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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 1, December 20, 2008

Mumbai Terror Attack : Some Reflections

Sunday 21 December 2008, by Nandita Haksar

There is one image which refuses to fade: heavily armed terrorists moving around the dance floor of the seven-star hotel in darkness, with the full awareness that they would die very soon. What were the thoughts of these men who broke into the magnificent hotel and moved around the antique pieces, the chandeliers hanging from the gilded ceiling and the priceless pieces of furniture?

None of the journalists gathered outside the hotel under siege were even thinking of the ten (or was it more?) terrorists as human beings with feelings, emotions and motives. No one wanted to know the reason for their audacious attack, the reasons for their hatred of the Westerners and Israelis or their anger against Indians. In the aftermath of the attack there has been so much discussion on what we should do in order to prevent any further attacks but why do we not want to understand the reason why anyone should hate us so much that they would willingly sacrifice their lives in the process of attacking the symbols of our wealth and progress?

Almost all the suggestions that have been made to prevent further attacks are to do with tightening security and making it fool-proof. The BJP’s ten-point charter reflects the mood of all those who have been visible in the protests against the Mumbai attacks:

  1. Suspending the “miscalled peace process” with
  2. Sternest anti-terror laws, ensuring expeditious trial and conviction of terrorists;
  3. Enabling all States to have uniform anti-terror laws;
  4. Overhaul of the intelligence machinery;
  5. Federal Security Law and Federal Security and Investigating Agency;
  6. Police Reform Commission;
  7. A new code for the media during emergency;
  8. Placing Coast Guards under the Navy;
  9. Placing Mumbai terror attacks before the international community;
  10. Ensuring that Pakistan honours its anti-terror commitments under various UN resolutions.

In contrast the Jamaat-e-Islami has also a charter which it publicised by organising a Caravan for Peace and Justice through the country concluding in front of Delhi’s Jama Masjid on November 30, 2008:

  1. All riots and disruptive acts of the last decade should be probed into by an independent high-powered commission to identify the actual culprits and reports of the enquiry should be made public;
  2. Implementation of the National Police Commission report and recruitment of more personnel from the minority communities;
  3. Effective legal mechanism to deal with the police’s abuse of power;
  4. Protection of relatives and well-wishers of detainees from harassment;
  5. Effective regulation and legal mechanism to ensure fair and unbiased reporting by the media and ensuring that confessions extracted under duress are not leaked to the media;
  6. Stop initiatives for passing of undemocratic laws;
  7. Measures to promote human values and build peace;
  8. Comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system especially the law of bail;
  9. Reform of the jails;
  10. Lifting of the unjust ban on SIMI.

These two charters reflect the two different life experiences and threat perceptions. How do we judge which threat perception is real? One set of people, mainly from the majority community, are filled with fear of the threat of terrorists who, in their perception, can attack anywhere and at any time. They are afraid to go shopping, they are afraid to go for a movie and now even to a wedding at a five-star hotel.

The other people, from the Muslim community, have to face prejudice in their every day life in addition to the threat of being picked up, tortured, detained and denied human rights by the state machinery. They also have the fear of being victims of terrorist bomb blasts. Every time there is a bomb blast they know that hundreds of young men will be picked up on mere suspicion and it would take them years to prove their innocence because they would be denied their rights and even face Bar Association resolutions prohibiting lawyers from defending them.

The owners of the Taj and Oberoi Hotels will ultimately rebuild their damaged properties and recover their costs but the men who will be picked up will not be able to piece together their lives. That has been the experience of men and boys in Azamgarh, Calicut, Baramulla and Hyderabad. The Muslims have made it clear that they do not support these attacks and do not condone terrorism. Even Radiance, the weekly of the Jamaat-e-Islami, carries a specific appeal to the terrorist organisa-tions in its latest issue:

Horrendously baffling is Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Al- Qaeda terrorists’ shedding profuse tears on the plight of Indian Muslims. How we wish they, once and for all, understand a few basic facts: Despite their ideological link with the world Muslims, Indian Muslims are Indian Muslims…We have our problems like all minorities living under non-Muslim majorities. We are here by choice. India is our country. We have constitutional opportunities to share political power…. Your occasional words of sympathy—it goes without saying—not only create but multiply our problems.

Instead of sending commandos surreptitiously, come to India in civil dress, through passports and see for yourselves how, with our chin up, we are conducting ourselves. See our ITs, our hospitals, our organisations, our publishing houses and our religious seminaries. May be all this will convince you that we are not in need of any form of foreign help. Therefore, please (repeat Please) leave us alone. This is our honest and sincere plea.

