is for “decisive action” to deal with terror. If there are voices saying something different, they are either not heard, or cut short.

Real security

Much of this is the media attempting to manufacture consent. Much of it is limited to the urban middle and upper classes. Proof of this has already been evident in the results of elections in five States where the party that used the “terror” message did not sweep the polls as expected. In rural India, the issue that remains the most relevant is development — sadak, bijli, paani. This is what security means to the ordinary woman and man, not war with Pakistan, not rule by the military, not stronger anti-terror laws, all of which are being demanded by some people in our cities.

Also, while there are voices seeking better governance, better intelligence, better training and equipment for the police, few are speaking out for better relations with Pakistan. Yet, with the backing of civil society groups on both sides of the border, India and Pakistan have made great strides in taking small but important steps to improve relations. The Mumbai terror strike appears to have wiped all this out.

One of the most important voices to be heard after 9/11 in the U.S. was that of Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Speaking in the House of Representatives on September 14, just three days after the attack, against the Use-of-Force resolution, she said, “We are not dealing with a conventional war. We cannot respond in a conventional manner. I do not want to see this spiral out of control. This crisis involves issues of national security, foreign policy, public safety, intelligence gathering, economics and murder. Our response must be equally multi-faceted…We must not rush to judgment. Far too many innocent people have already died. Our country is in mourning. If we rush to launch a counter-attack, we run too great a risk that women, children, and other non-combatants will be caught in the crossfire.” Barbara Lee’s message was not heeded by the Bush administration and the world has had to pay the price for the “war on terror” that was unleashed after 9/11. It is a price that is still being paid.

Fortunately, so far our government has chosen the path of diplomacy. But how easy it is to drum up war hysteria was evident in the days following the terror attack in Mumbai.

Yet, this is a time when people in this country have to be constantly reminded that in both India and Pakistan there is a significant constituency for peace. These voices often get drowned out but they do not give up.

We must also remember that Pakistan has a democratically elected government after years of military rule; that it has a vibrant media that functions without direct State control; and that it has an active civil society that is involved in issues not very different from those we are tackling in this country — poverty, illiteracy, environmental degradation, women’s status, child mortality, water, sanitation, urbanisation etc. Pakistan also faces sectarian violence. It has also experienced terror attacks in recent years where scores of innocent people have died.

Time to speak up

I realise that at a time when everyone is baying for Pakistan’s blood, demanding that it act against the terrorists on its soil, these are not sentiments that people want to hear. But it is precisely the reason that those of us with a different sensibility must speak out and be heard. Perhaps our voices will not be heeded. But by being silent in the face of hyper-nationalism and aggression, we will be ceding ground to those who care nothing about the price of war.

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