Following the November 26, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, and in the midst of a flurry of international media coverage, the editors of The Immanent Frame invited several scholars to post their own reflections on and analyses of both the event and its wider context. Their responses ranged from deeply personal narratives to historical and sociological accounts exploring the ways in which these most recent attacks differed from, and yet were inextricably related to, India’s history of regional conflict and domestic terrorism, as well as its tradition of robust ethnic and cultural pluralism. Our respondents explored what might constitute an appropriate response on the part of the Indian government, reflected on the terrorists’ use of spectacle (and the media’s response to it), considered India’s ongoing struggle to maintain its self-professed secular identity, and discussed the troubling socio-economic status of Muslims in India, the history and current state of Muslim-Hindu relations, and recent challenges to Mumbai’s historically cosmopolitan make-up.
This week, we have invited some of these contributors, along with a range of others, to consider the enduring political and cultural repercussions of last November’s attacks.
Veena Das, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University
Sumit Ganguly, Professor of Political Science, Indiana University, Bloomington
William R. Pinch, Professor of History, Wesleyan University
Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History, Professor and Director of International Studies, Trinity College
Arvind Rajagopal, Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies; Sociology; and Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
Anupama Rao, Associate Professor of South Asian History, Barnard College
Tariq Thachil, Postdoctoral Associate, MacMillan Center, Yale University
Arafaat A. Valiani, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Williams College
Veena Das, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology, Professor of Humanities, Johns Hopkins University
It would be a fatal error to cast the Mumbai attacks last year in the same model as the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The New York events led to a sea of change in the way U.S. security policy came to be formulated and how the USA saw its relation to the world. To India’s credit it did institute a normal legal trial of the one surviving man from the group of attackers, despite the demands from many Hindu right-wing groups that there was no need for a regular court trial, since the evidence of terror was there for all to see. An analysis of the slow shifts that are occurring in the legal realm and the relation they bear to the many non-legal practices utilized in dealing with terrorism, especially police encounters and the use of torture, need to be understood as part of the problem of reforming and making government accountable. But this is unrelated to the Mumbai attacks. There is no magical solution to this task and one can only be grateful for the work of various human rights groups, and especially lawyers, who ensured that even in the reinstated POTA, confessions obtained in police custody are not usable as evidence.
The second error that is implicit in the questions posed is the notion that one can establish some kind of link between the discrimination against Muslims as a minority that is embedded in everyday operations of governmental institutions and of civic life more generally, rather than enshrined in any legal rules, and the attraction toward terrorist violence. The facts of discrimination against Muslims, as well as against other categories of minorities, including women and sexual minorities, are real and the state must be constantly held accountable for them, regardless of terrorist acts or not. The threats of terrorism have to be thought of in geopolitical and transnational terms. I agree with Faisal Devji completely that terrorism is not linked anymore to any political goals—nor is it easy to understand what attraction acts such as suicide bombing hold for young men, and sometimes women, despite a plethora of explanations that are almost like the El Dorado of theory. One fact is perhaps clearer to many politicians and senior administrators in India now, and that is that an unstable Pakistan might become much more difficult for India to live with than a strong and vibrant Pakistan. For one thing, if Taliban-type rules become established in Pakistan there will be huge migration to India that would not be easy to contain. Already, in the bombing of girls’ schools in Swat by the Taliban, it was clear that there are all these new desires for education and for certain forms of modernity that cannot be suppressed forever.
Sumit Ganguly, Professor of Political Science and Ranbindranath Tagore Professor of Indian Cultures and Civilizations, Indiana University – Bloomington
A number of issues and concerns come to mind.
First, despite the horror of the attacks, the terrorists failed to achieve one of their principal goals; namely, to sow Hindu-Muslim discord and set off a spate of violence. Instead, at least in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there were important public displays of solidarity, especially in Bombay/Mumbai.
Second, after a flurry of initial concern and activity, it is far from clear that the Government of India has undertaken a thorough and complete review of its internal security apparatus. India tragically remains vulnerable to further terrorist attacks because of inadequate policing capabilities, uneven forensic capacities, and anemic investigative abilities. Redressing these issues swiftly, admittedly, is a challenge compounded by India’s federal structure. Nevertheless, India can ill-afford its usual institutional lethargy about these matters of internal security.
Third, and to the credit of the Manmohan Singh administration, the Indian government has eschewed any propensity to exploit the tragic events of last November by beating the drum of jingoism. Quite frankly, the government has not been given enough credit for its extraordinary restraint, and instead, apologists for the Pakistani military establishment have fecklessly criticized the government for not assuaging the Pakistani military’s putative security concerns in Kashmir.
Finally, the vexed question of the final status of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir has no organic links with the terrorist attacks on Mumbai/Bombay. That said, many irresponsible Pakistani commentators have long sought to establish a connection between the terrorist attacks on India and the failure to resolve the Kashmir dispute. This specious argument should not be given any credence in India or elsewhere. Segments of the population of the Indian-controlled part of the state have genuine grievances against the Indian state. They do deserve a fair hearing and redress. The use of terror to induce the Indian state to take heed of these aggrieved sentiments is a tactic that should only receive blunt and unequivocal condemnation.
William R. Pinch, Professor of History, Wesleyan University
What were the enduring political and cultural repercussions of last November’s attacks?
