by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Was 11/26 India's 9/11? Were the terrorist strikes in Mumbai the South Asian equivalent of the Twin Towers tragedy?
Increasingly encountered in India's media and establishment is an emphatically affirmative answer to these questions. The answer is based, apparently, on such common characteristics of the two events as their scale and savagery. But, only apparently. There is more to the comparison, in fact, than meets the eye of any observer unacquainted with the ways and wiles of the subcontinent's own species of militarism.
Those who resort repeatedly to this dramatic description of the Mumbai events, which have taken a toll of nearly 200 lives, talk of the "sophistication" of the strikes witnessed on both the dates. India, no stranger to terrorism, has certainly never seen so brutal an instance of it ever before. The comparison also rests on the fact that a target of the terrorist ferocity was the famous Taj Hotel of more than five-star splendor, as "iconic" for India's financial capital as the World Trade Center for New York.
As iconic, some might add, as the Marriott Hotel, blasted by terrorists on September 21, was for Islamabad No one, however, is talking of 11/26 as India's 9/21. Such a comparison can amount to a dangerous suggestion of common India-Pakistan interests in dealing with terrorism. Powerful forces in both the countries are determined to prevent such a disastrous development.
To go by initial signs, they seem to be succeeding. Mumbai has meant a setback for the nearly five-year-old India-Pakistan peace process. The advance, apparently marked by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's recent statements on relations with India and a nuclear-free neighborhood, has been undone at least partially. It is not without reason that projection of Mumbai as India's 9/11 has led to perilous prospects for regional peace.
The comparison conceals, if only thinly, a hope for similarity in the consequences for the two terrorist strikes. Security expert B. Raman, formerly of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of India's External Affairs Ministry, writes, "A war of civilisation between the Muslims and the infidels has begun in Indian territory - so said the first statement issued in the name of the so-called Indian Mujahideen (IM) in November 2007, after the three orchestrated explosions in three towns of Uttar Pradesh outside local courts We saw the latest round of this war in Mumbai on the night of November 26, 2008...."
Out-Bushing George W. Bush, Raman added: "The government of Manmohan Singh reacted to the repeated warning signals of the moving iceberg since November 2007, in the same way as the Bush administration reacted to reports about the plans of the al-Qaeda for an (attack) of aviation terrorism in the US ... It just did not react." Another former RAW man, Anand K. Verma, chimed in, "Time has come for the unspoken to be spoken: radical Islam is at war with India."
The pundits were joined by "popular" voices broadcast on the suddenly patriotic media. Elegant figures of the elite were soon emitting war cries, with a film star calling for tough action "take out the terrorists in Pakistan administered Kashmir" - a sure recipe for a disaster with a possible nuclear dimension.
The analogy to 9/11 is not acceptable to some experts abroad. Christine Fair, South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation, told a reporter, "Indians will have a strong incentive to link this to al Qaeda. But this is a domestic issue. This is not India's 9/11."
"There are a lot of very, very angry Muslims in India," she said. She was not referring to an episode in the US presidential election when she added,: "You cannot put lipstick on this pig. This is a major domestic political challenge for India."
The comparison, however, is connected to the domestic context in India, witnessing a series of elections in states and waiting for parliamentary polls due next year. The far-right opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has cast itself in the role of the most resolute foe of "Islamist terror." It was hoping to reap a rich political harvest from some of the earlier terrorist blasts, when an exposure of "Hindutva terror" caused it huge embarrassment. The Mumbai tragedy, however, has more than made up for the temporary setback.
True, the chief of the anti-terror squad (ATS) in the State of Maharashtra, responsible for the revelations about the far-right terror, has been eliminated inexplicably during the Mumbai events. The meaning of this particular killing has not figured in the frenzied media debates over Mumbai.
The international context of Mumbai is intimately connected to the comparison as well. It is not only the change in America that provides this context. President-elect Barack Obama's proclaimed plan to shift the West Asian battleground to Afghanistan and its border with Pakistan does so too.
Those who talk of Mumbai as India's 9/11 see it as a sanction for pursuit of the US-India "strategic partnership" in South Asia in the days to come. The world, which quailed during the confrontations between the nuclear-armed neighbors in 1999 and 2002, cannot say it has not been warned.