Friday, November 04, 2005

Contrasting perspectives on dealing with terrorism

In the aftermath of the latest attacks in Delhi, terrorism, and approaches to dealing with it, are understandably uppermost on the minds of most Indians. In the recent past, two contrasting perspectives have been offered, and in this post, I seek to describe them.

Speaking to the press on his last day in office, Chief Justice Lahoti clearly had the Delhi blasts in mind when he made the following comments, reported in the Indian Express:

“We do not have the political will to fight terrorism”, he said underlining the need for new legislation. “When new challenges come, new solutions also have to found. Terrorism is a gift of the last century...Terrorist acts require an altogether new type of investigation. It (terrorism) requires new laws and new methodologies. A study should be conducted to identify the causes and suggest remedies. But there is no serious study in our country,” he said."

Justice Lahoti also reiterated his view that the death penalty should be retained:

“Referring to the lives lost in the Delhi blasts, Justice Lahoti said: “What other penalty would suit perpetrators of such brutal acts? What other penalty is called for if the crime is proved beyond any reasonable doubt? What happens is that, we forget the past. We see only the face of the accused, who is before us and his family. We forget the victims and their families.””

Today’s Indian Express carries a column by Pratap Bhanu Mehta who adopts a different stance. Though he never refers to Justice Lahoti’s expressed views, his piece appears to be a pointed response to that line of reasoning:

“We are, rightfully, angry, but against whom should that anger be appropriately directed? The perpetrators and their collaborators is the obvious answer. But here terrorism’s perverted logic comes into play. Is capitulating to the logic of violence a means to defeating it or a way of giving it succour and sustenance? What models should we look at? Hard states like Israel? It is doubtful that Israel has made itself more immune to terrorist attacks by its tactics. The US? If it is a model, it has worked only by radically increasing the risk of violence many countries around the world have faced. There is no certainty to the calculus of terrorism. As always, India will have to define its own path.

It is a great tribute to the people of India and their maturity that they understand the complexity of terrorism. They have understood that the first step in dealing with terrorism is not succumbing to ideological uses of terrorism. This is a fragile achievement that politicians are too ready to fritter away. But it is an important one none the less. This resilience has helped avoid the cycle of violence and counter-violence that terrorists want. India has not abandoned reason or a sense of proportion. But we also cannot demand the impossible from our patience and reason. How do we act?

Dealing with terrorism requires an extraordinary application of intelligence, in every sense of the term. We should not get side-tracked by peripheral debates like that over POTA that are more about appeasing our own sense that we are tough than they are about enhancing law enforcement capabilities. Effective law enforcement requires a far more sustained and different kind of attention than enacting laws. Despite severe setbacks, we should not lose focus on long term objectives for the sub-continent. Again, it is doubtful whether closing borders really brings you more security. In the long run terrorism can be defeated only if there is a shared public sphere across national boundaries, a set of common values that stands against violence of this kind. Creating this is an arduous process and we may not succeed. But we are sure to fail in our fight against terrorism if we do not even try. And finally, we have to recognise that not all our woes may be cross-border in character.”

My own preference (if it is not clear already) is for the latter approach. However, this is one of the most contested issues of our times, and there are bound to be differences of opinion. That should not, however, stop us from constructively engaging in this important debate with a view to obtaining a deeper understanding of one of the defining issues of our generation.

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