Sujatha Bagal

Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.

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.


Produced by Westinghouse for the War Production.
Created by J. Howard Miller. Modifications © Jone Lewis 2001.

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.

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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 indiahelps@gmail.com 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.

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December 15, 2008

Updated to add two links:

1. To Kids For Mumbai (also at http://kidsformumbai.blogspot.com), 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!

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