Can Terrorism Halt India's Global Rise?

by | November 27, 2008

Nayan Chanda is editor of YaleGlobal Online and author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization.

In recent years, terrorist attacks in India have become as much a part of life as the monsoon squalls. The only difference has been their unpredictability, as opposed to the regularity of the monsoons. The well-coordinated and large scale assault on Mumbai this week are not only qualitatively different, but also came with a chillingly new message. The jeans and t-shirt clad, youthful terrorists, who looked like backpackers out on a hiking expedition, delivered an unmistakable warning to the world: Foreigners stay away from India. Their special note to the Jewish community: You are safe nowhere.

Previous attacks by Islamist youth and Kashmiri separatists were aimed at damaging India’s economic and political stability and inciting violence between majority Hindus and its substantial Muslim minority. They have tried to jolt India’s political system (the attack on the Parliament), hurt India’s business centers (repeated attacks on Mumbai aimed at people in finance and technology sectors) and science and technology hub (attack on the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore), provoke inter-religious strife (attacking Hindu shrines and people during Hindu celebrations), and promote a sense of terror and helplessness among citizens. Never before have terrorists tried to seek out foreigners.

During the attacks on Mumbai’s plush hotels this week, Westerners, especially Americans and Brits, were specifically sought out as hostages. In telephoned messages to TV stations, the terrorists asked for the release of “holy fighters” from Indian jails in exchange for the release of hostages. It is hard to know if they really believe that they would achieve their stated goal. Where would the released Indian prisoners go? But taking foreign hostages at India’s fanciest hotels sends out an unmistakable message: India is a dangerous place, and you invest in India or visit here at your own risk. The terrorists want to show that the so-called “shining India,” the new emerging power and a poster-child of globalization, has feet of clay. Globalization, which brought foreign investments and tourists from far corners of the world--as evidenced by the roster of nationalities present at the Taj and Oberoi hotels--can be brought to its knees by dozens of armed men landing on inflatable rafts from the Arabian Sea. Their seaborne landing--a first in the bloody history of terrorism in India--in and of itself carried a message. There are no borders.

The other sinister message of the terrorists this time is that they have an international agenda. Despite their talk of Indian Muslims being oppressed and Kashmiris being killed, their focus on Americans and British citizens and Jewish nationals shows their global concern. The U.S. has emerged as a key ally of India, but Britain is not any closer than other European countries like France and Germany. The search for American and British citizens most probably has to do with the Iraq war, echoing the terrorist attacks in Britain on charges of British involvement in the suffering of Muslims.

The terrorists’ global objective was clearly demonstrated in their targeting of a little-known Jewish outreach center in Mumbai. Before the terrorists burst into the Chabad Center located in an office and residential complex to take the rabbi, his wife, and assembled Jewish visitors hostage, most in Mumbai had no idea about their existence. Only six years earlier, a young Brooklyn rabbi and his wife set up the Chabad Center to quietly offer Jewish visitors kosher meals, Torah classes, and a place to stay. That anonymity was no protection from a group that wants to hurt the Jews as part of a global struggle. The attack on the Jewish community is particularly poignant, as over a thousand years ago, India offered the earliest shelter to persecuted Jews; the wall of an old synagogue in Kerala shows a mosaic image of their early arrival by boat.

For the past two millennia, India’s open doors have always allowed traders, travelers, and invaders to pass through and settle. However dramatic the latest attempt to frighten people might be, it is impossible to sever India’s global connections.

--Nayan Chanda

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