After the Attack on Mumbai


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Why do young men in the prime of their lives choose to carry out brutal acts of vengeance, organised but senseless acts of violence, which they perceive as the only possible means of redressing deeply felt injustice, knowing full well that, as a consequence, a macabre death awaits them?

The kind of organised yet senseless violence, perpetrated in the name of vengeance, that Mumbai was subjected to over 59 hours from the night of November 26 needs to be banished from the face of this earth.  The challenge is how to go about doing this.  It is the diagnosis of a disease that determines how it is to be treated and cured.  But, given existing class and power structures, in the main, it is ruling class-power elite understanding of the phenomena that will guide what kind of purposeful action is deemed necessary.  And, given that class-power elite’s identification of “the terrorists” with the forces of darkness in Manichaean conflict with those of light (the self-appointed protectors of “democracy”, “freedom”, and “justice” on a global scale and all who are with them), the whole discourse invariably gets confined to ways of meeting the terrorist threat, which in practice boils down to “necessary” counter-terrorism.

Terrorism then, in this view, has to be ruthlessly put down.  Sections of the Indian ruling class-power elite add: even if this entails incursion across the border into Pakistan — “surgical strikes” to raze the “terrorist camps and bases” supposedly given official patronage there to the ground.  A section of citizens, heavily influenced by mainstream media coverage of the attack on Mumbai, have turned their anger and indignation against all “politicians”, diagnosing the problem down to a “failure of governance”, but even they are one with all the “bourgeois” political parties in subscribing to this point of view.  Indeed, the groundswell of popular anger, if it lasts, may be harvested by the Sangh Parivar towards fascist ends, for there is much likemindedness over here — the people involved, already steeped in a culture of authoritarianism and repression, are committed to nationalism, indeed, patriotism of one variety or another.1

One has by now become familiar with the almost instant, reflexive response of the “experts” (self-designated security analysts) pointing the finger at Pakistan.  The stupid terrorists are supposed to have left behind a satellite phone on the boat that they captured, whose call data apparently tell a lot about from whom they were taking directions.  Then there is the claimed testimony of Ajmal Amir Kamaal, the terrorist who was caught, that he took orders from Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba, though none of the media reports cites the source of the interrogation details they have been dishing out, nor has there been any official public confirmation of these details.  But all this, and more, it is claimed, tells of a Lashkar operation linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

But one should know better — that the truth, in such matters, invariably assumes a partisan character.  Lashkar has issued a statement denying any responsibility for the attack on Mumbai, and, at this stage, it is fair to say, it is still unclear who was responsible for the attack.  There are reasons to be sceptical of the so-called “incontrovertible evidence of ISI’s involvement” that the Indian government is said to have shown to the visiting US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.  But Washington, in its interests, would not want its two junior partners in the “war on terror” to be fighting each other at a time when the epicentre of that war has shifted to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan where the American and Pakistani militaries are running that war, and Rice seems to have made that clear to the powers-that-be of both New Delhi and Islamabad in no uncertain terms.  Indeed, following the Rice visit, the xenophobic appeals emanating from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and others in the Hindutva camp have been toned down.  Escalation of tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan no doubt has grave implications.

The new Indian Union Home Minister, P Chidambaram, has at his first press conference since assuming office painted a rather unoriginal (imitating his American patrons?) Manichaean picture of recent terrorist attacks, including the Mumbai one, posing “a threat to the very idea of India, a threat to the soul of India that we know, this is secular, plural, open and tolerant”.  He went on to say that “we will respond with all the determination and resolve to the grave threats posed to the Indian nation”.   Is India then in for expanded central powers in the maintenance of internal security?  From all the talk so far, there are proposals to station wings of the National Security Guard in major cities, set up a federal investigative agency (FIA) on the lines of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (the latter is already involved in the investigation of the Mumbai attack), upgrade the Research and Analysis Wing and the Intelligence Bureau, and enhance coastal security.

But will the spending of a few more thousand millions of rupees on internal security — with essentially the same set of higher-ups and their political godfathers, whether of the BJP or the Congress, who have failed repeatedly to stop the spate of terrorist attacks in the recent past — solve the problem?  The BJP is insisting that the new FIA has to be backed by a strong POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002)-like law to make it effective.2  Will India then witness a further shift in the balance of power between the judiciary and the police in favour of the latter?  Washington has already made an offer to provide New Delhi with expertise in setting up “effective homeland security architecture” on the lines of what was done in the US following the 9/11 attack.

All the recent acts of terrorism have arisen within the existing structure of power and politics at the national and international levels.  The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC have to be seen in the context of the US’s propping up of reactionary regimes in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, its supporting and bankrolling of the Israeli repression of the Palestinians, the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, and so on, all part of its imperialist thrust in West Asia/the Middle East.  Washington has since been engaged in a global “war on terror” with the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and the threatening of Iran.  And now, instead of distancing itself from this blatant violator of international law, New Delhi has cemented a strategic alliance with Washington and built a special relationship with Israel, all this at a time when the epicentre of the “war on terror” has moved eastward from Iraq to the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Interestingly, following Rice’s message to India and Pakistan, there seems to be a shift in the assignment of responsibility for the Mumbai attack.  It is now being conjectured that Al-Qaida was involved.  In the latter’s calculation, the attack on Mumbai would inevitably rekindle and heighten animosity between India and Pakistan, leading to the latter being forced to divert a large part of its military might to the border with India, which would in turn give Al-Qaida and the “extremist” Taliban some respite, and an opportunity to regroup, in the “war on terror” presently underway in and around the FATA of Pakistan.

Understandably, there is a deep sense of public anger and revulsion across all communities over the terrorist attack in Mumbai.   But why was this same sense of rage and disgust not as widespread when the Babri masjid was demolished even as the security forces, under official instruction, remained mere bystanders when the process was on?  Or, when it was clear that gangs of Hindutva marauders had swiftly gone about executing a pogrom against Muslims in Mumbai in January 1993 or in Gujarat in 2002 (in the latter, the Hindutva mobs had the blessings of those in power in the state)?  Why has there been no public outrage in the rest of India at the tens of thousands of deaths of Kashmiris following the post-1988 armed resistance to the military occupation of the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir?

Of course, the demolition of the Babri masjid, the pogroms against Muslims, the deaths of tens of thousands of Kashmiris at the hands of the Indian security forces, or indeed, India, under Hindutvadi influence, joining what Al-Quaida dubs the “Crusader-Zionist alliance”, in no way justifies what the terrorists have done in Mumbai.  Nevertheless, it is time to pose the question as to why young men in the prime of their lives choose to carry out brutal acts of vengeance, organised but senseless acts of violence, which they perceive as the only possible means of redressing deeply felt injustice, knowing full well that, as a consequence, a macabre death awaits them.  Upon an honest answer to this question by the ruling groups rests the prospect of beginning the process of banishing such terror from the face of the earth.  Tragically, given the present structure of class power at the national and international levels, even a beginning will, in all probability, not be made.  Meanwhile, the cost to humanity — and especially in the most wretched and deeply exploited regions of the world — will continue to escalate.


1  In the interest of brevity we have simplified the picture.  But we need to add the following: The general public mood in the aftermath of the attack is one of shock and horror.  There is also a stark realization of a distinct class bias in the treatment accorded to the victims of the attack (and their near-and-dear ones who came to claim the dead bodies or to care for the injured), depending on whether they were the wealthy at the luxury hotels or the “propertyless” at the Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station.

2  A number of Indian provinces (states) already have in place laws that are a frontal attack on “the rule of law” in this country.  For example, in Maharashtra, there is the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 (MCOCA), and in Chhattisgarh, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005.

Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai.