Thursday, September 8, 2011

Soft government, soft state, hard terror

(First published in The Pioneer on September 8, 2011)


The high intensity terror attack at the Delhi High Court on Wednesday, September 7, underscores the bitter reality which the UPA Government obstinately refuses to concede: We are a soft state that has spectacularly failed to decisively act against terrorism. We are open to being pounded by terrorists again and again and again. The softness comes not merely by the fact we have become such an easy target, to be picked at will, but also by the more worrisome truth that we have done little to put fear into the minds of a potential terrorist — the fear that if you are caught you will not escape the death penalty. Recent incidents have demonstrated that the terrorists need not bother much about that eventuality, even if the courts awarded the death sentence the terror convict can live on through the process of a clemency plea to the President, who can then take years to decide on the matter, allowing the convict to yet again appeal to the courts against the delay in deciding on his (or her) mercy petition.

Only a soft state can indulge in such farcical processes. The absence of harsh measures and quicker forms of justice is not the fallacy of the law in place, although even courts often take far too long to dispose of terror attack cases. It is a result of the complete absence of a strong political will — a will that should be guided more by the larger good of the country and less by parochial considerations of religion and diplomacy. Yet, it is the latter that we have seen more and more of. We are a nation in which even the killers of a former Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi) have managed to escape the noose for years, where the prime convict in a terror attack on Parliament — no less — continues to play hide and seek despite being given the death sentence by the court. It will surprise no one if, eventually, the 26/11 Mumbai attack convict Ajmal Kasab too gets off the hook for a decade or more or even forever.

Where does the common man look to for justice? Is there a forum for the victims of these incessant attacks that they can trust? Parliament, which supposedly represents the people of the country, has done away with strong Acts to tackle terrorism. POTA and TADA were abolished on the ground that they were too harsh and harmed the fundamental rights of the accused. Instead we now have a law that several experts have said is incapable of fighting terror. As if that was not enough, several politicians from the UPA have been for long gunning for the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that is crucial to battling terrorism, especially of the across-the-border variety. They want it to be scrapped, and they want us to believe that the existing laws to tackle theft, loot and arson are good enough for the hardened terrorists who blow up people and shoot indiscriminately at people. We are told that the local police force, that in the best of times struggles to nab even a petty criminal, is equipped to handle terrorists, engage them in long-drawn encounters and emerge victorious. So, who has the last laugh? The September 7 incident provides the answer.

But, let terror strike, again and yet again. How does it matter! Our politicians are now consumed with the feeling of forgiveness that is overflowing from their tender hearts. The Tamil Nadu Assembly passes a resolution seeking mercy for Rajiv Gandhi’s killers. Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah blatantly wonders what the reaction would be if his State Assembly adopted a similar resolution for Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. Quick to pick the hint, a Kashmir legislator decides to present the resolution in the House. Forgiveness is in the air.

So is reconciliation. Several members of the intelligentsia, who are far removed from the harsh ground realities, have begun to press for an end to the blood spill, to come together, forgive and forget. But will violence end by forgiving the terrorists, by giving them life when they brought death to hundreds? Will the terrorists, whose lives get spared — when it should not — turn over into a new leaf in prison? The important issue is: Will all this forgiveness and reconciliation be at par with justice? Justice for the families of those whose dear ones were consumed by terror attacks can come when the guilty are punished. If our law says that that punishment is death, then death it should be. All sorts of criminals are put to death in what the courts find as the ‘rarest of rare cases’; why should the terrorists be allowed to make a mockery of law? In any case, if our law-makers have problems with the death row, they should amend the law and abolish the death penalty.

Of course, terror strikes happen for a variety of reasons, including the lack of quality intelligence that could prevent the tragedy or the absence of adequate measures taken on the basis of specific intelligence inputs. But these are technicalities that can be fixed by tweaking or overhauling the system. This is a continuing process that countries like the US and Israel that have been hit in the past the most by terror attacks have engaged in. But they have also struck ruthlessly at their attackers, risking even the ire of the world community. Unfortunately, we have not, and that has further emboldened the attackers.

Not just that, we do not have the courage to even diplomatically counter the offensive. So, we continue to engage Pakistan even after it repeatedly rubbishes the tomes of evidence that we have provided on the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack and refuses to act decisively against individuals and institutions that openly spew venom against India from its soil. We are ever eager to offer the US, whose economy is in a crisis, our huge markets even as Washington, DC continues to offer financial aid and military ware to Islamabad, much of which we know will get directed against us. What prevents us from using the leverage of our economy to push the US into trimming or even cutting off aid to Pakistan, or to stop talking to Islamabad until it meets our core concerns? Our softness as a nation.

In the last three years, there have been three major terrorist attacks in the country — two in Delhi and one in Mumbai. They all have some Pakistani linkage. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says terrorism will be effectively dealt with. We have heard that before. None of his or his Government’s actions has so far indicated any real resolve to do that. Before long, some senior member of his party will get into the act and say that the recent attack was planned by the Right-wing fundamentalists, even as investigators grapple with different sorts of evidence. But the Prime Minister will not have the courage to tick him off, because that party leader could be enjoying the confidence of 10, Janpath.
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