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 television 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 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. Indeed, it would take some doing to let the realisation creep in that what many of us watched on television wasn't a late-night Hollywood film but a live coverage (albeit sanitised) of the massacre of the innocents by barbarians.
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. They will stop at absolutely nothing. 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 liberal democracy -- that ultimate of human triumph. What we witnessed at Beslan wasn't the end of history; it seemed like a page from the very beginning.
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.
The foreign ministers of the European Union went one step further. Yes, they condemned the terrorists but they simultaneously demanded an explanation from Putin for the high death toll. Some have even suggested that Russia immediately resume dialogue with the hardened, Wahabi-inspired Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.
This disagreeable equivocation is called moral equivalence -- equating terrorism with the victims of terrorism. It's a trademark of rootless liberals and the human rights agencies that function as the overground face of the terrorist underground.
However, in perpetuating the delusion 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 hostages in Iraq have returned home unharmed, although humiliated. We don't even begin asking uncomfortable questions about the money that changed hands, the Islamic card our secular republic played courtesy a minister from the Muslim League, 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 grotesque farewell present.
We are just so relieved that the bandits spared us the discomfiture of having to denounce Islamic terrorism that we even offer the three released hostages government jobs! Now, that should give ideas to some down-and-out enterprising souls.
As we talk sadbhavna and the modalities of a soft-border with a state that organised and facilitated the Bombay 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 mujahideen need a worthwhile enemy. Israel, like Russia, gives it back as hard as it gets. Consequently, there is a macabre charm in blowing up buses and roadside cafes in Jerusalem. The US, of course, is the original Satan. So, messing with Uncle Sam -- even if it means draping a bewildered Nepali worker in an American flag and forcing a confession at gun point -- has a glamorous ideological attraction, calculated to secure many scores of virgins for the suicide-bomber in after-life.
But India? In flaunting our 'dhimmitude,' we are pathetic. 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 prime minister -- and he is an honourable man -- justifies it as a purely railway ministry inquiry. As if the retired judge will devote his re-employment to finding out why the Sabarmati Express was running late and why there were passengers who didn't have a confirmed reservation. No wonder the arsonists are now busy counting the days of their safe passage to secular respectability.
The list of self-goals we have scored is impressive. The police shoot a potential women suicide-bomber in Ahmedabad in a pre-emptive strike, the terrorists proclaim her a martyr on their web site, but the guardians of cosmopolitan respectability proclaim her a victim of religious prejudice. The newspapers send rookie reporters to write tear-jerkers on how the family is now coping.
In Andhra Pradesh, the police arrest a few Muslims on the knowledge that they are local facilitators for a Pakistan-based jihadi group. This offends the political party that was born out of the Razakar movement in princely Hyderabad. The police is advised by the state government to go slow and, in any case, ensure that those arrested are not handed over to the Gujarat police for questioning.
And while all this is taking place, bus loads of well-heeled Pakistanis have descended on Delhi to tell us that POTA is an impediment to good bilateral relations. Well, of course it is. Wouldn't life be more just if India meekly offered a blank cheque to Pakistan to quickly complete the 'unfinished agenda' of Partition?
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? Or will we even then pretend it was simply a case of mistaken identity -- the excuse we proffered when eight Indians were murdered by terrorists in Saudi Arabia? When it comes to self-flagellation, we are unrivalled.
The Nazis, it came to light during the 1961 trial of the notorious Adolf Eichman in Israel, were apparently mystified at the passivity with which the Jews entered the gas chambers. They were also delighted that in each concentration camp they could organise a Jewish police, the Judenrate, to keep order and herd their co-religionists to their death.
It may be a case of polemical exaggeration but there are some traits that run through ancient civilisations. It took the Holocaust for Jewry to reinvent itself. What will it take for the soul of India to stir?