Thursday, December 04, 2008

How far is Pune from Mumbai?

Our household is preparing for a move next year to Pune, India -- in Maharashtra state, about 90 miles from Mumbai (I'm working on the Hindi for "barba de chiva"). Naturally, we've talked to many friends, family members, and colleagues about the Mumbai attacks last week. That many of them knew that the lady de chiva had been at the Taj Palace -- albeit not as a guest -- just a week or so before the attacks only added to their concern. I keep answering the same questions: aren't you afraid, now? Don't you all regret the decision to move to India? No, no.

But above all, people have repeatedly asked -- and people I love and respect, so I mean no criticism in making a trope of the question -- "How far is Pune from Mumbai?" It's about 90 miles, a three-to-four-hour drive, I say. I say "four hour drive," making it clear that an inflatable dinghy probably wouldn't quite cut it. But that question -- how far will you be from the site of these attacks -- doesn't fit the problem. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I've been reading the excellent recent translation of War and Peace, but the "how far" hasn't been the right question for a long time. I mean, it mattered how far Smolensk was from Moscow. Such things mattered to so many people for so long that the question probably comes to us from some Jungian depth. But a small group of trained attackers exploiting security holes one could find practically anywhere in the world is not an invading army. Mumbai is not itself a hot zone of ethnic or religious conflict; it's pretty much the opposite of that. It's just a great big city on the edge of a great big country.

So, over the past few days, what I have been saying is that what matters, what we're watching closely as we pack our things, is how India decides to address what happened: clearly, the attackers and their sponsors dislike the growing cooperation and commitment to dialogue between India and Pakistan. Will this attack derail that? Worse still, will it manage to provoke India into a state vs. state response against Pakistan? Can the Congress Party avoid taking "a tough stance" in the face of BJP criticism with elections approaching? Can India prove that it knows -- unlike the Bush administration -- that this is the twenty first century? These are the questions I'm preoccupied with now.

So I was pleased when a friend this morning passed along a link to the Juan Cole piece in Outlook India, as he, as usual, gets quickly to the heart of the matter:
The Bush administration took its eye off al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and instead put most of its resources into confronting Iraq. But Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Eventually this American fickleness allowed both al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup.

Likewise, India should not allow itself to be distracted by implausible conspiracy theories about high Pakistani officials wanting to destroy the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai. (Does that even make any sense?) Focusing on a conventional state threat alone will leave the country unprepared to meet further asymmetrical, guerrilla-style attacks.
Now I'm worried by the obvious: Juan Cole and many others made these same points after 9/11. Will India hear them?


nitinmanchanda said...

"Mumbai is not itself a hot zone of ethnic or religious conflict; it's pretty much the opposite of that"

I'd love to believe that. It WAS the opposite of that more than a decade ago, but the Hindu-Muslim riots during the Babri Strutucture demolition reached the shores of Bombay and changed it several years ago to be a hotbed of ethnic violence.

barba de chiva said...

OK, I suppose "opposite" was overstated (and, indeed, I left out the recent Thackeray-inspired violence there, as well). I think the western imagination, especially in the wake of these attacks, imagines something completely out of control, though. Still, you've make a good point about the riots (and, I think, a good argument for expecting some wisdom from those would would urge a state-state retaliation against Pakistan).

MT said...

"How far" is Smolensk from Chernobyl? Unfortunately, "how far" is not an entirely senseless or outmoded object of concern in this case. I agree it's not of the essence now and won't ever be, but as irrational concerns go, that one is more rational than most.

MT said...

"and _hopefully_ won't ever be"

barba de chiva said...

Jeez, MT! Stop trying to make my friends think I was calling the question senseless (MT is a regular here, everybody, and so shouldn't be trusted!).

No, I don't think it's a senseless question, but I do think it is entirely outmoded. And Chernobyl isn't an analogy -- it's a great question, parallel to questions about safety in general (like, how protected is the water supply in Pune? Are the metal detectors simply ignored in the train station there, as in Mumbai? etc.). Those kinds of questions are linked to "how far?" only when we read "how far" as a figure, as in: how like or unlike Mumbai? What are the chances of a similar attack?

Besides, I meant not to suggest that things are peachy keen or that I approach India as some kind of glib expat who thinks he's invincible. I only meant to say that: in the -- yes, outmoded -- concerns of many we can see the shadows of the outmoded concerns of political administrations, who still seem to believe they can fight terrorism simply by attacking other states with their armies. I'm with Juan Cole on the senselessness of that . . .

MT said...

But taking the fight to the straw man is what I do here!