Making sense of the senseless, Mumbai and its implications

Voraciously reading through Indian news sites (The Hindu, Times of India, The Hindustan), political and social sites, especially Twitter, I’m trying to makes sense of the seemingly senseless invasion of India’s financial and cultural capital, Mumbai. The world has responded with condolences for the families of the victims, the residents of Mumbai and the condemnation of the attack. This website included.

There were many heroes and heroines during the scary days of November in Mumbai. Many have rightly praised the bravery of the commandos and security forces. But what has not gotten as much attention is the heroism of the ordinary person, in particular the hotel workers on the scene. (Or the nanny who ran out with a two-year-old child covered in blood, whose parents were killed at the siege in Nariman House.) So many stories of these workers ushering guests out of harms way and to safety, they are really unsung heroes. (See some harrowing accounts and workers who helped: )

I have never been to the city that gave the world Bollywood, but I have been to India twice for a total of five weeks. Both times hosted by the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India-Marxist, which to me is the best way to see and understand this incredible country, through the context of their working class/oppressed/farmers and struggles for rights and economic security.

So here are the initial facts and insights I could gather and interpret that could help make sense out of this senseless violence.

What happened in Mumbai

At least 10 men arrived by boats along the coast of Mumbai on Nov. 26. They made their way to the train station and seven other public places, shooting dozens of people at these sites. The state’s anti-terrorist chief, Hemant Karkare, and others were killed after responding to the attack on a hospital. The attackers then made their way to and holed up in three places in the southern end of the city: the iconic Taj Mahal hotel, Oberoi-Trident Hotel and the Nariman House, a Chabad-Lubavitch hostel and religious center run by a New York-based ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect.

Chaos ensued for hours. As of now 188 are confirmed dead and 313 injured, most of the casualties are Indian, although the victims included 28 foreigners, who hailed from countries including Israel, Germany, Japan, United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, France, Italy, Singapore and Japan.

Nine of the ten terrorists were killed and one is in police custody. Earlier reports said there were 25 gunmen and seven were in custody, apparently some were arrested that had nothing to do with the attack. There is no evidence to suggest any local cooperation by Mumbai residents or that terrorists were among the guests at the hotels.

Who backed the attack?

Early on it was clear that to land 10 heavily armed men who moved with proficiency to positions in Mumbai required lots of planning, training and support. So, who gave such support? A previously unknown group called the Deccan Mujahideen claimed responsibility. Deccan refers to the plains in central and southern India. It seems the e-mail making the claim originated in Pakistan. Indian officials early on suggested there was help from some quarters in Pakistan.

Now evidence is mounting that implicates a Pakistan-based group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. Lashkar or LeT got its start in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Its stated objective is to end “Indian rule” in the disputed Indian state of Kashmir and to make Islam the religion of South Asia and China.

Kashmir is in northern India and there is a section administered by Pakistan. It has been a center of conflict since the British partition of India into three parts: Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). Kashmir is a majority Muslim state with sizeable Hindu population and history of Hindu leaders. But some forces in Pakistan (and Kashmir) demand that it be part of Pakistan, there are others that insist Kashmir be an “independent” country. The Indian left supports the Indian Constitution which sets a special status and autonomy for Kashmir within India.

LeT has carried out terrorist and military attacks on India and continues to operate in Pakistan’s borders, despite the attempts of civilian governments to get rid of and outlaw such groups. Pakistan’s army and intelligence service, ISI, from which LeT gets support, are deeply entrenched in the politics and economy of the country, severely limiting democratic rule.

Billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have propped up the army and ISI in Pakistan for years. The United States with Pakistan aided and abetted the formation of extremist military and political groups in the 1980s and 90s to fight the left/progressive government in Afghanistan and the Soviet army, which invaded Afghanistan to try to prevent an extremist takeover of a country on its borders. Now these forces have taken on lives of their own.

Initial fallout focuses on security

It took about 60 hours or two days and a half for the Indian forces to get control of the situation. There is a lot of anger toward the state and national governments for taking so long and for lack of political leadership through the crisis. Each state has its own security and intelligence apparatus and the national government – or Center – also operates its own. Criticism also extends to the political leadership for failing to prevent the attack since there were many “red flags” beforehand indicating a possible attack on Mumbai was eminent.

The Congress Party government was blamed for the lapses. 'There is rage,' wrote a Mumbai resident in a blog published in the Indian Express. 'A simmering against our so-called leaders. A simmering against the unpreparedness for this attack.'

According to The Times of India (http://tinyurl.com/62v3fe), it took the highly-regarded commando strike force nine-and-a-half hours to arrive on the scene. By the time the force got the orders 90 minutes had passed. Then it took four hours for the plane to arrive in Delhi and pick up the troops and another three hours to fly and land in Mumbai, plus time for buses and briefing, they started their operation at 7 a.m.

Security expert Praveen Swami reported in The Hindu (http://tinyurl.com/65fn3j) that there was credible intelligence of an imminent assault. The intelligence was credible enough to push the state police to meet with top corporate security heads to convince them of “the need to invest in defending their facilities,” this included the hotels. However, Swami writes, “nothing was done.”

