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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > The urban war: through the smoke


The urban war: through the smoke

Thursday 18 September 2008, by Ravinder Kaur

The assimilation of India’s urban terror attacks into a global narrative of Islamist violence carries the danger that their domestic social and historical roots will be missed, says Ravinder Kaur. 17 - 09 - 2008

The five bomb-blasts on 13 September 2008 in New Delhi represent the latest in a series of such attacks in the country’s main cities. The police and political experts described the bombs, which killed twenty-five people and injured at least ninety within a span of forty-five minutes, as "low-intensity" devices aimed less at inflicting maximum casualties and more at creating maximum terror at the heart of India’s capital city.
Ravinder Kaur teaches at the University of Roskilde, Denmark. She is the editor of Religion, Violence and Political Mobilisation in South Asia (Sage, 2005) and author of Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Indeed, what makes the Delhi blasts particularly disturbing is their place in a pattern of similar assaults where bombs are placed in close proximity to one another and timed to explode in sequence across crowded market-places and office-complexes across a given city. Jaipur, Bangalore and Ahmedabad have been among the recent targets, with over 160 deaths in these cities since May 2008. Now it is Delhi’s turn, and there is every prospect that others will follow (see Ajai Sahni, "India after Ahmedabad’s bombs", 29 July 2008).

Another familiar part of the pattern is that the Delhi blasts were accompanied by almost simultaneous emails sent to national news organisations purporting to be from the "Indian Mujaheedin" (IM). Some analysts connected the IM - which had not been heard of before the Jaipur bombs - to banned organisations such as the Students Islamic Movement of India (Simi); others made connections with Pakistan’s official Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that is often seen within the Indian establishment as a cheerful promoter or architect of anti-India attacks, such as the bombing of India’s Kabul embassy on 7 July 2008 (see Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure", 11 July 2008).

The rushed link

The loss and destruction of life in these vicious attacks is deeply disturbing. It is clearly important to understand why they are happening in order to formulate the most effective response. In this respect it is notable that the most prominent current way of interpreting these events - by, for example, India’s main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - is to see them as part of "India’s war on terror".

The logic of this approach is plain, to align India with a global struggle against Islamist violence of which the Indian "theatre" is but one local manifestation. The attractions of the approach too are plain, especially as it provides a convenient way to filter the pattern of attacks through comforting, polarising dichotomies: Islam vs the west, religious fundamentalism vs secularism, tradition vs modernity, authoritarianism vs democracy.Also on India’s insecurity in openDemocracy:

But the danger of the rush to make India an example of something global is, precisely, that India itself goes missing along the way. More precisely, the history and roots of terror and violence in India tends to be forgotten as the new wave of attacks is instantly linked to global processes (and possible linkages with al-Qaida, Hamas and the Iraq war). The result is a failure to see the local dimension in the Delhi and other operations.

The flawed logic

A quick look at India’s sixty years of independent history reveals that organised violence has been inextricable from questions of identity- and nation-making. The armed struggles in Kashmir, Punjab, Assam, Bihar and West Bengal are a case in point. Before 9/11, such violence - conducted by Kashmiri Muslims, Punjabi Sikhs, Assamese separatists, Naxalites and other Maoist groups - was variously termed "insurgency", "militancy" or "subversion"; since 9/11, the term "terrorism" has become more frequent. The category of "terrorist" overlapped and interchanged with the other regional identities, carrying the implicit understanding that the grievances of these groups were located within the fissures of the Indian nation-state.

From time to time, the idea that aid originating in countries hostile to India was being used to foment trouble in the country was mooted as part of the argument that transnational, subversive networks were responsible for this violence. The prime minister Indira Gandhi famously used the euphemism "foreign hand" (meaning Pakistan) to emphasise the external linkages of what were nonetheless considered internal problems. Such a view can be seen as auguring the more fixed, hardened and bounded employed under the "war on terror", where categories of good/evil, enemy/friend and insider/outsider become increasingly absolute and non-negotiable.

