Saturday, November 29, 2008

Nilekani's sobering analysis of the Mumbai attacks

Now that the attacks are officially over, the analysis will begin. Today’s papers – from across the globe – carry several pieces that offer commentary on the tragic events in Mumbai, many of which give voice to the anguish, hopelessness and frustration experienced by many Indians. Of those offered so far, I was struck in particular by the views of Nandan Nilekani. Channeling Rudyard Kipling’s “If” in the title of his op-ed in today’s Indian Express, Nilekani’s call for calm is particularly insightful and timely. His powerful reflections reveal a close understanding of the legal measures invoked against terrorism in India historically, as well as comparatively across the globe in the aftermath of 9/11. Here are some extracts:

In the past seventy-two hours, we witnessed an event that has transformed the psyche of a nation. Since the bomb blasts that ripped through our cities and towns three months ago, there have been familiar remarks of how stoic our urban citizens are — echoes of comments Mumbaikars received after the train explosions in July 2006 and the bomb blasts in 1993. Again this time, as the day waned and the situation began to stabilise, there were comments on our ability to move past disaster, and how people would simply pick up the pieces and move on. But these statements have a hollow feel — we have been struck so many times that one must eventually wonder if what we see in the aftermath is stoicism or helplessness. But the actions governments take during times of fear are often not ideal ones. Indian politicians have, since the blasts in July, mostly debated bringing back draconian laws resembling the repealed POTA and TADA. The BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu noted that “an extraordinary situation needs an extraordinary law”; an opinion that the UPA government has come around to holding themselves. This recent attack will likely speed the passage of such a law.


We’ve seen the impact such laws can have in the US and Britain, following the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war. Massive powers of detention and interrogation cast the net too far and wide — what you end up with is a disproportionate amount of false positives and captured innocents, which muddies the efforts against terrorism. The record of POTA and TADA in India has been dismal — they have been used to target particular communities, and as tools for revenge. The violations of human rights that result are unacceptable. These laws become all the more dangerous when we consider the terrorists who led the recent bombings. These were not easily identifiable men. They looked like us — like any of the millions of young men in our cities, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, yuppie-like down to their hair-cuts and their glasses. And such laws make democracies less so, and by hurting innocent civilians, serve as powerful recruiting tools for terrorists.

There is no question that we face dangerous times. Governments are going to react in ways that demonstrate concrete action and strict enforcement to the public. Our impulses will be to strike back with force, and with draconian measures. But our weaknesses unfortunately, lie not in the lack of a terrorism law, but within the core of our institutions — our police forces, the effectiveness of our intelligence agencies, the surveillance work we carry out. Since the 1970s, all these once reputable institutions have become deeply politicised, to the point that they have not been allowed to work without interference. Today, the frozen systems of our judiciary ensure that nearly half a million people are languishing in our jails without trials. Our cities are weak and ineffectual, unable to deal with any crisis. A weakening economy can also add to the militancy — the lack of broad-based reforms is increasing the pool of unemployed, angry young people. The sense of unfairness and alienation among them is waiting to be exploited by divisive politicians. Unfortunately given our talent for workarounds, these are issues that governments will shy away from. But without facing these challenges boldly, the prevention of Terror attacks will be elusive, and we will continue to be vulnerable.

Calm — that emotion that seems so distant and unnecessary in such moments of crisis, will be critical to get us through this crisis. And the danger of thoughtless retaliation comes not just from our governments, but also from our citizens. Our country has large numbers of minority religious communities, and there will be enough demagogues eager to whip up anger against convenient targets. We can choose, at this critical moment, to let divides like religion dominate and frighten us, sidelining our real issues. Or we can adopt fundamental reforms and policy ideas to win the battle against militants. Terrorism is fundamentally about igniting terror — about overwhelming us with fear. We have to resist this fear rather than be subjugated by it.

Nilekani’s call for calm and peace has, of course, been proffered and reiterated by several of our more responsible leaders. We can only hope that they will be heeded in the aftermath of this traumatic event.

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