Last week’s terror attacks on Bombay/Mumbai, for which there can be no justification whatsoever, have targetted railway stations, restaurants, hospitals, places of worship, streets and hotels. These are the places in which people gather. where the anonymous flux of urban life finds refuge and sustenance on an everyday basis. By attacking such sites, the tactics of the recent terror attack (like all its predecessors) echo the tropes of conventional warfare as it developed in the twentieth century. These tactics valued the objective of the escalation of terror and panic amongst civilians higher than they viewed the neutralization of strictly military or strategic targets. In a war without end, (which is one way of looking at the twentieth century and its legacy) panic is the key weapon and the most important objective.
The history of the indiscriminate bombing of cities and inhabited tracts as acts of war in modern times (from Guernica in Spain to Dresden and London in the Second World War, to the bombing of Cambodia in the 70s and the attacks on Baghdad in the Iraq War) underscores the fact that the ultimate objective of contemporary military actions is not the destruction of military or state assets but the utter demoralization of the civilian population by deploying disproportionate and massive force against the softest of possible targets - unarmed, un-involved ordinary people.
The terrorists who caused mayhem in Bombay, and their mentors, wheresoever they may lie, are no less remarkable in their lethal cynicism than those who sanctioned the bombing of Baghdad in recent times. They were interested in hurting people more than they were in tilting at the windmills of power. If we accept the conjecture that the attacks were authored by Islamist organizations based in Pakistan (which by itself is not unlikely), then we also have to accept the irony that in their actions they have mirrored and echoed the tactics of the military leadership of the great powers they decry as their adversaries. Terrorists and war criminals are replicas of each other. The difference between them is only a matter of degree. The students have learnt well from their teachers.
No redemptive, just, honourable or worthwhile politically transformatory objectives can be met, or even invoked, by attacking a mass transit railway station, a restaurant, a hotel or a hospital. The holding of hostages in a centre of worship and comfort for travellers cannot and does not challenge any form of the state oppression anywhere. The terrorists (I unhesitatingly call them ‘terrorists’, a word which I am normally reluctant to use, because their objective was nothing other than the terror itself) who undertook these operations did not deal a single blow to the edifice of oppression in this country, or in any other country. On the other hand, they strengthened it. By helping to unleash calls for war, by eliminating (unwittingly perhaps) those that have been investigating the links between fringe far right groups and home grown terror, by provoking once again the demand for stronger and more lethal legislation for preventive detention (in the form of a revived or resuscitated POTA), these terrorists have done statist and authoritarian politics in India its biggest favour. The sinister and lunatic fringe of far right politics of the Hindutva variety (which seems to have acted hand in glove with rogue elements within the security establishment) in particular, must be delighted to have been gifted this latest horror on a platter without having had to work hard for it.
While the agents of the attack in Bombay may have been genuinely motivated by their own twisted understanding of Islam, they have demonstrated that they have no hesitation in putting millions of Indian Muslims in harms way by exposing them to the risk of a long drawn out of spiral of retaliation. We need to underscore that they killed 40 innocent, unarmed Muslims (roughly 20 % of the current total casualty figures of 179) while they unleashed their brutal force on Bombay. The terrorists who authored their deaths cannot by any stretch of imagination be seen as partisans or friends of Islam. They are the enemy of us all, and especially of those amongst us who happen to be Muslims, for they jeopardize the safety and security of all Muslims in India by unleashing yet another wave of suspicion and prejudice against ordinary Muslims. Any effort to rationalize their actions by reference to real or perceived injustices to Muslims in India, is patronizing at best, and insensitive at worst.
It is therefore neither surprising nor remarkable that several Muslim organizations and individuals in India have unanimously condemned the terror attacks and terrorism in general. The actions of the terrorists (their purported statements as aired on India TV notwithstanding) constitute an insult to anyone who is interested in seriously addressing the discrimination faced by minorities in India.
What is particularly reprehensible about the terrorist’s actions is their choice to target and kill unarmed Jewish travellers, a rabbi and his wife. This choice was not accidental, these people were targetted because of their religious affiliation and their ethnic origins. The anti-semitic edge of contemporary Islamic Fundamentalism has nothing whatsoever to do with any opposition to the oppressive policies and practices of the state of Israel towards Palestinians. Targetting Jews (who may or may not be Israeli) or individuals who happen to be Israeli in a house of Jewish worship in Mumbai for the actions of the State of Israel is not unlike attacking Carribean Hindus and Hindu Indians at a Hindu temple in Trinidad for real or imagined misdemeanours of the Republic of India. It would be similar to attacking ordinary Indian, Pakistani or Somali Muslims and Iraqis in retribution for the offences committed by the erstwhile Ba’athist government of Iraq on Kurds. The Israeli government treats Palestinians in occupied Palestine a shade better than Saddam Hussain’s Iraq treated Kurds. (Settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, though they have no doubt borne the brunt of Israeli state terror, have not to my knowledge been gassed by chemical weapons). Islamic fundamentalist anti-semitism is as much an abomination as Hindu, Christian or Jewish Fundamentalist or Secular Islamophobia anywhere in the world.
