Rage and Outrage Amid Political Modernism

The reaction of the mainstream media in India to the mayhem in Bombay was Pavlovian: if there were explosions and innocent victims, then it must be Islamist ‘terrorism’ at the behest of Pakistan. One after the other, every anchorperson of the 24/7 television news channels chanted, This is our 9/11!

Celebrity talk-show host and former actress Simi Garewal was the shrillest of all. The lady-in-white urged her government to learn from the US and “carpet bomb” specific targets in Pakistan. She was not alone in such pronouncements, and was actually echoing sentiments of a significant segment of affluent Indians.

The response of the intelligentsia was no less predictable. It offered clichéd explanations about the perils of a soft state, the consequences of intelligence failure and the general incompetence of the government in handling crises. In an illustrative statement of deliberate obfuscation couched in political correctness, Mujibur Rehman, a political scientist at the Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, told Time magazine, “Deep down, there is this pervasive feeling of massive government failure”. Talking heads and op-ed writers too had little else to offer as to why a few jeans-clad youngsters had decided to mow down innocent civilians and then face certain death.

Some conscientious commentators pretended to take refuge in vocal reflections tinged with self-reproach. Pankaj Mishra linked the deeds of the Bombay gunmen to the half-century-old conflict in Kashmir, ruing suggestively in the New York Times, “Fresh blood from an old wound”. Attempts were even made to link the carnage with the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Overall, the discontent of India’s nearly 150 million Muslims was the preferred explanation of many public intellectuals.

Separately, it is difficult to find much fault with any single of these responses. Instantaneous reaction on the part of the media was partly based on past experience. It is impossible to rule out direct or indirect involvement of at least a section of the Pakistani security apparatus in fomenting communal clashes in India. The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 signified the end of the original idea of Pakistan, the homeland of ‘Indian’ Muslims; and unless democracy takes root in Pakistani society, its security agencies will never feel confident enough to work with India as equals in an evolving community of South Asians.

Since the Babri Masjid demolition on 6 December 1992, and Narendra Modi’s 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, Muslims have every reason to doubt the efficacy of the Indian state. Raj Thackeray’s hatemongering has made North Indian settlers and workers in Bombay skeptical about the intentions and ability of the Maharashtra government to protect the country’s minorities. Kashmir continues to be an explosive issue. The penetration of Hindu communalism in the ranks of the Indian security agencies is an alarming phenomenon.

Intellectuals of South Asia need to grapple with these shared concerns with a sense of urgency. But put together, these interpretations fail to explain the audacious nature of the random killings and prolonged siege of prominent sites in Bombay.

The interpreters may have completely missed – or partially misread – the message. But for those at whom the ‘propaganda of the deed’ was intended, there was no mistaking the significance of the attacks of the Taj and Oberoi hotels. VT station, renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus by Maratha chauvinists, was probably attacked for its high impact in spreading terror among the masses. But all other ‘high value’ and ‘recognizable visibility’ targets were occupied to convey an unambiguous message: India’s comfortable classes were no longer safe in their walled hideouts, fortified villas, gated communities and guarded towers. Arms, ammunition and a determination to die are as great an equalizer as death itself, and the rich and powerful will have to learn to live with that reality in a region marred by poverty, discrimination, inequality and helplessness.

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PLUs versus TRUs

That prosperous class certainly lost no time in reacting to the attacks in Bombay. In the immediate aftermath, investment bankers, corporate lawyers and professional managers took the unprecedented step of filing a public-interest lawsuit, charging that the state government had failed to protect citizens’ right to life and demanding that the state modernize and upgrade its security forces. Socialites took part in rallies, extolling the virtues of the private sector and going so far as to call for a full police state.

Some of the middle class, meanwhile, resorted to social networking sites on the Internet to mobilize public opinion against the usual suspects: politicians. An odious text message that did the rounds among ‘PLUs’ (People Like Us) read: Do not worry about those who have come thru boats…

Our forces can easily defeat them.

WORRY about those who have come thru votes…

Those are our REAL ENEMIES…

Stridency against democracy at candlelight vigils across India enraged one Hindustani to such a degree that he posted his outbursts, eliciting appreciative comments from equally offended TRU (The Rest of Us) surfers:

Load shedding commenced.

