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INDIA: WSF Must Address Terrorism Says Mumbai

Sandhya Srinivasan

MUMBAI, Jan 31 2009 (IPS) - Civil society in this port city, victim of the Nov. 26-29 terrorist attacks and host to the 2004 World Social Forum, has one question to ask – will the movement seriously address terrorism?

Firemen dousing flames and rescuing hostages at the heritage Taj hotel, Mumbai. Credit: Deepak Salvi/IPS

Firemen dousing flames and rescuing hostages at the heritage Taj hotel, Mumbai. Credit: Deepak Salvi/IPS

"What would the WSF do if it is in power and innocent people are attacked?" asks civil liberties lawyer Mihir Desai. "When we say 'another world is possible', what kind of response should this alternative world have to terrorism?"

Desais's rhetorical question was addressed to the ninth edition of the WSF underway in Belem, capital of the north Brazilian state of Para.

On Nov. 26, 2008, 10 men launched a series of attacks across south Mumbai before they took hostages in two luxury hotels and a hostel for orthodox Jews. The men were said to have sailed in by boat from the port of Karachi in neighbouring Pakistan.

The standoff, covered round-the-clock by several TV news channels, lasted till Nov. 29 when Indian commandos announced that explosives in the three buildings had been cleared and nine of the ten attackers shot dead.

The tenth attacker, a Pakistani national identified as Ajmal Khan Qasab, was taken into custody and has since become the centre of diplomatic wrangling between the two countries.

At least 180 people died in the attacks and 300 others were injured.

Mumbai is no stranger to bomb explosions in trains, buses and public places. Public buildings carry notices requesting the public to inform the police about unattended luggage.

But the November attacks were different.

For one, though many poor and middle-class people died in the attacks-particularly at the train terminus and in a government hospital – the main targets seem to have been the elite that patronises the exclusive hotels in south Mumbai.

Guests at the Taj Mahal hotel at the time of the attacks included delegates from the European Parliamentary Committee on International Trade and a number of European political leaders.

One of the attacks was in a cafe frequented almost exclusively by foreign tourists. This may have been one reason why the four-day standoff received extensive media attention and provoked outrage among the elite as well as upper middle class professionals.

Well before the November attacks Mumbai’s reputation as a cosmopolitan city was under challenge by regional groups such as the Shiv Sena and its breakaway faction, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).

These groups have been keeping themselves in the public eye by targeting migrants and most recently the MNS led by Raj Thackery had launched a series of attacks on poor migrant workers from the north of India.

After the November 2008 attacks, though, they deftly switched targets to Pakistan and visitors from that neighbouring country.

Sanjay Raut, a member of parliament from the Shiv Sena, was reported to have said that "after this dastardly terror attacks, we will ensure that not a single Pakistani player or cultural artiste will ever set foot anywhere in the state’’.

Book shops in Mumbai were advised by police not to display works by Pakistani authors on the grounds that could cause law and order problems.

A number of Pakistani singers and television actors left India immediately after the attacks started, and scheduled concerts by Pakistani singers were cancelled.

Despite the provocative actions of such groups, there has been no violence after the Mumbai attacks. This was partly due to the efforts of WSF-associated coalitions such as the Citizens' Initiative for Peace (CIP) which had already been holding public peace meetings following the attacks on north Indian migrants.

"The Muslim community including Muslim clerics came out in hundreds and thousands condemning the support that terrorists got from the other side of the border," says Jatin Desai of the Pakistan India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy which is a member of the CIP.

CIP members include Focus on the Global South, Youth for Voluntary Action, the Bombay Catholic Sabha and the women's organisation ‘Akshara’.

The Forum issued a statement immediately after the attacks condemning them. "We asked that they should not affect people-to-people contact between countries. The peace process should continue, and war is not an option, it will bring destruction to both countries," said Desai, a senior journalist and columnist.

More than 500,000 people participated in a human chain for peace organized by CIP on Dec. 12.

Various organisations under CIP have taken a stand on the new laws introduced in the name of combating terror. "No one doubts that we need to combat terrorism, but this law has draconian provisions," says Jatin Desai. Laws should not take away human rights, "even of known terrorists."

"The biggest challenge now is how one views terrorism, and how society should respond to it," says Mihir Desai. "Should it be through anti-terrorist laws that curtail people's civil liberties in the name of security? Across the world such actions have been used to reduce civil liberties."

Two laws – the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Bill, 2008, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2008 – were introduced in the last session of parliament in 2008 and became law within days of their tabling.

The NIA Act increases the powers of officials to investigate terror-related offences. The Unlawful Activities Act doubles the time that suspects may be kept in custody to 180 days. In cases of people held for terrorist offences, it presumes the accused guilty unless proven otherwise – contrary to basic principle of law.

Desai is concerned about the middle-class perspective that the root of the problem is corrupt politicians and lack of education. "They feel that corrupt and uneducated politicians are voted into power by an uneducated population. So there have actually been suggestions that voting rights be confined to the educated."

"Unemployment, housing shortages, regionalism and terrorism – these basic problems of Mumbai are also important," says Datta Iswalkar of the Girni Kamgar Sangarsh Samiti (GKSS), drawing attention to the range of concerns that ordinary people in Mumbai face.

GKSS has for years been agitating for compensation and housing for the thousands of textile workers rendered jobless by the closure of the textile mill industry, one of the city's foundation blocks.

Nearly 300,000 people applied for 3,000 housing units recently announced by the state housing agency, said Iswalkar pointing to the acute housing problem in this teeming city of 19 million people.

Indian exporters have had to carry out a million sackings as a result of the most protracted slump in overseas markets in a decade, according to the commerce ministry – and this is directly affecting workers in Mumbai.

"The real challenge facing us is the global financial crisis," says Naresh Fernandes, journalist, social commentator and active participant in the India-WSF process.

"We have proof that neo-liberal economics does not work. Now, more than ever, we need to look at new ways of conducting our lives and work, to show that another world is possible,'' Fernandes said.

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