Wednesday, March 18, 2009

We were sold to gold : some reflections on 26/11

Fighting the weapon of gold (Checked on 15-08-2012 for the BOOK)
Leena Mehendale
On the fateful night of 26/11, we were watching Indian Cricket team almost on the verge of winning when suddenly the silence outside was broken by shrieks of sirens. A quick surfing on the TV revealed that there was firing at CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, that is, the main Mumbai Rly Station). A cousin residing near Hotel Taj phoned to say there was firing going on near her house. Soon it turned out that this was not a gang war between two underworld groups, as was suspected earlier but a terrorist attack. I stay in govt quarters opposite Mantralaya which is not far away from CST. There was, on the TV screen, Mr. Hemant Karkare, chief of ATS (Anti Terrorist Squad), in the act of putting on bullet proof jacket, and getting ready to fight the attack. This single act of his must have given courage to hundreds of his constables and thousands of viewers of TV at that moment.

News kept pouring from all the channels. Forgotten was the fate of Indian team. There was news of firing inside Cama hospital and the attackers moved on after getting a police chase. Then stray firing at hotel Leopold. Then a bomb blast in taxi near Ville-Parle and no casualties. Then firing near Mantralaya, then stalling of attackers near Girgaon Choupati and the news that one among the two died while other was captured alive by police.

Uphill now at every place the attack was weaning away within ten minutes. I considered it a matter of satisfaction. I thought that the firing near my cousin’s house, which was actually in hotel Taj, will also be controlled soon. But that was not to be. News came that many terrorists had entered Taj and were trying to take captives. They also entered hotel Oberoi and the police activities to cover Oberoi could be seen from my balcony. It became clear that they were Pakistanis and had landed at colaba by an Indian boat named Kuber. How could they befool thousands of coast guards and the naval command at colaba and the home police having patrolling rounds in colaba?

My mind went back to a favorite poem read and memorized long ago during college days. This was "The Castle" by Edwin Muir. It goes like --

All through that summer at ease we lay,
And daily from the turret wall
We watched the mowers in the hay
And the enemy half a mile away
They seemed no threat to us at all.

For what, we thought, had we to fear
With our arms and provender, load on load,
Our towering battlements, tier on tier,
And friendly allies drawing near
On every leafy summer road.

Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
So smooth and high, no man could win
A foothold there, no clever trick
Could take us, have us dead or quick.
Only a bird could have got in.

What could they offer us for bait?
Our captain was brave and we were true....
There was a little private gate,
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.

Oh then our maze of tunneled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
The cause was lost without a groan,
The famous citadel overthrown,
And all its secret galleries bare.

How can this shameful tale be told?
I will maintain until my death
We could do nothing, being sold;
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.

During the next 24 hours and the next and the next, this poem kept coming back to my mind in so many ways that I was quoting it in Marathi and Hindi and the translated poems remained with me even in that turmoil.

I am sure that many citizens must have remained glued to the TV channels that whole night, thinking that it was a matter of  yet another 15-20 minutes before all terrorists would be captured.. At morning the estimate went to 3-4 hours. On 4th day it went beyond estimates. Finally it took 7th day to clear up every thing, and a commando action and the lives of 7 brave officers and many police. In the meantime many innocent lives were lost or endangered, including foreigner guests, enormous financial losses to the country and to Taj and Oberoi. Finally it even took toll of a few political leaders. But the loss of face was worst of all.

The face of terrorism is always dreadful but the common man in Mumbai saw it at such close quarters during those days. All were filled with deep anger, chagrin, and respect for the martyrs, sympathy for the dead and wounded and frustration towards the whole situation. All that a common man could do was to donate blood and care for the wounded.

But soon people started questioning and for the first time they said “We will not tolerate a constant threat to our lives simply because of complacency of those who are in charge of our security. We will have to do some thing and we shall do it.” The question is “what is to be done?” It is here that the poem must be remembered. "We could do nothing, being sold"  is the sentence to guard against. A fight against AK -47 can be fought with an AK-47, but bribe and corruption are such ultimate weapons against which the war has to be fought with great determination and deep probing of certain fundamental issues.

The way the terrorists were prepared, their apprenticeship at hotel Taj, their access to sim cards in Calcutta, complete non-coordination between different security agencies of the govt. All point to lethargy, complacence and indifference at the surface level, but deep beneath there lies corruption.

So we have to focus on twin issues of complacency and corruption. Complacency is also rife with non-coordination, incompetence and non-accountability. Our Intelligence gathering and analysis are both short-reaching. We need a system of Intelligence gathering in which there are informers from all quarters and analysts drawn from a vast range of experts rather than keeping it confined to one department alone. Further their alertness also has to be monitored by a high-powered agency. Somewhere there has to be a system of including and involving common man in the process. Otherwise the frustration of being left out from the process of self-protection and hence being the victim of such terrorist attack will lead to far bitter expression than what we saw when people came out for a candle meeting at India Gate.

As far corruption, common man has very strong views against the politicians as well as babus. We have to ask -“Who is responsible for the election of corrupt politician”? Is it those 60% who go for voting or is it those 40% who do not go for voting?

