Home The Washington Diplomat December 2009

Mumbai Exposes Open SoreOf India's Ethnic Instability

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It had it all — crackling gunfire, a five-star hotel swallowed in flames, and eyewitness accounts of Americans and Brits singled out for assassination. There was also the confession of the sole surviving attacker. Fueled it seems by a promised payment of a few thousand dollars to his family and a martyr-driven dream, the 21-year-old Pakistani nationalist murdered innocent people, even children, in India’s so-called “city of dreams.” And finally, there were the pundits, even within the Indian press, quick to describe the event as “India’s 9/11.”

Whatever the reason, the well-planned terrorist attacks in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) that left 171 people dead, wounded several hundred, and paralyzed a city of 18 million people captured the world’s attention.

But there has been violence in India before — much of which hasn’t grabbed nearly as many international headlines, although it forms an important picture of a globally emerging country of 1.1 billion still struggling with both its internal and external demons.

Of course, Pakistan, where the Mumbai attackers trained, is an inextricable piece of that picture. The assault on India’s financial capital was clearly aimed at ratcheting up tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals, and it’s the latest in a long line of conflicts with Pakistan. But India has been a combustible cauldron of sects and religions — not to mention disparate social classes — since its independence in 1947. In fact, it is estimated that there are more than 2,000 ethnic groups in India, an often-overlooked aspect of this economically booming country taking its place on the world stage.

Mumbai itself has been no stranger to terrorism. In 2006, explosions tore through packed commuter trains, killing more than 180 people and wounding some 700. Authorities initially blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based group blamed for the most recent Mumbai attack, but recent local arrests suggest a movement called the Indian Mujahideen may have been involved. LeT was also blamed for another train bombing in Mumbai in 2003, one in a string of attacks in the city that year.

Beyond Mumbai though, people in Kashmir, Gujarat or a number of other Indian states can tell horror stories of charred bodies, missing limbs and blood-stained streets. Over the years, thousands have died in fighting between India’s ethnic communities and separatists groups — even Mahatma Gandhi, who in 1948 was murdered by a Hindu fanatic opposed to his acceptance of all creeds and religions, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation), assassinated in 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards who were sympathetic to separatist movements in Punjab.

“India has been hit by terrorist attacks ever since independence,” said Rollie Lal, an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. “Even in the last decade, they have occurred quite often. So people should not be surprised by the [Mumbai] terrorist attacks, but they should be surprised by the scale.”

In fact, the list of attacks in 2008, like those before it, is long.

In October, separatists in Assam killed more than 70 people and wounded several hundred in a series of blasts targeting crowded markets and government buildings. In September, the Indian Mujahideen claimed responsibility for five explosions in New Delhi, the nation’s capital, that killed 21 and injured at least 90 in crowded shopping centers, along with several other attacks earlier in the year. And in August, Hindu radicals carried out a series of attacks against Christians, sparked by the murder of a Hindu nationalist leader — which in turn was blamed on Maoist insurgents. In fact, while Hindu-Muslim tensions often make news, clashes are also common with Christians, who make up about 2 percent of the population.

Although all these attacks flew largely under the radar of the mainstream American public, the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington did release a report last year that placed India second only to Iraq in the number of terrorist attacks between 2004 and 2007, with more than 1,000 people dying in 2007 alone.

Anand Giridharadas, a Mumbai-based columnist for the International Herald Tribune, provided a blunt assessment of India’s instability weeks before the latest Mumbai attack. “Forget what you’ve heard about Gandhi and nonviolence in India. This is a nation of militias now,” he wrote.

“Whatever its reputation, India has never exactly been a nation of pacifists,” he argued. “Gandhi represented just one strand of thinking, and his view is not the only one to have prevailed. From Kashmir’s jihad to various secessionisms to Hindu-Muslim riots, political violence is as Indian as tandoori chicken.”

A Brief History Maya Chadda, a South Asia expert at William Paterson University in New Jersey, says the Hindu-Muslim tension stretches back to the nationalist era and a 1940s political rift between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.

Led by Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s protégé, the Indian National Congress held that Hindus and Muslims could form a single secular nation. Meanwhile, the Muslim League, led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, argued that the two could not coexist. As a distinct nationality, fearful of their interests being drowned out by the larger Hindu population, the League believed Muslims deserved a separate nation of their own.

In turn, a war-weary Britain chose to partition the region into three parts: India, Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The split was based on religion: Muslims got Pakistan. Hindus got India.

Bloodletting followed. More than 15 million people on the wrong side of the newly drawn line were uprooted in one of the largest population exoduses in history. Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus fled to India. In the ensuing chaos, somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people died.

The British left Kashmir’s status undecided, sparking a war between India and Pakistan that ended after a ceasefire line was drawn in 1949. Since then, the nuclear-armed rivals have fought three wars over the region and have come to blows numerous times along the border. Now Islamic extremists, including LeT, are using the battle as a rallying cry to Muslims across the globe.

