Mumbai’s Gateway of India was built to greet King Edward V of England when he arrived in 1911 for the Delhi Durbar, to inaugurate the new capital city. Like the new capital, the Gateway in Mumbai symbolized civilizational progress for the empire on which the sun never set. However, Britain’s empire was established through the fluidity of maritime space, and piracy on the high seas was a crucial means through which the older imperium of Spain and Portugal was challenged in the 16th century. Lawless violence often preceded the rule of law. Queen Elizabeth I bestowed knighthoods on Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and other “privateers,” all entrepreneurs who advanced state power. British sovereignty was thus founded on non-state actors, the most famous of which was the East India Company, whose lawless incursions provoked the demand for the rule of law.

Today we are once more at a time when lawless violence proliferates and territorial boundaries are infringed upon, when state leaders invoke “non-state actors” and argue for the need to respond in kind. Are new political formations taking shape in our midst, even as we defend the old order?

On November 26, 2008, terrorists arrived by sea and entered near the Gateway, making an entrance not unlike the pirates of yesteryear. The event is described as India’s 9/11, with enemy intruders committing murder and mayhem. “9/11” has become a nationalizing mantra across the globe, an invocation to remember violence in order to garner consent for violent retaliation. In an earlier age non-state actors, such as pirates, merged with the state. Today the state mimics the behavior of private parties, justifying violence as revenge and practicing torture as the just desserts of terrorists. War has become the preferred means of practicing politics under the guise of opposing terrorism, and it is endorsed as a sacred duty.

In the rush to affiliate the Mumbai attacks with the global war on terror, some point to Pakistan as the root cause. Calling these attacks “India’s 9/11” bolsters the demand that the country strike hard and fast, although the global nature of terrorism may involve an outsourcing of retribution. This speaks to both the long-standing failures of the Indian state and to the increasing discrimination in civil society and the media against Muslims.

Many have said that the attacks are part of a pattern of revenge for repeated anti-Muslim violence in different parts of the country that were led by Hindu nationalists, most prominently in 1992 and in 2002. None of the guilty Hindu parties in either of these situations were brought to book. The violent response to the Hindu nationalists’ carnage in 1992, which left more than one thousand dead, was conceived and financed by people in Karachi and Dubai. Mumbai, at the time, was the third corner of the economic and cultural zone formed by these cities, and thus was a logical choice of target. When the attack was initiated by Muslims the perpetrators were pursued with abundant vigor, and numerous innocents were punished along with some guilty men.

The recent events are only the latest of numerous attacks in cities across India. In Mumbai alone 209 people were killed in bombed suburban trains in 2006, and blasts in 1993 killed more than 250. As the Indian state continually fails to provide justice, private parties have chosen to settle accounts through public violence. The message this violence has conveyed is that if the Indian state will not protect Muslim citizens, their allies close by will try and do so. The culmination of this violent exchange has been further mimetic violence, this time by the state. In 2002, state authorities in Gujarat aided in the massacre of more than two thousand Muslims, in retaliation for sixty Hindus killed. Census rolls and municipal records were used to strike at Muslim homes and businesses, the sacrificial victims in the Gujarat state’s successful electoral campaigns. In turn, other cities have been targeted for further retaliatory terror attacks.

As national boundaries become more fluid and politics render nation-states less capable of representing their citizens, cities turn into battle zones and urban spaces are weaponized. Cities suffer from severe economic and social segregation, and the slums of the poor are demolished in the name of urban beautification, moved to the city outskirts, squeezed by high-rises, and bypassed by flyovers that render ghettos invisible to the privileged. Muslim residents in India are overwhelmingly concentrated in such areas, and, in episodes of Hindu nationalist violence, have been the principal victims of assaults.

In Ahmedabad, in many ways a sister city to Mumbai’s Gujarati financial elite and professional classes, the anti-Muslim violence in 2002 was almost entirely contained in the older, eastern half of the city, leaving the more affluent western part of the city largely unscathed. Muslims in India have, for some time, been treated as internal enemies, through a combination of covert and overt socio-economic boycotts, state discrimination, episodes of intense political violence, and anti-terror legislation granting judicial powers to police. Those who participated in the November attacks in Mumbai were reportedly shown films of the Gujarat killings, as well as others, such as the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, as part of their indoctrination during training.

