Wikileaks, Rahul Gandhi, and terror debate in India


The terrorism debate in India, at least within the mainstream media, is perhaps the best example of public discourse growing bereft of depth.

The furor over the leaked US cables that revealed Rahul Gandhi’s statement to US Ambassador Timothy Roemer is a case in point.

Without going into the merits or demerits of Gandhi’s statement, what is clear is that such an assertion before a foreign envoy – while keeping in mind that India at that time, and still continues to, was seeking American influence over Pakistan to clamp down on extremists groups targeting India – was not merely distasteful but smacked of naivety.

The existence of terrorism is, and has been for more than a while – to put it mildly – a fact of life for Indians, urban and rural alike. Its definition remains contentious. That is particularly more so with the notion of state terror – a proposition that is beyond the purview of this article.

Yet what are clear are the pre-requisites that lead a person or a group of people to perpetuate the violence that we generally classify as terrorism.

These could be broadly identified as economic deprivation, a perception – true or not – of social discrimination/isolation, ideological and religious predilections and disaffection with the existing institutions of politics and governance.

Based on our experiences through the past, it is safe to surmise that none of these factors operate exclusively nor is the existence of any of them in itself, or even all of them, sufficient to result in violence.

However, in general, when a person or a group resorts to the instrument of terror to either express discontent, cause mayhem or challenge the order, their motivations can be traced back to these. And an exclusion of this knowledge in framing any policy to tackle terrorism can at best be termed as ignorance and at worst administrative and strategic inadequacy.

That brings us to the argument over our public discourse, more so in the aftermath of the Wikileaks revelations.

In response, what we have heard is the stock discussion over phrases and terminology, calls for the need to stand united to fight terror and the emphasis on external powers and their role in exporting terrorism to India.

While all these are important, particularly in the immediate aftermath of an event like 26/11 when the fabric of the Indian state and our society faced a serious challenge, today we are not in that situation. Muscles are still tense, but flaring tempers have eased; now is the time for us to have a more nuanced approach.

In the case of Maoist violence, over the last two years, we have witnessed a reasonable amount of introspection over the government’s policy options. In the end, there seems to be at least an uneasy consensus that merely expression the will of the Indian state through force will prove insufficient.

Development that is participatory, better planning and recognition of people’s rights over their resources are critical in tackling the root causes of the problem.

How well the central and state governments can implement that agenda, however, only time will tell. At the moment, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that at least in theory our policy has undergone refinement.

Yet when it comes to terrorism that finds its root in socio-religious ideologies, there is a sudden retreat to the trenches laden with the ammunition of age-old, stated positions. The state and political actors suddenly tend to play coy, lest they rouse sentiments. It’s a paranoia that isn’t completely unjustified, but the fact that it continues to exist is a cause for serious concern.

It may be a truism that terror has no religion, but it’s foolhardy to say that it doesn’t find its justification in religious doctrines. Not all men who are religious are terrorists, but among those who espouse terrorism there are more than enough who believe that they are fulfilling a divine purpose.

That fact in itself requires any policy aimed at contending with religious extremism and the violence that it spawns to incorporate social and religious reformation as key components. In doing so, it is crucial for the state to encourage internal debate within and between communities. And mass media is an important tool for that.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps far too much to demand complexity on television. The shows are structured so and meant to be brief, laden with platitudes and a mere reiteration of superficial and stated positions between political rivals. I would, however, stop short of laying the entire blame on the media. A large proportion of it rests with the viewers.

Often we tend to relish the gladiatorial aggressiveness displayed by spokespersons of parties and clap at quixotic responses to questions of a practical and urgent nature. Between these, there remains a whole lot unsaid and unexplained, leaving us woefully uninformed.

It’s time for us to seek depth and display a willingness to permit social and political introspection. It seriously is high time that as a nation, we steel our sensitivities on such issues and rather let them be inflamed by the corruption and scams.

(Manoj Kewalramani is a guest writer with Canary Trap. He has worked with top media houses like NDTV before becoming an Independent Blogger and Writer.)

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