Nov 15, 2008

Columnists - Barkha Dutt;No place to hide (G.Read)

They say that some things are too strange to be anything else but real. So we can all debate whether it is life that is imitating art or the other way around, but the elaborate and intricate set of revelations that trail every terror attack in India leave one breathless.

This time, we are being told, that a woman ascetic on a motorcycle collaborated with a serving Army officer and possibly a mahant from Jammu, to set off retributive bombs in Maharashtra. Not just that; the police now say they may have had a role to play in the bombs that went off on the Samjhauta Express and killed 66 Indians and Pakistanis on the Lahore-bound train. In 2007, when the peace train was attacked, security analysts had blamed terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. These new allegations, if proven, will not just be embarrassing diplomatically (can’t you just see the headlines across the border?); they will challenge our very sense of self as a nation.

But will we ever really get to know the truth? Or will this investigation also get entrapped in a maze of incomprehensible detail and then inevitably fade from public focus? Will competitive politics yet again obscure the facts and leave us only with contradictory rhetoric? If the Jamia Nagar encounter — that apparently killed the men responsible for all the serial blasts last year — was devoured by the politics of denial within the UPA, the Malegaon whodunit has sections of the NDA apoplectic. And isn’t it serendipitous how the protests in either case tie in perfectly with the vote banks our politicians imagine are being targeted? So, depending on your point of view, or rather, your brand of politics, questioning the police in one case is a travesty and in the other, entirely legitimate. The rest of us — cynical and bewildered — no longer know what to believe or question. In our understanding of India, everything is just as likely true as it is false.

Perhaps, even more disturbing, than the new and easy religious tagging of terror, is the implication of a soldier in the case. We can believe that the military is capable of excesses, even brutality and violations, especially while serving in conflict zones. But never before has there even been a hint of shadow on its innate secularism. The word itself — secularism — may have become disputed, politicised, ambiguous and impossible to define. But in its most common sense and simple application, the fauj is secular. It’s the reason why when communal clashes go out of control, India often turns to the army to restore sanity. The charges against Lt. Colonel Purohit go against the very grain of what the army stands for. So, if the army believes he is innocent, it should be aggressive and unabashed in his defence. And if it believe the allegations are true, it should swiftly make an example of him. In this case, it’s tough to understand the Army’s reticence and its unwillingness go beyond public assurances of cooperating with the investigations, while privately seething. If the army has a point of view, it needs to express it without fear or favour. Because, the scary suggestion that the lines between nationalism and terrorism may have blurred, even in a single, isolated incident, is enough reason for a pluralist country to worry about itself.

In fact, I don’t want to sound like a dreary doomsday type, but these are really depressing times. Terrorism tails us like a shadow and whether you label it ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’, the truth is that either way the enemy now lies within. Our most cosmopolitan city is diminishing in both spirit and spunk and is suddenly debating whether it has room for ‘outsiders.’ We can get all worked up over a racist slur about Sikhs made by a BBC radio host in Britain. But at least Sam Mason was sacked for suggesting that a turbaned taxi driver would frighten her daughter. That’s more action than we have managed to take against Raj Thackeray who has led the violent hate campaign against north Indian migrant workers. It would have been much simpler if one were able to dismiss his party as the loony fringe. But you can’t do that anymore because the sad truth is that whether it’s the Congress, the Shiv Sena or the NCP, there isn’t a politician in Maharashtra who has a fundamentally different position on the ‘Marathi first’ motto. The old political distinctions between centrist and right-wing have come to mean less and less.

Our Christian minorities have been under attack and foreign Heads of State get to question us about them. But our government can’t take a clear position on groups like the Bajrang Dal that openly perpetuate violence, because that would first require it to take a clear position on fundamentalist outfits like Students Islamic Movement of India. And that it can’t or won’t do because of the arithmetic of political survival. Naxal violence is now an everyday fact that unfolds far away from a disinterested media. If that weren’t enough, our MPs in Tamil Nadu are openly championing the cause of the LTTE, which assassinated the leader of the party they are now in alliance with. And finally, you can’t hide any of this behind the great growth story anymore. The global recession has hit where it hurts and the great economic boom can no longer disguise or soothe our other wounds.

It’s fashionable to say that India’s evolving democracy has emerged out of its chaos and thrives on it as well. Maybe so, but the fissures pulling at our faultlines these days go well beyond benign confusion. Perhaps like the Sensex, this is a cycle in which the good times will return. But for now, there is a simmering anger just beneath the surface that could crack us open. If we don’t watch it, India could implode.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

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