Dec 9, 2008

World - Why Mumbai?


Everyone in today’s globalised world will continue to pay a heavy price as long as imbalances and injustices continue to exist in places like Palestine.

I am writing this from a walled mediaeval Italian town, Viterbo, not far from Rome. It is disarmingly sunny and bright, in the crisp cold of early winter and one feels safe and secure, far from the mayhem in Mumbai. And yet, one is immediately drawn into it, when the world is saturated with it by the media. No one can any longer be isolated from global events in any part of the world.

Why was Mumbai chosen? Was it because the terrorists wanted to strike at the heart of a once-resurgent Indian economy, which is why the two most opulent hotels were targeted? Was it because the metropolis is the destination for businessmen, mainly from the West and more particularly from the U.S. and U.K.? Was it specifically to target foreign tourists, which is why Leopold cafe in Colaba was selected — it is the favourite watering hole for budget travellers, and figures prominently in David Gregory Roberts’ best-seller Shantaram? Was it a soft target, a far cry from the cloistered and tighter security of the political capital?

Strike at identity

It is all these and much more. Mumbai is by far the most cosmopolitan of our cities, in the truest sense of the word. It is the only city where five languages can be heard as part of the daily discourse, without anyone batting an eyelid. Mumbai was once the industrial capital, in addition to the commercial hub, and that has always endowed it with a vibrancy lacking elsewhere. It is important for urban India that Mumbai succeeds as a multicultural entity, and the strikes may seek to discredit that.

In the early 1990s, Mumbai faced the first riots in recent years over The Satanic Verses, in which a few lost their lives when the police opened fire on protesters. Mumbaikars were surprised that they had joined the rest of the country in being singled out for such conflagrations. It faced the worst communal violence after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 and the serial bomb blasts in March 1993, which paradoxically capped the protracted and bloody conflict. The Shiv Sena, on its own admission, played a major role in stoking the fires of those two riots.

The current attacks are on an altogether new plane. Mumbai has now faced the brunt of post-9/11 global terror. If Anglo-Saxons have been specifically targeted, the inference is obvious. These mujahideen aren’t wreaking only vengeance against Hindu militants or the Indian State but attempting to strike back at “The War on Terror”. It is a message for President Bush and his erstwhile partner in arms, Tony Blair. They are sending an unequivocal signal to the U.S. President-elect that they are making a statement against the continuance of old interventionist policies.

While the exact timing of these attacks may have to do with Barack Obama’s elevation in two months, the prelude may well be India’s entry into the nuclear deal with the U.S., which will clearly be seen as the country opting to align itself, for better or worse, with America. In all the euphoria over the end of India’s isolated status among the haves of the nuclear world, the foreign policy shift cannot have been lost on the terrorists. One can state, with some degree of certainty, that India should gird its loins for far more terrorist attacks in the months and years to come. Alliance of this dubious nature will extract its own, terrible costs.

Mumbai should guard against any knee-jerk reactions in these trying times. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has already been waging its own strong-armed vendetta against north Indians, aided and abetted by an unscrupulous Congress-led coalition in the State. There will be a temptation for all parties, led by the Shiv Sena, to demonise all Islamic communities and countries. The best response, in the immediate future, is to emphasise that the city is proud of its multi-cultural character and that diversity is its strongest answer to attempts to divide citizens on the basis of community and language.

But the attacks are also a time too delve into history and examine why most — but by no means all — terrorists are Muslims (though Hindu terrorists have now sprouted up too). This is true not only in this country but throughout the world. One has to remember that these countries are located either where there are major oil reserves, or — in the case of Afghanistan — where geopolitical strategies are vital for Western powers, now and in previous centuries. As the renowned British journalist Robert Fisk says, if Iraq’s main produce was broccoli, you can bet your last dollar that Bush wouldn’t have invaded it.

Long-standing grievances

The fact remains that till there is occupation of Islamic countries, even while the West turns a blind eye to the blatant occupation of Palestine by Israel and, indeed, arms this rogue nuclear State, there is not an iota of hope of an end to terrorism and counter-terrorism throughout the world. On the contrary, President Bush was hell-bent on targeting Iran, on the flimsiest of pretexts, citing Iran’s nuclear arms capabilities. This is of a piece with the now-widely discredited pretext for the invasion of Iraq, the much-vaunted Weapons of Mass Destruction.

If one excludes immediate bordering territories, no Islamic country is occupying another nation in today’s world. By contrast, Palestine has witnessed bloody conflict for over half a century and the U.N. and other bodies refuses to deliver justice to the embattled region there. Unless one attends to these long-festering wounds, one will live with terrorism for decades to come.

Elites in India will also do well not to fall into the trap of so much demonisation of Islamic societies, with Iraq only one rung better than Afghanistan. We forget that it is not only one of the cradles of civilisation, along with Iran, but that these are also regions with which India shares a much longer history. As a secular country with the second largest Muslim population in the world, India owes it to itself to take a long view of this tragedy, one of the scenes of which is just playing out.

The author is Chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI), Mumbai.

No comments: