Do they hate Mumbai because it’s modern?

Some thoughts on this week's terror on the trains.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Following the horrific train bombings in Mumbai yesterday, which killed at least 180 commuters and injured many more, reporters and commentators have wondered who did it, and why. Was it Kashmiri militants wishing to upbraid India for its continuing claim over Kashmir? Or Indian mafia groups wanting to send a warning sign to some Mumbai city bigwig? Perhaps it was al-Qaeda, punishing India for its close relations with America and its hostility towards Islamic militancy.

This rush to explain why the bombings took place overlooks the possibility that these kinds of bloody attacks, designed to kill as many civilians as possible, are not for anything in particular. Various groups might try to justify such attacks with reference to Kashmir or Palestine or Iraq, and some group might yet do that in relation to the latest bombings in Mumbai. But often these awful assaults look more like howls of rage against contemporary society, a kind of lashing out at modernity or just the state of things in general. After all, how can murdering workers during a Tuesday evening rush hour achieve any kind of tangible political goal? It can’t.

Whether it is the downing of the Twin Towers, the explosions on the Madrid and London train systems, the killing of scores of happy-go-lucky holidaymakers in a nightclub in Bali, or now the blowing up of white-collar workers in the growing city of Mumbai, these acts look to me like adolescent protests against change, growth, movement, against anything that looks or smells a little bit modern. That might go some way to explaining why, in India over the past 10 years, Mumbai seems to have become an important target for terrorists, even more so than the traditional political centre of Delhi. In 1993, 257 were killed in bombings in Mumbai; 11 were killed in a train bombing in March 2003; 52 were killed by two car bombs at the heart of Mumbai’s financial centre in August 2003. More people have been killed, or perhaps ‘punished’, by terrorists in Mumbai in recent years than in Delhi.

Could it be that, whomever carried out these various attacks, what they really instinctively hate about Mumbai is its growth (as symbolised by its financial centre, which has been bombed) and its transformation into a teeming, modern city of millions (as symbolised by its often overcrowded railway system, bombed yesterday and in 2003)? Perhaps the rising number of attacks on Mumbai over the past decade actually symbolises the broader shift from violent political campaigns of the past towards nihilistic terrorism today that simply screams at modernity. Whatever political rationale some opportunist terror group attaches to yesterday’s bombings, it strikes me that, at root, this is like a more violent version of that age-old teenage complaint about the ‘rat race’ and how horrible our big ‘soulless’ cities are. Yesterday’s bombs were reportedly planted in first-class carriages, where white-collar workers, those at the forefront of Mumbai’s technological and financial revolutions, will have been seated.

In this sense, these terrorists may not be as alien to the West as many seem to think. Across the West, too, development and modernity are viewed as problematic, even dangerous. Indeed, there is a widespread doubt and suspicion about the rise of Mumbai. In the West, Mumbai is cited by many as evidence of the problems caused by progress and development. In our cautious and hesitant times, Mumbai is now seen as a ‘problem city’, moving ahead too fast and making itself sick and unhealthy in the process; indeed, it has become something of an international symbol of how dangerous development can be. Western society’s own fear of the future and lowered horizons are increasingly projected on to debates about Mumbai and other developing cities in India or China.

Western thinkers and writers always seem to discuss Mumbai as being more dangerous and divided since it became more developed. One writer has stated: ‘Pollution, hazardous industrial wastes, rampant diseases and overcrowding have made Mumbai a dangerous city to live in.’ Western environmentalist groups demand that Mumbai ‘slow down’ because it is creating too much pollution and dumping too much toxic waste. Others argue that economic development in Mumbai has only made the poor poorer and the rich richer, showing that ‘growth of cities is rarely fair or equal’. That is true, and no doubt economic development in Mumbai has benefited some more than others. Mumbai is probably like London when it first started industrialising: busy, overcrowded, with some of the population living in squalor. But only more development can resolve these problems, whereas much of today’s anti-Mumbai sentiment seems to be driven by a suspicion about development per se.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that as Mumbai has become a symbol of everything that is wrong and rotten about modernity – discussed as being dirty, diseased, violent and unhappy – so it has also become a target for reactionary terrorists who probably would like to turn the clock back to simpler, more Islamic times.

This would not be the first time that the West’s own fear and self-loathing has chimed with the actions of nihilistic terrorists. When al-Qaeda downed the Twin Towers – another symbol of modernity, wealth creation and development – some Western commentators sought to explain, if not justify, the attack as challenging America’s ‘arrogance’, as represented by its tall cocky skyscrapers. When terrorists blew up a nightclub in Bali and killed 202 young, mainly Western tourists, it was not immediately clear why they did it – but one Western writer offered an explanation, arguing that youthful tourism in Bali ‘smells of moral casuistry, of self-indulgence, even of that much debated commodity, decadence…. Given that there’s good reason to regard tourists as the shock troops of development and post-colonialism, it’s not really surprising, however awful the consequences, that they find themselves targeted by anti-Western militants.’

In short, the holidaymakers, being apparently arrogant and hedonistic, had it coming. How long before someone says that Mumbai had it coming too, with its Western-style skyscrapers, technological development and arrogant belief that it could ever be the equal of an American, European or Japanese city? Over the past five years we have at various times glimpsed an unholy marriage indeed between the West’s own sense of doom and gloom and the actions of nihilistic groups from the East.

Mumbai is a great, inspiring city. Its developers and inhabitants want to make it the next New York, London, Singapore or Beijing, and that is an admirable goal. For all the talk of a great divide in the city, between the selfish noveau riche and the seething poor, in fact the population pulled together yesterday – some carried the injured to hospital by hand in the monsoon rains when the ambulance service became overstretched. There is much to celebrate about a city like Mumbai, its ambition, spirit, and the people’s sense of resolve. We should challenge both the murderous terrorists and the Western doom-mongers who would have us believe that modern Mumbai is somehow a ‘problem’.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

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