13 years after the 26/11 attacks, this is the promise we must renew

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Each year we count, now it’s 13 years later, and the dark night that stretched over three long days is still vivid in our collective memory.

That was also the terrorists’ aim, the vividness was part of their design. The strike on Mumbai, November 26, 2008, played out as slow-motion mayhem, targeting its landmarks, while audiences watched the terrible spectacle, live and uninterrupted, on TV.

Mumbai had been attacked before, but not like this. This was a choreographed sequence of strikes, using hand-held weapons, by 10 terrorists who had come in by the sea. This time, Ground Zero was not a place, it was an arc. It was horror made for the age of the instantaneous spectacle, it foreshadowed the era where we define ourselves by our constant posts of image, text and video.

It stretched from the five-star hotels, Taj and Trident, frequented by the city’s glittering elites, to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus railway station, from where, over the years, hundreds and thousands of Indians, men and women, have poured into Mumbai, as if pulled by a magnet, carrying with them a hope and a dream.

They come from states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, Karnataka and Rajasthan, and Bihar.

Just in case we forgot, we saw many of them during the pandemic, rushing back home in fear. Many of them are returning, coming back, as they always do, to remake their lives, and in doing so, to remake Mumbai, our Mumbai.

This was before we went live in our lives and yet, over the 60 hours of non-stop media coverage of the siege, the TV cameras had yoked themselves to the Taj Hotel.

But 26/11 was spectacular, most of all, because it was a strike on the city of the common Indian, man, woman and child.

It brought to a stunned halt a bustling urban sprawl, where the first instinct is to move and move on, to survive and succeed, entertain and perform, tell a gripping story.

In the immediate aftermath of 26/11, India acted with remarkable sobriety and restraint. Despite immense pressure, it did not give in to the temptation of military retaliation against Pakistan — even as the capture of Mohammad Ajmal Kasab and the revelations of David Headley stripped Pakistan’s military-ISI establishment of the alibi of non-state actors beyond its control, and left it no fig leaf. India gave a normal legal trial, and accorded due process to the one surviving attacker, even though evidence of his guilt had been splashed large on all our TV screens. We made it clear: Those who had died in the attack, the bravehearts defending us, had  sacrificed their lives for the nation and its commitment to justice and the Constitution.

Thirteen years later, the question is, how do we pay the real tribute to the 166 people who died in the 26/11 attacks, in Mumbai, the one they truly deserve? How do we move out of the shadows of that paralysing moment? Are we, who survived in Mumbai and in India, free to tell new stories?

The reality is that 26/11 has had a long afterlife, and it has got entangled with the tumultuous history that still weighs down the Subcontinent. It is not yet clear that we have skirted all the traps it set for us. The danger was, and it still is, of letting ourselves be defined and deformed by fear, of making suspicion a habit, a guiding force for our institutions, and part of our political common sense.

For the last many years, I have been privileged to join The Indian Express and its community of readers in marking this day and each year, we celebrate the spirit of survival and understanding. Each year, I discover that the power of survival is linked to the power of humanity, of our collective commitment that we shall not let the terrorists define who we become.

This time, too.

True, 26/11 brought home the urgent need to shore up our policing systems and shake off the institutional lethargy that had set in on internal security. True, that we have to be lucky every day while the terrorist had to be lucky just once.

And yet, the danger is of letting the language and mantra of security spread and grow, till “we” are locked in constant and mortal combat with “them”, till accusation becomes more believable than proof, and only the spectres are clear and present, while everything else is looked upon as uncertain and subject to verification.

The spectres must not be allowed to become more real than the people.

The people must remain heroes and heroines of their own stories, in which the villain can be vanquished with better arguments, and the police inspector comes only in the last scene.

For, the stories we tell can often become larger than us, and they can skip lightly across borders, sometimes riding on cricket, sometimes through film.

Sometimes they nestle in the warmth of the hug that went viral, that India’s captain Virat Kohli gave to Pakistan’s Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam, after the men in green defeated the men in blue in the first game of the T20 World Cup that concluded in Dubai recently.

Sometimes they revel in the smashing box office success, in India and also in Pakistan, of the 2015 Salman Khan-starrer Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a cross-border tale about empathy and compassion, an Indian man’s struggle to reunite a Pakistani child with her family.

Freedom from fear means that we are more at ease with our neighbour, and also with ourselves. It means that we acknowledge that the terrorist tried to produce spectacle and stoke passions and make the currency of terror pervasive in our politics, but we deny him that power over us.

Because at the bottom of our hearts, we are all Mumbaikars, whether or not we choose to live in Mumbai. No matter how cramped the place we stand on, we look up at the stars and skyscrapers and seek out the broader horizons that meet the sea.

We believe that better things are possible, and that we can make them happen to us. We lose ourselves in the dark of the cinema hall and then walk out into the light to make a new beginning. For us, the Mumbaikars, the dark is not something to be afraid of, it is where magic resides and the imagination runs free.

No terrorist must be allowed to change the way we are in the dark, or with our neighbour, or ourselves. No single act of terror must be given the power to destroy the interconnectedness of our stories, our plural solidarities.

Thirteen years later, this 26/11, as we begin to see the first glimmer after the devastating pandemic, in which we lost many of our loved ones, that is the promise we need to solemnly renew to ourselves.

The writer is an actor

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