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    South Asia
 
     Aug 28, 2007
India finds unity in terror
By Sreeram Chaulia

NEW YORK - Saturday's terrorist blasts that killed at least 43 persons and injured more than 100 in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad were neither endemic nor unique. They followed a long succession of mass-casualty attacks on "soft" targets by jihadi fundamentalists beyond the volatile northern region of the country. Ironically, while causing excessive human loss and pain, they also added to the creeping sense of unity in what is touted as the most multi-ethnic and divided society in the world.

The idea of India as a "single nation" has often been pooh-poohed as an absurdity or even a monstrosity by critics. Winston Churchill, the late British prime minister and defender of empire, famously quipped, "India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator."

Indeed, throughout history, the Indian state has rarely managed to politically unify all the territories within its region. Prior to the British, only the Mauryan Empire (324-186 BC) and the Mughals during Aurangzeb (AD 1658-1707) could claim to have done so.

The post-colonial Indian state inherited this unifying impulse and has deployed mind and sinew to defending what it stiltedly calls "the unity and integrity of the country". Its track record in border control and nation-building has been relatively superior to that of other multicultural societies such as Yugoslavia, Lebanon and Indonesia. Yet barriers of region, religion, caste and language have always cast a (sometimes violent) pall over the nationalist ideal and called into question the mythology of an India united from "Kashmir to Kanyakumari".

A growing middle class, the national electronic and print media, the permeation of Bollywood's glorified version of "Indian" culture, the nationalist appeal of sports such as cricket, and the rise of the Indian economy (which creates a common market for everything from soap to mobile phones) have all contributed to the fusion of India's 1.2 billion citizens, 28 states, 22 official languages, six principal religions, and thousands of castes and sub-castes.

An unexpected addition to this list of unifying forces is terrorism, which has made Indians conscious of and sympathetic to their countrymen throughout the nation. Bomb attacks targeting civilians have, over the years, taken on such an all-India face that no corner of the country is immune. Blood on the streets in Pahalgam, Malegaon, Coimbatore and Guwahati has drawn a red line across the map, bonding places and people who had practically nothing in common. The improvised explosive devices that blew on Saturday made Hyderabad the latest addition to the macabre network.

Before the 1990s, terrorism was largely confined to the northern regions, particularly the insurgency-affected states of Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab and in and around the capital Delhi.

But, in 1993, when serial blasts shook Mumbai, western India entered the maelstrom. The first alarm in southern India was sounded in 1998 when the Coimbatore bombings killed 46 people and injured more than 200. Although low-intensity terror attacks have struck eastern India since the 1950s, the scale of damage achieved by separatists in Assam after allying with Islamist groups is of national proportions.

Today, the dreaded activities of Lashkar-i-Tayyaba (LeT), Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami, and even al-Qaeda are as well known to an average Malayali as to a Kashmiri and are as loathed by Bengalis and Telugus alike.

Terrorism is uniting India not only geographically, but also in terms of its extremely diverse social segments. The choice of LeT to shoot an elite Indian Institute of Technology professor in Bangalore in 2005 and to regularly mow down scores of poor shepherds in Rajouri brings the high and low of India together in mourning. The jihadist massacres of Hindu pilgrims on the way to Amarnath or while chanting hymns in Akshardham and of Muslim worshippers in Malegaon or Hyderabad spans a divide in the mind of the Indian citizen watching, reading and hearing of the tragedies from a distance.

Most certainly, the intentions of many terrorist attacks in India are to provoke riots and divisions based on identity, but the effect has boomeranged. Indians at many levels of society reject negotiations with hijackers, hostage-takers and ransom demanders. After decades of bearing the infamous badge of a "soft state", India is increasingly a "hard society" that is opposed to the ideology of intolerant jihad.

Questions remain, of course, regarding the quality of India's unity against terror. Being antagonistic to terrorists and their credo is not the same as being adequately equipped to detect and prevent future attacks. The degree of cooperation between citizens and law-enforcement agencies is badly scarred by the image of the latter as corrupt, unjust and criminalized. The level of cross-religious and cross-community trust to form civic committees or watch groups against bigotry, violence and rioting still leaves much to be desired. Last but not least, the grievances against the Indian state in some sensitive regions are still boiling and prolonging the cycles of radicalization.

There can be no denying that the ubiquitous "external hand" renders domestic counter-terrorism efforts difficult. India exists in a dangerous neighborhood. However, the basic fabric of Indian society will have to show its civilizational strength to tide over this difficult period in its history. Every time an attack happens, the national media celebrate that the victimized town or city has immediately "bounced back" or "returned to normalcy". While this may be a sign of the inherent strength of India to absorb wounds and move ahead, it should not end up becoming a saga of forgetfulness or callousness about the value of life.

Just being grateful that we were not "there" when the horror hit and then proceeding with business as usual will only unite India in apathy, not action against terror.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse University, New York.

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