Ever since the terrifying terror strike in Mumbai on November 26, many of us have strained hard to find some voices advocating peace. The overwhelming chant is one demanding war and revenge. It is reminiscent of other times, in other places. In the United States post 9/11. And an echo of that is heard in the India of today.
But after 9/11, there were also strong, public, prominent voices calling for peace, for sanity, for restraint. Some of these individuals were pilloried for flowing against the tide. Yet, they stuck to their convictions. Many of those who spoke out were women.
Robin Morgan, an award winning American feminist writer wrote in the days after the terror strike, about the mood in New York. "The petitions have begun. For justice but not vengeance. For a reasoned response but against escalating retaliatory violence. For vigilance about civil liberties. For the rights of innocent Muslim Americans. For 'bombing' Afghanistan with food and medical parcels, NOT firepower." She urged people to write to newspapers, use the Internet to talk about the root causes of terrorism. "Ours are complex messages with long-term solutions - and this is a moment when people yearn for simplicity and short-term, facile answers."
In India too, we have seen how our media forces facile answers. You are compelled to answer 'yes' or 'no' to questions that have pre-determined answers. You are asked to express 'in 30 seconds' why you believe it would be wrong to provoke a confrontation with Pakistan. Then, what you say is misinterpreted and before you can respond, the subject is changed.
As a result, we have been inundated with expressions of aggression, often born out of ignorance. We are being forced to listen to opinions of people who have rarely engaged with issues that confront Indian society outside such times. And we are being informed that the "mood" of people is for "decisive action" to deal with terror. If there are voices saying something different, they are either not heard, or cut short. Much of this is the media attempting to manufacture consent.
Also, while there are voices seeking better governance, better intelligence, better training and equipment for the police, few are speaking out for better relations with Pakistan. Yet, with the backing of civil society groups on both sides of the border, India and Pakistan have made great strides in taking small but important steps to improve relations. The Mumbai terror strike appears to have wiped all this out.
Fortunately, so far our government has chosen the path of diplomacy. But how easy it is to drum up war hysteria was evident in the days following the terror attack in Mumbai.
We must also remember that Pakistan has a democratically elected government after years of military rule; that it has a vibrant media that functions without direct state control; and that it has an active civil society that is involved in issues not very different from those we are tackling in this country - poverty, illiteracy, environmental degradation, women's status, child mortality, water, sanitation, urbanisation etc. Pakistan also faces sectarian violence. It has also experienced terror attacks in recent years where scores of innocent people have died.
I realise that at a time when everyone is baying for Pakistan's blood, demanding that it act against the terrorists on its soil, these are not sentiments that people want to hear. But it is precisely the reason that those of us with a different sensibility must speak out and be heard. Perhaps our voices will not be heeded. But by being silent in the face of hyper-nationalism and aggression, we will be ceding ground to those who care nothing about the price of war.
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