Mumbai, Five Months After: Searching for a Coherent Stance on Religious Violence

It has been five months since the spectacularly bloody attacks by ten armed men took place across the Indian city of Mumbai. Two major hotels, the main railway terminal, a café, a hospital, a cinema, and a Jewish center were targeted. Nine of the attackers were eventually killed and one captured, but not before they had killed 165 people, mostly Indians (of different religions), but also several foreigners, including eight Israelis.

Due to the dramatic novelty of the targets, the nature of the attacks, and the way they gripped a global audience, the Mumbai tragedy seemed to resonate, for many, with 9/11 in the United States. There are many different issues tied to the two attacks, their aftermath (which continue to this day), and the responses they evoked. In this essay, I look at the surprising fact that from opposite ends of the political spectrum (described in traditional terms as Left to Right), there was a tendency to agree that the two violent events did bear comparison.

An understanding of a response from the Left also raises uncomfortable questions about its moral voice and intellectual consistency. It becomes clear that a progressive response to Mumbai—while acknowledging the legitimate motivations of a left-wing response—must also seek the right tone and intellectual balance.

Who Were the Attackers?

The Indian government was quick to say that the attackers had arrived by boat from Pakistan—despite an unsubstantiated claim of responsibility by a previously unknown group whose name implied that it was from the Deccan region of south-central India, which has a significant Muslim population. With what to Indian eyes seemed a maddeningly misplaced skepticism, the Western media remained neutral about the origin of the men, despite offering no alternative explanation. During the event, it was a British newspaper, the Observer, that traced the surviving man to a rural part of Pakistan. In Pakistan, official sources swung between denying any Pakistani role and arguing that the attackers, even if Pakistani, had been ‘non-state’ agents.

Under intense pressure from Britain and America (both afraid that any confrontation with India would turn Pakistani military pressure away from the Afghan border), Pakistan agreed to arrest the leaders of the Lashkar-e-Taiba—the brutal militant movement India had long argued was behind attacks on Indian soil, financed and supported by Pakistan in the past.

In India itself, the Congress-led government tried to square the circle by combining virulent anti-Pakistani rhetoric with a sensible call for calm within India, while the opposition Hindu nationalist BJP reverted to anti-Muslim pronouncements about the enemy within. In the months after the attacks, Indian journalists, especially in Mumbai, have cast doubts on various aspects of the official reports, and in India itself there is widespread uncertainty over precisely how many attackers were involved, whether any were Indians (eyewitnesses reported in one place that two of the men spoke the local language), and even whether the senior security figures killed were actually assassinated by Hindu extremists under the cover of the main attacks.

We must keep these complexities in mind when discussing interpretations of the massacre.

An Indian 9/11…

Within the bewildered, aghast, and anguished media response to the Mumbai terror attack that began on November 26 and stretched out over several days, there was a curious sub-theme that said something profound about the nature of ideological preoccupations in both India and the West: was this India’s 9/11?

No, said many, and their basic argument tended to turn on a reluctance to compromise on American exceptionalism (or the special status of the ‘West’); India simply could not compare. More legitimately, the sobering experiences of the War on Terror after 9/11 led commentators to warn India against military action where, seven years earlier, they had largely agreed that “something needed to done.” But the issues raised by the denial of similarities between 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks are themselves complex, and need to be treated separately.

It is when we turn to those who did agree that 9/11 and Mumbai were similar that we find something startling (and yet illuminating) about the nature of ideology: the same conclusion can be arrived at from diametrically opposed starting points, the Left and the Right. And an analysis of this strange equation allows us to understand something about how political polarization can hold in broadly similar ways across very different cultural contexts.

The View from the Right

One type of response came mainly from India. Here was a democracy attacked at its commercial heart in a vividly, cleverly brutal way, by men claiming to do so in the name of Islam. And if the world rallied in support of America then, it should do so for India now—if necessary, by supporting military action on Pakistani territory. Behind this reading was a vision of India as a great nation worth defending, deserving in both its achievements and in its pain a place at the high table of world powers, with its own dominant culture threatened by alien enemies. This view may, very broadly, be called right-wing: it draws on a commitment to the central role of the nation-state, on a sense of a hegemonic culture that must be preserved against threats. This view supports strengthening the economic power of the nation-state, and is comfortable with the way privilege and freedoms are dispensed within the national society.

This perspective came naturally and instinctively to both the Indian middle classes and the political establishment. Of course, it should be remembered, the Right encompasses a sweeping range of attitudes: from conservative middle-class supporters of the free market content to work hard on building their social capital and leaders committed to the idea of a globally powerful India, all the way to rabid, chauvinistic haters of all that is different from them (and there is a great deal of difference in India primed for such hatred).

The Left’s Contradictory Response to Jihadi Violence

Strikingly, however, commentators from the liberal Left in India and the West—those who have for much of this decade been at the vanguard of a richer and more textured understanding of the sources of violence in the name of Islam—have not had any great trouble seeing the parallel between 9/11 and the Mumbai massacres. And even if they have not always been explicit about it, their responses to both have been roughly similar. The liberal Left is politically lukewarm about the very idea of nation-states, and especially about their predilection for hegemonic narratives. While often suspicious of the market, the Left is also convinced that the State, which ought to deliver public goods, is in fact usually predatory and incompetent.