The main repercussion in India was the creation in December 2008 of a central police body, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), charged with the investigation of “terror-related offenses.” This agency has wide powers and jurisdiction, including the power to bypass state police units and convene special courts. It has been bolstered by concomitant amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act that allow for (among other things) the lengthening of periods of detention without charge and filing of charges, and the introduction of new “presumption of guilt” language with respect to explosives-related cases. The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, has given increased attention to coastal security, with the creation of a high-level committee chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. There is now talk of a separate Maritime Security Agency which would be under the control of the Navy and assisted by the Coast Guard. It is not clear what relationship this agency would bear to the NIA, since maritime security was included as an NIA area of jurisdiction. Also unclear is the relationship of the NIA to the long-standing central intelligence bodies, namely, the Intelligence Bureau, Central Bureau of Investigation, Research and Analysis Wing, and National Technical Research Organization.
The creation of the NIA and allied security initiatives are intended to centralize policing and law enforcement so as to combat criminal conspiracies that cross state and international borders. In this sense, these developments are not unlike the creation of the Department of Thuggee and Dacoity in the 1830s. There are other similarities between then and now. In that earlier time, though the criminal was known to exist—the evidence of his crime was too strong to be refuted—there were disagreements about the nature of the criminal behavior, particularly with respect to the role played by religion and the degree to which the slaughter was the result of a singular trans-regional conspiracy. Like today, these disagreements spilled over into the realm of popular culture. Were thugs simply members of a unified all-India cult devoted to satisfying the blood-lust of an ever-thirsty goddess, or was the religion in thug violence simply a language of expression for acts that had myriad social and economic origins structured by a shared trans-regional political and military context (the expanding power of the Company-state and the declining opportunities for military entrepreneurs)? Likewise, are the terrorists whose violence prompted the creation of the NIA simply carrying out their carnage to satisfy a divine calling, or are the real reasons for their violence to be found in more mundane, local circumstances? And are these necessarily “either-or” questions?
One can, of course, make too much of such analogies—and there is also the risk of misinterpreting the past, of not seeing the forest for the trees or, rather, of generalizing about the forest on the basis of the most spectacular trees in it. The subtleties of the state response can be obscured, both then and now, by the pyrotechnics of popular, public commentary—whether political or literary (or today, cinematic). The Victorientalist imagination, as is well known, was gripped by the vision of a blood-thirsty, goddess-driven “thuggee” abstraction. Observers, both proximate and distant (and both today and yesterday), lost sight of the fact that the inclusion of “dacoity” in the “Department of Thuggee and Dacoity” pointed to the possibility of a more nuanced official understanding of criminality. In the end, however, the edifice that resulted from Colonel Sleeman’s sophisticated bureaucratic empire-building efforts was shaped by the popular belief in the imagined thug—and by the hardening faith in the notion that entire social groups (castes and tribes) could be classed as criminal. Likewise, the emphasis on “terror-related offenses” in the language of the NIA legislation can obscure the multiple targets of the new police powers and the fact that officials certainly understand the social and economic—and political—dimensions of crime (a point made obvious by an examination of the multiple clauses in the legislation), even if some of the legislators and officials who pushed for the creation of said agency were not unwilling to play to popular anxieties about a presumed connection between Islam and anti-civilized behavior. What may be of greater concern is the fact that the Department of Thuggee and Dacoity had a long shelf life, and in the early twentieth century was transformed into the Central Criminal Intelligence branch of the Home Department—in part to more effectively police and combat the spread of labor unrest, revolutionary activity, and anti-imperial nationalism. To what uses will the National Investigation Agency be put once the threat of terrorism fades? Much depends on how the NIA evolves, and this depends in large part on its DNA and the degree to which it benefited from intelligent designers. (One can take some measure of comfort in economies of scale and nomenclature. At least we’re not talking about the creation of a whole new ministry, and it wasn’t called the Department of Homeland Security.)
It is harder to see any significant long-term shifts in Pakistani policy—or US policy for that matter—that have resulted from the attacks per se. One could argue that the decision by the Pakistani military to mount its offensive in South Waziristan was guided by a calculus that included a desire to repair the damage being done to the country’s reputation as information about the commandos and their handlers trickled out during the back-and-forth accusations and denials by the respective governments. But it is rather more likely that the Waziristan strategy is a function of the Pakistani desire to appease an Obama administration increasingly sensitive to American public opinion about the futility of the Whack-a-Mole approach to the Great Game—and increasingly strapped for cash, or rather, credit. And is the ISI, and the Pakistani military, de-”Islamicizing” itself? Hard to say. It’s a strategy that has worked well for a long time. Why jettison it now?
Two additional and interesting political developments in India may be noted, even if they are not directly connected to the Mumbai attacks. One is the decisive Congress-led UPA victory in May 2009. The setback handed to the BJP and the Hindu Right was surprising not simply in light of the near-complete failure of the political-analytical class to predict the outcome of the election, but because of the fairly widespread assumption that the Mumbai attack would nudge the Indian body politic slightly to the right. That this did not happen is either due to the maturity of said body politic, or to the fact that the attack (with its five-star targets) had more of an impact on the global monitor-watching elite than the Indian hoi polloi. Pushing the latter logic even further, one might see in the critical and box-office (and multiple Oscar) success of “Slumdog Millionaire” a cosmopolitan urge to express a kinship with Mumbai—and with the eclectic Mumbai of the city’s underdogs in particular—in its time of terror. The scene with Salim in the bathtub full of money was particularly striking in this sense. But this should be classed under the heading “cultural”.
