Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mumbai Terror Attack And Our Vicarious, Voyeuristic Tendencies

This was an expression of my anger a year back after getting a million calls from 'friends' who don't bother otherwise, but wanted to have the latest gossip on 26/11. Come to think of it now, quite a bit of it i find naive now, but then, that's what i knew back then. Would perhaps write a 'mature' piece on the same now. 

A drama of greater proportion is unfolding in Mumbai, and this country with the Mumbai terror attacks. Yes, the attacks are extremely heinous and true liberty suggests that you make your point in non-violent ways, and not by harming innocent people. But then are we truly innocent. What gives power to these terrorists, is it their act, or is it we, and our voyeuristic tendencies and the vicarious pleasures we gain by what the terrorists do.

Let me being with some statistic and some personal observations. I am a loner with very few friends who keep in regular touch with me because of my directness. But in the last two days, as the city has been held hostage by terrorists, I have got a number of smses and calls from the world over from ‘friends’, asking me about my well being. In total, at least Rs.1000 would have been spent on me by them on calls and smses. Now, like I said, I’m quite asocial. This figure would go up when we consider other Mumbaikars, who are much more sociable than me. And considering that Mumbai has a population of over 2 crores, with almost a crore mobile phones, even if everyone received calls worth only Rs.100, it adds up to Rs.100 crores spent on calls. For what? Yes, it was concern all right, but we would be kidding ourselves in believing that it was only concern. It is a voyeuristic tendency that we have. People want to know our stories. Were we there? Has one of my family or friends got effected, and if yes, how? Now this Rs. 100 crore spent (and thousands of crores lost in business that was closed and people who stayed home because of fear), was it spent on concern? No, it was spent in giving more power to those terrorists by getting scared. Imagine 10 people took the entire city, nay the entire country for ransom. How did they do it? They triggered the bomb of fear in our heads, that’s how.
Let’s cut down emotion for a moment and take refuge in cold, sterile statistics. 100 people were killed by these terrorist attacks. Over 700 people have died in the last three years in terrorist attacks in major towns of the country (excluding the North Eastern part of the country and Kashmir). Now, take the number of people who have died in suburban train related deaths in just the city of Mumbai last year – a staggering 4500. This is an average of 15 people daily who die after falling from Mumbai trains or being run over by them while crossing tracks. And this number is from all strata of society (except maybe foreign nationals). So, in three years over 13,500 people have died in Mumbai alone in its trains compared to 400 odd people killed by terrorists in the city in the last three years (last years serial bomb blasts included which killed 189 people). Now vicariously consider the number of people who would have died on the roads of Mumbai in the same period.
Some more statistics: In 2007, 95,000 people were killed in road accidents in India, with Delhi contributing 2,169 deaths. In Mumbai more that 800 people died in accidents while over 2,000 were seriously injured and 5,000 had minor injuries.

So this is Mumbai for you, where over 5000 people die every year on its roads or trains. Now let me get personal. In the Western Express Highway, which I take to reach office everyday, 116 people (official figures) died last year in fatal accidents. I have myself been involved in two accidents last year. Once when in this stretch of road on the WEH which is a killer spot because of the smoothness of the road (yes, quite an irony), when my bike slipped and I skid on the road for almost 15 meters before halting. The truck behind me applied its break just in time, and I had a ‘miraculous’ escape. And this has happened at least 10 times in the city of Mumbai where I have lived for the last 5 years. And each time it has been because of the bad roads. Because the Mumbai government and its BMC is so rotten with corruption that despite being the richest municipality in Asia, it has the roads and streets of the poorest. So, who should I fear more, the terrorists or the corrupt BMC officials.
But again, who makes these terrorists. Is it that alleged country across the border called ‘Pakistan’ (literal translation ‘Pious Land’). I would disagree. They may give the guns to the terrorists, but each one of us contributes in providing the reason to the terrorists. More than how and where and when and whom, it is the why that is the most important and yet most neglected.
What is our greatest crime? Stereotyping! We stereotype people on the basis of their religion, on the basis of the region of the country they belong to. Though we live in a democracy, the discrimination is shamelessly rampant. A few months back Times Of India had carried an article on how Muslims in the city find it next to impossible to find a house on rent. Why? Because we have this notion in our heads that every Muslim is a AK47 wielding terrorist. That every man who has a beard and wears a cap supports terrorists. Now I do not also subscribe to the hoax that Islam is a peaceful religion. No religion in the world is peaceful. Religion is a divisive force, and anything that divides is barbaric and violent. Consider Christianity and the atrocities it committed in the name of religion during the crusades, why till a few decades back in their colonies across the world and in their continued support of anything that creates division across the world. And if you thought Hinduism is peaceful, read the barbaric history of its rulers and how they butchered, looted and raped often in the name of religion. If you thought Buddhism is peaceful, read how the Buddhist monks punished people a few hundred years back. The latent idea in every religion might have been peaceful, but its executioners has been extremely brutal.

Is He A Terrorist Too?
Then there are people like Raj and his uncle before him Bal Thackeray, who have divided people in the country, Bal on the lines of Hindi speaking and South Indians way back in the 1960’s and Raj going deeper by dividing Maharashtrians and North Indians. Like the terrorists Raj Thackeray too took the city for ransom when it was closed for two days last months. Thousands of crores were lost due to that, just like this time. And yes, people did die then too. 20 odd people die due to Maharashtrian-North Indian violence in the state of Maharashtra. But whereas the terrorists will be gunned down, Mr. Thackeray will become the next powerful man of the city, after his uncle Bal. That is his intention, to become the next most powerful man and once his ailing uncle is dead, he would be the monarch of Mumbai. So if you consider cold statistics again, the only real difference between Raj and these terrorists, is that the terrorists killed 100 people, Raj is slightly low on that number.
And who is to say that Raj Thackeray and the nations lack of legally indicting him for his crimes, had nothing to do with the latest terrorist attacks. Watch Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Black Friday’ based on Hussain Zaidi’s book to know how important this ‘why’ is and why what Raj is doing is directly contributing to the death of our friends and family.