Unfortunately, the fact that majority of India’s 1 billion Hindus and its 140 million Muslims live in peace has been overshadowed by a cycle of violence in certain parts of the massive country.

Some of the worst riots in the country’s history followed the 1992 destruction of the 16th-century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, a town in northern India. Hindu extremists tore down the mosque, claiming it was built in 1528 on the site of a temple dedicated to a revered Hindu deity. Riots ensued across the country, leaving 2,000 people dead in their wake.

The following year, in an attack police say was in retaliation for the mosque destruction to avenge Muslim deaths, a coordinated series of 13 explosions in Bombay (now Mumbai) nearly destroyed the Bombay Stock Exchange and resulted in some 250 deaths and hundreds more injured.

Then in 2002, 58 Hindu nationalists on their way back from a pilgrimage from the disputed holy site in Ayodhya were killed after the train they rode became engulfed in fire. Though the government later found the fire was accidental, Muslims were blamed, setting off days of rioting in the state of Gujarat in which some 1,000 and 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died. News reports later suggested the local government did little to intervene, further fanning the fears of Indian Muslims that their government was not interested in protecting them.

The cycle of violence continued when radical Muslims retaliated to the Gujarat massacre with yet another round of Bombay bombings throughout 2003. Suspects later admitted the atrocities committed in Gujarat motivated the attacks.

Now news reports suggest that LeT showed videos of Hindu violence and highlighted the Muslim deaths at the Babri Mosque and in Gujarat to convince the captured Mumbai terrorist that Islam was in danger.

What Drives the Bitterness? India is prone to terrorist attacks for many reasons. The most populous democracy in the world, India is also a lonely democracy in a violent neighborhood. Its historic rivalry with Pakistan obviously makes it a prime target for Islamic fanatics, as Mumbai has proven time and again.

But domestically, India has its own issues with its Muslim minority, which forms about 13 percent of the country’s population. Many experts say the Indian government has failed to save Muslims in previous riots and failed to create meaningful opportunities for this sizeable minority.

“The Indian economy has been booming, but while some business leaders, film stars and sports icons are Muslim, Muslims mostly come from the poorest, least educated and most poorly skilled communities,” Ashutosh Varshney, a South Asia expert at Brown University, recently wrote in the Financial Times.

That point was driven home in a controversial 2006 study from the Sachar Committee, appointed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which showed that Muslims, in general, have a lower standard of living and lag behind in literacy, employment and income than their Hindu counterparts.

Asked about the inequalities, Lal of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies said, “I think the India Muslims think they get trampled on. They are feeling a little victimized at times. It’s really a sad situation because poor Hindus feel the same way. They wonder why Muslims are getting so much attention.”

Right-wing Hindu groups have questioned the report’s findings, yet they have also added to the ethnic tensions by pressuring Muslims to convert to Hinduism. These proud Hindu nationalists also see it as “a serious affront,” Lal said, when Hindus of the lower caste convert to Christianity or Islam in hopes of a better life.

The right-wing Hindu nationalist movement, which gained popularity in the 1980s and is now led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, has taken advantage of wedge issues and nationalistic sentiment to win elections, a tactic employed by Muslim-based parties as well.

“Seeking Hindu votes, some politicians have been quick to equate terrorism with Islam,” Varshney wrote. “Others, especially pro-Muslim political parties, focus on the unfair treatment of Muslims by the police rather than the fight to eliminate terror.”

However, since the Mumbai massacre, political parties have been careful not to play the ethnic or religious card. The public has blamed every party, including the BJP, for incompetence and a self-serving attitude, and the governing Congress Party performed surprisingly well in some state elections after the attack.

But Chadda of William Paterson University predicts “this will change as we approach the [national] elections next year” and after more information emerges on who exactly is responsible for the Mumbai tragedy.

“If there was substantial local cooperation from Indian Muslims [in the attack], popular anger will turn toward them and the BJP will gain,” she said.

So What’s Next? Although there are obvious differences between communal violence such as the Gujarat riots, separatists attacks in northeast India, and the recent bloodshed in Mumbai, there is a growing concern that India’s homegrown domestic threats will take on an international tone, adopting the global objectives and targets of the Islamic extremists — most of whom now call Pakistan home.

“I do think that this exacerbated the tensions that already existed between Hindus and Muslims,” Lal said. “It is definitely destructive to the social fabric and political fabric. Whether that was a goal, it is unclear.”

Chadda — along with many commentators — seemed to think that’s exactly what LeT hoped to accomplish.

“The achievement of the terrorist is to change the entire discourse about Islam, Kashmir and India-Pakistan rivalry,” she said. “The attack was timed to enlarge and internationalize the Kashmir conflict … and to highlight the Hindu-Muslim connection from Kashmir to the rest of India.”

And that connection is a deep-seated yet deeply troubled one that the world may finally be beginning to notice.

About the Author

Seth McLaughlin is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014