Blood in Mumbai

By Dileep Padgaonkar
Friday, November 28, 2008

NEW DELHI -- Terrorist attacks have shattered the peace in more than half a dozen Indian cities over the past year. Yet none threatened India's secular and democratic polity as much as the carnage that jolted Mumbai on Wednesday. Mumbai is India's financial and commercial capital and arguably the country's most cosmopolitan metropolis. By targeting, among other establishments, two of the city's most opulent hotels -- the Taj and the Trident -- where the rich, famous and influential congregate to advance their business and political agendas, the terrorists struck at the very symbol of a resurgent nation.

The timing of the assault is equally significant, coming on the eve of elections to five provincial assemblies. Campaign rhetoric has polarized opinion along sharply antagonistic lines, essentially pitting the ruling Congress party, which swears by secularism, against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

After terrorist attacks in the past, the BJP has denounced the Congress party as being soft on terrorism in an effort to mobilize India's substantial Muslim vote in its favor. The Congress, in turn, attacks the BJP and its affiliates for bashing Muslims in order to consolidate its core Hindu vote. Indians have a peculiar word to describe this state of affairs -- communalism, meaning a determined bid to exploit religious sentiments for electoral gain.

The effect of this competitive demagoguery has been disastrous on many counts. Terrorism suspects have been picked up at random and denied legal rights. Allegations of torture by police are routine. Questions have been raised about the "encounters" between police and terrorism suspects. Suspects have been held for years as their court cases have dragged on. Convictions have been few and far between.

Commissions set up to investigate particularly gory incidents of religious violence have taken their time to produce reports. Few are opened for public debate. The recommendations in these reports have been routinely ignored or else implemented in a highly selective manner. Muslims convicted in some cases have been punished while Hindus have been let off lightly or not punished at all.

As a consequence, India's Muslims have begun to lose faith in the Indian state, its institutions and its instruments. This has led to the radicalization of Muslim youths. Religious extremism has pushed them onto the path of violence. Increasing evidence suggests that some have joined the ranks of the international jihadist movement with close links to terrorist groups in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Here in India, these groups are widely believed to collude with those countries' intelligence agencies.

To further complicate matters, a Hindu holy woman, a Hindu holy man, a serving officer of the Indian armed forces and some Hindu extremists have been arrested for their alleged involvement in terrorist attacks. It is now the turn of the BJP and its affiliates to charge that the police, at the behest of their "secular" masters, are failing to observe due process. Indeed, they charge that the Hindus have been framed to "appease" Muslims before the provincial assembly elections.

Simply put, the Hindus, like the Muslims, have started to question the credibility of the police and, by extension, the state. Wednesday's attacks in Mumbai can only compound fears in both communities that law enforcement cannot be trusted to bring the guilty to justice. And it is precisely such fears that set the stage for bloody confrontations between the two groups.

These fears cannot be calmed unless the Indian state cracks down vigorously on terrorism, regardless of the suspects' religion. That some Muslim youths are engaged in a war against infidels can no longer be denied. That the secular parties' approach to terrorism has been pusillanimous is also patent. But the refrain of the Hindu nationalists -- "all Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims" -- is no less wrong and dangerous.

The pan-Islamist character of the attacks in Mumbai must be stressed. At the Taj hotel, the terrorists asked for the numbers of the rooms occupied by foreign, especially American and British, guests. Another building they attacked housed Israeli guests. Overnight, Mumbai has been turned into a stage for "civilizations" to clash without hindrance.

Wednesday's brutal assault raises many questions: Who are these terrorists? Who are their mentors and their local accomplices? Where did they acquire their arms and their organizational skills? Why did the intelligence agencies fail to keep track of them?

The answers to those questions will be determined in the coming weeks, but some developments already offer comfort. At present, the attacks have not led to an outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence in other parts of India. Politicians, who are often quick to react to such incidents, have been remarkably discreet. Muslims and Hindus have condemned the attacks without indulging in a blame game.

Even more remarkable, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the leader of the opposition, L.K Advani of the BJP, have agreed to set aside their differences to visit Mumbai together to comfort those who lost relatives in the carnage. The victims include senior officers of the Mumbai police. This single gesture by Singh and Advani will go a long way toward reassuring a dazed and nervous India that the political establishment can still be trusted to rise above partisan passion.

The writer, a former editor of the Times of India, now edits the bimonthly magazine India & Global Affairs.

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