The seven bomb blasts in Mumbai are bad news for many reasons. The death toll has climbed to 190 and the number of injured has risen to over 600. That innocent civilians have been targeted is bad. What is worse is its likely impact on various state and non-state actors in the region. The Indian security agencies and media are so far clueless about the perpetrators. But they have nonetheless chosen to take the familiar line and point the finger at Pakistan-based groups, especially the now-renamed Lashkar-e Tayba/Jamaat ud Dawa. But the issue may be a little more complex than that. Consider.
Islamabad has roundly and swiftly condemned the blasts. Local groups like Hezb-ul Mujahideen and Jamaat ud Dawa have refused to take responsibility for them. This is interesting since the whole idea behind mounting a terrorist attack is to propagate a cause on the one hand and spread terror on the other. This means that a group which employs terror to advance a political cause must wear its actions like a badge of honour instead of keeping them secret. Under the circumstances, the Indian government has taken a sensible line and refrained from accusing Pakistan. The normalisation process that began in January 2004 has created multiple layers of contact and it is safe to assume that the two sides are in touch on such issues and not likely to allow the process of dialogue to be derailed on account of such acts of terrorism.
Terrorism is a global phenomenon and Pakistan has seen multiple attacks by extremist elements against its own citizens and security forces. The president and the prime minister of Pakistan have been directly attacked, the former on more than one occasion. Both are on the hit-list of Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups. It therefore makes no sense for Islamabad to sponsor the same groups and facilitate their operations in India. In fact, if India had moved faster on the disputed issues within the framework of the normalisation process, the two sides might have been closer in creating cooperative security mechanisms to fight the common menace.
Indian newspaper editorials have generally pointed to slack counter-terrorism intelligence. Some have also said that the current home minister is not the right person for this job. Most have evinced unhappiness at how the UPA government has failed to respond to repeated acts of terror. These are, of course, India's internal matters and that country has to look into them on its own. What is important, however, is to avoid knee-jerk reactions. The temptation to blame some Pakistan-based Islamist groups is strong. But that is exactly the kind of judgment that needs to be held in abeyance unless it can be proved through evidence. India is a country that harbours many disgruntled groups and not all are based in Pakistan. Short-listing suspects is not an exercise to be conducted lightly. Mumbai is also a place where Hindu extremists have a free run. Cavalier references to Islamist terrorism could result in communal violence, which, if past record is anything to go by, mostly ends up targeting innocent Muslims. Moreover, it does not really solve the problem.
There is another angle to the current tragedy. While Al Qaeda has never directly operated in India, a fact that is often mentioned by some US analysts as a consequence of Indian democracy and pluralism, there is a strong incentive for Al Qaeda or local groups associated with it to make its presence felt there. There could be three levels of Al Qaeda's interests in India: given the numbers of Muslims in that country, its history of communal violence and the strong possibility of a Hindu backlash, targeting India would make sense as part of the Al Qaeda strategy to create civilisational mayhem. The second level relates to the Pakistan-India normalisation process. Al Qaeda and its affiliates would dearly like to destabilise this entire region in order to frustrate US efforts in West and South Asia to create modern, democratic, secular structures of governance. The final level could relate to growing relations between the US and India and how the former wants India to emerge as the dominant force in the region and how India would then become a crucial factor in the larger US policy to create centres of anti-Islamist stability.
Of course, it is too early to go beyond conjecturing. But if the Al Qaeda factor is accepted, it may be operating through local groups. The point really is that this kind of violence needs to be put in a perspective that may go beyond old regional rivalries. This is where it is important for states within the region, especially Pakistan and India, to resolve their disputes in order to get on with the business of creating cooperative security mechanisms. This is what Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, meant when he told a news wire after the blasts that "I think the Mumbai incident - however tragic it may be and it is undoubtedly very tragic - underlines the need for the two countries to work together to control this environment, but they can only do so if they resolve their disputes".
This is also why it is important that the Indian security establishment, instead of blaming Pakistan, which is what the terrorists who have committed this crime would want, should try and put the incident in perspective. We live in a world where we can either protect everyone or no one will be safe. Safety and the sanctity of life is no more a selective affair, as the Americans learnt after the tragedy of September 11, 2001.