SONEPAT, India -- "France is at war."
These four words of President Hollande's have the smell of smoke, the crackle of gunfire. They take anyone hearing them back to World War II.
The "is" in "France is at war" tells the world that this is not about intention but action, not about anger but revenge at work. This is war speaking, from the war office, and even as the war office speaks, bombs are being dropped on the so-called Islamic State's camps in Syria. Nothing is left to imagination, nothing assigned to analysis. In war there is no time for anything except war.
The Gulf War's rapid-fire ballistics were televised in real time. The world's eyes also followed 9/11 in its charred theater. But the world watched the Paris attacks on the cold plate of the home screen. President Hollande's declaration draws the globe right into that box's innards, sucks it into its reddening tube.
If I was French -- not a follower of Émile Arnaud, who coined the term "pacifism" -- but just French, I would have wanted and expected my president to say exactly what he said and do exactly what he did. I would have hailed his determination. And I would have queued up for civilian volunteerism.
But that is neither surprising nor significant. France has been dealt a blow, the welt has to smart, swell. What is significant is what that blow on France has done to the world. France's war has become and remains today the world's war. It is perhaps premature to give the war a name, but a stage may be reached, sooner than we think, when the disconnected proceedings of our times will get christened as World War III.
Washington, London, Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo, Pretoria -- all have conscripted themselves into the war.
A new NATO has been born -- the New Anti-Terror Organization.
And we are all de Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin.
The only difference is that there is no identifiable Hitler, Mussolini. No Tojo, even.
Never before has the Muslim living in a non-Muslim environment anywhere in the world felt more self-conscious, more vulnerable. This is deranged, dangerous.
But that makes little difference. World War II had the Schutzstaffel -- the SS. We know of the Islamic State -- ISIS. That is more than enough.
Apart from the immediate affirmations of solidarity, the new NATO has spoken and is speaking in different ways. Be it in the ASEAN summit at Kuala Lumpur or the forthcoming climate change negotiations in Paris, where terror is likely to give stiff competition to climate, the world is being France.
The carnage in Paris has touched chords, old and new, and linked them. America's with Russia's and both of those with China's. The Caucasus and a very volatile Fergana Valley, between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, has long made Moscow's systoles jump. Last month's airline bomb blast has sent them flying out of the scale. China's tensions over the Muslim population in Gansu, Xinjiang, Yunnan and Qinghai are now being rescripted in bold italics. Europe and Britain know that the Paris attack can be repeated in any or all of its capitals. There are so many of "them" there.
Never before has the Muslim living in a non-Muslim environment anywhere in the world felt more self-conscious, more vulnerable.
This is deranged, dangerous.
The Republic of India's constitution famously guarantees to all its citizens the right to profess, practice and propagate any religion. And the right has been exercised, not without strains, for as long as the Republic has been in existence -- an achievement that would make its architects proud. But terror has put that right to severe test. And with bearded terror having become World War III's declared enemy, that right is going to face its severest ever test.
The government of India invites, each year, a chief guest to its Republic Day pageantry on Jan. 26. At a grand parade held in front of the presidential palace, real-life battle tanks, arms and armaments mounted on wheels are taken out in procession. Contingents of India's brave and skilled army, air force and navy march past in crisp precision, and fighter aircraft treat the gathering to awesome sky dazzles. No Indian can fail to be awestruck, proud. And no visiting chief guest can miss the subdued militarism that infuses the Republic Day, the swelling of national pride, vaulting self-confidence, sending patriotic adrenalin on a run.
And who is the chief guest going to be this coming Republic Day? President Hollande. The declarant of France's war on terror will be clasped to India's terror-scarred bosom. He will doubtless be pleased. But will he also see that France's war, which India has made its own, has, for India, a dimension that is altogether different from that of France?
Ever since the first India-Pakistan war of 1947-48, militarism has been just one valve away, no more, from the atria of the two countries' nationalist hearts. Peacemakers in both lands have tried to change that but have not really succeeded. Terror, Pakistan and Islam are seen, in a dangerous over-simplification, as one.
It takes a highly nuanced mind to see Pakistan-origin terror as coming not from Pakistan but from 'anti-India elements in Pakistan' or 'unidentified terror outfits' that have a safe haven in Pakistan.
It takes a highly nuanced mind to see Pakistan-origin terror as coming not from Pakistan but from "anti-India elements in Pakistan" or "unidentified terror outfits" that have a safe haven in Pakistan. UFOs may or may not be real but UTOs have been, for India, more than real. And now that ISIS has signed itself across all of them and President Hollande has declared a war that India fully supports, a new crisis stares at India.
ISIS and ISIS-connected terror outfits could now be provoked beyond their original intentions to hit at India. We may be witness in India to a spectacle so vile that no one will pause to ask what role Washington's misplaced policies played in ISIS' rise. And what elsewhere would be an action-reaction thing, one attacking and the other countering, almost as in conventional warfare, in India the thing can become far more complicated. A cunning and ruthless ISIS attack on India will place Hindu-Muslim relations under unprecedented strain and could tempt the Muslim extremist and the Hindu jingoist to mimic World War III within the country.
It could, I have said very deliberately. But mature minds in both communities and the innate good sense of simple Indians are not going to let India drift into a war that is global and internal. It will take no small courage, but they will protest and they will be heard.
A great and explosive danger lies beneath France's perfectly justified declaration of war, and the world's perfectly logical endorsing of it. And that is the conflating of Muslims generically with ISIS. France, the U.K. and the U.S. can, technically, check each Muslim in their territories out for terror links. But India cannot, not with some 180 million of them. Besides, the very idea is revolting. India's Muslims have opted to remain in India and not go to Pakistan. The choice has not been easy. They have been reviled in Pakistan for being "bad Muslims" and in India even been called "bad Indians." And told: "Go to Pakistan."
Film actor and intense reality show caster Aamir Khan spoke on Nov. 23, after the Paris attack, at a gathering in New Delhi. Aamir said that his wife often asked him whether it would not be a good idea for the family to move out of India: "There is this sense of growing disquiet, there is growing despondency apart from alarm. You feel why is this happening. You feel low."
He was heard in hushed reflectiveness. But the riposte had to come and came, within hours, with ferocity. Another actor, Anupam Kher, who has made no secret of his Hindutva affinities, tweeted a question to Aamir that basically said okay, so to which country does your wife plan to go?
For the acid of cynicism and the vinegar of hate, Kher cannot be bettered. Another right-wing actor tweeted that if Aamir thinks "we" are intolerant, okay, let us show him intolerance.
ISIS' manslaughter in Paris has placed on Muslims across the world the agonizing task of self-definition and self-explanation. It has placed Muslims in India in the doubly agonizing predicament of fearing a local backlash for what ISIS does as part of its global agenda. This is nothing short of a daily ordeal, an hourly torment. The sight of apparently "happy" Muslims going about their business in India as if unconcerned by what is happening worldwide masks their real and gnawing anxiety about their future.
I do not believe intolerance will prevail in India. The people of India are not stupid. But they live in a trapezium of wildly swinging emotions. And there, belligerents want to have their macabre fun, get their bloodied thrills.
France's war may be pushed by ISIS, phase by bloody phase, into a veritable World War III. And, unlike World War I and World War II, given the ability of terror to mask itself, hide, surface, surprise, kill and die -- it could last indefinitely. Even as it joins the rest of the world in fighting global terror, the higher minds of India must ensure that World War III does not nudge its own home belligerents into opening a brutal home chapter.
And no government of India will be allowed to move the country from the ethical compass and moral ballast of our Republic. That will steer SS India through the minefields.
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