India’s Eternal Crisis

Discussion in 'Defence & Strategic Issues' started by ppgj, Nov 29, 2009.

  1. ppgj

    ppgj Senior Member Senior Member

    Aug 13, 2009
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    Op-Ed Contributor

    India’s Eternal Crisis

    Published: November 28, 2009

    Mashobra, India

    ON the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, I hurried through a dark apple orchard to the nearest television in this Himalayan village. My landlord opened his door reluctantly, and then appeared unmoved by the news I had just received by phone. I struggled to explain the enormity of what was happening, the significance of New York, the iconic status of the World Trade Center — to no avail. It was time for his evening prayers; the television could not be turned on.

    I did not witness the horrific sights of 9/11 until three days later. Since then, cable television and even broadband Internet have arrived in Mashobra and in my own home. Now the world’s manifold atrocities are always available for brisk inspection on India’s many 24-hour news channels. Indeed, the brutal terrorist assault on Mumbai that killed 163 people a year ago was immediately proclaimed as India’s own 9/11 by the country’s young TV anchors, who seem to model themselves on Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Yet, on the first anniversary of “26/11,” it seems as remote as 9/11 to the inhabitants of this village.

    There is no great mystery behind this indifference, which is distinct from callousness. India, where most people still depend on agriculture for a living, has just suffered one of its most serious droughts in decades. The outlook for winter crops is bleak; many farmers have committed suicide in recent months, adding to the epidemic of rural suicides over the last few years.

    Politically, too, India has lurched from one crisis to another in the last year. Prudent financial regulation saved India from the worst effects of the worldwide economic recession. But the rage of people who feel themselves not only left behind but victimized by corporate-driven and urban-oriented economic growth has erupted into violence; the Indian government has called for an all-out war against the Maoist insurgent groups that now administer large parts of central India. Anti-India insurgencies in Kashmir and the northeast continue to simmer, exacting a little-reported but high daily toll.

    Geopolitically, India’s room to maneuver has shrunk since the Mumbai attacks. Last November, middle-class nationalist fury, though initially directed at inept Indian authorities, settled on Pakistan, where the attacks were partly planned and financed. The writer Shashi Tharoor described “India’s leaders and strategic thinkers” as watching Israel’s assault on Gaza last winter with “empathy,” and wondering “why can’t we do the same?” One hopes Mr. Tharoor, who has since become India’s junior foreign minister, is today more aware of why India can’t do a Gaza or Lebanon on its nuclear-armed neighbor.

    As Western anxiety about nuclear-armed Pakistan’s stability deepens, India can barely afford aggressive rhetoric, let alone military retaliation, against its longtime foe. Pakistan remains vital to Western campaigns against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Aware of its strategic importance, Pakistan has been in no hurry to accede to India’s demands to prosecute those it holds responsible for the Mumbai massacre. (One hopes the charges filed against seven radicals on Wednesday mark a real change.) Islamabad has also upped the rhetorical ante by accusing India of backing the violent secessionist movement in Baluchistan, in western Pakistan.

    India’s seeming impotence enrages those in the new right-wing news media who are eager to commemorate 26/11, and to make that ersatz shorthand signify India’s unavenged humiliation and shame. Prabhu Chawla, the editor of India Today, the country’s leading newsmagazine, expressed the frustration of many middle-class nationalists: “India, divided by politics, doesn’t know what to do with its enemy or with its much-mauled nationalist soul. We are as clueless as we were on that dreadful November night one year ago.”

    That may be true, but in a country where 400 million live without electricity, it isn’t easy to manufacture, or sustain, a national consensus. In any case, things are not as bad as the pundits make out. The lone surviving Mumbai killer is already on trial; his accomplices are being gradually apprehended. There have been no major retaliatory attacks against Muslims. There are stirrings of a civic, even political, consciousness among rich Indians who, until the Mumbai massacre, were largely unaffected by our frequent terrorist bombings.

    India may have been passive after the Mumbai attacks. But India has not launched wars against either abstract nouns or actual countries that it has no hope of winning or even disengaging from. Another major terrorist assault on our large and chaotic cities is very probable, but it is unlikely to have the sort of effect that 9/11 had on America.

    This is largely because many Indians still live with a sense of permanent crisis, of a world out of joint, where violence can be contained but never fully prevented, and where human action quickly reveals its tragic limits. The fatalism I sense in my village may be the consolation of the weak, of those powerless to shape the world to their ends. But it also provides a built-in check against the arrogance of power — and the hubris that has made America’s response to 9/11 so disastrously counterproductive.

    Pankaj Mishra is the author of “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”

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