Monday, December 08, 2008

Volunteerism vs. Terrorism

It has been a week since a handful of terrorists brazenly attacked Mumbai and mowed down innocent people going about their lives. A twisted ideology, a few guns and hand-grenades caused enough mayhem and destruction over a span of two and half days to roil already sensitive relations between two neighboring countries and evoke anger, rage, sadness, anxiety and fear in a whole lot of people, as many Indians as non-Indians.

Since then we have heard from commentators, politicians, policy-makers, victims, reporters, activists, writers, bloggers and ordinary citizens the world over.

Some of these reactions assess how we got where we are - helpless, at the mercy of a few youngsters who take it upon themselves to end human lives while giving birth to chaos. They don't hesitate to point fingers at a whole host of reasons - bad intelligence, a government asleep at the wheel, police and army branches stymied by hierarchy and politics, inadequate security in public places, a down-trodden Muslim population in India, a two-faced Pakistan saying one thing on the world stage but doing something entirely different in the dark corners within its borders. Some ask, frustration and desperation oozing from their words, what do we do going forward? What is the solution to this vexing problem?

Here's Amitav Ghosh ("If India takes a hard line modeled on the actions of the Bush administration, the consequences are sure to be equally disastrous."), and Suketu Mehta ("But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever."), and Thomas Friedman ("The best defense against this kind of murderous violence is to limit the pool of recruits, and the only way to do that is for the home society to isolate, condemn and denounce publicly and repeatedly the murderers — and not amplify, ignore, glorify, justify or “explain” their activities."), and Pankaj Mishra ("Indeed, the outrage in Mumbai is the latest and clearest sign that the price of India’s uncompromising stance on Kashmir has become too high, imperiling its economy as well as its security."), and Manjeet Kripalani ("Lists of suggestions are being posted on the Internet on how to rebel, from tax revolts to shifting corporate headquarters out of Bombay to other Indian cities with better governance. Additional ideas include starting a Better India Fund for security infrastructure and running it privately without political input, sealing the coastline, starting policy institutes, getting Bombay to secede from Maharashtra state (where the city is located), creating a chief executive for the city, and going back to calling the metropolis Bombay, not Mumbai."), and Jack and Suzy Welch ("Because the attack in Mumbai, striking as it did at India's financial heart, showed just how risky doing business in India may become."), and scores of others who also mourn the repeated assaults on their beloved Mumbai.

Every point of view expressed by these and other commentators has been dissected, criticized, commended as the right thing to do or dismissed as being totally the wrong approach to take at this time. Frequently, these opposite points of view appear as comments on the same article. In response to the attacks, there have been candlelight vigils, marches and protests.

But the sentiment that it's time to do something more than show up at a vigil is also strong.

The spectre of terrorism doesn't seem to be going away any time soon, and it is obvious that certain aspects of the necessary steps to be taken at this point are beyond the ken of the average citizen. We need a strong and responsive government. We need well-equipped armed forces and police. We need intelligence services. There are things we can do to exert some influence, of course. Get engaged and stay engaged in the public affairs of whatever place we live in - become aware of the issues and vote, for instance.

There are, however, other things that we can do, as individual citizens.

Over the last week, I've been reminded a lot about Noor Ayesha, the young woman who opened her home to the little children in her poor neighborhood in Bangalore so they could have a place to learn. She saw a need - there were no nursery schools in her community and the children suffered when they started in first grade with no prior exposure to any type of learning - and she got involved. She got the training and support she needed and is now running a school out of her home.

The same is true of my neighborhood here. The public schools, the sports teams, the community services, nothing would be the same without the tens of residents who give countless hours voluntarily to their cause of choice. The swim team reps spend more than 60 hours a week running the summer league competitions. That's in addition to their day jobs. The PTA at our school is manned by a number of mothers that volunteer in the class rooms, in the cafeteria, in the library and raise funds for the school. The neighbors care enough to shovel snow off of each other's driveways when they know someone or the other can't do it for some reason.

