Today's date:
Winter 2009

Terror Strikes Mumbai and Democracy Responds

Dileep Padgaonkar, a former editor of The Times of India, now edits the bi-monthly magazine India & Global Affairs.

New Delhi—Terrorist attacks have shattered the peace in more than half-a-dozen Indian cities during the past year alone. Yet none was fraught with so much risk for India’s secular and democratic polity as the ones that jolted Mumbai in the night of Nov. 26, 2008.

Mumbai is India’s financial and commercial capital. It is also arguably the most cosmopolitan metropolis in the country. By targeting, among other establishments, two of the city’s most opulent hotels—the Taj Mahal Palace and the Trident-Oberoi—where the rich, the famous and the influential congregate to advance their business and political agendas, the terrorists thus struck at the very symbol of a resurgent nation.

The timing of the latest assault is equally significant. It came on the eve of elections to five provincial assemblies. The campaign rhetoric has polarized opinion along sharply antagonistic lines. It has essentially pitted the ruling Congress Party, which swears by secularism, against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

After every terrorist attack in the past, the BJP denounced the Congress Party for being soft on terrorism since it sought to mobilize the substantial Muslim vote in the country in its favor. The Congress Party in turn debunked the BJP and its affiliates for Muslim-bashing in order to consolidate its core Hindu vote. Indians have a peculiar word to describe this state of affairs—communalism—which denotes a determined bid to exploit religious sentiments for electoral gain.

The result of this competitive demagoguery has been disastrous on many counts. Suspects in terrorist attacks have been picked up at random and denied the rights due to them under the law. Allegations of torture by the police are routine. Questions have been raised about the “encounters” between the police and the suspects. The suspects have been kept behind bars for years as their court cases have dragged on. Convictions have been few and far between.

Commissions set up to investigate certain particularly gory incidents of religious violence have taken their own time to produce their reports. Few are thrown open for public debate. The recommendations contained in the reports have been routinely ignored or else implemented in a highly selective manner. Muslims convicted in a case have been punished while Hindus have been let off lightly or not punished at all.

As a consequence, India’s Muslim community has begun to lose faith in the Indian state, its institutions and its instrumentalities. This has led to the radicalization of Muslim youth. Religious extremism has pushed them on the path of violence. Increasing evidence suggests that some of them have joined the ranks of the international jihadi movement with close links to terrorist groups in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. The groups are widely believed in India to be in cahoots with the intelligence agencies in these countries.

To complicate matters further, a Hindu holy woman, a Hindu holy man, a serving officer of the Indian armed forces and some other Hindu extremists are under arrest for their alleged involvement in certain terrorist attacks. It is now the turn of the BJP and its affiliates to charge that the police, at the behest of their “secular” masters, are failing to observe the due process of law. Indeed, they charge that the Hindus have been framed in order to “appease” the Muslims in time for the elections to the provincial assemblies.

In plain words, after the Muslims, it is the Hindus who have now started to question the credibility of the police and, by extension, of the Indian state. The Nov. 26 attacks in Mumbai can only compound fears in both communities that they cannot trust the law enforcement authorities to bring the guilty to book. It is precisely such fears that set the stage for bloody confrontation between them.

These fears cannot be calmed unless the Indian state cracks down on terrorism with vim and vigor and regardless of the religion of the suspects. That some Muslim youth are engaged in a war against the infidels can no longer be denied. That the approach of the secular parties to terrorism has been pusillanimous is also patent. But the refrain of the Hindu nationalists—“all Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims”—is no less wrong and dangerous.

After the immediate shock of the Mumbai attacks wore off, the obvious questions were raised. What should be done to make the police and the intelligence agencies more effective and accountable? How does one guarantee that there is zero tolerance for terrorism?

Questions of this sort have rarely been raised, let alone answered, by the social butterflies of Bollywood who have hogged the limelight after the horrendous incidents in Mumbai. As against this indifference to issues that matter most to the future of the terror-ravaged country, one must pit the extraordinary trust in the democratic system expressed by ordinary citizens in the elections to the six state assemblies that followed the Mumbai attacks by two weeks.

The voting percentages leave no room for doubt that for all its flaws, democracy remains a vibrant reality in India.

Indeed, the results have defied conventional wisdom. The BJP failed to derive any mileage from its cynical bid to exploit terrorism for electoral ends. In two states that have witnessed terrorist attacks—Delhi and Rajasthan—it was made to bite dust. It succeeded in defying anti-incumbency in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh because the party in those states stressed in its campaign not the divisive ideology of Hindutva (Hinduness) but development.

With general elections due any time before May next year, every political party will be constrained to take these factors into account.

Politicians will be judged not on the basis of their promises but on the basis of their performance; not on the basis of their self-serving platitudes but on the basis of their ability and willingness to address issues of security and livelihood in a transparent, no-nonsense and efficient manner. This is the one salutary outcome of the tragedy that struck Mumbai.