Even as the Mumbai terror saga has slowly started to come to an end with the closing down by force of the sieges by terrorists at major hotels such as the Taj and the Oberoi Trident and at Nariman House, reactions to the horror have started registering in the media from civil society (well..if one could call spiel by advertisors, cine-actors and others such as that). And apart from the understandable anger at the failure of intelligence agencies, government and law enforcement to anticipate an attack of this scale, calls have been made for stricter laws, restriction of rights, and for an "appropriate" and hostile response to the neighbouring country, Pakistan - which is seen as the wellspring of all this horror.
While there is no question that in the immediate steps must be taken to strengthen intelligence gathering, co-ordination and to prepare responses for such horrific contingencies, the other "recommendations" which pertain to curtailing of rights and the talk of silencing the critique of law agencies' misuse of power are very much misplaced.
Let us assume that the current theory of terrorists being trained in Pakistan and sent across to Mumbai is indeed true. The apt and proper response of the Indian government is to co-ordinate with the Pakistani establishment to take prompt and palpable action against elements in both their security apparatus as well as their polity which have nurtured ties and links with the radical terrorist groups. Pakistan has also seen the brunt of terrorist violence and continuing impact of radical jihadi groups in the country. By exerting pressure on the Pakistani government to act tough and decisively against the rotten elements of their security setup as well as other non-state actors through international co-ordination and dialogue, the Indian government can help prevent a situation where any jingoism will only strengthen the hands of the very same elements that the government wishes to be curbed and eliminated. As I write this, I hear that the ISI head from Pakistan has been summoned by the Indian prime minister and thats good news in the sense that they are striking a right note about what is to be done about engaging the Pakistani establishment (democratically elected, it must be said) to act on radical terrorist elements ensconced in the country.
Domestically, such crisis and horrific terror moments are used as levers to establish stringent laws, which more often than not - owing to the nature of the predominant right-wing polity- are misused to wreak havoc on innocents. Examples such as the Hyderabad detentions and torture and other incidents of misuse of draconian acts such as POTA and TADA are there for all to see. One can actually make a case that such misuse and branding of innocents have resulted in further alienation and indignation, creating even more a fertile ground for breeding terror within India. Vis-a-vis the acts of law and provision of justice, investigation and punishment (if necessary) must be based on fairness and the pursuit of truth. There are enough instruments that a state can use without recourse to violence and prejudice to adjudigate guilt and there requires no suspension of rights of those who are accused of guilt.
The solution lies therefore in handling the situation not only from a security ground but also on political grounds. The Indian government should have to re-assert that the civil conduct of affairs, rule of law, secular governance and amity among communities will be the order of the day. Beyond symbolism, agencies of the Indian state should ensure that it would work toward removing any grievance that may exist among disgruntled sections among whom seeds of radicalism are sown.
That would mean that all prior acts of violence perpetrated and all pending acts of delivering justice such as those still left to implement - the Srikrishna Commission's findings, the Gujarat Pogrom cases should be pursued with alacrity and determination. This should be done side-by-side with investigations into the multiple bomb blasts that have wrecked the nation in the past few months.
More than that, there is also the need for a political response to the menace of radical terror. The nature of such a political response has to be oriented toward the goal of inclusion and rejection of the notion of the 'other' that seems to have permeated the consciousness of the ordinary citizen due to the relentless driving of the communal agenda by various political outfits which include the Sangh Parivar. Mere lip-service to secularism and rejection of a broad political agenda of progressivism is the response that the mainstream polity has offered to counter the threat of communalism. Of what use is the slogan of secularism, if the issuers of that slogan are corrupt and have sold their souls at the altar of opportunism? For example, the Congress can go about bandying its commitment to secularism, but their pandering to big capital at the cost of the poor or continuing poor administration will not help in defeating communalism.
A political battle against terrorism is one for the long haul. It is centered on the notion of "inclusion", dedicated to defeating the stigma of marginalisation and is situated in the edifices of the modern welfare state. This means that all alienated minorities, marginalised identities are provided not just representation but rights and dignity; valued as contributing citizens in society. This requires dedicated action in addressing the problems of poverty, skewed development, and inequality irrespective of community, by an increased role of the state in this endeavour. In essence the fertile grounds for breeding terror are made barren.
I had written two and a half years ago, that the best way of fighting terror was to focus on two strategies- one for the short term and the immediate and one for the long term - both at the same time. The short term strategy involved preparation for prevention and the long term involved destruction of the structures that gave grounds for terror as a means of registering protest. Neither of them have happened in the years gone by since I wrote about it.
In the past two years, by openly praising and seeking the strategic friendship of fiends such as George W. Bush, the Indian central government has invited the antipathy of many a citizen (including those from the minority community) against it. By refusing to prosecute those adjudged guity in the Bombay riots cases via the Srikrishna commission, the Maharashtra government has help nurture the grounds of even more discontent and anger against the partial law enforcement of the state. Despite much improvement in relations with neighbouring countries, there has been no attempt to demand from the Pakistan government, a commitment to act upon the promises to eradicate dangerous radicalism, through concerted engagement with the Pakistani civil society and the establishment. In India, meanwhile the communal opposition has kept up the festering politics of exclusion and exclusivism.
Intelligence gathering, policing and security co-ordination still lies in tatters. What has changed so much that such an attack could not have happened again? Nothing much and the attack did happen.
There is only the sincere hope that we as a secular society will have the gumption to act now.