After Mumbai: back to the brink?

Maruf Khwaja
12 July 2006

Inexorably, the old adversaries India and Pakistan seem to be sliding back to the brink of conflict, in the nuclear–primed powder keg of their subcontinent. It is scant comfort to know that they have been there before. Just how assured is the world that somehow a sane counsel will eventually prevail? The nightmare lingers of a madman taking over, or a fundamentalist finger close to the fatal button. In Pakistan's prevailing circumstances, anything can happen. Musharraf may strut on the world stage now and then, but is he really in control? His underlings run and hide when the mullahs say "boo".

Luckily in matters of substance there are - on both sides - a few sane elements, and their sanity sometimes overcomes the passions of age–old enmity, albeit temporarily. In a recent rare period of rational introspection Indians and Pakistanis started talking. They hadn't talked for ages. When they did, they liked it. Onlookers liked it more. Little bubbles of euphoria began to rise here and there.

True, they weren't getting anywhere. The talks never seriously touched the core subject – Kashmir. The freedom-fighters/terrorists said "we told you so" and returned to their violent business with renewed zeal. But movement in a circle is better perhaps than movement down a slippery slope. Peace-talkers would not be distracted. There were even gestures of conciliation. Yet we know that the history of India–Pakistan relations follows a dreary cycle of retrogression, like a cancer in deceptive remission. Things seem to get better only to get worse. While many prefer talk to war, there is a small but powerful minority wanting the reverse.

Maruf Khwaja was born in India, was raised in Pakistan, has travelled and worked around the world, and now lives in England. He has been a journalist for forty years, and is the author of an unpublished autobiography, Being Pakistani.

Among Maruf Khwaja's writings on openDemocracy:

"The suicide of fundamentalism" (August 2001)

"The past in the present: India, Pakistan, and history" (August 2002)

"Becoming Pakistani" (August 2004)

"Terrorism, Islam, reform: thinking the unthinkable"
(July 2005)

"Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures" (August 2005)

"Pakistan's mountain tsunami"
(October 2005)

"The Baluchi battlefront"
(February 2006)

"The Islamisation of Pakistan"
(April 2006)

Those familiar with the imbroglio will be neither shocked nor surprised at the latest bloody turn of events on 11 July 2006. Mass murder is now tacitly accepted as a part of mass terror and – among terrorists – as an apparently effective instrument of persuasion. Although traces of vitriol are beginning to flow, by and large the reaction in government circles on both sides has been restrained. But the crisis triggered by the bombings retains the potential to get out of control.

The only new thing about the terror unleashed yet again on Mumbai's unsuspecting population is the scale of the devastation. It rivals the worst the city has experienced yet, when 257 people died in the bombings of 12 March 1993. The dead – now close to 200 – are beyond help. Thousands of those crippled and maimed for life in the eight deadly blasts over ten terrible minutes will join tens of thousands bereft of breadwinners, children rendered orphans and wives widowed in a society already overburdened and incapable of providing for them. The beggar population of Mumbai, already one of the largest in the world, will grow.

As usual, theories are emerging about those responsible. The usual fingers are pointing at the usual suspects. Two of the Pakistan–based organisations normally associated with terrorist activity have denied any connection with the Mumbai blasts. Two others are so far silent. But disclaimers are not always true. Mass murder is not their only weapon. Systematic lying is another. The nature, timing and scale of the latest outrage suggests an almost uncanny connection between three areas of intense, extensive and sustained terrorist activity – Iraq, Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent.

In the latter region, the terror is widespread, with complex origins and even contradictory goals. The Baluchis are in violent revolt and though their activity is so far confined to their land, it could spill over into other sectors at any time. In north and south Waziristan the rebellious tribals holding down more than a few divisions of the Pakistan army are almost at one with the Taliban. India has its indefatigable and apparently inexhaustible army of Kashmiri fighters who might be of Kashmiri, Pakistani, Arab, Chechen or Uzbek origin.

Are these disparate movements now coming together? The methodology of their attacks, even some of the weapons they use, point to the emergence of a gradually uniting front, a confluence of forces, tactics and strategy. We know that al–Qaida in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan are sharing tactics and weapon systems. Have the Kashmiris (or whoever claims to be fighting for them) taken a page from their book?

Another theory doing the rounds points in a shockingly different direction: are the Naxalites of India starting to spread their wings? Or are the Tamil Tigers moving their front north? It was a Tamil who assassinated India's former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The most intriguing suggestion is that the Mumbai blasts may be the work of Hindu fundamentalists trying to circumvent or discourage any possible concessions to Pakistan over Kashmir, or who are simply enraged that India is talking to Pakistan and not putting the upstart country in its place.

Those pointing in this direction say the pipe bombs used to blow up the Mumbai trains have been traced in previous investigations to Hindu militants and that current investigations do not discount the possibility of a "non-traditional" source of this new terror. But others reject this theory outright, believing that although a Hindu fundamentalist is no less rabid in his extremism than an al–Qaida operative, Nathuram Godse's modern successors would go as far as mass murder to make such a point. No, they say, this dastardly work of terror has all the hallmarks of Islamic extremism.

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