November 9, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

I'm Not OK, You're Not OK

Prime Minister Vajpayee was in Moscow. Because he was, Russia and India "reached a comprehensive agreement ... on the nature of international terrorism, on ways and means to combat it" and some other stuff. No distinction should be made, said Russia's President Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference, between good terrorists and bad terrorists, between our terrorists and their terrorists. The declaration that Putin and Vajpayee signed, The Times of India tells me, "could not have been more explicit" about Russia's and India's "troubles" in Chechnya and Kashmir, respectively. (Actually, it could have been more explicit: it could have mentioned both places.)

Fine words, all. Right? Why then do I suspect that this joint declaration, like every other in the history of diplomacy, will attract no attention outside the two countries involved, means little to those countries anyway, and is likely already forgotten?

Among other things, because both countries steadily make those distinctions anyway. Our terrorists, their terrorists. Our violence, justified. Theirs, traitorous and uncivilised.

Take just Chechnya. What's happening there is no recent eruption of "troubles". Russians and Chechens have been at each other's throats for well over two centuries. As the journalist Scott Anderson writes (in The Man Who Tried to Save The World):

Chechen warriors repeatedly decimated Russian armies sent to conquer them, while the Russians exacted revenge by razing scores of Chechen villages. The ferocity of the fighting set up a cycle of mutual hatred that would forever endure.

Serving in the Russian army in 1852, Leo Tolstoy wrote of the Chechens he was fighting:

The feeling which all Chechens felt ... was not hatred but a refusal to recognize these Russian dogs as people and such a revulsion, disgust and bewilderment at the senseless cruelty of these beings, that the desire to destroy them, like a desire to destroy rats, poisonous spiders and wolves, was as natural as the instinct of self-preservation.

And if that's how Chechens see Russians, Anderson writes of the way Russians look at Chechens:

For their steadfast defiance over more than two centuries, the Chechens had come to occupy a special and dangerous place in the Russian national psyche ... [T]hey were reviled and feared ... [T]he recalcitrance of these short, swarthy Muslims to accept the "civilising" influence of Christian or Communist Russia [was] attributed to primitivism, stupidity and base criminality. ... By the 1970s, "Chechen" had become synonymous with "mafia" [in Russia], a vicious and scheming gypsy-like people never to be trusted.

So when Putin and Vajpayee refer, as they do in their joint declaration, to "violent actions being perpetrated" which "in reality represent acts of terrorism", and the spin doctors and journalists tell us all that amounts to "explicit" references to Kashmir and Chechnya, you might stop to wonder. Just what "violent actions" are all these complacent people talking about?

Take just Chechnya again. Do they mean the repeated attempts, over 250 years, by Russian armies to conquer Chechen tribes? The Chechen "decimation" of those armies? The Russian "razing" of Chechen villages? Stalin's brutal 1944 pogrom that deported nearly all of Chechnya's people and left every third Chechen dead? The Chechens' move, after the Soviet Union collapsed, to win freedom for themselves from the long-hated Russians? The 1994-96 war in which Russians killed nearly 100,000 Chechens and turned another 250,000 into refugees, and these from a Chechen population of one million?

I don't mean to gloss over Chechen hatred of Russians, nor their own viciousness in the years of war. But if I have deliberately listed mainly Russian brutality here, it's precisely so I can ask again: which of all these "violent actions" do Vajpayee and Putin think "in reality represent acts of terrorism"?

Somehow I doubt they meant the years of unequivocally "violent actions" by Russian forces against Chechens.

So despite the bold Vajpayee-Putin declaration on "the nature of international terrorism", there were indeed distinctions being made in Moscow. Our terrorists, good. Their terrorists, bad. Our hatreds and prejudice and violence, fine. Theirs, despicable.

Despite the bold declaration, this is no way to fight terrorism. Whether in Chechnya or Kashmir, this will only keep the violence going. And this is why you won't remember this declaration much longer than it takes you to read my article.

To be fair, this reluctance to view "our" crimes as crimes, or at least to find justifications for them, is pervasive. So the language you hear all around is remarkably similar. Osama and the Taleban believe they are, in some perverted way, protecting Islam from such enemies as the USA and Israel. Therefore they must indulge in murder and terror on a spectacular scale. Men of the Shiv Sena and BJP tell us they are protecting Hinduism from the depradations of Indian Muslims and Christians. So they must instigate, participate in and finally wink at riots that leave our largest city traumatised and a thousand dead. Russians cannot stomach the fierce independence of the Chechen people. So they must assault that tiny Caucasian republic over and over again for centuries. Americans grew up learning that Communism was the world's great evil. So they propped up anybody who claimed to be fighting that evil, in Nicaragua, Chile, the Congo and elsewhere; no matter that those claims were made only to paper over a host of truly horrible crimes.

Through it all, the crime, the terror, only goes on. Only increases.

What is the lesson that Putin has not learned in Chechnya? That when you spend decades building hatred against a people, when you assault them repeatedly in a ham-handed effort to conquer, you only stoke resentment, more violence and an even more determined effort to break free.

What is the lesson Vajpayee has not learned here in India? A remarkably similar one. When you allow questions about Muslim loyalty to this country every day for 55 years, when you demand that Muslims prove their patriotism on every possible occasion -- like when M F Husain painted the Goddess Saraswati or when Musharraf visited Agra or when planes tore into the WTC -- you only stoke resentment and a feeling among some of those 140 million Indians that there is nothing in India for them. (How would you feel if you were asked to prove your loyalty to India every day?)

Certainly terror as waged in Kashmir and by men like Osama, especially because they do it in the name of Islam, is a threat -- one threat -- to peace for us all. But let's say you can make people accept that that's what's shaking the world. Then what? Does that mean we can safely ignore all that terrorises and brutalises and kills in the name of something else? In India, should we pretend that the steady caste bloodshed in Bihar doesn't happen? That the murder of nearly a thousand Indians in Bombay in 1992-93 never happened? That the murder of several thousand Indians in Delhi in 1984 never happened?

Or were these atrocities, these acts of homegrown terror, somehow justified?

Proceed in that ostrich fashion and we will never escape the terror our PM means in his Moscow declaration. Nor the homegrown terror.

There is -- there has to be -- another way. To me, this is that way: recognise and punish crime wherever it happens. Do it regardless of any justifications: whether in the name of Islam or Catholicism, whether for the protection of Hinduism, whether to preserve the supposed integrity of Russia. Do it among our own first of all.

No distinction, Messrs Putin and Vajpayee. Their terrorists, bad. Our terrorists, bad. Their prejudices, bad. Our prejudices, bad. Their violence, bad. Our violence, bad. Simple.

Dilip D'Souza

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