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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Nothing Left to say: a critique of the Guardian’s coverage of the 2008 Mumbai attacks

Nothing Left to say: a critique of the Guardian’s coverage of the 2008 Mumbai attacks

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 10 | February 2009


This article has been reprinted in Mainstream Weekly

Deep historical precedents

However sincere its backers or belligerent its enemies, the “War on Terror” is not and cannot become anti-Islamist. This is not because, as some think, there is no Islamist or Taliban-style fascism on the receiving end of America’s War on Terror. Far from it. The reason is that the prosecutors of the war are only half committed to the selective elimination of certain religious reactionaries. In consequence, the War on Terror presents the Left with a dilemma: How to respond to apparently anti-fascist imperialism? It is a dilemma that has been faced before, most notably in the experience of World War II. Writing in the Partisan Review after the Allies’ “liberation” of French North Africa and the reinstallation of French imperialism there, Leftist intellectual Dwight MacDonald expressed those difficulties as follows:

A nation fighting the kind of war the French Revolutionary armies fought, or the Red Army in 1919, does all it can to politicize the struggle. It is notable that everything possible is done by [American] leaders to depoliticize this war. . . . Some weeks ago, the Office of War Information issued directives to its propagandists on “the nature of the enemy.” [Hitler] was described as a bully, a murderer, a thief, a gangster, etc., but only once in the lengthy document as a fascist. [“The Future of Democratic Values” in The Partisan Reader, 548]

Roosevelt and Churchill’s imperialist “anti-fascism” arose as a deliberate propaganda project set to counter that fascist “anti-imperialism” that found fertile soil among Persian, Arab, and Indian nationalists in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia in the 1930s and 40s. Leftists like MacDonald were aware that as in North Africa, the contradictions of the Allied war effort were most starkly revealed in the British struggle to preserve their empire in India. There, the crypto-fascist Subhas Chandra Bose emerged as a leading nationalist, eventually escaping British India and lending military assistance and the prestige of his cause to the fascist Axis. Anticipating such possibilities, Leon Trotsky chose to address the issue in 1939 in “An Open Letter to the Workers of India,” in which he warned against imperialist overtures to support a “war . . . waged for principles of ‘democracy,’ ” arguing that by dissolving itself into a liberal-Stalinist popular front, the Left prepared the way for its own marginalization and for the betrayal of the very anti-fascist aims that actuated it to begin with.

Unable to work through its past, the Left today is disoriented. It stumbles about aimlessly while the executors of the War on Terror, their first blush of neo-conservative ideological enthusiasm now dissipated, gradually abandon the rhetoric of “fascism” and “democracy,” growing more “pragmatic” day by day. Just as American officers found Vichy French colonial administrators and officers in 1943, American war makers today are discovering the congeniality of the “good Taliban” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even as they applaud the “moderate elements” in Iraq. As I show in the following review of significant editorials on the Mumbai attacks written by prominent Indian Leftists, and Leftists writing about India, the crisis that MacDonald identified in 1943 remains with us still. Only now it seems that, if the Left could be said to still exist, we would be forced to confess finally that it has not learned the lessons of the failures of the Popular Front against fascism in the 1930s and that it remains the inheritor of Stalinism. Today, as in the 1930s, there prevails a tacit alliance between Islamist fascism and important segments of the Left which actively inhibits the re-emergence of emancipatory politics. Of course, some things have changed. In the 1940s the Left signed up with “anti-fascist” imperialism, in the 2000s the Left tends to keep company with fascist “anti-imperialists.” The review of media discourse that follows focuses on pieces appearing in one of the world’s most Left-leaning mass-circulation daily newspapers in English today, the Manchester Guardian or simply The Guardian. In examining works from this source, I argue that in their incapacity to isolate and cogently discuss the issues raised by the attacks they exemplify what Platypus terms “the death of the Left.” The shortcomings of these pieces are rooted in the Left’s inability to honestly face up to its historical circumstances.

