Over the last couple of years we have taken profound steps. We have improved in leaps and bounds,” said Indian National Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi in Bhubaneswar, a day after serial blasts rocked Mumbai, earlier this year. “But terrorism is impossible to stop all the time.” Indeed, humans can’t get lucky all the time.

It was July 13. Mumbai’s streets and marketplaces were busy as usual. But in a span of 10 minutes, around 7 p.m., the city was sent into familiar horror. Three bomb blasts were triggered between 6.55 p.m. and 7.05 p.m. It left 21 dead and scores injured.

The next day, the prime minister arrived in Mumbai to “express solidarity with the serial blasts-hit Mumbaikars” as a major daily newspaper put it: “(The perpetrators) must be brought to justice quickly and be subject to the rule of law that they have sought to subvert,” said Manmohan Singh. “We owe this to the grieving families.”

Grieving families, it seems, are to be taken for granted, as if what struck them was an unavoidable natural calamity.

The question one would ideally ask is just what brings about a situation where people resort to such horrific violence and bloodshed. However, the so-called experts in India—whether in government, the opposition, intelligence, so-called civil society or the media—have traditionally busied themselves with focusing public perception on a deceptively similar, but different, question: What can prevent the occurrence of such events?

Without exception, the intervention that such experts propose is logistical which, in turn, is entirely based on security and intelligence.

Expectedly, things were not too different less than two months later. On a Wednesday morning (September 7), a bomb blast outside the Delhi High Court killed at least a dozen and left more than 70 injured. A pensive Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, later in the day, told the Lok Sabha: “Intelligence agencies constantly share intelligence inputs with Delhi Police. Intelligence pertaining to threats emanating from certain groups was shared with Delhi Police in July 2011… Despite the capacity that has been built (to strengthen Delhi Police) and despite the police remaining on high alert, the tragic incident took place today.”

Elsewhere, Manmohan Singh stated that terrorists were taking advantage of the “security loopholes” that needed to be plugged.

Within no time, the media began to postmortem these statements: Was the intelligence input given to Delhi Police “actionable”? Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor Tejinder Khanna said: “The letter from the home ministry was not actionable intelligence.” Other security “experts”  started explaining how and why intelligence could be either actionable or non-actionable. Others, meanwhile, had gone berserk over whether Pakistan was being let “off the hook”.

“Where are the tough measures?” television anchor Arnab Goswami thundered: “Who is responsible tonight?”

The problem is that in the obsession with technicalities, the average Mumbaikar, or the average Indian, is simply being asked to take for granted that he or she is a perpetual target of terror strikes. Not a single indication of the possibility that terrorism can be dealt with at the root and overcome at the source is being made.

Media’s Mumbai debate

To its credit, when the blasts rocked Mumbai, the government didn’t deliver any instant verdicts about the perpetrators’ identity and affiliations. However, as investigations showed, the usual suspects were on parade: Muslims, Pakistan, Azamgarh, Students Islamic Movement of India, and of course the Indian Mujahideen. And most of the media outlets, whether electronic or print, whipped up a frenzy about the “suspects” as if the allegation had already been proven.

On the television news channel NDTV, anchor Nidhi Razdan posed a question to Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar: “(There are no) shrill reactions… But do you admit that this was a serious intelligence lapse?”

Taking a dig at the BJP leader LK Advani, Aiyar replied: “…we live in a volatile region. And we live in a very volatile country. I wouldn’t jump to conclusions which suit my political purposes as it would seem Mr Advani has done. (Advani) talks about the Indian Mujahideen. How does he know? He says there’s a definite Pakistan hand. How do we know? We will have to move away from partisan politics and deal with the kind of technical issues that were raised by my friend Praveen Swami a few minutes ago…”

It was the television news channel NewsX which, after reporting the unprecedented raids across the country targeted at nabbing “Indian Mujahideen operatives”, raised these points: “The question is whether the sheer number of raids and searches show that the investigators are really still in the dark. And why are the police focusing on jailed Indian Mujahideen operatives alone? Also, if the leads are specific, as the investigators claim, why haven’t they really thrown up anything significant?” Sadly, such scrutiny was a complete exception.

It’s all technical

“There were no intelligence inputs to the Central or the State agencies about any imminent attack in Mumbai. This does not mean a failure of intelligence.” It was Chidambaram talking to the press in Mumbai, a day after the serial blasts. Later in the day, NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan posed the question to “terrorism expert” Praveen Swami (senior journalist with The Hindu): “The home minister today said that there was no specific intelligence input but he says that it’s not an intelligence failure… Is it that… we just have to live with this?”

