India - Sabre-rattling and political demagogy in a region torn by imperialism's wars

Jan/Feb 2009

Another tense episode of jingoism broke out between India and Pakistan in the last weeks of 2008, threatening to further destabilise a region already devastated by 7 years of imperialist occupation and war in Afghanistan. This time round, the occasion was the terrorist attack which rocked Mumbai, the centre of India's big business and financial wealth, on 26, 27 and 28 November, 2008, leaving 192 dead and 239 injured, according to figures compiled by the Indian magazine Frontline.

Like every other similar attack in the past, this one was carried out by people for whom the masses are nothing but cannon fodder at the service of their political agenda. For us, revolutionary communists, who fight for the interests of the working class and poor, such acts can only be condemned, whatever political aims their perpetrators pretend to promote.

This attack began in the evening of 26th November. Thereafter gun fighting raged in wealthy South Mumbai between what was described by the police as a small group of heavily-armed men and government forces. It took no less than 60 hours of fighting and massive reinforcement before the police, army and special forces finally regained control of the situation.

The media focused on five of the targets chosen by the attackers - all among Mumbai's most prestigious luxury hotels, and restaurants, including the Taj Mahal Palace, one of the jewels of the Tata business empire - also mentioning in passing, a much shorter confrontation at Nariman House, the local headquarters of an ultra-orthodox Jewish religious group.

Officially, no demands or statements were made by the terrorists, except a rather suspicious e-mail which, according to the authorities, claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of an hitherto unknown group calling itself the "Deccan Mujahideen". The gunmen, took some hostages among the hotels' customers, with the apparent aim of holding out long enough to attract as much media coverage as possible. There were hundreds of shots fired and some parts of the hotels were set on fire. But it remains unclear how exactly this happened - whether these fires were deliberately lit by the terrorists, or whether they were caused accidentally by gunfire. Just as it remains unclear how many of the casualties were actually shot by the terrorists and how many by government forces.

By a cynical irony, while the media and politicians thundered against what they described as an "indelible stain on Mumbai's international standing", claiming that lax security had allowed the terrorists to "target foreigners at will", the casualty figures tell a rather different story, since Indian nationals account for 88% of the dead and 90% of the injured!

What was even more sickening was the flood of tears shed by television channels on the damaged furniture and amenities of these luxury hotels. After all, only a tiny minority of Mumbai's inhabitants would be able to afford even a drink in these palaces, let alone a meal or a room - assuming they were not turned away for not wearing respectable enough clothes! The media's complacency was all the more sickening as, at the same time, they made few references to the many victims who were mown down by the attackers at a busy railway station, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and outside the state-run Cama hospital. Yet, between them, these two locations accounted for 60 out of the 141 Indian civilians killed during these events, and an even larger proportion of the injured! But, obviously, the fate of ordinary commuters and hospital patients was of much less concern to the media than the discomfort of the luxury hotels' wealthy customers.

In fact, the targets selected by the terrorists speak volumes as to their political agenda. Targeting luxury hotels because they are symbols of the cosy relationship between the Indian capitalist class and its imperialist business partners is at best pointless, as this cosy relationship, which is based on huge profiteering for both sides, cannot be derailed by the bullets of a few terrorists, no matter how determined and bloody-minded they may be. In fact, this can achieve nothing except provide the political leaders of the Indian wealthy with yet another pretext to strengthen an already disproportionally inflated repressive state machinery - at the expense of the entire Indian population. And indeed, by shooting blindly at crowds of ordinary people in a railway station and outside a hospital, the terrorist gang only demonstrated in the most clear fashion its total contempt for the population.

The making of suspicious "evidence"

The official response to the Mumbai attack was in keeping with what followed every single one of the numerous terrorist attacks seen in India over the recent decades, regardless of which government has been in office - be it a government led by the Congress party, as it is today, or the right-wing Hindu communalist party BJP, as was the case from 1998 to 2004. India's politicians and media immediately blamed Islamic fundamentalist groups operating from Pakistan, while pointing an accusing finger at the ISI - the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's secret service - as the likely mastermind behind the Mumbai attack.

