Saturday, November 29, 2008

The India Bombings

For most Americans, India is a grindingly poor, overpopulated nation of brown people who live in slums--except for the stratum who steal US jobs. No country can come into focus when viewed from such a great remove. In the last few days, the country has been been bleeding through an entry wound in Bombay, as terrorists have been holding hostages in the Oberoi and Taj Mahal hotels downtown. I have no great confidence that most Americans perceive anything in these acts that subvert their dim impressions of the country. To poor and brown add chaotic and violent. What else is new?

(Not to say that Americans should know. The world's big, and India's far. We can only know so many things. I know nothing of Uzbekistan or Romania and don't feel particularly boorish as a consequence.)

But I know India better than I know any country except the US. I have spent something like two years of my life in India over six visits. I've visited most of the country, and have been to Bombay three times. The place the terrorists hit was the center of the touristed downtown; although I've never had the money to stay at the Oberoi or Taj, I have spent several afternoons sipping mint tea in the Leopold:
In an interview recounting his experience, Nisar Suttar, who works as a part-time guide for tourists in the Colaba section of Mumbai, said that he was standing just outside Leopold’s Cafe at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, when two young men entered the cafe, one carrying a heavy bag. They approached the counter and seemed to order food, Mr. Suttar said. Then, five minutes later, they pulled out automatic rifles and began shooting at the diners before running out of the cafe.
When I read this news, my heart sank. India is not just a chaotic nation sinking amid its own corruption. Quite the opposite; it's one of the only nations on the planet with a multicultural population and a robust democracy. It is a fragile experiment into which I have invested a great deal of emotional energy. If this country, with its ancient culture, massive difficulties, and many languages and peoples, can come together and forge a stable democracy, there is hope for any country. But if chaos and fear overwhelm it ....

I had thought to write about the complicated relations between Muslims and Hindus, and why their cohabitation is so critical if India is to manage. Muslim heads were lopped in 1947. Mosques have been bombed. Recently, train stations have been bombed. The Hindu Nationalist movment has risen to combat the presence of Muslims and has waxed and then waned. (Even the name "Mumbai" is political. Reacting to the Anglicized name, Hindu Nationalists turned this modern city, founded by Portugese and Brits, into a Hindu city--a "screw you" to the millions of Muslims who live there. Thus the use of the original name in this post.)

Fortunately, the post has already been written. Robert Kaplan, who often gets things wrong about other countries, totally nails India's situation:
With this background – and I have provided only the most rudimentary chronicle – the immediate result of the Mumbai terror attacks will be a further hardening of inter-communal relations within India. The latest attacks will also increase the likelihood that in national elections slated for early 2009, the result will be a BJP-led government, as Hindus, who comprise the overwhelming majority of Indian voters, take on another layer of insecurity.
Go read it if you care to understand this country. It's a great post, and may help illuminate the country for people who haven't had ocassion to learn more.

No comments: