Nov 29, 2008

Columnists - Nandan Nilekani;Aganist fear

I have never felt unsafe in an Indian city, including Mumbai, despite its traumatic past. It may have something to do with our democracy – as citizens, we feel despite such unrest, that we have a semblance of control over the systems that govern and protect us. But as I watched the live feed on Mumbai’s carnage on television, I considered how fragile this sense of control and security can be. And once citizens lose this collective faith that they have some power and that they are secure, the demand for change is resounding.

The consequences of this were immediately clear – political calculations were fast-changing in the glare of the television cameras and in the hours of the standoff. Several states are up for elections, and most of the ads I witnessed as I recently travelled about the country centred on inflation or spiralling costs – one opposition ad was a cartoon that showed the state government playing the flute while the ‘snake of inflation’ rose and danced. I guess that after this week, these ads have lost a bit of their sting. The focus has turned dramatically to security.

What does that mean for us? In the past seventy-two hours, we witnessed an event that has transformed the psyche of a nation. Since the bomb blasts that ripped through our cities and towns three months ago, there have been familiar remarks of how stoic our urban citizens are – echoes of comments Mumbaikars received after the train explosions in July 2006 and the bomb blasts in 1993.

Again, as the day waned and the situation began to stabilise, there were comments on our ability to move past disaster, and how people would simply pick up the pieces and go on with their lives. But this time around, these statements have a hollow feel – we have been struck so many times that one must eventually wonder if what we see in the aftermath is stoicism or helplessness.

Unfortunately though, the actions governments take during times of fear are often not ideal ones. Indian politicians have since the blasts in July, mostly debated bringing back draconian laws resembling the repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. The BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu noted that ‘an extraordinary situation needs an extraordinary law,’ an opinion that the UPA government has come around to holding themselves. This recent attack will likely speed the passage of such a law.

We’ve seen the impact such laws can have in the US and Britain, following the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war. Massive powers of detention and interrogation that such laws allow cast the net too far and wide – what you end up with is a disproportionate amount of false positives and captured innocents, which muddies the efforts against terrorism. The record of POTA and TADA in India has been dismal – they have been used to target particular communities, and as tools for revenge. The violations of human rights that result are unacceptable. These laws become all the more dangerous when we consider the terrorists who led the recent bombings. These were not easily identifiable men. They looked like us— like any of the millions of young men in our cities, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, yuppie-like down to their hair-cuts and their glasses. And such laws make democracies less so, and by hurting innocent civilians, serve as powerful recruiting tools for terrorists.

There is no question that we face dangerous times, and our governments are going to react in ways that will demonstrate to the public, concrete action and strict enforcement. Our impulses will be to strike back with force, and with hard, draconian measures. But our weaknesses unfortunately, lie not in the lack of a terrorism law, but within the core of our institutions – our police forces, the effectiveness of our intelligence agencies, the surveillance work we carry out. Since the 1970s, all these once reputable institutions have become deeply politicised, to the point that they have not been allowed to work without interference. Today, the frozen systems of our judiciary ensure that nearly half a million people are languishing in our jails without trials. Our cities are weak and ineffectual, unable to deal with any crisis. Unfortunately, given our talent for workarounds, these are issues that governments will shy away from. But without facing these challenges boldly, the prevention of terror attacks will be elusive, and we will continue to be vulnerable.

Calm – that emotion that seems so distant and unnecessary in such moments of crisis, will be critical to get us through this difficult time. The danger of thoughtless retaliation comes not just from our governments, but also from our citizens. Our country has large numbers of minority religious communities, and there will be enough demagogues eager to whip up anger against convenient targets. We can choose at this critical moment to let divides like religion dominate and frighten us, sidelining our real concerns, or we can adopt the reforms and policy ideas we need to win the battle against militants. Terrorism is fundamentally about igniting terror – about overwhelming us with fear. We have to resist this fear rather than be subjugated by it

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