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September 19, 2001
Brave New World
New Delhi, November 1984: A prime minister is felled by her bodyguards, and the capital city goes up in flames. Even as the pyre was lit, elsewhere in the city, vengeful hordes were doing the rounds, singling out Sikhs. It became a State-blessed pogrom, with the new prime minister, son of the deceased PM, justifying blandly that 'when a tree falls, the earth is bound to shake.'
New York, September 2001: In what is indisputably the worst terrorist attack anywhere in the world ever, in an operation as audacious as it was inhuman, Muslim terrorists crash a plane into the World Trade Centre and into the Pentagon. There is a sullen anger among Americans, and yes, there have been a few, sporadic incidents of violence against Indians, Sikhs in particular, and other Asian communities.
But, and this is a crucial but, those who wield the ensigns of authority, from the President downward, lose little time in assuaging hurt sentiments, and in fact ask the majority Americans to not, repeat NOT, take the law into their hands. And in cases, the law-enforcers quickly proceed in the matter when complaints are filed with them.
More than a tree, the WTC, two towers of 110 floors each, has crashed -- but the ground did not shake under America. The State did not sanction neighbourhood goons to go after Muslims and other non-white communities. The President did not merely express regret at the spontaneous outburst but moved quickly to ensure that the colourful skein of American fabric did not sunder.
India often compares itself with the world's most powerful democracy as if the mere fact that the two follow similar political systems should alone bridge the other, crucial differences between them.
Had a tragedy of the enormity of what happened in New York and Washington struck India, one of two scenarios would have come through: either there would have been a carnage directed at the Muslim community, or India would have ceded Kashmir without demur. Yes, the Indian State is either a prisoner of the lumpen -- a la New Delhi, 1984 -- or the pusillanimous -- a la Kandahar, December 1999. To put it differently, the Indian politician does not grow into the state, larger than life, it is the other way round.
This difference in the ruling class also translates into the voting public. In the one week since the attacks on American symbols, I have watched families of the victims -- both of hijack and of the WTC annihilation -- sob their guts out on the telly, but not once in despair, self-pity, or anything approaching defeatism. I saw a father weep thus for his son who perished in the aircraft that crashed into the Philadelphia countryside: 'He was always brave, and I am sure that he would have attacked the hijackers, he was not one to keep quiet' -- plausibly the reason why the plane crashed before its diabolical mission could be achieved. Another wept thus: 'If he had to die, I pray that he attacked the hijackers and died in the attempt.' It was not merely the kin who had moist eyes; the entire nation did.
Not once in the last seven days did I hear the sentiment made famous in India in the days of the IC-814 hijack: 'Why us?' Hysterical kin did not throng the White House asking for a reversal of American policy.
And that is an unbridgeable difference between the two nations, cultures and people.
It's not that two are democracies and hence there is an automatic kinship between the two. It is that the two democracies are so dissimilar that no kinship is possible between them. The only similarity is that both nations are victims of terrorism.
Just like India, America is a victim of attack primarily because it is a liberal society -- all other reasons like wealth, strength, etc coming later. Freedom -- of action, speech and thought -- is the bugbear of the radical who cloaks his evil in the language of the scriptures. And the only way the free world can combat this new scourge is by joining hands, just as the forces of darkness -- from here to Chechnya, from Somalia to Srinagar -- have come together.
Given that, it is but natural that eyebrows are raised at George W Bush taking recourse to Pakistan, widely seen as an exporter of terrorism into India -- but these eyebrows all invariably belong to Indians incredulous that their country is being bypassed, especially given, yes, the similarities with the US.
But President Bush is following a sober policy, one that marries America's geopolitical interests in the region with hardheaded reality. One, Pakistan and not India has been the USA's gateway to the region; two, Pakistan's present economic predicament has been brought about by American indifference, and abandonment at this stage will mean the country turning into a nuclear rogue state; three, Pakistan's channels with the Taleban are open, unlike India's. The latter's importance may go up when hostilities begin, but during shadow boxing it is Islamabad that matters to the US.
Over and above all this is another important factor that has weighed with Bush. In order to avoid the present conflict escalating into a clash between the Muslim and Christian faiths, he needs to have Islamic nations on his side, especially ones like Pakistan known for their proximity to the Taleban. Choosing India over Pakistan at this stage could so easily divide the world. The world may still be divided over the impending decision on Afghanistan, but it won't be along civilizational lines. Pakistan may still not be able to deliver, but at least it will have proved its bona fides to Washington.
This one decision by Bush, in my opinion, more than makes up for months of a lacklustre presidency.
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