After Mumbai: India’s democratic test

Meenakshi Ganguly
4 December 2008

The visible fires have died down, the dust has almost settled. Not just at the hotels, the train station, the Jewish centre, the café or the hospital that came under attack in Mumbai (Bombay). But also at the cremation grounds and burial sites, where innocent victims were put to rest. Yet, as one young man said, "There is a fire still burning in my heart." The young man is an Indian, a citizen of Bombay, and a Muslim.  

Meenakshi Ganguly is senior researcher on South Asia for Human Rights Watch

Also by Meenaksh Ganguly in openDemocracy:

"Sri Lanka: time to act" (10 September 2006)

India's Dalits: between atrocity and protest (9 January 2007)

China and Bhutan: crushing dissent (4 July 2007)

India and Burma: time to choose" (14 January 2008)

Nepal: the human-rights test (28 April 2008)

"India's election season: bad for minorities" (3 November 2008)

There is another 21-year-old who is now in custody. The authorities say he has admitted responsibility for the indiscriminate firing at the Chhatrapati Shivaji station which claimed over fifty lives and injured many more. His picture was captured on closed-circuit television, carrying an assault rifle. He and his accomplice also allegedly killed three police officers. He is reported to have said that he is neither Indian nor a citizen of Bombay, but is a Muslim. What sort of fire burns in his heart?  

The first, the Indian, said he was angry. As an Indian, he believes the attack to have been an act of war. India has been victim of so many bomb-attacks, it has become somewhat inured, almost as though rolling with the punches and moving on. But to watch a raging gun-battle over three days, a city skyline in flames, does feel like war. As a citizen of Bombay, he is angry because of the hate campaigns that tried to divide it by attacking those who come from outside into a city that does not have the infrastructure to support its vast population. As a Muslim, he believes his religion is once again being blamed as one that teaches violence. But he rushed to say that those gunmen, if they are Muslim, do not speak for my community.

The authorities say that the captured gunman - who identified himself as Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab - said that he is a Pakistani citizen and was trained in Pakistan to "kill until your last breath." If true, who taught him this? Who trained him? Who gave him guns, grenades and explosives? And why did he make this choice?

The hand of restraint

As the Indian government begins to investigate the attacks, identify and prosecute those planned this murderous spree, it has to act with great responsibility - as do all in public life in the country. Those who peddle hate for votes need to quickly learn that their actions have consequences. They should remember that this was not just an attack on India. The killers also wanted to punish westerners. They wanted to attack Jews. They wanted to destroy an economy vital for ending the horrible poverty that afflicts much of India. They should remember that avenging these acts by vilifying ordinary citizens will only help the attackers succeed - as it has in the past, when innocent Muslims were singled out and the community felt under siege. 

Those that call for retribution upon Pakistan must also be cautious. An extreme reaction is perhaps what these extremists desired. The attacks happened just days after serious peace moves by Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari. If the perpetrators are indeed linked to Pakistan, then it is up to Islamabad to ensure that it joins in a global effort to end such acts of violence. Those responsible must be identified and properly held to account. The Pakistani government has said that its hands are clean. It should demonstrate this by taking strong lawful action against those of its citizens who are involved in such violence. But we can't forget that a civilian president in Pakistan cannot just snap his fingers and make the army and ISI intelligence services jump. A smart Indian government will take steps that will bolster moderates in Pakistan and isolate hardliners. 

Inside the fire

But above all, the big test is how the Indian government responds to this crisis. India celebrates its democracy. State assembly elections were held even as government commandoes secured the hotels in Mumbai.  
Also in openDemocracy on the Mumbai atrocity:

Kanishk Tharoor, "What to make of the Mumbai attacks" (27 November 2008)

Saskia Sassen, "Cities and new wars: after Mumbai" (29 November 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The lessons of Mumbai" (1 December 2008)

Democracy - one that includes due process of law, fair trials, a prohibition on torture - must be strengthened and protected. 

The Indian government must identify and prosecute those responsible for these attacks. Apparently all but one gunman is dead. But who recruited, trained and armed the group? They are even greater villains. But here too, there is need for caution. India has a strong constitution that protects life and liberty. While making every effort to guarantee the first, it must ensure that it also protects the second. Of course the perpetrators must be punished. But arbitrary arrests and torture will not help the investigation. Nor will a law that allows indefinite detention and the evidence of confession under torture. Those have already failed in the past to prevent these acts of horror. 

Instead, India has to evolve a strong strategy to ensure its security. It must provide its police with better equipment and training to handle these challenges. It has to learn to deal with the dangers of a hostage situation. Indian security personnel faced up to the crisis, but too many had to die in the process. Could those deaths have been prevented? Certainly many have complained that the vintage rifles and the protection gear that the police had to work with seemed inadequate. There are also complaints about the lack of essential support for prompt deployment of the special forces, including transport and communications. What India needs is for its leaders to honestly, without blaming each other for political or other petty gains, examine the response to the crisis, and how it could have done better. 

The fires have to be prevented from erupting again. No city should burn like Mumbai did. And no 21-year-old should turn to such horrific violence. 

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