As the story of the carnage in Mumbai unfolds, it is tempting to dismiss it as merely another sorry episode in India’s flailing effort to combat terrorism. Over the past four years Islamist groups have struck in Delhi, Jaipur, Bangalore and Ahmedabad, among other places. The death toll from terrorism – not counting at least 195 killed in Mumbai last week – stands at over 4,000, which gives India the dubious distinction of suffering more terrorist casualties since 2004 than any country except Iraq.
The attacks highlight India’s particular vulnerability to terrorist violence. But they are also a warning to any country that values what Mumbai symbolises for Indians: pluralism, enterprise and an open society. Put simply, India’s failure to protect its premier city offers a textbook example for fellow democracies on how not to deal with militant Islam.
The litany of errors is long. Unlike their counterparts in the West, or in east Asia, India’s perpetually squabbling leaders have failed to put national security above partisan politics. The country’s antiterrorism effort is reactive and episodic rather than proactive and sustained. Its public discourse on Islam oscillates between crude anti-Muslim bigotry and mindless sympathy for largely unjustified Muslim grievance-mongering. Its failure to either charm or cow its Islamist-friendly neighbours – Pakistan and Bangladesh – reveals a limited grasp of statecraft.
Finally, India’s inability to modernise its 150m-strong Muslim population – the second largest after Indonesia’s – has spawned a community that is ill-equipped to seize new economic opportunities and susceptible to militant Islam’s faith-based appeal.
To be sure, not all of India’s problems are of its own making. In Pakistan, it has a neighbour founded on the basis of religion, whose government – along with those of Iran and Saudi Arabia – has long been one of the world’s principal exporters of militant Islamic fervour.
Bangladesh also hosts a panoply of jihadist groups. As in Pakistan, public sympathy with the militant Islamic worldview forestalls any meaningful effort against those who regularly use the country as a sanctuary to plan mayhem in India. America’s unsuccessful Pakistan policy – too many carrots and too few sticks – has also contributed to a fundamentally unstable neighbourhood.
Nonetheless, the reflex Indian response to almost every act of terrorism is to apportion blame rather than to seek a solution that will prevent, or at least minimise its recurrence. Even Indonesia – a still-poor Muslim-majority nation where sympathy for militants runs deeper than it does in India – has done an infinitely better job of recognising that the protection of citizens’ lives is any government’s first responsibility. A superbly trained, federal antiterrorism force called Detachment 88 has ensured that the country has not suffered a terrorist attack in more than three years.
By contrast, India’s leaders – who invariably swan around with armed guards paid for by the taxpayer – can’t even agree on a legal framework to keep the country safe. On taking office in 2004, one of the first acts of the ruling Congress party was to scrap a federal antiterrorism law that strengthened witness protection and enhanced police powers.
The Congress party has stalled similar state-level legislation in Gujarat, which is ruled by the opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata party. And it was a Congress government that kowtowed to fundamentalist pressure and made India the first country to ban Mumbai-born Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988.
The BJP hasn’t exactly distinguished itself either. In 1999, the hijacking of an Indian aircraft to then Taliban-ruled Afghanistan led a BJP government to release three hardened militants, including Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the former London School of Economics student who would go on to murder Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
More recently the BJP, driven by tribal religious solidarity and a penchant for conspiracy theories, has failed to demand the same tough treatment for alleged Hindu terrorists as it does for Muslims. Minor parties, especially those dependent on the Muslim vote, compete to earn fundamentalists’ favour.
In sum, the Indian approach to terrorism has been consistently haphazard and weak-kneed. When faced with fundamentalist demands, India’s democratically elected leaders have regularly preferred caving to confrontation on a point of principle. The country’s institutions and culture have abetted a widespread sense of Muslim separateness from the national mainstream. The country’s diplomats and soldiers have failed to stabilise the neighbourhood. The ongoing drama in Mumbai underscores the price both Indians and nonIndians caught unawares must now pay.
Sadanand Dhume, a Washington-based writer and the author of My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist (Text Publishing)
© The Wall Street Journal and Sadanand Dhume