Mumbai's Public Transportation

An overcrowded local train in Mumbai

9/11 and the Mumbai attacks

In the title of her December 4, 2008 Guardian editorial on the Mumbai attacks, Priyamvada Gopal asserts that “Comparing Mumbai to 9/11 diminishes both tragedies.” But even this title is deceitful, since, as her readers soon discover, the piece is not concerned with the particularities of the two events. Nor does the danger of “diminishing” 9/11 give Gopal pause. On the contrary, diminishing and displacing 9/11 from our active preoccupations is her intent. Allowing the November attack on Mumbai to be deemed “India’s 9/11” would be, she argues, “to privilege the experience of the United States” and to be complicit with India’s “relentless Americanization.” 9/11 is either another brand name in McWorld or something even more sinister, an event so “fetishized” as to “sanction endless vengeance,” even as it obscures “the experience of millions [elsewhere] who have suffered as much” as those who died or were injured in the attack on the U.S. on that day. 9/11 “legitimized a false war,” “created legal abominations,” and “strengthened neoconservatism.”

While Gopal’s piece makes perfunctory mention of the suffering of the victims of 9/11, it says nothing of the actual contours of that event, much less the intentions behind it. The U.S. reaction concerns her more than the attack itself does. Rather than offering any analysis of the event about which she was writing, Gopal strains to change the subject. Presumably the killing spree that took place in Mumbai from November 26th to November 29th 2008 (and has now come to be referred to “11/26”), requires no analysis. But when we actually specify what 9/11 was, can the comparison with it really be so easily avoided?

The crucial point to be made about 9/11 — and the one that Gopal studiously avoids — makes the comparison with the Mumbai attacks inevitable: both were attacks inspired by Islamism on intensely cosmopolitan urban populations with the intention of inflicting the maximum number of casualties. Moreover, like New York, Mumbai is an old colonial port city with a rich if submerged history of radical democratic struggle. Like New York, Mumbai is the commercial and cultural, though not the political, capital of a pluralistic democracy. In short, like New York, Mumbai is one of world’s great nerve-centers of contemporary capitalism. Also, the attacks on Mumbai were not on the Hindu chauvinist politics of Bal Thackeray, just as the 9/11 attack was not on the neo-liberalism of Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. In both cases, the targets were the profane pleasures of modern society. In both cases, the attacks were made, so to speak, in plain view, so that the fascistic menace was unmistakable (albeit in the absurdly comic form of expressionless young men who might, but for the assault rifles in their hands, be easily mistaken for ravers en route to Goa). Finally, as with 9/11, the regional strategic consequences bound to flow from the Mumbai attacks are profound.

In a certain respect, the semiotics of the attacks in Mumbai were even more ghastly than those of 9/11, since it witnessed the deliberate hunting of Jews qua Jews, especially at the Chabad House, where Jews were subjected to savage beatings before their execution, unlike even the Americans and Britons who were also singled out. For those who planned the attacks killing Jews was a priority and it was executed in the midst of a police siege by killers who had, in all likelihood, never so much as seen a Jewish person before. Though the murderous anti-Semitism on display in Mumbai ought by now to be an all-too-familiar aspect of Islamist ideology, Guardian correspondent Richard Silverstein, like Gopal on the editorial page, declines to acknowledge the obvious. Instead he insists that the attack on Chabad House was “not necessarily anti-Semitic,” claiming that the attackers were seeking “redress for crimes against Palestine” [“Why did the Attackers Choose to Attack Chabad House” Guardian 12/4/2008, cf. Alex Stein “Inspiration from India” Guardian 12/4/2008]. From this we may safely conclude that, for Silverstein, anytime a Muslim kills a Jew he need only utter the magic word “Palestine” to have his guilt absolved: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza means that it is open season on Jews all over the world. In the same vein, William Dalrymple, informs the wised-up readers of the Guardian that “the horrific events have to be seen in the context of. . . the abject failure of the Bush administration” and the “ill-treatment of the people of Kashmir” [“Mumbai Atrocities Highlight Need for a Solution in Kashmir” Guardian 11/30/08]. In Arundhati Roy’s column, too, we rely upon the terrorists to tell the truth and to remind “us” of the “things we don't want to talk about any more” [“The Monster in the Mirror,” 12/13/08]. It is one thing for a journalist to report the content of authoritarian manifestoes or the statements terrorists make in the course of an attack; it is quite another matter to rationalize such statements in the manner of Silverstein, Dalrymple, and Roy.

