Mumbai attacks: Why calling it “India’s 9/11” is problematic

Today’s Indian Express features an op-ed by Darryl Li – who is part of the legal team that is defending the Guantanamo detainees – addressing the point raised in this post’s heading. Li’s analysis is interesting and thought-provoking, especially because he self-identifies as an American. Here are extracts from his piece: ” … India does not need to invoke 9/11, either to summon the kind of solidarity and courage found on that day, or to justify the kind of repression that followed; it is amply capable of both on its own, or of charting a completely different path.

What having one’s “own 9/11” does mean, however, is to possess an Event that somehow transcends history or context, and therefore politics or justice. In reducing so much to that single point on the calendar, too many Americans elevated it above what came before and what followed. This insistence on saturating discussion and imagination with only our own suffering came at the precise moment when what was needed most was a capacious commitment to fostering common human security based on a foundation of justice.

The initial and oxymoronic codename for the invasion of Afghanistan, Operation “Infinite Justice”, captured this mentality perfectly: infinitude promises a be-all, end-all (yet never-been and never-ending) “solution.” It cannot coexist with any meaningful notion of justice, which requires the very finite concepts of balance, responsibility, and reconciliation.

Seen in proper perspective, the enduring significance of 9/11 was that a very small part of humanity was suddenly exposed to the kind of existential vulnerability that a significantly greater proportion lives with every day — and then largely refused to recognize that commonality. Yes, there are obvious analytical and normative distinctions between different kinds of political violence in the world. But one need not accept a “moral equivalence” between state and non-state violence to recognize that an honest conversation is not possible if only one side defines whose suffering counts and whose does not.

Invoking 9/11 has too often been a way to close one’s eyes to terrors experienced elsewhere in the world, including India. Which is why for Indians or anyone else to seek possession of their “own 9/11” is strange. Rather than selectively enlarging the exclusive club of those who can blithely dismiss the fears of others, it would seem that the task demanded by human solidarity is to dismantle that privilege altogether.” Li’s analysis should give pause to the pundits and media personalities who are throwing the term around quite loosely. (The original formatting of this post apparently gave rise to the impression that this included some of my own analysis – I’ve changed the format to make things clearer).

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  • Dear Arun,

    This is a very well-written piece. Great job.

    The need to create a milestone that marks the outer limit of tolerance is indeed problematic because it is an insult to the people who been affected by attacks in the past. It implies that the suffering of one group of people is more significant than the suffering endured by people in the past.

    The other problem is that terms like these are divisive by nature because they expose the embarassing disparity in power between people in India.


  • This supposed Freudian psychoanalysis of the use of the phrase “our own 9/11” is absurd. Like it or not, there are striking similarities between 9/11 and 11/26 Both were extremely symbolic attacks pre-planned to not just attack and kill but to send across a message of hatred and disdain for freedom, plularity and vibrant culture which is what New York and Mumbai stand for. And that is also the reason why the entire world is sitting up in alarm against the Mumbai attack because it also signifies the growing global threat of jihad. It is not just India’s problem but the world’s problem – is that what irks Ms. Lee that people are finding similarities in the horrors that they have faced?

  • Dear Anon,

    Your kudos are really for Darryl Li – the words and analysis here are entirely his. I thought they were quite insightful and am glad you found them to be so as well,


  • Dear KB,

    The problem isn’t with people finding similarities in the horrors they faced. It’s with the fact that there aren’t so many similarities in the nature of the two events, and that it ignore the numerous other acts of violence that Indians themselves have faced in the past. 9/11 ultimately was used to justify further exceptionalism with respect to American foreign policy and the curtailment of civil liberties. The Mumbai attacks were far more similar to past operations mounted in urban areas in Kashmir and the attack against Parliament in New Delhi, both of which stand as case illustrations demonstrating the actual effects and limitations that confront drastic anti-terrorism strategies.

  • Dear Mr Chima, a couple of points in rejoinder:
    • A reminder about a few facts about 9/11 – It resulted in almost 3000 deaths and around 7000 injured people. By any standards of terrorism anywhere in the world, this was a staggeringly tragic event. So, to imply that India has been facing 9/11 like events in the past is wrong in the face of facts clearly to the contrary. There has been no one terrorist attack in India which has caused these many fatalities.
    • The November Mumbai attacks and 9/11 have two striking similarities. The targets in both cases were selected to cause maximum insult and humiliation to both the countries and to convey hatred for what these great metropolises stand for. Secondly, in both cases, the public has been outraged. As far as India in concerned, this is a watershed event as never before has the Indian public expressed so much anguish and anger over such attacks.
    • While it is intellectually fashionable and very politically correct to bash American foreign policy and the Indian state and to blame them as the root causes of all terrorism, don’t you think the actual perpetrators deserve even a bit of our contempt and blame? Or are we going to continue to give them excuses and justifications for spilling the blood of innocent people and insulting our values of plurality and freedom? And making the perpetrators the victims, rather than the actual innocent people who were massacred by them?
    • It appears that the reason why you and Mr Li want to delink these events is to portray them as isolated and localized rather than being related. Well, like it or not, jihadi terrorism is becoming a global threat not just for U.S. and India but also countries like Indonesia and in Europe. Of course, this is again a politically incorrect statement but it’s time we stop being politically correct and acknowledge reality.