Terror and Urban Apathy
[Published Assam Tribune, 21 January 2009]
After the devastating serial blasts in Assam, on October 30, – six of which were in the capital Guwahati – everybody in the media and elsewhere was talking about how insurgency there has degenerated into urban terrorism. What very few people were talking about is that Guwahati has experienced such terror before, many times and with similar shocking impact. It is of course true these most recent blasts were of a higher magnitude and much better coordinated than any other that the entire North East with its long history of conflict and violence has ever seen. What is also true, however, is that it is definitely not the first instance of big or serial blasts in the city, nor of multiple casualties and severe damage as was being projected by most media with clichés like terror getting a new face there.
The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) which is one of the groups under suspicion for the October 30 blasts, has on earlier instances also been accused of involvement in triggering powerful explosions in Guwahati and killing many. In 2004 alone, for instance, the group targeted Guwahati five times, one of which included a series of blasts in one upper and four lower Assam districts, besides two in Guwahati. Six people were killed and about 80 injured. But Guwahati has not been targeted by the ULFA alone. No one who has followed the conflict scenario in Assam can forget the 1992 blast in the busy Paltan Bazar area of the city where at least 43 persons were killed and nearly 150 injured. An ex-‘insurgent’ who is currently the chief of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), Hagrama Mahilary, was widely suspected to be behind this blast. Today, Mahilary’s party, the Bodoland Peoples Front (BPF), is part of the ruling coalition in Assam, sharing power with the Congress-led government.
So if any new face was given to terror at all, it was not done on October 30, 2008, nor by the perpetrators of terror alone who have only done what they have been doing for a long time now ever since they traded away their ideologies in exchange for shelter and security. On the contrary, the painting of a new face for terror has been in process for a while now and at the helm of this process has been the state itself which condones such acts, often even legitimises them. Whether this legitimisation be in the form of political power sharing, or bestowing of financial largesse and an above-and-beyond-the-law status – as that provided to many Surrendered ULFA (or SULFA as they are popularly known) cadres – the fact is that nobody has been held accountable for perpetrating such heinous crimes against humanity. On the contrary, they have been rewarded and the powers that be have patted themselves on their backs for bringing ‘the youths gone astray’ back to the ‘mainstream’.
Meanwhile, what has been happening to the ‘mainstream' – whatever its definition? With such criminal elements being pushed back into its midst and woven into its fabric, the very nature of Guwahati society has changed forever. From a predominantly quiet middle class city holding dearly on to certain traditional values that defined it, it has transformed – in the course of much less than a decade – into a brash, garish, confrontative, ugly city that has internalised the discourses of death, destruction and violence to the extent that it has become inured, even apathetic.
Many ‘morning-after’ reports in the media relating to the bomb blasts talked – again in clichés – about people bravely coming out on the streets of Guwahati defying terror and fear, refusing to be cowed down, their spirits uncrushed. I saw these reports on national media, which usually relegate news of such events in the North East to the tickers at the bottom of the screens, or better still, ignores them: like the October 22 blast in Manipur where 15 people were killed and 24 injured. The October 30 Assam blasts however made it big, given their resemblance to the recent spate of bombings elsewhere in India and speculations about the suspected collaboration of Islamist militants. The day before, I had also seen raw unedited footage of the blast sites on TV, thanks to satellite technology. And everybody in Guwahati had seen them too. Earlier – before the North East had its first satellite television channel and insensitive unethical journalists thrust their microphones at burnt, bleeding and grievously injured blast victims and camerapersons blithely filmed charred bodies and mangled limbs and the channel aired them with a cursory ‘unedited footage’ note – the reality of suffering in and witnessing a bomb blast might not have been so palpable. And yet, on the evening of the blast when I spoke to my parents in Guwahati for the ninth time that day – my father had had a close call – my mother told me with horror that she could hear people bursting leftover Diwali crackers!
No news channel, national or otherwise, of course reported this because it has nothing to do with changing the faces of terror. And talking of urban apathy does not go well with the proclaimed political agenda of tackling terror and its perpetrators. So they call the proverbial rose by another name, one that smells sweeter. After all both are ways to come to terms with the blood and gore that defines city life in times of terror. Only, the way my city has learnt to live with the phenomenon seems as inhuman as the acts of terror themselves.