After the Mumbai attacks

December 1, 2008

Nagesh Rao looks at the political fallout over the killing of nearly 200 people in Mumbai, apparently by a previously unknown group.

TENSIONS ARE rising between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan after Indian politicians accused Pakistan of supporting or tolerating the armed groups responsible for the massacre in Mumbai, India's largest city.

The sensational and senseless attacks killed nearly 200 people during a three-day rampage. The operation was reportedly carried out by a group of no more than a dozen well-armed men, who targeted various public buildings and locations around the city in a coordinated assault.

A hitherto-unknown group, calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen, claimed responsibility for the attack. Deccan is a region of India, suggesting that the fighters might have been Indian citizens. They have since threatened to carry out similar attacks in the country's capital of Delhi.

However, Indian authorities insisted from the outset that Pakistan must have played a role in the attack. The government then announced that the lone survivor among the attackers, Ajmal Amir Kasab, is from the Punjab province of Pakistan. The Indian media reported that Kasab said--under interrogation--that he was one of 24 fighters who trained for a year in a camp run by the Islamist group Laskar-e-Toiba (LeT).

The Taj Mahal hotel was one of several sites attacked in Mumbai
The Taj Mahal hotel was one of several sites attacked in Mumbai (Dhiraj Singh | Rapport)

India has long claimed that LeT was created by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to carry out operations in the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir, a province claimed by both Pakistan and India, as well as other violent acts. India accuses the LeT of carrying out the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi.

The claims about LeT's role in the Mumbai attacks must be viewed skeptically, however. The Indian government has long used disinformation and propaganda to further its political and military agenda at Pakistan's expense (Pakistan does likewise). Even so, major media outlets, including prominent newspapers like The Hindu, reported the claim of LeT's involvement in the Mumbai massacre as valid, despite the lack of any credible evidence.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demanded the presence of the director-general of the ISI in India to help investigate the connections between the attackers and their alleged Pakistani backers. Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari at first acceded to the demand, but then refused, following a meeting with the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani.

The mass killings in Mumbai are the largest and most spectacular in a series of attacks in India by armed groups. In July 2006, hundreds were killed in a series of bomb blasts on Mumbai's commuter trains, and in recent months, smaller explosions have hit several cities across India in what seems to be an escalating campaign. Also, in July, a suicide bomber attacked the Indian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

After each attack, the Indian government placed blame either directly on Pakistan's ISI or on Indian Muslim organizations, such as the banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which the government claims is funded and trained by the ISI. This has emboldened Hindu chauvinists in the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) and their far-right allies, who have long advocated a more aggressive policy toward Pakistan.

Even before all the Mumbai attackers had been killed or captured, the BJP launched an advertising campaign accusing the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition of incompetence in failing to prevent the attacks and responding slowly. The UPA, dominated by the center-left Congress Party, has tried to deflect the criticism by making its own loud threats toward Pakistan.

Whoever was responsible for the Mumbai attacks, the fighters were clearly well-trained and had access to resources.

The attack began November 26 when a pair of gunmen opened fire on passengers at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Rail Terminus, one of India's busiest train stations. Within hours of this shooting, several other locations were attacked, including two five-star luxury hotels, the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Trident-Oberoi; two area hospitals; a restaurant frequented by foreign tourists; a Jewish outreach center; and two government buildings, the Bombay Municipal Corporation and the Vidhan Sabha, which houses the legislative assembly.

The attackers then took hostages at the two luxury hotels and Nariman House, the Jewish center. Indian security forces laid siege to the buildings, and by early morning on November 29, it managed to kill the last of the gunmen at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Several hostages were also killed in the process.

WHILE THE identity of those who carried these attacks is unclear, it is nevertheless true that India has become a target for militant Islamist organizations.

One reason for this is the growing alliance between India and the U.S. and the Indian government's enthusiastic support for the "war on terror." Another factor is that a war between India and Pakistan would force the Pakistani military to redeploy its forces, away from the Afghan border, where it is facing a growing Taliban insurgency.

In other words, the stepped-up attacks in India are a direct effect of the so-called "war on terror," which is destabilizing the entire subcontinent.

But there are many domestic causes for the increased frequency of Islamist attacks in India.

India's ruling coalition, the UPA, is facing intense criticism for the failure of its intelligence and security apparatus. But few of these critics have drawn attention to the state's treatment of Muslims within its borders.

While the Indian government condemns terrorist attacks committed by Muslims as "anti-national," it turns a blind eye to the crimes of the Hindu fundamentalists in the various BJP-allied organizations, which have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Muslims over the years. The perpetrators of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in the state of Gujarat, in which 2,000 Muslims were murdered and some 200,000 driven out of their homes, have not yet been brought to justice--and the politicians who protect them remain in office.

And in the Muslim-majority province of Kashmir, the Indian government's sweeping security crackdown continues to take its vicious toll.

When hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris took to the streets demanding self-determination in July and August this year in mass nonviolent demonstrations, the Indian security forces responded with brutal violence, killing dozens of demonstrators and arbitrarily jailing their leaders.

The oppression of Muslims in India must be challenged politically. There is no justification for the indiscriminate killing innocent people in Mumbai--many of whom were Muslims.

But the Indian government's tolerance of, and participation in, repression against Muslims shows that the safety of ordinary people in India will not be improved by strengthening the security apparatus of the Indian state. And the calls for military attacks on Pakistani territory will only threaten millions of lives by risking war between the nuclear powers.

The only solution is to reject religious violence and militarism, and work toward solidarity among working people in South Asia across national, religious and ethnic divides.

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