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On the streets at the time, the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai left one feeling that the city would never be the same. India would not be the same.
A common mood sloshed through every alley, a rising, indignant anger: enough was enough, something needed to change. Commentators called the attacks India’s 9/11: a time when the world stopped still, shocked at the horrors of humanity.
I’ve always believed the 9/11 analogy was not entirely correct. Unlike the U.S., India has had a long history of terrorism, random attacks engineered by a variety of adversaries and carried out by often faceless operatives.
In 2008 itself there were attacks in the cities of Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Guwahati, and more. But what was truly ominous about comparing the Mumbai attacks to New York’s in 2001 was the expectation of a comparable government response.
A few days after the attacks I went with a CNN crew to a protest rally in Mumbai. Tens of thousands of Mumbaikars attended, venting their anger. Some of it was against politicians; most of it was against Pakistan. The mob was made up of young college students and professionals. Emboldened by their numbers, they demanded action. “Galli galli mein shor hai, Pakistan chor hai!” they shouted, roughly translating to: On every street, people are crying: Pakistan is a rogue country! On televisions, countless pundits insisted that this was India’s 9/11. And they expected a matching response from the government – against Pakistan.
Indian investigators have since laid out a mountain of evidence showing the attackers came from across the border, from the Pakistani province of Punjab. But it wasn’t clear who the anger in India was directed at: the Pakistan government and its inability (or in the protestors’ minds, unwillingness, or worse) to rein in the terrorists, or whether it was directed at the terrorists themselves who happened to be Pakistani. But there is no doubt that much diplomatic ire has been directed at Islamabad for failing to crack down on militants suspected of attacks in India. Finally today, one year later, Pakistan has charged seven men over the Mumbai attacks; they allegedly belong to the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba militant group.
A year on, where does India stand?
Given the immense internal pressure, it’s a marvel that the government rejected the notion of a military response. Elections were afoot; there was political mileage to be made. And yet by and large the public hysteria died down after a while. But India is right in pushing Pakistan to get its house in order.
Here’s a 9/11 analogy that works better: the main two hotels under attack in Mumbai – the Oberoi and the Taj – were symbolically the twin towers of Mumbai’s upper-class fabric.
But in 2009, the real terror story in India has been playing out far away from the corridors of finance, glitz, and glamor. Maoist rebels today operate in 223 districts, spread out across one-third of the country. The area is called the ‘Red Corridor’, where the rebels, known as Naxalites, routinely attack symbols of power. They orchestrate bombings, robberies, kidnappings, and massacres. The South Asia Terrorism Portal’s data shows these rebels have been responsible for 800+ civilians deaths so far this year – more than four times as many as those killed in the Mumbai attacks.
One year on, perhaps the greatest lesson to take away from the Mumbai attacks is this: defeat or victory can't be gauged by the success of a terror attack; it is determined by the response. In the end, India reacted responsibly to Mumbai – by pushing for investigations and justice, and by avoiding a reckless military response. It's important to recognize that combatting terrorism - be it from an internal or external source - requires a more nuanced approach than just fighting fire with fire.