Every brutal massacre of defenseless innocents must draw from us a kindred horror, whether it is Hiroshima 1945, Deir Yassin 1948, Sharpeville 1960, Halabja 1988, New York 2001, Gujarat 2002 or Haditha 2005. But each also bears the imprints of its place and time and we must commemorate them accordingly.
The now familiar refrain describing last week’s attacks in Mumbai as “India’s 9/11” diminishes both that carnage and the atrocity in New York seven years ago. The one is not a derivative of the other, though both events resonate with the evil of irrational killing, the spectacle of live televised violence and painful national mourning.
Mumbai is its own place, a city perched precariously on the unequal front lines of India’s march into the global economy. With a long history of commerce and migration, Mumbai’s openness has paradoxically made it the crucible of ethnic and religious majoritarianism that alternately targets “foreigners” from elsewhere in India and religious “others.” The destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu extremists in 1991 set off a cycle of violence between them and Islamist forces. The city has faced terrorism before.
India, too, has a simultaneously successful and troubled relationship with its diversity, that is subject to pressures from both Hindu extremists — themselves quite capable of killing sprees — and jihadists who seem actively to solicit reprisals on the vulnerable fellow Muslims in whose name they massacre.
To characterize last week’s tragedy as India’s 9/11 is to privilege the experience of the US as the iconic form of national suffering. The attacks on the twin towers were appalling, but the fetishization of Sept. 11, 2001, disregards the experiences of the millions who have suffered as much elsewhere, sometimes at the hands of the US. In an India where globalization has, on some fronts, spelled a relentless Americanization, a question must be asked. The gated communities, the lifestyles of the rich and the rampant consumerism carry US labels. Should a calamity as well?
We should not let 9/11 become a badge of honor, a tragic status symbol signaling the arrival of a nation into the fraternity of wounded superpowers. India gains little by allowing the hypnotic mantra “our 9/11” to generate the ineffectual jingoism of “homeland security” and “patriot acts.”
The problem is 9/11 is now less about the suffering of its victims and more a mobile political metaphor that sanctions endless vengeance. It translated into the salutary fall of the Taliban, but failed to harness an evasive stateless enemy. It legitimized a false war that brought more death and destruction in its wake. It created legal abominations like Guantanamo Bay, that delivered little real intelligence and convictions. And it strengthened neo-conservatism that made enormous profits from war, while the national economy fell into a global void. Does India really need a “9/11?”
Rather than imitate the US response to 9/11 through belligerent rhetoric and ineffectual saber-rattling while the real perpetrators elude it, India has the option of turning to its own unique history in seeking an end to the violence. The insight that hatred is ultimately defeated only by weapons it does not possess has a long tradition on the subcontinent. It enjoins a disciplined refusal to buy into divisive categories and the courage not to mete out like for like. While it must never be tolerated, indiscriminate violence can only be countered by discriminating analysis and action.