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Life Between Terrorist Strikes

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on November 27, 2008 2 Comments

Minutes ago, on the NDTV live feed covering the Mumbai terror strike I’ve been riveted to for the past 24 hours, Rahul Bose, the renowned Indian actor, (demanding of an Indian politician) asked what quality of life Indians could expect between terrorist strikes. The larger context of his question dealt with what steps the Indian government (especially the major polarized and polarizing parties) had taken to prevent such attacks, and what steps it would take in the future. It was, however, the normalizing of terrorist strikes in that particular question that stood out for me. India has so long, and so intensely battled terrorism, it has become intrinsic to the discourse of Indian life. That is of little surprise, given that according to 2006 figures, over 38% of Indian districts are actively battling terrorism to different degrees.

Is it just the fact that these strikes happen, that it becomes so internalized in a nation’s psyche? No. Language has played a pivotal role in the process of internalizing terror. Growing up in the capital, New Delhi, India, I rarely remember reading a newspaper which didn’t cover the topic of terrorism. Blasts are common enough that they have found themselves relegated to the deep inside pages, in the “National” section, sometimes sidelined by more “pressing” topics like cricket and Bollywood scandals, even in the mass-circulation, national newspapers. Television crews cover the stories for a few hours or days, then move on to the next scandal; the bleeding, wounded, and the dead largely forgotten in dusty electronic archives. A friend of mine, a resident of Mumbai, updated his Facebook status three hours ago, while the hostage situation is continuing, saying: He “is amazed with the media… the big news is that cricket has been cancelled!!!!” I don’t mean to just come down on the media for normalizing terror-ultimately, it is motivated to spotlight issues it perceives as “of interest” to the public; however, I feel that it does control the public’s gaze, and contributes to normalizing the terror the public sees by choosing to feature terror strikes in particular ways.

How else has language contributed to normalizing terror threats for us? In all DTC (Delhi Transportation Corporation) Buses, ever since I can remember, there were signs asking one to look for suspicious objects, and report them. Such signs have long been plastered around train stations, government offices, malls, and other places where large groups congregate. Somber full-page ads are taken out in all major newspapers warning people to be especially careful around festive times. The signs have become so common, they barely stand out; they are part of the Indian life landscape, an inherent part of its modern backdrop. The threat of terror is tasted, felt, underscored and read in every walk of life. Check out this picture I took in a mall in December 2007, competing for attention with the “No Smoking” sign adjacent to it:

Sign in a mall in India, Dec 2007

Sign in a mall in India, Dec 2007

My point here isn’t that all this is bad. Old news stories will inevitably give way to the new, and in some ways the public’s “shake it off” attitude possibly also speaks to its resilience as a group. What I am wondering about is if this discourse has somehow not led to encouraging a more cautious, careful public, but towards a public resigned to its fate, resigned to living life between terrorist strikes.

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2 Responses to “Life Between Terrorist Strikes”

  1. Youki on: 28 November 2008 at 3:07 am

    “The signs have become so common, they barely stand out; they are part of the Indian life landscape, an inherent part of its modern backdrop.”

    Do you ever play the game where you make up a word and then google it to see how original it is? yeah I know it’s silly :p When I read this I thought of a word I made up: “langscape” – the representation of a particular ideology through signs and texts. Physical spaces all have a langscape represented through the various forms of text around – “no smoking” signs, “you must be 21 to enter,” “authorized personnel only” for example. This isn’t limited to official signs; langscapes can be represented through something as (seemingly) minor as peeling paint off a wall, the type of clothes people are wearing, the sound of unabated laughter from a nearby child, or the presence of a security camera. Language is everywhere. When they are normalized into everyday life, they become a part of the langscape.

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 28 November 2008 at 9:45 am

    I do Google words I come up with…most times I am quite disappointed to discover, actually, that they already exist. 🙂

    I love your coinage, “langscape.” Very provocative…! Thanks for the comment, Youki!

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