A Muslim school teacher in Naroda Patia, one of the worst-affected areas during the Gujarat violence, spoke to me indignantly about experiencing one such boycott combined with rampant discrimination: “The people who treat us like this—I will not say that they are alive. If they simply believe what they are told, and treat human beings as if they did not exist, where is the spirit of life in them? I will say they are dead people.”

Violence is not limited to the physical act of killing. It can be carried out through forms of interaction and through the refusal to acknowledge the humanity of others. The restoration of order may not bring peace so much as serve to store and delay the release of violent energies, in a circuit that brings politics and everyday life into intimate contact. Muslims in many parts of the country have experienced ostracism amounting to social death, and are pushed to the very margins of the economy. In 2006 The Justice Sachar Committee reported that the condition of Muslims had deteriorated to such a point that they were worse off than the untouchable caste, which has traditionally occupied the lowest rung of Indian society.

The recent terror strikes may be Pakistani or transnational in their financing and implementation, but the urban geography in which it unfolded can be recognized from previous episodes of a more domestic violence. The difference is that this time, as in 1993, rich areas, not poor ones, were targeted. In both sets of cases, violence in media-dark ghettos has been followed by violence in the most public and media-bright parts of the city. The conception and execution of terrorism is both a method of violence and a method of publicity.

Media Effects

The media has expanded rapidly in India in recent years—with nearly two-thirds of the country now watching television with some regularity—which has made it into one of the principal motors of the economy. This tertiary ‘service sector’ industry has become more profitable than the primary or secondary sectors.

The attacks this past November are the first terror attacks in India to occur under the full glare of media spotlights, and, after many years of state-controlled media, in an era in which private broadcasters dominate the airwaves. Dozens of 24-hour news channels vie for the Indian audience, many of them subsidiaries of transnational media corporations. Few television markets in developing countries have witnessed such competition in news; it represents an attempt by businesses to capture the premium audience segment (which disproportionately tunes into news programs) while the entry costs are still relatively low, and viewer preferences are unformed.

In the past, when such violence occurred, the first response by the state-controlled media would be a news blackout, followed by terse and occasional news bulletins aimed at the political management of the situation; public safety took second place to the self-preservation of the ruling party. Citizens had to rely on rumors for information, and of course the source was never certain. Although there was often alarm and panic, any citizen responses were necessarily more diffuse. The role of an organized response was reserved for the state, which controlled the instruments of mass communication.

Since private media emerged, bomb blasts have occurred and drawn media attention, but these broadcasts always began after the explosions were over. The same was true for armed assaults, such as the attack on the Parliament buildings in New Delhi in December, 2001; news coverage had to diagnose dormant scenes of the crime, and thus lacked the capacity to retain audiences.

The latest attacks in Mumbai, by comparison, have received saturation coverage. There is no doubt that those who designed the attacks drew on the idea that the media constitutes war by other means; live action news about violence is akin to sequenced bomb blasts that can retain audiences for a length of time. Executed during the Thanksgiving holidays and located in tourist venues and heritage monuments, clearly including American and British persons in their targets, these attacks stretched over days. A global audience was envisaged for these attacks. The volume of coverage inevitably magnified the impact of the violence, prolonging its duration and escalating its rhetoric. The recent events are routinely described as India’s worst-ever terror attack, which not only ignores the greater toll of the 1993 blasts, but assumes that the numerous episodes of violence against Muslims, that claimed many hundreds more lives and often took place with the covert or overt support of law-enforcement agencies, did not constitute “terror.”

The question that has transfixed the media and provoked a demand for an answer is: who sponsored the killings, and how will they be caught? The question of why terror was launched was seldom asked, so habituated and dependent are the media to the spectacle of violence. The view of the media is akin to that of a policeman—the point is to catch the culprit.

With terrorism, the news media, and the police—and should we add, the judiciary?—seem to have merged together. We get information about attacks planned in Pakistan, emerging from the interrogation of the one attacker caught alive. No one can be under any illusion that this information comes from anywhere other than a torture chamber, but that vital and complicating bit of news is omitted. Also omitted is the possibility of Salafi funding from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere for the suspected groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, whose names keep changing. The tense but complicitous relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, that helps to preserve absolutist rule in that country, is far too academic a point to even be mentioned in the police drama unfolded by television news.

