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Responding to Mumbai: A Population Speaks Out

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Over one month has passed since terrorist attacks in Mumbai claimed the lives of several hundred people. International media outlets have speculated about Indian intelligence failure, how the Indian government would act in response, and whether the coming months would see escalated tensions or conflict between India and Pakistan. The story we have yet to hear, however, is the response of the Indian people. As India is no stranger to digital media, many of their voices can be found in this realm.

A simple search on Facebook leads one immediately to two groups: "Mumbai Terror Attacks: I Condemn It" and "In memory of all those who died in the 26th-27th November MUMBAI massacre," the latter of which is now the largest such group in any online social network. The group began as a forum for people in India and elsewhere to pay their respects and offer condolences, but within just two weeks its numbers grew to 60,000 members. Now, at more than 83,000 members, the group serves as the most significant platform on Facebook related to the November attacks: advertising blood drives for the victims, providing discussion and opinion forums, announcing commemorations and vigils, and even showcasing an Israeli condolence book for the terror victims that has several thousand signatures.

The emergence of major online social network groups is expected, but the individual behind this group is not. His name is Shubham and he is not an NGO worker, a prominent activist, an ambitious young professional, or even a journalist; he is a 14-year old high school student from Mumbai. I interviewed Shubham over MSN messenger last week and he explained that as a high school student in the middle of his exams "it was the only way [he] could help the victims, or at least show support for them." He admits that when he started it, he "hadn't dreamt it would grow to this extent." Shubham has a team of fellow high school students from other parts of India; none of them have ever met before, but they work together to moderate discussions, build the movement, and respond to their nearly 84,000 members. Digital media levels the playing field so that even a 14-year old has the same platform to speak as an experienced professional.

Facebook is only one of many places where Indians are using digital media to speak out. Other online social networks like Orkut are flooded with communities, discussion groups, and individual members convening online to speak out with an amplified voice. Like the online social networking world, the blogsophere is bursting with activity, debate, information, and opinion pieces. Similarly, twittering proved to be one of the most important data sources during and after the attacks for obtaining information and news about how events were transpiring. In twitter-like activity, one Facebook user trapped inside the Taj Mahal used the status update to inform his network about what was taking place. In another example, a group of entrepreneurs built a website called Dogood.aish.com, which facilitates guaranteed passage of messages and condolence letters from concerned citizens to the families of victims.

While we have witnessed a tremendous amount of new digital activity in response to Mumbai, existing communities and activists have also taken on the cause to speak out against terror. Zubin Driver, a young businessman from Mumbai, is one of these proactive individuals. In January 2007, Zubin created an organization called "Fight-Back" to address the issue of gender violence in India. From an active online community of 1600 to a well-designed website (www.fight-back.net), the organization utilizes the digital space, university campuses, music industry, and new media to provide information on how people can protect themselves from gender violence and find help as victims. Important information is made available in English, Hindi, and Marathi. Among some of the features offered are police control room telephone numbers, Human Rights Lawyers Networks and even a hall of shame. These and other resources provide young Indians with the tools to confront gender violence and fight back. By the fall of 2008, Zubin had built one of the most important movements again gender violence in India. And then came the Mumbai attacks.

Without compromising the integrity of his original movement, Zubin has put his organization onto the front-lines of India's war on terror, utilizing his platform, community, and innovative approach to not just confront gender violence, but to also build campaigns against the kind of violent extremism that manifested itself in the horrific Mumbai attacks. The tactics remain the same, Fight-Back uses short communication bursts: 10 second TV commercials, status updates, and even the music industry to create edgy on the ground activities at rock shows. As Zubin explains, Fight-back hasn't changed, it has just "grown a new wing."

While the scattered digital efforts throughout India are significant, we still have a long way to go before seeing these transform into robust on-the-ground movements. Awareness campaigns are important, building an online coalition is a positive step, and collecting condolences helps the healing process; but the lingering question is how to truly mobilize people in a way that will tear away at the terrorists' support bases. India has 1.1 billion people and neighboring Pakistan has 165 million. What will it take to get large segments of these populations to stand up against terrorism as the Colombians did 10 months ago with the FARC? Where is the global movement against violent extremism? Earlier this month, Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist with Hizb-ut Tahrir created a group called "Global Voices Against Al-Qaeda and its Supporters" with the aim of orchestrating a world-wide protest in March. Inspired by radicalization trends in Europe and the Mumbai attacks, Maajid has teamed up with other youth leaders from around the world--including Mumbai--to undertake this ambitious effort. Is this the movement we have been waiting for in its nascent stage? Time will tell.

Read previous columns from Jared Cohen's Dorm Room Diplomacy series.