In the wake of the credible intelligence, Swami said, security upgrades had been ordered for ports and “soft targets,” including more police, but the funding never came through. “People contrast the United States’ post-9/11 successes with our failures,” a Maharashtra police officer told him, “but they should also be contrasting the billions spent by that country with the peanuts we have invested in our own security.”

Security costs

India – an industrially developing country – does not have the same kind of widespread infrastructure, for security or anything else that “richer” countries have. In the wake of this attack, the government is positioning itself to beef up security by having separate commando groups nearer large population centers and other reforms.

Newspapers have warned against passing authoritarian laws, like the Indian version of the Patriot Act called Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), pushed by the BJP after the December 2001 attacks on Parliament. “The United Progressive Alliance government would do well not to lurch towards the legal route, seeking to introduce draconian provisions drawn from the repealed and discredited POTA that lend themselves to easy abuse against the innocent and would hardly deter fidayeen attacks,” The Hindu editorialized.

Some 70 percent of India’s more than 1 billion people live in deep poverty. Add to that the deep global economic crisis and the United States needing to change budget priorities investing more in people’s needs like health care instead of wasteful wars and unnecessary military projects. In other words, security challenges have to be answered in a framework that really puts people’s needs – safety, economic and political – first.

Political and economic fallout for India

It’s too early to gage the full geo-political and economic fallout from the Mumbai attacks for South Asia but it could be considerable. Perhaps that is what the goal of the terrorist operation was.

India’s home minister resigned and the finance minister took over his post. This seems to indicate the government’s concern on how hard of an economic hit India is going to take. Investment could easily dry up as fear undermines confidence. “People will hesitate to do business with India,” said Jasmeet Kaur, a 25-year-old student in New Delhi. “Tourism will be affected, as people will not come to a country where there is no security.”

India’s economic growth is second in the world only to China. However, the Congress Party has adopted Indian-style “neo-liberal” or “trickle down” economic policies that have created great wealth at the top and a sizeable middle class but deeper poverty among the majority of the people. The Congress may suffer in the national elections due in spring because of people’s anger towards them from the Mumbai attacks to the economic problems.

The main opposition is led by the far-right Hindu chauvinist political party BJP. Their leaders are already attacking the Congress and saber-rattling towards Pakistan. The BJP seeks to overturn India’s secular state and make the country into a “Hindu nation.” India has ancient roots in welcoming all religions. Secularism is one of its chief principles in the founding of independent India. (There are four pillars in the founding of India: secularism, universal suffrage, independent foreign policy and public ownership of the economy’s “commanding heights.”)

Many have decried the Hindu nationalist BJP for seeking electoral advantage with a full-page newspaper advertisement before the Nov. 29 Delhi elections: 'Brutal terror strikes at will. Weak government. Unwilling and incapable. Fight terror – Vote BJP.'

The BJP and related groups are well-known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies which have led to the organizing and instigating attacks on the Muslim minorities in India (and in some cases Christian minorities). It was during the BJP-led government that relations with Pakistan deteriorated so much that the world felt it was on the brink of a possible nuclear war between the nations.

Left parties respond

The Left parties, which include CPI and CPI-M, condemned the Mumbai attacks and called for a united stance against terrorism. They also called for systemic change and accountability for the security lapses. “Changing faces will not solve the problems. What the government should do now is to immediately take effective steps to revamp and strengthen the intelligence and security set-up,” said Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member S. Ramachandra Pillai. Communist Party of India National Secretary D. Raja called for “introspection” by the government. They also called for a full investigation of who is behind the attack. The CPI-M said the government should investigate the terror attacks and afterwards “when the evidence of the links in Pakistan of the persons who committed this terrorist outrage is established, the government should take up the matter with the United Nations Security Council.”

The Left had supported the Congress in Parliament to prevent the BJP from taking power, but they withdrew their support in July over the signing of the U.S.-India nuclear deal. They are forging an electoral alternative to Congress and the far-right BJP that they call a “non Congress, anti-BJP” formation. Their criticisms are not limited to the handling of the Mumbai and other recent terrorist attacks and the pro-Bush foreign policy orientation. It is centered in the economic policies of Congress. But deeply concerned about communal and sectarian violence, the Left does not want to give any quarter for the right-wing to win any electoral advantage. Disgusted by both the Congress and the BJP, voters may turn to the Left parties for leadership in these troubled times, some Indian political analysts say.

India-Pakistan relations

At the geo-political center of these attacks is the relationship between India and Pakistan. For more than 60 years, Hindu/Muslim distrust, hostility, animosity and even war have been stoked by British colonial forces, the Cold War and geo-political maneuvers, especially stemming from the U.S. staunch anti-communist, anti-Soviet policies, as well as religious extremism (both Hindu and Muslim), far-right politics and class antagonisms. Territorial disputes in Kashmir, terrorist attacks on India launched from Pakistani soil and anti-Muslim pogroms in India all contribute to hostile relations. Current U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and the recent U.S.-India nuclear deal have complicated the region’s stability.

