Terror has its own narratives within the media. Responses to terror vary from country to country almost as if they are separate dialects. But one thing terror has done is to rewrite the way each country looks at violence. Some act of terror — 9/11, 13/11 — has become the new creation myth of violence. Take America. Till the attack on the twin towers, the US saw itself as invulnerable, a country which could wreak havoc on others and yet believe it was untouchable. 9/11 rewrote the creation myths of USA. Similarly with the recent attacks of the Islamic State (IS) in France, Europe senses its vulnerability. India has always been vulnerable to terror but few nations took its narratives and complaints seriously. India felt it had arrived to the status of a nation after the Mumbai massacres. It became a formally recognised initiation rite to nationhood. In fact when Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a message to French President Francois Hollande, he was hinting at this solidarity of the vulnerable.
Terror in this new spectacular form is virtually creating a new discourse among nations around the idea of security. Today internal war and law and order have become major priorities. The terrorist can be the citizen within.
Terrorism, whether 9/11 or 13/11, creates a Manichean world of good and evil. The axis of evil, a brilliant fiction, has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy. India like the US, is now officially afraid of Islamic terror. Yet, ironically, terror is still not seen as terror. It always seems to have an ethnic prefix to it either as Islamic and Hindu and some terror is still seen as more justifiable than the other. Terror has done more to consolidate the nation state than any patriotic flag.
Thirdly, terrorism, whether 9/11 or 13/11 or 26/11, has become a mass media spectacle. It disrupts everydayness and stages a spectacular event which shakes political paradigms. Part of the ritual of reinforcement comes from incessant repetition. Terror as repetition goes beyond any repetitiousness of cricket replay. This replay of the act of terror is not mechanical but almost sacramental. The ritual of repetition reinforces the category of sovereignty and security.
It is almost as if terror, not finance capital or the network society, inaugurates the beginning of globalism. Terror more than any word creates the global network of concepts that defines the world today. Viewed this way 9/11 (New York), 26/11 (Mumbai) and 13/11 are mere chapters in one continuous discourse.
Seen this way the Mumbai episode has a general history and a particular one. Anniversaries are only a meeting point of these two narratives. The general discourse consolidates the nation state discourse, the local elaborates the particular responses to violence and narratives of courage, initiative and preparedness that each locality bought to the unfolding script.
India has been a country that has almost continuously dealt with terror as it combats insurgency in Nagaland, Mizoram, Kashmir and Punjab. Naxalbari added its own variants to the script of terror. What made Mumbai special was three things.
First, it was a media event and citizens were involved in it as it happened. Civil society and citizens could evaluate and discuss responses to terror as it occurred. They also realised the general vulnerability of populations from the anonymity of terror. Terror seemed a strangely secular imminently threatening force till someone claims responsibility for it. Then it gets branded in terms of ethnic claims and factional fictions.
One of the prime beneficiaries of the Indian events in terror was Israel. Terror alienated India from Palestine. As defence became a concern, India became more fundamentalist and self-centred. India, at least the Indian middle class, felt a deep-seated sympathy for Israel. Israel, like India, was a nation state combating terrorism competently. India and Israel stood as siblings against the Islamic tide — and Palestine from a general metaphor for resistance, refugee courage now became one more octave in the general noise of terrorism. Terror, especially the Mumbai attacks, allowed India to give up its pretensions of third world solidarity and join the allegedly mature nations.
The idea of the “failed state” or “the rogue state” became a handy word to label Pakistan. The emphasis of evaluation was no longer on development but law and order. India acquired a new piety as Pakistan became more and more of a renegade entity. Indian democracy looked even more legitimate in its responses than Pakistan, which became more and more an American-maintained fiction.
It was clear that the media had a lot to learn both in inventing the discourse and responding to the event. What marked the media response was hysteria. The commentary was like a speeded-up IPL match and the transition to jingoism was one of the quickest alchemies performed. Every commentator became more jingoist than the next. It was as if the usual languages of clarity and solidarity folded up. Hysteria and Paranoia became the Esperanto of the media discourse on terror. In that sense, Mumbai 26/11 was an initiation rite, a coming of age for jingoism both in the media and the nation state in India.
In terror, grammar, which is official, and speech, which is local, have to be differentiated. The official grammars of terrorism and the speech of citizenship still differed radically. The ordinary citizen going about his duties was saner, more rational than the media or the state. The sadness is that his sanity got lost in the media discourse of vigilantism. What one saw was the power, the creativity of the city in mobilising itself out of every great disruption. The media referred to it but did not build on it. What we lost were the civics of the city and citizenship as India mechanically joined the bandwagon effects that terrorism has created.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist. The views expressed are personal.