Mumbai and Manhattan share quite a few characteristics. They’re both on long, narrow peninsulas, with the wealthy parts at the bottom and slummier sections extending to the north and east, and both are deeply multi-ethnic cities – economic, industrial and cultural magnets that define their entire continents. They’re also exciting, expensive and exasperating places to live. And they’re both targets of terrorism.
So it’s tempting to describe this week’s outrages as “the Sept. 11 of India.” The narrative is hard to resist: A surprisingly well-organized group of mysterious Islamic terrorists launches a fiery attack on symbol-
ically important buildings at the city’s southern tip – an attack apparently aimed at foreigners, Jewish people and the business elite, in the full view of the media. A city’s innocence is traduced. There’s a collective struggle to restore normality and repel the invaders. It’s portrayed as a clash of civilizations.
Let me suggest that you ignore this narrative. To follow this storyline, to see these events as civilizational warfare, is to misconstrue the nature of India and, importantly, the nature of the whole world to a dangerous degree.
India does have a problem with terrorism and extremism, one that threatens to destabilize the amazing humanitarian and economic progress it has made in recent years. But it isn’t one of Islamic extremists trying to take over the state. Quite the contrary.
The most prominent Indian killed in the terrorist attacks on Wednesday was Harmant Karkare, the head of Mumbai’s anti-terrorism squad, who was assassinated in the city’s central train station along with several of his deputies.
The day before, he had received a death threat. That didn’t surprise him, he told reporters, as it came just days after he had filed charges against 10 men in India’s recent major terrorist attack, the Sept. 29 bombings in the city of Malegaon that killed nine and injured 80.
The accused are Hindu nationalist activists, young women and men associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Mr. Karkare also linked BJP-tied Hindus with the much deadlier bomb attacks in Malegaon two years ago, which killed 37 and injured 125 and had been blamed by local police on Muslim groups – an odd accusation, since the targets in both attacks were mosques.
EPIDEMIC OF TERRORISM
These were not lone attacks. In the past decade, India has seen an epidemic of Hindu terrorism that reached its nadir – I hope – in 2002, when almost 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered in the state of Gujarat. That massacre, like so many others, had been whipped up by Hindu-nationalist parties, in response to an earlier, smaller instance of Muslim violence.
There are certainly extremists from both religions. But there’s a difference: One side has formed a government and is trying to do so again. It already controls Mumbai and is close to gaining power in much of the rest of the country.
The BJP ruled India from 1998 to 2004, and its politics are those of racial nationalism – it was born of Hindutva movements that get their ideas directly from German national socialism.
That’s right: The movement that has overtaken and politicized sections of this traditionally peaceful religion believes India should be an “Aryan” nation, and, in the same confusion of linguistic and racial identities that made Adolf Hitler’s movement possible, it believes that only Hindus (and sometimes only Hindus from the central state of Maharashtra) are legitimate citizens.
In a few weeks, much of India will go to the polls in state elections, and the BJP stands to gain power in as many as four of the states. The party’s new prime ministerial candidate is Lal Krishna Advani, a far-right activist who in the 1990s provoked a mob to demolish a 400-year-old mosque, leading to riots that killed thousands.
The BJP was not happy with Mr. Karkare’s investigations. Rajnath Singh, the BJP president, denounced him on Nov. 10, exonerating anything done by a Hindu extremist: “Whosoever believes in nationalism cannot be a terrorist.” On Internet discussion forums after Mr. Karkare’s death, numerous activists argued that he got what he deserved.
Mumbai is at the centre of this foment. The city is ruled by the Shiv Sena (Army of Shiva), a more militant and grassroots-oriented branch of the same extreme-right Hindutva movement.
Shiv Sena gained power after the 1993 riots in which mobs of Hindus killed countless Muslims in response to bombings, destroying the unity and cosmopolitanism that once defined the city: Before 1993, Hindus and Muslims generally shared neighbourhoods. Since that horror, they have generally lived apart.