Whatever the reasons might be, the Mumbai terror attacks have dominated the news. I can't count the number of conversations I have had about 26/11 being our 9/11. Everybody from Amitava Ghosh to Arundhati Roy has opined on whether the comparison between the two is apt. Now that the initial shock has faded away, it is time to take stock and try to understand what this event means for us as a nation. Is it truly a cataclysmic event that has to be taken seriously at all levels or is it just another act of violence in a country that has no shortage of violence?
The goal of this article is to put down what I believe to be common sense, which dictates the following two points: (a) The Mumbai attacks should be taken by us as direct threats against the existence of the Indian state; and (b) Despite the provocation, we should distance ourselves from votaries of direct action, including war against Pakistan.
Common sense suggests that we have been getting our response all wrong, that our minds have been occupied with appropriate tactics for engaging terror, while the real lesson to be gained is at the level of long term strategy. Where 26/11 and 9/11 mesh almost perfectly is in being 'Made for TV.' Both were publicity coups for the terrorists. The intensity of international media attention was the most important aspect of the attack; this was the first example of terrorism on Indian soil in the global age. We will never need to prove again that we are one of the primary victims of terrorism in the world. But what strategic goals can we pursue in response to the sympathy we have?
First, let us be clear that globalised terror has to be taken seriously. In sheer numbers, the people killed in terror attacks pales in comparison with casualties from AIDS or TB or farmer suicides, and there is no doubt that the particular choice of upper class targets was crucial to the notoriety of the attacks. But terror is a social virus that can cause disproportionate damage. We should look beyond the choice of targets in Mumbai on 26/11, for I believe the terrorist is taking aim at the Indian nation itself. Our flawed national experiment is under attack by people who have no respect for justice.
Don't get me wrong, the Indian state is no gentle puppy; its beastliness is apparent in Kashmir, Gujarat and the Narmada valley, to take three different examples of state violence. However, I also believe that the Indian state has corrective measures built into it; that it answers to its citizens howsoever slowly. A virus that seeks to delegitimise the nation by exploiting all the opportunities offered by globalisation is not a virus to be taken lying down.
Common sense also suggests that the terror disease needs to be tackled at many levels. In terms of the actual infection - the terror networks, their finances and their weapons supply - the best solution is professional police work. While one can point fingers across the border and more sadly, blame Indian Muslims in general, these are rhetorical arrows whose target lies in politics and not in the security of our citizens. It is also not clear to me that tougher laws will do anything besides alienate a section of our population even more. We should spend some of the billions we are spending on acquiring aircraft carriers and tanks in upgrading the police forces across the country.
What the Mumbai attacks have done is to internationalise the Indian experience of terror.
As for the alienation and oppression that supposedly drive violence, I am not sure if there is any causal link between the two, but that is beside the point. The terrorist seeks to delegitimize the Indian nation; what better reply can we give than making the state truly responsive to all its citizens? The reason to treat all Indian citizens with dignity is not because it is an antidote to the message of the terrorists, but because justice and equality are the reason for the state to exist.
A free and just state will not prevent terrorists from carrying out attacks (that is the job of effective police work), it may not even prevent the terror networks from gathering new adherents, for there will always be some people who have their own violent visions of modernity. However, part of the battle against terror and its institutional backers (whether in India or across the border or anywhere else) comes from the battle of norms. By making acts of terror unacceptable to any institution or country that seeks to be part of the international community, we will change the acceptability of terror. And the only way to make terror normatively unacceptable is to make sure that the Indian states' norms of behavior are as universally acceptable as possible.
What the Mumbai attacks have done is to internationalise the Indian experience of terror. A knee-jerk reaction is to point fingers across the border and threaten violent retaliation. Is this the appropriate response to a genuinely international incident? The U.S response to 9/11 - which, as we know was far more violent than the original incident itself - is a resounding failure; a simplistic response to a world that is no longer a simple us-versus-them.
However, there is an alternative to violence; as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, another institutional response to terror is through normative engagement, i.e., to change the norms of international behavior such that terrorism, either by states or by non state actors is unacceptable to institutions across the world. Without state support, terror networks will not disappear, but they are far less likely to undertake operations at the scale of 26/11. The internationalization of terrorist violence in India is bad news for the traditional Indian line about its internal and external conflicts. In the past, official India has labeled all its problems - including Kashmir - as the internal affairs of a sovereign state. At most, we have accepted that these problems are bilateral - problem between India and Pakistan, such as the stoppage of cross border terrorism. After 26/11 we can say for sure that those days of local solutions to local problems are effectively over.
The importance of Pakistan and Afghanistan to the United States is going to mean much more international attention towards India's responses. The Indian government has reacted soberly after the Mumbai attacks; part of that might be the more measured response of the current dispensation and the ineffectiveness of the troop buildup after the attacks on parliament in 2001, but surely one reason for India's sobriety is the level of international attention. The most important strategic challenge of the Mumbai attacks lies in engaging the international community so that India's interests are served in the long run. How are we going to do that?
A violent response - say attacking terror camps in POK - will have two negative repercussions. First, it will invite the inevitable tit-for-tat reply from the Pakistani military, which having lost credibility during the Musharraf era, is possibly eager to use Indian aggression to consolidate its own power in Pakistan vis-Ã -vis the civilian authority. Suppose we attack a terrorist camp and the Pakistanis shell an Indian army base in Kashmir. What are we going to do? Will we back off and court humiliation, or escalate? Are we really ready for war to break out over 26/11?
Secondly, a military response is tactical rather than strategic - tit-for-tat is based on a very short time horizon, both in the past and in the future. It makes us look like a country that makes decisions on the fly, without any overall strategy. A tactical response will make us lose stature in the international community. I believe that we have an unparalleled opportunity to increase India's international profile. Post-Iraq, it is clear to me that military responses are deeply problematic, if not unacceptable. The future belongs to nations who are able to use a combination of diplomacy and moral leadership in order to change the norms of institutional behavior.
India should lead the way towards a diplomatic and international response to terror that makes terror unacceptable as an instrument of state policy. As my colleague Srinath Raghavan has mentioned, that strategy worked in the only instance where a state has willingly given up terrorism as a state policy - Libya. A normative response can put enough pressure on the Pakistani government agencies - especially its military - to change their support for terror networks while strengthening those elements in the Pakistan who want to lead their lives in a modern nation.
By building a coalition around norms rather than arms, India will have demonstrated its leadership in the international community.