As Indians we can add other grave threats confronting us, some of them currently. Above all our poverty, which kills and continually hurts hundreds of millions of us. What else? More than five lakh Indian children die of malnutrition every year, meaning 10,000 each week. Thirty eight per cent of Indian children are stunted at age 2, forever denying them a fulfilling life, intellectually and physically. Then there are other types of grave threat. Full automation of industry under artificial intelligence and the spectre of mass unemployment may just be around the corner. There is no shortage of things for us to worry about.

So what does Prime Minister Narendra Modi think on this subject? ‘Terror gravest threat to world today, says Modi in Mozambique.’ That was the Times of India headline from July 8. Modi has said this often. He told the US Congress last month that ‘globally, terrorism remains the biggest threat’. In that speech he used the word ‘terror’ 10 times and poverty once, showing his priority.


Malnutrition claims lives of five lakh Indian children every year.

Exactly what sort of threat is terrorism? In India, we have three conflict areas: the Northeast, the Adivasi belt and Jammu & Kashmir. Outside these three zones, in the areas where over a billion Indians live, the total number of those killed in terrorist attacks this year so far has been 21, most of those killed being armed combatants. Last year it was 23, in 2014 it was 4, in 2013 it was 25 and in 2012 it was 1. This includes those we have killed as terrorists. Clearly, terrorism is not a ‘grave threat’ and certainly not the ‘biggest threat’ to India. In fact, and this may be hard to swallow, the urban Indian, you and I, is safer than the average European and American when it comes to terrorism.

In Europe, a continent of 750 million, a total of 150 people died in terror attacks in 2015. But in the 1970s, over 400 Europeans a year died for many years, killed by various non-Islamist terror groups, including Irish and Basque separatists. So it would be incorrect to say terrorism is a bigger threat there today. In the US, the number of fatalities from terrorism is in the single digits annually on average. So why is terrorism considered a threat?

The big brand of terrorism today, Islamic State, elicits extremely negative views in all Muslim nations including Pakistan. It is unpopular and has difficulty in expanding. The whole of the IS army in Syria and Iraq numbers a third of the army of Bangladesh. The warriors of IS cannot match any modern army in set position warfare, which is required to hold territory. To assume IS is a threat to the world militarily is to know nothing about war.

If the facts are clear, and they are, why is terrorism such a big deal? The answer is that it is an issue which angers many of us, unlike malnourishment, poverty and illiteracy. I am not surprised when my uncle in Surat bangs his armchair and says we have to ‘fix Pakistan’ and ‘publicly hang these terrorists’. Responding to terrorism requires maturity and perspective that he lacks, and that is fine. He is no different from drawing-room experts elsewhere in the world. But I am worried when our Prime Minister buys into the same bunkum. When Modi chases after the ghost of terrorism, it damages us.

One example: the disproportionate focus the media, particularly the news channels, brings to terrorism becomes legitimised. What is essentially an upper-class anxiety becomes a global threat because it is elevated by Modi’s endorsement.

Our media needs to be weaned away from the silly idea that terrorism is in any way significant as a national issue, leave alone a global one, and focus on more serious things. We are damaged as a nation when our leader sets our global priorities in as wrong-headed a manner as Modi is doing.

Our gravest problem is not terrorism, and that is manifest. It is poverty. It is the inability of the state in India to help its citizens out by improving the quality of literacy and health. When he does not even acknowledge these failings as the priority, as Modi is doing when he goes on about terrorism being our ‘gravest threat’, the Prime Minister fails the majority of Indians.