For the occasion, the Mumbai police conveniently produced as "evidence" the "confession" it had extracted from the only survivor of the terrorist commando after the attack. However this "evidence" soon revealed obvious weaknesses. The police claimed, for instance, that this lone survivor was a Pakistani citizen and they obligingly provided the name of his family village to the press for good measure. Except that several papers, including the British Guardian, reported on their failed attempts to find any trace of this individual in the said village!

Possibly even more suspicious was the official story of the terrorist commando "landing" in two small inflatable dinghies, after having hijacked a fish trawler to take them and their weapons from Pakistan to the coast of Mumbai. According to this story, the commando had 10 members, which fitted well with the number of dead terrorists and the size of the dinghies exhibited by the police. But then, how could these 10 men, no matter how well equipped and trained, possibly have managed to keep thousands of professional troops at bay for 60 hours, while themselves holding out against a siege in 3 to 6 different locations at any one time? At one point, faced with insistent questioning by sceptical journalists, a police official finally admitted that the commando must have had at least 25 members. However, this admission was quickly forgotten, no doubt because it could only torpedo the carefully constructed story of a commando sailing from Pakistan into Mumbai with all its equipment.

So the story of the 10-man commando remained the official line. For good measure, RAW (the "Research and Analysis Wing", India's counterpart of ISI) produced "intelligence" supposedly showing that a number of individuals connected with the banned Pakistani fundamentalist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT, the "Army of the Pure"), with the Pakistani ISI or with both, had been involved in preparing the Mumbai attack. Like all such "evidence", what it showed was largely a matter of reading between the lines of innocuous messages and interpreting them. But by the same token, RAW's alleged "evidence" amounted to admitting that it had known about the attack for some time already, which begged uncomfortable questions - such as why RAW had actually done nothing to prevent the attack in the first place, that is, assuming it really knew about it in advance, as it now claims.

All this "evidence" seemed so flimsy that it prompted some journalists to raise unwelcome and embarrassing questions - although, it should be added, that they were soon hushed as most newspaper companies were not prepared to take the risk of swimming against the jingoistic tide.

Nevertheless, even without these inconsistencies, there would have been serious reasons to regard this so-called "evidence" with suspicion anyway. One reason, if no other, is that India has its own home-grown Islamic fundamentalist groups - such as the Student Islamic Movement of India, for instance - which have been known to resort to terrorism often enough in the past, even though the Indian authorities seldom admitted to it officially. After all, India has almost as many Muslim citizens as Pakistan and more than Bangladesh. Why should the regional spread of Islamic fundamentalism have stopped at the Indian border, especially given the entrenched - and, in some parts of India, increasing - discrimination experienced by large sections of the Muslim minority?

But there is an even more serious reason for suspicion - the deliberate fabrication of false terrorist charges by the authorities in past terrorist attacks, which has been recently revealed. Thus, in September 2006, three bombs exploded near a Muslim cemetery, in Malegaon, a medium-sized town some 180 miles to the northeast of Mumbai, killing 37 people and injuring 125 others. The attack was immediately blamed on several Islamic organisations, including LeT, the same Pakistani group which is accused over the November attack. A "dossier of evidence" was even put together on this occasion by Mumbai's police authority.

Yet, less than a month before the Malegaon blasts, an accidental bomb explosion had taken place in Nanded, in the same state of Maharashtra, while terrorist "experts" were preparing their pay loads. Only, these "experts" were not Islamic fundamentalists, but members of Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Hindu supremacist VHP. Had these "experts" been Muslims, they would certainly have spent a very long time in jail. But things being as they are, these terrorist "experts" were not even charged. Nor were the lessons of the Nanded incident learnt. It took almost two years before a newly-formed unit, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), finally noticed that the devices used in the Malegaon bombings were identical to those found in the Nanded bomb workshop - leading the ATS chief, Hemant Karkare, to orientate his search towards the Hindu communalist groups.

