Sunday, 14 December 2008

After Mumbai, three questions but one answer

Once we have sifted through the anguish and anger over the terror attacks in Mumbai, the international community, Pakistan and we Indians have to answer three questions. If the answers converge, then there is hope for finding a common route out of not only the current crisis but also in preventing and responding to future challenges. If not, the resolve to confront terror will surely diminish.

Question number one to the international community: does human life have equal value everywhere in the world? After the 9/11 tragedy in New York, the French newspaper Le Monde declared, ‘We are all Americans.’ That expression of global solidarity with the United States signalled a new approach to the scourge of terrorism, recognition that the deliberate targeting of innocent lives through violent means affected not just the victims but also everyone else. It was a challenge that the world had to face together. To date, there have been twenty United Nations, multilateral and regional conventions to confront terrorism. In 2004 the UN Security Council agreed that there was no ‘political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious…’ justification for killing or injuring people to intimidate the population or influence a government or international organisation (Resolution 1566). Yet, a single definition of terrorism has eluded unanimous consensus at the UN General Assembly. In the absence of such consensus, can there be an effective response to terrorism? Perhaps, but only if there is universal recognition that targeting innocent civilian lives is morally repugnant, no matter what the ‘root cause’.

There have been editorials expressing outrage over the ‘horror in Mumbai’ and the UN has responded swiftly to India's concerns, for the moment. Yet, we find commentators linking the Mumbai attacks to all sorts of tensions. The flurry of diplomatic activity betrays concern that a ‘nuclear flashpoint’ might explode. Meanwhile, there are calls for resolving the Kashmir crisis and references to long-standing rivalries between India and Pakistan. Others draw attention to the condition of Muslims within India and the potential for radicalisation of some individuals.

These instrumental logics of crisis management are unsustainable. Everyone’s favourite theories are pulled out of the closet whenever terror strikes. But linking pre-meditated murder to a slew of causes gravely undermines the moral dimension. We cannot fight terrorism unless every act of terror, no matter where it happens and who the victims are, makes each of us feel sick in the stomach. Not because westerners are held hostage, not because there is a threat of nuclear war, but because human life anywhere in the world is equally valuable and its loss equally tragic. Without empathy, there is no humanity.

Question two to Pakistan, its state and citizens: even if Pakistan were not itself a victim of terrorism, would the presence and activities of terrorist outfits on and from its soil still be considered as equally heinous? There is no dearth of rabble-rousers on either side of the border and many have engaged in war-mongering. At the same time, thoughtful commentators in Pakistan have pointed to the need to uproot terror networks within the country, noting that Pakistan itself has suffered some of the highest casualties from terrorist attacks.

Once again, though, we find a response rooted in instrumental factors: terrorists must be confronted because they threaten Pakistan. Of course, this task is not easy and demands a lot from a weak, civilian administration. State responsibility is not limited only to acts with explicit sanction of the state. UNSC Resolution 1373 demands that all States shall ‘deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts, or provide safe havens.’

But the problem will not go away unless Pakistan’s government and its people once and for all turn their backs on organisations that promote a doctrine of cultural supremacy and domination to be achieved through indiscriminate violence. The motivation to clamp down on such organisations cannot be premised on mere internal security threats. Pakistan has to recognise that confronting intolerance of this kind needs a moral recalibration of its national interests: a modern state relies on commerce and exchange of ideas, goods and people, not on obscurantist ideologies that offer short-term tactical victories in an unending confrontation with India.

Question number three to Indians: are we really willing and ready to confront terrorism in all its forms? There have been many criticisms of the state's response to the terror strikes. Yes, there is the need for new structures of authority, autonomy from political interference, and accountability for inaction and incompetence.

But society has a more fundamental role. If the protection of life is the primary responsibility of the state, then society must hold the state accountable on that principle. Too often we are willing to forgive the sins of governments as long as they deliver ‘efficient’ administration by attracting foreign investment or building roads. As a result, we do not react when political parties accuse the state apparatus one day of persecution and abuse the same institutions for their own purposes the next day. (The manner in which Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad was being treated during its investigation of the Malegaon blasts was shameful in the least, dangerous to our political culture at worst.) We praise any political leader willing to fulfil our immediate demands no matter what her/his record is on protecting the lives of Indians or in promoting their deaths. Institutional reforms within India and action against terrorists abroad will be insufficient as long as we keep judging the state and its representatives on a sliding scale that morally equates the protection of human beings with, say, building infrastructure.

Civil society, including business groups in India, has to confront this question head on: by unequivocally responding to terrorism of all kinds and all persuasions, no matter which organisation or party promotes or tacitly defends it.

If the answer to all three questions is yes, then we have convergence: No matter who the victim or what the perpetrator’s justifications, there must be zero tolerance of organisations that execute their ideologies of bigotry and intolerance through violence or threat of violence against innocent people. Without that moral compass the international community’s response to terrorism will be plagued by hypocrisy, Pakistan’s civilian administration’s efforts will be undermined, and India’s quest to remain an open and tolerant society will be increasingly threatened.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Parliamentary behaviour

I don't know how many people watched the debate in India's Parliament yesterday on the Mumbai attacks, but it was worth it. I had woken up at an ungodly hour, so was able to catch much of the debate while sitting in London. It was a remarkable example of sobriety, solemnity and political unity. The treasury and opposition benches disagreed at times, as must happen in a democracy. But the way they conducted themselves, one might have been mistaken in thinking that the protests out in the streets these days are against politicians in some other land.

