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.