Finally, in October 2008, three members of Abhinav Bharat, a splinter group of the Hindu supremacist VHP, including a Hindu preacher and a serving Lt-Colonel of the Indian army, were arrested and charged over the Malegaon bombings. These arrests caused huge outrage among Indian politicians, and not only among Hindu supremacists. LK Advani, leader of the BJP, the largest opposition party, went on record saying that "Hindus cannot be terrorists". Nevertheless, on November 25, it was reported that the ATS was now investigating the chief of the VHP himself, over the same Malegaon bombings and possibly others.

However, the following day, Hemant Karkare and two of his senior officers in the ATS were shot dead in the Mumbai attacks. No-one can say, for the time being, whether this was a coincidence or not. But the mere fact that a number of commentators pointed out that a senior officer like Karkare would not normally be called to the frontline, thereby intimating that the circumstances of his death might have something to do with the Malegaon investigation, probably says it all on the climate of suspicion which prevails today towards the Indian police and justice system.

Imperialism wrong-footed

Fabricated or not, the official "evidence" provided by the police was considered substantial enough by the Congress-led government to present Pakistan with a stern ultimatum, demanding the immediate disbanding of ISI and the extradition to India of a list of "terrorists" allegedly involved in the organisation of the Mumbai attacks.

This led to much sabre-rattling on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani border. In India, there were strident calls for immediate air strikes on "Islamic fundamentalist targets" in Pakistan - with the war-mongers arguing that, after all, if Washington could use such methods against Pakistan's homegrown "Taliban" in the North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan, alongside the Afghan border, why couldn't India do the same?

On the imperialist side, predictably, both Washington and London enthusiastically seconded - if not encouraged - Delhi's accusations against Pakistan and its demands. For the imperialist leaders, such an opportunity to refresh the tired face of their "war on terror" was certainly too good to be wasted! Besides, at a time when the US general staff is trying to put pressure on Islamabad to clamp down on the country's Islamic fundamentalists, in order to deprive the Afghan resistance of any logistical support from Pakistan, the US authorities may well have seen the Mumbai attack as a godsend to increase their pressure on Islamabad by one more notch.

As to the Pakistani government, it appears to have been caught unawares. Initially, the recently-elected PPP (Pakistan People's Party) government tried to adopt a conciliatory attitude, going as far as to undertake to send ISI's director-general to Delhi in order to try to resolve the issue and prove his government's good faith. However, this was underestimating the hypersensitivity of the Pakistani army establishment, which promptly made remonstrations against what it considered as being an undignified attitude, while demonstrators began to fill the streets of Pakistan to protest against India's diktats. Faced with the pressure of the army, the street protests orchestrated by the right-wing religious parties, and Delhi's increasingly bellicose tone, the PPP government soon made a U-turn, responding in kind by threatening to shift the half-a-million soldiers stationed alongside Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, to its border with India.

For once, the imperialist powers were wrong-footed in their usual arrogant allocation of blame. However, at a time when the war in Afghanistan is taking an increasingly dangerous course for the occupation forces and threatening to turn into a military disaster, Pakistan's threats sent all alarms ringing in Western military high spheres. And this prompted the US government to change tack in a hurry. By the second week of December, the US embarked on a diplomatic flurry aimed at keeping any further moves between Delhi and Islamabad under close control. US secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was rushed on an improvised visit to both capitals, together with the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, admiral Mullen. Even Obama's administration in-waiting joined in this fire-fighting effort, by sending John Kerry, the former Democrat presidential candidate, in his new capacity as chairman of the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. The two governments were duly reminded that they were meant to be engaged in a "peace process" over Kashmir, among other issues, and that this process was not to be derailed, whatever the pretext. Meanwhile, FBI teams, which had been hastily dispatched to start investigations in India and Pakistan, reported cautiously that some of the "evidence" produced by RAW (the "Research and Analysis Wing", India's version of ISI) to back up Delhi's claims against Pakistan, was at best "inconclusive".

