Fighting Words

Our Friends in Bombay

We must stand by our most important ally.

A vigil near the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai

It’s in human nature to mention any personal connection when offering solidarity, so I shall just briefly say that on my first visit to India, in 1980, I stayed at the Taj Mahal in Bombay, visited the “Gateway of India” and took a boat to Elephanta Island, toured the magnificent railway station, had my first diwali festival at Juhu beach, and paced the amazing corniche that was still known by some—after its dazzling string of lights—as “Queen Victoria’s necklace.” Wonderful though some of the 19th-century British architecture can be, Bombay is quintessentially an Indian achievement, and an achievement of all its peoples from the Portuguese-speaking Catholic Goans to the Zoroastrian Parsis. (The Jewish disciples of Rabbi Schneerson may be relatively recent arrivals, but there have been Baghdad Jews in Bombay since records were kept, and Jews in India since before Christ, and not until this week has a Jewish place in India been attacked for its own sake, so to speak.)

When Salman Rushdie wrote, in The Moor’s Last Sigh in 1995, that “those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay,” he was alluding to the Hindu chauvinists who had tried to exert their own monopoly in the city and who had forcibly renamed it—after a Hindu goddess—Mumbai. We all now collude with this, in the same way that most newspapers and TV stations do the Burmese junta’s work for it by using the fake name Myanmar. (Bombay’s hospital and stock exchange, both targets of terrorists, are still called by their right name by most people, just as Bollywood retains its “B.”)

This may seem like a detail, but it isn’t, because what’s at stake is the whole concept of a cosmopolitan city open to its own citizens and to the world—a city on the model of Sarajevo or London or Beirut or Manhattan. There is, of course, a reason they attract the ire and loathing of the religious fanatics. To the pure and godly, the very existence of such places is a profanity. In a smaller way, the same is true of the Islamabad Marriott hotel, where I also used to stay. It was a meeting point and crossroads for foreigners. It had a bar where the Pakistani prohibition rules did not apply. Its dining rooms and public spaces featured stylish Asian women who showed their faces. And so it had to be immolated, like any other Sodom or Gomorrah.

I hope I am not alone in finding the statements about Bombay from our politicians to be anemic and insipid, and the media coverage of the disastrous and criminal attack too parochially focused on the fate of visiting or resident Americans. India is emerging in many ways as our most important ally. It is a strong regional counterweight to Russia and China. Not to romanticize it overmuch, it is a huge and officially secular federal democracy that is based, like the United States, on ethnic and confessional pluralism. Its political and economic and literary echelons speak English better than most of us do. Its parliament in New Delhi—the unbelievably diverse and dignified Lok Sabha—was viciously attacked by Islamist gangsters and nearly destroyed in December 2001, a date which ought to have made more Americans pay more attention rather than less. Since then, Bombay has been assaulted multiple times and the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan blown up with the fairly obvious cross-border collusion of the same Pakistani forces who are helping in the rebirth of the Taliban.

It would be good to hear from the president and the president-elect that we regard attacks on the fabric and society of India with very particular seriousness, as assaults on a close friend that was battling al-Qaida long before we were. In response, it should be emphasized, our military and financial and nuclear and counterinsurgency cooperation with New Delhi will not be given a lower profile but a very much higher one. The people of India need to hear this from us, as do the enemies of India, who are our sworn enemies, too.

The inevitable question arises: Did our nominal ally Pakistan have a hand in this atrocity? In one sense, to ask the question is to answer it. Whether we refer to al-Qaida “proper,” or to any of the armed Kashmiri formations that have lately been mentioned, we find some pre-existing connection to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI. Another conceivable suspect, the former Bombay crime lord Dawood Ibrahim, wanted by the Indian authorities on suspicion of blowing up the Bombay stock exchange and killing 300 civilians in 1993, has long been a fugitive from justice living safely in Pakistan’s main port of Karachi. Not a bad place from which to organize an amphibious assault team that acted as if it had been trained by serious military professionals.

Contrasted with the gruesome efficiency and premeditation of the murder tactics is the pathetic amateurism and cynicism of the propaganda side. In my boyhood geography lessons I learned that the Deccan is a plateau and plain, not a region or an identity. It is part of India’s deep interior; its very diverse inhabitants would not in any case arrive in Bombay by high-speed boat! It’s rather encouraging in a way that this is the best the jihadists can do by way of a fake cover story, but perhaps there will again be enough Western saps—as with the attacks on the United States and Britain and Turkey and Tunisia—to claim that none of this would have happened if not for the foreign policy of Bush and Blair. (I do not hold my breath, but as of the time of writing, this moronic faction has—amazingly—not yet been heard from.) An impressive thing about India is the way in which it has almost as many Muslim citizens, who live with greater prospects of peace and prosperity, as does Pakistan. This comity and integration is one of the many targets of the suicide killers, and it is another reason why firm, warm solidarity with India is the most pressing need of the present hour.