The logic of "India’s war on terror" can be understood at two levels. First, the emergence of the Muslim "other" neatly fits the pre-existing Hindu nationalist discourse which historically locates Muslims as the "enemy within". This narrative views Muslims primarily as invaders from west-central Asia who subjugated Hindu India; it may be factually dubious and contested but it is used frequently to tarnish Muslims as permanent outsiders whose allegiance to the nation is suspect. The logic can be extended to encompass Indian Christians as well as Muslims (see Jacob Ignatius, "India’s Christians: politics of violence in Orissa", 1 September 2008); both are seen as converts disloyal to their "original" and native religion. This feeds the aggressive pursuit of "reconversion" to Hinduism in the form of ghar vapasi (homecoming).

Second, this logic moves transports the violence from a local to a global level where India is seen as one among many democratic societies battling Islamist terrorism. The implication is that the violence is disconnected both from India’s dysfunctional socio-political developments and its own historicity. Yet these factors are important: Indian Muslims constitute 13.8% of the total population (around 140 million), and rank low on almost every socio-economic measure in India. The official Rajinder Sachar commission report, for example, showed that Muslim representation in the public sector is 3%-7% even in states where Muslims compose nearly a third of the population. In the booming economy of "new’ India, Muslims hardly figure because much of the growth is in high-skilled sectors that few are trained for.

The skewed optic

The socio-economic marginalisation of Indian Muslims does not in itself explain the current wave of attacks. But alongside the modern history of violence in India - including anti-Muslim violence - it does help to put the phenomenon in context.

The most notorious incident was in 1992, when a 15th-century mosque in Ayodhya, central India - the Babri masjid - was demolished by Hindu nationalists in the face of peaceful Muslim protests. This instantly became a symbol of Hindu nationalist victory and Muslim humiliation (see Vidya Subrahmaniam, "Ayodhya: India’s endless curse", 6 November 2003). A makeshift temple was quietly (and in violation of a court order) erected to consolidate the gain. The mosque demolition was followed by anti-Muslim violence in different parts of India. In 2002, an anti-Muslim pogrom in the western state of Gujarat took around 2,000 lives over several days, and thousands more were displaced from their homes and livelihoods (see Rajeev Bhargava, "Gujarat: shades of black", 17 December 2002).

The connections between this anti-Muslim violence and the more recent terror attacks have seldom been explored properly. In fact, the email sent from the Indian Mujaheedin minutes after the Delhi blasts invoked the mosque demolition as well as the Gujarat pogrom as a motivation. This again suggests that despite the much-vaunted linkages with al-Qaida and Hamas, it is the local roots of terror that emerge more sharply even as the global optics bypass them.

Indeed, a comparative Indian dimension further illustrates the flaw in the globalising perspective. In the mid-1980s Delhi was terrorised by serial bomb-blasts in innocuous places - buses, teashops, marketplaces. The threat became known as the "transistor-radio bombs", after the use of these devices in such low-intensity attacks. The assailants then were Sikh militants demanding a separate state of Khalistan; their ranks had spectacularly swelled when, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984, an anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi claimed at least 3,500 innocent lives and an Indian army assault had desecrated the Sikhs’ "golden-temple" shrine in Amritsar.

At the time, it was not unusual to see "wanted" posters around Delhi featuring glowering, bearded Sikh militants. People in the city were familiarised with police instructions to report suspicious objects and persons; the instinct to "see", detect and report fearful things was already being honed. In the early 1990s, violent Sikh militancy was quelled, in part through concerted police action that had transformed Punjab into a state of exception. However, the return to peace was made possible not through violence but by addressing the widespread sense of alienation among Sikhs.

Now India reels under a new generation of terrorist attacks. This time it is Muslim terrorists who are the agents of violence, and Indian Muslims are the target of Hindu nationalist anathema as their Sikh compatriots were in the 1980s. The social and historical parallels between these two periods are a further caution against the instant recourse to the global. The new Indian discourse on the "war on terror" is unhistorical and distractive. India must look within - in search not of enemies but of causes, solutions, and alliances for peaceful change.