What will India do in the wake of these attacks looms large. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zadari denied any involvement in the attacks. Pakistan could not 'gain anything' for such attacks and its democratic government did not believe 'in such tactics,' Zardari said Nov. 29. He said the 'roots of the current situation lay in the efforts of some countries to militarily defeat the Soviet forces in Afghanistan without an exit strategy” and the 'germs of terrorist elements were not produced in security agencies' labs in Pakistan but were created overseas and transferred to this region.'

Zadari condemned the attacks and said he had spoken to Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by phone to offer Pakistan's assistance in the investigations. Pakistan's new democratic government has repeatedly vowed to work with India to combat terrorism in the region. They have shifted troops to fight criminal and terrorist organizations operating along its border with Afghanistan. But it appears the civilian government is not in total control of the army or ISI. Hours after Pak’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, agreed to Singh’s demand that the ISI’s director-general fly to India, the Pakistani’s did a U-turn and said the director-general would not go.

According to reports, the Indian government is now considering a range of responses, including suspending its five-year peace process with Pakistan, closing their border, stopping direct flights and sending troops to the frontier.

Afghanistan in the mix

Pakistan’s government, meanwhile, has made it clear that if India again masses troops on the border, Pakistani forces would be diverted away from the Pak-Afghan border. “The next 48 hours are critical in determining how things unfold,” a top Pakistani security official told reporters. “We will not leave a single troop on the western border if we are threatened by India.”

According to the UK-based Times such a warning highlights “the international implications of the Mumbai attacks, was clearly designed to encourage the United States and its allies to temper India’s response. The United States has forged a new strategic partnership with India since 2004, but has closer and older ties to Pakistan, a key Muslim partner in the War on Terror.”

But India has resisted so far sending troops to the border of Pakistan. “The Army is not mobilizing troops on the border with Pakistan in the wake of Mumbai terror strikes,” a senior Army official told Press Trust of India Dec. 1. “We have not received any orders from the government for moving our troops to the borders and there will be no [2001] Operation Parakram-like mobilization,” the official said referring to the military operations after the Parliament attack in December 2001. The official also said the border ceasefire was well in place.

There are some experts, however, who speculate that the terror strike on Mumbai may have been aimed at taking the pressure off Pakistan on its Afghan front, where it is getting a battering from U.S. predators and causing a civilian uprising on its border. Moving troops out of there would allow Pakistan to return to its traditional hostile posture against India on its eastern front.

The Left parties in India and counterparts in Pakistan urge the governments not to let the Mumbai attacks undermine the ongoing peace process. The left and progressive forces in Pakistan condemned the attacks and vowed to “expose and organize against right-wing forces, both inside and outside the Pakistan military” opposed to good relations between Pakistan and India. The left in both countries say that terrorists and other extremists use religion and caste to carry out their anti-people agendas.

U.S. role

One analyst described the attacks as a “pre-emptive strike” against President-elect Barack Obama’s strategy to put Pakistan and Afghanistan at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Obama has promised to withdraw troops from Iraq and put more in Afghanistan to “finish the job” against Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and the Taliban. There are high expectations that the Obama administration will end the two wars sooner rather than later or never.

However, ongoing U.S. and NATO military operations are enraging the Afghans and tribal people in Pakistan and pushing them into the arms of these criminal gangs. Large numbers of civilians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes.

Even U.S.-compliant Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for a timetable of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. He has denounced the bombings and house raids that have caused civilian casualties and “undermined popular support for the war that routed the Taliban in late 2001,” reported The New York Times. The Bush administration – in a dress rehearsal for the invasion of Iraq – invaded and occupied Afghanistan in October 2001 right after the 9/11 attacks.

It seems clear that after seven years of war and occupation in Afghanistan and five years of the same in Iraq, that military power is not the answer to ending terrorism. And the Bush administration concept of a never-ending “war on terror” is a failure. Diplomacy, sustainable economic development, equality in state-to-state relations, international cooperation are all necessary components to isolate and end terrorism.

The incoming president has signaled that the U.S. should help negotiate an agreement on Kashmir, a long-standing dispute between India and Pakistan. However, India’s position is that Kashmir is a bi-lateral issue and no third party should intervene. (I don’t know Pakistan’s policy and I don’t know if that is designed to keep Kashmiri independence off the table.)

Two other major actors in the area are China and Russia. U.S. policies designed to encircle, provoke and isolate these powers through proxies, be it Afghanistan, Georgia, Pakistan or India should be abandoned.

U.S. corporate drive for oil, geo-political dominance and economic rule on the world has a domino affect. Knocking down the USSR and Afghanistan more than 20 years ago has created numerous players and events that have figured into today’s tragedy in Mumbai. The U.S. people and new administration have to be aware of all these moving parts and pursue pro-peace and pro-people policies.

Teresa Albano (talbano @pww.org) is the editor of People's Weekly World.