This Fire Needs to Be Put Out

My first memories of the Taj Mahal hotel are probably of when I was 8 years old, going to the Sea Lounge restaurant with its lovely view of Mumbai's harbor to eat sev puri, a savory Indian treat. I also remember passing through its grand ballroom a few years later, while it was being decked out for a dinner in honor of the president of Bulgaria—crystal chandeliers, ice sculptures, bouquets of roses, platters of shrimp carted around by liveried waiters. My family would celebrate special occasions at the Golden Dragon, one of the best Chinese restaurants outside of China. The Taj is a fixture in the life of Mumbaikers (or Bombayites as we used to call ourselves). Last week, those memories came flooding back as I watched from New York, and saw the Taj hotel on fire.

The terror attack on Mumbai has been called India's 9/11. For me there is another similarity; like 9/11, this attack hit close to home. My brother worked next door to the Twin Towers, at the World Financial Center, on 9/11 and he evacuated his office staff when the first plane crashed. I knew people who worked in the World Trade Center and some who died there. This time, the tragedy is also personal. My mother's office is in the Taj hotel (she is the editor of the Taj Magazine). Luckily she was out of town on the day of the attack. My brother-in-law and niece, however, were in their apartment, which overlooks the Oberoi, the other hotel that was attacked. A dozen commandos took over their apartment, positioned snipers at the windows, and began giving and receiving fire. (My niece is keeping the bullets as souvenirs.) And as with 9/11, I know people who have died. The general manager of the Taj hotel, a young man, lost his family.

These kinds of events bring out the best in ordinary people. There are reports of hotel employees taking pains to get guests out of harm's way, at risk to their own lives. Some of the freed hostages have told stories of the bravery of the Indian armed forces.

But not everything went well. By all accounts, the initial response of the local authorities was slow, haphazard and incompetent. These terror attacks have highlighted one of the key weaknesses of modern India. Its private sector is dynamic, efficient, responsive. Its public sector is not. Government in India is dysfunctional. With the exception of a few elements of the national government—the armed forces and antiterror commandos, for instance—the Indian state is simply not up to the challenge that it now faces. India has a decentralized political system that is plagued by weak coalition governments, patronage and corruption, with little emphasis on professionalism and competence. If this is India's 9/11, then it should be a spur to the country to finally get its house in order and reform itself to succeed in an age that requires smart government.

India also has a political problem with its Muslims. It remains unclear whether any Indian Muslims were involved with these attacks, but it is quite possible that the terrorists had some small pockets of support in the country. President Bush likes to point out that India has 140 million Muslims and, because it is a democracy, not one is a member of Al Qaeda. Even if this is still true, it is simplistic. The cancerous rise of fundamentalism and radicalism that has swept up Muslims everywhere has not spared India. In addition, Muslims there are disaffected and vulnerable to manipulation. They are underrepresented at every economic, political and social level—with a few high-profile exceptions. A perverse consequence of the partition of the Indian subcontinent is that Muslims are everywhere a minority—which closes off the chance at political power. (The parts of British India that had Muslim majorities became Pakistan and Bangladesh.) They have not shared in the progress of the last two decades and face a Hindu nationalist movement, parts of which are ugly and violent. None of this is to excuse in any sense the cruel choice anyone might make to join a jihad. But moral clarity does not always yield intellectual clarity.

This is not just India's problem. The terrorists seem to have had foreign connections. This might have included Qaeda support, though more likely inspiration. They almost certainly got both support and training from groups in Pakistan. Let us assume that the Pakistani government was in no way involved. There remains the basic and enduring problem: the Pakistan government has created, supported and trained Islamic jihadists for decades. The Pakistani military needs to genuinely embrace the idea of zero tolerance for jihadists, not distinguish between good ones (those that keep Afghanistan and India on edge) and bad ones (those that set off bombs within Pakistan). These groups blur into one another and cannot easily be segregated. And they are all enemies of modernity and democracy.

The problems of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are now bleeding into one another, and any purely national approach is not going to work. The best outcome of these attacks would be if they spurred cooperation and reform. If instead they feed rivalry, bitterness and finger-pointing, the victims will have died in vain, and there will be more victims and an insecure neighborhood.

The crucial point is to remember the common enemy. When discussing causes and cures, never forget who is to blame first and foremost: the terrorists, the evil men who chose to deliberately kill innocent men, women and children, to burn young families to death. They are the ones who did it.

And while Indians have many troubles, they have one great counterterrorism policy—resilience. The Mumbai stock exchange reopened last Friday and closed higher. The country will persevere, the city will bounce back, and all those who have reasons to go there should not be deterred.

I have a trip to India planned in a couple of weeks. I'll be there as scheduled. And I will make a special point to pay a visit to the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, which I am sure, will be humming with life.