The other interesting development is the publication in August 2009 of Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah. Again, it’s not clear if this should go under “culture” or “politics”. In any case, the fact that a serious reconsideration of the causes of Partition and the roles played by Jinnah and Nehru (and Mountbatten and Patel, et al.) is finally occurring at the level of high politics is, I think, a good sign. That it took a senior member of the BJP to bring this history, what with its condemnation of Nehru and his centralizing ideology, to the high table is not as surprising as it might seem, given the iconic status of Nehru for the Congress. But yoking an attack on Nehru to a rehabilitation of Jinnah was a courageous move, made even bolder by the share of blame laid at the feet of Sardar Patel. The release of the book could almost have been taken as a sign of the intellectual maturation of the Hindu Right, save for the fact that Jaswant Singh was summarily expelled from the BJP a few days later.
Is the Jinnah book affair related to the Mumbai attacks? In one sense, no—given that Jaswant Singh must have started working on the volume long before November 2008. But is it too optimistic to hope that Singh’s desire to write the Jinnah book was motivated, in part, by a sense that the sorry institutionalized outcomes of religious politics in South Asia during the twentieth century—including, most notably, Partition and jihadism —were not simply the fault of Muslims? Perhaps. But a world in which a stalwart BJP leader—resident party intellectual though he may have been—can produce a view of the tragedy of Partition that refuses to demonize Jinnah may also be a world in which the Indian body politic has evolved an understanding of “jihadism” that refuses to demonize Muslims in general. Of course, this is all optimistic speculation. What seems surer is that the high-octane Sangh Parivar response to the book was fueled by the frustration felt by party members that political traction from the events of November 2008 was not to be had in May 2009, Varun Gandhi notwithstanding. So in these senses, the Jinnah book and the response to it bear a relationship to the Mumbai attacks, even if that relationship is a circuitous, symbiotic, and multidirectional one.
Thus the political and cultural repercussions of the Mumbai attack are a mixed bag—and perhaps this is cause for optimism. Yes, the police powers of the Indian state have been centralized and strengthened, and some of this has reached alarming, and possibly unconstitutional, dimensions. At the same time, there was no peremptory military retaliation by India, despite the baying for blood by figures on the right. And in the meantime, political and cultural developments suggest that the “clash of civilizations” theme has run its course, and that more subtle, contextualized understandings are gaining traction in the public imagination. It remains to be seen whether the cultural will find its way into the political in this instance.
Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies, Trinity College
When mass movements wither, bitterness remains with the movements’ fugitives, many of whom plot amongst each other to contrive their return. These fugitives fire bullets at each other, accusing one another of treachery, holding themselves above the reasons for the failure of their movements. Equally, they seek refuge somewhere to gather up strength so as to return again with force.
In the 1990s, Afghanistan was that refuge for fugitives from Mindanao Island to Ingushetia, from the Arabian Peninsula to the Indonesian archipelago. Those who went to Afghanistan arrived with grievances of their own, some of the body, some of the soul. The exhaustion of national liberation into the authoritarian states of the 1980s, combined with the export of Saudi Islam to undermine any hope for the resurrection of radical nationalism and gave succor to this Jihad International. Funded by Washington and Riyadh, this International grew to have a greater sense of its own destiny, believing that what it accomplished was by its own means and not by the deft maneuver of its puppeteers. Not Hekmatyar, nor Shah Massoud, nor Bin Laden, could have set the trap for the Russian Bear, and none alone would have been able to thwart the Soviet Afghantsi, the frontline troops. It took this rag-tag brigade, despite Pakistani and US support, four years to dislodge the weak government of Mohammed Najibullah after the withdrawal of the Soviet armies. But the take-over of Afghanistan in 1992 and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 produced the excessive fantasy that the Jihad International was responsible. It was a fantasy that continues to have catastrophic effects.
Bin Laden’s “Dr. No” dreams are a consequence of this fantasy, as is the remorseless and insuppressible mutilation of the dreams of freedom in areas as far flung as Chechnya and Kashmir. Areas with reasonable claims to sovereignty and autonomy, to dignity for persons, and to pathways for their aspirations have had those claims squashed for a variety of reasons by States with their own geopolitical imperatives. Independence movements came when the small voices of protest were utterly ignored, and as these independence movements were met with the strong arm of the State, they morphed into the atavism of fugitive politics: the Jihad International, encamped in Afghanistan in both cases, walked in to offer succor to fighters who had been bled dry. As their reasonable demands seemed to go nowhere, they took refuge in the unreasonable.
If you read Arif Jamal’s superb Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir (Melville House Publishing, 2009) you will get a fair sense of the desolation among the advocates of the Kashmiri Jihad. The blood-soaked walls of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) redoubts are an illustration of the depths to which the Jihad has fallen: Jamal takes us into the world of the HM’s leader, Syed Salahuddin, who was tutored in this internecine insanity by the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (in early 1991), and who turned his guns against his commanders in 2003 and onward. Anyone who seemed “moderate” (i. e. willing to negotiate with the Indian State) had to be sent to Paradise. The HM assault on Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s family and traditions is illustrative: in May 2004, gunmen (possibly with the HM) killed his uncle Maulvi Mushtaq Ahmed, and then in July, the Mirwaiz’ school, an Islamic Secondary School, was burned to the ground. This 115-year old treasure held one of the oldest libraries on Islam, holding in its precious collection a copy of the Quran handwritten by ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affann (the third Caliph), one of the original sahaba, or Companions of the Prophet, who played a central role in the compilation of the Quran. Not for nothing do the Kashmiri people despair.
