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Wounds that scarred a year

The world greeted 2001 cautiously and the eight months rolled past with their share of tragedy, scandal and hope. Then came the events of one terrible day, September 11, that cleaved the year into two distinct eras. Everyone woke up to the fact that terrorism had undergone a globalisation process of its own. Now, as we move forward, the newly interdependent world becomes frighteningly more complex. DOM MORAES reviews an eventful year on the verge of fading away.

TOWARDS the end of 1999, Sir Arthur Clarke (backed up by many other eminent people) pointed out that governments all round the world had made a gargantuan mathematical mistake. They had welcomed the coming year, 2000, as the first of the new millennium. It was actually the last, expiring sigh of the old one. The new millennium, Clarke and his allies said, would only begin in 2001.

If one accepts this, and there is every reason why one should, India in 2001 made an inauspicious start to the next 1,000 years of history. On Republic Day, January 26, I woke before dawn in Mumbai. My bed had started to sway like a cradle. This soothed me to sleep once more. Later I found that I had been rocked back to rest by the tremors of an earthquake that had devastated Gujarat.

As in the case of the Latur earthquake in Maharashtra seven years earlier, the local authorities were caught utterly unprepared. It was known after Latur that large parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra lay within an area prone to earthquakes. But the Gujarat Government had made no contingency plans whatsoever. Chaos and panic spread through the State. Thousands died or were made homeless.

Foreign teams arrived in the devastated area, but complained that the infrastructure provided by the Gujarat Government was so inadequate that their missions had to be aborted. In March I visited Morvi district. Many people there slept in tents outside their villages, now reduced to rubble, and waited hopelessly for help. This was not hot news. Reports from the state dried up and died away.

Seismic reverberations had been caused earlier by tehelka.com, an Internet portal. Its reporters, equipped with hidden cameras and recorders, posed as middlemen for arms companies. They also carried large sums of cash to bribe the Government and army officials they interviewed. The revelations made eventually led to the resignation of George Fernandes as Defence Minister.

But there were celebrations through the rest of the country in March when India beat Steve Waugh's "invincible" Australian cricket team 2-1 in a three-match Test series. In 1997 India had also beaten Australia in India, amidst similar scenes of frenzied jubilation. Two years later they were thrashed in Australia.

June brought the monsoon to many parts of India, and to its northern neighbour, Nepal, a storm without precedent. Its Crown Prince the late Dipendra was known to write poetry and have other unusual habits. He was also in love with a young woman. His family opposed his marriage, and so one evening Dipendra shot down most of it, his father included, over dinner. He was drunk at the time.

The next month President Musharraf of Pakistan arrived for what was billed as a summit conference at Agra. Musharraf was suave and dapper, and the media, at least to start with, welcomed him warmly. He was taken to see his former house in Delhi, and an old lady, his servant in his childhood, was produced. Cameras followed his wife whenever she shopped.

But the Agra summit was a disaster for India. Vajpayee, slow and ponderous of speech and body, did not want to talk about Kashmir. Musharraf ran circles round him in debate. Verbally, he was the victor; and he managed to have the last word. He threw a breakfast party for the press after Vajpayee had fallen silent. The Indian media, having first built him up, now had to try and play him down. And, tidal after a brief intermission, the killings in Kashmir went on.

But on September 11, the world changed forever. The terrorist attacks on Washington and New York changed it. Terrorism in various forms has existed all through recorded history, under different names. In the early 20th Century it was called anarchism. That is perhaps the more accurate term, implying the wanton destruction of known civilisation and its values, without any replacement in mind.


A parable on film ... A scene from "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring".

This particular act of destruction echoed around the planet. Never before had such an act been carried out on such a scale. Those who committed it killed themselves in the process. The American public felt grief, rage, and natural fear of a repeat performance. But it also felt frustrated. Its chief cities had been hit and thousands of them killed by an enemy who remained faceless, invisible.

President Bush, recently elected, promptly identified him as Osama bin Laden, the mysterious Saudi-born terrorist who has climbed into the headlines in recent years. Bin Laden was known to be in Afghanistan.The President swore that America would "smoke out the forces of evil" all over the world, and would attack that country unless the Taliban government gave up bin Laden, its guest.

The world sympathised with America, but apart from Britain, few nations in Europe were eager to share the responsibility for opening hostilities against a country already ravaged by war. Bush does not seem to have realised what animosity an attack on Afghanistan would arouse from the entire Muslim world. What he did realise was that he needed help from Afghanistan's neighbours.

