The Mumbai Attacks and Regional Implications

The Mumbai attacks of November 2008 claimed nearly 200 lives and left hundreds wounded. Although they were far from the only terror attacks in South Asia this year, their military sophistication and their political incomprehensibility were remarkable. They were part of a troubling trend of attacks that maximized civilian deaths without making demands, a pattern that is likely to have far-reaching consequences.

Despite their importance, precise answers about the attacks do not exist. Years after the attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi in 2001, a credible story is not available about exactly how it happened, who was behind it, and why. The same may be true of the Mumbai attacks. There are accusations and allegations, a recorded phone call with one of the attackers, the testimony of a captured attacker, and several arrests, but all claims should be treated with extreme skepticism. The political objectives of the attackers can only be guessed at. They were probably twofold: to foment communalism in India and increase the likelihood of war between India and Pakistan. The two countries face very serious dangers. The attackers committed a horrific crime in Mumbai, but whether they actually achieve their goals will depend on how governments and peoples in India and Pakistan respond.

Communalism and Politics

Communalism in India, in the form of religious, ethnic, and caste violence and fragmentation, is exacerbated by these attacks. Indeed, as elsewhere in Europe and Asia, one of the goals of such attacks is to create a "security dilemma," to force citizens to seek protection from violence in more narrowly-defined communities, be they ethnic, religious, or political. Such a security dilemma becomes most acute when state (and media and other dominant) institutions are partial to one group or simply corrupt and ineffective. Communal violence also creates stories of victimhood and events that demand revenge, feuds, or vendettas. In Mumbai past terrorist bombings have been claimed by Muslim organizations as revenge for riots by Hindu communalists against Muslims in the city and elsewhere.

Because the battle against communalism is in some sense a battle over state and other dominant institutions, the communal threat comes from the political party of the Hindu communalists, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as their ideological and street organizations, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). These organizations have considerable power in Mumbai, have a strong representation in Parliament, and rule several states of India including Gujarat. Had the BJP been in power at the national level when Mumbai was attacked in November 2008, the communal situation would be much worse. They have been out of power since 2004 and the majority of Hindus reject communalism. India’s Muslims, too, have been moving away from communalism, seeking equality under the law while struggling for a non-communalist interpretation of their faith.

Kashmir and Pakistan

Since the partition of South Asia in 1947, India and Pakistan have been each other’s principal enemies. Although currently their rivalry plays out in Afghanistan as well, the most constant flashpoint has been Kashmir, the site of a massive counterinsurgency by India, which, like other counterinsurgencies, victimizes the civilian population and creates hatred of the occupier. It is also the site of a proxy war by Pakistan whose establishment supports Kashmir’s rebels. The desires of Kashmiris on both sides of the Line of Control are not foremost on either state’s mind. Instead, political considerations dominate. For Pakistan, to abandon Kashmir is to concede defeat to India. For Pakistan’s military establishment, this would forfeit much of its own reason for existing. For India, to abandon Kashmir would be to set a precedent that India can be divided. In such a multi-ethnic country with deep divisions and strong regional and linguistic identities, what is to stop other states and regions from going the same way? Kashmir isn’t the only insurgency India is dealing with: there are Maoist (Naxalite) insurgencies in Andhra Pradesh and separatist insurgencies in Assam and other parts of the Northeast.

Like India, Pakistan is also fighting multiple insurgencies. Regional inequalities between the Punjab and the other provinces (Sindh, Baluchistan, and the Northwest Frontier Province, NWFP) have led to strong sub-nationalisms. While the primary cause of the insurgency in the NWFP is the NATO occupation of neighboring Afghanistan and the Taliban’s presence there, Pashtun nationalism also plays a part.

On one side, Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus has been shaped by multiple wars with India and covert intervention in Kashmir. On the other, that apparatus was forged in the covert creation, support, arming, and training of the Afghan mujahaddin in the 1980s war against the USSR, followed by covert support for various factions of mujahaddin and ultimately the Taliban until 2001 (and beyond). Many of the formative experiences of today’s intelligence operatives and soldiers occurred under the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq, who sought to "Islamize" the country. In foreign policy, Pakistan’s establishment traditionally appealed to the United States, offering to help encircle Russia and control Afghanistan, while trying to use the aid against its more important rival, India.

