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September 20, 2001
Silent About Many Things
At precisely 10:30 on the morning of September 18, my family and I stood for a moment of silence. It had been announced some days before, and a full page ad in that morning's newspaper told us to do so. In case we had missed it altogether, there was even a soft recording on the phone, in place of a dial tone, to remind us. On a Solidarity Day against Terrorism, this was a moment of prayer, a time to remember all those who have lost their lives to terrorists.
Moment done, I looked at the full page again. There's a picture of our prime minister, and a quote from him that says 'Every Indian has to be a part of this global war on terrorism ... We must, and we will, stamp out this evil from our land and from the world.' Below, there are four more pictures, of major terrorist incidents: the Bombay bomb blasts of March 1993, the Indian Airlines hijacking of December 1999, the Anantnag massacre of March 2001 and the WTC attacks of September 11.
Horrors all. 'Ugly face of Terrorism,' says the collective caption below the four photographs.
And yet, and yet... why do I feel a certain unease?
When I look at this ad, when I read all the columns about terrorism that have appeared in our papers since September 11, when I stand quiet and think of the victims of these outrages -- I also say a few silent words for Raju. Because I knew his father, and through his terrible despair I understood: this 14-year-old boy, his only son, was also a victim of terror.
Raju died on January 11, 1993. In the heart of Bombay, during some of the worst rioting our country has ever known, he was butchered by some of his fellow Indians. He was one of somewhere around a thousand Indians who were murdered by other Indians in the two months of December 1992 and January 1993. I ask you: as he watched the men who surrounded him that night raise their long knives and slash at him, as he understood he had arrived at the last few moments of his life, do you think Raju did not feel terror?
Go ahead, pick any of those thousand Indians who died like Raju died -- as they saw death coming for them, did those men and women not feel terror?
Forget the deaths if you like. Did the man in the famous photograph from that time, a scrawny man in rags and a moustache, running for his life with blood streaming from his face, not feel terror? Did the man in that other famous photograph from that time, the sturdy jawan home from serving his country at the border, looking around at his smashed and looted house, not feel terror?
Did anyone who lived through those weeks not feel terror? What about those crazed few minutes near the Bandra railway station, when some men suddenly stabbed some other men and people ran screaming and a few alert photographers caught their headlong fright on film? What about the people who were panicked for a whole night by a rumour that an armed horde was about to come ashore on the Dadar beach? What about the one hundred or so residents of Pedder and Carmichael Roads who gathered one afternoon to meet then defence minister Sharad Pawar, pleaded with him to use the army to quell the riots?
What were all these people feeling?
And what was it that I felt as I realised that I would be nuts to try to make my way from my office to my suburban home? When several surly yahoos advanced menacingly on me as I asked questions about a burned and looted shop in Girgaum for a report on the riots that I was working on? When I finally did take the train home and it crawled past an enormous crowd near Mahalaxmi railway station, the men carrying swords that glinted in the evening sun, glinting forever in my mind?
I know it and I feel not the slightest shame admitting it: I was in terror. As was all of Bombay.
And if terrorism means the spreading of terror, which is the only thing it seems to me it can mean, then all of us in Bombay experienced terrorism in those weeks. Yes indeed, Raju and the rest of the thousand dead died at the hands of terrorism.
Which is why I wondered as I stood for my moment of silence on September 18: in this full page ad that tells me about the 'Ugly face of Terrorism,' that urges Indians to fight terrorism, why is there no picture, nor even mention, of the riots in Bombay? I don't for a moment mean to overlook the horror of the four events that do appear in the ad. Each of them was a crime against humanity itself, whose perpetrators must pay fully for it.
But were the riots not just such a crime as well?
After all, they happened, didn't they? They weren't a collective figment of our collective imaginations. So why is it that the riots are rarely mentioned in the columns, entirely absent from the full page ad?
Were they somehow less deadly than the four crimes in the ad? Well, the blasts killed about 250 Indians, the Indian Airlines hijack left one Indian dead, the Anantnag massacre 35, the WTC assault count is at thousands and rising. As I mentioned before, the riots killed about a thousand Indians. The way I see it, and I'd like to think that's the only way to see it, one death to terrorism is one death too many. But by the callous numbers alone it cannot be that the riots were a less deadly act of terror than the others.
Then is it that the four events involved a qualitatively greater degree of terror than the riots? Perhaps you think so. But put yourself in the place of Sharad Pawar's afternoon guests, those terrified residents of Bombay's most polished neighbourhood. Put yourself in the place of those panic-stricken Bombayites looking fearfully out to sea at Dadar. Think of what it means to feel the terror of the evil that was loose in Bombay for not just a moment, or a few hours, or a week, but every hour for nearly two months. Put yourself, if you can stand it, in the slippers of Raju as he was reduced to pieces of bloody flesh one January night.
Is there any difference, and is there even any sense in asking about such difference, in the level of terror unleashed by all these events?
Or is it that those responsible for the four crimes are unimaginably evil, shadowy, slippery and powerful men who have escaped justice and live overseas? Well, I don't know how you measure evil. But I do know that those responsible for the Bombay riots live right here among us. For all I know, the young man who strolled past on the street below as I stood in silence at 10:30 could have been one of Raju's murderers. The men who filled him with the hatred that drove him to murder, who urged on Bombay's rioting throngs, live powerful, protected and unpunished lives right here in Bombay.
You tell me: is the knowledge that murderers and their instigators live openly down the road from me any less, or more, terrifying than the knowledge that other such scum live in hideouts in Karachi or Afghanistan?
Something inside me longs for, craves for, answers to the innumerable questions I've asked in this column. Do you have any for me? For yourself?
And even as I write those words, it troubles me no end that I could ask the same questions, write the same several paragraphs, about the murder of 3,000 Indians in Delhi 17 years ago. Yes, why was that massacre of 3,000 turbaned Indians not mentioned in the PM's full page ad? Did they not feel terror?
And as I write *those* words, it troubles me some more that while a murder of just such a turbaned man in Mesa, AZ, has seen the swift arrest of his murderer, in India we have not cared to punish the murderers from 1984. Then or since. Seventeen years since.
'Every Indian has to be a part of this global war on terrorism,' you remember our PM said, and 'we must, and we will, stamp out this evil from our land and from the world.' I could not agree more. But when in India we begin this global war by overlooking the evil in our own land, by explaining it away in our own minds, by pretending it doesn't even exist: yes, I do feel an unease that no moments of silence can erase. For I wonder: just what war are we Indians fighting? If we tolerate terrorism every day, how will we ever stamp it out?
The lesson from the horror of September 11 is hardly that Islamic terrorism threatens the world. It is that when religion is used to justify crime and spread hate -- as it has been in Afghanistan and Kashmir, Ayodhya and Bombay -- religion itself is perverted. Justice and humanity are destroyed.
Now there's something to fight a global war for.
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