Dec 13, 2008

Columnists - Barkha Dutt;Building blocks

In many ways, for India, this week has felt like the morning after someone you love suddenly dies or goes away. You wake up feeling like you must have dreamt it; then you reach out to realise the person really isn’t there and then begins the struggle with the disbelief, anger, fear, sadness and horrible sense of injustice. Why me, you ask the version of God you believe in. Just as India is demanding to know: why us?

In some ways, we do know why they hate us. Our multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation-State defies the petty logic of any dogma. In our very existence, we virtually dare fanatics who define themselves by narrow identities. We are held together as a nation-State by profound political and cultural intangibles (our democracy, our music our cricket, our love for chaos and opinion) that are befuddling to those who make a living out of manufacturing enemies. No wonder then that we believe it wasn’t just the Chhtrapati Shivaji Terminus or the Taj and Oberoi hotels that were attacked. This was an invasion of the idea of India.

We know that we will brush the dust off our knees, jump up and walk again. We are determined to not let our self-image as a nation take more than a minor knock. If anything, we believe this will only make us stronger. But — and this is the difficult part — it must make us better too. All of us have learnt important and difficult lessons this past week.
These could well be our new ten commandments:

* Politician-bashing may be emotive, but is often over-simplistic and incorrect. Yes, in many ways public anger pushed the political establishment into action and apologies. If the rage had not been as raw as it was, perhaps we would have still been having futile debates over whether we need a new Home Minister. Perhaps Parliament would not have come together to speak in a splendidly unified voice, had it not been acutely conscious of the public gaze. To that end, the anger served a cause. But, as the turn-outs in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan Assembly polls have shown, people are still deeply invested in the political system. And that’s how it should be. We have a right to demand accountability from our netas, but not if we refuse to be stakeholders ourselves.

* Let us respect our soldiers. Not just by sending in passionate text messages to scroll under the next TV debate on the state of the Army, but in real ways — in how we treat them, pay them and reward them. There is something schizophrenic about a country that routinely votes for the Indian soldier as its most-favoured hero, but where the military is battling to make the numbers add up. Our regard needs to go beyond sentiment. The state of snow shoes, night-vision devices, bullet-proof vests and the lack of dedicated aircraft can no longer be the subject of ex-post facto analysis.

* Stop the blame game. One of the most heartening things that happened in Parliament this week was that the Prime Minister and the Home Minister both said sorry. An apology will not dent the sense of loss, but it is a welcome beginning. Others should take the cue. We don’t want to see our armed forces and intelligence agencies at public war. If there has been an official admission of a “systemic collapse” which one of them will be brave enough to stand up first and take responsibility?

* Make our investigations transparent and fair. It infuriates us when Pakistan’s politicians question the legitimacy of the evidence. The world recognises how entrenched groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba have become in sections of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus. But when they point fingers at how we conducted the probe into the Samjhuata Express blasts (in which scores of Pakistani citizens died) how should we respond? We began by pointing a finger across the border. But, two weeks ago, investigators were suggesting that it could be an inside job (the Sadhvi and the Colonel). Such contradictions only weaken our own case.

* Never politicise terror again. It is playing with a fire that will definitely devour us all. We are not interested in politics that bats for the majority or appeases the minority. Due process of law should settle investigations; not politicians.

* Build a brand-new interface between the media and the State. Clearly, these terror attacks caught both sides unprepared. Let us learn from that. If operational sensitivities during a terrorist encounter need a 20-minute delay in telecasting, let’s put that down as an emergency code we can all agree on.

* Let’s watch what we say. In an age of 24-hour news and the unfettered Internet, words are weapons. And sometimes, they can unwittingly become weapons of mass destruction. So before we exhort our country into war, make sweeping statements on “carpet bombing” another nation, target another religion or look for passionate and pithy slogans that will collate our grief and anger, let’s just pause, and think. We may just need a brand new vocabulary.

* Value the middle ground. It is where sanity resides. In the past week, Pakistan-bashers and peaceniks alike have been angry at the public discourse. One sides finds it too inflammatory, the other too weak-kneed. Truth is, the age of extremes is over.

* Cherish our democracy. Dangerous murmurs have begun over how India needs to be like Singapore or China. India needs to be like India, only better. Our vote is our most powerful weapon. Let’s use it more and more.

* Do more than be angry: In the past week, our anger has shown shadows of hate, malice and religious prejudice. If we allow this to multiply, we would have lost before the fight has even begun.

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

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