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Guest Blogger: What Mumbai means

This Magazine Staff

[Editor’s Note: from time to time we feature guest bloggers on important issues. Email editor at thismagazine dot ca to enquire about contributing.]
msengupta.jpgBY MITU SENGUPTA
In India, the Mumbai attacks have been interpreted as a strike against the country — as “India’s 911.” The image is one of instant clarity. This was an external operation, orchestrated by an Islamist organization, and was at least partially funded by Jihadist factions inside Pakistan’s perennially fractured government. In India, none of this is particularly surprising. Neither is the government’s dithering response to the attacks. For most Indians, the rumour of governmental ineptitude is almost as strong as that of Pakistan-sponsored Islamic militancy. The depiction of the events in Mumbai as a sinister foreign plot that unfolded with chilling ease in the face of a corrupt, bungling government is probably not without merit. It is nonetheless an oversimplification, and not just for Indians. The core targets of the attack were two luxurious five-star hotels that cater to international business travellers and India’s well-heeled. This serves as reminder that the Mumbai attacks are, at root, an assault on a new, globalizing India, which sees itself, and is perceived by much of the West, as the greatest and perhaps only rational power in that politically chaotic region.

But while the Mumbai attacks certainly speak to the vulnerability of this new, prosperous India, they also speak to its profound lack of awareness of its own vulnerability. It is revealing that the targeted hotels were outrageously short of security, even though they, like other five-star hotels, are conspicuous oases of opulence in an otherwise desperately poor and troubled city. The gunmen seemed to know the hotels’ floor-plans, and possibly rented rooms where they stored ammunition. They probably mingled with guests, greeted staff, and strutted in and out of the front lobby. It is not terribly surprising that no-one noticed. Heady with self-esteem and optimism, India’s globalizing elites — along with their foreign friends — have a habit of looking the other way when confronted by the ugliness of the politics around them; an almost deliberate obliviousness that is as much to blame as the usual suspects of government incompetence and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
India’s achievements are many. Its vibrant, fast-growing economy has generated a 250-million strong middle class. India’s democratic credentials are by all means impressive. It boasts an independent judiciary, regular elections with healthy voter turnouts, and an active media that is consistently tough on government. Democracy also appears to have softened the edge of much erstwhile disaffection. It has turned the country’s once-formidable Communist Left into market-friendly social democrats. Groups persecuted under India’s notorious caste system have organized themselves into influential political parties, which have gone on to form the government in some of India’s most politically important states. Not all religious minorities seem unhappy. Many Muslims affirm their patriotism and liberal values with as much zeal as they condemn Islamist extremism.
Beneath this buoyant picture of conciliation, however, is a very different reality. A tragic war has raged on in Kashmir for almost twenty years. While Pakistan has probably stoked the conflict by arming militants, Indian forces stand accused of egregious human rights violations against Kashmir’s predominantly Muslim population. Poverty is another scourge. Last year, a controversial report suggested that some 77 percent of the country’s population live in extreme poverty, on less than 50 cents a day. A disproportionate number of the abject poor are Muslim, and many poor Muslims live in Mumbai. In fact, Mumbai has often served as an unwitting theatre of action for the country’s long history of interfaith violence. In 1993, some 250 Mumbaikers died in bomb blasts, ostensibly by Muslims seeking revenge for the demolition of a revered mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu extremists. In 2006, another 180 were killed in an audacious strike on the city’s railway stations by groups linked to Kashmiri militants. When put together with the two thousand or more Muslims slaughtered by Hindu fanatics in the neighbouring state of Gujarat in 2002, this seems a disturbed region indeed. There is no doubt that millions in India are deeply angry, and that this passion is most easily inflamed in big, congested cities like Mumbai, where the aggrieved cannot always avoid each other.
Such anger, however, is rarely noticed by the country’s upwardly mobile, who blithely identify with their fellow consumers in the West rather with than the discontented in their own country. Nowhere is this more palpable than in Mumbai, where the rich live like minor kings, and even the middle-level executive can have it all: the warmth of the seaside, resort-like accommodations, a chauffeur-driven car, and a retinue of cooks, maids and nannies, most of who will conveniently disappear at dusk into the squalid slums at the periphery of the city. The affluent can never fully shut out the misery around them. It takes only a short roll-down of one’s car window to come nose-to-nose with the sweaty faces of the heaving multitudes who clearly do not consider Mumbai their paradise. But one can look away, as most do, to burrow into some files, a Blackberry, or a sandwich. This is almost a studied obtuseness.
The most recent carnage in Mumbai will probably lead to greater acknowledgement, by India’s confident elites, of their profound vulnerability to the stormy politics around them, and of the unnerving proximity of those who are angry as well as willing to act. One will probably see more armed security guards, metal detectors, and bans on shady organizations. It is unlikely, however, that such measures will ever be enough to subdue the violence that seems endemic to that beleaguered region and city. While they may temporarily separate the satiated from the disgruntled, they are no more than a physical expression of the act of looking a way. In the long term, they are likely to damage India’s cherished reputation as a beacon of democracy. Although poverty and alienation are never justification for terrorism, they feed its anger and nihilism. It is imperative that the new India, along with its allies in the West, squarely confronts the deep discontentment that bubbles beneath its newfound prosperity and looming great power status.
Mitu Sengupta is Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University. She has also worked as a consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and as an editorial writer in New Delhi, India.

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