One of the theories doing the rounds of the underbelly of blogs and mailing lists is that of ‘Mossad-CIA’ involvement in the attacks on Bombay. While I have no doubt at all about the fact that organizations such as the Mossad and the CIA are murderous and unscrupulous in terms of their day to day operational existence and that they have an active and corrosive agenda in South Asia. I find the theory of their involvement in the Bombay terror attacks as far fetched as the assumption that the Indian Ocean Tsunami was a result of a Mossad-RAW conspiracy to test secret undersea weapons. Such theories, which are closely related to the ‘9/11 was a Mossad job’ kind of wild conjecture, are a species of denial, and are often propagated by credulous commentators and politicians, particularly in the Muslim world (and their non-Muslim sympathisers), with a view to maintaining the myth of the eternally victimised and wronged Muslim. Such unsubstantiated conjectures and allegations do not help Muslims in any way. On the contrary their whimsical non-seriousness perpetuates the conditions that undermine responsible non-xenophobic Muslim points of view from being taken seriously.
Having said all this (which I believe is necessary to say), it is equally important to address several other serious issues that have raised their ugly heads in the aftermath of the attack on Bombay.
The aftermath of the terrible recent events in Bombay contains a great deal of debris. A spell of terror destroys so much, so quickly. A lot gets damaged by violence. Lives are shattered, walls and roofs collapse, entire neighbourhoods get devastated. Cities, sometimes the populations of countries, find what gets called their ’spirit’ broken.
But one thing stays intact, and on occasion even finds new strength. This one thing is a sense of wounded innocence, and the search for easy fixes and answers. There can be nothing more dangerous at present than this deadly combination of injured innocence and glib macho loose talk.
I would like to spend some time looking at the sources and consequences of two specific kinds of loose talk which I will address in turn.
1. War Mongering: The Indian state is an injured and innocent party, and an attack like this gives India the right to conduct a military campaign, even war, against Pakistan to finish once and for all, the scourge of terrorism. As the botoxed visage of Simi Garewal screamed on ‘We the People’ broadcast on NDTV two evenings ago ‘Carpet Bomb those parts of Pakistan…"
2. Islamophobia: We can understand everything about the motives and drives of the terrorists by pointing to their ‘Muslim’ identity. A variant of this is - ‘The Quran sanctions violence against unbelievers, and that is all that we need to know in order to understand the roots of the attacks in Bombay’. This kind of sentiment is burgeoning on the internet, where it feeds the testosterone overdrive of a certain kind of overzealous netizen who sees the tragedy that has befallen Bombay as an opportunity to put out a sick and prejudiced agenda.
It should not come as a surprise that often, the two come linked. The idiotic and jejune militarist fantasies of the hard Hindutva right are a public secret. However, there are also many card carrying secular nationalist ‘war mongers’ who see the times we are living through as an opportunity to exhibit how much more ‘patriotic’ they can be than their communal peers. Of course, these attitudes have their exact mirrors in Pakistan. And a peculiar mirroring is currently underway between Indian and Pakistani news channels, with news anchors such as the hysterical Arnab Goswami (Times Now TV) in India and his counterparts in Pakistan indulging in a perverse and dangerous game of jingoistic one-upmanship. Even retired senior officers of the armed forces who are sought out for comment and analysis in television studios and politicians of parties such as the BJP (neither of whom are necessarily known as models of moderation) are acting with greater restraint than sections of the electronic media. They (the BJP politicians) are at least at present not rushing to talk of war (how could they, they have an election to contest in a few months time, and an Indo-Pak military standoff that could work to the advantage of the incumbent UPA government could really upset their best calculations). The retired soldiers by and large, speak wisely of avoiding military options as far as is possible. It is only the few news anchors who have let their place in the spotlights go to their heads, (and their adolescent online clones) who are consistently maintaining the shrillness of war-talk.
Those speaking of war or punitive military strikes base their arguments on the ‘enough is enough’ theory, that time has now come to deal Pakistan a hard blow as a punitive action against letting its territory being used against India. This line of reasoning assumes that India is cast as the eternal victim and can never be seen as the aggressor.
