Date: 9/6/2004


...........Column: Beslan is our wake-up call

..................By Swapan Dasgupta

..........Sunday, 05 September , 2004, 09:01

Beslan is thousands of miles away from the nearest Indian outpost. Yet, the grim tragedy that engulfed this nondescript Russian town on Friday afternoon has left not a single TV-viewer in any part of the world unaffected.

The images of half-naked, scared and disoriented children, many covered in blood, running helter-skelter or clutching their distraught rescuers have shaken every one of us.

It is scarcely possible to believe that even the most hardened terrorist can be so heartless as to deny hundreds of children food and drinking water for 53 hours. It boggles the imagination to realise that the masked gunmen can actually spray bullets into clusters of fleeing children, many of whom had come to school for the first time. Also View: Hostage drama in Russia

Indeed, it would take some doing to let the realisation creep in that what many of us watched on TV wasn't a late-night Hollywood film but live coverage of the barbarians in action.

Beslan was a wake-up call. It was a harsh reminder of a common menace that threatens every democracy, however flawed that democracy is.

It was a chilling testimony to the fact that for the brotherhood of ideologically-motivated and theologically-inspired terrorists there is no 'lakshman rekha'. The symbols of the state were always a likely target.

In a war of asymmetry, civilians became the next soft targets. And now, at the dawn of the 21st century, the boundaries have been extended to children.

The new millennium, we were once assured, would signal the end of history. It would herald the ultimate human triumph. What we witnessed at Beslan wasn't the end of history; it seemed like a page from the beginning of history.

It is so easy to succumb to denial. It is so easy to pretend that Beslan was a peculiarly Russian horror show. If only the Russian troops weren't so ham-handed, if only President Putin had demonstrated some flexibility in his Chechnya policy-the dhobi list of counter-factual wisdom trotted out by the pundits is endless.

In deluding ourselves that Beslan isn't our problem, we Indians take the biscuit. For the perverted custodians of sectarian vote-banks, nothing is ever our problem.

We go ga-ga with relief that three of our own taken hostage in Iraq have returned home unharmed. We don't even begin asking uncomfortable questions about the money that changed hands, the Muslim card our secular republic played and the disturbing precedent we have set for our diaspora.

We even gloss over the cold-blooded murder of 12 Nepali labourers around the time our citizens were being offered four religious books by their captors as a farewell present. As we talk the modalities of a soft-border with a state that organised and facilitated the Mumbai blasts of 1993, the ethnic cleansing of the Kashmir Valley, the Kargil War and the attack on Parliament, we have convinced ourselves that it can't happen here.

Maybe it won't happen here. Even the most motivated of the mujahedeen need a worthwhile enemy. Israel, like Russia, gives it back as hard as it gets. And messing with the US has a glorious ideological attraction, calculated to secure many scores of virgins for the suicide-bomber in after-life.

But India? An entire state gets into a frenzy of murderous retribution on seeing charred bodies lined up on the platform of the Godhra railway station. Two years later, the Government of India appoints an inquiry calculated to prove it was all a grisly act of self-immolation. The arsonists are now busy counting the days of their safe passage to secular respectability.

The police shoot a potential women suicide-bomber in Ahmedabad in a pre-emptive strike, the terrorists proclaim her a martyr on their website, but the guardians of cosmopolitan respectability proclaim her a victim of religious prejudice.

We have chosen to be wilfully craven. Will it take a Beslan to make India realise it isn't a case of hanuz Dilli dur ast?