Would a Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderdrabad, Varanasi,Pune-style bomb blast have happened in a Chinese city? Or a 26/11? Or any of the scores of terror attacks that India has been subjected to over the years?
Forget the fact that the Chinese economy has grown faster than India’s. Forget the fact that in terms of infrastructural development – be it power plants and highways or hospitals and schools China is way ahead. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between China the world’s largest dictatorship – and India – the world’s most populous democracy – is the vulnerability of each to terror.
China has its share of internal problems, its discontented minorities, like the Uighurs and the Falun Gong sect. But dissent, even non-violent dissent, has been ruthlessly nipped in the bud before it can erupt into extremistaction. The scars of Tiananmen Square are a deterrent testimony to the consequences of dissidence in any form.
China’s relative immunity to terror is due to the fact that it is a ‘hard’ state, perhaps the hardest in the world. When terrorists attack hard states as happened when Chechen extremists held a schoolful of children hostage in Beslan in 2004 the response of the state is often so swift and brutal that it out-terrorises the terrorists. In the Russian case, the final death toll included some 200 children who were sacrificed by the iron-fisted authorities as unavoidable ‘collateral damage’.
The game plan of terror or what is sometimes called ‘propaganda by deed’ is to ensure media coverage in order to highlight the supposed cause the terrorists are fighting for. In hard states like China and to a lesser extent Russia the media can be, and are,kept on a tight rein. In China certainly, a terror strike would be totally blanked out by the state-controlled media, thus negating the publicity value of such an attack. If a tree falls in a forest where there is none to hear it fall, does it make a sound?
In a hard state like China which with impunity recently violated the privacy rights of its Google users real or imagined anti-state elements are denied freedom of movement and information before they can get themselves organised. India’s an archic democracy in which each and every one of us does exactly what we please is the diametric opposite of China’s police state, where the freedom of the individual is stringently monitored and curtailed every step of the way.
Yes, India is a free society, and China is a muzzled and shackled polity. None of us or at least not many of us would willingly trade places with China on that count. But the in-built Achilles’ heel of any democracy particularly one as determinedly indisciplined as India’s is its susceptibility to subversion.
Is exposure to terror the price that we have to pay for the freedom of which we are so justly proud? The freedom to travel the length and breadth of the country as David Coleman Headley did without hindrance. The freedom to congregate in public, as the victims of the Pune bomb blast were doing. The freedom of our media openly to report news, even when such reportage jeopardises rescue operations as happened during the live TV coverage of the Taj Hotel siege during 26/11.
When the intrusive Homeland Security Act was introduced in the US after 9/11, many asked if in the name of deterring terrorism America was undermining the freedom by which it defined itself. If indeed it has done that, then the terrorists have already won. Similar questions might be raised in India. Will the recent tightening of visa and entry rules for foreign visitors be a genuine safeguard against terrorism, or will they merely deter tourists and business travellers, to India’s detriment? Will re-introduction of oppressive laws like TADA curb terror or promote more human rights violations?
Is democracy doomed to be the unwitting bed fellow of terror? That’s the truly terrifying question.
(Author is in International Business)