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December 28, 1999
Steel in the soul, anyone?
It is a paradox that will take some explaining. A few months ago, the nation rose as one in saluting the brave soldiers who were laying down their lives to defend territory against invaders, squatters, what have you, regardless of whether those went to their death did so with a smile on their lips. Today, the families of passengers aboard Flight 814 are screaming blue murder over the government's inaction, and the unsaid message from the legion of commentators corralled by the media is that the families should bloody well shut up in view of the national interest which, we are assured, is supreme, inviolable.
It is a little odd that this 'national interest' has a price in blood, that the lives of 100-odd passengers are considered to be of less consequence than that of one maulana-terrorist who has been a guest of the Government of India for many years now. Yes, the arguments in favour of this askew notion of national interests have piled up, and barely needs any repetition, none of which, it must be pointed out, will cut any ice with the relatives of those who are aboard Flight 814.
The truth is that this idea of national interest, that no sacrifice is too expensive, has been enumerated, crystallised, propagated and enshrined into our national psyche by the very set of people who have insulated themselves from such sacrifice that is imposed on the rest of the population from time to time -- be it in Kargil, the killing fields of Kashmir and the northeast or elsewhere.
The nation saw, first-hand, what the response of this class was, what the response was when faced with a similar crisis in 1989. V P Singh, throughout his thankfully brief tenure as prime minister, did not try to fool the nation into believing he had steel in his soul; but even by his pusillanimous nature, the release of Kashmiri militants to secure the release of his home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed's daughter Rubaiya, must rank as craven.
It is all right to revile such genuflection today, with the wisdom conferred by hindsight. Governance, in case it is overlooked, is a continuum; successor administrations are bound by the actions, words and pledges of its predecessor, so for the present government to wriggle out of its predicament by saying that it was not part of the 1989 decision, is erroneous and misleading.
If you really need proof that 1999 is not much different from 1989, consider the manner in which the administration has treated two deaths that occurred almost simultaneously, that of Rupin Katyal at the hands of the hijackers, and of former President, Shankar Dayal Sharma. Katyal, an ordinary citizen who was killed by hijackers while in the spring of his life for no fault than daring to look at them, died unsung, and the government is stoical about the possibility of another 100-odd of his co-passengers meeting with the same fate. Sharma, part of the privilegentsia that urges us to be brave, died of old age, after leading a fulsome life, is honoured with State mourning for seven days.
There are questions thrown up by the crisis on Flight 814 that cannot be ducked. Why should those whose only fault seems to be that their kin chose a particular airline from a particular venue on a particular day to fly, be asked to emulate the martyrs of Kargil, who went to their deaths if not happily, then at least by choice? Why should ordinary Indians be expected to be heroes, when the price is the lives of their near and dear ones? More important, why should the sense of heroism be imposed on the masses, when the classes are unwilling to adopt such standards themselves?
The ruling class cannot duck its responsibility for bringing about the crises confronting the nation, and I am not talking only of Flight 814 here. If there is no steel in the soul among the populace -- unlike, say, among Israelis -- it is because the ruling class, by its duplicitous behaviour, never ingrained such a spirit in the people over whose fate it was presiding. By scraping and bowing in the face of adversity, this class has shown itself up to be made of straw, not steel. And today, this very class wants the people to be different.
No doubt, Maulana Masood is a prize catch. It is possible that allowing him to go scot-free could give the committed terrorists in the valley a boost of morale; it may even result in the ultimate vivisection of the region from the Indian mainland. Despite all this, to me, it seems that the nation has the resilience to emerge from any calamity that may spring from the release of one man from custody. History tells us that India is a 5,000-year old civilisation; surely it did not endure so long by fearing its own shadow!
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