Don't cry for Indian democracy

The terror attack on Parliament was tragic, but the government was back in business the next day in the world's largest democracy.

Published December 18, 2001 8:43PM (EST)

Last Thursday, I stayed awake long into the night, connected to the Web. I alternated between, the Times of India, the Hindustantimes and the New York Times, hitting the refresh button every few seconds, trying to follow events unfolding across the world from my study in California. It started when I checked on the Times of India, to look at the morning newspapers. The headlines screamed: "Parliament under attack." For a moment everything about Sept. 11 came back; I wondered if they had used planes, or lodged a bomb. I read more and found that it was an armed terrorist attack. No surprise there. We were expecting it.

The attack was a little like the recent attack on the Kashmir assembly -- terrorists drive a car laden with explosives, escape into the building and wreak havoc. In the end, 13 were dead and at least 18 wounded in the Parliament attack. Many fewer than might have been killed. It's a funny world when you begin to categorize different types of terrorist attacks, and feel relieved when the casualty toll stays in double digits. You know what I mean; you'll have an image before your eyes with each category of attack I describe: There is the dramatic Sept. 11 assault, turning planes into live bombs and killing thousands; then there are plain old vanilla hijackings, in which nobody dies. There is the car or truck crammed with explosives, à la Oklahoma City; then there is the suicide bomber in a coffee shop or disco or shopping mall, as we hear about almost weekly, it seems, in Israel. I could go on, but I won't.

So we were lucky with the attack in New Delhi. Still, the threat of violence persists. I think of Kashmir, the beautiful land where I would have liked to go for my honeymoon. But it would not have been safe for my American husband. They like kidnapping foreign tourists there. And I think of the land I have only seen in older Indian movies. The hills and lakes in Hindi movies nowadays are generally shot in Europe. I think of houseboats in Dal Lake, drifting by; beautiful girls laughing. But the threat of violence is always present: A bus blows up; children die; men in uniform are killed, their bodies come back to the cities. We protest, the world urges restraint, and then the clamor dies. Till the next killing of a judge, the next attack in a village, the next assault on a government body. Sadly, it's getting to be a familiar cycle: violence, protest, restraint, then the clamor dies, and more violence.

I found myself thinking back to the Indian Parliament House, what it looked like driving by early in the morning on a dewy New Delhi day. I thought of some of the ungentlemanly exchanges between members of Parliament. I even thought about my constitution textbook in high school. I remember memorizing the definition of democracy -- "Government for the people, by the people and of the people" and the sketch of the majestic British-style Parliament House on the same page. And I thought of a distant day in 1947 when Nehru said, "At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom." That's always made me proudest of the land of my birth.

There are many things that distinguish India from America, the two countries I now call home. Life is cheap in India compared to U.S. More than half the population lives below the poverty line; there is the threat of malaria, TB, heart disease, and now AIDS. There are natural disasters that kill thousands of people. There is pollution, child malnutrition. But there is at least one thing that is right with India, that India shares with the U.S. and the rest of the free world, and that is democracy.

Every few years, we dress up and go to the nearby voting booths in groups. We all get excited by a new leader, or by an old leader in a new incarnation. We get seduced by the promise of liberalization and the cleanup of corruption. Every five years we hope and plan, and play our roles in making it happen. Literate or illiterate, everyone votes. The gardener, the cook, they all disappear for the day; it is expected, because they have to vote. They are excited because the political parties have been paying attention to them for the past few months. Maybe they managed to wangle an electrical connection for their neighborhood, maybe they got the open drain finally covered up. They vote because they hope. Ask any Indian what they are most proud of, and many of them will say it's the fact that democracy works in India. Inexplicably, amazingly it works.

So I cried on Dec 13. I shed tears for the innocents who died, the vice president's security guards who initially challenged the terrorists, the gardener caught in the crossfire, and the woman cop who died fighting the terrorists. But I did not shed any tears for democracy.

Democracy is strong and vibrant in India. On Dec. 13, the terrorists had come laden with arms and explosives. They also brought food, cellphones and phone cards. They had come to cause large casualties, assassinate major leaders, and maybe take hostages. One of the reasons their plans did not work was because Parliament had been adjourned. The opposition had been protesting, among other issues, the passing of a draconian anti-terrorist act. Within a few hours after the attack, the opposition members announced that the government should not think it was going to get off easy on its anti-terrorism measures because of the changed circumstances.

And the next day, after a minute's silence for what had happened, the house was back to business, the majority party and opposition back to their respective roles, clashing. Back to the business of democracy.

By Rashmi Sinha

Rashmi Sinha is a lecturer in the School of Information Management at the University of California, Berkeley.

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