Today's date:
Winter 2009

After Mumbai, Don’t Demonize India’s Muslims

Shashi Tharoor was undersecretary-general of the United Nations under Kofi Annan and India’s candidate for UN secretary-general to succeed Annan. His many books include India: From Midnight to the Millennium, Nehru: The Invention of India and, most recently, The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone.

Mumbai—There is a savage irony to the fact that the unfolding horror in Mumbai began with terrorists docking near the Gateway of India. The magnificent arch, built in 1911 to welcome the king-emperor, has ever since stood as a symbol of the openness of the city.

Crowds flock around it, made up of foreign tourists and local yokels; touts hawk their wares; boats bob in the waters, offering cruises out to the open sea. The teeming throngs around it daily reflect India’s diversity, with Parsi gentlemen out for their evening constitutionals, Muslim women in burqas taking the sea air, Goan Catholic waiters enjoying a break from their duties at the stately Taj Mahal Hotel, Hindus from every corner of the country chatting in a multitude of tongues.

Today, ringed by police barricades, the Gateway of India—the gateway to India and to India’s soul—is barred, mute testimony to the latest assault on the country’s pluralist democracy.

The terrorists who heaved their bags laden with weapons up the steps of the wharf to begin their assault on the Taj, like their cohorts at a dozen other locations around the city, knew exactly what they were doing. Theirs was an attack on India’s financial nerve center and commercial capital, a city emblematic of the country’s energetic thrust into the 21st century.

They struck at symbols of the prosperity that was making the Indian model so attractive to the globalizing world—luxury hotels, a swish café, an apartment house favored by foreigners. The terrorists also sought to polarize Indian society by claiming to be acting to redress the grievances, real and imagined, of India’s Muslims. And by singling out Britons, Americans and Israelis for special attention, they demonstrated that their brand of Islamist fanaticism is anchored less in the absolutism of pure faith than in the geopolitics of hate.

Today, the platitudes flow like blood. Terrorism is unacceptable; the terrorists are cowards; the world stands united in unreserved condemnation of this latest atrocity. Commentators in America trip over themselves to pronounce this night and day of carnage India’s 9/11. But India has endured many attempted 9/11s, notably a ferocious assault on its national Parliament in December, 2001, that nearly led to all-out war against the assailants’ presumed sponsors, Pakistan.

This year alone, terrorist bombs have taken lives in Jaipur, in Ahmedabad, in Delhi and (in an eerie dress rehearsal for the effectiveness of synchronicity) in several different places on one searing day in the state of Assam. Jaipur is the lodestar of Indian tourism to Rajasthan; Ahmedabad is the primary city of Gujarat, the state that is a poster child for India’s development, with a high local GDP growth rate; Delhi is the nation’s political capital and India’s window to the world; Assam was logistically convenient for terrorists from across a porous border.

Mumbai combined all the four elements of its precursors: By attacking it, the terrorists hit India’s economy, its tourism, and its internationalism, and they took advantage of the city’s openness to the world. A grand slam.

Indians have learned to endure the unspeakable horrors of terrorist violence ever since malign men in Pakistan concluded it was cheaper and more effective to bleed India to death than to attempt to defeat it in conventional war. Attack after attack has been proven to have been financed, equipped and guided from across the border, the most recent being the suicide-bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, an action publicly traced by American intelligence to Islamabad’s dreaded military special-ops agency, the ISI.

The risible attempt to claim “credit” for the Mumbai killings in the name of the “Deccan Mujahideen” merely confirms that wherever the killers are from, it is not the Deccan Plateau. The Deccan lies inland from Mumbai; one does not need to sail the waters of the Arabian Sea to the Gateway of India to get to the city from there. In its meticulous planning, sophisticated coordination and military precision, as well as its choice of targets, the assault on Mumbai bore no trace of what its promoters tried to suggest it was—a spontaneous eruption by angry young Indian Muslims. This horror could not have been homegrown.

The Islamist extremism nurtured by a succession of military rulers of Pakistan has now come to haunt its well-intentioned but lamentably weak elected civilian government. The bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel proved that Frankenstein’s monster is now well and truly out of that government’s control. The militancy once sponsored by its predecessors now threatens to abort Pakistan’s sputtering democracy and seeks to engulf India in its flames. There has never been a stronger case for firm and united action by the governments of both India and Pakistan to cauterize the cancer in their midst.

Inevitably, the questions have begun to be asked: “Is it all over for India? Can the country ever recover from this?”

Of course, the answers are no and yes, but outsiders cannot be blamed for asking existential questions about a nation that so recently had been seen as poised for take-off. India can recover from the physical assaults against it. It is a land of great resilience that has learned, over arduous millennia, to cope with tragedy. Within 24 hours of an earlier Islamist assault on Mumbai, the stock exchange bombing in 1993, Bombay’s traders were back on the floor, their burned-out computers forgotten, doing what they used to before technology had changed their trading styles. Bombs and bullets alone cannot destroy India, because Indians will pick their way through the rubble and carry on as they have done throughout history.

But what can destroy India is a change in the spirit of its people, away from the pluralism and coexistence that have been our greatest strengths. If these tragic events lead to the demonization of the Muslims of India, the terrorists will have won. For India to be India, its gateway—to the multiple Indias within and the heaving seas without—must always remain open.