Posted by: cochinblogger | November 25, 2009

The 26/11 Mumbai Attack: How I Lost and Recovered My Liberalism

It was on this day (November 26) last year (2008) that the Mumbai attacks began, with a volley of shots fired on hapless commuters at Mumbai’s CST railway station. In January 2009, I wrote the following piece. The attacks were fresh in my mind then. One year later, it’s interesting to relive my thought processes:

I have kept silent up to now, but cannot hold out anymore. I’ve kept mum over Mumbai, but I must have my say now. In November of 2008, the brazen terrorist attack on Mumbai played out. Yes, India has been the worst victim of Islamist terrorism over the years, but India is a big country and one can distance oneself from bomb blasts in a distant corner of the country. That’s not possible in a tiny country like Israel, where a bomb blast or rocket attack anywhere must seem as though one’s own backyard has been hit. However, the Mumbai attack was on an altogether different scale, a commando operation against civilian targets, and we Indians could see the horror unfolding live on TV. Like most Indians, I was furious. Bleeding heart liberal though I was, I said to myself that if this happened again we were going to go over the border, come what may. My unspoken thought was that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were a deterrent, but if they dared use them on us, we, as a large country, would be able to absorb that first strike, but there would be no further strikes on us. They would be finished.

Many Indians felt the same way. When Israel began its air strikes on Gaza, a leading newspaper here had two headlines next to each other: “Israel Strikes” was the first headline, “India Dithers” the other. The latter story was on yet another of the innumerable statements by our foreign minister urging Pakistan to come down hard on terrorist training camps there.

Let me take you on a flashback of the Mumbai attacks with two articles. I wonder how many of you have read the following first-person account of heroism by common folks who went about calmly doing their jobs while under fire:

Here’s another account:

[Here’s a recent four-part series:]

Even as I write these lines I can feel the emotions coming on. A mother who lost her children asks, “What did they want? They just came to kill? What for? They didn’t make any demands.” The terrorists had been thoroughly brainwashed by their handlers into thinking the lives of unbelievers–and idolators at that– were of no value. They believed they would be in paradise shortly. In fact, the captured terrorist believed that his slain comrades would look like angels, and he was shocked when he was shown their bullet-ridden corpses.

During and after the Mumbai attacks, bleeding heart liberals were singled out for attack. Where are they now, went the taunt. They are worried about the human rights of the terrorists, went another taunt. Politicians were another object of ridicule, as they issued statement after helpless statement. The media (even iconic television journalists I greatly respected were reduced to a quivering mass of emotion), ostensibly echoing the views of the citizenry, kept relaying the following shrill message: “We want action, take out the training camps, attack and smash Pakistan. Look at how Israel retaliates, look at how the U.S. went into Afghanistan and Iraq. These are countries that value the lives of their citizens. By not acting, we are sending the message that India is a soft state with a spineless government, and that Indian lives are expendable.”

That was November 2008. This is January 2009. Time for a change of gear. Time for a reality check.

Now that sanity has reasserted itself, I realize that this line of thought is fatally flawed.

It’s all very well to say Israel strikes and India dithers. Pakistan has a large professional armed forces and nuclear weapons. It would be a major war with unpredictable consequences. There is just no comparison with the Palestinians, who have no planes, tanks, etc. I don’t know what the Mumbai attackers wanted to achieve, but every third casualty was a Muslim. Mullahs in Mumbai have refused to bury the bodies of the terrorists.

And make no mistake about it, bleeding heart liberals are required. It is they who embody idealism and speak up for the oppressed, for those who have nobody else to turn to. It is they who take on fundamentalists of all stripes when the majority remains silent, passive, or even colludes with the fundamentalists. The voice of the bleeding heart liberal can never be silenced.

I’m developing a healthy respect for our politicians and diplomats leading a nonviolent campaign to shame Pakistan into acting to set its own house in order. War is a dirty business. It should be a last resort, to be undertaken only when all other means have been exhausted. Even our right-wing government pulled back from the brink after massing troops on the border after the attack on our parliament.

In spite of precision technology, in spite of all precautions, we know of terrible mistakes. And what would have been the end result of a war against Pakistan? For a temporary psychological feeling of well-being, we would only have succeeded in hardening attitudes there, breeding even more terrorism against us in the long term. Terror (in the sense of feeling terrified) only breeds more terrorism. I liked the piece “Eyeless in Gaza” by Marty Kaplan ( because he explores nuances. The title of the piece reminded me of what Mahatma Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye will only make the world blind,” or words to that effect.

Indians and Pakistanis are one people artificially divided by religion. Nawaz Sharif is a Punjabi, and so is Manmohan Singh. They have more in common with each other (beginning with their mother tongue, Punjabi) than I, a South Indian, have in common with our gentle Sikh prime minister (my mother tongue is Malayalam). Indians and Pakistanis can come together; religion need not be an insurmountable barrier. Aberrations notwithstanding, India herself is a living proof of this, a beautiful tapestry of cultures, traditions, and religions woven together harmoniously, and the Pakistanis have not been blind to this. Similarly, I believe Arabs and Jews are related, cousins even if distant cousins (Arabs and Jews are Semites), with shared ethnicity and cultural traditions. I see no intrinsic reason why what is essentially a property dispute cannot be resolved, provided sufficient momentum for peace builds up in both communities.

We in India have had a big victory to cherish in Kashmir, where, in elections that were held not long after the Mumbai attack, people defied separatists and came out to vote in large numbers. Around 60% of the electorate exercised their franchise in a free and fair election without a ghost of coercion. It was unbelievable, because a few months ago there was an ugly dispute over land allocation to a Hindu shrine in Kashmir that embittered both Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir. I look on that election as as the just reward for the moderate policies India has been pursuing. Peace is well worth not fighting for, and time a slow but sure healer.

Something else for Indians to celebrate is the landslide victory of Hasina in the Bangladesh elections. Hasina is Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s daughter, a friend of India. There is hope that the terrorist training camps in Bangladesh will now come under pressure. By the way, Mujibur Rehman was leading the Mukti Bahini, the Bangladeshi force that resisted the West Pakistan army engaged in butchering their Muslim Bengali “brothers” in 1971 until the Indian army intervened, quite justifiably this bleeding heart liberal thinks.

In November 2008, if I was prime minister of India, I might well have ordered an attack on Pakistan, nuclear deterrent or no. Today, I’m back to my usual pacifist self. Now, if another Mumbai were to occur today, I honestly can’t predict how I would react. It’s just as well that I’m not a politician.

But for now, I’m back in business being a bleeding heart liberal.

[Here are some parting thoughts on terrorism:


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