Shaunaka Das: Our declining trust is a greater evil than terrorism

It was not Al-Qa'ida but an ethos of suspicion that brought down the Spanish government
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The Independent Online

Was the decision by the people of Spain to get rid of the government which took them to wage war in Iraq a rejection of that war? Some have said so, but there is a problem with that line of thinking. If the Spanish electorate were objecting to the fact of war then this would surely have shown itself earlier in opinion polls. And yet until the last minute the pro-war centre-right Popular Party looked set to win.

Was the decision by the people of Spain to get rid of the government which took them to wage war in Iraq a rejection of that war? Some have said so, but there is a problem with that line of thinking. If the Spanish electorate were objecting to the fact of war then this would surely have shown itself earlier in opinion polls. And yet until the last minute the pro-war centre-right Popular Party looked set to win.

What seems to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory was the public's conviction, rightly or wrongly, that government ministers had initially sought to blame Basque separatists for the bombs because that would play better for them at the polls. The issue that turned the Popular Party into a decidedly unpopular party was not war but trust - as ousted PP officials yesterday tacitly admitted by declassifying internal documents in attempt to prove that they did not wilfully lie. "Even though we lost the elections," one politician said, "we cannot lose our honour."

The question of trust is coming to the fore in many countries now where disillusioned voters have come to the bitter conclusion that they have leaders who find it easier to fight for our principles than to follow them.

But terrorism also involves a betrayal of trust because we unquestioningly expect there to be a core of rational humane values to which even our enemies subscribe. When they declare "you love life, but we love death", as the video claiming responsibility for Madrid did, something fundamental is subverted. So too is it when a leader proves to be untrustworthy; it is, in its way, a form of terrorism too, for it undermines a fundamental need we all have to place our trust in others, and find shelter and peace in our lives.

Yet the problem goes deeper. For the bad example at the top seems to say, implicitly, to the rest of society, that if subterfuge, duplicity and deceit are acceptable norms for presidents and prime ministers then they must be good enough for the rest of us. Creating a suitable image is more important than nurturing what goes to make up our real self, our spiritual self.

Trust is a universal need. It is the subtle oil that makes relationships and societies work. No matter how we focus on political systems, philosophies and causes, in the end it all comes down to relationships.

When Mahatma Gandhi - a politician of a considerably different ilk - was shot, on his lips when he died was the name of his Lord Rama. Next week we celebrate Rama Navami, the birthday of Rama, one of the incarnations of God for millions of Hindus. He is but one of many incarnations because to Hindus the many manifestations speak to a truth about God, the One, knowable only as many. We can't limit the unlimited, even to the amount of ways God may wish to incarnate in this world. But Rama was the personification of religion, duty and good leadership. He was the antithesis to Groucho Marx's "I'm a man of principles, and, if you don't like them, well, I've got other ones". Today two aspects of Rama's story hold messages for our politicians and for our terrorists.

In the Ramayana, the scriptural story of Rama, a demon kidnaps Rama's wife, Sita. The demon is then confronted by Jaytayu, a huge bird and a devotee of Rama. The fight is unequal from the start and both sides know it, but Jaytayu acts on principle and he has been glorified ever since for his dutiful sacrifice. Standing by our principles, even if it risks electoral loss, is non-negotiable if trust is to be maintained. Artful expedients, thought they can get us out of trouble in the short term, eventually destroy the trust and the lives of the very people we claim to protect.

In a second story Rama and a powerful companion, Hanuman, are engaged in building a bridge by throwing massive boulders into the sea. A spider appears and tries to help by hurling in sand. But when Hanuman laughs at this pathetic spectacle Rama chastises him, declaring that he accepts all service, no matter how meagre, when offered with sincerity and love. Terrorism is the reductio ad absurdum of the arrogance which Hanuman displays in this section of the scripture: it says that only its own world view is significant, to the extent that all others - and the innocent people who hold them - can be treated with utter contempt and expended without regard. We must, of course, despise that; but we must also be vigilant for traces of the same trait, albeit less dramatically evil, within ourselves.

In India it has become a cliché for politicians to call for a return to Ramraj, the rule of Lord Rama - a regime of peace, happiness and plenty. It is a notion which is articulated cheaply. And yet in their own way the Spanish people have demanded a bit of Ramraj in Spain. It may yet happen in the United States and Britain. Our votes may seem meagre, but in the end we are what we elect.

Shaunaka Rishi Das is Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies

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