'Mumbai terror attacks and I'

Dr Rahul Pandey, CNS Columnist
I wrote these personal thoughts immediately after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 but never sent it to a publication. On the heels of terrible terror attacks in Paris, in the midst of equally horrifying attacks going on in parts of the Arab world, and on the anniversary of 26/11, as similar thoughts come to my mind I decided to dig it out. So here it goes ..

We all have been shaken by what happened in Mumbai. This was one of the gruesome killings in the recent past. Everyone watched helplessly as the three days of terror were played out. It reminded me of the helplessness with which we watched similar acts of terror in the past. The Mumbai serial train blasts, 2006. The Gujarat riots, 2002. The Mumbai riots, 1998. The list seems endless. And these major incidents of violence have been interspersed with countless smaller ones in places like Kashmir, Orissa, North-East, Karnataka, to name a few.

All these killings were carried out by persons fired with ideologically aroused feelings. Feelings mixed with racial and communal superiority of the self, and/or hatred and revenge for the other. Feelings so intense that they did not care about killing ordinary people. In the process some of them were even ready to, and did, sacrifice their own life.

This provokes me to question my own nature. I too feel intensely about certain issues and hate certain things. But can I ever transform into a murderer of ordinary people? How can a person be so blindly brainwashed as to become such a frenzied beast? Or can someone willingly kill him/herself in order to kill others? What is this thing called human nature?

I distinctly remember my childhood days when I first became aware of religion and caste differences. Since I was about ten year old all my close friends in and outside school were from upper caste Hindu families – the category to which I myself belonged. In those times it looked quite ‘natural’ that this was the case. It also felt natural that we would often bitch about those from Muslim and lower caste Hindu families. Referring to them with derogatory names behind their back was a matter of fact. In my house too I learned to look down on servants and those with lower economic status.

As I grew up I never got a genuine chance to develop close friendship with anyone from a lower caste, lower economic status, or Muslim family. So I was constantly intoxicated by the homogenous surrounding of my friends and family, and, in turn, intoxicated them by my subtly evolving behaviour. Many irrational and prejudiced ideas were injected as part of the normal process of growing up. I cannot point to a single person or source of these effects. In fact I do not recall a single person or incident that was extreme enough to impact me in that direction. On the contrary there were many subtle sources diffused in the environment in which I lived and breathed. Quite ‘normal’ behaviours of most friends, family members, relatives and others with whom I came into contact regularly while living my life left countless small marks on my psyche whose cumulative effect was enormous. I guess for a lot of persons these effects leave a lasting impact on consciousness, thinking and behaviour. Sadly, several of old time friends who I meet today seem to have been deeply seeped with parochial views whose roots go back to those days of childhood and youth. Fortunately, in my case, the impact was not deep enough and I managed to erase a lot of it by newly acquired liberal thoughts in my youth that touched both the rational mind and the emotional heart.

Again, there was no distinguishable source of such a change. Probably there were some seeds by birth, about which I will never know. But there were certainly many progressive cues that I received in childhood and well through my youth. For instance, the kindness and shades of broad-mindedness of my mother. The professional honesty of my father. Flickers of liberal attitude of some friends. The reading about the character and actions of some heroes, notably Gandhi and Vivekanand during my early youth, and Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar during later part of my youth. And making some friends from other communities and cultures helped broaden my worldview. The noise level of these liberal cues was much less than that of insular thoughts. But, in the end, they won me over. Now I hate divisive ideology. At the same time, learning from the history of evolution of my own thoughts, I can distinguish the person from the ideology. A person is a carrier of an idea and can evolve in time to replace or mitigate old ideas with new ones. Of course, it has been easier for me to rationally internalize such good thoughts because I never faced a state of hopelessness – either economic or social.

So, back to the question, could I have evolved further in the parochial direction instead of reversing? Could I have become so narrow-minded as to inculcate extreme hatred towards persons with certain ideas? My honest answer is, possibly yes, if I was brought up in environments filled with seeds of hatred and anger. For instance, if I was brought up in a minority or underprivileged community that was looked down by the influential majority and then went through a personal experience of violence to which some of my innocent dear ones or community fell victim. This could have been the experience of some of the Muslim people living in Gujarat in 2002. Or a Kashmiri whose family has been tortured by the police or army. Or a Hindu living in Pakistan who may have had similar experience. Or a tribal whose natural resource base – land, forest, river – on which his/her community’s livelihood depended was unilaterally snatched away by the state-corporate combine and who is left to the mercy of his/her own fate.

Or, if I were a citizen of a disadvantaged country that is being unjustly attacked, controlled and exploited by a powerful and militant country. For instance, if I was an ordinary Iraqi whose family and children were killed in conflicts during the American occupation. Or a Palestine whose lands and people have been captured and attacked by American-armed Israel.

Alternately, the hatred inducing intoxication could also happen if I was schooled in a religiously conservative and fanatic environment like that of an RSS shakha, an extremist Madrasa, a Taliban run organization, or a radical Christian group.

Further, I might become prone to self-destructing violent behaviour if I have lost all hope in life. The feeling of utter despair generated by the surroundings in which I see a dark future for me, my family, children and community, could evoke a heightened sense of insecurity, and in turn, violent behaviour. Dark future, not only in terms of economic, but also social status.

So what is the hope for a peaceful human future? There are probably no concrete answers. But certain things can be said with surety. If there are much greater and easier opportunities for children and adults to interact and make friends across communities and cultures and to freely debate and absorb progressive thoughts, things would definitely improve. Such opportunities can become routine only in a truly democratic society. That is, a society where an individual or a community, while being aware of its social, cultural and economic status, interacts and negotiates with others on an equal footing. 

Dr Rahul Pandey, CNS Columnist
25 November 2015
About the author: Rahul Pandey is an academic and entrepreneur.