Highlighting the political significance of the attack on Chabad House cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that there was also something quite discriminating about the seemingly more indiscriminate killing of commuters at the Victoria Terminus. It is not enough to say simply that, compared to the foreigners and the rich people at the Taj and Oberoi Hotels, the victims there were poorer, working people, though this is true. It is also worth pointing out that at the train station, the attackers fired directly into crowds. The Muslims among the dead there were not unintended victims. They were punished for living and working in peace in secular democratic India, i.e. of having failed to join the jihad. Of course, the Hindus regarded as pagans were positively marked for slaughter. As for the attacks on Mumbai’s elite hotels, likewise, the clear intent was to comingle on their marble floors the blood of dying unbelievers of all sorts — Zionist, Crusader, and Infidel. There again was the same unbridled murderousness that has been a significant feature of previous attacks, such as the 2006 commuter train in Mumbai and the serial bombings earlier in 2008 in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, and Delhi, to name just a few. These rather elementary aspects of the politics behind the Mumbai attacks rarely merit mention in the analysis to be found in the Guardian. But while the “Left” cannot remain at this elementary level of analysis, neither can it afford to ignore the obvious.

While Gopal is right to claim that in many respects 9/11 is not unique as a point of comparison (there have been many other Islamist terrorist attacks besides 9/11), her aim seems not to locate the attacks in an alternative history of recent Islamist terrorism, as, for instance, in relation to the bombing in Pakistan in September of the Islamabad Marriott that killed 53 and injured more than 250. Rather, the Mumbai attacks are treated as have no determinate character whatsoever, Gopal preferring to speak only of a “massacre of defenceless innocents.” Presumably the same is true of the bomb detonated December 5th, 2008 in a market outside a Shi’a mosque in Peshawar in which 22 people were killed and more than 90 were wounded. While 9/11 posed for everyone worldwide the question of modern Islamism, Gopal’s editorial reveals once again how the Left continues to rely on its old reflex responses — supposed “anti-imperialism” — to defer any confrontation with the full scope of the barbarism in our time. In this way, the piece tends to obscure or deny what is salient for advancing (or even imagining) a politics genuinely capable of both countering fascism and reconstituting an emancipatory politics in South Asia.

Mumbai train terminal attacked
Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Station (AKA Victoria Terminus) at rush hour

The Pakistan connection

All indications identify the culprit of the Mumbai attacks to be the notorious Pakistani Islamist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT], a group the CIA and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] founded in the early 1980s to foment jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Beginning in the early 1990s, it shifted focus to Indian Kashmir. It was in one of LeT’s Rawalpindi safe houses that the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was apprehended in 2003. Late the previous year, Pakistani authorities took al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah from a LeT safe house in Faisalabad.

LeT is not hidden away in remote tribal areas beyond the reach of the Pakistani state. It recruits, indoctrinates, and trains members for military action in full view of the Pakistani Army, which must, therefore, be said to protect it. And it is worth noting that there is nothing on the Indian side comparable to Pakistan’s harboring of such “non-state actors.” Of course, the Pakistani government’s first reaction to the news of the Mumbai attacks was, as usual, to flatly deny claims that the attackers were Pakistani, or that LeT was involved. But the important investigation of Guardian journalist Saeed Shah helped confound these denials. This he did by finding the one of many villages in Pakistan named Faridkot, where in his statement to the Indian police the sole surviving terrorist, Ajmal Amir Kasab, claimed he was born. To confirm that he had in fact found the attacker’s village and that LeT recruiters were indeed active there, Shah spoke to local people. One confirmed the story on condition of anonymity, adding, “We know that boy [caught in Mumbai] is from Faridkot. . . . We knew from the first night [of the attack]. They brainwash our youth about jihad. There are people who do it in this village.” [Saeed Shah, “Mumbai Terrorist came from Pakistan, local Villagers Confirm” Guardian 12/7/08]. Given Islamabad’s proven mendacity, Washington’s opportunism, and Delhi’s capacity for evidence-tampering and deception of the public (most notoriously in the botched frame-up of the alleged plotters of the December 13, 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament), Shah’s brand of investigative journalism is invaluable. His reports in the Guardian were significant and sound — in stark contrast to the irresponsible commentary we are addressing here.

