The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- In a crisis, citizens just need to feel that the state is doing its best

If one of the objectives of terrorism is to throw the state into some disarray, it is disquieting to see the ease with which it succeeds. While society at large has, tenuously, kept calm, in the wake of the recent terror attacks (though this calm should not be taken for granted), the state seems peculiarly out of sorts in this situation. India often claims that it is the democratic state with the longest history and experience of terrorism. Yet it seems not to have evolved even the basic protocols of how the state should present itself in the aftermath of incidents of such magnitude.

In the first instance, calls for standing united against terror seem to apply to everyone but politicians. It is absolutely astonishing that even in such times of crisis the government and the opposition will not, even for the sake of a photo opportunity, join together, and make some kind of collective gesture. It would elevate our petty politics considerably, send a better signal of our resolve, and create a more credible dialogue on terrorism if the leaders of all major political parties visited the victims together, not one by one, issued joint statements, rather than scrambling to politically upstage one another, and were seen to be working together to restore a more confident calm in the aftermath of such an event. They could also generate a more responsible response to terrorism by internalizing the view that terrorism is almost never defeated by high pitched and indiscriminate protest, but by sober and intelligent institutions. The prospect of Narendra Modi leading an anti-terror movement should be a disquieting thought for even the most complacent.

The second sense in which the state undermines its own credibility is by speaking in a cacophony of voices. It is something of a mystery why the police, security agencies and the relevant ministries, rather than all speaking to the press in different voices at random times of the day, do not have one coordinated official position and account of the events, presented through systematic briefings. Otherwise the state gives the impression of Babel running amok, with everyone from the home secretary to commissioner of police, home minister to intelligence chiefs sending mixed signals on everything from the basic facts to the government's strategy. Does the constant and open discussion of possible leads, lead to better law enforcement and interdiction strategies' Obviously there is great pressure on different agencies to be seen to be doing something, but we should now be mature enough to understand that the appearance of doing something is not a substitute for credible evidence. The state itself then becomes party to fuelling speculation, rather than reassuring with hard facts. If nothing else, the cacophony undermines the credibility of the state itself and leaves the citizens more confused than the terrorists.

In the aftermath of the Mumbai blasts, the lines of authority have been even more blurred. It has been widely reported in the press that at the cabinet meeting different ministers argued for their own pet hypothesis for who may or may not have been responsible for these blasts. It is one thing for cabinet ministers to exercise due diligence over intelligence reports to make sure that they are not being misled. It is quite another thing for any minister or politician to substitute their pre-commitments for hard information. What can lower the credibility of the state more than its own internal disarray'

Third, there is an uncannily familiar pattern to the response after terrorism. In almost every incident, there is an identification of suspects, a significant number of arrests, and occasionally, even encounters within hours of the incident. But we still have not evolved credible institutions where terrorists are brought to a fair, credible and public trial. This again makes it easier to cast doubt on the credibility of the state; it becomes all too easy to impugn the state's moves against particular individuals or organizations. Managing the political fallout of terrorism requires that the state be seen to be doing justice, not taking indiscriminate action that sows seeds of further alienation and resentment. Its quest for security should not breed a different kind of insecurity.

In the absence of credible trials the figure of the terrorist remains an abstraction, a caricature comprehended through sparse visual images. Rather, what credible trials do is enable the state to more successfully tackle terrorism at a political level. The state, which should, under all circumstances, endeavour to maintain the distinction between justice and expedience, can shore up faith in its own authority by credible procedures. Trials also provide an occasion for a deeper understanding of the social links, psychological complexes and political machinations that produce terrorism in the first place. In short, the discourse on terrorism is nowhere near as sophisticated as its gravity, and one factor responsible for this is that the state's desire and capacity to crack down is far greater than its capacity to deliver justice.

Fourth, for all the rhetoric on the war of terror, the state is not organizationally equipped to respond to the challenge efficiently. It would be churlish to deny that despite the disorganization of the state, subversion by the political class and complete lack of recognition for sincere work, there are elements in our intelligence and security services that routinely act beyond the call of duty. But the core of the state's energies itself is dissipated into a myriad functions. Just take the organization of the ministry of home affairs, for instance. Just a quick perusal of its website will give you the list of functions it is entrusted with: everything from the Padma Awards to granting visas, police functions to monitoring itinerant academics. Even the most capable of officers are unlikely to be able to give consistent and single-minded attention to the core function of this ministry: internal security.

It is very doubtful that terrorism can be dealt with by promulgating new laws or proliferating new agencies; rather what is required is a more clear-headed and intelligent use of existing resources. It is absolutely important for the state to understand that reform of state functions, divesting it of peripheral responsibilities so that it can concentrate on its important goals, is not just an anaemic exercise in administrative reform. It has to be a central element in a national security strategy.

No one underestimates the political and strategic difficulties of crafting a response to terrorism, especially when it is cowardly enough to go after the softest of targets. The reassurance that citizens seek from the state is not the implausible goal that the state will always be able to prevent such incidents. But what citizens require most in times of crisis is a sense that the state is performing at the best level possible. Terrorism works, not simply through the lives its destroys, but through upsetting our grip on reality, by making sure that we are unable to take even the most quotidian certainties for granted. The first objective of the state, as Hobbes recognized, is to provide a framework in which those certainties can exist. There will always be a gap between the state's de jure authority and its de facto power. But it does not help when the state's own self-presentation, its organizational disarray and its speculative Babel exacerbate the gap. The state needs to evolve protocols about how it presents itself, and regains credibility.

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