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Questions behind the Mumbai terror attack

The terror attacks in Mumbai have focused attention on some fundamental questions that neither the Indian state – the so-called world’s biggest democracy – nor the Pakistani regime are capable of resolving. They include the status of Kashmir and discrimination against Muslims in India amid vast inequalities of wealth within the country as a whole.

It is of course deeply symbolic that the terrorists chose Mumbai as their target. With its 13.9 million inhabitants it is a potent sign both of India’s dreams and its grim realities. It is the centre of the Bollywood film industry, the country’s financial centre and also has vast slums. Financial and property speculation in India has reached unheard of proportions (with modest houses in Delhi selling at £1m). Now the global economic crisis is beginning to take its toll.

The Deccan Mujahideen, the shadowy and previously unknown group, which has claimed responsibility for the carnage, seem to model themselves on those who carried out bombings in other Indian cities during 1993, 2006 and 2007. Speaking from the Oberoi hotel, they told Indian television: "Muslims in India should not be persecuted. We love this as our country but when our mothers and sisters were being killed, where was everybody? Release all the mujahideens, and Muslims living in India should not be troubled."

Sumit Ganguly, the director of research at the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana University, writing in the wake of the attacks, noted:

New Delhi has long trumpeted the claim that the country's approximately 140 million Muslims are immune to the call of jihad … At one level, India's policymakers haven't wanted to accept that, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Indian Muslims face substantial discrimination in many facets of everyday life. To cite but one example, Muslims constitute about 13 percent of the population but only about 3 percent of the elite Indian administrative service. Unsurprisingly, their second-class treatment has led some Muslims to lose faith in India's democratic institutions and to violently turn against the state.

Kashmir, meanwhile, remains divided between India and Pakistan. Some 400,000 Indian troops are in the region and they have vast, dictatorial powers. Troops have wide powers of arrest, the right to shoot to kill and to occupy and destroy property and to hold people without trial. More than two-thirds of Indian-administered Kashmir are Muslims, rising to over 90% in some areas. Two wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir testify to the fact that it suits both countries to keep the dispute alive and to demonise one another’s governments. The terror attack on Mumbai may well have been intended to provoke a third war between the countries.

What the attacks and the sluggish response by the security forces pose above all is a questioning of the nature of the Indian state itself. Because it is one of the few countries in the region to hold regular elections and boasts a multi-party system, it has been hailed as the world’s biggest democracy. Much of this is due to the legacy bequeathed by Gandhi’s fight against the British for independence. But the Congress Party he bequeathed has turned into a pro-big business, capitalist party, overseeing an economic transformation that has driven millions deeper into poverty.

Many of the institutions created by the leaders of the independence struggle have become deeply corrupt and are described by a leading historian as ”rotting away”. In its own way, India is affected by the malaise that has corroded and hollowed out the institutions and democratic processes set up half a century ago, as the world emerged from the second world war.

Will the Mumbai attacks now become an excuse, as 9/11 did in the US and 7/7 in Britain for India’s government to introduce anti-terror laws which take away the basic democratic rights of its citizens? In Britain and in India, democratic and state institutions are in crisis and are being unmasked as completely unable to protect citizens from economic disaster or terrorist attacks. Instead of helping people cope, the state is at best paralysed and at worst a creating the conditions for terror.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary
1 December 2008

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