After many years of protesting state-controlled broadcasting, private news media now sets the terms of discourse on Indian airwaves, but the result is not what was foreseen by free speech advocates. Instead of official propaganda, which no one believed, audiences in India now get crime news, which sidesteps the tedium of argument and party line and spotlights violence instead.

Violence, when it occurs, is ideally meant to confirm that the law is being enforced. When violence is in defiance of the law and intended as a spectacle, the harm is physical as well as symbolic—the ability of the law to control public space is challenged. We might say that the intention of such terrorism is to drive a wedge between the law and its representation, as well as to unsettle our understanding of the relationship between violence and visibility. To be seen in a public space could be to enter the crosshairs of a killer, whereas to remain invisible is safe. Terrorism thus inverts our understanding of the meaning of publicity, making the visible a site of persistent danger and of suspended legality.

While the state invokes non-state actors to authorize new forms of political intervention, the media take on increasingly state-like characteristics. Despite being unelected representatives, their demands have more effect. Previous episodes of violence in Mumbai, e.g. in 1993, made no difference to the tenure of political leaders at that time, although numerous allegations were made against some of them. Although the death toll is smaller on this occasion, the Union Home Minister and the Chief Minister of Maharashtra have had to summarily vacate their offices, largely in response to a media-generated furor against them. In fact, the actions of the media’s state-like behavior focus on results over accountability, on retribution over restitution, on drama over the tedium of fact-finding, and, most of all, on sympathy for the upwardly mobile middle and upper classes over the (often unseen) victims of violence, poverty, immiseration and political terror.

What is manifest in this process is elite power; the media in India is only nominally public. A majority of the population may watch television, but it is the elite who own the space and dictate the terms of its discourse. The news routines do not even pretend to be egalitarian. In the recent attacks hardly any attention was paid to the railway station where sixty people were killed. TV crews stayed focused on the luxury hotels, where “People Like Us” were affected.

In responses to terrorism state power is exercised in secrecy, while elite power becomes bolder and claims for itself the mantle of the public as a whole. Politicians are vilified as a group and their judgment is scorned, as media celebrities offer their wisdom on national security. Meanwhile, there is little sign of responses being planned or conducted by the state; torture and encounter killings do not make the news, and counter-insurgency operations occur off-camera and through third-party and non-verifiable sources.

A Possible Politics

The globalization of media has led to an increased overlapping of news angles by Indian and western news markets, and the recent attacks reflect this, as the elites in Mumbai ask where their Rudy Giuliani is to spearhead their charge after the attacks, assuming that they too must respond “like America.” We have also witnessed the remarkable attempt by some American commentators to locate the cause of violence in a civilizational clash between Hindus and Muslims, akin to the alleged clash between Islam and Christendom. In this improbable interpretation, pagan Hindus are on the side of Christendom against Islam, although the latter two faiths profess a religion of the book, while Hinduism is polytheistic and fissiparous. As a waning superpower struggles for political leverage in a multipolar world, it is not surprising to see a search for the means of making foreign conflicts tractable to the existing geopolitical vision of the United States.

If we are to take democracy seriously, however, the question is not only what identities people respond to, but what we wish them to become. The problem, in other words, is not only an anthropological one, of classifying the different peoples of the world, but also a political one, of indicating what kind of world we would like them to belong to. Democratization everywhere effects a transformation in identities; people have a right not only to improve their lives, but to choose the terms in which they express them. Against the democratization of terror we must assert a politics of humanity, although the terms in which to do so are hardly transparent. We grant humanity to those made visible to the law, but new technologies of publicity disclose the presence of those denied legality, albeit through criminal acts. If outlaws once laid the basis for law, today the challenge before the law is to respond not only to the terrorist, but as well to the migrant, the slum-dweller, the uprooted peasant and other victims of industrial development, and the religious and ethnic minority. The growing separation between politics and publicity, between those who are visible and subject to the law and those who are invisible or who force themselves into visibility, requires us to constantly reconsider who has a right to politics and who is to be denied it, and on what grounds.