MUMBAI ? In most cities of South Asia, hidden beneath the grime and neglect of extreme poverty, there exists a little Somalia waiting to burst out and infect the body politic. This netherworld, patrolled and nourished by criminals who operate a vast black-market economy, has bred, in Mumbai, a community that has utter contempt for the state, because it knows that its survival depends on corrupting the police. Like underground magma, that underworld has now burst into the streets of Mumbai.
Because the denizens of this netherworld know neither patriotism nor morality, they are easily lured into partnership with terrorists, particularly when they have reason to feel aggrieved. In Mumbai, a large proportion of them are Muslims who were denied space in the formal economy and have developed strong vested interests over the past 50 years.
Details about the Mumbai outrage, where terrorists killed over 100 people, are still unfolding. But we do know that at least 30 men armed with AK47 rifles and grenades held India's business and financial center hostage, targeting both Indians and foreigners, particularly Americans and British. It is likely that this operation was propelled from Pakistan through the Lashkar e Tauba, a terrorist organization sustained by hatred of secular India and backed by shadowy Pakistani agencies and street support.
In the blood and drama of the events, however, we might miss a significant element of the story. The attacks were an operation that must have required months of planning: serious weapons were deployed, a small army was mobilized, targets were studied, transport was organized, and weak points identified. A plan of attack that involved hundreds of people was put in motion, and yet the massive infrastructure of India's government discovered nothing.
The chief of India's Anti-Terrorist Squad, Hemant Karkare (who lost his life in the battles that raged through the night) received a death threat from the nearby city of Pune, but his own unit did not bother to investigate it, since it was busy playing games on behalf of its political masters. Complacency and politics gave the terrorists more protection than silence or camouflage ever could.
Indeed, the attacks represent more than a failure of police work. They represent a collapse of governance; these are the wages of the sins of administrative incompetence and political malfeasance.
India is a tough nation. No one should have illusions about that. It has fought off Muslim terrorists in Kashmir, Sikh terrorists in Punjab, Christian terrorists in Nagaland, and Hindu terrorists in Assam and across the country. It understands that you cannot blame the whole community for the sins of a few.
But under ineffectual governance, particularly during the last three years, India is in danger of degenerating into a soft state. Instead of being an international leader in the worldwide war against terrorism, it is sinking into the despair of a perpetual victim. Indeed, India stands only behind Iraq in the number of people killed each year in terrorist attacks.
Three years ago, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rather smugly told President George W. Bush in Delhi that Indian Muslims were not involved in any act of terrorism. The implication was that the integration of Muslims in Indian society constituted a success story. Muslims, Singh implied, also benefit from the virtues of democracy, a conclusion that Bush happily repeated. But Singh certainly did not fool any of the terrorists, some of whom may have read his self-congratulation as a challenge for them to act.
I am an Indian and a Muslim and proud to be both. Like any Indian, today I am angry, frustrated, and depressed. I am angry at the manic dogs of war who have invaded Mumbai. I am frustrated by the impotence of my government in Mumbai and Delhi, tone-deaf to the anguish of my fellow citizens. And I am depressed at the damage being done to the idea of India.
c Project Syndicate
M.J. Akbar, a former member of India's parliament and advisor to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was the founding editor of The Asian Age.