November 30, 2008
The Special Sting of Personal Terrorism
By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
VERLA, India — This was not terror — not as Indians understood it. This was war.
The killers stormed the streets of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, with machine guns and bags of grenades. They did not strike with the terrorist’s fleeting anonymity. Their work was fastidiously deliberate. It went into a second day, then a third. They took time to ask your nationality and vocation. Then they spared you, or herded you elsewhere, or shot you in the back of your skull.
As a surprise attack became a 48-hour struggle, the burden of responding transferred from the police to soldiers. The language was of war: television anchors spoke of buildings “sanitized” and “flushed out,” of “final assaults” and “collateral damage.” Helicopters hovered over Mumbai, and commandos dropped onto roofs. The grainy television imagery suggested not so much a terrorist attack as the shapeless, omnidirectional chaos of Iraq.
While the hostage situation endured, more was unknown than known. Rumors flew, unconfirmed. Did you hear? They shot all the women at the hotel switchboard. Did you hear? They executed a young mother and her children. Did you hear? They sent a hostage out of the building to get food for their attackers. Truth was complicated; everything blurred.
But what slowly became clear was that this was an attack of especial barbarism, because it was so personal. It was unlike the many strikes of the last many months, bombs left in thronging markets or trains or cars: acts of shrinking cowardice. The new men were not cowards. They seemed to prolong the fight as long as they could. They killed face to face; they wanted to see and speak to their victims; they could taste the violence they made.
A good story has characters, and a terrorist attack without characters tempts a society to forget. A wave of recent Indian attacks, more anonymous and less dramatic, offered little focus for public opinion.
For better or worse, the public has its characters now. As the weekend arrived, it was not clear who the men were, even as India’s government hinted at Pakistani connections. But even without learning their names, it was so easy to imagine them this time, combing the hallways, asking life-or-death questions, pulling women and children from their rooms at midnight.
For a country with no dearth of terrorism in its past, it is perhaps the fleshy immediacy of these men and their deeds that makes this a defining assault — one that separates all attacks of the past from those yet to come. In the television studios, on the roads, in the anguished phone calls of friends to friends, Indians said the words again and again: This is our 9/11.
“It is an Indian variant of 9/11, and today India needs to respond the way America did,” Ravi Shankar Prasad, a member of Parliament from the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party, said on television.
But if this was India’s 9/11, it seemed so only to certain citizens, and not, apparently, to their government.
It took 18 hours for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to come on television. He is a reflective, decent man. But he was emotionless, his mouth moving and nothing else. He knows all too well the history of blaming Pakistan and its militants for attacks, only to come up short on evidence. He said the attacks “probably” had a foreign hand. His most specific idea was “police reform” and the “tightening” of laws to close “loopholes.” He called for “peace and harmony.”
His temperateness helped to keep the ever-present threat of religious riots at bay. But it also seemed to misread the mood of a country that wanted it to be 9/11 — if not in the sense of war and conquest, then in the sense of instant clarity, of the simple feeling that an era had ended and that enough was, at last, enough.
When the video of Mr. Singh’s address was posted on YouTube, many said online what others were saying on the ground. He was “expressionless,” a “brilliant teacher but no leader,” an “ineffective puppet.” One user wrote: “He should have given a strong warning and threat to terrorists and those who support them. Unfortunately he is too soft.”
Nor did the government’s retaliation inspire. The commandos who came at long last and saved the day were heroic, working room by room to retake the two besieged hotels. But India learned thereby that Mumbai, with its 19 million people, lacks commandos of its own. They were flown in from the capital, New Delhi.
Meanwhile, “army sources” leaked to the press that they had warned the government of an impending attack days before, only to be ignored, as usual.
“The scale, intensity and level of orchestration of terror attacks in Mumbai put one thing beyond doubt: India is effectively at war and it has deadly enemies in its midst,” The Times of India, a leading English-language daily, wrote in an editorial published Friday. “The question now,” it added, “is whether the nation can show any serious degree of resolve and coordination in confronting terror.”
The government, in its defense, walks a fine line. Show too little resolve, and attacks happen. Show too much, and you galvanize hatred domestically and exacerbate tensions abroad, notably with Pakistan.
“It is extremely important to understand that the criminal activities of a minuscule group, even if it turns out to have home-grown elements, say nothing about Indian Muslims in general, who are an integral part of the country’s social fabric,” Amartya Sen, the Harvard economist and Indian-born Nobel laureate, wrote in an e-mail message. “Even if it turns out that the Mumbai terrorists had a base in Pakistani territory, India has to take full note of the fact that the bulk of Pakistani civil society is an ally, not an enemy, in the battle against Islamist terrorism, for they too suffer greatly from the violence of a determined minority based in their country.”
On Friday, Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, agreed to send the powerful chief of his country’s intelligence services to India, to receive any evidence, as a gesture of good will.
People purporting to be the attackers have said they belong to a group called the Deccan Mujahedeen, and have claimed to be waging a war in Islam’s name. It was uncertain whether they are of domestic or foreign origin.
Whichever it is, they have crossed yet another line with these attacks. Islamist militants in India have in recent years lived somewhat apart from the global Islamist struggle. They bombed and killed, but their enemies were Indian Hindus, not “Jews and crusaders,” and their targets were markets and cinema halls that drew Indians, not foreigners.
This attack, in contrast, went after five-star hotels, a popular restaurant and a Jewish community center. The gunmen were reported to show a preference for Britons and Americans as hostages.
With their brutality, their sophistication, their links to the ideology of terrorism elsewhere, these attacks seemed, then, to usher in a new day. Late in the week, as the gunfire crackle trailed off, many Indians appeared to long for a sign that this attack would muster new will.
A text-message moving among Mumbaikars expressed the uniqueness of the now: “Brothers and sisters, it’s time to wake up and do something for the country — however little — related to this or not — start today and continue it through the years — do not forget as easily as we are used to forgetting.”
Many told themselves and each other that this time would change things, just as Americans had told themselves after 9/11. But they knew their own history, and America’s, and they seemed, even as they spoke the words, to disbelieve them already.
Anand Giridharadas, a columnist for The International Herald Tribune, recently completed three and a half years as a correspondent in Mumbai for that newspaper and The New York Times.