Mumbai Train Bombings:A Pretext for an Indian “War on Terror”?

A series of bomb blasts ripped through packed commuter trains July 11 in Mumbai, India.  Seven bombs exploded one after another during the evening rush hour.  As of this writing, 186 people had died and nearly 800 injured, while hundreds more were still missing.

So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The media wasted no time in speculating about which Muslim organization in the region might be to blame.  With little evidence at hand, the Times of India cited “intelligence sources” who were “pretty sure” that the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) were behind the attacks.  Both groups have denied any involvement.  Nevertheless, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh immediately issued a statement calling on neighboring Pakistan to “act against terror groups.”

A Tale of Two Responses

While politicians in India and in Pakistan traded threats and insults, reports out of Mumbai spoke of the chaos that engulfed the city. H eavy monsoon rains brought travel to a standstill.  The Indian newspaper The Hindu reported:

To add to the misery of the people, all roads leading to the suburbs were jammed with people trying to make their way home. With a red alert having been declared, riot police were out on the streets. Thousands of people were forced to walk as there was no other transport available. Those who had transport, or got taxis, willingly shared these with stranded people. Eye witnesses recounted that the only help they got initially was from fellow passengers and people in nearby localities.

The bombs destroyed several First Class coaches, reserved for the few who can afford them.  Ironically, the first to arrive on the scene to help the survivors were local slum-dwellers, who brought their tattered bedsheets to serve as makeshift stretchers.

The Indian government’s response, on the other hand, has been to detain nearly two hundred people in a sweep that will bring many more into Indian jails before it is over.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh openly accused the Pakistani government of complicity, and said, “We will leave no stone unturned — I reiterate — no stone unturned, in ensuring that terrorist elements in India are neutralised and smashed with sustained action.”

The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) clearly sees this as an opportunity to ratchet up its own version of the “war on terror,” crackdown on Muslim organizations at home, while scoring points against Pakistan on the international scene.

Meanwhile, the rightwing Hindu nationalists in the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) are baying for blood.  According to writer Praful Bidwai, the BJP “has accused the government of ‘ignoring’ national security.  It demands the return of draconian anti-terrorism laws, in particular, the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was repealed after numerous instances of its abuse came to light.”

The More Things Change. . . .

The tragedy is being compared to a 1993 bombing of the Mumbai stock exchange, in which 257 had died.  But the current atmosphere of calm stands in sharp contrast to the climate of communal violence that shook the city in 1993.

The 1993 bombings in Mumbai took place in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992, and at the tail-end of weeks of communal violence instigated by a resurgent Hindu nationalist movement.  Fascist goon squads of the Hindu right had gone on a rampage through Mumbai, inciting riots and massacres, in which hundreds of people, mostly Muslims, died.

This violence was a warning of worse to follow if the Hindu nationalists were to gain power.  In 1998, the BJP-led coalition called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won the national elections.  In 2002, nearly 2,000 Muslims were massacred and some 100,000 displaced in state-sponsored pogroms in the BJP-ruled state of Gujarat.

The NDA was defeated in the elections of 2004.  Since then India has been ruled by the centrist United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress Party.  The UPA is supported in Parliament by the parties of the Left, including the two Communist Parties, CPI and CPM.

However, the UPA has followed through on most of the policies of the NDA.  On the economic front, it has continued the process of neoliberal “reform,” opening up the markets and privatizing industry.  In foreign policy, it has courted the U.S., seeking to become a junior partner in the U.S.’s grand strategy for Asia.

Indian Ambitions

India’s rulers have not only regional, but global ambitions that are gaining ground thanks to a booming economy and cozy relations with the U.S.

The Indian government toed the U.S. line at the International Atomic Energy Agency last year, by voting to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.  In return, the U.S. granted India’s nuclear program a special status, paving the way for the transfer of nuclear technology to India.

In a show of diplomatic savvy, Indian officials brokered a deal with China that ended their long-standing border disputes over Tibet and Sikkim.  Recent reports have speculated on the possibility that the next Secretary-General of the United Nations might be the Indian author and diplomat Shashi Tharoor, and India has been pushing hard for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Kashmir: The Linchpin

But the Indian ruling class faces two nagging, and related, obstacles to realizing its ambitions: The continued insurgency in the northern province of Kashmir, and the simmering tensions with neighboring Pakistan.  An attack on the Indian parliament building in 2001, thought to have been carried out by Pakistani-backed militants, brought the two nuclear-armed rivals to the brink of an all-out war.

The ongoing Indian occupation of Kashmir has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, and produced a widespread desire for independence among ordinary Kashmiris.  But this struggle for independence has been derailed by Pakistan’s rulers, who have funded, armed, and trained Islamist militants in their attempts to destabilize the region and to hijack the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination.

Indian rulers hope to capitalize on their new-found friendship with the U.S. to force Pakistan to crack down on Islamist groups and to accept the current Line of Control (LoC) as the permanent border between the two countries.  This “normalization” of relations will tilt the balance of power in India’s direction, as it will further consolidate Indian regional hegemony.

In this context, the Mumbai train blasts must be seen as a symptom of the instability unleashed by the U.S.’s “global war on terror,” on the one hand, and the nationalist rivalries whipped up by Indian and Pakistani rulers on the other.

Thus it is unfortunate that sections of the Indian Left have issued calls for “bringing the terrorists to justice.”  Such a position merely plays into the hands of the Indian elite and their foreign policy objectives.  It also gives the Indian government a green light to further tighten the screws in Kashmir in the name of “fighting terrorism.”  Until the Kashmiris are granted the right to determine their own future, any talk of justice by the Indian government is a sham.

The climate of terror and violence can only be fought by building inter-religious and inter-national unity among Indian and Pakistani workers, and by upholding the right to self-determination of oppressed minorities in both countries.

Nagesh Rao is an assistant professor of English at The College of New Jersey.  This is a version of an article that he wrote for Socialist Worker.