Shortly before the bombs went off in Mumbai, Krsna Mehta, a graphic and textile designer who lives in South Bombay and a close friend of mine, had hosted, of all things, the launch of his new line at the Bombay Store, India' s first lifestyle store which was founded in 1906 to market goods made in India. The product line of custom-printed cushions, notebooks and table accessories celebrated Bombay masti—a Hindi word that, in this context, describes the city's particular magical appeal. "Everyone was there and people were buying like there's no tomorrow," he told me. "I was the last to leave, and I was headed to the Taj for dinner, but at the last minute I changed my mind," opting instead to go to a local club. "At that moment, I heard the first blast. I had no idea what was happening. The irony is that an hour earlier people had come together to celebrate the spirit of Bombay and the new India, while at the same time people were mobilizing to tear that spirit apart.
In recent years, the global media has been abuzz with glowing headlines about India's economic leaps and bounds, the emergence of its consumerist middle class, and its status as one of the last frontiers for luxury conglomerates looking to consolidate their recent gains. But, as the ongoing terrorist assault on Mumbai indicates, maintaining its recent momentum will be a delicate task, and one that it cannot accomplish without bringing all of its citizens on board, including, most importantly, its disaffected Muslim underclass.
India is the globe's largest democracy, and one of its most dynamic emerging economies. By virtue of its social and political structure, with a large Muslim minority of approximately 150 million, it straddles the worlds of Islam and Westernization. The hope is that it could, ideally, function as a bridge between competing sets of values, an object lesson in how to get along, but the reality is that India's Muslims are an oft-neglected minority, economically disenfranchised and increasingly radicalized. They've been left behind in the country's spectacular economic expansion. Ongoing tension with poor, Muslim neighbor Pakistan (a key player in America's war on terror as well) is the other principal obstacle to sustainable Indian growth. A lot hinges on the country's ability to close the gap between its different socioeconomic and religious groups, and to secure a lasting peace with Pakistan. If it fails to accomplish these goals, the consequences will be felt around the world, and India will become an even more attractive target. The density of its urban centers and lack of adequate, modern infrastructure makes comprehensive policing almost impossible; and although an effort to achieve better security is, of course, necessary, a parallel investment in outreach to the Muslim minority needs to occur as well.
As with 9/11, dark talk of conspiracy began moments after the attacks. I received calls from friends saying that, for reasons unknown, security in the previous week in Colaba (which, as a tourist center, had been on higher alert since the September suicide-bomb attack on the Islamabad Marriott) had been dialed down. Then there was what appeared to be the targeted killing of Hemant Karkare, the chief of the Mumbai anti-terrorist squad. Collusion on the part of politicians eager to manipulate upcoming elections, and the more mundane spectre of a corrupt police force being bought off, were also suggested as hidden elements of the plot. I spoke with another friend, Shital Ghia, who said that, [The terrorists] are lying to journalists, saying they're from Hyderabad, but they have distinct Kashmiri accents, what you would hear in Pakistan's Punjab province. One journalist asked them "what do you want in return?," and you could hear him asking someone behind him for what answer to give. Someone is telling them what to do. A thorough investigation into the attack's origins will doubtlessly be trumpeted by the authorities in the coming days, but in the meantime, one can easily imagine how dangerous this kind of speculation might prove on India's streets, where Muslims and Hindus often live side by side. This, in fact, is probably the terrorists' goal: to foment internal unrest between India's Muslim and Hindu population, while endangering the tenuous thaw in relations between India and Pakistan.
If there is a quantum of solace to be extracted from this tragedy, it's that it serves as an urgent call to address the underlying causes of terrorism, the most pressing issue of our time, with a targeted effort to counteract the destabilizing effects of poverty, lack of basic education, health care and civil rights. Whether the assailants in India came from within, or were foreign agents sent from Pakistan or the Middle East to undermine the country, the fact is, their motives likely originated in alienated circumstances. Much will hinge on how India chooses to deal with the situation, and what shape the narrative takes. If the story becomes about 'us versus them', with 'them' defined as the Indian Muslim minority or the Pakistani state, there will be bloody repercussions. Historically, Indian political parties have taken advantage of public tragedy by stoking social tensions that allow them to consolidate their hold on power, but this time India's politicians need to recognize the wisdom in keeping the peace and insist on some measure of introspection in order to better understand how this came to pass.
With a new U.S. president about to be installed in the White House, who built his campaign around the rhetoric of mutual responsibility, and a global economic crisis that clearly illustrates our interdependency, there is hope that, at this historic juncture, change is within the world's reach. If our faith and actions fail us now, what happened on Wednesday night will be the latest salvo in an accelerating spiral of violence. Whether in Manhattan or Mumbai, people share a belief in the human potential for progress, but it's easy to forget that it's a promise that must be fulfilled for the many, not just the few, if it is to survive. Tonight my friend lies safe, for now, in his beautiful flat, and perhaps he rests his head on a pillow emblazoned with a colorful image symbolic of Bombay's chaotic, joyful spirit. I hope that the purest form of that spirit can manifest itself in a New India that reconciles citizens at opposite ends of the economic and religious spectrum.