Though officially denied in Islamabad, there can be no doubt that many in the Pakistani Army and ISI approve and promote LeT’s attempts to Islamicize the resistance to India’s long-standing military occupation of Kashmir. This collusion between elements inside the Pakistani Army and LeT is inextricably related to the Mumbai attacks. For years the Pakistani military has permitted jihadis fighting in Kashmir free rein to train and recruit in Pakistan creating the milieu from which the Mumbai attacks came. Even if the LeT and the other organizations of Kashmiri and Afghan jihadis which the ISI has created are no longer under their control, it can scarcely disclaim all responsibility for their actions. Moreover, as confirmed by the July 7th 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the ISI is certainly directly engaged in the promotion of the Taliban and the sabotaging of the Karzai government in Afghanistan. We catch a glimpse of such Pakistani army councils when President Asif Ali Zardari, upon being pressed regarding LeT involvement, tellingly exclaims: "Even if these activists are linked to the LeT, who do you think we are fighting?" [quoted in Bernard-Henri Levy, “Let's Give Pakistan the Attention It Deserves” Wall Street Journal 12/3/08]. That is, the resistance to the newly elected government’s assertion of its authority over the military (a highly fraught proposition) derives from those elements still promoting a jihadi-based foreign policy.

LeT is chiefly a player in the growth industry that is Islamist terror attacks against India, a country al-Qaeda rightly perceives as a weak link in the Zionist-Crusader-Infidel alliance with which so many of its recent propaganda broadcasts have been preoccupied. While, in knowing tones, area specialists insist on the great significance of the theological distinctions between jihadi groups, bin Laden himself is clear in his reiterated calls for unity. He knows, even if they do not, that there is only one modern jihad and that, in Pakistan, it is bidding for the soul of the Army. As bin Laden’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri (otherwise notorious for his recent slander of Barack Obama as a “House Slave”), stated in his April 2006 message “To the People of Pakistan”:

Musharraf was the primary backer of [America’s] ouster of the Islamic Emirate from Kabul. . . As a result of Musharraf's betrayal, Indian intelligence has crept close to the Pakistan-Afghan border. . . [Consequently] the Pakistani Army, with the exit of the Taliban government from Kabul, became a double loser: first, the Pakistani Army lost the strategic depth which Afghanistan, with its highlands and mountains, can offer it in any Pakistani-Indian confrontation. And second, the Pakistani Army's back became exposed to a regime hostile to it and allied with its enemies.

Zawahiri demonstrates perfect familiarity with the “national security” language in which top ISI officers have long rationalized their support for Islamist fascism. The civil war within the Muslim world has long since become a struggle inside the state apparatus of Pakistan. The Army has become so Islamized that its strategic aims are now interchangeably describable in the rhetoric of Clausewitz or of jihad. The Mumbai attacks and LeT’s rising prominence also represents a fusion of al-Qaeda’s international agenda to long-standing projects of the Pakistani military and ISI..

