Daniel Martin Varisco: Mumbai and the Blame Game

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Daniel Martin Varisco is Chair, Anthropology Department at Hofstra University.]

Must every country have its 9/11 moment and must these tragedies continue to be the work of extremists who attack and kill as if they were commanded by Allah? This is a rhetorical question, of course. The latest events in Mumbai have trumped the economic slump in the news. Once again billowing smoke from a famous building clouds the sky; again Islam is tainted as the religion that fosters terrorists. And the blame game begins anew.

The sheer audacity of the attack, more like a Rambo commando raid than the hijacking scenario that felled the Twin Towers, is staggering. How could such landmarks have been targeted in tandem? Where was the security? These are the questions inevitably asked after the fact. As reported in Al-Jazeera, here is the unfolding of the drama:

Following are the key events in the crisis (all times are in Mumbai local time):

Wednesday 26, 2008:

Shooting starts at Chhatrapati Shivaji rail station, one of the world’s busiest, handling thousands of passengers each day.

Within the hour other attacks occur at four other locations: the Nariman House, home of the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch; Leopold’s restaurant, a landmark popular with foreigners; the Trident-Oberoi hotel, a five-star landmark; the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel, a landmark of Mumbai since 1903.

Shooting breaks out in south Mumbai, quickly followed by attacks near the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the civic body that governs Mumbai, and the Cama hospital and the GT hospital in the city centre.

Just after midnight, armed men attack the Vidhan Sabha, the legislative assembly, the lower house of state legislature in India.

Thursday 27

A large fire breaks out at the Taj Palace hotel and an hour later authorities begin escorting people out of the hotel.

Indian security forces are brought in to try to regain control of the Taj hotel and the Oberoi hotel.

Members of the National Security Guard start doing room-to-room searches at the Taj hotel and within the hour surround the Nariman House. Local media show people being rescued from the Oberoi hotel.

A little-known group calling itself the Deccan Mujahedeen claims responsibility for the attacks.

Indian troops continue to battle armed men in the city.

Friday 28

Firing and explosions are reported from both the Taj Mahal and Trident-Oberoi hotels.

Officers kill two gunmen inside the Trident-Oberoi hotel and ended the attack.

Dozens of people are evacuated from the Trident-Oberoi. A bus carrying the rescued guests was seen leaving the scene and police are said to have control of the building.

Meanwhile explosions and gunfire continue intermittently at the Taj Mahal hotel.

An airborne assault gets under way at the Nariban House, where commandos are beseiging a centre run by the ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad Lubavitch. Attackers holed up in the building are said to have hostages. The seige is punctuated by gunshots and explosions.

Troops storm the Nariman House, reportedly killing the gunmen inside. The troops emerged from the building to applause but the bodies of five hostages are recovered, including that of the rabbi that ran the centre.

Pakistan warns India not to play politics over the incident, but says the two countries face a common enemy and agrees to send its spy chief to share intelligence on the attacks.

There is little doubt “who” did it as most of the perpetrators appear to be dead, nine out of estimated ten of them. But little is yet known about the individuals behind the who. One rumor is that they are members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group which aims to end Indian rule in Kashmir. If revenge on Americans and Britains was the aim, as is reported from eyewitness accounts, then the raid was a failure. Only 15 foreigners are among the estimated 150 casualties thus far. So far only five Americans were killed.

Why did 100 men commit an act that was sure to result in their own deaths? What did they hope to accomplish by willy nilly killing just about anyone in their way? The pundits and pandits will debate these slippery questions until the next tragedy. An article to be published in Time Magazine by Aryn Baker dredges up the colonial history, highlighting the Muslim-Hindu divide in India (and by extension Pakistan) to the Sepoy Mutiny:

On the afternoon of March 29, 1857, Mangal Pandey, a handsome, mustachioed soldier in the East India Company’s native regiment, attacked his British lieutenant. His hanging a week later sparked a subcontinental revolt known to Indians as the first war of independence and to the British as the Sepoy Mutiny. Retribution was swift, and though Pandey was a Hindu, it was the subcontinent’s Muslims, whose Mughal King nominally held power in Delhi, who bore the brunt of British rage. The remnants of the Mughal Empire were dismantled, and five hundred years of Muslim supremacy on the subcontinent was brought to a halt.

Muslim society in India collapsed. The British imposed English as the official language. The impact was cataclysmic. Muslims went from near 100% literacy to 20% within a half-century. The country’s educated Muslim Élite was effectively blocked from administrative jobs in the government. Between 1858 and 1878, only 57 out of 3,100 graduates of Calcutta University - then the center of South Asian education - were Muslim. While discrimination by both Hindus and the British played a role, it was as if the whole of Muslim society had retreated to lick its collective wounds.

Blame British imperialism: it remains an easy target. But how far back can the blame game extend? Did the Muslim armies ask permission when they first invaded and slaughtered Hindus? Or perhaps the anger is directed at Timur, who not only conquered Delhi some 610 years ago, but dispatched virtually all the inhabitants, sending tens of thousands into eternity without pity? Or perhaps more recent history is at fault. Such tragedies can always be blamed on the Americans or the Israelis, as though the foreign policy or domestic policy of a state creates an open season for killing any of its citizens.

There is only one way to end the blame game; this is a path provided by a native of India who dealt with oppression and colonial power plays with a human rather than a divine dictate. His name was Gandhi. Among the truths he passed on is the following: “Retaliation is not the solution. The policy of an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” The men who took the lives of other men and women in Mumbai over the past few days were blind, blinded by a hate that reduces their God to the worst level of human nature. The lessons found in sacred writings of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad echo the wisdom of Gandhi. When mortals usurp the divine for vengeance, they dishonor the very notion of God’s greatness.

We should not be blind to injustice nor deny the misdeeds of the past, but those who kill in the name of any God dim the world for us all. There were no Muslim martyrs in Mumbai (except perhaps those who were innocent victims in the killings), no cause great enough to justify taking life. There is room enough in this world for Allah, Yahweh, the Trinity, all the gods and goddesses of Hinduism and even those who deny that divine entities exist. Because we humans have so many blood baths in our history, we owe it to future generations to replace retaliation with tolerance, lest blindness damn us all to more of the same; and for that we will only have ourselves to blame.

Read entire article at Tabsir

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More Comments:

A. M. Eckstein - 12/10/2008

Those who killed in Mumbai came from an area of Pakistan, Multan, which has the highest incidence of attacks with ACID on women who depart in any way from the most claustrophobic of Islamic strictures on women. Over 70 such attacks last year..

We don't have to think much about what motivated these killers: This wasn't Columbine. This was Islamofascism.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/1/2008

<and even those who deny that divine entities exist...>
This "even" is hilarious!
Thanks alot for descending the right
for existence on us atheists, i.e. heretics, Mr. Anthropologist.