24 hours after they began, the coordinated terror attacks in Mumbai have produced scores of deaths and wounded and, potentially could end with even more deaths of innocent hostages. What is scarier though is the possibility that this incident may spell danger for India-Pakistan relations at a time when a much-needed thaw seems to be emerging. Confusion reigns in Mumbai, as the authorities try to understand the nature and the reason for these attacks.
Earlier unconfirmed reports on CNN that identified the MV Alpha as a Karachi-registered ship that allegedly carried the attackers proved to be incorrect. The Indian navy boarded the MV Alpha and confirmed that it was, in fact, Vietnamese-registered and had no connection with the attacks. The possibility remains that the ubiquitous "foreign hand" will be blamed for the terrorist actions. Unless there is strong evidence linking Pakistan to the attacks, India would be well advised not to fall back on that option.
Similar to the earlier attacks in New Delhi, chances are that this is a homegrown outfit. It may well be operating under a false flag of the "Deccan Mujahideen", a hitherto unknown group. But what adds to the confusion this time is that there was no statement from the attackers against the Indian political and social system and no demands were made. Rather, there was a focus on selecting British and American hostages. This may well point to the participation of an Islamist group with ties to militants operating in Kashmir or against the state inside Pakistan. Why?
Just one day before the attack, at a meeting in Islamabad of the Home Secretaries of India and Pakistan, an agreement was reached on a wide range of measures aimed at combating terrorism. According to Dawn of 25 November 2008:
"The two sides agreed for the first time to stop blaming each other for any untoward incident without evidence. Under the joint anti-terrorism mechanism, a two-member committee has been formed, comprising additional foreign secretaries of the two sides. The committee will exchange information about terrorists. The agreement on an anti-terrorism mechanism is being considered a big step for improvement of relations.
The resolve to enhance cooperation between their civilian investigation and security agencies -- Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) -- is another significant achievement made during the talks."
The Islamist militants fear that the increasing cooperation between India and Pakistan against terrorism and President Asif Ali Zardari's effusive words on warmer relations with India will leave them without a recruiting base in Pakistan. They would rather derail the nascent peace process between Pakistan and India, using, among other things, the rising unhappiness among Muslim youth in India about their lack of economic and social development.
To its credit, the Indian government set up a high-level committee two years ago to investigate the plight of the Muslims of India, who despite being close to 150 million strong have a disproportionately tiny share of India's burgeoning wealth. The Sachar Commission report of November 2006 confirmed what Indian Muslims had long known: they were well below national averages for education, skills development, employment, and economic opportunities. Some 38 per cent of Muslims in urban areas and 27 per cent in rural areas lived below the poverty line. But today, nearly two years after the release of that report, there is still talk about "targeted intervention" and many of the actions being discussed are still in the future tense. Even when these plans are implemented, at the notoriously slow pace of Indian bureaucracy, it will take years to make up for the ill-effects of previous discrimination. Meanwhile the "youth bulge" in the Indian Muslim population will become increasingly susceptible to the lure of the militants.
One ray of hope came recently at the recent annual conclave of the Jamiaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind of India, where leading religious scholars spoke against terrorism. As one Mullah stated: "There is a world of a difference between terrorism and Jihad". India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, all countries with huge Muslim populations, and all susceptible to Islamist militancy, would do well to publicize that stance in their battle against terrorism at home and abroad. Whether the terrorism is home grown or imported, the world does not need a repeat of the Mumbai mayhem.
Shuja Nawaz, an independent political analyst, is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press 2008). He can be reached at www.shujanawaz.com