In the wake of Pulwama, why India must watch out for the rabble-rousers

Any outrage like this is followed by grief, mass anger, more damage and senseless actions, all ostensibly to soothe our sense of insecurity, but which only add to this.

 |  7-minute read |   19-02-2019
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There are two things that are absolutely taboo — in fact, they go beyond being impolitic and are considered cardinal sins. One is speaking ill of the dead, and the other is making any kind of noise that does not fall in step with the groundswell of populist outrage after a terror attack.

The second, in fact, is practically treasonous in the climate of nationalist fury. The old adage of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread comes to mind. Nevertheless, I would ask for indulgence while making a few points, perverse though it may seem in the present circumstances of this heinous terrorist attack that has claimed the lives of over 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel.

pulwama-690_021819033845.jpgThe whipped-up waves of rage over the Pulwama attack will only do the country more harm than good. (Source: Reuters)

The often heard remonstrance, "Don't play politics at a time like this" has become a constraint on democratic free speech. It imposes dos and don’ts on public discourse and accepts only rage and revenge comments as legitimate, to the exclusion of any other thought.

Any inquiry into security lapses becomes an irritant.

Nevertheless, the question begs itself as to how, in the most fortified and militarised zone in the world (with the presence of about 6.5 lakh to 7.5 lakh security personnel reportedly) where, to put it hyperbolically, even a mosquito is strip-searched before being allowed to proceed to the next barrier, a vehicle carrying about 320 kgs of explosives roams free, that too on the major Jammu Srinagar highway.

Kabir Taneja, an expert on national security at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, said that this type of large-scale bomb attack is rare in Kashmir, where militants often mount attacks using firearms, not improvised explosive devices.

Despite claims by the Narendra Modi government that demonetisation has defanged them, Pakistan-based terrorists and local militants are evidently active in Kashmir. This attack happened a few days after the visit of Modi and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s trip to the Valley. This is the highest casualty since the Pathankot attack in 2016.

modi-690_021819034259.jpgThe Pulwama attack came just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Kashmir. (Source: India Today)

Terrorist incidents in J&K climbed to 614 in 2018 — as opposed to 222 in 2014, showing an increase of 177 per cent.

As many as 838 terrorists were killed over the last five years, the number climbed from 110 in 2014 to 257 in 2018 — a 134 per cent increase, reported IndiaSpend.

According to the data, 2018 saw the most number of terrorist incidents over the last five years — up 80 per cent from 2017. Yet, On January 12, Sitharaman claimed that there have been no major terror attacks since the Modi government came into power. She said, "BJP workers should highlight two things. First, that there has been no major terrorist attack after 2014. All attempts to wreak havoc in the country have been eliminated at the border itself and this government has ensured that there are no opportunities for terrorists to disturb peace.”

Five days after this claim, on January 17, at least five people were injured after militants lobbed a grenade at a police party in Srinagar, near Zero Bridge in the central Rajbagh area.

Pointing this out is ‘playing politics’

If one is perceived to be lacking a few decimals in the pitch of aggressive fervour, one is immediately labelled an 'anti-national'. One prepares oneself with a sense of resignation for the comments to be spewed by the toxic Islamophobic hate factories to further divide our people. The common refrain tarring the entire Muslim community finds expression on social media platforms and under the comments sections of every article.

Including this one, I can guarantee, even as I write this.

The pitch of rhetoric and public indignation is high at the moment — and that is understandable given how vulnerable and powerless we all feel. But in our frustration, what is the point of tearing ourselves apart and biting off our own hands and feet?

Any outrage like the one currently on is followed by mass hysteria, more damage and senseless actions to soothe our sense of insecurity. On February 16, a mob comprising reportedly of members of right-wing groups, including the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), in Dehradun thrashed 12 students from Kashmir and Kashmiri students including girls were compelled to lock themselves inside their hostel rooms, cowering in fear. The mob demanded they return to the Valley, calling them “traitors”.

There was a police lathicharge to clear the tracks at Nalasopara station near Mumbai when a mob blocked the railway tracks on a “Ral Roko” protest. Who does that even benefit? Reports say that the mob comprised office-goers — are we to believe that ordinary office-goers behave in that way? Political parties like the Shiv Sena, which actually called for a bandh at Vasai-Virar, could have been involved.

The CCI (Cricket Club of India) covered a portrait of Pakistan Prime Minister and former skipper Imran Khan that was placed in the 'Porbander All-Rounder', a restaurant inside the club premises. A photo of the Pakistan team that also featured Khan was covered too.

In Bollywood, Kangana Ranaut has gone a step further in her public demonstration of nationalism and said, “Anyone who lectures about non-violence and peace at this time should be painted black, put on a donkey and slapped by everyone on the streets."

Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar cancelled an invitation by the Karachi Arts Council because of the Pulwama massacre — but that apparently was not enough for the Manikarnika actress. She lashed out, "People like Shabana Azmi calling for halt on cultural exchange... they are the ones who promote Bharat Tere Tukde Honge gangs... Why did they organise an event in Karachi in the first place when Pakistani artistes have been banned after Uri attacks? And now they are trying to save face? The film industry is full of such anti-nationals who boost enemies' morals in many ways.”

Whether one likes it or not, tragic incidents of soldiers getting killed at the hands of militants fuel right-wing narratives and further their goals. This happens while at the same time slyly saying, “Don’t play politics at a time like this”.

Hindutva trolls have been quick to take advantage of this tragedy. They have been busy on social media, WhatsApping photoshopped photos of Rahul Gandhi apparently posing with the suicide bomber and Priyanka Gandhi laughing after the terror attack.

Revenge is uppermost on the minds of many Indians at the moment but it is worthwhile to take a step back and realise how the vicious cycle of revenge and counter revenge has played out in Kashmir, or indeed anywhere in the world.

I humbly submit that if the government machinery reacts to terror attacks with a retributive mindset, rather than a reformative one, then, unfortunately, more such attacks could happen.

Let us remember that the ordinary Kashmiri wants peace and a stable life. Let us remember that in 1996, Kashmir recorded an unprecedented voter turnout of 55 per cent in what was undeniably faith in the democratic process and the power of the ballot.

What has changed since then?

reuters-690_021819034616.jpgWho are we aiming at? The cycle of violence in Kashmir has only intensified in the recent past. (Source: Reuters)

In 2016, Kashmir suffered one of its bloodiest phases, post Burhan Wani's killing. More than 100 civilians were left dead, thousands injured and maimed with bullets and plastic pellets. Even as right-wing Hindutva supporters crowed in delight all over the country, the Uri army camp as well as army convoys were attacked, infiltration increased and more youth joined the militia.

The suicide bomber who carried out the present attack is said to have been radicalised after suffering humiliation at the hands of security forces.

It is the aftermath of such tragedies, and our darkest moments that severely test us as a nation, our maturity and calm, our resolve to stand together and united against common enemies.

The greatest responsibility falls on the shoulders of the media, not to sensationalise, provoke, incite or to provide a platform for sabre-rattlers and rabble-rousers to bay for blood in return for blood, but to maintain journalistic integrity and objectivity.

The newsrooms are not our strategy planning headquarters, nor are our streets our battlegrounds.

Also read: Dear Bollywood, not every occasion is right for you to score populist points


Gautam Benegal Gautam Benegal @gautambenegal

Award winning animation filmmaker, artist, author, and social commentator.

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