As the eighth anniversary of 26/11 draws near, I feel restless again. It's not just the memories of that particular day. It's no longer just the anger I felt at the irresponsibility and shamelessness displayed by our media in providing "live coverage" that probably diluted the effectiveness of our military's operation and cost us more innocent lives. It's not just the mix of sadness and pride I felt when I heard of the sacrifices of Police ATS Chief Hemant Karkare, Additional Commissioner Ashok Kamte, Assistant Sub-Inspector Shri Tukaram Gopal Ombale, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan and others, including the staff at Taj, who made the ultimate sacrifice: they gave up their very lives to save others. So many more brave men and women have made this ultimate sacrifice since then and so many earlier - each an expression of complete selflessness and sacrifice so that all of us can live our lives and fulfill our aspirations. These sacrifices stare unblinkingly in the face of my rather mediocre existence, they force me to introspect, and several thoughts that probably lurked in the recesses of my mind surface, collide with each other, and eventually crystallize into one single question, a question that continuously haunts...
As the 26/11 drama unfolded publicly, I wondered to myself: what might be the spectrum of personalities that were at the Taj that night? One has to be seriously rich or seriously well connected to afford a stay at that hotel. And though I admit it may be rather unfair, my own middle class upbringing combined with observations of the rich and mighty makes me view the elite and wealthy with a hint of suspicion - their mode of wealth creation, their priorities, their culture, their humanity... There are exceptions surely: those who have earned their riches with integrity, through a tremendous application of the will and unceasing dedication; those who have not snatched from another's plate or exploited others to fill their coffers; those who have uplifted all around them in their upward journey to the stars. But in my observation and experience such exceptions are few and far between. Compromises, corruption, exploitation, sycophancy and perhaps a large chunk of luck seem to be the stepping stones for most others. Quite probably a sizeable section of the guest list at the Taj that night were from this second category. I wonder...have these people lived a life worthy of someone else's?
But the issue is not just about the rich and their worthiness. The issue is not just about what happened that night at the Taj. 26/11 was a resounding slap on our face that jolted us out of our stupor. One of the reasons it had such a strong effect on us is that we have become insensitive to the sacrifices being made by our armed forces almost on a daily basis. Ever awake, ever alert, unmindful of what it costs them, thousands and thousands of jawans and officers protect our borders while putting their own lives at stake; accepting each challenge without a murmur of complaint, braving the elements: from the Himalayas to the Thar desert, out on the rocky seas and up high above in the skies.
These heroes have made their choice: the choice to sacrifice themselves for one and all without any bias or judgment. The cost they bear does not distinguish between upright citizens and thieves and robbers, noble political leaders who are spearheading the country's development and corrupt politicians who are unapologetically and callously squeezing the very blood from this country's veins to serve their own self-interests, teachers who educate and enlighten and the increasingly misled youth who are going astray and putting immediate indulgence and short term pleasures above their commitment to evolving into worthy members of a society that is civilized in the true sense of the word.
But this does pose a dilemma for our conscience, does it not? And I don't mean to use the word "our" in an abstract sense. I mean very specifically each and every one of us - including me and you. Are we living a life that is worthy of someone else willing to sacrifice his or hers? Sacrifices are meant to be made for things that are great and noble. Are we living great lives? Noble lives? Perhaps not.
Forget greatness and nobility actually. Let's talk of simple things first. Do we even practice a bare minimum set of human values that would qualify us as a civilized society? Are we honest? Do we do our jobs sincerely and without any element of corruption? Are we courteous and polite with the people we interact with everyday? Do we treat each other with a sincere sense of respect? Do we respect and honor our women? Do we take care of our elders in their old age? Do we appreciate the efforts of those who provide services to us - the rickshaw-wallah, the maid servant, janitorial staff, the post man, the staff at our banks, the railway ticket window staff, ticket checkers - and thank them for the same? Do we treat those who are less fortunate than us with compassion and do what we can to help alleviate their misery? These are some of the basic behavioral patterns anyone would expect to see in a civilized society. To be frank, I don't see enough of this happening.
Then comes the issue of self respect and respect for our country. It is all very well to sing the National Anthem twice a year. But what do we really mean when we thump our chests and pronounce ourselves "Indians"? Do we simply mean we hold an Indian passport? Or is there really an Indian-ness that is unique to us, a cultural identity and human values based ethos that we express with pride? Are we proud of our culture, our art, our music, our languages, our philosophy, our values? Do we treat our fellow country men and women with as much respect as we treat foreigners? Are we ambassadors of our identity as a country to the rest of the world? Or are we so desperate for acknowledgment and appreciation from the outside that we are willing to imbibe their identity and forget our own?
Unless we treat each other as our own, behave accordingly and live lives of the highest integrity and dignity, unless we are comfortable with who we are and take pride in our identity, unless we truly believe that we, as an independent country, will collectively shape our destiny in our own unique way, based on ideals that we believe in and aspirations that will make us truly happy, do we really deserve that we be protected at the cost of so many lives?
Yet, those who have sworn to protect us continue their vigil unceasingly. That's quite something, isn't it?
You see...its a question of worthiness.
Are we worthy?