With more than 170 deaths over the course of a three-day showdown, the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India (known as Bombay until 1996) appear to be an exceptionally violent occurrence for the state of India. However, while the Mumbai attacks show a unique level of organization and coordination, terrorism in India is nothing new.
Since gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1947, India has experienced periodic episodes of internal religious and ethnic violence. The current trend of violence, based on Muslim unrest, began in the State of Kashmir and Jammu in the mid-1980s and has only intensified since. The 1980s saw a general growth of radical Islamic sentiment throughout Kashmir and the rest of India, leading to increased unrest and protest against the Indian state.
While many Muslims have flourished in India since independence, there have also been high levels of political and economic discrimination against Muslims within the country. For example, while Muslims account for around 13 percent of the population of India, they hold only 3 percent of India’s elite administrative positions. While previous generations of Muslims may have endured these biases, the current generation is more educated and more politicized, which has led to greater radicalization.
One of the most important considerations stemming from the recent violence is how the Mumbai attacks will affect relations between India and Pakistan. The two states have fought four wars since 1947 and have been involved in more than fifty smaller militarized disputes. The Mumbai incident has the potential to create a militarized crisis between the two countries –both of which possess nuclear arms–that could eventually escalate to full-scale war.
Why would the internal problems of India potentially affect the relations between India and Pakistan? During the 1980s the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) of Pakistan provided large amounts of support to Kashmiri insurgent groups fighting the Indian government, including military training, weapons, and monetary aid. This support helped to fuel the conflict between the Kashmiri insurgency and the Indian government and likely continues to some degree today.
In addition, while much of the current militancy in India is “homegrown,” there is also evidence that some of the terrorists are linked to Pakistan, though not necessarily to the government. In fact, the only surviving terrorist from the Mumbai attacks appears to be Pakistani and it is believed that the assailants entered Mumbai by a boat from Karachi, Pakistan.
Since the attacks, India has demanded that the Pakistani government hand over around 40 suspects in connection to the incident, who are believed to be hiding in Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan maintains that the Mumbai incident was carried out by non-state actors not under Pakistani government control.
Will a major international crisis erupt between India and Pakistan? In 2001 a similar incident nearly brought the two countries to war. In December of that year, five armed gunmen, believed to be Pakistani, stormed the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi, killing nine people. India blamed Pakistan for the attack and demanded that the Pakistani government take responsibility for the attacks and extradite 20 alleged terrorists to India. The crisis ended when President Pervez Musharraf announced that Pakistan publically condemned such violence and would crack down on terrorism within the country. While the President did not agree to extradite the alleged terrorists, his actions deescalated the crisis nonetheless.
Will the current situation bring the countries to the brink of war? Following the 2001 attack on Parliament, India mobilized around 500,000 troops along the Indo-Pakistani border. Given the scale of violence associated with the Mumbai attacks, it is quite possible that such a mobilization of force would again occur.
One key difference between the Nov. 2008 attacks and the 2001 attack, however, is the actions of the current Pakistani government. President Zardari has already made some progress in addressing some of India’s grievances, such as cracking down on terrorist groups. However, Pakistan is currently not willing to give in to all of India’s demands, particularly in terms of extradition. An international crisis between India and Pakistan is quite possible over the next few weeks, but such a crisis is not likely to lead to war as long as Zardari continues his willingness to take a harder stance against terrorism in his own country.
–Professor Charity Butcher, Department of Political Science