“There are ways of stopping them,” replied Swami. “(There’s been) a drama with all the expensive weapons, wonderful computers and people prancing around in nice uniforms. But none of the desperately needed infrastructure reforms have really taken place. Two years after 26/11, we still don’t have a centre of police excellence. We don’t have a place that can produce trainers for academies that are cropping up. Police remain chronically overworked. If you go to the Delhi Metro, you will see that all these people we have hired, not one of them is holding his weapon correctly…”

Another counter-terrorism expert, K C Singh, said: “It is oxymoronic to say that this isn’t an intelligence failure. If you don’t have intelligence, then obviously it is an intelligence failure. If you have the intelligence but still not able to stop it then that would be an operational failure.”

And thus, such were the “technical issues” that Mani Shankar Aiyar was advocating and wanted everyone to do deal with: To get the desperately-needed infrastructure reforms underway; to set up police academies of excellence; to recruit more people in the police; to call an intelligence failure an intelligence failure, and to call an operational failure an operational failure, and to know the difference between the two; to not have to face the embarrassment of being unable to find past perpetrators of terror; and to train the security personnel at Delhi Metro to hold their weapons correctly.

Elsewhere, other experts discussed more such technical issues:

“All those plans for NCTC, MAC centre, federal investigative agency, blah, blah, blah… What’s happened to all of those? Are they actually operational or are they not?”

“The file is pending with the prime minister.” (An Opposition leader in reply to the above question.)

“Mr Chidambaram is not going to stand in the narrow streets of Mumbai gathering information about some jihadi group over there. Some poor constable is, but this constable isn’t equipped for it.”

“Why did the government do away with the TADA?”

The problem is that in the obsession with such technicalities, the average Mumbaikar, or an average Indian, is simply being asked to take for granted that he or she is a perpetual target of terror strikes. Not a single indication of the possibility that terrorism can be dealt with at the root and overcome at the source is being made. Whether such interventions are political—which actually they should be—or not is a separate question, but under no condition an avoidable one.

My deep apologies for expressing general angst. What am I supposed to do? Come here and express myself in abstractions of policy debates of the BJP versus the Congress? Or whether this was an operational failure or an intelligence failure? Is that what I was called on to do? 

But all that the government says it can do is try to catch the perpetrators or, at best, frustrate their plans before they try to do anything; but the perpetrators will continue to exist, perhaps even thrive, and attack. In other words, terror strikes will continue to be attempted. And what the state needs to do is prevent them from happening.

But, as Rahul Gandhi mentioned, no matter what the preventive measures, a fraction of these attempts will simply succeed. And then, for the grieving families, the government will arrive to mourn, and announce relief. So? Run, if you can hide.

The spirited outburst

The media in India has invariably followed such incidents in Mumbai with a customary story: the story about the indomitable “spirit” of the Mumbaikar, who will go to work no matter what.

A few years ago, when Mumbai was attacked in similar blasts, a newspaper headline said: “Mumbai spirit alive and kicking, Sensex gains 500 points.”

This time, however, sections of the media perhaps felt the story had been dragged too far. So, on CNN-IBN for example, the “spirit” story was given a twist: “The morning after Wednesday’s terror attacks, Mumbai was back on its feet as people went to office and children attended schools. The question is: is it the spirit of Mumbai at work or has the city learnt to live with terror?”

It posed a question to the government: “The question uppermost in the minds of Mumbaikars is that till how long will the government hide its own inefficiencies by praising the spirit of a city.” CNN-IBN should have posed the question first to itself, and to the media it represents.

It was Nidhi Razdan, however, who had to face an embarrassment Indian television anchors are rarely used to. Nearly half an hour into her programmme discussing the terror attack, she turned to her Mumbai guest: “Jerry, I don’t want to generalise this about how the people of Mumbai are taking this today. Obviously, there’s a sense of ‘we don’t have any choice but to get on with life’. How has the response been compared to 26/11 (2008 Mumbai attacks)?”

Jerry Pinto, a writer and Mumbaikar, retorted in a manner that rattled the entire panel (except one person): “Why are you asking me this question,” he asked.