The Indian public was delighted when Musharraf was forced into an acutely embarrassing, indeed a potentially explosive situation. The bulk of his people looked on bin Laden as an Islamic hero. Pakistan was also friendly with the Taliban leaders, and would antagonise nearly every other Muslim state if it abetted an attack on Afghanistan. But Musharraf could not refuse America.

Moreover Pakistan would benefit if it <147,1,0>helped Bush. Troublesome sanctions would be lifted. Pakistan would receive the goodwill of the most powerful nation in the world, and this might include a more benevolent attitude towards its activities in Kashmir. Musharraf, despite outspoken and often violent opposition from his people, ultimately agreed to do whatever George Bush required of him.

The millennium had so far been inauspicious for India, and it continued to be so. Vajpayee offered India's services to Bush in what was called "the war on terrorism". Even at first, it looked as though he was in search of crumbs from the American table. Later it looked worse, for the Americans did not decline Vajpayee's offer. They ignored it, as though it was not worth consideration.

Bombs began to fall on Afghanistan, hypothetically balanced by parachute drops of food packages, blankets, and medicines for its common citizens. They had suffered deprivation for years. But it was not certain what percentage of the drops reached the people they were intended for, or how much use they were. The gesture did not placate any of the Muslim nations that now hated America.

As the Afghanistan imbroglio became a part of everyone's daily life, the year drew towards its close. Other events beside those of September 11 had affected India and the world in 2001. Early in September, Mira Nair won the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Festival for her film "Monsoon Wedding". Then in November, V. S. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Naipaul was born in Trinidad and is a British national. But there was elation in India, which had claimed him as her own as his success increased. His first book on the country, An Area of Darkness was for some years banned here because of its harsh evaluations. After September 11, it was perhaps significant that his Nobel citation praised his perceptions of Islamic countries.

Harry Potter fans were likewise elated when a book about him was made into a film. This had its premiere in the West in December, and I am pleased to say, was considered, by press and public alike, much inferior to another new film based on one of my favourite books: J.R.R. Tolkien's classic The Lord of the Rings. This book, which is also a parable on war, has outsold even Harry Potter.

Three deaths affected India in one way or another. Early in the year Phoolan Devi was shot dead in Delhi. Many people took her to be a triumphant example of how a Dalit woman with a wretched past could rise in life. One might instead see her as tragic, martyred by a society that can exploit and manipulate such a person to the end, if she has no intelligent and sympathetic advisers.

Madhavrao Scindia died in September. He was a good man, and one of the very few national politicians who could not be corrupted; though this may have been because he was born very wealthy. Two months later the Beatle George Harrison also died. Because of his interest in Hindu culture, acquired from Ravi Shankar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has praised him. He might wish for better mourners.

The RSS is also behind a move publicised in November: to rewrite history texts so that they suit the Hindutva ideology. Though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) still acts as its front, the thinking of the RSS, totalitarian by nature, can increasingly be seen in what Government departments do. It is a totalitarian pastime to rewrite history; and it must depress many people to watch it done without much opposition in a country that says it is a democracy. I expected more protest from liberal opinion.

The Indian cricketers ended the year well, at home. Just before this, they had very patchy tours of Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, and finally South Africa. The last tour very nearly finished in disgrace for the team and an end to its future in international cricket. The details of this became well known to everyone, even those uninterested in cricket, and there is no need to repeat them ad nauseam.

In the wider context of the world, this was a very minor event. But it was the second time in the year that a spokesman for India made the country seem foolish. If Vajpayee's mendicant-like subservience towards Bush illustrated one unfortunate facet of the national character, Jagmohan Dalmiya's brainless bluster and his futile attempts to bully the cricket authorities typified another.

Now the year ends as badly as it began. On the morning of December 13, six gunmen entered the Parliament House compound in Delhi. The guards tried to turn them back and a firefight followed. Several guards, and all the terrorists, were killed. No political leader was damaged, nor was the Parliament building. But after September 11, many people all over the world have lived in dread of a terrorist onslaught upon their country. This has now happened here.

It is no worse than some recent incidents in Kashmir, but perhaps more alarming because it affected the national capital, and the heart of Indian democracy. Many people are shaken by a sense of vulnerability, and nobody can tell how all this will finish. Certainly a lot of diplomacy will be involved. Pakistan is one of America's allies in Afghanistan, which complicates the issue considerably. The way it looks now, though 2001 was a bad year, 2002 may be worse.

Dom Moraes' first book of poems won the Hawthornden Prize in 1958. He has since then published several collections of poems and books of prose which include biographies, travelogues and collections of reportage.

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