The heinous terrorist attack in Mumbai has received a great deal of media exposure and coverage. This attack has been dubbed “India’s 911” by a sensationalist press that has served to aggrandize the terrorists’ actions and conflate this attack with the global War on Terror. Key questions about this event remain unanswered. Is Pakistan behind the attack? That’s doubtful. Do the perpetrators of this attack have some sort of ties to extremist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba? Perhaps, but that doesn’t implicate Islamabad. What is more important to explore than speculating on the specific group responsible for this attack is the causes of this action and what political ramifications it will have.
India itself is a land of contradictions. It is the world’s largest democracy, but the majority of its people suffer from endemic poverty. Over 1.1 billion people call it home, but many groups in society have been marginalized and ignored. India has constantly been plagued by terrorism, but it has also perpetrated acts of terror in Kashmir. This recent attack in India has been claimed by a nascent terrorist organization—called the Deccan Mujahedeen—that is probably a ghost organization “created” solely for this attack. However, what are the grievances alleged by this organization and how will their crime impact India?
This act of terrorism, while completely unjustifiable, has been blamed on radical Islamists who have a wide-range of grievances. The disparities between Muslims—which make up close to 14% of the population—and Hindus—which make up around 80% of the population—in India are vast and are increasingly a cause of conflict. According to the government-sponsored Sachar Commission Report of November 2006, four out of every ten Muslims in India’s cities—and three out of 10 in the countryside—are living below the poverty line. Generally speaking, Muslim Indians have shorter life spans, lower literacy levels, and lower-paying jobs. Muslims face constant discrimination in education, housing, and employment. On top of being treated as second-class citizens and a constantly suspect subaltern group in society, issues such as the destruction of the Ayodha Mosque, the massacres in Gujrat, and the brutal military occupation of Kashmir have deeply affected Muslims in India. If India continues to ignore these grievances the likelihood of the growth of home-grown militants will increase.
The impact of this event is still reverberating across Indian society. On the political level, this terrorist attack could not have come at a more inopportune time for the Congress Party. When Congress came to power in 2004, they made revoking the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act their top priority. This act—similar to the American Patriot Act—was revoked that year but the Mumbai attack has renewed discussion on it. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which under Atal Bihari Vajpayee had passed this act, has renewed its support for it and has denounced Congress for being “soft on terrorism.” With general elections only a few months away, the BJP could galvanize its right-wing Hindu support base to try to defeat Congress in the upcoming elections. The idea that the government must respond to terrorist attacks by increasing the internal security apparatus is wrong. These actions will just lead to a more repressive state and a clamp-down on civil liberties. India should instead tackle problems such as poverty, lack of education, and unemployment because these issues feed the desperation that can lead to extremism and ultimately terror.
This terrorist attack has also complicated relations between India and Pakistan. It seems rather convenient for Indian to blame Pakistan anytime it has a domestic terrorist attack that involves Muslims. The allegation against Pakistan seems utterly baseless considering the strong denunciation by the Pakistani government and their offer to cooperate with India. Furthermore, Pakistan faces tremendous problems of its own—such as the growth of an indigenous Taliban movement, terrorist attacks against Pakistan, and internal economic problems—that it is trying to fix and stoking tensions with India is definitely not in their best interests. In fact, Pakistan has been aggressively pushing for a détente with India and this terrorist attack occurred during a peace negotiation visit by the Pakistani Foreign Minster to New Delhi. This attack has caused the distracted international media to focus on manufactured tensions between India and Pakistan rather than the root causes of this attack.
One of the important issues raised by this event are its international implications. The media has dubbed this attack India’s “911” which has unfortunately obfuscated a deeper understanding of this event. The media constantly raises the issue of a “911”—whether it is s terrorist attack in the UK, Spain, or Indonesia—type attack anytime there is some senseless act of terrorism. This is done by the media for a variety of reason. One reason is because it creates a simplified narrative, a “good vs. bad” story that is viscerally understandable for an audience. This allows for the audience to moralize the event which then provides justification for whatever actions the governments take during and after the event. Furthermore, it plays up the notion of international terrorism in general, and radical Islamist terrorism in particular, as an existential threat that must be both feared and destroyed. This gross simplification plays into the illusory idea of a “clash of civilizations” in which a “barbaric other” does senseless acts of terrorism for no apparent reason. While this may be able to get ratings for the media and provide cover for government actions, this simplifies a complex narrative and reduces these events to random acts of terrorism. This allows for the justification and continuation of the global War on Terror because all countries around the world have faced these attacks and governments have responded in kind. India has become a victim of terrorism and therefore has received global sympathy for its loss. Needless to say, India’s actions in Kashmir and its treatment of Muslims are ignored throughout this news coverage in favor of painting a simplistic victimization picture. Terrorism gets all of the media attention. State-sponsored acts of terrorism are ignored as are more pressing causes of conflict such as poverty, access to education, and underdevelopment. This skewed narrative will ensure that terrorism will not abate.
The full impact of the Mumbai attack will be seen in the coming months. These tragic acts of terrorism do have causes that need to be urgently addressed. India should not respond by becoming a greater national security-state; instead, it should aggressively tackle the problems that are ripping it apart. It would be wise to recall Gandhi’s sage reflection that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
For further reading:
1. Behind the Mumbai Massacre: India’s Muslims in Crisis, Time Magazine, Aryn Baker 11-27-08
2. The Assault on Mumbai, Counterpunch, Tariq Ali, 11-27-08
3. Mumbai, the NYT’s Revisionism, and Lessons Not Learned, Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald, 11-28-08
4. Blood in Mumbai, Washington Post, Dileep Padgaonkar, 11-28-08
5. Mumbai May Derail India-Pakistan Peace Progress, Washington Post, Shuja Nawaz, 11-28-08
6. The age of ‘celebrity terrorism’, BBC News, Paul Cornish, 11-30-08
7. Muslims -- India's new 'untouchables', LA Times, Asra Nomani, 12-1-08
8. Toll from Deadly, Coordinated Mumabi Attacks Tops 170, Two Top Indian Officials Resign, Tensions Rise Between India and Pakistan, DemocracyNow!, 12-1-08
9. A Shadow Falls on Mumbai, The Progressive, Amitabh Pal, The Progressive, 12-1-08
10. A Statement by Concerned Citizens of India and Pakistan, Press Release, 12-2-08