Today, the imperialist powers have not abandoned their enthusiastic endorsement of Delhi's version of the Mumbai attack, since its serves so well their "war on terror". But while their finger remains pointed towards Islamabad, a full official investigation will have to be completed - which is likely to take years rather than months - before they consider endorsing fully Delhi's demands on Pakistan. So they will still be able to rely on Pakistan's troops to guard the Pakistani border with Afghanistan for the foreseeable future - which was the aim of this diplomatic exercise.

Eventually, under the pressure of the imperialist powers, the Indo-Pakistani sabre-rattling may appear to have subsided somewhat, at least for the time being. But to what extent and for how long, remains an open question.

Demagogic overbidding

In fact, more than a month after the Mumbai attack, the Indian media remain full of anti-Pakistani jingoism. Nor has this kind of demagogy disappeared from the rhetoric of government officials. From Congress party president Sonia Gandhi to External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukerjee, the regime's heavy-weights keep warning Pakistan of a "befitting reply" should it fail to extradite India's list of wanted "terrorists".

It may be worth noting that India's politicians were far less vocal in the aftermath of July 11th, 2006, for instance, when bombs exploded at the peak of the evening rush hour, in seven overcrowded trains connecting Mumbai to its western suburbs. Yet, at the time, the casualties were significantly higher than in last November's attack, with 209 killed and 714 injured. On that occasion, the same accusations were levelled at Pakistan - and, as usual, without much reliable evidence to support them. But they remained largely on a rhetorical level, without even slowing down the on-going negotiation process between the two countries and without the threats of military retribution which still permeate the politicians' demagogy today. But then, there are significant differences between the situation in 2006 and today.

2006 was the year when India signed a controversial nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington. When the Mumbai train bombings took place in July of that year, this agreement had already been signed in the March, but it was still no more than an agreement on principles. Its implementation depended on vital legislation which had to be adopted by the US Congress, allowing American companies to sell nuclear reactors and fuels to India. By July 2006, this legislation was still going through the Congress' sub-committee procedure (it was only passed in December 2006). The last thing the Indian government wanted was to risk putting this process in jeopardy by exposing itself to US sanctions, especially as Pakistan was still the US' favourite military ally in the region, without any of the bad blood which has been building up between the two governments more recently. By contrast, today, Pakistan appears to be in Washington's bad books, whereas India may feel that it is less immediately susceptible to US economic sanctions.

From the point of view of the Indian capitalist class, there is also a major difference between the 2006 bombings and the 2008 Mumbai attack. The 2006 bombings were targeted at anonymous, mostly poor crowds. For Indian capitalists, such acts were possibly unwelcome, but they implied no threat, neither real nor symbolic, to its domination. By contrast, the 2008 attack deliberately infringed on the preserves of India's wealthy upper-crust. Although it obviously did not and could not threaten its domination, it could be seen by the poor as a deliberate act of defiance against the arrogant affluence of the wealthy. As such, for the Indian wealthy, the 2008 Mumbai attack requires an exemplary punishment for its instigators - and the politicians' sabre-rattling goes some of the way towards meeting this desire.

Finally, the 2008 attack took place against a backdrop of a highly charged political atmosphere, since the Lok Sabha, India's Federal parliament, is due for re-election by May 2009. For the two main parties bidding for power, the Congress Party and the BJP, the stakes are high. The Congress-led "United Progressive Alliance" has lost the absolute majority it had in the Lok Sabha after the 2004 general elections, due to the defection of the two communist parties (as a protest against the US-India nuclear deal) and of a regional party, the BSP (Social Majority Party, which is based in the state of Uttar Pradesh). If one adds to this the Congress' discredit due to the chronic corruption of its administration and to the exorbitant cost of its pro-business policies for the vast majority of the population, the incumbent ruling party is not in the best position to win the coming elections.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the BJP and the Hindu supremacist right-wing as a whole should jump at the opportunity offered by the Mumbai attack to put the issue of Islamic terrorism in general and, by the same token that of Pakistan, at the centre of the political agenda in the run-up to the general elections, in order to expose what they describe as the weakness and failure of the present regime. And of course, the fact that the Congress government has paved the way for this overbidding, by launching its jingoistic drive against Pakistan, can only bolster the Hindu right-wing's reactionary agenda.