Mumbai attack suspect

Mumbai attack suspect

Reaction in-progress

While it is certainly well for commentators such as Gopal to wish that cool heads should prevail in the Government of India’s deliberations regarding its response, her ignoring of the manifestly Islamist character of the attack, the apparent link to LeT, and the internal tensions within the Pakistani state weakens that very plea for moderation and peaceful negotiations. Her commentary leaves unspecified what the purpose of any negotiation might be. After all, it is clear that, as in the past, Pakistan will first try to deny all involvement, then refuse to extradite its citizens to face trial, and, in the end, will release all those it has rounded up under pressure from the U.S. In the course of this response, Pakistan will no doubt take the opportunity to point out the manner in which India has in the past used terror attacks as an occasion to frame inconvenient dissidents and advance repressive purposes. At any rate, it is not clear that Pakistan can be pressured to take on the jihadi groups at all. As Fareed Zakaria’s December 8, 2008 CNN interview with former ISI chief Hamid Gul suggests, the institutional culture of Pakistani military intelligence is so completely Islamicized as to permit a senior spokesman to state publicly, on global media, that 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks were “an inside job” perpetrated by the “Zionists and the neo-cons.” This is from a man who claimed in 2002 that “jihad has the UN sanction,” and who is rumored to have relayed information to the Taliban in advance of U.S. strikes. Given the fact that such opinions can be held by a man in Gul’s position, deepest anxieties are not unwarranted. We might add that Gul’s conspiracy-mongering is not confined to military circles, but is widely represented in the Pakistani media today [for which see, most recently, Kamal Siddiqi’s “Everyone at Fault Except Us” in The News (Islamabad) 12/15/08]. As for Pakistan’s bureaucratic and scientific elite, it will do well to remember that the “father” of the country’s nuclear program, A. Q. Khan, in February 1984 dismissed concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program as “a figment of the Zionist mind.” Three years later, Khan reversed himself to gleefully announce that Pakistan had succeeded in constructing what he called an “Islamic bomb” [Leonard Weiss, “Pakistan: It’s Déjà vu all Over Again” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 60:3 (May/June 2004), 55-56].

Gopal’s analysis leaves unspecified a fact crucial for the Left to recognize, that Pakistan is subject to and an exporter of a murderous fascism that goes unopposed by any mass political organization inside the country and which enjoys informal state support. Radical street demonstrations and political organizing in Pakistan have been largely moribund for some decades now, as these have been the near-exclusive domain of reactionary and jingoistic displays, the recent “lawyers’ movement” notwithstanding. The little labor organization that once existed in the country is now utterly dispirited and depoliticized. At the same time, given the permanent political crisis in the region, a circumstance to which all the relevant political actors, not least the NATO commanders in Afghanistan, are reconciled, the demand for the reigning-in of fascism, whether “Hindu” or “Muslim,” serves only to reinforce the status quo. That is, at present this demand only translates into support for the Indian National Congress or the Pakistan People’s Party, political defenders of the wretched cronyism that prevails in both countries.
While Gopal is not wrong to note the crimes of the Bush administration, neither it nor American imperialism is responsible for the attacks on Mumbai. Nor does a recitation of the sordid history of U.S. support for military dictator General Zia ul-Haq’s Islamicization of Pakistan and for the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s fundamentally alter the fact that the jihadis have their own deeply reactionary agenda that is wholly irreconcilable with secular democratic politics in South Asia. In this era of political imbecility, it requires emphasizing that opposition to this ISI-jihadi nexus in Pakistan implies no tempering of the critique of the Hindutvavadis or Hindu fascists in India, nor any diminution of their crimes, such as the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. On the contrary.

At least since the time of Zia, the political order in Pakistan has rested on a despicable alliance between military despotism and Islamicism. This alliance, which has functioned during both civilian and military governments, is responsible for many thousands of corpses of Leftist activists, trade unionists, and intellectuals. Neither the Bush administration nor recent Pakistani leadership, whether that of Musharraf or Zardari, has done anything to disrupt it. Indeed, they are on the side historically of those who perpetrated those crimes. Rather than emphasize this complicity, Gopal reserves her concern for what the Indian government might do. If anything, what we have seen is something that demonstrates the strength of Indian democracy, as with the immediate acceptance of responsibility and resignation by the Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil, Chief Minister of Maharashtra Vilasrao Deshmukh, and Home Minister of Maharashtra R. R. Patil. Her concern to restrain India also sits uneasily with the statements of President Zardari of Pakistan who, writing in the New York Times, seems precisely to pin his hope on leveraging U.S. and Indian pressure to strengthen his hand against the military establishment and the homegrown Islamism that seeks to overthrow his government. Certainly, recognizing Islamist responsibility and ISI complicity implies no support for the opportunistic use to which the Mumbai attacks be put by India’s military and political parties. As its entire long history shows, when the Left evades such facts as ill-suited to its preferred understanding of the political environment, not only does it confess its own helplessness in the face of the present, but threatens in the process to betray — yet again — what should be its own most fundamental commitments.

