Staying alert

Published : Mar 27, 2009 00:00 IST

In Dhaka on February 27, an armoured vehicle enters the headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles.-Pavel Rahman/AP

In Dhaka on February 27, an armoured vehicle enters the headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles.-Pavel Rahman/AP

THIS, surely, is one of the most dangerous times for India. In Pakistan, its neighbour to the west, the decades since it was formed have brought dictatorship, occasional and very fragile periods of democracy, and now turmoil on its western border compounded by internal dissensions and violence and an economic crisis that has led many to call it a failed state. Bangladesh, to Indias east, has fared only slightly better. Dictatorship had been its manner of governance for some years, and then came a shaky democracy watched over by the Army. And all this was made worse by grinding poverty that changed little over the years when national wealth remained stagnant while the population grew rapidly.

But all these pale before what is happening now in both countries. Pakistan seems to be falling apart; the government appears to be confused and unsure, and no one is sure what the Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is going to do. The country seems to have virtually ceded the Swat valley to the Taliban. One is not sure whether this was done on the prompting of the Army or someone else, or it was just a nervous reaction by a nervous government. Who is in charge, then? The President, Asif Ali Zardari, has suddenly fallen silent. Those who speak for the government often contradict one another. A recent assessment by an American think tank indicates that unless the country is shored up economically, with a substantial infusion of funds, it may disintegrate.

In Bangladesh there has been a murderous mutiny by the soldiers of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), and every day one learns with horror of increasing numbers of officers having been killed. The army has apparently restored some kind of order, but there are rumours of plots to assassinate the army chief, and even the Prime Minister. Individuals are being named individuals who were close to the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) of Begum Khaleda Zia and who seem to have links with Pakistan. The government ought to be tackling the formidable problems of poverty, health and education, instead it is having to concentrate on surviving. And, ironically, this is after Sheikh Hasina Wajeds Awami League swept to power with a huge majority.

There will be experts who will analyse and comment on these developments in the two countries. The concern that one wants to share is the position India is placed in. Given the optimism that comes from reports of an economic growth second only to Chinas when the rest of the world has either stopped growing or is in recession, and of the countrys stability, the occasional violent events notwithstanding, one cannot help feeling worried by what is happening in Indias neighbourhood.

It would be foolish to assume that India can remain insulated from the events in these two countries. In some way or the other, the unrest and general tumult in both countries will affect India though it is difficult to say exactly how. The worry is not so much about the spill over of the anarchy and violence into India as it is about the nature of Indias own instruments of governance and security.

Frankly, all three countries have more or less the same set of problems: corruption, inefficiency, red tape, poverty, unemployment and the lack of health care, education and housing. Bijli-sadak-pani (electricity-roads-water) continue to be abiding problems in many areas in India. It is time to take a realistic view of the state of affairs, and not lose ourselves in a world of figures and statistics that are being trotted out by both the government and the Opposition.

This, surely, is a time to close ranks and keep a wary eye on what is happening in the neighbourhood and within the country. Everyone, just everyone, including those perhaps especially those who profess to be Indias good friends, have their own agendas and it is as well that India is aware of that and, more importantly, is prepared. Its concern cannot be just the economic slowdown it is experiencing.

What makes this task more difficult is the fact that India prepares for a general election. Whatever else this may involve, it does mean that those in crucial decision-making positions are aware that they may not be there for too long, and that will inevitably affect decisions and policies. The post of Chief Election Commissioner will see a change of guard when the election process is under way; the Union Home Secretary, a key officer at this time, will also be a new face.

All this could put some strain on the institutions and, inevitably, on those who man them. It is crucial that they function without faltering; it is crucial that the civil service and the uniformed services keep before them their primary duty to the Constitution and their missions, and not waver.

There must be many who wonder why, when there is such chaos on either side of the country, India retain a sense of order and an essential integrity as a country. Indians are not very different from the citizens of Pakistan and Bangladesh or are we? Have we changed over the past half century? True, we have problems, we have the inefficiencies, the corruption. But beyond that, is there something different?

What made the young men in our Army climb the frighteningly steep mountains in Kargil, face enemy fire from above, and still keep going until they had thrown the enemy out? What made commandos of the National Security Guards take on heavily armed terrorists, eliminate them and go back to their camps? What made a simple, unarmed constable take the entire contents of an AK-47 magazine on his chest, and hold on to the killer until his comrades secured him? What made an ordinary bus driver pick up a grenade and throw it out of his bus so that the passengers would not be hurt by it, and lose his eyes in the process?

Perhaps there really is nothing that connects these incidents; perhaps there is. But at a time of grave peril, and when the neighbourhood seems to be convulsed by chaos, when we would do well to be wary and alert, it seems that Theodore Roosevelts phrase about speaking softly and carrying a big stick is what we do, perhaps involuntarily. It might be interesting to give it a thought.

And it might be that, finally, that is what we need to do, but consciously and deliberately. It sends to the right people a message they will understand, and to the rest of us who just go about our business every day, it will surely be reassuring.

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