After New York’s 9/11 and London’s 7/7, Mumbai has its 26/7. No, I have not made a mistake. I’m aware the bombs that killed more than 200 commuters took place on July 11. The 26/7 that Mumbai’s headline writers have branded on the city’s memory was last year. More than 400 people met painful deaths from electrocution, suffocation or drowning when an unusually heavy monsoon swept through one of the many slums in India’s most vibrant city.
Picking the tagline 26/7 for a disaster unrelated to terrorism reminded people that vast and sudden death can also come from natural disasters or man-made accidents such as plane crashes. Terrorist attacks need to be kept in proportion. They are not the worst things in the world. Last year’s devastation was caused by nature and man combined: a freak storm hit people whose living conditions already cast them as victims of poverty, greedy developers and corrupt officials. It produced rare sympathy across Mumbai’s class divide. Bollywood stars not only gave large donations, many helped to clean drains and rebuild houses, and not just for the cameras. Some kept it up for months.
This was a more genuine example of ‘the spirit of Mumbai’ than the nonsense spouted after the bombings. To talk about commuters who used Mumbai’s trains on Wednesday as ‘defying the terrorists’ is absurd. We had the same nonsense last July 8, with reporters proclaiming the ‘indomitable spirit’ of the crowds going into King’s Cross. During the Battle of Britain, bombers flew over every night. To go out did require courage. To use the tube on 8/7 was not taking a huge risk. (Even so, many Londoners stayed away from public transport for a day or two. In media parlance, did that mean they were ‘cowards’ or ‘capitulating to terrorism’?)
What Mumbai needs is a spirit of common sense. This week’s attack was the sixth in 13 years, yet there have been no awareness campaigns or notices warning people to look out for unattended bags. Installing CCTV, as the authorities plan, is a hi-tech answer that cannot substitute for basic alertness.
Where terrorism differs from other disasters is on the question of cause. What motivates people to take lives in this random and brutal way? Some of the answers coming from India suggest a lack of common sense here too.
Tip O’Neill, a long-serving Irish-American speaker of the US House of Representatives, has gone down in history for his remark that “all politics is local”. He was not rejecting international issues but exaggerating the point that resolving daily concerns is what makes politicians, and societies, successful.
By the same token, ‘all terrorism is local’. A few jehadis have a global agenda, but the excessive use of ‘international war on terror’ language obscures the fact that most terrorism stems from local issues, whether the perpetrators want to ‘send a message’ to rulers or advance nationalist claims and seek a cheap illusion of success.
An obscure caller has claimed an al-Qaeda hand in the Mumbai attacks, but most analysts reject the notion that it was aimed at Western intrusions into the Muslim world, as were the attacks in New York, Madrid and London. The correct link is with the unresolved Kashmir dispute. The bombers’ purpose, it seems certain, was to provoke communal conflict between Muslims and Hindus in India or to affect the tentative peace process between India and Pakistan — and perhaps even destroy it. The bombers, if that was their intention, have failed on the first point. Mumbai’s Muslims have come out in their thousands to donate blood for victims of the train explosions, and political leaders, starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, have called for communal calm.
The second point is more problematic. Indian officials hesitated to blame Pakistan but, under pressure from public opinion, have gradually sharpened their line. Calling on Pakistan to implement its long-standing promises to clamp down on terrorist cells, Singh yesterday said the peace process could not advance until it did. He has not threatened to break it off. This is wise, since a reversion to war would be appalling.
But hawks and doves in India agree that the government should be tougher. Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management argues that Pakistan is merely running a “tactical, not a good-faith peace process”, while India hopes “to buy peace or get it in a begging bowl”. He wants India to “impose costs” on Pakistan by increasing defence spending and starting an arms race that will bankrupt its northern neighbour.
Radha Kumar of the Delhi Policy Group thinks India should challenge Pakistan to accept a confidence-building joint Indo-Pakistani investigation into the Mumbai bombing. Indian counter-terrorism experts should operate with their Pakistani colleagues in Pakistan as well as in Mumbai. If that is rejected, there should at least be an Interpol team with detectives from third countries to prevent a whitewash, she suggests.
In divided Kashmir, the conflict remains frozen, in spite of some easing of the border closure. Pakistan seems to fear that human contacts are impressing people with the benefits of Indian rule.
As for the tentative peace talks, Kashmiri leaders are not sufficiently involved. The Pakistanis do not invite them on to their team, while Kashmiris who talk to the Indian government are denounced as collaborators. Meanwhile, blasts on a smaller scale than Mumbai have grown more frequent in Kashmir recently.
Terrorism cannot produce a solution. But for the two governments to react by doing nothing new also makes no sense. They should join hands in combating terror while negotiating on Kashmir’s underlying issues far more seriously.