February issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

As we watched the horror unfold, hour by hour, over 61 hours between November 26 and 29, 2008, the question lurked somewhere in the background, never daring to display itself. But as the sheer ordinariness of the balmy evening at the Taj or the Oberoi hotels or just a return journey home on the train transformed itself into a murderous movie that never seemed to end, the question reared itself with greater intimacy. Once the entrails of Mumbai were littered with blood and guts, the answer turned itself into another question, into several questions, that silently ricocheted across the room in which the only sounds were those from the talking television.

How could this be? Why did a few Pakistanis want to hold another nation to ransom? Who was behind this attack against the idea of Mumbai, a city that sought its own destiny as it teetered on the anvil of several contradictions?

The question returned some days ago when a “peace delegation” from Pakistan arrived in Delhi, hoping to resurrect the fading embers of a sort-of-normalcy that had bloomed these last few years between the neighbours, India and Pakistan. Actually, it had never been so good since 1953, when the invisible curtain had fallen across the border and the Line of Control had been shuttered by soldiers on both sides. But now there was a train and several buses that crossed back and forth. Talk of a “soft border” in Kashmir, the old dispute over which much blood and many thousand words had been spilt, was gaining ground. And after an unprecedented voter turnout in the state, perhaps even a political solution was possible.

Mumbai was an attack not only against India but also against Pakistan, Pakistan’s peaceniks said. Terrorists had killed ordinary Pakistanis, not only in the Frontier badlands but also in the heart of urban Pakistan, in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Terrorism was a common curse. It affected us all. Many of us have been speaking out against the state for using terrorism as an instrument of policy, they said. We have been threatened for speaking out and our children have been threatened because we have spoken out. India could not condemn all of Pakistan because a handful of Pakistanis had been responsible for Mumbai. We need to break this cycle of reaction and counter-reaction for both our sakes. How long can we let other people dictate the direction of our common lives?

But the question wouldn’t go away. Could India and Pakistan ever be friends?

Then Asma Jahangir spoke. The diminutive human rights activist has a formidable reputation, but few of us in India knew that she also has a stinging sense of humour. When Jahangir had been asked whether peace activists would be safe in India, she had replied, “We’re only going to India, not to the Congo!”

Jahangir’s determined grounding of the trip in a normalcy that neither side was really feeling, seemed like an act of rare courage. Everywhere she went, she repeated the message: India and Pakistan have no option but to persist with being good-neighbourly. Our common history and geography have connived against the desire of the chosen few who have kept us apart for too long.

At a press conference held to mark the conclusion of the visit, the question finally surfaced, although in disguise: If Pakistan’s civil society and media believed in speaking the truth, then why deny that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai were your own citizens?

“You’re right,” said Jugnu Mohsin, publisher of The Friday Times, “the family of Ajmal Mir Kasab, the lone terrorist caught in the Mumbai attacks, lives barely 10km away from my village. We should have spoken up right from the start and accepted him as one of our own. But when the Indian media began to blame Pakistan within minutes of the attack, our own media reacted badly. That’s what happened.”

It was said just like that. Mohsin’s comment soon melted into another Indian question and then another Pakistani answer, but it seemed to me that the catharsis had already begun. The euphoria of meeting the enemy was already passing.

A Pakistani peace delegation my enemy? Yes and no. At some level it didn’t matter who these people were, they were simply, Pakistani. Then they demanded your attention, on television and in print, in Hindi, Urdu, English and Punjabi. Hear me, they said, hear us. At first, their words just washed all over the listener, just like all those waves crashing against the Gateway of India, cheek by jowl with the Taj hotel — and just behind it, the Oberoi and the Chattrapati Shivaji train station.

The audience at a Hindi TV programme in a Delhi studio had been hostile to the Pakistani peaceniks. How can we trust you, they asked, especially after Mumbai? And then after the TV show, some of those in the audience who hadn’t spoken up during the show, gathered up the courage to come across and say: We know we have no option but to be friends.

Trust and friendship. Those two words had been colliding with the passage of history, at least since 1947. Unlike Kashmir though, Mumbai had never been disputed territory, how had it then become a metaphor of our times? Would this trauma never end?

As the Pakistani delegation returned home, via Wagah, and the rest of us returned to attending to the minutiae of our lives, the questions returned. If both people wanted peace, who was the real enemy, both in Mumbai and in Marriott-hit Islamabad? Who had spawned these terrorists across the region? Was Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, the mastermind behind Mumbai? Would the Pakistani Army cede real power to the elected leadership in Pakistan and allow it to build new bridges with India? Would the elected leadership in Pakistan ever be able to stand up to the army?

If Mumbai has taught us both something, it is this: The people of India and Pakistan will be the real victims of a deteriorating relationship between the two governments. Blaming the other, in this case Pakistan, will only unify disparate voices, even as it weakens moderate voices on both sides in search of the truth.

But the truth is, if some Pakistani voices, alongside acknowledging Mumbai’s trauma, also begin to talk about the motive behind the attacks, they would be casting the first stone in the bedrock of a changing relationship with India.
There’s a new sombre mood here, post-Mumbai, and it eclipses even Kargil. Attacking India’s most cosmopolitan city — and killing Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Sikhs — has succeeded in coalescing the view that the Pakistani state doesn’t wish its neighbour well.

As for the people of Pakistan, we know they are victims of this malevolent power as well.

So, in the end, that terrible question again: Can India and Pakistan ever be friends? Some of us may have no option, with families in Islamabad and Mianwali and Karachi and Lahore. For the rest, the anguish might be leavened if Pakistan begins to ask the same question that has been tormenting India since November:

Why Mumbai?