The "new violence" of Mumbai

Ashwani Kumar
18 December 2008

The attacks in Mumbai have once again reminded us in the starkest terms about the ugly and horrifying face of global terror. Though India is no stranger to violence, the atrocity in Mumbai was not some spontaneous volcanic outburst of India's supposedly ancient communal strife, or part of a "violent conspiracy" to deny India's rising power status in the world. It was a calculated act of violence aimed at the idea of Indian democracy and at human freedom in general.

In contrast to the brutality of conventional wars and of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, the violence of terrorism is epochal, carnivalesque, and deeply anti-political. It derives its psychotic energy and appeal from the spectacle of "breaking news", delivered minute-by-minute by internet and television media. Spectacle releases terrorism from the shackles of invisibility and inaudibility.

It would be a grave mistake to think that modern terror represents the violence of "the wretched of the earth". Unlike the socio-economic violence of rebellious peasants or the "working classes", the new violence does not like soiling its feet in the mud and slush of rice fields or in the dirty factories in the poorer parts of the world.  In fact, the essence of global terror lies in the sanitization and de-politicization of violence, making it "picture perfect" for public consumption. Dr. Ashwani Kumar teaches Politics at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at Centre of Global Governance at LSE (London) and one of the Chief-Editors of LSE Year book on Global Civil Society 2009

Such terrorism is fuelled by the twin processes of associational revolution (the boom, for example, of Islamist organizations, including educational and fundraising bodies) and information revolution. It also taps into that very modern paranoia - what the Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman terms "liquid fear" - of amorphous peril. It is in this sense that India has ultimately, willingly or unwillingly, joined the unfolding march of that universal journey called "9/11".  Mumbai's so-called "26/11" has been tragically inserted into that "shared archive of a supposedly universal calendar" as described by the late Jacques Derrida.

In contrast to the centrally-organized, bureaucratically-managed, "legitimate" secular violence of the nation-state, the new violence is deeply engrained in the globalized a-moral war against each other. The violence of the old wars of the nation-states was organized through the standing army and maintained by the extensive system of public revenue. Old violence also had many forms of fundamentally "public" eruptions such as mob violence, street violence, ethnic riots and so forth. In stark contrast, new violence mutates in secret. The entrepreneurs of new violence live perpetually in the private space as they cannot be brainwashed, trained and taught fidayeen methods in the public sphere. The anxieties and dilemmas of perpetually living in a private sphere constituted by deeply hierarchical, masculine and gendered power relations force these terrorists to seek revenge against the fact and the idea of the "multitude" of the public space.

Arising from the tragic "breakdown of communicative rationality", the new violence has brutally reminded us about the hidden depths beneath the public sphere and the vulnerabilities of open societies. It has been largely financed by private sources and perpetrated by irregular entrepreneurs without any fixed military uniform. In Mumbai, clean-shaven entrepreneurs of violence discarded their traditional outfits and wore modern cargo pants and t-shirts emblazoned with "Versace". The outrage they perpetrated is not a typical Clausewitzean case of the "continuation of politics by other means." It is fundamentally anti-political and essentially nihilistic as it speaks only of grievances, identities, and virtues without any reference to human beings as constituted by their real social relations and individuals rights.

There is some over-arching tactical order to the chaotic universe of terrorist violence; Mumbai comes after recent attacks in Delhi, Ahmadabad, Jaipur and elsewhere within India. The strategy is clear; the new violence does not want to remain anonymous anymore. Now it wishes to be serialized in the interstices of local and global. It elevates violence to the "sexy, seductive" pleasure of grand spectacle. More importantly, by choosing to attack hotels, railways stations, busy streets, hospitals, and restaurants, terrorists have decided to suffocate free, open public spaces where people act in concert with each other as sweating, suffering, breathing, and smiling creatures. What happened in Mumbai is thus part of the global march of an extremely exclusivist, violent and modern project that sees human beings as superfluous and human freedom as irrelevant. Democracy, especially one as vast and complex as India's, cannot afford more zones of closure as these will suffocate its intrinsic capacity to resolve the dilemmas of maintaining an open society.

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