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Our Insights 17 Jan 2009

A Reflection on the Events in Mumbai

By Kavita Prakash Mani

Ten people held the world to ransom for more than 50 hours as the world watched the drama unfold live in Mumbai thanks to 24/7 media – unable to help – and desperately hoping that the good guys would win in the end.

But, though it’s a truism to say, there are no winners in this war. This is a clash of two parallel worlds separated by mental and physical distance that have long co-existed and every once in a while collide. The impacts are devastating, with the ability to destroy everything we hold dear. And this was all too visible in Mumbai.

Unlike earlier blasts in India, where the majority of those impacted were the people on the street, and therefore unfortunately easier to overlook, this time the terrorists carefully chose venues where the rich and famous of India and the world congregate, from tourist hangouts to posh hotels while, as before, not sparing commuter train stations and hospitals. The gunmen made it all too clear that wealth is no protection and that hiding behind security guards and fences does not ensure safety – we are all part of the same insecure society. Terror, like climate change, may affect the poor the most, but the rich are not immune.

The events also highlighted the role of the media in bringing news and shaping opinion. In this case, many lamented the global media’s ‘class-bias’, evident in their focusing on the events at luxury hotels – while ignoring the train stations and hospitals. There was also despair over the media’s irresponsibility in broadcasting details of the rescue operation, which provided vital intelligence to the terrorists.

Events like this have the ability to tear people apart or to bring them together. And in the case of Indians and others globally, the urge to go to Mumbai, to show solidarity by being on the streets, and to find productive ways to unite India is as strong as their anger against the politicians for failing to secure their safety and for the slow emergency response. How do we channel this energy and find some sustainable solutions? And what would sustainable solutions look like?

In our report, Raising Our Game: Can We Sustain Globalisation, we talk about security as one of the divides that is a key feature of the present and will also define the future. Terrorist attacks, civil conflict and even cross-border wars seem to be here to stay. What causes them and what we can do in response? Of course, there is no single cause and no single response. Causes range from the fight over ideological superiority to the struggle for natural resources.

Too often, the response to all these problems is thought to be the use of military power. But the answer does not lie in aggressive retaliation. We need to deal swiftly and effectively with terrorist institutions and installations, and we need to do it with the moral authority of the world community rather than unilaterally. But we do also need to reflect on the underlying reasons why specific communities feel threatened, marginalised and unjustly treated – and what we can do to bring them more effectively into the societal fold where they feel a stronger sense of responsibility not just for their community but also for all those around them, for example by deepening participative democracy.

This is not an easy task given the centuries of history that underpin these divisions alongside the divisions of physical borders, religious norms and economic conditions. But it still needs to be done. All of us can, and must, play a role. Especially the ‘powerful’ – individuals and organisations – who need to be more proactive in addressing issues of equity as part of their ‘way of life’ rather than as a reactive response.

By Kavita Prakash-Mani and Shankar Venkateswaran

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