A Year After Mumbai

A Year After Mumbai

On November 26, 2009, India marks the anniversary of a nightmare. Around 9.30 p.m. this day last year began the terrorist strike in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), a tragedy watched on the television by the rest of the country and etched in its memory ever since. We can look back upon the event today only as an undeclared war, by other means, launched by enemies of South Asian people and peace.

The objectives of the war were obvious, even as 200 were murdered and many more maimed in the 60-odd hours that shook the financial capital of a helplessly furious nation. The gory killings by masked gunmen – at a crowded railway junction as well as in a five-star hotel, a popular restaurant, a Jewish community center and other places – could have been planned only to serve two political camps.

Inside India, the terrorists then seemed to have struck a blow for the far right preparing for elections – both at the national level and in the country’s most industrialized State of Maharashtra with Mumbai as the seat of its government. More importantly, it seemed a tailor-made tragedy for use by forces in both India and Pakistan opposed to a “peace process” between them.

The fortunes of war have proved mixed indeed. The war has been lost on one front but won on the other. Aided and abetted by a hysterical media, India’s far right with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its political front hastened to adopt anti-terrorism as its fail-proof electoral platform. The party demanded the revival of a draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), enacted when the party was in power in New Delhi earlier but scrapped by the elected successors.

Equally shrilly, it called for a crusade against Pakistan. With a section of the middle-class elite and movie stars echoing and endorsing it in street demos, the party asked for “surgical strikes” on terrorist centers on Pakistani soil. Quite logically, the campaign led to the call by the more lunatic fringe of the far right for “a nuclear war” on the neighbor. The aim was to project the BJP as the only party capable of tough action against terrorism.

The far right did not forget about the internal dimension of the war on “Islamic terror,” either. Party leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani called for an official inquiry into the event in order to identify the sources of “local assistance” for the terrorists. The nasty anti-minority axiom of Narendra Modi of the notorious Gujarat pogrom of 2002 – “all Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims” – was repeated again.

To the great credit of India’s common people, the campaign fell flat. The voters in the elections of April-May 2009 to the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of India’s Parliament) left the BJP’s anti-terrorism plank in tatters. The substance of power eluded Shadow Prime Minister Advani once again, and the BJP has yet to recover from post-poll inner-party polemics and recriminations.

An even more resounding popular rebuff to the party and its macho talk on terrorism came in the elections to the legislature of the State of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital city. The city had more than just a taste of terrorism, but that did not make the party’s agenda of assaults on the rights of the minorities and others appetizing for the State’s electorate. The BJP and its far-right band have been rejected beyond all doubt. An alliance of its opponents has returned to power for the third time in a row, despite the famous volatility of the Indian voter and the consequent “anti-incumbency factor” that psephologists never fail to take into account.

The BJP might have lost electoral battles, but the forces behind the terrorist outrage have won the war on another front. Mumbai has certainly meant a severe setback for the India-Pakistan peace process, which had completed five years then. The terrorists struck at a time when the process seemed poised for resumption after being stalled for a while.

The same fateful day, the Home Secretaries of the two countries had met in Islamabad and announced further steps to advance the temporarily halted process. These steps included opening of several land routes for trade, relaxation in the visa regime, a soft and liberal policy on prisoners’ release and, ironically enough, even “joint efforts to fight terrorism.” On the same day, too, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister was in New Delhi, comparing notes on the process with his Indian counterpart.

More sadly for the peace movements in both countries, Mumbai came in the wake of some very welcome statements from Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on relations with India and a “nuclear-free” neighborhood. Mumbai left behind the promise of such a leap froward as an ever-fading memory.

New Delhi did not take much time to conclude that the terrorist strike was the handiwork of anti-India groups operating from within Pakistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government soon took the stand that neither the peace process nor the “composite dialogue” between India and Pakistan could be resumed unless and until it was convinced that Islamabad had apprehended and acted against the authors of Mumbai and “dismantled the terrorist infrastructure” inside Pakistan.

Off and on since then, New Delhi has tried to suggest that it is not tenaciously clinging to this rigid position. But, governments can become prisoners of semantics no less than private individuals. The fact is that New Delhi has not succeeded in disowning its own words. Nor has Islamabad been able to convince either India or other concerned countries about its capacity to carry its Mumbai-related investigations to their logical conclusion. The resumption of the peace process has only become a perilously receding prospect.

The Indian security forces were able to capture alive only one of the gunmen – Mohammed Ajmal Am*+r Kasab in his early twenties – and have been quoting his “confession” ever since. He is said to have disclosed that he and other attackers were members of the proscribed Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) renamed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD).

Known as an anti-India outfit of Kashmiri militants operating from Pakistani soil, the JuD is led by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, linked with the attack of December 23, 2001, on India’s Parliament as well. New Delhi has been demanding action against Saeed as the “mastermind” behind Mumbai.

Islamabad accepted Kasab’s Pakistani nationality only on January 7, 2009, and after establishment of the fact by enterprising Pakistani media persons (arrested the other day on unrelated criminal charges). In February, Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani’s government confirmed that parts of the attack had been planned in Pakistan and vowed to catch the culprits. All this, however, has meant no advance in anti-terrorist cooperation between the two countries.

The Gilani regime did initiate legal action against Saeed, but the court has repeatedly dismissed what it considered a weak case. It is not official circles alone in India that are indignant at reports about the radical cleric continuing freely to issue inflammatory calls to congregations in Lahore.

New Delhi claims it has been giving Pakistani authorities dossier after dossier of evidence. Islamabad counters repeatedly that it is not getting the kind of evidence from India that can stand in a Pakistani court of law. The jibe from India’s Home Affairs Minister P. Chidambaram (himself a lawyer) – that this just shows the quality of legal assistance available to Pakistani authorities – has made no difference, with Islamabad’s stand drawing much support in the media and elsewhere.

The security establishment and experts in India do not see much real scope for anti-terrorist cooperation between the two countries, as they are not talking of the same terrorism at all. According to this theory, Islamabad may have turned upon the al Qaeda terrorists on its western frontier at last, but will continue to treat the anti-India groups with kid gloves. Exactly opposite is the argument of pro-official Pakistani experts. According to them, it is India that seeks to serve its interests in Afghanistan by forcing Pakistan to focus attention on a bigger threat on the border with India.

The upshot of it all: the two countries together have little to show today by way of legal and investigative progress on Mumbai. On the Indian side, in June, a special court of the metropolis ordered warrants of arrest against 22 suspects believed to be in Pakistan, without anyone really expecting the order to be carried out. There are obvious limits to which India can learn the truth about Mumbai from the interrogation and trial of Kasab alone.

As for Pakistan’s progress, Islamabad-based Indian journalist Nirupama Subramanian sums it up thus: “Fewer than 20 hearings since the case was registered on February 12, one change of court, two changes of judge, the proceedings still in the pre-trial stage after one failed attempt at indictment, and a chance that the suspects may be formally charged by the court this week. This is where the…Mumbai attacks case stands in Pakistan.”

On the eve of the anniversary have come reports of leads provided by Western agencies in the case. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested last month a David Coleman Headley (originally Daood Gilani) and a Tahawwur Hussain Rana, on charges of plotting terror attacks against India and a Danish newspaper. On November 21, the Italian police arrested two Pakistani men, father and son, accused of providing logistical support for last year’s terror attacks in Mumbai. It will be a long way before even such concrete leads can encourage India-Pakistan cooperation on the issue.

A year after Mumbai, the organizers of the outrage can look back and laugh. The people may have let them down, but the rulers of the subcontinent have rewarded their labors.