There are very many good reasons to resist imposing a 9/11 narrative on the Mumbai attacks, the most important of which is the inevitable “war on terror” framework and its various evils: the demonization of Muslims, the crackdown on human rights and freedoms, the justification for unilateral war. Certainly, the relentless use of 9/11 language and imagery on Indian television–the repetitive montage of smoke-wreathed buildings quickly dubbed “Ground Zero”; the wartime captions: “Ladega India” (India will fight), “India at War,” “Another 9-11″; and of course, the chest-beating patriotism and shrill demands for action–should give any right-minded Indian pause. The US media has done no better, recasting the siege to fit its narrative of global jihad, in which every spectacular terrorist attack by Islamic terrorists, be it in Madrid, London or Mumbai, is quickly dubbed “another 9/11.”
Yet the resistance to all this chatter about an Indian 9/11 has been just as disheartening in its own way, often taking the shape of a determined, almost unseemly insistence to the contrary. According to this version, the attacks were Indian politics as usual, albeit of a more spectacular and horrific kind. “Indians will have a strong incentive to link this to Al Qaeda,” Christine Fair, a RAND Corporation analyst told the New York Times the day after the Mumbai attacks. “But this is a domestic issue. This is not India’s 9/11.”
To rephrase Fair’s blunt analysis, Mumbai flunked the 9/11 litmus test, whereby some tragedies are deemed to be part of a broader “war on terror,” while others are merely symptoms of a local sectarian conflict, in which some are deemed important and noteworthy and the others are buried in the back pages of the morning newspaper.
One unspoken criterion of a 9/11 litmus test is that it conform to the core premise of the “war on terror,” which views Islamic terrorism as a “clash of civilizations,” between “us” and “them,” or, let’s be frank, between the West and Islam (with Israelis awarded the role of honorary Westerners). In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, journalists in the United States and Britain were quick to recast Mumbai as a Bali nightclub-style attack on Westerners. Hence, the prodigious attention to the tourists trapped in the luxury hotels and at the Jewish center, with little regard for the carnage at the railway station.
“I found it almost surreal to comb the front pages of many British newspapers on Thursday morning. It was as if India was merely another faceless arena for the clash between the West and radical Islam,” wrote Kanishk Tharoor in The Independent.