And not for nothing should they grieve, namely the intransigent refusal of the Indian and Pakistani governments to have a real conversation toward deescalation. The dialogues often sound tinned, not just hidden behind the stifled jargon of diplomacy, but also so frequently rehearsed that they don’t seem credible. There was the 1972 Simla Agreement, but there has barely been any movement beyond its general principles. Even on the question of the border, there is little: no chance that the Line of Control (intact since 1971) should simply be recognized as the border, and little hope for a Peace Agreement that would allow troop reductions for both countries. On the Indian side, hundreds of thousands of troops face off against substantial parts of the population that has lost its faith in the wisdom of the Indian Constitution, and on the Pakistani side troops are in the thick of repressing the Balawaristan National Front and the Gilgit-Baltistan United Movement. Distress on both sides of the border, now inflamed by the two militaries, whose guns point across them and against their own citizens, has been further compounded by the entry of a section of hardened militants into the Jihad International.
HM went underground for a time after 2001, appearing here and there for a meeting or an attack, then ducking down out of plain sight. In 2007, according to Arif Jamal, the Pakistani ISI once more orchestrated coordination meetings between the jihadis who operate on two of its shaky borders, the Durand Line (1893) that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan and the Line of Control (1971) that separates Pakistan from India. HM held its first public rally since 9/11 in Muzaffarabad (Azad Kashmir) in March 2008, and the Jaish-e-Mohammed began to operate a training camp in Bahawalpur (southern Punjab). An HM commander told Jamal that the jihadis “never had it so good since 1999.” It only helped inflame the situation that the Indian army continued its history of atrocities (most spectacularly in Sumbal in February 2007 and in Shopian in May 2009). It would help the Indian and Pakistani elites to read Everyone Lives in Fear: Patterns of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir (Human Rights Watch, September 2006) to get a sense of the social cost of intransigence borne by the ordinary people of the region.
The only survivor among the attackers of Mumbai, Mohammed Ajmal Amir ‘Kasab,’ wrote a confession that included the following statement, “Now we have to wage a war with India and conquer Kashmir.” Where major military conflicts (1947-48, 1965, 1971, 1999) have failed, how would ten men do the job? It was fantasy. Kasab later retracted the statement, saying it was derived from torture. The Indian government framed its charges without mention of Kashmir. It was not relevant to the judicial procedures.
But Kashmir hangs over Mumbai. It haunts it. As does Afghanistan.
Arvind Rajagopal, Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies; Sociology; and Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
The global war on terror has led to a realignment of the political landscape in countries like India. Domestic politics in India has, at least since the 1980s, been defined on a spectrum from secular to Hindu nationalist. “Secular” corresponded to “liberal” or “left” and “Hindu nationalist,” to “conservative” politics—to describe it in the more familiar terms understood elsewhere.
Secularism was cosmopolitan in the developmental context. It stood for the claim to rise above caste and sect, region and religion, to an inclusive sense of national identity. Hindu nationalists by contrast argued that only under a Hindu rubric could the nation be both Indian and free. Hindu nationalists have been perceived as parochial and retrograde, and for various reasons they have also been losing at the polls. But by a strange twist of circumstances, the war on terror is being run on their terms. Meanwhile secularists have come to be perceived as a security risk, and it is they who seem to cling to obsolete superstitions and pieties. But in fact “security” is as much a mantra as a determinable fact, and the spell it has cast on its adherents is a strong one indeed.
Now, the prevailing etiology of terrorism imputes to it a force akin to religious conversion, with acts of violence providing “inspiration and instruction” for other “extremists,” according to a 2009 Rand Corporation study on the “lessons of Mumbai.”
This is not only true for “Islamic terrorism” however. For those who subscribe to the tenets of the war on terror, a conversion experience also seems to obtain. Seen from this perspective it is easier to understand how the suspicion of terrorism becomes the light guiding the behavior of police, judiciary, and media, while any evidence contradicting the belief in terrorism is rendered doubtful. Once the accusation has been made, the failure to discover any conclusive proof that a given person is a terrorist is to be regarded as temporary, and seldom disturbs the premise. Terrorism is understood to be an overarching reality that trumps mere data, or to comprise a threat so great that only potential danger is relevant, while other information must be regarded as uncertain and subject to confirmation. Terrorism is akin to a deep truth against which counter-factual data is incidental, that is, superficial truth belonging to the merely sensory realm, lay evidence subject to reinterpretation by experts.
Such a conversion experience has material grounds. The politically dominant form of cosmopolitanism today demands alignment with the U.S. in the war on terror. For example, with President Obama’s recent statement that the U.S.-India relationship will be one of the 21st century’s defining partnerships, together with the announcement of a U.S.-India agreement on counter-terrorism and several other issues, the pressure to assess domestic issues within India from a U.S.-centric perspective receives an enormous boost.
A new sense of directional historical time in the chronology of violence is part of this conversion experience. Ignoring the lengthy history of similar violence in Mumbai alone, e.g., in March 1993 (where 257 were killed) and July 2006 (where 209 were killed), to declare the November attacks (where 172 were killed) as “India’s 9/11” is to acknowledge, as the Rand Corporation study does, that not the death toll alone, but the attention it accrued was crucial. Stretched out over three days, the attacks proceeded not through bomb blasts, which would have been more efficient if murder alone were the objective. Instead they unfolded through a cinematic series of strikes using small arms, targeting photogenic public sites. Renaming the Mumbai 2008 episode as “India’s 9/11” translates it to the realm of tele-globalization, where worldwide audiences track events in real time, and commune without any sense of developmental lag.
