Since the start of the terrorist invasion of Mumbai on November 26, the metaphor of the World Trade Center attacks has been repeatedly invoked. In India and elsewhere commentators have taken to saying, over and again, ‘This is India’s 9/11.’ There can be no doubt that there are certain clear analogies between the two attacks. In both cases the terrorists were clearly at great pains to single out urban landmarks, especially those that serve as points of reference in this increasingly interconnected world.
There are similarities too, in the unexpectedness of the attacks, the meticulousness of their planning, their shock value and the utter unpreparedness of the security services. But this is where the similarities end. Not only were the casualties far greater on September 11, 2001, but the shock of the attack was also greatly magnified by the fact that it had no real precedent in America’s historical experience.
Our experience of terror attacks, on the other hand, far predates 2001. Although this year has been one of the worst in recent history, the year 1984 was arguably worse still. That year a burgeoning insurgency in the Punjab culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This in turn led to riots, which took the lives of some two thousand Sikhs.
I was living in Delhi then and I recall vividly the sense of besetting crisis, of extreme fragility, of being pushed to the edge of an abyss. It was the only time I can recall when the very project of the Indian republic seemed to be seriously endangered.
Yet for all its horror, the portents of 1984 were by no means obvious. In the following years, there was a slow turnaround; the Punjab insurgency gradually quietened down; and although the victims of the massacres never received justice in full measure, a process of judicial retribution was indeed initiated.
This has been another terrible year. Even before the invasion of Mumbai several hundred people had been killed and injured in terror attacks. Yet, let us recall that the attacks on Jaipur, Ahmedabad, New Delhi and Guwahati did not succeed in setting off chains of retaliatory violence of the sort that would almost certainly have resulted ten or fifteen years ago. Nor did the violence create a sense of existential crisis for the nation, as in 1984. Thus, despite all its horrors, this year could well be counted as a victory not for terrorism but for India’s citizenry.
The question now is: will the November invasion of Mumbai change this?
Although there is no way of knowing, this at least is certain: if the precedent of 9/11 is taken seriously the outcome will be profoundly counterproductive. As a metaphor, the words ‘9/11’ are invested not just with the memory of what happened in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, but also with the penumbra of emotions that surround the events: the feeling that ‘the world will never be the same’, the notion that this was ‘the day the world woke up’ and so on. In this sense ‘9/11’ refers not just to the attacks but also to its aftermath, in particular to an utterly misconceived military and judicial response, one that has had disastrous consequences around the world.
When commentators repeat the metaphor of ‘9/11’ they are in effect pushing the Indian government to mount a comparable response. If they succeed in doing this the consequences are sure to be equally disastrous. The very power of the 9/11 metaphor blinds us to the possibility that there might be other, more productive analogies for the November invasion of Mumbai. One such is the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004, which led to a comparable number of casualties and created a similar sense of shock and grief. If 9/11 is a metaphor for one kind of reaction to terror, then 11-M (as it is known in Spanish) should serve as shorthand for a different kind of response: one that emphasises vigilance, patience, and careful police work in coordination with neighbouring countries.
This is exactly the kind of response that India needs now: a refusal to panic, heightened vigilance, and most particularly, judicious cooperation with those elements of the Pakistani State who have come around to a belated recognition of the dangers of terrorism.
The choice of targets in Mumbai clearly owes something to the September bombing of the Islamabad Marriott. Here already there is common ground between the two countries — for if this has been a bad year for India in regard to terrorism, then for Pakistan it has been still worse. It is clear now that Pakistan’s establishment is so deeply divided that it no longer makes sense to treat it as a single entity. Sometimes a crisis is also an opportunity. This, if any, is a moment when India can forge strategic alliances with those sections of Pakistani society who also perceive themselves to be under fire.
Much will depend, in the coming days, on Mumbai’s reaction to the invasion. The fact that the city was not stricken by turmoil in the immediate aftermath of the attack is undoubtedly a positive sign. The fact that the terrorists concentrated their assault on the most upscale parts of the city had the odd consequence of limiting the disruption in the everyday lives of most Mumbaikars.
Chhatrapati Shivaji station, for instance, was open within a few hours of the attack. Although there was much fear and uncertainty, the city was not panic-stricken. But with each succeeding day, tensions are rising and the natural anxieties of the inhabitants are being played upon. But this is not a moment for precipitate action.
If India can react with dispassionate but determined resolve then 2008 may yet be remembered as a moment when the tide turned in a long, long battle. For if there is any one lesson to be learnt from the wave of terror attacks that has convulsed the globe over the last decade it is this: defeat or victory is not determined by the success of the strike itself. It is determined by the response.
Amitav Ghosh is the author of Sea of Poppies.