THE BLOG

Six Years Ago Violence Rocked India, and No One Here Blinked

Six years and a half years ago, another piece of India went up in flames from violence, and no one in the States blinked. No one discussed it. Very few were even aware anything had happened. Despite the fact nearly 2000 people then died in what, for a time, was suspected to be the work of Pakistani nationalists, President Bush didn't call the Indian prime minister to express sympathies. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't fly in, as she will this Wednesday, in the aftermath of the violence in Mumbai. The difference in reactions partly has to due with the differing circumstances surrounding the two events, but it also represents a shift in the times and in us. A nation's reactions to the outside world becomes the shape of the nation, and as we head into a new era in America, it may be time to take stock of who are and how we've changed.

Six and a half years ago, the state of Gujarat was swept by sectarian riots after a train carrying Hindus caught fire and some 59 died. Indian Muslims were blamed, suspicions fell on Pakistani infiltration, though later, forensic evidence suggested the flames were sparked by a cook stove. In the cities and villages, Hindu mobs with cans of gasoline fell on cowering Muslim families and burned them to death. The stories of barbarity, then as now, were legion. Three people, then, trying to flee a mob made it to what they thought was the safety of a hospital, but were hunted down and thrown to their deaths from a window.

The violence continued for months, in a thin, steady drip. One hundred seventy five thousand were made homeless and had to live in refugee camps. Cries of outrage went up around the world as reports began to surface that the extreme right-wing government had seized on anti-Muslim sentiments that were inflamed six months earlier, by 9/11, to engineer the slaughter. The United States's voice was noticably absent, a fact that made me wince, for a number of reasons. One being that I was living in India, near Gujarat, then, and had watched as, in the months following September 11th, the initial outpouring of sympathy for America had slowed, then curdled.

"In India, this terrorism is a temporary situation," the poet Nand Chaturvedi said to me, in November. "Old cultures retain so many events in the collective memory, they develop a psychology of rationalization. They tell themselves, 'All right, but we will have good days, too.' In Sanskrit, they say chakravat--'it's like a wheel.' Younger nations are afraid of evil situations," he added, "especially if they have seen only prosperous times. America is very much afraid of facing evil days."

He was expressing more politely the pointed observations I'd begun to hear, about how America was in a fog of self absorption. Americans think they are the only ones who have known terrorism, people would complain, and it was hard to argue. "How does it feel to be living in a country without terrorism?" an aquaintance emailed, tone laced with the forbearance of her suffering, the day after 35 more were killed in Kashmir.

From this distant place, it was jarring to watch as compassion for America burned off. Two days after 9/11, I'd attended a rag tag protest march that employees at the palace staged. "Anyone who commits a terrorist act cannot call himself a terrorist!" a hand-lettered sign scolded. "America, India is with you!" the banner they shuffled behind declared.

Three months later, by the time the Indian parliament was attacked, by the time five men broached the parliament's gate and shotgunned nine employees to death, U.S. self-interest and -absorption was galling people. "America has done nothing," a professor of political science cried in telling me about the attack. It was around then that I began getting punched in the street. It happened three times, in the months leading up to the Gujarat riots--I'd be walking along, then find myself sprawled on the ground, palms turned to waffles by stones. Most other Westerners had fled for home by then. I'd become a walking symbol.

On February 28, I was at a dinner in Varanasi when the door to the apartment flew open. "Gujarat is burning!" an Indian professor, a friend of the American hostess, exclaimed. He stopped to catch his breath. In Gandhi's home state, he continued, mobs were smashing their way into stores, people were being killed. The streets there were piles of glinting shards, he said. Later, people would compare that night to Krystalnacht.

At the party, a silence descended. The guests, American grad students, stared at him. Some murmurred, a few of them nodded. Then one by one, they returned to discussing Srinathji temples, dystopia in modern India--the subjects of their theses, what he'd interrupted.

I thought of those grad students last week over the long Thanksgiving holiday--when at the dinners I went to, people argued about what had happened in Mumbai: whether India was blaming Pakistan and if so, was Pakistan to blame. I thought about them when a friend called to say she couldn't tear herself away from the scenes on CNN, the windows of hotels blazing orange, the small red pools on the station floor that was empty except for small piles of belongings. They came to mind when a woman spat out, "We only care because Americans are involved," and in my head, I debated to what extent this was so. But the grad students had been Americans living in India and they'd turned away as if it was their god-given birthrate, by virtue of their motherland's geography, to set themselves apart.

Six and half years later, we seem more aware that geographical divisions are mostly illusion. That borders can be breached through cyber space, that a crash of finances can spread throughout the world and the implications and guilt, the spurring causes, redound back. We've had an understanding of unity forced on us. When Bombay burned, the clumsy global forces of citizen journalism kicked in, even on the dopey precincts of Facebook. Throughout the Thanksgiving weekend, denizens there were "horrified about Bombay," were "thinking about Mumbai," were having a hard time "enjoying the holiday because of what's happening in India," in between being "stuffed" and "watching The Unforgiven." The messages weren't hand-lettered, but they had the same fumbling sweetness from the protest march I'd seen. "India, America cares."

And it's true that the Mumbai attacks drew attention attention because U.S. citizens were involved, and because the attackers targeted rich gathering spots, but with luck, so is this: That as the long flow of only prosperity we've known is staunched, as the horror we experienced in our own attack condenses to collective history and makes it harder to look away, chakravad, we lose innocence and become less afraid.