Essays | 26/11 : A Historical Perspective

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26/11 : A Historical Perspective
Text by Kavita Daiya
Published: Volume 17, Issue 1, January, 2009

When the terrorists struck on 26 November 2008, no one could believe this could be happening to Mumbai, to the people it did, at the places it did. Terrorism in India had until now, largely resulted in poor and working class casualties; it happened in public spaces and institutions, like trains, markets, government hospitals, and even outside Parliament. But the 26/11 attacks simultaneously hit public (train station) and private (five star hotels), working-class (CST porters) and elite (executives and chairmen of multinational companies), Indians but also Americans, British, Israelis and Chinese. They held Mumbai in siege for three days. The deadliest attack on Mumbai since the 1993 bomb blasts. How do we make sense of what many, including the captured terrorist Ajmal Kasab, have called ‘India’s 9/11’? One of the terrorists in the Oberoi Hotel is reported to have told hostages that they saw their act as retaliation for the treatment meted out to Muslims in India since 1947.

And so the 1947 Partition lives on in Indian political life, more than 60 years after it was enacted by our British colonisers, Rushdie once described, as a parting gift. Long after it is over, Partition lives on in Godhra, in Samjhauta, in Malegaon, in 7/11 and now, 26/11. I am particularly interested in how Partition circulates in contemporary political discourse in India; for instance, in their inflammatory rhetoric against Indian Muslims, Hindu nationalists regularly cite the memory of Partition violence to incite ethnic conflict. Now, this same Partition and its aftermath are being used by terrorists to justify their massacre in Mumbai.

There are two pertinent dimensions to the lessons of Partition. Firstly, in and after 1947, no one in the newly formed governments or the British administration was willing to admit the true extent of violence that millions of people had suffered at the time. Official figures, even a decade after, claimed that 200,000 to 300,000 people were killed. Half a century later, we have come to acknowledge the magnitude of the holocaust of 1947: in actuality, approximately two million people died during Partition. Today, the Indian government claims that the 26/11 attacks left 173 dead. Yet, we already know that a much bigger tragedy has occurred than is being spoken: for example, on the fourth day of the attacks, while clearing the Taj, firemen reported removing 160 dead bodies from there alone. Surely, we must not wait for decades, like we did in the case of Partition, to acknowledge the true number of people who lost their lives in this carnage? Sms-es circulating in Mumbai assert that at least 1,000-1,500 people have died. By not officially acknowledging the deaths of all those who died, we erase their existence and strip them of their humanity. We fail to mourn them, and in that, we devalue their lives. We must recognise and honor all those who died in the 26/11 attacks, today.

Secondly, we can learn much from Partition survivors who paid the true price for India’s freedom. They did not step back from taking on the government they felt had failed to protect them. I have been struck by how many Partition survivors who lost homes, family and friends describe their alienation from the Indian state, which they feel did nothing to protect or help them. For instance, think of Amar Devi Gupta, a Kashmiri Hindu from the Poonch area, who describes her experience when she flees to a refugee camp in Srinagar when Pakistan attacked Kashmir in 1948. Her violent anger at the elite Indian politicians is palpable in her writing. When Jawaharlal Nehru visited her refugee camp, she angrily slapped him for the failure of the Indian nation-state to protect Kashmir, which led to thousands dying in the Pakistani attack. Later, although offered the headship of the Red Cross in Kashmir, a disillusioned Gupta who had lost many family members in the war left India with her brother permanently – first for Kenya, and later the UK in 1955.

The same furious anger at the nation’s failure burns within every Mumbaikar today. I hear it today in survivor Shruti Jalan-Narang, who lost her husband and parents-in-law in the 26/11 attacks, and who cried: “I don’t think I belong to this country anymore. The government has done nothing for us.” She also said, “I am ashamed to be called an Indian today.” Partition survivors’ anger never turned into a political movement in India, but let us today mobilize our anger about 26/11 to initiate change. An affluent South Mumbai resident urged her friend: “We, people like us who have the time and resources, need to step up now. The common man who travels through CST has to return to his job day after day to feed his family. So it is up to us—we have the leisure and the resources—to do something.” Right now, very little has changed in terms of state action towards increased public safety; some bloggers have noted that 26/11 may well have been just a “probing attack” for a bigger one to come. So how long will it take for us to make Mumbai safer? Will new, stronger Indian women emerge to lead the way?

9/11
In many ways, what happened in Mumbai on 26/11/2008 resembles what happened in New York on 9/11/2001. I was living in Washington DC when the September 11 attacks occurred. I vividly recollect the surreal electronic replay of horrifying scenes of fire and death at the WTC, the numbing sense of shock, and finally, the anger. In 2007, I moved to Mumbai to record on digital video the memories and experiences of senior Partition survivors in India. Living in Mumbai, so intimately familiar with places the terrorists would mercilessly render bloody, the attack of 26/11 felt to me like the violence of 9/11 I had witnessed. A new type of urban warfare, both attacks were multi-pronged fidayeen attacks on landmark buildings in city centers that were iconic institutions and architectural embodiments of each nation’s economic power as well as multicultural identity; both attacks aimed to cause maximum casualties in multiple spaces simultaneously, and to attack the nation’s elite. Moreover, the terrorists’ demand for US and UK citizens when they took hostages also yoked 26/11 to 9/11 and the devastating war waged on Iraq. The targeting of Israelis at Nariman House connected us to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Thus, a globalized war was inflicted onto Mumbai.

But unlike after 9/11, the mass protests that took place on 5 December 2008 at the Gateway of India signal a different movement. Between 100,000 and 200,000 united Mumbaikars, across class, age and community, spoke loud and clear: 26/11 has been made possible by the corruption and rot within India, by its criminalised political class and failed bureaucracy. Although many have cried “war”, many more have cried “peace” and proposed Gandhian civil disobedience as a collective response. Mumbai’s elite ironically acknowledged that it is because the terrorists have attacked their haunts, people like them, that they were shaken from apathy: the violence had become too intimate. Even as Mumbai saluted its heroes like Karkare, Kamte, Saluskar, and Unnikrishnan who sacrificed their lives, it’s ordinary and angry citizens also spoke through shouting signs: enough is enough. The politicians who procure defective bullet-proof jackets, who destroy the lives of honest police officers, who serve themselves instead of the people they represent, have to change or go.

How many Partitions?
India’s Partition survivors have shown a remarkable ability to remember and honour their past, and yet to avoid ethnic hatred in retaliation for their immeasurable losses. They have a complex understanding of the time, and many attribute their displacement and loss to the political games played by elite politicians, British, Pakistani and Indian. As one survivor told me, “When my brother recently visited our old house in Hyderabad, oh the warmth with which he was received by the locals, the Sindhi Muslims! But it’s the politics which come in the way.” This forbearance and wisdom are key. Today, many of the angry voices speaking on TV (“Shame, shame politicians”) and through protest banners (‘Against terrorism, we are all one’) also recognise that terror has no religion. Unlike the American jingoism that led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, India’s difference, and the difference of 26/11, must be in our secular movement towards peace and security, towards the honesty of every political representative and the value of every human life.


Kavita Daiya teaches at George Washington University, and is the author of Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender and National Culture in Postcolonial India

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