Global Policy Forum

Mumbai: Why?


By Rahul Rao

November 30, 2008

Mumbai is no stranger to mass terror, but there is something different about the outrage that began unfolding on the night of November 26, 2008. Although motives are difficult to discern with any precision through the clouds of speculation, allegation and jihadi propaganda that swirl around such incidents, previous instances of terror are thought to have been motivated by decidedly local considerations. The March 1993 serial bomb blasts in which 13 bombs exploded virtually simultaneously in key buildings all over the city, were widely believed to have been carried out in retaliation for the massacre of Muslims in the riots that engulfed the city in December '92 / January '93, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya . Likewise the August 2003 car bombs which killed more than 50 people, and the July 2006 commuter train bombings which left over 200 dead, were thought to have been executed in revenge for the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. And there have of course been scores of terrorist incidents that have been linked to long-running separatist movements in Punjab, Kashmir, Assam and elsewhere.

The latest fidayeen-style attack diverges from this pattern in some key respects. Although the vast majority of those killed were Indians, a number of the targets (the Taj and Oberoi hotels, Café Leopold, Nariman House) appear to have been chosen for the fact that they were frequented by business and tourist travellers from abroad. The group responsible for the attack (a little known outfit calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen) sent an email to Indian media organisations declaring that 'this attack is a reaction to those actions that Hindus have been carrying out since 1947'. 'Hindus now give up thinking that martyring of Muslims' mosques, weakening Muslims' economic conditions through riots, and putting educated youths in prison will weaken the confidence. No, not at any cost…' it says, signing off, somewhat oddly, as the Mujahideen Hyderabad Deccan, as if to distinguish its alleged provenance in the Indian city of Hyderabad from a city of the same name in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Despite these apparently local grievances, as the media have repeated ad nauseum, these were also attacks against international targets. Eyewitnesses report that the gunmen in the hotels were particularly interested in people with British and US passports. Café Leopold is a favourite haunt of Western backpackers and local bohemia. And Nariman House was the location of the local office of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish movement.

Jihadi rhetoric has typically distinguished between the 'far enemy' (the US, Israel or the 'West' more generally) and the 'near enemy' (a designation that usually refers to Muslim 'apostate' governments and other local targets). The curious mixture of targets evidenced in the words and deeds of the Deccan Mujahideen suggests a relatively novel conflation of India (described very pointedly in Hindu majoritarian terms) with the 'far enemy'. Why has this happened, and why has it happened now?

It cannot merely be a coincidence of timing that an attack like this occurs at a time when India has decisively overturned its historic post-independence policy of non-alignment and edged ever closer into the US strategic embrace. The recently concluded Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement is only the latest in a series of moves that suggest the emergence of a strategic alliance. In recognition of India's strategic value (read: its potential utility in balancing China), the US has effectively legitimised India's possession of nuclear weapons by negotiating an agreement whereby it becomes the only nuclear NPT non-signatory in the world to be permitted to engage in international civilian nuclear commerce. India's quid pro quo for this special treatment is only beginning to become evident, in the form of a foreign policy that is steadily less independent (exhibit 1: India's obliging vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency, reversing a historic and principled stand against a world of 'nuclear apartheid' divided into nuclear haves and have-nots). The nuclear deal is only one element, albeit an important one, in this emerging alliance. Less commented on, but perhaps more far-reaching, is the India-US Defence Framework Agreement, under which the two countries have promised to enter into hitherto unprecedented levels of military cooperation. As the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan has reported, the agreement reflects the Bush administration's desire to outsource some of the lower-end aspects of security management in Asia to India (peacekeeping, search and rescue operations, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, etc.), thereby freeing itself to concentrate its resources on high-end fighting missions. In return, the agreement goes some way towards satiating India's thirst for advanced military technology. Indeed the sale of US military technology to India enables 'interoperability' between the two militaries, satisfying the objectives of both parties.