Considerations of global security are now therefore fulfilling an old dream of Hindu nationalists. The latter had always argued that Muslims were latently or patently anti-national, and that restricting their rights was not only patriotic, but also prudent. Today the media, the police and the judiciary are tacitly observing the Code Napoleon: terrorists are assumed guilty until proven innocent, and accusations of guilt by private as well as public agencies are quick to accrue force. The immense technological apparatuses of the media, designed to accumulate and sift facts in the public interest, have become akin to an enchanter’s wand, one that has only to point to make its wish-image appear.
Meanwhile secularism is a creed that dare not speak its name, except very softly, and many of its erstwhile advocates believe the war on terror preempts their older concerns. Security is now the watchword, impelled by the most rational and ecumenical motives, we are told. But if we observe the systematic racial and ethnic profiling, as well as the violence occurring in its name, we are justified in asking—can security be secular? Can the considerations governing global security themselves be submitted to rational and critical assessment, not only of its methods, but as well of its serial outcomes?
Anupama Rao, Associate Professor of South Asian History, Barnard College
Who is defined as a terrorist or a freedom-fighter depends on who is doing the naming, as we well know. The label presupposes a declaration of political enmity and thereby forecloses questions about the relationship between violence and politics. However, the shifting relationship between violence and politics has played a crucial role in the history of rights and the political subject.
The rights-bearing subject is the geohistorical universal of our times. This is the case because the gap between an expansive imagination of rights and the historical record of their limited applicability and contingent exclusions has been generative of political struggles and demands for social recognition—from the formerly enslaved, to women, untouchables, and ethnic and sexual minorities. Historically, stigmatized subjects have claimed political recognition on the grounds of their experience of violation and vulnerability: historical suffering and the experience of violence have ground claims to rights, recognition, and social redistribution. As well, whether through Fanonian calls for violent action by the colonized, or “improving” interventions by states seeking to alter the lifestyle and practices of their subjects, violence and coercion have played a central, if paradoxical, role in the modern political imaginary; instrumentalized as necessity, or else castigated as excessive, violence has nevertheless been essential to the formation of the political subject. How does contemporary terrorism, with its socio-technical reorganization of life, alter the dialectic between violent dehumanization and human becoming, between invisibility and social recognition that has activated the expansion of (human) rights in the world? What comes “after” terror? Are we at the end of an era inaugurated by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the forms of political humanity imagined by that text?
Criticizing terrorism is easy: few can justify the human harm, intended and indirect, that it has produced on a global scale. Fewer still will consent to the deformation of sociality and the practices of suspicion that are now political commonsense, from New York to New Delhi. It is more difficult, if urgently necessary, however, to ask about the world that terror has made. From the practice of revolutionary terrorism in colonial India by Hindu nationalists, to the tactics of Irish nationalism, or the Irgun in Israel, terrorism—simply defined as the random infliction of violence by instigating fear and anxiety in a superior, often colonizing power—finds an important place in broader narratives of anti-colonial activism, albeit as a form of political extremism.
What are the consequences of thinking about the archive of terror as also an archive of “the human”? I would like to propose that the events which constitute the everyday life of terror—the bomb in the public bazaar, attacks on financial centers and luxury hotels, the targeting of public conveyances, and media-saturated spaces—demand from us recognition of the essential humanity of those who perpetrate these acts rather than a sign confirming the terrorists’ barbarism, or distance from civilizational norms. Terror is the mode by which dehumanized life asserts its right to existence.
We now inhabit a world, however, where the terrorist and the security state have together foreclosed the possibility that terrorist violence might, like other forms of violent intervention in the past, become salient as a force for political transformation. Instead, the victims of terrorist violence are publicly mourned as wasted life through the candlelight vigil and other forms of e-connectivity, while its perpetrators appear, increasingly, as an anonymous mass, a mere potentiality, if you will, activated and alive only when engaged in acts of terror. It is this anxiety about the essential unknowability of the terrorist, his capacity for random selection of his target, and most significantly, the highly technologized field of activity in which both terrorist and the state operate, that makes it all the more urgent that we give him a name (Muslim); associate him with a set of ideological tendencies (Wahabbism, al-Qaeda, Taliban); and most significant of all, locate him in a place (Afpak).
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India has become a crucial player in the Global War on Terror after 11/26, which is repeatedly described, howsoever inappositely, as India’s own 9/11. Indeed, 9/11 is increasingly the origin point from which the present is historicized, demarcating a time “before” and “after” 9/11. In India too, there has been an insistent demand that we view 11/26 as that point at which India entered global visibility through the shared experience of terror. A recent report by the Rand Corporation, The Lessons of Mumbai, asks whether the “operational and tactical features and technical capabilities displayed by the terrorists,” were “innovations” that built on earlier experience. And the report emphasizes the “slow-motion shoot and siege that mesmerized the world’s news media,” as the single most distinctive aspect of this act of terrorism when compared to earlier attacks on Mumbai’s commuter trains (most recently in June 2006), and on the Indian Parliament (December 2001). (Both Faisal Devji and Arvind Rajagopal discussed the mass mediation of the event of terror in some detail in their posts last year.) The archive of terror has thus become a semi-public document that interpellates India within a (new) history, what the Rand Corporation awkwardly terms the “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu” alliance.