Couldn’t get candles at the shop.

Buggers, they bought away all candles.

Said they would wage war against terror.

War against terror!

Mai phoot.

The results of the recent state assembly elections in India have shown that the TRUs have not read the same message from the Bombay mayhem as the PLUs. For the former, the series of seven train blasts in July 2006 in Bombay were more shocking, and the daring attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 was more portentous – had it been successful, in terms of loss of life of legislators, catastrophic war between India and Pakistan would have been the result.

The PLUs, meanwhile, have been largely spared from the after-effects of these and other violent acts that routinely terrorize the people of Kashmir, residents of volatile states in the Indian northeast, and almost everyone in areas of central and eastern India where Naxalites are active. Not to mention the hapless people of Pakistan, victimized by militant, state and foreign aggression. Now, the PLUs have suddenly discovered that they too are as vulnerable as the rest of us in South Asia. The massive bomb blast that gutted the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September delivered a similar message to the Pakistani elite.

The insurgencies in Kashmir and wars for autonomy in the Indian northeast have certain predictability. The primary targets are security forces, and the rich can always buy their way out of the trouble. Naxalites and Maoists stay clear of those who can afford to pay ‘voluntary donations’, a banal euphemism for ransom. The Kathmandu elite, for example, got away scot-free during the decade of ‘people’s war’. Similarly, the LTTE in Sri Lanka has deliberately kept businesses and professionals out of the ethnic conflict.

But what has happened to the Marriott in Islamabad and the Taj and Oberoi in Bombay says the same thing to anyone willing to listen: religious extremism is class warfare by other means. The religious elite, fearful of losing its hold over the plebeians, may well be commanding these ‘holy’ wars; but the foot-soldiers waging the battle are invariably those who have been trampled upon by the march of modernization.

Unwitting victims of the Western world’s ‘Project Modernity’ in South Asia are seething with anger. Jihad and Hindutva have given them a cause for which to both kill and die. Little wonder, then, that the comfortable classes of the subcontinent are increasingly afraid, and why, before long, one may even expect collaboration across the Pakistan-India divide, a South Asian ‘coalition of the willing’.

The PLUs filing a court case against the government in Bombay are chasing shadows. Demanding a garrison state – if any such thing could actually be built in populated and bewilderingly heterogeneous India – cannot ensure protection against future acts of terror. In the short term, instituting coping mechanisms is the only option available to the nation states and societies of this region. South Asia’s states need to set up integrated relief and rescue teams that can swing into action immediately. Media management during rescue operations is important to control the frenzy that instantaneous view-porting – the thing that TV reporters do instead of journalism – can create in the immediate aftermath of acts of terror. The success of ‘propaganda of the deed’ lies in creating a sense of helplessness and impotent anger among the population. Populism is another urge that needs to be resisted. Kavita Karkare, widow of slain police officer and Bombay Anti-Terror Squad Chief (ATS) Hemant Karkare, showed exemplary restraint by refusing the offer of help from someone like Narendra Modi. She has gone a step further by promising to connect with families of victims. This kind of interaction is perhaps more important than inflammatory campaigns over martyrdom of public officials killed in the line of duty.

Unfortunately, there are few people in South Asia today with the moral stature of Gandhi, who could go on a fast to cleanse the instantaneous rush of negative energy – rage and revenge – that inevitably rises in the collective bloodstream of society in the wake of any act of terror. But it may still be possible to conduct interfaith meetings to condemn heinous crimes rather than vilify criminals and begin looking for ways of settling scores.

Mechanisms for information-sharing, closer scrutiny of Non-state Multinational Criminals (NMCs) and increasing the efficiency of policing agencies are some of the steps that governments routinely emphasize in the aftermath of every attack. Those are the things that governments are expected to do even otherwise. In that sense, the Bombay bourgeoisie was correct in criticizing politicians. But at least some of them should have censured themselves too. The bureaucracy is no less to blame for the chalta hai (anything goes) approach that pervades the government machinery. Any government that is unable to keep petty crime and general lawlessness under control certainly cannot develop the capability to counter bigger challenges, such as communal clashes and acts of terror.

