Another Thiruvonam has come and gone. Mahabali, king of the three worlds, pushed down into the netherworld by the foot of Vishnu, has completed his annual tour. This year, Thiruvonam , the most significant of the four Onam days, fell on the 11th of September. The date varies from year to year as the Malayalam calendar follows the Sanskrit solar system, the first month, Chingam, corresponding to the Sanskrit Simha month. In 2020, Thiruvonam, popularly known as Onam, will be on 31st August and the following year on 20th August.
It is therefore pure happenstance that Onam happened to coincide with 9/11, the day in 2001 when a misguided act of vicious cruelty, perpetrated in the name of God and religion, brought down the World Trade Centre in New York. I was then living in Brussels. On that fateful Tuesday, I had just brought my mother back home after her dialysis session, when my colleague, Kishan Singh, then working in the India Trade Centre attached to the Embassy, telephoned me and told me to switch on the TV as something momentous was happening. I chose the CNN channel and immediately saw the horrific sight of a commercial aircraft crashing into one of the Towers, followed immediately by a plume of dark smoke. I saw also the sight of hundreds of terrified people pouring out of all buildings in the vicinity, disbelief and amazement writ large on their faces. Who would have believed that the most technologically advanced country in the world with a powerful, experienced intelligence network, would ever be subjected to a terror attack of such dimensions?
Just nineteen people, belonging to the al-Qaeda, had been able to strike at the heart of the strongest nation in the world. They had hijacked four passenger airliners and turned them around back towards New York and Washington. Two of them struck the North and South Towers of the World Trade Centre, bringing both down, as well as the 47 story 7 World Trade Centre Tower and causing huge damage to ten other large structures in the vicinity. The third plane crashed into the Pentagon building, the seat of the US Ministry of Defense, causing partial collapse of the western side of the building. The hijackers in the fourth plane were apparently overpowered by passengers in the plane and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. 2996 people died, including the hijackers.343 firefighters and 72 law enforcement officers lost their lives. The most destructive terror attack in the history of the world had taken place. The al-Qaeda initially denied involvement, but in 2004, its leader, Osama bin Laden, claimed credit.
The Western world had hitherto regarded terrorism as a third world issue. A year or so earlier, I had been involved , as Deputy Chief of Mission in the
Embassy of India at Brussels, in the preparation of a draft text which would be the outcome of the first ever Summit in the year 2000 between India and the European Union. Detailed negotiations on the text were held in the Commission’s offices in Brussels. The Indian delegation argued strongly for inclusion of language in the text on threats posed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and of the al-Qaeda worldwide. The Europeans firmly opposed any reference to the al-Qaeda or any specific terror group. They believed even then that terrorism was largely regional, localised in South Asia and the Middle East, that terrorism emanating from Taliban and al-Qaeda could be handled through discussion and negotiation and, above all, that the Western countries were totally safe and that terrorism would never touch them. The Joint Declaration of the First India EU Summit, held in June 2000, therefore, confined itself to platitudes on the threats posed by terrorism, “unreserved condemnation of terrorism in all its forms” and “ strengthening co-operation in preventing and combating terrorism”. There was no reference to terror groups or to specific threats. The Europeans seemed to believe that the problem of terrorism would go away on its own, the way apartheid disappeared in South Africa. Memories of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the role played by the Taliban in ejecting the Soviets from that country also seemed to influence their approach to the growth of terrorism in that country.
9/11 changed all that. Overnight, Afghanistan became a rogue country and the Taliban, who harboured Osama bin Laden, became demons to be eliminated. The West banded together and drove out the Taliban, establishing in its place the Ahmed Karzai regime which survived on the strength of American support. Pakistan , which, until recently, was always one step ahead of India in diplomacy, arising largely out of Cold War dynamics, scored another diplomatic victory, allowing the Americans to use their airports for launching their assault on Afghanistan. Indeed, if Pakistan finds itself isolated today on Kashmir, this is largely the result of our 1991 economic reforms, which made India a huge and open market, the end of the Cold War, the growing realisation that Pakistan is effectively the cradle of terrorism, the growth of China as the second pole in the global power equation and Pakistan’s political proximity to China and the recognition that India’s policies and democratic framework are more aligned to Western ideologies.
Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, India was the victim of a spate of terror attacks. The Indian Parliament was attacked in December 2001, the American Cultural Centre in Kolkata in January 2002, the Rafiganj train crash in Bihar killed 200, the Akshardham temple in Gujarat was attacked in September 2002 and there was a spate of bombings in Mumbai in 2005.
In October 2005, serial bombs ripped apart crowded market areas in Delhi, killing 70. I was in Delhi at that time, living close to Sarojini market. I had planned to walk to Sarojini market that evening,but our pet dog, Sandy, was impatient for a walk. So I walked him for a short while, left him at home in Satya Marg and set off for Sarojini market, which was barely a 15 minute walk. As I set out to walk, I was surprised to find an unusual number of fire engines on the road, Halfway through my walk, my mobile rang. It was my daughter, asking me where I was. She told me to go back home immediately as many places in Delhi were under attack. I looked up then and, in the distance, I saw a thick cloud of smoke over Sarojini market. Had Sandy not wanted a walk, I might have been in Sarojini market when the bomb exploded. I may not have been at the precise spot, but, then again, I might have been, who knows? Sandy lies buried now in a corner of the vast lawns adjoining the Cabinet Secretary’s official house on Prithvi Raj road.
Today, there are fewer terror attacks in India, but there have been incidents all over the world: in Paris, in Brussels, in London, in Auckland, in Sri Lanka. There is no place anywhere in the world that is safe from a terrorist attack. As Pulwama and Auckland showed, one man, who is not afraid to die, can cause death and devastation to many.
At the root of terrorism lies anger and hatred, both real and imagined. Today, in India, are we safe? When Mahabali walked around the country this week, he would have seen the simmering resentment of some of our countrymen in the Kashmir valley, whose freedom is curtailed, who live in fear and uncertainty under an enforced lockdown with no means of communication for days on end. He would have seen people in Assam, who lived for years on end as Indians, suddenly finding themselves stateless and with no knowledge of what will happen to them. He would have seen religion centred intolerance, manifesting in violence.
This brings me to another 9/11, the 11th of September, 1893, when Swami Vivekananda spoke at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. As he rose to address his large audience with the words, “ Brothers and sisters of America”, there was prolonged applause for several minutes. “ I am proud to belong to a religion,” he said,”“which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation that has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the world.”
India has survived as an entity because of its capacity to absorb and assimilate. Hinduism, as the dominant religion of India, has fended off onslaughts from other streams of thought, by being open,receptive and understanding. As the Rig Vedic hymn puts it, “ Ekam Sat, Vipra Bahudhā Vadanti..” “ The truth is one, the learned speak of it in different ways.” The Indian Constitution, as it was originally devised, was essentially an effort to translate this philosophy into statecraft, of bringing together diversity by providing room for such diversity rather than trying to railroad divergent streams into a single hidebound structure. So long as we imbibe fully the spirit of the Constitution, we can find ways of accommodating differences and resolving problems. And terrorism will wither away.