After the attacks, in June 2009, the Indian government sanctioned enhanced surveillance and control of its citizens through the unique ID, which required the creation of an extensive national database, the generation of which was farmed out to global technogiant Infosys, whose head executive, Nandan Nilekani, stepped down from his position in the company to assume cabinet-rank government office while completing the e-governance project. As well, anti-terror measures have been extensively used to quell Maoist rebels operating in the large forest tracts of middle India, especially “encounter killings” by police forces. The threat of terrorism has provided a convenient alibi for the growth of the security state, whose most significant targets are its own citizens. Ideological distinctions between the radical Left and the Right are increasingly irrelevant; what is important is the threat to the state. Now defined as ‘terrorists,” political citizens become susceptible to state violence, while their putative brutality becomes the explanatory framework through which the state’s turn to extra-judicial punishment is justified as both normal and necessary. This follows a peculiar logic of justification, which is also the logic of preventive deterrence: it is the terrorists’ capacity for brutality that provokes state-sanctioned violence, while the state’s investment in “public safety” justifies preventive action, exposés of police incompetence (by Tehelka) and officials’ compromising of state security by speaking to the mass media during the standoff with the Taj terrorists, notwithstanding.
Important are the new forms of speech that have been produced and legitimized in the aftermath of global terror. The journalist Tunku Varadarajan, is symptomatic of the growing anti-Muslim sentiment among the Indian diaspora. Varadarajan (in)famously coined the term “going Muslim,” to explain Major Nidal Malik Hassan’s brutal actions at Fort Hood earlier this month. Unlike the colloquialism “going postal,” which describes the desperate alienation of the salariat, which can erupt in random violence, Varadarajan argues that “going Muslim” describes the permanent suspicion of the Muslim in our midst, whose putative integration into liberal American society camouflages his desire to engage in messianic violence. It is the association of the Muslim with religious violence—indeed, the reduction of identity to violent action: going Muslim—that allows Varadarajan to justify an end to political correctness where matters of public safety are involved, so that anti-Muslim suspicion may now be institutionalized as a form of clear and present danger requiring extraordinary security measures.
Though the structure of this form of argumentation resembles racial profiling, ethnic stereotyping, and most significantly, anti-Semitism, complaints to NYU’s Office of Public Affairs regarding Varadarajan’s Forbes article elicited support for his academic freedom and right to free speech. If in the case of hate speech words have equivalence with deeds (i.e., if the name and the epithet are contiguous with physical violence), here, the securocratic equation of the Muslim with the terrorist (i.e., with a figure associated with the potentiality for global violence) appears to preclude any form of juridical protection for him as a citizen. The capacity of language to define, to wound and, ultimately, to excise the Muslim from our midst marks a new moment; it is a moment when a whole range of Muslim actions and identities are depoliticized because these are reduced to the state’s image of the terrorist. If political thought has typically maintained a tense, yet productive, relationship between violence and politics in the arc of human becoming, the assertion of the Muslim’s proclivity to terrorist violence precludes both human and political legibility for him. Must he enact the stereotype, that is, must he “go Muslim,” in order to exist at all?
Tariq Thachil, Postdoctoral Fellow, South Asian Studies Council, MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University
At a panel discussion in which I participated immediately following the 26/11 attacks a year ago, a theme that was repeatedly raised was the importance of the class profile of victims in these attacks in shaping how they were experienced, reported, and analyzed. Instead of commuter trains or poor neighborhoods in the city, these attacks for the first time targeted spots frequented by the city’s Indian elite—the five-star hotels the Taj and the Trident, as well as a popular bar. What quickly became termed the ‘Ground Zero’ (to extend the problematic analogy made with 9/11) of the attacks was the Taj Hotel, and even this privileging of location was significant. While it was the site of the most dramatic fighting between the attackers and Indian forces, more actual lives were lost in the blasts at the city’s central train station. Yet coverage of the attacks centered largely on the Taj, which we were told repeatedly was the city’s iconic building, although one could plausibly argue that the train station was more iconic, whether in terms of its Raj-era architecture or in terms of the number of people who pass through it.
It further bears noting that even the victims of the attacks in the Victoria Terminas and their grieving relatives and friends got very little screen time; instead, the powerful English language news channels presented streams of interviews with affluent, and fluent (in English) families of those implicated in the Taj attacks. Columnist Mukul Kesavan, writing for the Indian newspaper the Telegraph, noted in the days following the attacks:
I can’t remember the last time that social class so clearly defined the coverage of a public event, or one in which people spoke so unselfconsciously from their class positions. Person after person claimed the Taj as home. Memories of courtship, marriage, celebration, friendship, the quick coffee, the saved-up-for snack, the sneaked lavatory visit, came together to frame the burning Taj in a halo of affection.
An exemplar of such writing was an op-ed in the New York Times in the days following the attacks, by a well-known writer, who suggested without irony that getting a drink at the Taj would constitute an act of defiance against the acts of terror. He made no mention of the fact that such an act was necessarily the prerogative of a privileged few.
