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Lesson from 26/11: Terror kills, not democracy

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Our governance sucks but the solution is not to secede from it but challenging and changing the system from within.

On this 26/11 anniversary, it is tempting to say that in some areas we have remained frozen in time. In Pakistan, people are out on the streets in Islamabad, fighting not to protect their democracy or judiciary, but in straightforward anarchy. And who’s putting it down but the Holiest of the Holy there, the Pakistan Army.

Meanwhile, Hafiz Saeed, whose Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out the Mumbai attacks, has just been released, in as if a ninth 26/11 anniversary gift to India. In Pakistan, a new normal has been created. An Army takeover without a coup. The judiciary is in cahoots. It seems to be a popular takeover. People seem tired of politics and politicians.

Important to remember: the latest Pew research (whatever its flaws) showed India to be among a handful of countries where the majority would prefer military rule. This is the clamour that rose, especially among South Mumbai’s elites in the wake of 26/11. There were calls to stop paying taxes and hand over governance to the armed forces.

It gives me the perfect timing to share an updated edition of what I wrote then, the Rage of the Chatteranti, as in the ranting chatterati.

At a series of public functions in Pakistan to mark the launch of late Salman Taseer’s Daily Times in 2002, I had said Pakistan was in many ways as imperfect a dictatorship as India was an imperfect democracy: just as India had been unable to accord all its citizens all the freedoms that a democracy of this quality should have, Pakistan had failed to deny their people all the freedoms like a pucca dictatorship. That is why a reasonably free media functioned even under Musharraf, an Indian editor was able to say rude things like these at the launch of a newspaper and there was a sometimes independent judiciary; not the kind of things you would see in Saddam’s Iraq, Ahmadinejad’s Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.

It instantly got me in trouble then. The NDA was in power then and the attack was instantaneous. It was as if this Indian editor had gone to Pakistan and given his country a bad name by finding faults with its democracy and seeing merits in Pakistan’s dictatorship. What’s happening right now (if we take Pew seriously) and how Mumbai’s upper classes responded after 26/11 has to be seen in that context.

The Pakistanis, over the past year, have braved bullets, assassinations and persecution to throw out a general and give themselves at least half a democracy. God knows, they have reasons to hate their politicians. They have also checked out the generals for four decades and, wiser for that experience, have no intention of returning to their embrace. Post-2008 the same classes in India turned themselves into a lynch mob against the political class and, by implication, the whole democracy. It made us wonder. The one institution the Pakistani elites are suspicious of is their military. The one institution Indian elites respect and adore today is their military. Pew tells us not only has this not changed, it’s actually more widespread now.

Since TV chat shows, WhatsApp and chain emails have become the main forum of our domestic debate and political discourse, it is safe to go by the evidence of what you see and read there. Any number of illiterate emails and SMSes now float around, not merely cursing politicians, but spreading utter falsehoods about the Constitution and laws. To begin with was the romance with voting NOTA (none of the above). The NOTA myth has been buried. It was allowed, and has never polled enough votes even to save Mr NOTA his deposit anywhere. Similar, stupid, flippant and dangerous mythologies were built in 2008: that we spend more on the SPG than on the NSG, the implication being that we value the lives of our prime minister and president more than those of ordinary citizens. Nobody checked the facts because they might come in the way of holy indignation.

So the same leading lights of Mumbai’s genteel classes, who never shed a tear when nearly 600 Mumbaikars lost their lives (until then) in several terrorist attacks, and hundreds in the 1992-93 riots, were walking around with candles because the threat had moved beyond local trains to rocking coffee shops and bars — incidentally, they still haven’t bothered to light a candle in front of the CST station where more lives were lost than at both the hotels put together.

More than the hypocrisy, however, was the message they sent out to their countrymen that is still worthy of recall: that the political class has failed us, so please do not vote (“those who come in through our vote are more dangerous than those who come through the boat”), or exercise that right of non-vote, however mythical may it be. The virus of Mumbai’s elites was caught by the creative classes; the Amul hoarding then exhorted the “real” terrorist to show up, and had a neta surrounded by black cats.

We had several leading film and creative personalities demand that Pakistan, or at least its terror camps, be carpet-bombed. My friend Kabir Bedi declared on NDTV in his grave baritone that “we” have “incontrovertible” evidence of “ISI, Lashkar and Jaish” involvement and should start attacking them inside Pakistan. After all, he said, that is what the Americans are doing in Waziristan, etc, and what can the Pakistanis do except protest feebly? Further, he suggested that we learn from Mossad and carry out “targeted assassinations” of the bad guys in Pakistan. The one really sexy idea to come out of all this rage was that we should stop paying taxes. Great idea, but must it be confined to Mumbaikars alone, we asked. Don’t the rest of us also have issues with our government?

To be fair, it was easy to see where this rage was coming from. These attacks brought terror to the doorstep of the classes which had long divorced and insulated themselves from politics and governance. Over the years as our governance had declined, or failed to keep pace with our society or economy, all of us learnt to become individual, sovereign republics. We send our children to private schools, get treatment only in private hospitals, have our own security in gated communities, never use public transport, have our own diesel gensets, and arrange our own water supply, either through our own borewells or tankers. Then we suddenly get hit in one area — physical safety, law and order — which is still with the government. Knowing how thick-skinned our politicians are, we see no possibility of changing them. So we now looked for desperate measures: compulsory military training, conscription, NSG for every city.

The armed forces, we said, are the only institution that can bring about this change. Pakistan has been owned by its army since its creation and see how much worse its law and order is, how the country suffers from daily terror attacks by its own, and how large swathes of its territory are nothing but extension campuses of its most notable contribution to the modern world: a university of jihad.

So here is a thought repeated on the ninth anniversary of 26/11. Yes, our governance sucks. But the solution for the upper crust is never to secede from it. Law and order is not public health, government schooling or power supply to be privatised for the well-to-do. The whites in South Africa tried that and it did not work. The racist governments of the past liberally gave them automatic weapons and some of the richest homes around Johannesburg used to carry the sign: trespassers will be shot. It did not buy them more security. Their homes became bunkers, or high security prisons in which they locked themselves up.

The solution lies in returning to the “system”, and challenging and changing it from within. Just as the poorer and the middle classes do around the country. Even in these times of anger and cynicism more and more Indians are coming out to vote. They do not love their politicians, they often vote them out. But they do it by using the power of the vote, not by disowning it. Or, look at it another way: we, in our little charmed circles, can vent our rage on chat shows and so-called social media. But the children of our farmers and working classes will always be there, to vote out bad governments on polling day, and to get into uniforms — khaki, olive-green or black — and risk their lives fighting for our sake.

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