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Saturday, September 13, 2003

dir="ltr">The recent bomb blasts in Mumbai, and the death and devastation that followed brought home to us once again the

complexities and fragility of modern world. In an increasingly integrated economy and inter-dependent world, even far off events can have far-reaching impact on our lives. With technological sophistication added to this, we are now far more vulnerable to destructive forces or accidents. Not only terrorist threats, but even the failure of the North American Power grid a few weeks ago in the world’s most wealthy and advanced region starkly reminds us of our vulnerabilities. But from India’s point of view, it is not these somber thoughts that are important, but two vital features of the phenomenon of terrorism which has been plaguing us for over two decades now.  First, the way much of society responds to wanton acts of murder and mayhem and deliberate communal provocation is a heartening reminder of our civilizational strength, social cohesion and political maturity. The great city of Mumbai exhibited these qualities twice in the past 10 years, first time in the wake of the Mumbai blasts in March 1993, and now in August 2003. Not only was there no trace of communal polarization or bitterness or violence, but there was actually defiant courage, social consolidation and rapid recovery and even resurgence. It is this grit, courage and boundless optimism of the people of Mumbai, not the tragic events of Gujarat after Godhra, that symbolize the true spirit of our democracy and society. That even Shiv Sena refrained from calling for a bandh or provoking retaliation is a tribute to our otherwise flawed democracy. And it is a great rebuff to those who perpetually propagate an apocalyptic vision of India’s future. In fact, many serious analysts commented about the fact that out of the more than 120 million Muslims of India, not one was part of the Al Qaeda, or the so called ‘Islamic Terrorism’. Yes, there are many flaws in our society and polity. But we have inherent self-correcting instincts and mechanisms to restore balance and sanity in times of crisis. Even the carnage in Gujarat invited strong criticism and resistance from our own society.  We do not need to be lectured by the rest of the world. Judging India by Gujarat of 2002, or Delhi of 1984 alone is extremely short-sighted and unwise. It is akin to condemning the Unites States on the basis of the Los Angeles riots in 1993 after the predominantly white jury acquitted the policemen who brutally attacked Rodney King for minor traffic violations despite conclusive videotaped evidence of the assault. Every society has its warts, and what matters is how honestly and courageously it deals with them. But there is a second issue which cannot be ignored. The fact is, Gujarat and Delhi riots and killings have been a part of our contemporary history. Communal polarization and rising prejudice are evident everywhere. Several young, educated Muslims with seemingly stable and normal background are part of the terrorist network, or are sympathizers providing logistical support and succour. Clearly an overwhelming majority of the minorities feel and respond as Indians in all situations. But a small minority is alienated and seething with anger. Why? Is it because of religion, or social discrimination or the nature of our politics? If this question is not addressed with candour and sensitivity, we cannot promote peace or social cohesion. True, religion and historical baggage have played a role in distancing one group from another. But centuries of peaceful coexistence and cultural and social intermingling have created a diverse and yet unified society. There is ample evidence of this. Nor is there any overt discrimination by the Indian State. Muslims are certainly less educated and are poorer than caste Hindus. But by many parameters like sanitation and housing they are better off.  Studies have conclusively established that bigamy among muslims is actually less common than among Hindus and Jains. True, birth rates among muslims are higher than among others. This is partly the result of poverty, but cultural preferences do play a role. But Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey proved that Islam does not oppose birth control. And with all our failings, constitutional values are still intact, and there is no discrimination against minorities by the state. And yet, there is something wrong which promotes violence based on ethnicity and religion. The culprit is the political process. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) system we adopted ensured that scattered minorities like Muslims will never get political representation due to them. There are only a handful of constituencies in India in which Muslims are dominant. Once a significant minority is denied its due representation, political ghettoization is inevitable. This is exacerbated by the tragic events of partition. Whenever a community feels isolated in this manner, it is the obscurantist elements and religious bigots who define its identity. Inadequate political representation thus acquires a communal colour; and the mullahs become the interlocutors for the whole community, with 'Islam in danger' as the rallying slogan. Parties, whose objective is to maximize their electoral gains, use this insecurity  to their advantage. Politics of tokenism and vote-bank mobilization on sectarian grounds become the norm. The real issues of development and economic opportunities take a back seat. The resultant strategic voting and hate politics lead to communal polarization. Mobilization of one religious group inevitably invites counter mobilization. In short, given our social conditions and political realities, FPTP has accentuated communal divisions. Every incident is blown out of proportion, and the 'eye for an eye' approach leads to blind rage and manufactured hatred. This is what Delhi in 1984 and Gujarat in 2002 witnessed.We need to break out of this vicious cycle. FPTP system must give way to some form of proportional representation, enhancing legitimacy of our political process. Once Muslims and other scattered minorities are secure through fairer representation, ghetto politics will be replaced by enlightened self interest. The progressive elements will find voice, and liberty and opportunity, not insecurity and siege mentality, will be the dominant features. It cannot be our argument that FPTP in itself is the cause of communal violence and terrorism. But in a sane society the electoral system must bring the best out of people, and counter prejudice and bigotry. Instead FPTP accentuated our worst divisions. True, proportional representation can lead to political fragmentation. In order to offset such tendencies, a reasonable threshold of 10% of the vote in a major state for representation, and mixing with half the seats elected through FPTP system can be incorporated. There are practical solutions to bridge the communal divide and promote sane politics. We need to alter the nature of the political game, and soon.



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