Monday, February 26, 2007



Reading a column by Irfan Hussain in Dawn about how he has become indifferent to terrorist violence reminded me of most Indians' reactions to terrorist murders around the world recently, in particular my own.

When the Punjab terrorism problem started in the early 1980s, culminating in Operation Bluestar and Indira Gandhi's assassination, people around me had already started getting used to random violence. I remember my mum talking of the news - "Let's watch the news and find out how many were killed and injured today," ("chalo news on karo, pata to chale kitne mare, kitne ghayal"). While funny at the time for the sheer macabre acceptance of the situation as it was then (and still is today), it is at the same time shocking and maddening when I see it in the context of how Americans have reacted to 9/11.

My family were in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi when it was announced that Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Our neighbors were Sikhs, and they proudly displayed a bronze religious symbol outside their town home. Before we knew what was happening, a mob was entering the locality. Our neighbors were trembling in our house, in one of the inner bedrooms. We had wet blankets down the front of their house to cover the bronze symbol, which we were dousing with water every hour or so to keep the blankets from flying up in the wind. My super-geeky dad and uncle fished out the one hockey stick they had in the storage closet and took turns in the neighborhood patrol, in case there were overnight attacks.

Guess what, we accepted this is outside the norm, but not so much that anyone got fired, or anyone even got sued over. Yeah, the owner of the Volga store in Lajpat Nagar market had his house ransacked and burned, and was ruined, but he was okay. Yeah, there were stories of Sikhs at the railway station who were killed by putting tires around their necks and burning the tires. Yeah there were stories of Sikhs being paraded naked. Yeah the Shiv Sena threw acid bulbs into houses of non-Maharashtrians, and harassed Sikhs in Bombay. But we all kinda shrugged it off - very few of us knew anyone directly involved in the atrocities or upon whom a crime was committed. (You could argue that a crime was committed upon my neighbors, but we just didn't see it that way then.)

The net effect was that when I was in a US government lab and the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, it was all a bit of "blah". However, the reaction from the people around me shocked me. My officemate was completely stressed out, but that became understandable when he told me that his dad worked in one of the World Trade Center buildings on the 89th floor (his dad escaped just in time). The lab director - who knew no one that was affected - was overcome with tears. People were genuinely concerned. People wanted war, revenge, retribution, something.

But my reaction to it ranged from "Aren't these guys making a big deal of it," to "Wow, these guys really do care, the India I knew didn't care at all when people got killed," to "Pshaw! This is nothing, we lose more people in Kashmir every month, probably!"

Somewhere along the line, the part of my mind that thinks about my thoughts told me that I had become an indifferent monster, and I think that's true.



Entropy said...

liked rohit's article... i remember talking to my american boss about how they are more paranoid then us and get stressed out about terrorism and how indians are more stoic... he told me that they are more systematic .. he gave me a number i think in the low thousands as the casualty in wtc and told me that was because they evacuated properly post the attack.. i remembered the fire drill we used to do in and how everyone used to take it very casually and was wondering how many would have perished if a similar attack had happened in india... i think indians in general are very lethargic and fatalistic not to mention heartless... a case in point is how bombay continued to celebrate frivolous things like the new year in a year when so many died in the local train attacks.. with nary a remembrance for the deceased.. infact life was normal the next day after the attack.. which if you think about it is abnormal... and then we thump our chests and chant meaningless slogans like resilient bombay ... yeah he is right we are monsters....


Entropy said...

Apathy is not a trait of monsters. And it most certainly has fixes. The shocking thing about 9/11 was not so much the death toll (which was reported to be as high as 10K initially) as it was the audacity of imagination and daring. It's the kind of thing that either knocks the wind out of opposition morale or steels it dangerously. The only attack that has come close to that degree of audacity in India was the attack on the parliament. Had the parliament attack been successful, we would have seen a different response from India as well.

Indian tolerance for terrorism has gone down and IMO needs to go down further.

Recommended reading for the non-apathetic:


Entropy said...

Actually, there were also the Bombay Blasts of 1993. I was writing 12th standard exams at the time, and nothing was postponed, nothing changed. I still have nightmares about the board exams (woke up with one yesterday*), but not so much about the blasts. Sigh … not really making a point other than saying that you forgot about the Bombay Blasts.

- Speck42

*Wife castigating me for playing with the kids instead of studying for the board exams which were in the next hour or so, and then I couldn’t find the damn’ hall pass – and me thinking that if I lose my job, and they take back all my degrees, it’ll be my fault. The logic of completing a bachelor’s, master’s and a PhD without completing the 12th grade didn’t enter my mental discussion until I woke up in a panic.

Entropy said...

Point well-taken.

Note though that Americans were very proud of their capitalism and power, while in 1993 most of us didn't even understand what Bombay's financial status meant. Moreover, blasts were preceded by 'fun' times that had lasted several months. That took away some of the surprise factor.

I think, democracy and Parliament are in a different league though that rising intolerance of terrorism may have also played its role.

- Manu

Entropy said...

I am not sure we are indifferent only to terrorism. We are
indifferent to everything, corruption, filth, racism, you name
it. It is partly because there *isnt* anything that we can do,
but also because the individual doesn't really count for
anything in india.

- Nikhil

Entropy said...

Last morning I was stuck yet again in the really horrendous traffic at
the arterial but narrow road near my house. And for the third time this
week there was an ambulance blaring away somewhere in the distance.
Anyone who has seen that traffic first hand will know that it is
virtually impossible for an ambulance to squeeze through. But with a
little bit of effort by every crazed office goer, the ambulance made it
through at just the second signal change. Frankly with the kind of road
and traffic, it would have been physically impossible to do it any

In the U.S. my sister's roommate was whisked away in an ambulance within
minutes of calling 911 after she fainted. And the stupid kid fainted
because she had forgotten to have breakfast.

I think our attitude vis a vis U.S.'s attitude towards a lot of ills,
esp people dying of terrorist attacks is somewhat reflective of what
happens above. Firstly in a country so large, sadly the number of people
who get killed for whatever reason - terrorism, child killers, being
biharis in assam - is so humongous that beyond a point reacting would
just drive you into a state of being a depressed maniac. Secondly, what
do you invest your money in? - strengthening the police network,
education, primary health? We just don't have the infrastructure to
handle large problems as well as U.S. can.

So I guess, everyone squeezes a little, makes way for the ambulance and
gets delighted when you hear that a new flyover is being built on that
road and hopefully there will be no traffic pile ups. In the process,
the rush and urgency involved in ensuring an ambulance gets through dims
down to a level that is realistically possible at that moment. But that
really does not make us indifferent.

p.s. anyone (sachin and zen usual suspects) who found the analogy
inadequately explained can have separate long discourses from me.

Anita B

Entropy said...

Valid points. There has to be a balance between 'chalta hai', 'adjust kar lo' and some of this:

Try to use headphones and high volume when listening to this.

His reasons are different but attitude is appropriate.


Entropy said...

Hi Manu,
Interesting video.
Reminded me of Nikhil's reaction to the Bombay blasts last July - see the post 'Is resilient the new metrosexual' on this blog.