I recall that in last election I was in the list of those 40%. On earlier occasions too when I did not find any candidate “suitable’, I had written so on the ballot paper, though I knew that this action would render my vote invalid. This is a very serious issue. Why can’t I be allowed to express with full confidentiality that no candidate deserves and why this opinion should not get counted during election. Is this not my country and my fundamental right to be counted?

These days one email is getting circulated a lot. It talks of Rule 49-O of the Election Rules 1961 and tells us that we can cast our vote of No deserving Choice. By mistakes it has referred to the rule as a Constitutional provision, hence anyone can read it by doing google search on “Constitution 49-O”. It talks of a valid point but does not give an entirely true picture. It does not tell that the rule made in 1961 is today outdated and irrelevant. The rule says that if any voter, on reaching the polling booth feels that no candidate deserves then the voter will return his ballot paper to the presiding officer who will cancel it and give him form no 17- A. Voter will write all details of himself and the opinion that he does not want to cast vote in anyone’s favor. These papers are then sent to the Collector and no further cognizance is taken, they simply become Kachara. The value of the opinion of the voter is Zero. Hence the voter also feels that there is no point in wasting one’s time to go to the polling station.

I stogy feel that in my own country I must have the right to say that none of the candidates is deserving and most importantly, I must have full security of secrecy and my choice must get counted and declared in the results. A choice signifying “None of the above” must be mentioned in ballot paper and this option must also be kept in the electronic voting machine. Otherwise it is like a cartoon by Mr. Laksman where his Common Man is shown casting his vote and murmuring “A slave can only vote as to who should be his master”.

Real democracy will come to us only when our votes of No Choice get counted. If the No choice votes are beyond a certain per centage then there should be repelling of the election of that constituency with a ban on previous candidates. Only then all the candidates will value all the voters. Today when a voter has no choice, he has to scuttle his voice because the election process has done so. He has no option but to swallow his frustration. Why should the candidates care for a person whose voice has been scuttled? Thus the unworthy candidates get the protection and immunity from the anger and chagrin of the public.

Let us now come back to the issue of corruption. We are all aware that bribe can get you a false ration card, a false driving license, a bank account in false name and ATM card too. Bribe can get you an arm’s license, permission to keep drugs and RDX and AK-47 and can also get you unhindered passage in the sea. It frees you from all regulations.

But an even more dreadful aspect of corruption in Indian democracy is that no candidate can win election without spending money in crores of rupees. There may be one among a thousand candidates whom people will elect out of their own choice for his good work (and I have been fortunate enough to have seen such politicians in past). The rest have to buy their seat through expenditure. Once elected the first priority is to recover all the “Investment”. Thus it has all become a game of investing more money to gain power and using more power to collect more money. To quote Amar Singh, it is a “high risk high gain business”. And in this business country or society have no relevance, the only relevant aspect is how to make more and more and more money, how to get highest returns on the investment by using the tool of power. The returns cannot be earned alone – the babus are also to be given a share. Many babus are more than willing to become accommodating partners. This is why whenever occasionally people express themselves; their anger includes entire bureaucracy along with the politicians. This was clearly seen even after the 26/11 attack.

Though Mr. Sheshan and other Election Commissioners before and after him have tried their best to improve the system of election, they are far from controlling the increasing role of money in the elections. If we are really concerned about corruption and the threat that it poses to the national security then we need much more transparency regarding the financial games of the candidates. Public should be allowed to inspect last fifteen Income Returns of the candidates, mere declaration of assets is insufficient. Income from Agriculture may remain tax free but its details must be included in the Income Tax returns. The party funds should also be a matter of public scrutiny and taxation. These and some more measures are necessary. Is it our priority?

And yet, even if all these measures are taken but the justice delivery system remains as slow as ever then what is the remedy? Once I read news that the Japanese people got worried about the delays in courts and had a thread-bare discussion whereafter effective steps were taken to make the justice delivery system speedier. What they were worried about was that on average cases took 30 days to be finalised, after remedial methods now the average time taken has been brought down to 15 days. Later once I had a chance to visit Tokyo and I was shown the Supreme Court of Japan. A huge and impressive building – but deserted. I inquired as to why it was empty. Reply was that there were no appeals in last 20 years. I asked how this could happen. Reply was that Japanese system of justice delivery is so transparent and judicious that people accept the verdict, hence no appeals. Then why keep the building – why not use it for other purpose? On my question, our host who was a senior officer of our embassy in Japan explained that the empty building is a symbol of commitment. Should any person feel the need to appeal, he should have the confidence that his country has the means and willingness to give him an opportunity. The purpose of this building is to keep that confidence.

I kept thinking how far behind we are compared to this deep thought. This is the kind of national character that we need to tackle an attack on our sovereignty. The terrorist attack was a threat but it has also given us a chance to do some hard thinking, to draw actionable points and to act upon them. The threat must be converted into an opportunity and we must gain by way of cleaner election, right to reject undeserving candidates, integrated intelligence gathering with people’s participation, a speedier justice delivery system and myriads of other actions. Only then we will survive future attacks that are looming large.