This is how I remember the neighborhoods I grew up in in India even though we moved a lot. There were no formal volunteer programs and very rarely did an entire neighborhood's problems get solved, but neighbors knew each other and they cared enough to step in when a neighbor needed help.

Volunteering and getting engaged in your neighborhood and with your neighbors, stepping up fill in the gaps in services (of that we know there are a lot) where necessary, might seem like a drop in the ocean in the face of the power and ruthlessness of global terrorism. But if we look around in our communities and band together, I firmly believe we can have some impact.

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For one, we'll get to know our neighbors and this seems especially important given that many of us are migrants - across countries, across cities, across neighborhoods. Strangers and strange goings-on are more likely to be noticed in such communities (on a facetious note, what we need are bands of aunties and uncles on every street poking their noses in each others' business). In communities already working together, it is easier to accomplish this next step - form volunteer cells of our own. Not only can these cells be the eyes and ears of the community, but can also be on the front lines of the response to a terror attack, not the military kind, but organizing emergency care, food, water and medical supplies, housing those people in need of temporary shelter, etc., be responsible for disseminating information. Growing up, we had youth clubs in our neighborhood with energetic teenagers organizing contests, festival celebrations, parties. Could we not channel that same energy toward preparedness?

As I'm typing this, I can think of a few reasons for not doing any of this - no matter what happens at the neighborhood level, you still need the police and the intelligence services to listen to you if you go to them with tips and they may not as was the case with the fishermen who tipped off the police(?) about the strange goings-on off the coast of Mumbai; the scale of the attacks might be such that no matter how large the band of volunteers, they might still be overwhelmed and ineffective; there may be instances in which suspicions could easily degenerate into witch-hunts; all terrorist attacks will not be prevented just because of volunteer groups forming in various communities. I'm sure there are ten other reasons.

But, why not start somewhere? What if at least one terror attack were prevented because neighborhoods decided to live up to their name? What if the impact was at least 10% lower than it could have been because well-organized groups stepped up to respond to the needs in the immediate aftermath of the attacks? What if this just lead us to being more aware of what is going on around us?

There seems to be no magic bullet (no pun intended) to solve the problem of terrorism once and for all. For the long term, there are excellent suggestions for secular schools, for better outreach to the marginalized communities, for better dialogue among the South Asian nations. But in the short term - as in tomorrow - looking inward into our own neighborhoods and engaging in some grass-roots organizing is something we can all do.

As the saying goes, Think global, act local. If each of us worked to protect our neighborhoods, surely, it would add up to something.
December 9, 2008
Updated to add two links:
This blog is an effort to help. Help India, help ourselves to help ourselves. Because if we dont do it, no one will. Anyone with an urge to do more than just be a bystander to the carnage and mayhem that wrecks the parts of our country everytime we have a disaster causes by external elements or through natural causes, can help. We will maintain a database of people who are in a position and are willing to be of assistance, either immediately during the crisis itself, or later in relief and rehabilitation. We will put people wanting to contribute financially to victims in direct contact with NGOs doing the same or the victims directly. We will look for good samaritans who are willing to contribute towards medical expenses, post traumatic therapy requirements, and prosthesis requirements for those rendered disabled in such situations. We will attempt to sponsor the education of the bereaved children by putting dedicated and serious citizens who wish to do so in direct contact with the bereaved family. We have many hopes. And need all the help we can. And we need all the people who can help out to write in. We need people with only a desire to help. We're looking for those who can contribute skills at the times of crisis: Doctors, medically trained personnel, ex-army personnel, even anyone who has a vehicle and is willing to drive critically injured people to hospitals or ferry people from danger spots to safe zones. Anyone with a space that can be used as a refuge area for people stuck in times of natural calamities like floods or total power blackouts which renders the local train service dead, please do write in. Write in to if you would like to help in anyway, or have any suggestions.

Good luck and godspeed.

