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Trivial Pursuit


After the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, there was unprecedented public outcry provoking the resignation of the Union home minister and the dismissal of Maharashtra's chief minister. Many jumped to the conclusion that India would, finally, take effective action against terrorists and their state sponsors. An apparently inflexible diplomatic stance was adopted, demanding convincing Pakistani action against the 26/11 conspirators. The 'peace process' has since remained suspended. Pushed by western powers, Pakistan initiated reluctant steps against the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) front holding some of its leaders in notional custody, and 'shutting down' a small proportion of its institutional assets. There is, however, little evidence that the organisation's operations have been undermined.

Further evidence of the trivialisation of 26/11 in Pakistan was provided by the Lahore high court's orders to release Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, head of the LeT/JuD. Islamabad promises to contest the court's order, but this is just part of an old charade. The man will be 'arrested' again, to be held in honourable custody, an entirely unconvincing case will be presented by the prosecution and the court will, again, order his release. Eventually, the international outcry will be sufficiently mild to make the release stick or the farce will simply go through another cycle.

Meanwhile, Pakistan tells the world that its slaughter of its own citizens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)/North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks purportedly 'targeting' the renegade Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is sufficient proof of its 'determination' to fight 'terrorism'. Islamabad insists the world is due to give it further instalments of augmenting aid for its efforts, and to support the deluge of refugees provoked essentially by the use of excessive force by its own army.

At the same time, establishment Islamists in Pakistan accuse India of being obstructive, arguing that the resumption of the peace process cannot be linked to the Mumbai carnage which was in any case "a very small event", and that Pakistan has "suffered bigger incidents of terror".

The world is fully entranced by this performance. The Obama administration has reverted to admonishing India to provide a 'solution' to the 'Kashmir problem' and do more to create 'greater trust', so that Pakistan can withdraw its forces from its eastern borders to focus more fully on bombing the brains out of the people of FATA and NWFP.

The trivialisation of 26/11 doesn't end with Pakistan. In India, statements by top leaders suggest that New Delhi is simply waiting for minimal compliance to get back to the 'peace process'. Vilasrao Deshmukh's elevation to the Union cabinet demonstrates that 26/11 has faded into irrelevance. He was asked to relinquish his post after the 26/11 debacle and the disgraceful 'terror tourism' incident, when he took his actor son and another film personality around the devastated Taj Hotel.

The media and a gaggle of Page 3 personalities had pretended that 26/11 had made terrorism a core electoral issue. That little fable was set to rest by the low voter turnout in Mumbai at 43.3 per cent, a full percentage point below the 2004 elections. With Mumbai voters displaying such habitual 'resilience', there was obviously little political cost to rehabilitating Deshmukh.

For the chattering classes, terrorism is titillation, something to discuss breathlessly at parties. Few understand the sheer horror and dehumanisation that terrorists inflict; fewer still are aware of the tremendous capacities that are at risk of falling into the hands of the most unscrupulous enemy India could imagine.

This is the gravest risk of the trivialisation of 26/11: the trivialisation of the enveloping threats that confront India. At best, the political leadership focuses on the immediate threat, making some fitful provisions for augmented security. The larger issue of growing disorders in the region, the spectre of a failing nuclear-armed Pakistan, the terrorists' dogged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction all these are simply too large even to find place in the policymakers' imagination. Pakistani defence analyst Pervez Hoodbhoy remarks, "Nuclear affairs are now being guided by wishful, delusional thinking. The most frightening delusion is India's trivialisation of Pakistan's nuclear capability." There is an overwhelming proclivity to underplay this threat, or simply to assume, with little justification, that when push comes to shove the Americans will 'neutralise' Pakistan's nuclear assets for us.

The tense equilibrium of mutually assured destruction cannot give us solace. Pakistan is too close and given to a calculus that does not coincide with our notions of rationality. Its nuclear arsenal is at risk, as state failure looms large. If sufficient nuclear materials were to pass into the hands of Islamist extremists to enable the fabrication even of a 'dirty bomb', we would be confronted with a catastrophe that would make our past history of terrorism seem trifling. But the threat of a nuclear catastrophe is dwarfed by the dangers of biological terrorism, which, experts agree, would kill far greater numbers.

In India, however, we continue to quibble over the incremental augmentation of forces and capacities to no more than 'counter' the 'next 26/11'. The war against terrorism is a long war. But we remain abysmally unprepared.

(Published in Times of India, New Delhi, June 22, 2009)





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