How many people from the majority community will read Radiance? But they will hear the TV channels and these young, enthusiastic journalists have been reporting round the clock feeding us with news and views but very little analysis. In fact what they and the political parties have done is to feed into the mass hysteria which is crying for revenge, more security at the cost of democracy and even war. All this without even asking who attacked us and why were we attacked.

IF we demonise the terrorists and believe they have no reasons for their hatred, anger and resentment we will never be able to fight terrorism. Terrorists are represented as having no politics or cause except evil. This complete denial of political grievances felt by the Muslim community, locally, nationally and internationally only serves to blur our vision for a future course of action.

While the media has been advocating greater authoritarian measures for controlling terrorism they have failed to inform the viewers and readers that in the West there is a growing understanding that the millenarian ideology of pan-Islamism is linked to very real political grievances. The rise of puritanical Islam is in part a response to the Western policy in the Middle East, especially its role in denying the Palestinian people their right to their sovereignty and the occupation of Iraq. The cover story on the Mumbai attacks in Radiance also points out that the attack was a
nasty spill-over of the past, when Britain, through the Balfour Declaration, brought Israel into existence on the land of the Palestinians. This injustice remains undone till date.

The second major political grievance is the unjust capitalist system which has destroyed the livelihoods of millions and millions of people, wiped out cultures, devalued and diminished alternative lifestyles. The vulgarity of the consumerist society and the obscenity of the lifestyles of the rich have given rise to puritanical movements. The destruction of political culture and democratic institutions has forced the movements against imperialism into adopting armed resistance and fundamentalist ideology.

The logic of consumerism is seen in the spectacular growth of shopping malls. By the 1990s four billion square feet of the United States had been converted into shopping centres—16 square feet for every American man, woman, and child. The Human Development Report of the United Nations gives some spectacular figures on this culture of consumerism: $ 692 billion was spent on alcohol in Europe alone and $ 53 billion on cosmetics in the USA. And European and American pet food costs $ 112 billion. In contrast the cost of ensuring basic health and food for the entire Third World would be $ 85 billion.

Soroor Ahmed, writing in Radiance on the Mumbai attacks, referred to a cabaret dance at the time of the dance macabre and pointed out that the entertainment channels did not stop for a moment to pay tribute to the security forces killed in the process of saving lives in the Taj and Oberoi Hotels.

While the news channels were reporting that the US has put in place anti-terror laws that have virtually wiped out the gains of the human rights movement, they seemed totally unaware that people in the West have been having very lively debates on the need for deepening democracy by promoting multi-culturism and countering Islamo-phobia.

Thanks largely to the strong anti-war movement in the UK and the USA many people have started questioning the official discourse on war against terrorism. In the US there is a vibrant 9/11 Truth Movement. Dyalan Avery and two of his friends (who were in the US Army) produced a series of films debunking the myths around 9/11 called Loose Change. The films argue that the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were an insider’s job and not by the Al-Qaeda. The films were on the internet and could be downloaded freely. These have been described as the first internet blockbuster. I am not going into the controversy over whether all the facts represented in the films are correct—but this development does represent the growing unease with official versions of why and who carries out the terrorist attacks.

The human rights community has also displayed marked insensitivity and even contributed towards criminalisation of the Muslim community. Starting from December 5 the Amnesty International is organising an International Week of Justice Festival. I was invited to moderate a talk show on “No Hiding Place for Torture” which I gladly agreed. However, I was shocked to discover that the talk show was to be held on Eid. I told the representative of the Amnesty International that this would violate the very basic principle of minority rights. In the past we have protested against national women’s conferences being held during the Christmas week because it excludes Christian women. After all, the Amnesty International would never think of holding a major human rights event during Christmas in London or on Diwali in Delhi. The only response I got was that because it was going to be Eid they had scheduled my talk show in the smaller hall at the Alliance Franciase instead of holding it at the Islamic Cultural Centre where the other events were being held. Would I consider moderating the talk if they shifted it to the latter venue?

I said I also had objections to the way the talk shows seemed to subtly target Muslims as being the perpetrators of the human rights violations instead of victims of it. For instance, on my panel Tahmina Durrani was to speak on domestic violence but she declined and the representative of the Amnesty International assured me we would have another Pakistani to replace her. I said we should have an Indian activist speak of domestic violence among Hindus and we have enough examples and there was no need to import anyone from Pakistan. In the past my criticism would have elicited an invitation for a detailed discussion but this time the representative just walked out.