“Why am I here? Why has this become something that Delhi people will talk about in Delhi as if it has nothing to do with Bombay? Why did your cameras go in, do a little camera rape on those victims and then walk away? And then you give it to these four distinguished gentlemen, sitting around in Delhi, discussing as though nothing ever happened? What is going on here?”

There was a commotion among Razdan’s panelists.

Pinto continued: “This is the thirty-first minute of the conversation. And it’s the first time you are asking a question to a Bombay boy? Is this real?”

Razdan began apologising but Pinto would take none of it. He continued:

“…I’m telling you that Bombay is upset… And we are largely upset because the reportage comes out of Delhi. And Delhi does not seem to understand that this is something that happened in this city.”

“Tell me how you feel. Tell us what’s going through your mind.”

“What is going through my mind is this. That four very elegant gentlemen, sitting with a lady, and discussing this in abstractions. And then you come to me and ask me about the “spirit” question. That old, tired, spirit question. How many times will you ask me that spirit question?”

“I’m not asking you about the spirit at all. I asked you a completely different question,” said Razdan, as she began to lose her composure. “I am asking you that how has the response to this attack been different from 26/11? There is this sense that people have to get on with life, that whole issue of the spirit of Mumbai is frankly an irrelevant issue. But, what’s the common thread of conversation today?”

Before she could finish Pinto retorted: “Why is it irrelevant? Why is it an irrelevant issue? To whom is it irrelevant? Is it irrelevant to the media? Is it irrelevant to the chattering classes? Or is it irrelevant because you have decided that you are bored of it? What has suddenly made it irrelevant?”

At this point, Razdan tried to intervene, but ended up laughing: “Mr Pinto, I’m not the one who is your enemy right now… I don’t understand why you are angry with us…”

Pinto said: “Every city has a narrative that it gives itself. Every city has a story that it repeats to itself. This story is generally not in use except in times when difficulty strikes. When difficulty strikes, this city says to itself that I am a resilient city and I will get up and go to work.” And he cried in frustration: “What about that seems irrelevant to you, or to anybody?”

At this, the panelists (Chandan Mitra, K C Singh, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Praveen Swami) gestured as if asking “what nonsense is this man talking?”

Mitra intervened: “I don’t understand, Mr Pinto. What are you getting so agitated about? … You haven’t made a point except express a general angst.”

Pinto cried out: “My deep apologies for expressing general angst. I’m so sorry!” A gesticulating Pinto continued: “What am I supposed to do? Come here and express myself in abstractions of policy debates of the BJP versus the Congress? Or whether this was an operational failure or an intelligence failure? Is that what I was called on to do?”

Following best the traditions of his party, the Indian National Congress was Mani Shankar Aiyar, who had almost throughout this angry exchange kept his hand over his mouth—watching, without speaking a single word.

Three men came one day to advocate Shahid Azmi’s office in Mumbai and shot him dead. His crime: He chose to defend the accused in the 26/11 Mumbai attack case. Last May, a special court acquitted two people charged  by the police with  being a part of the attacks, persuaded in a big way by Azmi’s spirited defence. 

People’s outrage

Pinto’s outburst wasn’t just an expression of outrage about the “spirit” question. And he wasn’t alone. Perhaps, in a sense, his outrage was shared less than two months later in Delhi by the people who attacked politicians who had come to visit the injured in hospitals, the notable one being  Rahul Gandhi.

When he went to visit the affected at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital hours after the blast in Delhi, Rahul had to return without being able to visit the emergency block. Reason? As a television news anchor put it, he was “jeered, booed and heckled” by the people at the hospital. Rahul struggled to cut through an angry crowd as he left the scene after he had somehow managed to visit the surgical ward.

“Embarrassed and humiliated, he left the spot in hurry,” noted a television report. He shouldn’t have been surprised.

“Terrorism is impossible to stop all the time,” he had said just after the Mumbai attacks. People’s anger at the hospital, of which Rahul wasn’t the only recipient, couldn’t just be outrage at the occurrence of a terror attack, or loss of lives, though that in itself is no ordinary matter. But it was also a warning that the common man was simply, grossly unconvinced by the futile and convoluted “debate” in response to terrorism that was rampant all around. After all, what was being discussed was something that was meant to prevent attacks, not to solve the issue.

Call it an extraordinary coincidence that just 16 minutes after the blast outside the Delhi High Court, the Supreme Court began the final hearing of the 1993 Mumbai serial bomb blasts case. The serial blasts had left more than 250 dead and over 700 injured. As a media report noted, 100 people were convicted. Of them, 11 were given the death sentence while others were given sentences ranging from three years to life.