How did Obama make that happen? Not just by carrying the black, and the young college educated voters. But by galvanizing a vast volunteer base that became a force multiplier. This volunteer base contributed to his campaign with money, but most importantly with their time. They went to phone banks and called undecided voters to explain Obama’s positions. They never tired of talking to their friends about why Obama was the right choice. And calling in to radio talk shows on politics. And of course the bumper stickers. If each one of them got two others to change their vote, that would have been enough to ensure victory.

In India we need our own political revolution. This has to be led by educated voters who are more discerning, wherever they are. They need to roll up their trousers (or sarees) and wade into the murky waters of Indian politics. They don’t have to become politicians but they must become more engaged. Politics is a contact sport. You can’t bring about change by shouting advice from the stands.

December 15, 2008

Updated to add two links:

1. To Kids For Mumbai (also at, started by Maryland-based 8 year-old Priyanka (via Conversations With Dina). Whether you donate or not is your personal decision, but kudos to Priyanka.

2. To Known Turf's commentary on staying engaged in the business of running a nation:

We are, politically speaking, such an ignorant country that it makes me cringe to think of it. Forget elections. Many of us cannot even name our own prime minister and president and the local councillor or MLA. The vast majority of this country simply does not know! A lot of this has to do with illiteracy, yes, but a lot of it also has to do with not wanting to know. And it’s not just the poor and the illiterate. It is because anyone who can afford to takes pride in saying ‘Oh, but I am not a political person’. We want to cut ourselves off from the business of running a nation, or a city. We want the government to function like some sort of sub-contractual service provider. We don’t have leaders because we don’t want leaders. We wanted thekedaars; we got thekedaars!


Anonymous said...

What you say is so true, Suj. I had much the same idea for a column I write for a mag here. We the middle-class are so disengaged as a society... like my former ed said on TV, it took Kargil for our Siachen soldiers to get the gear they needed. Maybe this awakening of the middle-classes -- from where the country has always sourced its leaders and thinkers -- will be the one good spin-off of the terror attacks. But what a way, what a way...

Anonymous said...

On an aside, I can see where your son gets his thinking genes from!

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi Sumana, thanks for your comments. I really hope something comes out of this angst and the urge to do something that many of us seem to be feeling. Carpe the feeling, I say. Also, could you please link to your article? Thanks.

the mad momma said...

great post Suj - with some great ideas. hope you dont mind me linking it up to my post for tomorrow...

Choxbox said...

suj, do check out

Unknown said...

very true. totally with you.

i read this article sometime back, A political awakening thought this might interest you as wel.

aMus said...

this was well written and provides a basic solution which we as ordinary citizens can do...

bird's eye view said...

Makes so much sense, Sujatha. I've been wondering what I can do as opposed to merely feeling helpless and frustrated...

Anonymous said...

Hi Sujatha,
This is such a sensible post and I agree with your view that our angst needs sustenance. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Will be back to read more.

Anonymous said...

Sujatha, it seems to me that terrorism is one face of the mad world we live in. Because it has now struck so close to home, we middle and upper class people feel a lot more affected by it than by what happens at a distance. The last thing I want to do is preach - I count myself among these people.

At any rate, over the last few years, a small group of us has been attempting in a very small way to promote environmental awareness in which self awareness plays an important role. This includes trying to understand the roots of violence in today’s society and finding peaceful solutions. People living in Bombay who are interested could check out what we stand for, through our (rather primitive) website (none of us is a whiz in this area):

Sue said...

It got Kiran to start

She's doing work in a small way but she's in it for the long haul and prepared to put her money and time where her mouth is. We were thinking of extending the initiative cross country. More on that later, am at work now.

I like the thought in your post. It's the same as that Kiran had.

Winnowed said...

The Mumbai attacks have reminded us once again of the following lacunae in our defence systems and society:

1. Our intelligence agencies are not particularly good at their jobs.
2. Our systems and processes for responding to an attack of this nature are very bad.
3. There are many Indians (Muslims) who are so alienated from mainstream society that they will betray the country.

Setting up neighbourhood watches will not solve any of these problems. Even the third problem can be solved only by a combination of addressing some of the grievances and persuading mainstream Muslims to expose the rotten apples in their midst.