The Left’s resistance to hegemonic cultural narratives is complicated by situations where there is a plurality of contested narratives—nowhere more so than in India, where diversity goes all the way back in its history. This has been very much the case with the Left’s response to jihadi violence.

Gradually after 9/11, and gathering force after the invasion of Iraq, the Left in the West found itself in a quandary over the appropriate response to these narratives. It was clear enough about what to do with Western triumphalism and the conjunction of neo-conservative nationalism and Christian evangelical fundamentalism: each could be critiqued by a post-ideological social liberalism, free of the historical weight of Marxism. But the problem was that such a critique, while directed at those who would anathematize Islam and Muslims, seemed to apply to Islam and Muslims too. In both the West and in Muslim-majority countries, whether in support of jihadi violence or in more carefully faithful retrievals of Islamic sources, Muslims by and large expressed adherence to a dominant narrative themselves—the narrative of Islam’s sacred universality.

Some on the Left have even compromised their rejection of hegemonic discourses on the problem of Muslims in Western societies rejecting the historical continuities of those societies—there has been a marked growth in support of governmental initiatives in Britain that force Muslims into a freshly-constructed imaginary of the British nation. But if there is an authentic progressive Left left in Britain or America, it is one that must continue to wrestle with the tension between rejection of dominant narratives and acceptance of a plurality of narratives, each competing for dominance.

Those from the multicultural Left have been ready to say that, when all is said and done (and whatever the hegemonic possibilities of Islamic discourse and practices), in reality Muslims have suffered because of pernicious Western policies for several centuries; and jihadi violence was born out of a sense that Muslims had been rendered powerless and marginalized by the West.

In India, the fragile material condition of not only Muslims but many other groups—in a situation where marginal minorities are, together, the overwhelming majority of the Indian peoples—has made the Left more ready to flirt boldly with intellectual contradiction.

The Right has for long argued that the Constitutional protection of Muslims —in positive discrimination and provision of separate elements of civil law— is unfair and, indeed, exposes Muslims to the envy of Hindus not accorded anything in the extensive suite of exceptional Constitutional protection. The Left has responded that, in fact, these provisions (formulated by the framers of the Constitution precisely to improve the material and social problems of the Muslims as a minority over time) have not been applied intelligently by the State. The Left points out that consequently Muslims have as many problems as they had at the time of Independence.

Although the rigorous left-wing critique of the Indian State in the abstract is, or ought to be, that it has failed the marginalized people of India as a whole; in practice, it has found it difficult to ignore the concrete reality of group identities.

Frequently, the Left’s suspicion regarding these issues is focused on right-wing Hindu ideology, and does not extend to Islamic narratives. This is especially the case with those who call themselves ‘secularist’ and are of Hindu origin. It has usually been left to intrepid and independent-minded Muslim figures like Asghar Ali Engineer to distinguish sharply between asking for social justice for all groups (including Muslims) and supporting potentially hegemonic narratives among those groups (especially Muslims). In response to the Mumbai attacks, then, notable public intellectuals of the Left such as the Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy have chosen to comment primarily on the treatment of Muslims in India in relation to the attackers’ claims of acting for Indian Muslims.

So, the Left, in India and the West alike, has treated 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks in the same way: as a response to the marginalized conditions of Muslims brought about by the policies of state powers (America with regard to Muslim societies around the world, India with regard to its own Muslims). In recent weeks, Roy has argued in India that the alternative to social justice for Muslims in India is civil war; in effect agreeing with the claims of the attackers and their organizations that violence is the natural outcome of mistreatment. From there, the slippery slope conclusion is that this outcome is justified. Another commentator and novelist, Pankaj Mishra, writing for a British audience, concentrated on the list (and it is a long one) of the Indian State’s failures with regarding Muslims. Written in the context of the massacres, it seemed again as if such violence is explained by the prior actions of the Indian State. And again, explanation appears perilously close to justification.

A Misplaced Response

After 9/11, the US Left struggled to find a way to analyze the context of the attack, carried out in the name of Islam, without seeming to justify the violence. Martha Nussbaum, who has commented widely on both America and India, concentrated on a particular consequence of the 9/11 attacks: the growth of ‘the politics of hate’ in America, in which compassion for those considered within the nation changed into hate for those deemed outside it. In effect, Nussbaum felt it imperative to focus on how to respond to American prejudice. This line of thought was evident in her response to the Mumbai massacre too. She wrote primarily about how the attacks could lead to greater violence by Hindus against Muslims.

As a matter of fact, she may be wrong about that: several bomb blasts over the past few years that were claimed to be by Muslim jihadi outfits have not led to violence against ordinary Muslims (this may be partly because Hindu chauvinist groups chose not to exploit these tragedies, and partly because they simply failed to get sufficient support from ordinary Hindus). But the point is that her approach was symptomatic of the Left’s treatment of violence in the name of Islam—it concentrated on the possibility and reality of violence by those deemed the enemy by jihadis: white Americans in and after 9/11, Hindus in and after the Mumbai attacks. And this is where the terrain gets tricky for progressive thinkers of the Left.

