Opinion and Editorial

Big Picture Approach to India

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay
Filed on November 3, 2008

The US government’s National Counterterrorism Center said in April this year that more than one thousand people died in India because of terrorist attacks in 2007. India - according to the report - was ranked fourth behind only Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Numbers of fatalities due to terrorist related violence in India varies.

South Asia Terrorism Portal - headed by veteran terrorism combatant KPS Gill - lists out fatalities in 2007, in excess of 2500 while the government own latest status paper - released in September puts the number of civilian deaths at 1215. The varying figures however, have a common strand - acceptance that there are a large number of terrorist-related deaths in India due to Naxalite violence and separatist agitations in the country’s northeastern region. This makes it clear that Islamic terrorism - or Jihadi terrorism - is not the only scourge effecting India.

Terrorism has become an integral part of national consciousness over the past two decades beginning with the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi. The ensuing terrorist violence in Punjab brought terrorism closer to the middle class psyche as it was no longer affecting just “them” but could also strike “us”. Terrorism abated in Punjab by early 1990s and there was a break in this consciousness because violence was at that time restricted to Kashmir, the northeast and a few remote pockets in central India. Incidents like Mumbai blasts in 1993 were treated as aberrations - and not considered part of a nationwide phenomenon.

The moment, terrorism acquired a core position in the India’s national consciousness thereafter it was natural that it would sooner or later also become part of popular culture. As a result mainstream filmmakers began coming out with films centred on the theme of terrorism.

Gulzar’s ‘Maachis’ probing militancy in Punjab coupled with Main Ratnam’s ‘Roja’ were harbingers of this genre. Dil Se, Sarfarosh, Mission Kashmir, Khakhee among others in the past decade or more was big budget - often multi-starer - films replete with elements of commercial cinema.

The recent ‘A Wednesday’ was however, different - it had only ‘two and half’ sub-top grade stars and made on an extremely low budget. The film directed by a debutant qualified for today’s label of “arthouse cinema” also because it had no songs and thereby opened itself for closer scrutiny of its political content.

Almost all films of this genre have had clearly identifiable terrorists. If in some case there links with Pakistan or ISI was clearly spelt out, in other cases the Jehadi intent of the marauders was not hidden from viewers. The villains were identified though the identity of some characters was disguised to create cinematic suspense. ‘A Wednesday’ was different because the visible villain turns out to be a representative of society out to cleanse it, albeit dramatically with use of violence. The film spontaneously creates a “wow” feeling mainly because of its novelty and initially many would tend to agree with Naseeruddin Shah that he plays a character who is the nameless face of terrorism and has no religion - Hindu or a Muslim.

Furthermore, by letting him go, the State represented by Anupam Kher’s character is forced to condone Shah’s form of intervention. Therein lies the problem with not just the film but with the popular understanding of the middle class regarding what constitutes terrorism in India.

All terrorists identified are those who were involved in acts attributed to ‘Jehadi Terrorism’ - suggesting that there is no other form of terrorism in India that can incense the common man character of Shah.

India faces equally serious terrorism in the form of Naxalite violence and from separatists in northeast but all anger is directed only in one direction and not against the problem per se. It is evident that dominant urban middle-class consciousness considers terrorism as a real problem only if the attackers and victims live in their milieu. Maoists do not live in big cities and either blow up trains in godforsaken districts or attack hamlets deep in the forests. Similarly, the northeast has always been the other “unknown India”. Islamic terrorism is the only form of terrorism according to this sentiment while the others are inevitable social conflicts.

By singling out terrorism motivated by the desire for religious retribution, popular culture is playing out the script written by opinion makers. In the process not only is India ending up with a myopic view of the problem and extent of terrorism but the schism between the two biggest religious communities of India is being further widened. Moreover, recent revelations of Malegaon blast show that this script too was flawed - that Hindu militants too have been involved with urban terrorism.

In any case, being a Muslim in India after the emergence of the Ayodhya agitation in the late 1980s has not been easy. Since then, secular elements within the community had to contend with both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists. By giving terrorism an Islamic label, religious identity hangs like the Damocles’ Sword over the head of every Muslim. Popular culture in the past has had a non-conformist tradition. Filmmakers have a tradition of scripting stories that made the establishment squirm. In contemporary India, when terrorism is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges, creative artists need to look beyond clichés, as India needs a break from stereotypes.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a commentator based in India. He can be reached atnilanjan.mukhopadhyay@gmail.com

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