Gathering the Pieces After the Mumbai Blasts

NEW DELHI – As the death toll continues to mount in Mumbai’s ghastly serial bomb attacks, it is becoming clear that India is witnessing a human tragedy of the same dimensions as the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, in which 192 people lost their lives. The bombings were Europe’s worst-ever case of sub-state terrorism.

Spain responded to that humanitarian disaster by replacing conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar with Social Democrat Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq, sent as part of the United States-led war coalition.

India does not seem about to execute such a big political change, but the Mumbai bombings, which targeted commuters returning home on Tuesday evening, have raised a number of questions in the minds of observers and analysts of the country’s society and politics.

Some of these are: Do such professionally coordinated, well-articulated bombings really pose a serious, systemic threat to the fabric of India’s society and its democracy? Who carried these out and from what motivation? How should India respond to such violence without losing its democratic and constitutional obligation to defend human rights while bringing the culprits to book?

And not least, what will be the likely impact of the attacks on the India-Pakistan dialogue process? In the past, Indian leaders typically blamed Pakistani secret agencies or Islamabad-supported militants for terrorist attacks against Indian civilians.

The last question may be easier to answer than the first three. A senior Pakistan high commission official in New Delhi told IPS: "We do not see any hitch in the coming round of bilateral talks. Pakistan was among the first countries to condemn the Mumbai bomb attacks. No fingers have been pointed at us by Indian officials. And we believe that both states are serious about their two-year-old understanding that no incident of violence would be allowed to wreck the all-important dialogue process."

The process was not interrupted by recent terrorist violence, including in the disputed Kashmir Valley last week. Pakistani officials expect their foreign secretary’s visit to India, likely next week, to be "a smooth affair" with positive engagement between the two sides.

Although Indian intelligence agencies do not rule out the involvement of "rogue" elements within Pakistani secret services in anti-India terrorism, they note that President Pervez Musharraf has pitted himself against Islamist extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As the Indian public experiences the full impact of the blasts, with their sickening violence against ordinary civilians, it is increasingly apparent that it cannot duck these questions. Yet, there are no consensual answers to some of them. But, despite a lot of confusion over the past couple of days, the Indian public refuses to be shaken off its feet by the blasts’ trauma and lose its robust democratic bearings.

In sheer numbers, the serial bombings of Mumbai represent one of worst episodes of terrorism in India, only slightly smaller in scale than Mumbai’s March 12, 1993, bombings, which claimed 257 lives.

The 1993 blasts were widely seen as "retribution" for the demolition of a 16th-century mosque and systematic demonization of Muslims. The present blasts are random: you are targeted not because you belong to a particular category, but because you happen to be one of the 4 million-plus commuters who use the city’s suburban rail system.

"This randomness makes the violence especially frightening," says Achin Vanaik, a political scientist with Delhi University. "It is meant to intimidate you and make you feel extremely vulnerable. But beyond that, it poses no real challenge to the political system or to Indian democracy," Vanaik adds.

In the past, terrorism has typically failed to create a sense of grave systemic crisis or near-collapse of governance in India, to encourage social schisms and alienation, or to lead to Hindu-Muslim violence. The Indian public simply refused to be provoked.

This is a tribute to the ordinary citizen’s maturity and affirmation of social assimilation and pluralism in India, rather than the state’s handling of terrorist violence. "This handling is marked by lack of intelligence, sloppy investigation and collation of evidence, absence of thorough interrogation of witnesses, loose framing of charges, and poor conduct of prosecution," says Nitya Ramakrishnan, a civil liberties lawyer based in Delhi.

Adds Ramakrishnan: "The state fails to gather the information necessary for successful prosecution of culprits in case after case, or to create a database on different groups and their links. There are hardly any cases where an alleged terrorist is prosecuted on adequate evidence."

The police often stage fake "encounters" and claim that the terrorists opened fire on them when surrounded; they killed in "self-defense."

India’s criminal justice system, creaking under antiquated procedures and delays, rarely succeeds in bringing criminals to book. Most of India’s major cases of hate-crime, religious violence, or state repression go unpunished. Some 80,000 people have perished in state killings and sub-state violence in Kashmir and the northeast. But only a minuscule number of officials have been punished.

This has created a culture of impunity, a phenomenon observed after the butchery of 2,000-plus Muslims in western Gujarat state in 2002.

Lack of hard evidence of the involvement of specific groups in violent incidents means that everyone engages in speculation. In the present case, officials and the media have hinted at the involvement of Islamist-extremist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (Soldiers of God) based in Pakistan, and the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). But no hard evidence has emerged.

The political Left and the Right in India have reacted differently to the blasts. The Left, which supports the government from the outside on the agenda of maintaining the country’s secular character, has counseled restraint and appealed to citizens not to overreact.

The Right, especially the Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party that leads the national opposition, has accused the government of "ignoring" national security. It demands the return of draconian anti-terrorism laws, in particular, the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was repealed after numerous instances of its abuse came to light.

"Draconian laws can only abridge the citizen’s fundamental rights and devalue democracy," says Vanaik. "That would be tragic, not least because stiff restrictions on basic freedoms will only brutalize ordinary people and encourage official irresponsibility, dereliction of duty, and abuse of power. Such measures divert attention from the far graver damage that state excesses, including war and terrorism, can inflict upon the public."

More answers are expected to emerge as India comes to terms with the grave tragedy still unfolding in Mumbai.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.