Today, under U.S. pressure to fight Pakistani Muslims in the NWFP, that establishment has fragmented. There are those who, out of fear, benefits, or conviction, wish to do the bidding of the U.S. But there are also those who, having fought the Russians with U.S. help, feel monumentally betrayed now to see Afghanistan occupied and Pakistan bombed by their former American allies. This division in Pakistan’s establishment explains why the counterinsurgency in the NWFP has been so ineffective. It also explains why terrorist attacks against Pakistan’s population can occur so frequently and with such devastating effect. One possible motive of the Mumbai attackers may have been to heighten tensions between India and Pakistan to force Pakistan to shift resources away from the counterinsurgency in the NWFP and to Kashmir and the Indian border.

Insurgency and counterinsurgency are one expression of the battle for control over the Pakistani state. Politicians, civil society, and a fragile middle class have struggled with the military establishment over control. The poor majority are excluded, though they have found ways to be heard at times, and may do so again.

Responses to Terror

Governments faced with terrorism have choices. They can offer superficial changes to security technology or systems or they can focus police and organizational efforts on investigating, catching, and bringing attackers to justice. They can engage in counterinsurgency, mass reprisal, and the politics of fear or they can look at the political causes that win terrorist organizations recruits and isolate the organizations politically by addressing the causes.

In the short term, policing responses for regional emergencies will have more positive effects if they involve coordination between India and Pakistan, rather than mutual accusations and threats of war. As the attacks were unfolding, Pakistan offered to send the ISI chief to India to help with ongoing investigations, but the offer was revoked as tensions escalated. Transparency and respect for human rights would also be necessary in any such coordination. Cooperation between the countries should help guarantee human rights. A policing agreement between two human rights violators—both states have terrible records, especially when dealing with insurgencies—will be of little value in solving the subcontinent’s problems or enhancing people’s security. Both countries are sites of heroic human rights struggles and have activists whose voices must be heard in the struggle against terror and violence.

In the medium term, only a "cooling down" of tensions and of counterinsurgency will make peaceful options visible. Both India and Pakistan have the option of cooling things down in Kashmir and creating the space for Kashmiris to assert their rights and aspirations without fear. For the NWFP to cool down will require more than a change in Pakistan’s policy: the NATO/U.S. occupation of Afghanistan would have to end. That would leave Pakistan and Afghanistan with serious problems of their own, but there are social and political forces in both countries that could gradually move them in more progressive directions if they were given the space to do so.

What of the long term? Terrorism, communalism, and war have complex causes, but inadequate democracy and economic inequality both play a role. Democracy creates people who are invested in their society and one another, which is less fertile ground for terrorism to grow in. It encourages people to focus on the public good and provides a way to find it with others, rather than the bounded solidarity of a narrow nationalism. It also provides ways to settle disputes without violence.

Some of the targets of the Mumbai attacks, especially the Taj Hotel, were the most intense symbols of inequality on the subcontinent. Inequality makes real democracy impossible, since elites have to subvert democracy to protect their wealth. It undermines the solidarity and the secular notion of a public good that is urgently needed to fight communalism. It also complicates the solution of some of the most urgent problems.

Terrorism is not South Asia’s most severe problem. Several storms are converging on the subcontinent. The presence of the United States in the region is greater than ever, with a full occupation of Afghanistan, frequent encroachments on Pakistan’s territory, a nuclear deal and ever-increasing military co-operation with India, and trilateral India-U.S.-Israel links. U.S. behavior in the region is not cooling any tensions and both countries have played into U.S. hands, to their own detriment. The South Asian countries have integrated themselves into the global economy as dependents. Their people suffered tremendously from food and energy price increases last year and will suffer from global economic slowdown in the coming year. Climate change will exacerbate already serious agricultural and water problems for hundreds of millions of people. For all the fear of non-state terrorists, nuclear war between the two states is all too possible and would be an unfathomable horror.

Under such conditions, South Asian economies would do well to orient themselves towards the massive unmet needs of their huge internal (potential) markets (and those of their neighbors through South Asian integration) and away from export to a declining U.S. market; agricultural investment for scientific and organic production away from multinational control of the food supply; investment in solar and wind energy and green infrastructure, away from automobile production; and pursuit of regional peace independent of foreign powers and their arms suppliers. Such policies could help secure the future, if India and Pakistan refuse to be derailed by terrorism.


Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer of Indian origin. He reported from India and Pakistan in July-August 2008.