These seismic shifts in India's foreign policy alignment are no longer merely the stuff of discussion between foreign office mandarins or elite coffee table conversation. In July 2008, the Left parties withdrew parliamentary support to the ruling Congress party as an expression of their opposition to the nuclear deal with the US, precipitating a crisis in which for the first time, a national government teetered on the verge of collapse on an issue of foreign policy. You might describe this, depending on your politics, as the moment in which foreign policy was democratised or made populist. But even before this, these events seem to have registered on the jihadi consciousness as confirmation that India had joined what they have long described as the 'Crusader-Zionist alliance'. In June 2007, an organisation calling itself 'al-Qaeda in India' delivered a CD to the Srinagar-based Current News Service. It featured the usual masked man reading a statement, part of which read as follows: 'America was trying to equip India with sophisticated arms and nuclear capability and Allah had already warned the Muslims against this unholy nexus among the infidels against the Muslims. America, Israel and other western nations in collaboration with India were trying to divide Kashmir to gain hegemony in the region and set up military bases in this region. We declare Jihad against India.'

Whether or not the statement was made by the 'real' al-Qaeda, the remnants of which are probably holed up in the Waziristan region of northwest Pakistan, or emanated from an autonomous group that was merely claiming the 'brand' is not my concern here. Nor is the rather confused political analysis of the statement itself. What is significant is that the Government of India is increasingly seen not merely as an agent of local oppression against Muslims in places like Kashmir and Assam. Rather, it is perceived as a strategic partner in the global configuration of power that jihad attacks.

There may be reasons to welcome India's growing profile in international affairs, but those of us who do, would do well to remember that greater power inevitably breeds greater resentment. In our rush to curry favour with the US, we would be foolish to neglect the costs of being seen to be too close to a deeply resented actor on the world stage. This doesn't mean that we should let al-Qaeda dictate our foreign policy. But it should caution us that our quest for greater power in the world and the means by which we are currently pursuing it do not seem to be delivering greater security for the Indian people.

Policy analysts have a deplorable tendency to interpret crises in ways that reinforce their worldviews: there's nothing like a disaster to say 'I told you so!'. And perhaps I am guilty of the same, in that the current crisis merely serves to confirm my already considerable misgivings about the direction of Indian foreign policy. There is a sense in which I could be very wrong, but it is not one that should give anyone cause for comfort. Some of the most astute observers of contemporary global jihad (Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad) have suggested that it cannot be understood in political terms at all. If political acts are distinguished by a sort of means-ends rationality in which the act is intended as an instrument to achieve a particular vision of society, global jihad no longer demonstrates this, if it ever did. Its purveyors have no coherent vision of a utopia they seek to construct, they are not concerned with the creation of political parties, revolutions, ideological states or collective modes of solidarity of any sort. Rather, acts of jihad are conceived as demonstrations of faith performed for God by an individual, as individual ethical acts rather than collective political ones. The modern jihadi is animated by a volatile mixture of emotions and experiences: an existential angst familiar to twenty-somethings the world over, an alienation from the societies in which they live, and a disillusionment with the metanarratives and certainties of the traditional organisations of political Islam. It is a heady cocktail, not hugely dissimilar to the emptiness and disenchantment that leads young people in the developed world to abandon organised party politics in search of individual, ethical ways of 'doing good', in movements against globalisation or for the environment, aided by the tools of globalisation. An understanding of global jihad as ethical rather than political is infinitely more troubling: if it isn't about politics, it is hard to see what politicians can do.

Yet even if we cannot adequately describe the motivations of those who feel compelled to end their lives in orgies of death and destruction, in the secular and materialistic categories of western political science, there is a great deal that the state can and should be doing to protect its citizens from acts of wanton murder. Perhaps the most distressing stories that have come out of this tragedy are those of staggering intelligence failures: Praveen Swami writes of intelligence briefings, only half-acted upon, that suggested that the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba was planning attacks from the sea on India's western seaboard. News channels have been commenting on operational failures, one of which seems to have been that the heroic commandos of the National Security Guard possessed no dedicated aircraft that could have ferried them swiftly to the sites of attack. Be angry at the terrorists by all means, but spare some of your outrage for the great big lumbering Indian state which has, yet again, been caught napping.

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