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The attacks in Mumbai

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Police outside Chabad House, Mumbai: Zack Canepari/Panos Pictures

India is a garrulous place, and yet, during last week’s attacks in Mumbai, it became speechless. This was not just the familiar sense that language is always inadequate to death, or that in the face of great slaughter its most feeling response is silence. No: it derived especially from the incomprehensibility of these particular attacks.

Terrorist atrocities are not unusual in India: this year alone, we have seen bombings in most Indian metropolises, with great loss of life. They are usually attributed to Kashmiri separatist groups, and often, popularly, to the supporting Pakistani state apparatus. Recently, however, this familiar mechanism has become more uncertain. In September of this year, a bomb attack in Malegaon, a couple of hundred miles from Mumbai and in the same state of Maharashtra, was found to be the work of right-wing Hindu groups, and a serving officer in the Indian army was arrested for his alleged involvement. This came just two weeks after the police shot dead two young Muslim men in Delhi, claiming they were behind a series of bomb attacks on the capital; this claim was treated with widespread scepticism, and there was even speculation that the top cop who was also killed in the raid was the victim not of the terrified young men but of a high-level police cover-up. Violence in Indian cities was becoming more uncanny: it seemed that every side was resorting to terrorist tactics, not least the state, whose darker purposes were conveniently served by continual fear and regular exchanges of bullets.

This was the prevailing atmosphere when last week’s attacks began in Mumbai, and almost with the first exchange of fire, Hemant Karkare, head of the Maharashtrian Anti-Terrorism Squad, was gunned down, along with two of the city’s most prominent policemen. It was Karkare who had brought to light the startling revelations about the Malegaon bombings, and at first it seemed as if this battle might be another internecine affair – a brutal assault by powerful enemies of his investigation. But that possibility faded as the hours ticked on and it became clear that this operation was quite unlike the ones we were used to seeing in Indian cities.

These terrorists did not fight with crude bombs, and their tactics were not exhausted by momentary explosions. They were disciplined soldiers, at least as well trained and financed as the crack troops dispatched to defeat them, and their tactics brought to mind not the attacks on Jaipur or Assam earlier this year, but the close city fighting of Beirut or Mosul. Their organization and firepower suggested that they had systems behind them that far exceeded any local struggles or causes. As the second day wore on, it emerged that several of them had entered Mumbai by sea, having hijacked a boat and killed its crew, and they had dealt coolly with passers-by who had asked them what they were up to. In breezy, glamorous Colaba, amid the skyscrapers of this centre of global finance, these attacks gave a glimpse of other global networks, whose impersonal and indiscriminate murderousness could only generate mute bewilderment: Why here? Why us?

The speechlessness was hardly diminished by the real-time logorrhoea of the twenty-four hour news channels, who camped out for three days in front of the occupied sites: the Taj and Trident hotels, and a five-storey building called Chabad House, home to an orthodox Jewish outreach organization. The reporters’ athletic commentary did little more than supply the frisson of presence, for they had no words to articulate what manner of face-off this was. In order to appear to be in command of events, they used a persistent bacterial metaphor – the building has not yet been sanitized, there are still parts that need cleaning up, until we neutralize it we cannot say – as if there were no politics, only hygiene. To supply mystique to such evasions of sense, they repeated every few minutes, and with some pride, that they did know the secrets of this stupefying occurrence but they could not divulge them, for reasons of security. The terrorists are watching television too. Every so often, politicians came on to add their own forms of silence: It would not be appropriate to speak about this until our investigations are complete.

When political language retreats behind that of hygiene, many nuances can disappear. Questions about what is justifiable, possible or effective are lost, for the language of hygiene is absolute. But the cries that have filled the silence in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks have little to add to such blind immoderation. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, of the Hindu right, has gone into gory overdrive with its blood-spattered ‘Soft on Terror’ advertisements. Email groups shriek ‘spineless’, while newspaper commentators call for an end to the ‘dithering’. The state is presented as sickeningly vulnerable, and TV anchors ask naval officers to solve the problem of how its 5,000 miles of coastline can finally be made impenetrable. There are demands for the ultimate anti-terror legislation, and for military reprisals against Pakistan if necessary. One blog asks exasperatedly, ‘does the fact that both you and your opponent possess nuclear weapons mean you cannot retaliate at all?’ Invocations of 9/11 (‘our Ground Zero’) bring to mind America’s stern military response, and highlight the inadequacy of Indian passivity.

It is difficult to find words for a shadowy, globally dispersed operation, supported by a complex network of official and unofficial agents; the temptation is to collapse terrorists and victims into the more familiar rivalry of nation states, and so to open up avenues for an effective and satisfying military response. Conveniently, the one terrorist captured last week names Pakistan as the centre of this operation. But what he really said in his cell, under what influence, we do not really know: we have no one to rely on for such information other than India’s security forces, who have an enormous stake in it, and whose conduct in recent terrorist attacks has not been straightforward. It seems inconceivable that the Pakistani state could be solely responsible for this attack; if nothing else there must have been considerable support from within India to amass the grenades and ammunition necessary to hold three buildings against 400 commandos for close to sixty hours. Meanwhile, a nervous Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s new president, is falling over himself to offer sympathy and assistance. Caught between several terrifying forces, he is acutely aware of how destructive India’s hygienic fantasies could be.

Two weeks after Barack Obama was elected US president, an audiotape was issued by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, in which he advised the world that nothing would change with George Bush’s departure. Muslims had a duty to continue ‘causing harm’ to America, he said, for ‘America’s heart is still full of hate, its mind drowning in greed, and its spirit still spreading evil, murder, repression and despotism, as always.’ In its unnecessary repetition of old certainties, it seemed to imply precisely what it strove to deny – that Obama’s presidency might indeed offer fewer rationales for Islamic violence against the United States – and in its anxiety that such violence continue it emphasized what we suspected all along: that the violence will persist even when all reason for it has gone. For this violence has become, like money, tautologic; the rationale for it is nothing more nor less than itself. There is no statement of missions or demands, there is just violence because of violence. It does not easily translate into other terms, and analysis does not break it down into more palatable parts. It bores through our logic and language – and if we are speechless, it is for good reason.

Our speech needs to find a purchase on the situations we are living through, where there is no actor that is not implicated, and the clean division of ‘us and them’ is a post hoc convenience. Calls for massive military escalation are easy but completely misplaced. Difficult as it might be to accept, the kind of violence that has hit Mumbai knows no oxygen like other violence, and if nimble attacks like these can push nuclear states into elephantine consequences, they will have succeeded.

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