The possibility of a Left

In urging that the Mumbai attacks are not to be compared to 9/11, Gopal, as we have seen, was not concerned with the actual events themselves so much as the potential Indian response. Instead of strengthening democracy and the struggle against authoritarianism (much less any attempt to criticize and advance the politics of the Left), Gopal proposes something else: “Rather than imitate the US . . . India has the option of turning to its own unique history in seeking an end to the violence.” Invoking Gandhi, she declares, “India has no need to cede its unique cultural resources for the derivative language of 9/11.” To the same purpose Arundhati Roy relates her recognition that “November isn't September, 2008 isn't 2001, Pakistan isn't Afghanistan and India isn't America.” Like Gopal, Roy dismisses as trifling the “war on TV,” attempting to insert it into the familiar framework for understanding Hindu-Muslim antagonism in South Asia, that of so-called “communal violence” which she duly attributes to the legacy of British colonial mendacity. If indeed Gopal acknowledges any danger to emanate from Pakistan, she leaves it to the American Empire to sort out. As for the political (as opposed to cultural) resources available to India, Gopal declines to specify which of those is up to the task of opposing the fascism on display on 11/26. Should we inquire as to India’s political as opposed to cultural resources, Gopal would offer nothing in reply. But the degeneracy of the Indian left is a rich subject. After all, the Indian Left in recent years has been guilty of active complicity with Islamism as, for instance, in the 2007 expulsion of Bangladeshi asylum seeker, feminist, and critic of Islamism, Taslima Nasreen by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Government of West Bengal.

In the world Guardian writers prefer not to face, the Left is in no position to affect outcomes. Still, acknowledging circumstances and the Left’s exhaustion is the only way forward. For, to invert Marx’s famous thesis, we will not be in position to change the world, until and unless we understand it. And the crucial conditioning factor of current events is the death of the Left. In the here-and-now, it is clear that the political struggle against Islamism in South Asia, as elsewhere, has a military aspect and that any marginally desirable political outcome will have been brought about at least in part by means of the violence of state action. Moreover, as most Leftists would doubtless be loathe to admit, the very prospect of reconstituting Leftist politics in South Asia rides to no small extent on the ability of the U.S. and NATO to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Left has a stake in historical processes that at present it is powerless to affect.

It has long been evident that with respect to “the war on TV” the scattered fragments of the Left can do little more than watch the bullets fly. However, we might even take some comfort in the fact that, once again in the recent elections, most people in Pakistan rejected the appeal of the religious parties. Despite the prevailing depoliticization, many recognized that they too have stakes in the struggle against Islamism, and did not allow their discontent with the status quo to lead to a reconciliation with it. The Left ought to attend more closely to the dilemma the Pakistani people are forced to negotiate on account of a failed politics, i.e. a choice between two right-wing alternatives. Certainly, as has been shown here, anti-imperialism in our time has become a smokescreen that obscures more than it reveals. It alone offers no way forward. While we cannot contemplate without horror an Islamist victory in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Kashmir. At the same time, it is impossible to imagine its defeat at the hands of such “enemies” as it now faces. That is, in present circumstances the “War on Terror” is no more horrific to contemplate than is the peace to be made with it. If, rather than railing against or rallying on behalf of one or another right-wing politics, the Left would be complicit with neither barbarous war nor rotten peace, it will have to subject itself to searching critical reflection. Though as "a newspaper of record" the Guardian will continue documenting atrocities symptomatically expressive of the ongoing political regression like the attacks on Mumbai, it will do so without the critical awareness that this is what it's doing. |P


This poster reads in part: "Who gets the wealth that is produced in India? The British Empire. It is all sent there and is not used for the India’s benefit! Britain has ruled India for 200 years and still the Indian poor are dying of hunger."

This German propaganda poster (circa 1944) reads in part: "Who gets the wealth that is produced in India? The British Empire. It is all sent there and is not used for the India’s benefit! Britain has ruled India for 200 years and still the Indian poor are dying of hunger.