The Mumbai attacks threw a challenge to all of us (more on that in a forthcoming post). We have lots to complain about but we also have to behave in ways that the terrorists cannot - civilised. As the editorial in the Indian Express noted, 'On this sombre occassion, Parliament gave us a demonstration of public reason in action.'

In the course of my work and research, I have to consult parliamentary debate records and am sometimes surprised to find high standards of debate on key substantive issues. We mostly think of Parliament as a wrestling pit. True, MPs need to change their behaviour but we need to engage in and push for more informed discourse as well.

Developing countries taking the lead on climate change?

Who said developing countries can't take the lead? Of late, several developing countries have proposed to take unilateral action to deal with climate change. Poor countries have long claimed (rightly) that they did not create the problem of global warming, and so argue (wrongly) that they should have nothing to do with solving the problem. That's a cop out answer, which ignores that global warming affects everyone. The attitude, it seems, is changing.

On Monday this week, Brazil promised to reduce deforestation by 70% by 2017. We read a lot about polluting industries in China and energy-intensive lifestyles in the United States (the world's two biggest polluters). But did you know that one-fifth of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution in the world is due to the destruction of rain forests, and Brazil accounts for 40% of this? Since trees absorb carbon dioxide, felling them releases excess CO2 into the atmosphere, which results in global warming. Brazil's commitment signals a major step forward.

Meanwhile, yesterday Mexico announced that it would reduce emissions by half by 2050 (compared to 2002). South Korea plans to announce a similar target next year. South Africa wants to ensure that its emissions flatten out between 2020 and 2025, and starting reducing after that period. China plans to use more than a third of its $586 billion economic stimulus for energy and ecology-friendly investments. India, too, announced a national action plan on climate change last June, though it has not set itself any targets for cutting emissions.

Climate change is one of the most complex global challenges. No single country's efforts will be sufficient to deal with it. Which is why every single country's initiatives, especially coming from poor countries, is welcome.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Through the magnifying glass

I have been interested in public policy for as long as I can remember. I was six when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. I asked my teacher, 'Will there be war?' On the same day I witnessed riots and remember wondering why there were truckloads of armed personnel to protect one senior army officer living in my apartment block but no policemen to protect ordinary civilians on the street. A month later another tragedy - the Bhopal Gas Disaster - caught my attention. I started reading a newspaper and watching news regularly from 1989, when I entered middle school, and remember closely following the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the Indian general elections, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1991 India introduced economic reforms sparking both widespread protests against the IMF and World Bank as well as my interest in economics, politics and international relations. The destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992 was another watershed, making me deeply conscious of the use and abuse of religion in politics. By the mid-1990s I was engaging in debates on the CTBT and the WTO. In 1997 I participated in my first television panel discussion on the 'State of the Nation' in its fiftieth year of independence. That year I also logged into my first email account and into the wondrous world of the Internet. By the time I graduated from college I had debated India's nuclear tests, written on the Kashmir crisis, spoken on new communications technologies, and marched on to the Indian Parliament to demand the protection of religious freedoms.

Those were my formative years. I felt a profound sense that the world was changing and that I needed to engage with it. My friends would say that I was interested in 'current affairs'. Not just for its own sake, though. I was interested in the past and the present because I wanted to understand how it would affect our future. I wanted to FOCUS on issues that I felt mattered to me, my country and the world. That is the purpose of this blog.

What matters, what will matter, what should matter. As citizens, we need to engage with public affairs and policy much more deeply than we do today. This is not just about voting in elections. Public policy informs every day of our lives, no matter who we are and what we do. We sit up and take notice when crises hit - stocks tank, terrorists strike, water supply stops, riots spread, wars begin, floods occur, climates change, exports fall, and prices rise. We assume we are immune to it all until the day we are affected and then we blame everyone except ourselves. We are not just students, housewives, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, teachers, consultants, mediapersons, or sportspersons, but first and foremost members of a wider society. Each of us has priorities that matter to her/him, each of us has an inkling about what issues might dominate, and each of us wishes something were different.

Over the past decade I have worked in international organisations (UNDP, WTO) and universities (Oxford, soon Princeton), with political leaders, civil society groups and even hip-hop stars, and briefly in the private sector. I have had the good fortune to work in five continents on a range of subjects, from trade and financial crises, to extremism and terrorism, to ethnicity and armed conflict, to democracy and governance, to intellectual property and indigenous people, to water and now climate change. Each of these issues has implications not only for the poor but for all of us. As I wade through global and local issues, I want to share news, analyses and opinions to draw attention to and focus on what matters to me. In turn, I want to learn from others, experts and lay persons, on other issues that are defining the world and society we live in. I hope this blog serves to further that exchange.

Sherlock Holmes once chided Dr. Watson, 'You see, but you do not observe.' Welcome to my magnifying glass: to SEE, THINK, ACT.