If this is so, then (following this line of thinking) there is no reason why India too should not have been carpet bombed for allowing the use of its territory and resources for acts of terror against its neighbours. The memory of news anchors may be as brief as the punchy headlines of breaking news, but even a cursory examination of recent history would show that the Indian state and elements within India have sinned as much as they have been sinned against.
In May 1984, for instance, the LTTE (at that time housed, armed, funded and nourished by the Indian state led by Indira Gandhi) conducted a brutal slaughter of around one hundred and twenty unarmed and peaceful Buddhist pilgrims in and around one of Sri Lanka’s holiest Buddhist shrines in Anuradhapura. The Anuradhapura Massacre caused great anguish and outrage in Sri Lanka at that time, and if we accept the principles that prompt our ’studio-warriors’ and ‘online dharamyoddhas’ to call for the carpet-bombings of parts of Pakistan then we have to admit that it was unfortunate that Sri Lanka did not carpet bomb Delhi and Chennai.
Perhaps as the comparatively militarily weaker neighbour of mighty India, it may have found itself reluctant to imagine, let alone carry out such a bizarre threat. Clearly, the nuclear fuelled fantasies of militarist Indians brook no such reasons for reticence. I wonder whether it is amnesia and the lack of a moral-ethical sense that underwrites Indian militarism or is it the intoxication of arrogant militarism that induces this dystopic inability to either remember ones own state’s history of complicity in terror or to behave ethically and reasonably in times of crisis.
Further, should a professional investigation into the devastating attack on the Samjhauta Express train to Pakistan reveal that the perpetrators of the attack were Hindu radicals assisted by rogue elements within the military intelligence apparatus in India, would Pakistan then be justified in ‘carpet bombing’ Pune, Indore, Jammu and other places linked to the cluster of organizations and individuals around outfits such as ‘Abhinav Bharat’?
A military adventure into Pakistani held territory by Indian forces at this current juncture can be nothing short of a disaster, It risks taking South Asia and the world to the precipice of a nuclear conflict. It has been pointed out by some idiots on television that the United States is apparently safer today for having sent troops to fight into Afghanistan and Iraq. The truth is, the United States has made the world and Americans a great deal more unsafe , and a great deal more vulnerable to terrorism, by the conduct of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The incidence of terrorism worldwide has increased due to its intervention, and even the attacks on Bombay can in a sense be seen as ricocheting off the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan. The deliberate targeting of British and American individuals by the terrorists in Bombay last week demonstrates how unsafe it is to be seen carrying an American passport today. If India is to be pulled headlong into conflict with Pakistan as a result of the fall out of the attacks on Bombay, the world will automatically and immediately become a far more unsafe place. There will be more, not less terrorism for us all to deal with.
The only way for us to defeat terrorism in South Asia is for ordinary Indians and Pakistanis to join hands across the Indo-Pak divide to say that they will no longer tolerate the nurturing of terror, hate and division in their societies through the covert and overt acts of rogue elements in both their governments (which have a vested interest in the continuity of conflict) and powerful non-state actors in both societies. Neither POTA, nor military misadventures, nor harder borders can defeat terrorism. A suicide bomber can only be disarmed by the narrowing of the political and cultural space for hatred within society to levels of utter insignificance.
For this to occur, we all need to shed the cocoons of the assumptions of our own innocence. The sooner we do so, the sooner we realize that culpability in terror in South Asia is not a one way street with all signs pointing only in the direction of Pakistan, the better it will be for peace in our time. The automatic assumption of our own innocence, especially at times when we perceive ourselves to the be victims, is something we cannot afford to do. Whatever little illusory comfort it may give us in the short run, it will rebound to haunt us with unforgiving intensity.
If we are serious about putting an end to the seemingly endless spiral of retributive violence behind us we have to exercise the hard and necessary choice of leaving the discourse of ‘martyrs’, ‘victims’, ‘villains’ and ‘heroes’ behind us. The media, and especially the electronic media have a special role to play in this regard. They have much introspection to do. It will not do to have jingoist anchors and commentators protect their diminishing intelligence and rising moral culpability in stoking the flames of war themselves with the fig leaf of ‘national psyche’ and ‘popular sentiment’. It is they who fashion the chimera of ‘popular sentiment’ with their spin doctoring, and it is unacceptable to see people refuse to take responsibility for the very serious consequences of this dangerous spin.
Finally, I come to the question of whether there is anything specifically ‘Islamic’ about acts of terrorism such as we have witnessed in Bombay last week. Under normal circumstances, such ridiculous questions would not need any attention. Unfortunately, these are not normal circumstances, and it is at times such as these, that otherwise marginal irresponsibly articulated opinions get a disproportionate velocity due to the way in which they circulate, particularly on the internet and then leak out into the grit of innuendo, insinuation, half-informed speculation and rumour in daily conversation.