Every brutal massacre of defenceless 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 frontlines 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 which alternately targets "foreigners" from elsewhere in India and religious "others". The destruction of the Babri mosque by Hindu extremists in 1992 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 which 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 characterise last week's tragedy as India's 9/11 is to privilege the experience of the United States as the iconic form of national suffering. The attacks on the twin towers were appalling but the fetishisation of September 11 disregards the experiences of the millions who have suffered as much elsewhere, sometimes at the hands of the US. In an India where globalisation has, on some fronts, spelled a relentless Americanisation, a question must be asked. The gated communities, the lifestyles of the rich and the rampant consumerism carry American labels. Should a calamity as well?
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We should not let 9/11 become a badge of honour, a tragic status symbol signalling 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". 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 legitimised a false war which brought more death and destruction in its wake. It created legal abominations like Guantánamo Bay which delivered little real intelligence and convictions. And it strengthened neoconservatism which 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 sabre-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. The people of Pakistan are as much the victims of terrorism as those in India. More is to be gained by forging a partnership with them than by falling back on a familiar enmity. Indian Muslims also need to take an active part in this strengthening of resources. This requires the substantive resolution of festering issues which terrorists are able to exploit for their own deadly campaigns, although to reduce what happened in Mumbai to Kashmir to economic inequality is facile.
Hindu extremists have been quick to desecrate the real suffering of many to make political gain. Blood-red advertisements have emerged in Indian newspapers screeching out to readers to "Fight Terror" by voting for them. Beyond condemning this exploitation of loss, religious extremist parties must be recognised not as terror's true opponents but as its ally in spreading fear, hatred and violence. Terrorists crave precisely this immediate acceptance of their invitation to war. The real soft option is to give in.
This time of trial gives India an opportunity to show the visionary leadership in the face of pressure that the US post-9/11 failed to. With a long, often successful history of dealing with conflict, India can shun the blinding language of civilisational clash and attempt to forge a difficult new way. This requires far more toughness than deploying soldiers and deadly missiles. India has no need to cede its unique cultural resources for the derivative language of 9/11. Six decades after his assassination by Hindu extremists and the violent Partition which he lamented, Gandhi's words may remind us of a way beyond "9/11": "The condition of India is unique. Its strength is immeasurable. We need not, therefore, refer to the history of other countries." Perhaps "26/11" will, in due course, provide other countries with a point of moral reference.