The question that begs asking, however, is just what happened to the report of the Justice B N Srikrishna Commission which probed the Bombay riots of 1992-93 in which nearly 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims, the riots of which the March 1993 serial blasts were believed to be an immediate aftermath? The Srikrishna Report, if at all any of its shreds exist, must be rotting somewhere while the people it incriminated, including Bal Thakeray and his Shiv Sena goons, breathe free air.

Shortly after the blast in Delhi, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi beamed a message through YouTube: “Terrorists are ceaselessly trying to drench the land of this nation with blood. People are fed up…” Is anyone asking the question how a person who as chief minister of a state allegedly oversaw one of the most horrific anti-Muslim pogroms continues to be the chief minister of that state?

A day after the attacks in Mumbai, the home minister visited the blast sites and said, “The Maharashtra government took successful counter-terror measures. They arrested two IM operatives and 17 cadres of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). We will probe if the blasts were in reaction to this.” (Emphasis added here and ahead.) The Maharashtra police were asked, he said, “not to proceed on any kind of assumption or presupposition. All groups hostile to the country are suspect.” But Chidambaram chose to ignore the disgraceful politicking of the BJP and the Congress over the cases related to the mass murder of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, a perpetual reminder of how injustice remains systemic in India and fuels discontent.

Or, for that matter the reluctant admission by the government of the existence of so-called Hindutva terror outfits like the Abhinav Bharat. This is not to say that the latest terror strikes have necessarily happened for these reasons or have been carried out by such groups. But what’s being grossly ignored is what the Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan noted: “You cannot accept that people disagree and then they kill… You must condemn this. But in the discussion afterwards, you cannot say there is no connection. On ethical grounds, it’s wrong. On political grounds, there is a connection.”

It is this connection that needs addressing, irrespective of what may or may not be behind a particular attack, be it in Mumbai, Delhi or Malegaon.

But it’s not that the government doesn’t know what’s staring at it, either. And it’s not that the “experts” don’t know that improved intelligence and investigative capabilities will not root out the problem. But the government, the experts and the media have all found their interests in not raising such questions.

What, then, is kept missing from the endless, pointless terror debate? In recent times, there have been at least two issues that, if pondered sincerely, would have made a difference—both practically and qualitatively.

One, reports published recently by two organisations. While the New York-based Human Rights Watch published “The ‘Anti-Nationals’—Arbitrary detention and torture of terror suspects in India”; London-based Amnesty International published “A Lawless Law – Detentions under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act”.

The “Anti-Nationals” noted that “security forces in India… have time and again responded to (terror) attacks by committing serious human rights violations in their quest to identify and prosecute suspected perpetrators. These abuses are both unlawful under Indian and international law and counterproductive in the fight against terrorism.”

The report focused “primarily on torture and other abuses by police against alleged Muslim militants. But the Indian security forces have long applied similar, unlawful methods against members of other groups deemed a security threat. These include Maoist rebels known as Naxalites in (several) areas of the country, parties to the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, and Hindu militants accused by the home minister of ‘saffron terror’. ”

The report also recalls the heartbreaking story of Mumbai-based lawyer Shahid Azmi: “Azmi was among the few lawyers willing to defend terrorism suspects in Maharashtra. A witness to violent anti-Muslim riots as a teenager in 1992, Azmi was arrested after joining a Kashmiri militant group and sentenced to five years in prison. …His experience with the justice system and those of many others he met while in prison—all convicted under the abusive and now defunct Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act—inspired him to defend persons charged with acts of terrorism. Azmi was defending several of the 2008 terrorism suspects… when he was killed in February 2010. Three gunmen posing as prospective clients entered his office one evening and shot five rounds at him from point-blank range… three men were arrested and charged with Azmi’s murder. Police subsequently said the gunmen were contract killers for a Hindu gang…”

None in the media bothered to tell the story Azmi’s tragic end. Fewer still demanded answers. Note the story of sheer injustice narrated by the newsmagazine Tehelka (May 15, 2010): “When Special Judge M L Tahilyani acquitted Fahim Ansari and Sabauddin Ahmed of culpability in the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks captured live on TV, most reporters were already chasing the government lawyer who secured a conviction for the lone Pakistani terrorist, Ajmal Kasab… Inside the fortress-like courtroom in the Arthur Road jail, Ansari’s veiled 32-year-old wife, Yasmin, offered a prayer as the judge lambasted the police for accusing the two Indians without any evidence…