Sujatha Bagal said...

MM, thanks for linking up to this post.

Chox, thanks for the link.

Yuva, thanks. Will check out the link.

Suma, BEV, OJ, thank you. If you guys do do something in your neighborhoods along these lines, please let me know.

Uma, thanks for pointing to your website.

Sue, thanks for the link. I'll be following your efforts.

Winnowed, this post is meant to throw some light on what we can do as individual citizens. If you read the post, I confess that we do need a responsive and ready government, good intelligence, etc. to fight the war against terrorism. Smarter people than me must be brainstorming just about now to figure that one out.

But what are we, you and me and the next person, doing to address the issue of a few people holding our lives to ransom?

When the idea of terrorism was born, I'm sure there were a lot of naysayers too - how can we, just a few people, kill hundreds if not thousands of people at a time? Hold entire cities hostage? Hijack four planes and ram them into buildings? In America? That's the craziest thing I've ever heard! - but we have seen what a "can do" attitude can accomplish. They've raised armies of volunteers and battalions of patrons.

Everybody is fond of saying that the terrorits are a minority, that very few people hold the extreme ideas that they do, that they are the few rotten apples that give the rest a bad name. But see just what that minority has been able to accomplish.

Terrorism is concept that a few people thought would work who in turn found a few hundred people who were passionate enough to embrace it.

Why can't we do that with volunteerism? The idea has been around for a long, long time. We just need to apply it in our own localities and turn them into real communities. Right now we need to get ourselves some of that can do attitue. The onus is on us to be good citizens and good neighbors. If this makes even an iota of a difference, it's worth it.

Unknown said...

I thought for a long time before posting on this topic. I am just fatigued by the whole thing. And, I hate to sound a depressing note, but all the things people are doing on the web as commendable as they are, really are preaching to the converted. It's a self-selected, enlightened group, and thank god for them, but I believe what we need is outreach to other parts of society that tends to be more segregated and less open minded.

And the candelight vigils and human chains are events I might go to. We might all go to. But they are (what's the best way to say this?) Western-style imports. In India, they give off the whiff of the English-speaking elite. And we are kind of caught in the middle. Just because we are of that group does not mean we don't care, don't suffer, etc.

But the outreach needs to tap into events and acts that many more people can relate to, in language that resonates with them.

See, Noor Ayesha did something simple but totally crucial. And that requires actual work, more than vigils and chains because it's sustained, day to day work. And there is little glory, but the rewards come every day.

I like your spirit, Sujatha. We can, even sitting miles away from India, help create small, grassroot efforts. Each little community is different and there cannot be a one size fits all strategy.

Even if we do think global, the action has to be sustained, long-term and very, very local.

Great post, btw. The first step is to start people thinking.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Thanks Jawahara. I totally agree that the action has to be sustained over the long term. But once people start, hopefully it will become a way of life. And I also agree that we are preaching to the choir, at least in terms of whether people believe something needs to be done or not. But it takes only a few to get the ball rolling and build momentum. One can hope. Right?

Unknown said...

Thanks for link to indiahelps Sujatha. I had exactly the same feeling of helplessness when 26/11 happened, and realised that I needed to do something that would make me feel a little less helpless when something like this happens again. We're small. But we are doing the little we can. And we hope, being of help. And yes, as I have mentioned time and again on indiahelps, I dont believe in candlelit rallies and human chains. They dont serve any purpose. If we cant change things, we can at least try to improve them.

Jawahara said...

karmickids, I'd be very interested in seeing what you guys do in the future. And helping in any way I can. I think vigils and human chains are lovely symbols....but I think we are now at the point of actual action.

Perhaps a network of networks that span different areas of cities and cross communities in some way.

This seems insurmountably depressing though I am trying to think positive.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sujatha,
At present time, I'm trying to work with Kiran to identify immediate needs and ways to work with the community. Nothing concrete has come of it just yet, but if and when it does, it'll be up on my blog.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Kiran, OJ, good luck you guys! If I can be of any help, please holler.