The price of life

When thousands died after suicidal terrorists struck the US on 11 September, we in India were asked to observe two minutes of silence in solidarity with the victims. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, our Prime Minister told us, stop all activity and stand in silence.

But no matter how much I mourned those deaths I couldn’t erase from my thoughts the 3,000 people who died in anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984; the more than 2,000 who died in anti-Muslim riots in Bombay in 1993; and the 10,000-plus who died as a result of a gas leak in the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in 1984.

Why was it that we weren’t asked to stand in silence for them? Was it because they weren’t all killed in what are strictly defined as terrorist attacks? In Delhi and Bombay the killers had the tacit support of the State. In Bhopal, Union Carbide had the might of America behind it. And yet didn’t the victims in Bombay and Delhi feel terror when facing their killers? Didn’t mothers in Bhopal feel terror as they watched the gas waft in and take away the lives of their children?

What better for our Hindu leaders than to have international validation of Muslims as terrorists, of Islam as the enemy?

I remember being enraged by the paltry compensation Union Carbide offered to the Bhopal victims and complaining about this to an American at a seminar. ‘But my dear,’ he said matter-of-factly, ‘don’t you know that the price of an Indian life is much less than that of an American?’

I realize now, as the US prepares to fight a war in our region, on our soil, how true his words were. Here we are offering all help to America. Air space? Bases? Take them. We didn’t even wait to be asked.

We know only too well the exploitation, the widespread instances of rape, the arrogance of American soldiers on air bases all over the world. Yet here we are, laying ourselves open to this. Why? Because our Government wants to show up Pakistan on the world stage. And because they want to turn away attention from the real issues: starvation in the face of overflowing food stocks, a shaky economy, civil unrest.

Suddenly, India and Pakistan are at the heart of this impending war. How tragic that the momentum of dealing with the bitter legacy of the past has suddenly been lost, bartered away. For what? Why should we be implicated in an American war?

Even as I ask the question I know the answer. This war is ‘good’ for us. What better for our Hindu leaders than to have international validation of Muslims as terrorists, of Islam as the enemy? What better for Pakistan than to have the US conveniently forget its opposition to the country’s nuclear explosions, and lift sanctions?

It’s easy to fight a war that’s not on your own soil, easier still to pretend to be the guardian of all morality. It’s much more difficult to reflect, to analyse and to realize that sometimes the path to the source of terrorism may lead to your own front door.

Yet it’s not too late to confront the devil within. As a group of women from war-torn Kosovo recently wrote in an open letter: ‘American politicians and decision-makers... we ask you not to put us and your citizens at more risk… Please remember your past and learn from ours to leave a legacy of justice and peaceful construction, not of revenge, destruction and war.’

I don’t know what will happen to us in South Asia if the American war takes off. But I do know that both in America and here we’ll be much more vulnerable to violence. Islam will be further demonised, the hatred for minorities nurtured by our fundamentalist majoritarian politics will only get worse. And tolerance and peace will be a thing of the past.

*Urvashi Butalia* is a writer based in New Delhi.

New Internationalist issue 340 magazine cover This article is from the November 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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