“Part of her prayer would have been in the memory of Shahid Azmi, who had defended her husband in the case until he was gunned down… It was Azmi’s cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses that exposed the falsehood of the case against the two… The acquittal has come as a big blow to Mumbai Police, which claimed it had a watertight case in its 12,850-page chargesheet against the two accused…”

The Amnesty International report, on the other hand, estimated the number of people detained under the Public Safety Act in Kashmir in the last 20 years ranged from 8,000-20,000. In its conclusion, the report quoted a statement made by the Supreme Court in a PSA detention case way back in 1982: “If every infraction of law having a penal sanction by itself is a ground for detention, danger looms large that the normal criminal trials and criminal courts set up for administering justice will be substituted by detention laws often described as lawless law.”

(Justices D A Desai and P N Bhagwati of the Supreme Court of India in Jaya Mala v. Home Secretary, Government of Jammu & Kashmir, 1982.)

Thirty years have passed since the Supreme Court made the above observation. And the Indian state, rather than bringing people and their politics to the centre of its nation-building, has increasingly chosen to wipe out through brute force any form of political dissent.

Following the Delhi blast, on one of the shows of news anchor Barkha Dutt, former solicitor general Gopal Subramaniam made a neurotic remark when he said that “the choice of a court as a democratic institution being under attack is serious… as it seeks to erode constitutional institutions”.

Bombs do not erode constitutional institutions. Bombs erode buildings. Constitutional and judicial institutions are eroded when those institutions fail to perform their duties in delivering justice.

Second is the Supreme Court verdict that deemed the Salwa Judum, the extra-legal armed forces in Chhattisgarh, unconstitutional. Salwa Judum is much like the dreaded Ikhwan of Kashmir, which has in the name of fighting insurgency committed untold human rights violations against men, women and children.

Responding to a PIL filed by Nandini Sundar and others, the Supreme Court verdict noted: “This case represents a yawning gap between the promise of principled exercise of power in a constitutional democracy, and the reality of the situation in Chattisgarh, where the Respondent, the State of Chattisgarh, claims that it has a constitutional sanction to perpetrate, indefinitely, a regime of gross violation of human rights in a manner, and by adopting the same modes, as done by Maoist/Naxalite extremists.”

The court ordered that “the State of Chattisgarh immediately cease and desist from using SPOs in any manner or form in any activities, directly or indirectly, aimed at controlling, countering, mitigating or otherwise eliminating Maoist/Naxalite activities in the State of Chattisgarh…”

One doesn’t really expect the Indian media to give much attention to such findings of and studies done by human rights groups as mentioned above. The Indian media has chosen to ignore them all along. The state—its government and the Opposition, both in an extraordinary show of solidarity—has expectedly challenged the Supreme Court order. The government decided to seek a revision. And in a rare attack on the Supreme Court, a top BJP leader said: “It is for the Executive to decide... The Judiciary cannot tell the government [how to tackle Maoism] … Weakening of the nation cannot be part of anybody’s thinking.”

If only one respected a statement made in 1974 in the UN General Assembly while adopting the “definition of aggression.” It noted: “No consideration of whatever nature whether political, economic, military, or otherwise, may serve as a justification for aggression.” (Emphasis added.)

Constitutional expert A G Noorani quoted elsewhere the eighteenth century political theorist Edmund Burke and it is relevant to reproduce it here: “The use of force alone is temporary. It may endure a moment but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again. A nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered. The next objection to force is its uncertainty.

“Terror is not always the effect of force, and an armament is not a victory. If you do not succeed you are without resource; for the conciliation failing, force remains; but force failing, no further hope of reconciliation is left… A further objection to force is that you impair the object by your very endeavours to preserve it. The thing you fought for (to wit the loyalty of the people) is not the thing you recover, but depreciated, sunk, wasted and consumed in the contest.”

The state has stamped on and demonised political dissent, wherever it arose, through force and deceit. The Indian media, too, for its greed of profits, not to talk about its political and ideological mal-position, has played no small role in perpetuating this vicious state of affairs. The manner in which it silently ignored the Supreme Court verdict and the state’s response to it showed that even in the matter of terrorism, the media—very carefully—will just not challenge the position of the establishment, but effectively enforce it.

Unlucky humans, meanwhile, are expected to pay with their lives.