The politics of class indisputably played a role in the framing of these attacks and not other acts of terror as India’s preeminent moment of national suffering. A year later, it is clear the targeting of middle class India has had important repercussions. First, public scrutiny of inadequate state responses to terrorism have been far more exacting than in prior attacks. Over the past year there were numerous and increasingly angry accounts of the incompetence of the local police leadership in Mumbai, as well as of the delayed arrival of the Indian army at the multiple sites of violence (for interested readers in the US, the recent HBO documentary ‘Terror in Mumbai” outlines this inefficiency in some detail). Would such anger have been forthcoming if the attacks had targeted Dharavi (the city’s sprawling slums) instead of the Taj and the Trident hotels?
Musing on this public outcry in Outlook magazine, the journalist Barkha Dutt noted how she personally was the target of unprecedented hostility from middle class onlookers while covering the attacks for Indian television. Analyzing these responses after the passage of a year, she argued that it was increasingly clear to her that the fact that she had not witnessed such anger before 26/11 was inextricably linked to the fact that “[in prior attacks] it was still largely the poor of India who were the primary targets of terrorism. Middle-class India never complained about these tragedies being chronicled. But 26/11 was too close to the bone, in a way that it would never have been had, say, only the CST (train station) been targeted by Kasab (the lone surviving gunman from the attacks) and his men.”
There are other consequences which are almost certainly the result of the attacks targeting middle-class Mumbaikers. For example, the Indian Chamber of Commerce (FICCI) commissioned a report on the attacks precisely because it perceived 26/11 as an attack on the country’s economic and commercial capital, and therefore as an economic threat. Part of the report’s recommendations, as Neelabh Mishra has noted, is to advocate the development of private security firms by corporations in the city. Both the commissioning of a report by the FICCI, as well as its support for a privatized response are clearly conditioned by class politics. Taken in tandem with media coverage and public responses, they remind us not to simply read the attacks through the lens of foreign relations-speak, which too often reduces the conflict to one between artificially homogenized ‘national interests’. Rather than view the attacks through the homogenizing lens of Indian and Pakistani ‘sides’, we would do well to continue to recognize how the reactions to these attacks continue to reflect the deep divisions of the city and country itself.
Arafaat A. Valiani, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Williams College
About a year has passed since trained gunmen launched a series of startlingly calculated—and macabre—attacks in the western Indian metropolis of Mumbai. What I find striking about the treatment by the mainstream media of the issue of terrorism is the amount of attention that is dedicated toward understanding the assailants’ religious identity. It is as if knowing the degree to which an assailant is religiously devout enables one to predict who possesses a propensity to undertake political violence. I believe that one must distinguish between the religious rhetoric that may be invoked by militant organizations to justify acts of violence and the constellation of forces—of which religious identity may be one—that shape the environment in which militant political agents form. I am not the first commentator to note that the cultural or religious identity of a militant activist rarely accounts—on its own—for the reasons why militant organizations exist. Nor does religion adequately explain how these outfits continue to attract recruits who become willing authors of attacks against unarmed civilians.
In what follows, I will discuss some of the forces that may shape the use of political violence in India, but I would first like to turn to a form of analysis that I continue to encounter when discussing issues of political violence and religion, which I find problematic. Readers will likely be familiar with it since it has also been applied to the commission of terrorist violence outside the Indian sub-continent. It suggests that terrorist movements are successful in recruiting young militants because militant leaders are able to manipulate the latter’s personal experience with being a victim of political violence in some shape or form. In the Indian context, this claim is often articulated to suggest that the repeated onslaughts that minority communities face—particularly Indian Muslims—at the hands of Hindu nationalist forces (or the state) contributes directly to the making of militant agents within the community. I am unconvinced of such a reductive conclusion and the following vignette from the western Indian state of Gujarat supports my point.
In 2002, I lived in a “Muslim enclave” within the city of Ahmedabad which has been spatially cantonized into segregated ethnic neighborhoods after several episodes of intense ethnic violence took place in the city, over a period of approximately thirty years. I moved in just as the community began to recover from a genocidal attack that had lasted for several months, and which was carried out by Hindu nationalist militias. Numbering in the tens of thousands, these armed Hindu Nationalist activists attempted to cleanse the neighborhood of its Muslim residents through a carefully planned campaign of ethnic cleansings that was part of a larger, state-sponsored genocide of Muslims that was undertaken throughout much of the state of Gujarat. Human Rights Watch has estimated that the unofficial death toll was as high as 2,000. The number of people who were internally displaced was approximately 98,000, many of whom still have not been rehabilitated. Overall, an overwhelming number of the victims hailed from the Muslim community. Based upon my interviews with residents of the Ahmedabadi enclave in which I resided, in addition to others in the city, as well as my observations of refugee camps and their inmates in Gujarat, I learned about how Muslims lived in a state of terror and constant anxiety. This has become a reality in the state in which Muslims have been a principal target of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing for several decades.
Reflecting upon the violence that occurred in Mumbai last year, I recall my conversations with young Muslim men of Ahmedabad city which transpired after the attacks in 2002. Our conversations moved between a discussion of family life and marriage, to their personal aspirations for the future. Some sought ways to acquire skills in a trade or improve their family businesses. A few wanted to seek work in different Indian cities, and those with more means desired to leave India to study abroad, after which they intended to return. Tellingly, I did not encounter any signs of resentment against Hindus (or the state) for the violence—or threat of it—that the community faces regularly. Similarly, no one ever endorsed the retributive killing of Hindus nor did they applaud the attacks that in fact came later that year when militants that were supported by the Lashkar-e-taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed staged a gruesome attack on devotees at the Akshardham temple in the nearby city of Gandhinagar.
