Medical personnel and hotel workers are now carefully combing through the debris and carnage at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay in the wake of the most dire terrorist attack on Indian soil since the country’s independence. The brazenness, brutality and cruelty of these attacks do not require further comment. Instead, as the citizens of this vast metropolis seek to restore some semblance of normalcy to their lives, it is important to probe the possible reasons for this horrific episode and explore its ramifications for the future of India’s plural, democratic and secular state.
Foremost on the minds of many is what brought on this terrifying attack? To this there are no obvious and firm answers. Nevertheless it is possible to hazard a few plausible explanations even in the absence of incontrovertible evidence. At the outset, it is possible to dismiss the claim of responsibility of the “Deccan Mujahideen.” Indian intelligence and police sources have made clear that they have no evidence of the existence of any such entity. More to the point, the cell phone transcripts reveal that the callers did not even have a clue about their demands. At best, this call was a deliberate distraction and at worst, a prank. The inability to articulate a set of explicit demands suggests that it was the latter.
Did the attack emanate from within or without India? Again, while the evidence is murky, based upon the available circumstantial evidence there is undoubtedly a Pakistani connection. One of the captured terrorists is of Pakistani origin, he and his fellow marauders came ashore on rubber rafts from the Arabian Sea and the Indian Navy has apprehended a trawler that had sailed from the Pakistani port of Karachi. Does this corpus of evidence implicate the Pakistani state in this dastardly act of terror? Perhaps. However, there are levels of culpability and presently it is impossible, with any degree of certainty, to assign a precise degree of involvement or responsibility.
That said it is equally impossible at this stage to easily exculpate Pakistan of any possible responsibility in these attacks. From the 1980s to the present day, various Pakistani regimes have either encouraged or allowed its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI-D) to exploit a range of India’s home grown political difficulties. To that end, it is well known that Pakistan trained, supported and provided sanctuaries to Khalistani separatists in the Punjab and continues to do the same for separatists in the Indian-controlled portion of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed in Kashmir, thanks to the ISI-D’s role and involvement, a mostly spontaneous, local uprising against Indian rule has been transformed into a vicious, religiously motivated extortion racket. Despite Indian diplomatic entreaties and military pressures, the Pakistani state has steadfastly refused to eschew its support to the jihadis. Indeed, Hafiz Mohammed Sayeed, the leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an organization implicated in multiple attacks on India including the most recent, remains comfortably ensconced in the city of Lahore.
Yet the complexity and organization of the attack suggests that it could not have been carried out without domestic support. If the attackers were indeed Pakistanis, without a doubt, they had the assistance of disaffected Indian Muslims. No operation of this complexity could have been orchestrated solely from abroad. Why would any members of the Indian Muslim community be a party to this carnage? In recent years, a small but significant minority of Indian Muslims has responded to the siren call of radical Islam. The reasons for their turn to Islamist extremism are complex. At the time of the partition of India, a significant segment of the Muslim elite departed for Pakistan. Elements of that elite remained and thrived in post-independence India. Others who managed to avail themselves of educational opportunities prospered and blended into India’s vast, plural society. On a day-to-day basis, they face little or any discrimination because of their religious identification.
Other less affluent parts of that community, however, are hardly so fortunate. They have long endured routine discrimination in everyday life, in employment and in housing opportunities. Past generations passively acquiesced in these daily humiliations. Ironically, because of the relative openness of Indian society, lower middle class Muslims are now much more politically conscious and mobilized and less prone to accept their consigned lot.
Against this social backdrop, two salient incidents can be deemed as the catalysts for their political radicalization. The first was the spate of anti-Muslim riots that swept across much of northern and western India in the wake of the destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu zealots in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 1992. Hundreds of Muslims lost their lives as Hindu mobs went on a rampage, especially in Bombay, with the police acting as passive bystanders. The second episode was the pogrom that occurred in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 in the immediate aftermath of a fire on a train with Hindu pilgrims which, some claim, was set alight by Muslim miscreants. Sadly, few, if any, individuals who were involved in the Bombay riots or the Gujarat pogrom have been prosecuted. Not surprisingly, following these two episodes, Muslim radicalism has emerged and flourished.
Despite this growing menace of domestic Muslim extremism, the Congress Party, the principal component of the ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), has been in willful denial about it. Its reasons are straightforward. Muslim constituencies in various parts of the country constitute important swing voters and can thereby determine the outcome of a number of electoral contests. Fearful of alienating these critical voting blocs, Congress has preferred to turn a Nelson’s eye to the problem.
The failure of the national government to forge a set of policies designed to address the social roots of Islamist zealotry are apparent. To worsen matters, many of India’s state-level police forces, when confronted with the challenge of violent Islamist radicalism, have failed to muster the requisite intelligence, forensic and prosecutorial tools necessary to suppress it. Instead they have resorted to the random arrests of young Muslims, have tainted evidence and have abused draconian anti-terrorist laws. In turn, far from curbing the rise of Islamist violence, their actions have actually provided a boost.
Despite this lugubrious analysis there is no imminent danger of India falling apart along the civilizational fault lines that Robert Kaplan has sketched out. Even after the spate of bombings that a domestic Islamist terrorist organization, the “Indian Mujahideen,” have carried out this past year, including in the capital city of New Delhi, they have abjectly failed in promoting Hindu-Muslim discord and violence. Even the crassest of India’s politicians have not tailored their electoral rhetoric along religious lines to exploit the attacks of the “Indian Mujahideen.” Instead, they have concentrated their fire solely on the Congress-led coalition’s apparent ineptitude to contain the growing scourge of domestic terror.
Also, India’s feisty press has been at pains to underscore that Muslims have frequently been the victims of a number of terror attacks. Earlier significant segments of the press had also done yeoman reporting on the complicity of the state government of Gujarat in the pogrom that took place in 2002. These bold attempts of the press to highlight the callousness of the Islamist extremists as well as the culpability of a state government in promoting ethnic strife and violence, in turn, has prompted India’s quasi-official National Human Rights Commission to investigate and report on the malfeasances of various state governments. Such public shaming though hardly a substitute for judicial probes and public prosecutions, nevertheless can act as an important restraint on the fecklessness of politicians keen on exploiting ethnic tensions for electoral gains.
These constraints notwithstanding, there is no gainsaying the tragic fact that India faces terrorist threats from within and without. Nevertheless, the imminent fracturing of India’s state and society are, like Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated. The country has been witness to worse times in its 60 odd year independent history. On each occasion it managed to defy the doomsayers. Its societal and institutional resilience, though frayed, is not beyond repair. Tragically, the Bombay attacks may provide the impetus for such an effort.