Embers from my Neighbor’s House

The year in terror has been building and rising, but few expected it to rise to this dramatic crescendo. Boats, control rooms in key buildings, AK-47s, grenades, hostages. As I begin to write, my television continues to bleat the worn platitudes of so many blind men and women of Hindoostan panning reality with their telephoto lenses, over the muffled roar of helicopters and machine gun fire.

Terrorism is high impact and ethics-free anti-art using global media. My imagination has been leached and my insides need cleansing, like an extra travel day spent watching porn in a hotel room. Still, one must concede their mad genius, uniting a new day of mourning in India with the pilgrim feast of Thanksgiving in America, both doused in the same hot stream of media violence.

I am already getting unsolicited text-forwards from cousins and acquaintances. India is planning to bomb Pakistan, says one. My friend Usman, in London, texts me just as he has every time this year, in the wake of each terror strike: “All ok?” “We’re invading Pakistan, but otherwise all okay,” I squeeze out. I’m not sure how funny he found this, for he writes back, “Re: Invasion, ok good. I was worried in the post-Obama fervour the world was becoming too sensible.”

Traveling through Mumbai this week is like living in an alternative dystopic reality, where malls, hotels and airports are surrounded with metal detectors, and armed guards. The usual ceremonies of entry and departure from colonnaded porticos have been suspended, and everyone is being forced to walk the last five blocks to the single entry of their sealed building. In the wake of the attacks, any number of international trade and industry conferences have been cancelled throughout India. Skittish international capital is reevaluating the risk of doing business in India, and so the attacks are having their desired economic effect.

The news channels have been branding it “India’s 9/11.” It is media hyperbole, it serves an ideological intent to align with and perhaps out-victim the US and UK, and it makes it easier to suggest retaliatory military action within the borders of Pakistan. But the label also lingers while we struggle to come to grips with what it was all really about. Not the tragic repetition of someone else’s history, but perhaps a sign from the future.

The attacks exceed the everyday violence that we have become inured to in the subcontinent, even when it has communal intent, even when hundreds die. There is the daring, of course, not only to attack India by sea, but to hit out at the public palaces and perches of the rich and famous. There is the urban, architectural and maritime research, the cross-border planning, the wireless coordination of personnel and armaments. There is the lateral imagination to transform a self-involved metropolis that itself has often threatened to secede from the dirty Indian hinterland into a cowering and precarious place on the edge of a dangerous sea. The Indian people, of every class and region, want to know why this was done to them, and no one really has any ready answers.

The hard answer that Indians are looking for is that there can be no peace for a prosperity that one’s neighbors do not share in, and that we are destined to share not only our past inheritance, but also our future fortune.

The vocabulary of International Relations used by even the more informed and acute commentators places blame on the policies of the Pakistan state. But Pakistan does not appear to be acting or functioning as a unitary state, but rather as an agglomeration of myriad state, para-state and non-state actors, whose collective noise cancels out any signals of policy intent emanating from its putative political leadership. In Karachi, from where the Mumbai attacks were likely launched, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) is fighting the Pashtun Awami National Party (ANP) to preserve its run of the city. Peshawar and much of the North-West Frontier Province is the grip of the Taliban, and in Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir, the Lashkar-e-Taiba is filling in for an increasingly absent State. The alternative, agglomerative source of Pakistan’s name, as an acronym for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, and Indus-Sind is now beginning to appear as its only organizing logic.

Martial Law and the entrepreneurial participation of the Army in so many diverse aspects of Pakistan’s economy have proved a mutually reinforcing phenomena, but their common outcome has been the effective autonomy of the Army from its civilian leadership. This has only been compounded by the continuous flow of loosely accounted American funding through the defense establishments’ Inter-Services Intelligence bureau for almost forty years. American capital, therefore, has inadvertently funded much of the military’s entrepreneurship, while also creating the financial and administrative systems, infrastructures, and techniques for the training and coordination of militant groups. With so many emergent, competing strategic interests in the region, without a continuous record of constitutional governance, it is indeed hard to imagine how the people of Pakistan can ever regain authority over their military apparatus.

America’s President-elect, moreover, appears to be advocating greater and more overt American involvement in Pakistan, having defined quite precisely when and where it is permissible to invade Pakistan. In the second presidential debate he said, “…if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pah-kee-stanee government is unable or unwilling to take them [sic!] out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out.” More recently, he had this cipher for the Pakistani leadership: “Sovereign nations have the right to defend themselves against attacks on their people.” While India may cheer the support it is now receiving from the United States, greater American influence could irrevocably damage the sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan.

From the stroke of that midnight hour, the narratives of India and Pakistan diverged, but the differences between them have intensified over the last two decades, as India’s economy has liberalized, globalized, and technologized. At the same time, India’s astonishing economic achievements have significantly increased inequalities of income, access and life-opportunities within the country, especially between the prosperous Western half of the country, in relation to its East. From the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, through Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Bihar up to the border with Nepal, a Maoist insurgency reigns. Inter-tribal violence alongside violent challenges to the Indian state are routine in the Seven Sisters, India’s North-Eastern states. Indian insurgents are no less committed to their causes than their counterparts in Pakistan. What is different is their strategic situation: they have never been groomed as a proxy army nor continuously funded by state or covert agencies in the same way as in Pakistan. The worst strategic nightmare for India’s establishment would be the linking up of these distinct types of insurgency, which may in fact only be a matter of time and chance.

Contrary to the propaganda of Indian nationalists, terrorists come from Pakistan not on account of the existence of the Pakistani state, but rather because of its relative weakness, its inability to generate social and developmental consensus, to exercise political authority throughout its lands, to monopolize violence within its borders, and to then get on with the business of a modern welfare state, namely the provision of education, healthcare, infrastructure and an enabling environment for economic prosperity. In all these ways, the problems of Pakistan are already also the problems of India, and they demand more, not less sovereignty.

The sovereignty of nations depends on the balance and self-control of their people, now much afflicted by the toxicity of that message of terror and hate brought by ten men to Mumbai and amplified throughout the world by the powers of media. It is possible, however, to cleanse oneself of this poison, and if you’ll allow, I’d like to try a quick experiment with truth.

Think for a minute of Qasab, the lone terrorist commando, now in the custody of the Indian authorities. Know that his fate is as certain as that of nine dead accomplices. Think of how he faltered at the last minute, and with the instincts of self-preservation stole a police-car to get away from Mumbai’s VT station, where he had just participated in a grotesque massacre. See him on CCTV footage as he participates in the carnage, killing more than fifty innocent commuters and wounding scores more. Imagine him making his way to Mumbai’s marina on a little motor-powered dinghy. Go back through the eleven months he spent with his fidayeen cohort training for this mission with a retired Pakistani commando. Think of how the Lashkar-e-Taiba recruited him, how they impressed him with the earthquake relief they organized in those most remote areas of the Himalayas. Think of how he never married, never held down a job, never attended school after the fourth grade. Think of how little of him has properly taken social form, how much he resembles a burning piece of molten clay whose only proven ability is to destroy life.

If you can make him part of your mind, you can overcome terror and grow peace.