The dangers ahead

In the context of Indian politics, this electoral overbidding implies potential consequences which are very different from those that one would expect in most industrialised countries. The nationalist overbidding which is common in British politics does, sometimes, have a legislative expression, but otherwise, it remains mostly benignly rhetorical, without having significant consequences for the life of the population.

Not so in the context of Indian politics. India may be hailed by Western commentators and politicians, with a great deal of hypocrisy, as a model of "democracy", but this so-called "democracy" is permeated by the most extreme violence. And how could it be otherwise? Politics is just one aspect of social life. And India's social life is marked by the brutality of the exploitation faced by the overwhelming majority of its population. This is a "democracy" in which over three quarters of the population lives on less than 40p per day, and among them, 230 million (22% of the total) lives on less than half this sum! At the same time, four of the world's ten richest individuals are Indian, while 35 Indian citizens are billionaires in dollars. Such extreme inequalities can only exist on the basis of extremely brutal social relations. One can only expect, therefore, that India's "democratic" operation would be a very bloody affair - and it is, indeed!

In December, the BJP provided a foretaste of the election campaign it plans to run, through a campaign of full-page advertisements published in various newspapers. These placards read: "Brutal terror strikes at will. Weak government, unwilling and incapable. Fight terror, vote BJP!" But this is the "respectable" face of the Hindu supremacist far right. The other side of this coin is less respectable, for instance that of Maharashtra's regionalist party Shiv Sena, which is now busy drumming up anti-Muslim feelings by using the Mumbai attack as a pretext to impose by force a blanket ban on all books and publications of Pakistani origin - while the police looks the other way, when they do not advise shopkeepers to withdraw the targeted literature from their shelves, "to avoid upsetting shoppers"! And one should remember that, back in the early 1990s, it was this party - Shiv Sena - which was responsible for a wave of bloody pogroms in Mumbai, in which thousands of people were killed. Many of the victims were murdered because they were Muslims, while many others died because they were "foreigners", who had migrated to Mumbai from some more destitute part of India, in the hope of improving their lot.

To do the "dirty work", the BJP can hide behind a galaxy of satellite organisations, of which Shiv Sena is only one among many. The BJP's largest auxiliary, for instance, is the RSS, a militia disguised as a cultural organisation, whose 7 million volunteers drill regularly and have often been used, among other things, to attack striking workers.

Today, the rising star of the BJP, who appears likely to be the party's candidate for the post of prime minister, if it wins this year's general elections, is the current chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. This character's particular conception of the "democratic" process is fairly representative of the methods used by the Hindu supremacist right and should be an ominous warning as to what the present anti-Pakistani/anti-Muslim overbidding may entail, if it is allowed to go on.

Back in 2002, Modi was faced with the prospect of a difficult re-election in Gujarat. After only four years in office, the BJP had already managed to dispel the illusions of a large part of its electorate. In every state where it had made some inroads in the previous elections, its candidates were registering large losses and Modi knew that there was no reason for Gujarat to prove any different.

On 27 February 2002, a fire broke out by accident in an overcrowded train carrying Hindu pilgrims from Gujarat, killing 59 people. The same day, Gujarat chief minister Modi declared that this tragedy was the result of a pre-planned Muslim conspiracy and, on behalf of the whole spectrum of the Hindu right-wing (known as the "Sangh"), he called for a general strike for the next day.