We have been seeing Pakistan-bashing since the 1990s mainly by Bollywood and now even human rights groups were becoming party to it.The problem is that we just do not know who attacked us. We have been told that Pakistan has a hand but we are not told in what capacity. In fact the media, the Opposition and government have whipped up a mass hysteria against Pakistan and Pakistanis, without caring to point out that Pakistanis are themselves the victims of religious fundamentalism and terror attacks. It was strange that the Indo-Pakistan peoples’ movement has been silent on this occasion when the media is whipping up mass hysteria demanding war.

THE main issue is not whether or not we support the pan-Islamic ideology of organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. I do not support either their ideology or their objectives. Apart from any other reason, I can never support their patriarchal values and have serious disagreements on their social and political analysis and causes of injustice, oppression and exploitation.

However, I do recognise that they have very genuine grievances and the Muslim community is the prime target of this so-called war against terrorism. Therefore it is important that we understand the causes of the Pan-Islamic movement and also why it has an appeal far beyond the actual members of specific organisations. We should also understand the consequences of our growing relationship with the USA and with Israel. The journalists reporting on the attack on Nariman House failed to make a distinction between Jews and Zionists.

In the context of reporting on the attack on Nariman House it was of utmost importance that the journalists made a distinction between being anti-Jew and being anti-Zionist. It would have surprised them if they had been told that many Jews in Israel have refused to join the Army and are called Refusniks. They have preferred to go to jail rather than be a party to the human rights violations of Palestinians. There is also growing number of Jews who are anti-Zionist just as there are many Hindus who are anti-Hindu fascism and Muslims who are opposed to Islamic fundamentalism. But the media failed to explain that the attack on Nariman House was possibly because it sheltered Israelis who came for a holiday after their term in the Israeli Army, rather than because it was a settlement of Jews.

The attack on Mumbai will have a bearing on India’s future. It will create a further division between the majority and minority communities; it will strengthen the class divide with official concern for security taking precedence over social-economic justice; it will make the Indian state more authoritarian and strengthen the alliance between Hindu fascism and the big corporate world.

Just as I was sliding into serious depression I saw banners announcing an Indo-Arab festival sponsored by FICCI, Ministry of External Affairs and the Arab League between December 2 and 7, 2008. it began with a seminar inaugurated by our Minister for External Affairs in which there was great emphasis on reviving the old civilisational links between India and the Arab world.

The programme included films from the Arab world, an exhibition of handicrafts and paintings and cultural extravaganza. I sat through three days watching the dances and music from Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Qatar, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Morocco and Oman. The FICCI hall was full every day. And each troop was greeted with clapping and cheering. The Egyptian dancer got a standing ovation when he produced a flag which was Egyptian on one side and our tri-colour on the other side. The loudest applause went to the Iraqi students studying in India who performed a dance from Basra. The greatest moment was the music of Palestine and the audience greeted them with their freedom songs and the singer from Oman led the national anthem of Palestine when the entire audience stood up spontaneously and the singer shouted “Jai Hindi, Jai Arabia, Jai, Jai, Jai”.

I sat there clapping, smiling, laughing at the antics of the two dwarf Egyptian wrestlers who was really one man, and I was transported back to the 1970s, the golden days of non-alignment, Third World unity and a secular vision for a future world where the world would be truly a wonderful place to live and celebrate life. The colours, designs, sounds and movements by the cultural troops challenged the Islamic fundamentalist ideology and also American imperialism and its efforts to impose their Mac-Culture on us all. It gave a hope for a revival of the Third World movement based on shared values and political commitment to smash the unequal world order.

Yet my joy was short-lived. When I turned on the television there was no reporting on the Arab festival, the political significance of it lost on a generation which was not connected to history or politics of anti-imperialism. The young journalists who were reporting on the days of the Mumbai attack had no links to that era.

Over the years the memory of the common anti-colonial movement and Third World solidarity had been deliberately wiped out. Now the Mumbai attacks were reported minus their historical and political context. A few reported the significance of the Taj as a symbol of defiance against British rule but they could not understand that the meaning of the symbol significantly changed when Modi invited the Tatas to build their new car. So the journalists could only feel sorrow at the destruction of a magnificent hotel but not at the destruction of the edifice of secular and democratic India.

The author is a legal practitioner, writer and human rights activist.

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