Now consider what the politicians outside the nation’s borders, and inside it need to recruit people for their terrorist activities. They do not care about religion, they do not care for the common masses. The most important task religion has performed in its 4 thousand year history, is unite a group of people and divide them from the rest to such and extent that murder and mayhem can be justified in its name. Look at the Crusades of the middle ages, a war by the ‘civilised’ west on ‘barbaric’ Islam. Really? Read history and you’ll know who the barbarians really were, and are. Islamic countries up until the 18th centuries were far more scientifically and intellectually advanced than the west. The Islamic middle east, and the Indian subcontinent and China was the world’s scientific and intellectual powerhouse. When the streets of the most advanced cities of the West during this period were plagued by darkness (resulting in stupid ghost stories like the headless horseman), the cities of these regions, Istambul, Baghdad (yes the same Baghdad, that lies in ruins today), Delhi and others had an intricate arrangement of street lights. The truly barbaric west looted and plundered these three regions (like it is still doing, western forces occupy Baghdad forcefully) and became the ‘scientific’, ‘intellectual’ and ‘economic’ powerhouse. And they called Muslims barbaric, called Hindus pagan worshippers, and Chinese, communists. And worse, they have managed to make the world believe that everyone who practices ‘Islam’ is a terrorist. Is the war on Terror that the US is perpetrating really a war on terror? Our inefficient Mumbai police and its intelligence can do a better job than the entire West in capturing this fictional character called ‘Bin Laden’ and the fictional organisation called ‘Al Qaida’. Do not read ‘Bin Laden’ as that… read it as ‘Big Brother’ from 1984, only a ‘Big Brother’ of a different kind. His face is thrust before our face every time the government across the world want us to be fearful (or cannot really find the true perpetrators of violence). He is merely a symbol, like ‘Big Brother’ was in 1984. A symbol that is used every time someone want us to believe that all Muslims are terrorists. And when we believe that, everything that we see is tinted by the colour of the glasses of prejudice we are forced to wear.

The real terror of these terror attacks is not the death of the 100 odd people. But in further perpetrating this ‘Every-Muslim-Is-A-Terrorist-Myth’. In the US, presidential candidate McCain distributed 28 million copies of a documentary that perpetrated this same myth. That is a crime on humanity. And like Raj here, McCain goes unpunished. The real terror is when that stereotype is further strengthened in our head, creating further divisions in society, and ensuring that further such attacks happen by a handful of those in Islam or other religions and sect who practice violence. Or worse, someone else will do it and blame it on them. Like I remember in the 1990’s how easy it was to incite Hindu Muslim riots. A dead cow would be thrown into a Hindu temple, and a dead pig in a mosque compound. This would be the handiwork of politicians, but tensions would flare up (no one would sit with a cool head trying to figure out the coincidence of both happening simultaneously) and before you know it scores of Hindus would have killed Muslims and vice versa, and scores of women from both sides would have been raped and innocent children ruthlessly slaughtered. This was the same in 1984 when after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, hundreds of congress workers went ahead and brutally butchered 10,000 Sikhs (unofficial figures) in less than three days (visithttp://www.neverforget84.com/). Hatred has no religion, neither has voyeurism.
What do we most enjoy about tragedy – talking about it? We enjoy others tragedy vicariously. Like we enjoy vicarious emotions in a film. This, one of my favourite words in the English language, a very very powerful word, a word that explains and makes sense of a lot of things, vicarious. A lot of things we do in life is explained by this word. Like the scores of calls enquiring about my well being. They wanted to hear some story of terror. Newspapers and TV reports are not enough. They want to know something more personal. They want to know my story of the terror attacks. And this vicarious pleasure and voyeuristic perversion will continue for months after the attacks. The media would once again find the easy way out, stereotype some religious group or some country, and move to the next news that would give there viewers vicarious pleasures. Like someone trapped inside a old well, like in Billy Wilder’s World Cinema masterpiece ‘Ace In The Hole’.

If you want to fight terror, do something. But first stop deriving vicarious pleasure from the same. Know what the truth is. Dig for it. Know that there are bigger tragedies unfolding. Like the unprecedented rise of the Naxal movement in different parts of the country, even in the rich and prosperous Maharashtra. Understand how the economic disparity between the rural and urban areas is giving reasons for people in the rural areas to take arms to address it. Do not sit quietly thinking that it will not effect you. Everything effect us. We are all connected. Today it is some terrorists. Tomorrow it will be Naxals that will point a gun at you and me. Then, we will find more stereotypes and go on with our lives once it is over.
Let us not go on with our lives. In a society, everyone’s life effects ours, and ours effect everyone’s else’s. Don’t be content by the big bucks you make in jobs that really do not contribute to anything in this world, jobs like the ones in the advertising field, most media jobs, financial jobs… you make a lot of money, and feel proud of the big house and the big car and big foreign trips you make. But does your life matter? A farmer, who contributes to feeding you matters much more than your Golden Lion winning advertising campaign. Because that poor farmer creates foods that feed you. You cannot eat your notes. You create nothing that feeds anyone or elevates their pain like a doctor, or puts great ideas and thoughts like a good writer or filmmaker or a journalist with integrity. You just believe you matter, but one day, like Alec Guinness in another World Cinema masterpiece, ‘Bridge On The River Kwai’ you will suddenly “…realise you are nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything, or if it made any difference at all, really.”
Try making that difference, try being that difference, and you will fight terrorism and any such evils automatically.


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