India’s 9/11? Not Exactly

Since the terrorist assaults began in Mumbai last week, the metaphor of the World Trade Center attacks has been repeatedly invoked. From New Delhi to New York, pundits and TV commentators have insisted that “this is India’s 9/11” and should be treated as such. Nearly every newspaper in India has put “9/11” into its post-massacre headlines. The secretary general of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the leading Hindu nationalist political faction, has not only likened the Mumbai attack to those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but has insisted that “our response must be close to what the American response was.”

There can be no doubt that there are certain clear analogies between the two attacks: in both cases the terrorists were clearly at great pains to single out urban landmarks, especially those that serve as symbolic points of reference in this increasingly interconnected world. There are similarities, too, in the unexpectedness of the attacks, the meticulousness of their planning, their shock value and the utter unpreparedness of the security services. But this is where the similarities end. Not only were the casualties far greater on Sept. 11, 2001, but the shock of the attack was also greatly magnified by having no real precedent in America’s history.

India’s experience of terrorist attacks, on the other hand, far predates 2001. Although this year has been one of the worst in recent history, 1984 was arguably worse still. That year an insurgency in the Punjab culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. This in turn led to riots that took the lives of some 2,000 Sikhs.

I was living in Delhi then and I recall vividly the sense of besetting crisis, of extreme fragility, of being pushed to the edge of an abyss: it was the only time I can recall when the very project of the Indian republic seemed to be seriously endangered. Yet for all its horror, the portents of 1984 were by no means fulfilled: in the following years, there was a slow turnaround; the Punjab insurgency gradually quieted down; and although the victims of the massacres may never receive justice in full measure, there has been some judicial retribution.

This has been another terrible year: even before the invasion of Mumbai, several hundred people had been killed and injured in terrorist assaults. Yet the attacks on Jaipur, Ahmedabad, New Delhi, Guwahati and elsewhere did not set off chains of retaliatory violence of the sort that would almost certainly have resulted 10 or 15 years ago. Nor did the violence create a sense of existential crisis for the nation, as in 1984. Thus, despite all loss of life, this year could well be counted as a victory not for terrorism but for India’s citizenry.

The question now is this: Will the November invasion of Mumbai change this? Although there is no way of knowing the answer, it is certain that if the precedent of 9/11 is taken seriously the outcome will be profoundly counterproductive. As a metaphor “9/11” is invested not just with the memory of what happened in Manhattan and at the Pentagon in 2001, but also with the penumbra of emotions that surround the events: the feeling that “the world will never be the same,” the notion that this was “the day the world woke up” and so on. In this sense 9/11 refers not just to the attacks but also to its aftermath, in particular to an utterly misconceived military and judicial response, one that has had disastrous consequences around the world.

When commentators repeat the metaphor of 9/11 they are in effect pushing the Indian government to mount a comparable response. If India takes a hard line modeled on the actions of the Bush administration, the consequences are sure to be equally disastrous. The very power of the 9/11 metaphor blinds us to the possibility that there might be other, more productive analogies for the invasion of Mumbai: one is the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004, which led to a comparable number of casualties and created a similar sense of shock and grief.

If 9/11 is a metaphor for one kind of reaction to terrorism, then 11-M (as it is known in Spanish) should serve as shorthand for a different kind of response: one that emphasizes vigilance, patience and careful police work in coordination with neighboring countries. This is exactly the kind of response India needs now, and fortunately this seems to be the course that the government, led by the Congress Party, has decided to follow. Government spokesmen have been at some pains to specify that India does not intend to respond with a troop buildup along the border with Pakistan, as the Bharatiya Janata-led government did after the attack by Muslim extremists on India’s Parliament in 2001.

A buildup would indeed serve no point at all, since this is not the kind of war that can be fought along a border, by conventional armies. The Indian government would do better to focus on an international effort to eliminate the terrorists’ hide-outs and safe houses, some of them deep inside Pakistan. India will also need to cooperate with those in the Pakistani government who have come around to a belated recognition of the dangers of terrorism.

The choice of targets in Mumbai clearly owes something to the September bombing of the Islamabad Marriott, another high-profile site sure to include foreign casualties. Here already there is common ground between the two countries — for if this has been a bad year for India in regard to terrorism, then for Pakistan it has been still worse.

It is clear now that Pakistan’s establishment is so deeply divided that it no longer makes sense to treat it as a single entity. Sometimes a crisis is also an opportunity: this is a moment when India can forge strategic alliances with those sections of the Pakistani government, military and society who understand that they, too, are under fire.

Much will depend, in the coming days, on Mumbai’s reaction to the invasion. That the city was not stricken by turmoil in the immediate aftermath of the attack is undoubtedly a positive sign. That the terrorists concentrated their assault on the most upscale parts of the city had the odd consequence of limiting the disruption in the everyday lives of most Mumbai residents. Chhatrapati Shivaji station, for instance, was open just a few hours after the terrorists there were cleared out. In the northern suburbs, the home of Bollywood’s studios, actors were summoned to rehearsal even while the battles were being fought.

But with each succeeding day, tensions are rising and the natural anxieties of the inhabitants are being played upon. Still, this is not a moment for precipitate action: if India can react with dispassionate but determined resolve, then 2008 may yet be remembered as a moment when the tide turned in a long, long battle. For if there is any one lesson to be learned from the wave of terrorist attacks that has convulsed the globe over the last decade it is this: Defeat or victory is not determined by the success of the strike itself; it is determined by the response.

Amitav Ghosh, the author, most recently, of the novel Sea of Poppies.