I don’t remember many things from my early childhood, but I do remember the car accident. Sitting in the backseat of a taxi, I was struck in the forehead by shards of glass, which left a scar that still remains very prominent. Sadly, that is about my only memory of Mumbai — then, and perhaps still, better known by its Western name, Bombay.
Unlike some older, more prominent and informed Indian-Americans (Suketu Mehta in Friday’s New York Times, for example), I cannot wax nostalgic about the beauty, splendor and undying spirit of Mumbai. Others will tell all you about that cosmopolitan metropolis — like New York City, Los Angeles and Las Vegas all rolled into one (indeed, Mumbai has more people than those cities combined). I simply wouldn’t know what to say about that. However, there is one key thing I can talk about: Namely, what makes India and these attacks different.
From the invasion by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC to the coming of the Muslims in the 700s and finally to the 300-year occupation by the British starting in the early 1600s, you might say India has had border security problems for thousands of years. It has also long battled religious and communal tensions, even before the heated partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Now, as the world’s largest democracy and an emerging economic power, the problems India has always faced suddenly become more glaring.
As the American media set aside the turkey to feverishly analyze every aspect of the attacks this weekend, it made the assumption that’s perfectly natural by this point. It took as a given that the attacks in Mumbai are a part of the global struggle against terrorism. And perhaps, on the most basic, least insightful level, they were just that. But no matter how many bald guys with titles like “terrorism expert” the cable news networks brought out, one point overlooked in the conversation was that Mumbai and other major Indian cities have been attacked in this horrific fashion before, including earlier this year.
I say that in no way to minimize anything. The loss of life and well-being in this weekend’s attacks was unspeakable. But there’s a risk in immediately lumping the Mumbai attacks with those in New York City and London, as the media, with its obsessive need to compartmentalize, seems eager to do. Those cities were shining beacons of Western empire that hadn’t been attacked in that fashion before. The reason Mumbai is different is India’s long history of internal communal relations and struggles, details of which would fill entire libraries. Suffice it to say, however, there are many possible motives for the Mumbai attacks that pre-date Al Qaeda and Sept. 11, 2001.
And yes, this is of crucial importance. Consider the huge mistake the American media and leaders made post-Sept. 11 in grouping Al Qaeda with other violent movements like Hamas or the insurgency in Iraq. Al Qaeda is a global ideological operation of sickening fortitude and proportion. The other groups, however, care only about their practical regional gains. Dealing with them as one is inefficient to say the least and creates a blanket war whose blanket solutions are impossible.
Something similar is true about these attacks on Mumbai. While they were probably executed by individuals influenced by Al Qaeda (the assault on a Jewish center in particular is evidence of that), they require different solutions than similar attacks in London or New York City. In India, the “other” lives not across oceans, but across the street, and the vast majority of the time there are no conflicts. But when there are, the result can be terrifying, as these attacks and similar ones through the decades have shown.
Understanding these complexities is important because it helps us understand the complexities that will be required in any possible solutions. As so-called experts go on about stock solutions like increased border security or more police presence, they overlook the fact that those strong-handed police tactics simply cannot quell a democracy of more than a billion or a city of 14 million.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, the United States passed the Patriot Act, which curtailed individual liberties almost to the breaking point. Britain went even further after its own attacks — the Brits either haven’t heard of the concept of a bill of rights or simply aren’t too impressed by it. It’s crucial at this time that the world remembers those lessons of how not to respond to terrorism, and ensure that India doesn’t make the same mistakes we did. In a place like India, the results of that would only add to the tragedy.
Imran Syed was the Daily’s editorial page editor in 2007. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.