December 24, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Careful What We Close

"In this grave moment of crisis, India must stand united to tackle the menace of terrorism." Want it said another way? There's a "dire need to unite and devise a system that can respond to terrorism".

Words to that effect: it doesn't matter whose they are, but how often have we heard them over the years? How often in the wake of the recent attack on Parliament? Answer: More times that we can count. And they generally come accompanied by a wistful yearning for India to be more like the USA.

Yes, that magical land where, so we hear, opinion-makers and politicians from all over the spectrum come together as one when required. So much so that that country is, didn't you know, "in every way ... far, far superior to India."

You make your judgements about superiority if you like. Seems a pointless exercise to me: I can drum up no interest in either chest thumping or self-flagellation ("in every way far, far superior").

But still, let's look more closely at this matter of coming together. Does the US come together as one -- or, to give it that vaguely but nicely military term, "close ranks" -- when faced with a crisis? Specifically, did that country close ranks after September 11, approve without hesitation all that its president and his advisers proposed to do in response to the WTC attacks? As we were told it did? And whether that happened or not, is that the kind of closing of ranks we want to achieve in India? Do we want to unite to the extent that our authorities get a blank cheque to do whatever they want to do?

And this question that interests me: If closing of ranks is such a desirable thing, why not call for it more often, pursue its perceived benefits at other times? Why wait till such time as thugs attack Parliament to long so loudly for it?

One by one. Memories from January 1991, the first few days of the Gulf War. I am with a friend at his home outside Boston when the war begins. A bright, thoughtful, successful American, he sits there in front of his TV, watching CNN with me. No sympathy in the least for Saddam, but he shakes his head in disgust at all that his president has put in motion. Later, we watch a massive march, thousands of people wending their way through the streets of downtown Boston, all protesting against the war and urging peace.

In Harvard Square, we stop to listen to a pavement singer. He intersperses his songs with appeals to contribute to the 'George H W Bush Insanity Fund'. This war is "the most insane thing he's ever done!" he tells his audience, some of whom, keen on war, are angered by this and yell at him. In Austin some days later, I attend a large gathering at a downtown theatre that deplores the war and drafts a resolution against it. It goes by FedEx to George Herbert Walker Bush.

After September 11, need I say it, the profound sense of sorrow and outrage among Americans was and remains palpable. My friend with whom I watched the Gulf War start writes to me: "We are just dumbfounded and tremendously saddened right now. I fear though that that is giving way to anger and rage... Of course we were wrong about Oklahoma City [so] I trust that we will take the time to find out [who was responsible for WTC]."

As I'm sure you are, I am simply flooded with American articles, editorials and statements about the events. In particular, there are Americans all over country writing to deplore Bush's rhetoric and urge introspection; American petitions denouncing the war; American campaigns to tell their lawmakers how staunchly people oppose their efforts -- even in the name of fighting terror -- to curb constitutionally guaranteed civil rights.

One such campaign ('MoveOn') makes the point that it is now, more than ever, that those guarantees must stand:
It is when we are fearful that we most need the protections of our constitution. Our institutions have worked for us for over 200 years. We are a nation of laws, not of men. Our freedom depends upon the rule of law. We don't suspend the law because we're under attack. We support and defend it.

This is not an issue of the left or right. William Safire, the conservative columnist, has called the [Bush] Administration's moves "a dismaying departure from due process" and an assumption of "dictatorial power".

It seems to me that what's coming out of the US now, and what came out in '91, is precisely what makes it a strong country that so many admire ["in every way far, far superior"]. And that's far from some blind carte blanche offered to its administration. It is, instead, the wealth of opinion and debate, the celebration of dissent, the fundamentally democratic idea that every voice must and will be heard. For the war, against it, and every shade in between.

It is out of this that a nation -- any nation -- finds strength, a sense of national identity and resolve. And because it comes this way, it is a generally informed national resolve. Always a good kind to have.

So in that light, what do we make of these pronouncements in India about the need to "sink our differences" in this moment of crisis? Not very much. Not because unity is undesirable -- it isn't. Nor because I think the threat of terrorism is a mirage -- it isn't either. But because a unity forged solely for particular crises, founded on throwing away our ordinary human scepticism and our shades of opinions, built on denouncing dissent as anti-national, is no unity.

And this is just why I wonder, why not call for unity more often?

Only one example: Look around at the way so many Indians live. Just on my walk to the railway station the evening before I wrote this, I passed: a frail woman crumpled on a Pedder Road doorstep with very little to cover her; a succession of imploring, ragged beggars; a scrawny boy rummaging for food in a pile of garbage. Familiar scenes to most Indians, I'm sure. What else but an enormous crisis is the threat that poverty poses every day to millions -- not just 542, but millions -- of Indian lives? Why have we tolerated this crisis for half a century and more?

By no means are these idle questions. I am very deliberately juxtaposing our heartfelt reactions to the attack on Parliament - 'A Nation Outraged' and 'A Nation Shaken', two major newsmagazines tell us this week -- with the apparent apathy towards poverty. Yes, we were outraged. But why that apathy? Does poverty threaten Indians any less than those five clean-shaven criminals did? Are we not 'outraged' or 'shaken' when Indian kids get their scraps of food from garbage dumps? When we understand that poverty -- the pure, hard business of being wretchedly poor -- takes Indian lives far faster and more insidiously than any terror can?

How much of a dent might we make in the daily calamity of poverty if we "closed ranks" to fight it? If we "united and devised a system" to address it? And if we did that, give some thought to the kind of vibrant, vital and strong India we would build.

Unity is good. Blind, unquestioned unity is not. Especially not when demanded. Most especially not when some perceived crises -- but only some -- drive that demand.

So let's close ranks, sure. But not by closing minds.

Dilip D'Souza

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