Terror has rocked India before but never have terrorists been so audacious. South Mumbai is India’s economic heart. This attack is "India’s 9/11".
Mumbai is no routine urban agglomeration. It is a fabled city, where millions of Indians, migrating from poor hinterlands, seek a living; where rags-to-riches stories are not uncommon; where vast business deals are struck. It is where dreams are manufactured by a film industry that gives countless Indians relief from the struggles of life. Millions identify with the city.
Mumbai is a paradox. It has areas of appalling squalor but is India’s city of hope. It is in south Mumbai that the Tatas honed world-class business skills, Zubin Mehta learnt how to conduct Beethoven’s Fifth and Salman Rushdie understood how to turn the drama of everyday life into novels.
By targeting south Mumbai, the terrorists have not only attacked the economic symbol of a rising India but also its most globalised quarters.
A big hypothesis beckons: India is a highly unequal democracy in a bad neighbourhood, and as long as its democracy, inequalities and regional misfortunes remain unreformed, it will be vulnerable to terrorism.
Consider how Indian democracy has addressed terrorism. India’s politicians have asked: are terrorists simply terrorists, or are they Muslim or Hindu terrorists?
This question is tied up with electoral politics. Muslims comprise about 13 per cent of India’s population. Given how they are geographically distributed, they form a crucial electoral segment of at least a quarter of India’s parliamentary seats.
Seeking Hindu votes, some politicians have been quick to equate terror with Islam. Others, especially pro-Muslim political parties, focus on the unfair treatment of Muslims by the police rather than the fight to eliminate terror.
Recently Indian democracy has been treated to the obverse of "Muslim terror". Prima facie evidence and intelligence suggest the rise of Hindu networks practising terror against Muslims. In India’s democracy, terror has become identified not as an evil but as an outgrowth of the grievances of Muslims or Hindus, or as a sign of whether the Indian state is unfair to Muslims or Hindus. That is a recipe for further disasters.
Inequalities are the second part of the problem. The Indian economy has been booming, but while some business leaders, film stars and sports icons are Muslim, Muslims mostly come from the poorest, least educated and most poorly skilled communities.
Nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in Mumbai. It has some of the richest Indian Muslims but there is a huge Muslim underclass and a connection between Mumbai’s underworld and its poor Muslims has been noted. Muslim gangs are among the most powerful players in Mumbai’s organised crime. To many, crime appears to offer greater and easier rewards than a dogged pursuit of regular employment.
Finally, Indian democracy functions in a region, whose failings are second only to the Middle East’s. Recent works by Pakistani scholars make it clear that the state in Pakistan has long been fractured between agencies that support terrorism and those that seek to control it.
India has its troubles in Kashmir and the north-east, but these conflicts have never reduced the Indian state to a shambles. Alone in south Asia, India has had sufficient institutional strength to hold regular elections.
India has to ask how long it can continue to be institutionally strong if the neighbourhood is so violent. Its borders are porous and the prospect of maritime terrorism, raised by the Mumbai carnage, makes them more so. Foreign policy and national security are increasingly tied up with India’s political health, with potential consequences for India’s economic resilience.
What can be done? How to include India’s Muslims in the economic mainstream is key. India’s political parties need to learn that terrorism cannot be seen as a vote-winner. It is an evil and a security threat. If political parties link terrorism with Muslims or Hindus, they will only bring greater catastrophe closer. Finally, India must vigorously cultivate peace with Pakistan. Luckily, a government today exists in Pakistan that has made the most resolute gestures towards peace in decades. President Asif Ali Zardari has opened up a unique opportunity for regional peace. After Mumbai, India needs to respond.