While it is true that many of the militants that were involved in last year’s acts of terror in Mumbai, in addition to others that occurred before that, hailed from Pakistan, that they were trained in various sites in India and Pakistan, and were even given cover in neighborhoods that are dominated by members of the Muslim community, my observations of the manners in which ethnic cleansing and militant terror is experienced and understood among Muslims with whom I lived confirms to me that the community’s seemingly endless experience of political violence does not seem to catalyze—at least on its own—the making of militant political agents (or even the endorsement of support for retributive acts of terror). This proposition in which victims of violence turn into terrorists strikes me as being dangerously simplistic and it hews too close to suggesting that experiences of victimhood seamlessly translate into a desire to commit acts of violence. (The same argument is made for Hindu victims which I find equally ill-conceived) Such a formulation eclipses the complex way in which political violence and religion have been woven into social and political life in India and a mere glance at key moments in the political biography of the country illuminates my point.
Historians of modern South Asia have documented the manner in which Indian nationalists seized upon new—and rigid—interpretations of religious icons, concepts, and identities in order to rally support among potential constituents at the grassroots level in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Of course, such reduced views of cultural and religious identity emerged over a period of 150 years with various British and Indian agents playing a role in their formation). Khudai Khidmatgar, Khaksars, Ahrar, Lathi Sena, Swayamsevak, Sevika are all names given to activists-cum-combatants who have done the bidding of nationalist political parties which have fomented religious conflict as a means to enlarge their base of supporters. As is well known, India’s first election, the provincial elections in 1937, saw repeated standoffs between militias of the Congress Party and those of the Muslim League. Historians have established how both parties deployed their respective political combatants as a means to breed fear into Hindus and Muslims, and create an environment of desperation. As historians tells us, many party leaders banked on the prospect that such collective fears would drive members of each community toward supporting the Congress Party or the Muslim League, respectively, in a desperate grab for political power and a desire to avoid being representationally marginalized in the provincial assemblies. Admittedly, Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, are known for their appeals for peace and communal harmony, and many certainly supported them, however the voices of the Gandhis and the Nehrus were dwarfed in the raucous communal sloganeering of the political leaders that surrounded them. It is certainly true that political conflict existed prior to the colonial period; however, the social and historical context was markedly different. In those earlier periods, religious communities were not compelled to be so diametrically opposed to each other; also, religious notions of community were not articulated in an institutional environment in which political organizations competed for legislative power via elections.
A microcosm and more recent example of this larger process can be appreciated by briefly examining the modus operandi of political participation at the grassroots level in the contemporary period. For example, Hindu Nationalist organizations have established numerous neighborhood shakhas, or branches, in various parts of the country. The establishment of these branches has only built upon the sectarianism and political violence from the colonial period and in fact enabled it to become a normal feature of popular politics in the country. In the region with which I am most familiar, Gujarat, many young lower-middle and middle-class Hindu men congregate in local branches to undertake forms of collective physical training and military drilling on a daily basis. Within the seductive atmosphere that branch organizers create, participants engage in “cultural activities” and “Hindu rituals of sport” while also imbibing and affirming xenophobic discourses of Indian minorities. While it could be argued that the ‘religious’ emphasis of Hindu Nationalist branches is what is appealing to young Gujarati Hindus, I want to suggest that it is not only the movement’s religious complexion, but also its ability to normalize routines of violence in the social and political arenas that many Hindus access on a daily basis, that should attract our attention. The ubiquity of branches in Gujarat, in addition to other parts of the country, has enabled Hindu nationalists to become a powerful political force because they exercise a palpable presence at the grassroots level and have, as a consequence, enlarged their bases of popular support. While few reliable figures provide an accurate numerical portrait of the total number of shakhas within the movement, the number of active branches in Gujarat increased significantly over the past thirty years, as have the attacks against Gujarati minority communities of Muslims, Christians, and Dalits (formerly called ‘untouchables’). Gujarat is widely considered to be one of the most politically violent states, which is ironic given that it was the very state in which Mohandas Gandhi was born and from which his non-violent movement originated. Of course all Hindus do not participate in branches, and secular activists from all communities valiantly attempt to combat such forces. However, these activists confess that they are often overwhelmed by the numbers, resources, and the firm institutional presence of Hindu nationalist organizations in the state. As human rights organizations tell us, grassroots activists, most of whom are active members of Hindu nationalist branches, have played a key role in undertaking gruesome attacks against minorities which were elaborately planned by Hindu Nationalist leaders. According to social scientists, such episodes of violence have been tied to electoral ambitions of the Hindu Nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian Peoples’ Party), which currently leads a coalition of parties as the official opposition in the Indian parliament (the Lok Sabha). At least in the BJP-governed state of Gujarat, among a sizable portion of Gujarati Hindus, the increasing importance of Hindu nationalist branches has firmly situated public acts of routinized violence, whether they are enacted within branches or against Indian minorities, at the center of ‘normal’ political life.
In my view, these glimpses of politics in India confirm that political violence plays a significant role in popular politics and undergirds the public arenas in which everyday life is lived. No single cause can be convincingly attributed to the making of perpetrators of militant violence, in my view. To better understand the many manifestations of political violence—and, indeed, to combat them—we need to vigilantly study the multiple forces that shape notions of political participation.