Saturday, February 02, 2008

Terror in the neighbourhood 13 January, 2008

When a celebrity dies one has to put up with a certain amount of media hype, but after Benazir Bhutto’s death what struck me most was the singular lack of remorse in Pakistan There was plenty of grief, even some regret, but no remorse. Remorse is different from regret. When a child is accidentally hit by a car, an onlooker may feel regret, but the driver feels remorse even though it was not his fault. The regretful person says ‘too bad, it happened’; a remorseful person is scarred, sometimes for life. Nehru expressed remorse when Gandhi died. Yudhishthira’s remorse helped reconcile Hastinapur’s torn society although he wasn’t responsible for the war in the Mahabharata. General Musharraf, I think, lost a fine opportunity to achieve reconciliation in Pakistan.

As Indians, our main interest in Benazir’s death relates to terrorism. There is a respectable view that if Benazir had lived and ushered in democratic rule, terrorist attacks on us would have declined. The premise is that democracies are better at fighting terrorists than dictators because terrorists have to contend with public pressure which is absent in dictatorships. I am not convinced. True, a democracy like the United States has successfully prevented a terrorist attack since 9/11. This is the result of a strong will and very effective execution. However, India, also a democracy, has failed. We have had 20 external terrorist attacks in the past three years, the latest on New Year’s Day at Rampur when 7 CRPF men died. And we have failed to curb domestic Naxalite terrorism.

India is, unfortunately, a ‘soft state’ where the government’s writ is weak and its implementation ability weaker still. BJP blames the Congress Party for appeasing Muslims, which it believes, is responsible for UPA’s poor record on terrorism. The BJP’s own record, however, was not much better when LK Advani was Home Minister. As in most things, politics is not the issue. Our problems stem from a lack of accountability in delivering public services. The answer is administrative reform. We need to unify security agencies; provide security of tenure to agents; empower them; invest in technology; train them to respect human rights; promote the best. This will raise their morale and our ability to fight terrorism.

In India we have a historical tradition ambivalent to violence. It goes back to Ashoka Maurya in the 3rd century BC. A Gandhian friend of mine suggested recently that Manmohan Singh might be in Ashoka’s mould. I reminded him, however, that Emperor Ashoka in his 12th Rock Edict warned the forest tribes against terrorist acts and to be wary of his ‘power even in his remorse’. Thus, even a state based on the ideology of ahimsa could be effective against terrorism. George Orwell may not agree. In his famous essay, ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, Orwell wrote that ‘it is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard from again’. That is to say, Gandhi’s methods might have worked against the British, but they would not against Hitler; nor against terrorists.

It’s is our bad luck to find ourselves next door to what the Economist calls the ‘most dangerous place on the earth’. As we cope with this thought, remember our ability to survive and flourish depends less on ideology and more on institutions. Although terrorists may be ideologues, countering them requires a very professional law and order machine. Our own machine is crying for reform. I don’t think Benazir would have made much difference. We have to solve our own problems.
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