AS an open, diverse and at times chaotic democracy, India has long been a target for terrorism. From the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi in 1948 to the recent attacks in Mumbai, it has faced attempts to change its national character by force. None has yet succeeded. Despite its manifest social failings, India remains the developing world’s most successful experiment in free, plural, large-scale political collaboration.
The Mumbai attacks were transformative, because in them, unlike previous outrages in India, the rich were caught: not only Western visitors in the nation’s magnificent financial capital but also Indian bankers, business owners and socialites. This had symbolic power, as the terrorists knew it would.
However, I recently saw a televised forum in which members of the public vented their fury against India’s politicians for their failure to act, and it soon became apparent the victims were poor as well as rich. One survivor, Shameem Khan — instantly identifiable by his name and his embroidered cap as a Muslim — told how six members of his extended family had been shot dead. Still in shock, he said: “A calamity has fallen on my house. What shall I do?” His neighbors had helped pay for the funeral. Like most of India’s 150 million Muslims, Mr. Khan is staunchly patriotic. The city’s Muslim Council refused to let the terrorists be buried in its graveyards.
When these well-planned attacks unfolded, it was clear to anyone with experience of India that they were not homegrown, and almost certainly originated from Pakistan. Yet the reaction of the world’s news media was to rely on the outmoded idea of Pakistan-India hyphenation — as if a thriving and prosperous democracy of over a billion people must be compared only to an imploded state that is having to be bailed out by the I.M.F. Was Pakistan to blame, asked many pundits, or was India at fault because of its treatment of minority groups?
The terrorists themselves offered little explanation, and made no clear demands. Yet even as the siege continued, commentators were making chilling deductions on their behalf: their actions were because of American foreign policy, or Afghanistan, or the harassment of Indian Muslims. Personal moral responsibility was removed from the players in the atrocity. When officials said that the killers came from the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, it was taken as proof that India’s misdeeds in the Kashmir Valley were the cause.
These misdeeds are real, as are India’s other social and political failings (I recently met a Kashmiri man whose father and sister had died at the hands of the Indian security forces). But there is no sane reason to think Lashkar-e-Taiba would shut down if the situation in Kashmir improved. Its literature is much concerned with establishing a caliphate in Central Asia, and murdering those who insult the Prophet. Its leader, Hafiz Saeed, who lives on a large estate outside Lahore bought with Saudi Money, goes about his business with minimal interference from the Pakistani government.
Lashkar-e-Taiba is part of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders (the Qaeda franchise). Mr. Saeed’s hatreds are catholic — his bugbears include Hindus, Shiites and women who wear bikinis. He regards democracy as “a Jewish and Christian import from Europe,” and considers suicide attacks to be in accordance with Islam. He has a wider strategy: “At this time our contest is Kashmir. Let’s see when the time comes. Our struggle with the Jews is always there.” As he told his followers in Karachi at a rally in 2000: “There can’t be any peace while India remains intact. Cut them, cut them — cut them so much that they kneel before you and ask for mercy.” In short, he has an explicit political desire to create a state of war between the religious communities in India and beyond, and bring on the endgame.
Like other exponents of Islamist extremism, he has a view of the world that does not tolerate doubt or ambiguity: his opponents are guilty, and must be killed. I have met other radicals like Mr. Saeed, men who live in a dimension of absolute certainty and have contempt for the moral relativism of those who seek to excuse them. To achieve their ends, it is necessary to indoctrinate boys in the hatred of Hindus, Americans and Jews, and dispatch them on suicide missions. It is unlikely that any of the militants who were sent from Karachi to Mumbai — young men from poor rural backgrounds whose families were paid for their sacrifice — had ever met a Jew before they tortured and killed Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, who was several months pregnant, at the Mumbai Jewish center.
America’s so-called war on terror has been, in many respects, a catastrophe. In Pakistan, it has been chronically mishandled, leading to the radicalization of areas in the north that were previously peaceful. Yet links between the military, the intelligence services and the jihadis have remained intact: Lashkar-e-Taiba is merely one of a number of extremist organizations that continues to function.
The prime solution to the present crisis is to force the closing of terrorist training outfits in Pakistan, and apply the law to those who organize and finance operations like the Mumbai massacres. Hafiz Saeed and other suspects should be sent to India to stand trial. The remark by Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari (a man whose history of shady business dealing makes him demonstrably unfit for high, or even low, office), that he did not think the terrorists came from Pakistan would be funny if it were not tragic.
The United States gives around $1 billion a year in military aid to Islamabad; that is leverage. It does the people of Pakistan no favors for Washington to allow their leaders to continue with the strategy of perpetual diversion, asking India to be patient while denying the true nature of the immediate terrorist threat. I received this e-mail message recently from a friend in Karachi: “Nowhere can get more depressing than Pakistan these days — barring some African failed states and Afghanistan.”
By PATRICK FRENCH
London December 8, 2008
Patrick French is the author, most recently, of “The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul.”