Over the longer period, South Asia has to devise a sustainable substitute for the ideology of growth and development to build a better and more tolerant society. After the publication of a report about the finite resources of the planet by the Club of Rome in 1972, the concept of ‘limits to growth’ became a fashionable chant without anyone really understanding its implications.

When the growth machine begins to expand, it needs more of everything – more energy, more water, more earth, more air and more sky – to meet the greed of a few which then can only be assured by continuing to deny the needs of many. The answer perhaps lies in what Gandhi called self-restraint, the idea of renunciation and innovation. There is no other way to prepare for a post-petroleum future of humanity.

It is not known whether Gandhi ignored the idea of development on purpose – he rarely used the term – but he pointed out the consequences of pursuing mindless growth: if the whole world were to ape the lifestyle of the West, the rest of the world would require the resources of many more new planets. Since that hardly looks possible in the foreseeable future, more growth inevitably implies more marginalization, resentment, frustration and rage.

Growth and development in ‘poor countries’ are being peddled as precautions against future acts of terror. Flawed as this strategy may be, it is infinitely better than the infantile idea of ‘war against terror’. At the same time, concerted efforts have to be made to mainstream the marginalized. Ultimately, new ideas, and ideologies, will have to be developed to meet unpredictable challenges of the future.

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In search of harmony

Sophisticated machines are tools at the service of capital, and the technological gap tends to accentuate social inequalities. Gandhi tried to convey this message through his insistence on spinning yarn for the purification of the soul. But his acolytes were ‘modern’, and failed to understand the significance of simple living for a sustainable world. Both of them, inspired by the European Renaissance and steeped in the culture of the Industrial Revolution, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru had conflicting dreams about the revival of the Indian Empire. Jinnah sought to imitate the departing masters, the British. Nehru was an admirer of the Soviet state model. Partition of the subcontinent gave them both an opportunity to test their dreams on subcontinental earth.

One died, dejected, soon after; the other had to endure years of experimentation, frustration and decay before he succumbed to the disgrace of defeat at the hands of the Chinese. Hijacked thus by Jawaharlal’s certitude, and Jinnah’s hubris, the Gandhian political economy died without being tried in any of the states born out of British India.

The scale of deprivation in South Asia is difficult to grasp. If the collective poor of Europe, the US and Japan were together to populate a single country, it would still be smaller than Gujarat (population: nearly 50 million) and a lot richer. But if the rich of South Asia had a country of their own, it would probably be the size of Singapore (population: 4.6 million) and much more prosperous. Over half a billion destitute and another nearly 300 million-strong of the aspiring middle class are cursed to live through the contradiction of these extremes: the allure of expectations and the impossibility of fulfillment. The American Dream can only be fulfilled in a ‘city on the hill’ maintained with the proceeds of the pains in the plains below. There can only be so many Marriotts, Tajs and Oberois in teeming South Asia.

Ideally, the frustrations of the marginalized should have been channeled into politics, and resolved through settlements that ensured the survival of the poor without hurting the core interests of the rich. Unfortunately the middle class that runs mainstream politics in South Asia has opted to side with the powerful, rather than mediate in the conflict between the comfortable classes and the distressed ones. They may have been coarse, cruel and conniving, but Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rahman understood that ostentation needed to be kept in check to control the rage of the poor. That each of them was ultimately killed shows why few leaders after them dared to challenge the hegemony of political modernism.

It is religious extremism that has stepped in to fill the political vacuum. The rise of Hindutva and extreme Islam is a testimony to the failure of politics to resolve the social contradictions created by the political economy of modernism. The Slovenian philosopher and leftwing thinker Slavoj Zizek admits, “Religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today’s society. It has become one of the sites of resistance’.

Yet Gandhi believed that religion was not a site of resistance, but rather a source of inspiration and positive action. But if faith is not channeled for either action or resistance, it will continue to inspire many more to die while killing others; and there is no defense against someone willing to embrace death. Perhaps that is the realization that has helped the Indian masses to maintain their composure, even as the elite raved and ranted after the November Bombay attacks. Every society is destined to face the consequences of the choices it makes, and South Asia will be no exception: it has to endure the rage of the orphans of modernity.

This appeared originally in Himal Southasian (www.himalmag.com ) . C K Lal is a columnist for Himal Southasian and for the Nepali Times