It is not just that the tone of these analyses can seem unsympathetic to those seeking support and comfort after the tragedies. Nussbaum quickly passed over the “terrible events” in Mumbai in an article for the Los Angeles Times that quickly became in/famous. The essay continued at length about the violence perpetrated by Hindu groups and allowed by the Indian State, in a manic tu quoque argument where the undoubted truth of the matter (that violent Hindu groups have perpetrated horrors in India) did not outweigh the disregard for the immediate context (which was not just about Hindus, since Muslims, Jews, and Christians had also been killed). In a context like her open letter to then President-elect Obama cautioning him about talking only of violence by jihadis as ‘terrorism’ and not violence by Hindu extremists, this approach could provide balance—but in the context of Mumbai, it bordered on inhumane.

The tactical problem is that this reflex of the Left, to counter loose talk of ‘Islamic terrorism’ by completely ignoring violence by extremist Muslim groups and concentrating solely on their violent enemies, does not help Muslims trying to escape the politics of hate. In India, Muslims generally do not want analysis of the Mumbai massacres to proceed through narratives of violence against Muslims because this suggests that there is a justifiable link here. In effect, it endorses the claims of the Lashkar-e-Taiba-trained attackers that they were acting on behalf of Indian Muslims, and makes Indian Muslims culpable of the indiscriminately violent largesse of the jihadis. Indian Muslims want their problems to be treated on their own terms, not as an element within a rationalizable circle of violence. In Britain too, Muslims are wary of arguments that tie violent jihadism with the difficulties Muslims face there or in other parts of the world. “The obvious question is why all violence can then not be justified through reference to some problem or the other of some group or the other,” a Muslim scholar told me.

In short, it would help the Left to understand that concern for social justice does not require avoiding condemnation of those who act violently in the name of social justice for Muslims. Salman Rushdie (whose antagonistic relationship with his Muslim inheritance is one of the signature docudramas of our times) made this point in a waspish response to Roy. There should be no question of not condemning what the Indian State has done in treating Kashmiri Muslims as enemies of the state, he said; but would the violent Muslim outfits beat their guns into ploughshares if the Kashmiri situation (and Israel-Palestine) were somehow resolved? This rhetorical counterfactualism effectively snaps the explanatory link between Muslim woes and jihadi violence, whatever one might think of Rushdie’s relationship with Islam as such.

I must be clear here: I see no alternative to “the awakening of a larger sense of the humanity of suffering” that Nussbaum has spoken of regarding 9/11. Although surprised by her call for “patriotism constrained by respect for human dignity”—a call that many on the secular Left in India would see as a limply liberal acceptance of the nation-state—I think that that is a pragmatic stance to take, given the power of the idea of the nation in America, India, Britain and everywhere else among ordinary people (i.e., those who don’t get to hold forth for a living).

But I also want to echo the observation (made on the Indian newsite Tehelka) by political scientist Sunil Khilnani—himself solidly of the Left—that the Left has abdicated questions of security to the Right.

Of course, the Left has a broader view of security: for example, the framework for human capacities development that Amartya Sen developed and Nussbaum herself has followed up on. And from a radical left-wing perspective implacably suspicious of the State, security—as the mobilization of power for the protection of the political collective determined by the nation-state—should not be a substantive issue for the Left, except as subject for critique. But pragmatic left-liberals should come to terms with the historically irrevocable development of sovereign states; and within a democratic dispensation, should seek to develop, first, a discourse of security, and second, the sustainable apparatus of State required for it.

As far as the specific issues of religion, terror, and the Mumbai attacks go, the immediate starting point should be the position that there ought to be no acceptance of a link between the attackers acting in the name of Indian Muslims and the conditions of the Muslims themselves. Just as analyses of Hindu chauvinism (or American exceptionalism) do not accept the causes which they make their own and thereby mitigate the violence they perpetrate, so too with violence carried out in the name of Islam.

Without letting up on pressure on the Indian State to act better toward Muslim communities, and without ceasing to resist exclusivist readings of Hindu culture (even when they are not violent), the Left should also acknowledge the specific political, geostrategic, economic, and military imperatives behind violence carried out in the name of Islam. Only consistency in the condemnation of religious violence can make for a sustainable response to the Right’s demonization (in India and the West) of Islam. Initially, it may look like a concession to the Right, because there will seem to be an apparent unity in condemnation of violence by Muslims. But only by breaking a symmetry with the Right—you always condemn Muslims, we never do so—can the Left develop a coherent stance on religious violence. And only then can the implication of religious identity in the search for social justice be understood.

If the Mumbai attacks were not India’s 9/11, it was because of the sheer particularity of each event—as Laurie Patton wrote in these pages shortly afterward, it was Mumbai’s sense of place that the attackers sought to destroy. Mumbai’s sense of place remains after the tragedy (as, of course, New York’s did then); and that, regardless of the ideological sources of one’s sympathy for India, give us all hope.

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