Over the next 3 days, the Sangh organised systematic pogroms against the state's Muslim population. The police was ordered by Modi and his sidekicks to keep out of the way of the pogromists, but many members of the police actually assisted them. A report published in 2005 by a US NGO, described what happened then: "Witnesses described how Sangh mobs were armed with liquid gas cylinders, tridents, knives, and sticks. People from rural areas were trucked into neighbouring villages and towns to participate in the violence, sporting the uniform of the Sangh - saffron scarves and khaki shorts. Mob leaders used cell phones to coordinate the movement of thousands of armed men through densely populated areas. Many of the mobs descended upon Muslim neighbourhoods, homes, and businesses, hacking and burning people and property. Women and girls were beaten, thrown into wells, targeted for rape, gang rape, and collective rape, sexually mutilated and burnt. Mobs participated in the severing of women's breasts, the tearing open of women's vaginas and wombs, forcing the abortion of fetuses and their display on tridents. The elderly and children, even unborn children, were not spared."

These 3 days of bloody violence claimed over 2000 lives, mostly among the Muslim population, but not only, as anyone objecting to the pogroms was systematically murdered. As a result of the killing and destruction carried out during these days 150,000 people were forced to flee to the relative safety of refugee camps set up by NGOs in neighbouring states.

The subsequent enquiries carried out by the state-sponsored human rights bodies, showed that, far from being spontaneous at it was claimed, the pogroms had been carefully planned long before they took place. Lists of names and addresses of families to target were provided to the pogromists on the day, together with stockpiles of LPG to burn down the victims' houses.

Despite numerous investigations, no arrest was ever made among the pogromists, least of all among the officials of Modi's administration, despite the fact that many of them had led the groups of pogromists across the state.

As it turned out, this huge anti-Muslim pogrom was really Modi's re-election campaign. After that, no-one dared seriously to oppose him or his candidates for the state's assembly, for fear of being exposed to the retribution of Sangh's volunteeers.

Finally, in December 2002, Modi was re-elected with a comfortable margin. Since then, Gujarat has never ceased to be the scene of repeated anti-Muslim attacks orchestrated by the Sangh. Thanks to these terrorist methods, Modi was able to win yet another election in 2007. Not only was Modi never ever investigated for his role in the 2002 pogroms or the subsequent on-going communal violence which has plagued Gujarat, but since the latest Mumbai attack, Modi has become a self-proclaimed "anti-terrorist Czar", who rushed to Mumbai to promise money to the families of police officers injured or killed during the attack, while taking the lead of the "pro-air strikes brigade" against Pakistan.

Behind the seemingly innocuous (for the time being!) anti-terrorist and anti-Pakistani rhetoric of the Congress party, hide the Modi's and their like, waiting for the best time to launch into action.

The poisoned imprint of imperialism

The existence of the Hindu far-right may be nothing new in India. However, the meteoric rise which turned it into a significant force in Indian politics is fairly recent, dating back to 1990s. But this rise did not come out of nowhere.

Like Indian communalism in general, and the wall of blood which separates the Muslim minority from the rest of the population, its origins must be traced back to the partition of India orchestrated by the British colonial authorities, back in 1947, with the bloody pogroms and riots which this partition caused at the time. Since then the so-called "Radcliffe line" has defined the border between India and Pakistan - a mad division, which took no account of the needs of the local populations, which were cut in half, while creating endless territorial bones of contention between the two countries - resulting in 3 wars already, since 1947.

However, up to the 1980s, the Hindu supremacists had never managed really to take root, not any more than the Islamic fundamentalists had in Pakistan. From the end of the 1980s, both currents developed in parallel, in reaction against one another in some ways, but mainly thanks to the huge boost given by imperialism to Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, during this country's occupation by the Soviet army. While the Islamic religious parties were growing in Pakistan, in the shadow of the army, in India, where the state machinery had a long tradition of nationalist complacency towards Hinduism, the Hindu right-wing was able to thrive, whereas Islamic fundamentalist forces were forced into a comparatively marginal position.

Today, the combined effect of imperialism's "war on terror" and its war in Afghanistan, may well give the likes of the BJP a new lease of life, but at the risk of imposing an exorbitant cost on the Indian population and, by the same token, on the Pakistani and Bengali populations.