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India's Forever War

July 14, 2011 10:09 IST
It would certainly be much better if the citizens of Mumbai decide that for one day they will not do what they are supposed to do and ask their government for some explanations, says Harsh V Pant.

Here we go again! Mumbai has once again been struck. The tolerance capacity of India will certainly leave no one in any doubt, much least the terrorists themselves. They must surely be reveling in the weak-kneed response of the Indian government towards these atrocities.

The blase and banal response from the prime minister and others that the nation will fight and root out terrorists will not fool anybody about the inherent lack of will in the government to tackle this menace effectively.

It was in 2006 that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had stated that 'we will leave no stone unturned, I reiterate, no stone unturned, in ensuring that terrorist elements in India are neutralised and smashed.' What has happened since then remains a story of indecision, dithering, and incompetence.

No doubt, as in the past, we will soon be celebrating the ability of Mumbai to take these attacks in its stride and get back to work. But surely, this chalta hai attitude is also responsible for the slumber of the government?

It would certainly be much better if the citizens of Mumbai decide that for one day they will not do what they are supposed to do and will ask their government for some explanations. It's difficult, but it needs to be done.

How long can this go on? Do we value the lives of our citizens or not? It's not enough anymore to say, as the prime minister has done, that terrorism won't hinder India's progress. What does he mean when he says that we will win the war on terror? The Indian public, which has been suffering this recurring onslaught of violence, has a right to some answers.

A terrorist attack in New York changes the contours of US foreign policy forever. A terrorist attack in London generates a whole new debate on domestic terror laws and the threat of Islamic radicalism in UK. But even after countless terrorist attacks in India, nothing changes. One wonders if even the Indian politicians have new statements to make after so long.

The only response that the government could come up with was reiterating the same old platitude that we will win the war against terror as if winning this war is an apple that will fall in the government's lap at an appropriate time.

The question is that after sympathies have been expressed and 'external forces' have been blamed, what next? And the answer is that the government will get back to its business as usual with ministers trying to please the Gandhis, Rahul Gandhi will keep on rediscovering India, the prime minister will retreat in his own shell, and the Opposition will get back to its business of sorting out its internal disarray.

The lives lost in Mumbai will be forgotten as have innumerable other lives that have been lost to the scourge of terrorism. India will move on as will Mumbai. But the terrorists who have done this will not, as they plan their next attacks. They know well that the ever-forgiving Indian government knows only one way to respond -- with high-sounding, but meaningless words.

The Indian government's response has always been an ad hoc one to such atrocities without any attempt to evolve a coherent policy that tells clearly to the perpetrators of terrorism that India will not be tolerant of terror, ever, in any form.

After all, it was India's then foreign minister Jaswant Singh, who personally escorted three murderous terrorists to freedom after the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight in December 1999, making it perfectly clear that the Indian State will bow to the demands of terror, howsoever unreasonable they might be.

One can reasonably argue that for a liberal democracy combating terrorism is always difficult as the law of the land must prevail and there should not be a resort to draconian measures not considered legitimate by the majority. But conversely, the survival of a liberal, democratic environment is predicated upon a decent measure of security that a government can offer to its citizens. It would not take much to destroy the liberal ethos of this country if the citizens of this country feel that they are never secure. And therefore a robust response of the government is needed.

Why is India being targeted, after all? Because India is a liberal democracy where the second-largest Muslim population of the world has a political voice as potent as the majority? Because the Indian model is a challenge to those fanatics who believe that there is only one way of living and that's their way? Because India provides space to all kinds of voices and expressions even when they challenge the ethos of the country? Because India enjoys good relations with Israel and the US, the two global villains, that are somehow deemed responsible for all the evils in the Middle East?

If yes, then all these claims demand only one response: An unequivocal stance from the Indian government not to bow to the demands of terror. India cannot be blackmailed into changing the foundations of its political system and India cannot be blackmailed into pursuing a foreign policy that goes contrary its national interests.

After all from a country that aspires to the status of a great power, nothing less can be expected. But more importantly, the idea of India is too powerful to be sacrificed at the altar of a few fanatics.

But we need a government that is able to stand up and make sure that this message gets out to those who are all too happy to see a government in a perpetual state of indecision. We need a concerted, sustained counter-terrorism strategy, instead of mere political rhetoric, pieties and platitudes.

The problem is clearly bigger than Pakistan's support for extremists in its territories. There's a home-grown element to this problem that requires addressing and that requires some hard choices.

Let us not be in any doubt that the war on terror poses new legal challenges and grave moral dilemmas for the world and this is especially true for democracies. But it's time for the largest democracy in the world to face these challenges head on. That would be the best tribute to those who lost their lives in Mumbai and to the innumerable other victims of terrorism.

Dr Harsh V Pant is with the Defence Studies Department, King's College London.

Harsh V Pant