Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2130

What’s behind the Mumbai attacks?

This article is over 15 years, 6 months old
Indian politicians have been quick to blame the Pakistani state for acts of terrorism, but, argues Yuri Prasad, the gunmen’s motivation is more likely to be closer to home
Issue 2130

Millions of people across the world have been horrified by the scenes of terror as gun-men attacked hotels, shops, hospitals and railway stations in the city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) last week leaving more than 170 dead.

The attack brought an all too predictable response from Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh. In a thinly veiled attack on Pakistan, he threatened retribution against any foreign government that was found to have played a role in the carnage.

Singh’s statement was clearly intended to divert attention away from the reasons why Muslims from across South Asia might commit such an act – without the need for prompting by governments or security services.

Yet there are reasons in abundance.

Although India’s elite takes great pride in the country’s secular nature – which they say ensures the separation of religion and affairs of state, whilst allowing everyone to practice their faith without fear of persecution – the reality is rather different.

The vast majority of India’s 150 million Muslims are treated as second-class citizens. A recent government-commissioned study showed that they generally received worse education than Hindus, who make up the majority religion in the country.

Muslims are more likely to end up in low paid and casual employment, and they rarely win sought after government positions. Some 31 percent of Muslims live below the poverty line, compared to the 23 percent average.

Hindu chauvinists – who are grouped around India’s main opposition party, the BJP – have regularly encouraged anti-Muslim pogroms.


It is estimated that around 2,000 mostly Muslim people were killed in rioting in the state of Gujarat in 2002 (see box).

Muslims also face allegations that they are India’s “enemy within”, and that they are politically aligned to Pakistan – a country with which India has fought four wars in the last 60 years.

The situation is made worse by the Indian state’s determination to maintain control of its part of Kashmir – the Himalayan state that is divided between India and Pakistan.

This has resulted in a long-running war in which the Indian military has pounded the heavily contested area with bombs and missiles. It has brutally suppressed those who demand the territory – which has a majority Muslim population – become part of Pakistan or is declared independent.

Yet there is nothing inevitable about conflict between India’s Hindus and Muslims. The root of the tensions between the Indian state and its Muslim minority lies in the way that the British partitioned the country as their rule ended in 1947.

Prior to the arrival of the British, the Muslim emperors routinely co-existed with Hindu princes, while villages and towns were generally mixed.

But under pressure from India’s growing independence movement, successive British rulers encouraged divisions between Hindus and Muslims.

During the high points of the movement for independence people from both religions came together in demonstrations and strikes.

However, the movement’s repeated failure to capitalise on this possibility of unity created a faultline that the British were keen to exploit.

As the British prepared to leave, waves of rioting broke out in which thousands of Hindus and Muslims were killed.

Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, accepted this as proving the need for a separate state for India’s Muslims – Pakistan – to be carved out of the Muslim-majority states in the north and east of India.

The result was carnage in which more than million people died.

Columns of Hindus from the north fled south, passing similar numbers of Muslims seeking shelter in the north. Many never reached their destinations – instead rival gangs of thugs hacked them to death by the sides of the road, or set fire to their trains.

The creation of Pakistan was supposed to create a “homeland” for Muslims but instead it institutionalised divisions between Hindus and Muslims.

The economic basis of Pakistan was always precarious, with partition granting it little in the way of heavy industry, and as a result the country has always been among the world’s poorest states.

And there were other tensions built into the state.

People who spoke Bengali, Balochi, Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi and Sylheti were joined together in a country where the official language was declared to be Urdu, the mother tongue only to a minority of the population.

The East and West wings of Pakistan were separated by more than a thousand miles of Indian territory.

The frontiers between India and Pakistan, arbitrarily drawn up by civil servants, were to be policed by heavily armed troops from both sides.


The border, and the question of which side Kashmir should sit on, was to spark conflict almost immediately upon independence, and again in 1965 and 1999. India’s role in the breakaway of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh was the background to a major war in 1971.

On each occasion, the ruling classes would encourage the populations of their respective countries to see the other as competitors and enemies. The poor of India and Pakistan were told they needed to make further sacrifices in order to bolster their country’s military.

Today neither country can guarantee the majority of their population the very minimum needed to survive – nevertheless both are armed with nuclear weapons.

Yet despite repeated attempts to whip people into mutual hatred, it is clear that most ordinary people want peace and the reopening of borders.

And the story of the workers’ movement in India is full of examples of Hindus and Muslims uniting against their bosses, the government and Hindu chauvinist gangs. Mumbai has often been at the centre of this resistance.

This history includes the 1946 naval mutiny against the British – in which sailors replaced the British flag with those representing the Muslim League, the Indian National Congress and the red flag to represent the Communist Party.

It continues to the long and bitter strikes of mill workers who, in the 1980s, defended fellow workers of each religion when they came under attack.

We should remember that most victims of last week’s terror attacks were ordinary Indians. They came from all sections of Mumbai’s varied population – and cannot be held responsible for the acts of the Indian state.

And it is not inevitable that Muslims who are deeply angered at their treatment by the Indian state should turn to terrorism or to the ideas of radical Islamism. They can be won by the workers’ and socialist movements.

But the left must prove that it will stand up to discrimination and repression if it is to demonstrate that millions of poor Hindus and Muslims have more in common with each other than they do with the rulers of the states they live in.


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