Terrorism in India: Democratic Dilemmas

(Paper presented at a conference in Israel in 2008)

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?”–Mahatma Gandhi.
The following litany of death covers major incidents in the last decade in India–
14-02-1998 Coimbatore (South India) –46 dead
01-10-2001 Jammu-Kashmir Legislative Assembly –35 dead
13-12-2001 Parliament of India, Delhi –06 dead
24-09-2002 Akshardham Temple, Gujarat –31 dead
14-05-2003 Army Camp, Jammu –30 dead
25-08-2003 Bombay (Car Bombs) –52 dead
(This was the culmination of a series of 5 incidents in 8 months in Bombay)
15-08-2004 Assam (East India) –16 dead
05-07-2005 Ayodhya (Ram’s Birthplace) –03 dead
29-10-2005 Delhi (Serial Blasts) –70 dead
07-03-2006 Benaras –21 dead
11-07-2006 Bombay (Train Blasts) –200 dead
08-09-2006 Malegaon (Central India) –37 dead
18-05-2007 Hyderabad (South India) –13 dead
Myriad other sporadic incidents complete a picture of insane violence to the Indian Nation, the raison d’etre of which is not quite clear even to the perpetrators! Yet, almost since its independence on August 15, 1947, India has been assailed by attacks internal and external: without any provocation. Communal riots, caste conflicts, linguistic confrontations–a whole gamut of flashpoints have unleashed violence in a nation largely inhabited by a serendipitous people. Even a cursory examination of any of these incidents reveals a sinister design. Further investigations have routinely pointed at cold-blooded planning by certain vested interests.
The Indian democracy has a wide pluralistic base and robust, impartial electoral machinery. The majority Hindu community is itself a variegated tapestry of ethnicities, languages, lifestyles. Pluralism is its ethos. Due to Hinduism’s magnanimous acceptance of influences, initial forays by Arab adventurers were met with sangfroid bordering on welcome by some petit princes. When a sizeable chunk of Hindus converted to Islam due to fear or inducement, the reaction was strange. The converts were declared untouchable outcastes like many other communities which had been pushed away due to some misdemeanor or other. These pre-Islamic outcastes had never left Hinduism, so it was unfathomable to Hindus that the converts would declare separation. However, a counterpoint was marked in the Indian reality when Islam took root as a culture which looked back at Semitic history rather than Indian past. Those who had taken up this new identity however, were pulled between known lifestyles and unknown rituals. Over the years, this dilemma bred a huge population of confused and irritable people who were as Indian as any Hindu but were reluctant to identify.
The choice of governing India as a democratic republic with a federal nuance but a unitary bias was a deliberate one. Our Constituent Assembly enshrined all liberal democratic values in our Constitution with enough provisos to implement them. This should have assured all of India about peoples’ rights and duties. The Constitution reads like the blueprint of an ideal State. However, internecine squabbles instigated by unfriendly neighbors and global interests marred this perfect plan. There is no region of India untouched by some division or other. Many a times these little differences took a serious turn and resulted in major loss of life. Yet these affected merely the interlocutors. The ordinary citizen was largely unaffected.
This changed in the mid-nineties. All of a sudden hapless commuters were blasted with sophisticated bombs by people who wanted to establish the supremacy of one faith. There was no clear adversary to these ‘religious warriors’. They were angry: and that was that. The generally nonchalant nation was taken aback. There weren’t even apt laws to combat. Some stringent anti-terrorist laws were framed, only to be withdrawn later. India must be the only nation to have repealed anti-terror laws!
What were the compulsions? The compulsions were that of democracy.
“Democracy is good. I say this because other systems are worse.”–Nehru
Mr. George W. Bush feels that democracy will awaken the Middle East to its global responsibility. Democratic Indonesia and Malaysia have rabid Islamist sections that dared not raise their head during previous autocracies. Similarly, as Farid Zakaria pointed out, 20 years of the iron rule of Lee Kuan Yu made the multi-cultural society in Singapore one of the world’s most developed nations.
In India, democracy translates into vote-politics. The all-powerful Parliament is chosen by direct single ballot in which every sane Indian above 18 years may participate. This is irrespective of caste, creed, race, gender or faith. The wily ways of Indian politics have created what is known as ‘vote-banks’. These are cliques arranged according to caste or religion. They wield power proportionate to their numerical strength. The political parties may ignore them at their own risk. In fact some regional political parties represent these parochial interests and have no influence beyond their chosen community.
The Hindus thus, have been portioned according to caste and are no influence as a single religious group. The Moslems (though they have carried the vestiges of caste), are a unified interest-group who vote assiduously and with great deliberation. They are usually guided by their religious leaders in matters political as well as spiritual. This brings us to the dilemma of democracy.
Not all Moslems are terrorists or their sympathizers, but Jihad is a holy duty and the same clergy who inspires the believers to fight for Ummat holds the key to the Moslem ‘vote-bank’. Which politician worth her salt will dare cross them?
As a result anti-terror laws perceived as anti-Moslem are repealed by a ‘secular’ government while democracies like USA frame the Patriot Act. Death sentence to the mastermind behind the Parliament attack is discussed threadbare in the human-rights-champion press and the liberal verdict on it is that in the interest of ‘secularism’ the convict must get reprieve. Neutralizing terrorists in action lands the police in embarrassing post-facto probes and reprimands.
In such a situation, a large section of the population, the second-largest in fact, has to be treated with kid-gloves. Every terrorist act is followed by a great uproar in the media. The police have vindicated themselves very well in every instance by nabbing the perpetrators. Woe betides the investigators if they try to unravel the web of harbourers and sympathizers! The whole bevy of liberal media and ‘secular’ wannabes pounce on the system and scare it to a grinding halt.
“The spirit of democracy cannot be established in the midst of terrorism, whether governmental or popular.”–Mahatma Gandhi.
The very spirit of democracy is throttled in such a situation. Any opposition to groups harboring or encouraging terrorism is labeled sectarianism. All attempts to identify the roots of terror are decried. Most nationalist groups face systemic persecution for demanding respect for the sovereignty of India.
A methodical misrepresentation of the Indian situation is afoot. It reflects in western media and intellectual deliberations. What needs to be done is to allow a debate on how the democratic process is manipulated by vested interests and the lack of political will is an advantage to merchants of death.
Yet, India shall pull itself out. It has no history of aggression and through time immemorial it has a global presence through spirituality and trade. Some sober thought has to be given to these dilemmas by nations in similar straits and a way must be found out.
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall–think of it, ALWAYS.”–Mahatma Gandhi.

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