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Ashutosh Varshney: “The scale of the violence was shocking.”

Ashutosh Varshney

Calling the Mumbai attacks “India’s 9/11,” newly appointed professor Ashutosh Varshney, a scholar of South Asian ethnic conflict, advocates a multi-pronged response.
By Deborah Baum  |  December 4, 2008  |  Email to a friend
For a decade and a half, Ashutosh Varshney has studied peace and conflict in India and other developing countries. While his early work examined questions of political economy, in the early 1990s Varshney felt drawn to “plunge into a field where the view of human life was fuller and not confined to economic rationality.” He soon began focusing on ethnocommunal conflict in India and the role of emotions, religious beliefs, and commitments to larger causes in political life.

His work concentrated on Hindu-Muslim conflict, asking why Hindu-Muslim riots were endemic in some Indian cities, but in other cities Hindus and Muslims co-existed quite peacefully. Varshney says the final answer was surprising: “The peace of nonviolent cities was founded on Hindu-Muslim integration in business associations, unions, political parties, middle-class professional organizations – what scholars and activists have come to call ‘civil society’; while the violence of riot-prone towns stemmed from the absence of such civic integration.”

His research was published in Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life; Hindus and Muslims in India (Yale University Press, 2002), which won the American Political Science Association’s Gregory Luebbert Award for the best book in comparative politics. Varshney’s work also led to a multi-country research program, for which he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and named a Carnegie Scholar earlier this year.

After teaching at the University of Michigan since 2001, Varshney will join the Brown faculty as professor of political science in January. Previously he held teaching posts at Harvard, Notre Dame, and Columbia. He has served on former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s Millennium Task Force on Poverty and the South Asia Task Force of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Today at Brown spoke to Varshney about the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai and how India and the United States should respond.

What is your reaction to the violence in Mumbai last week?

The sheer scale of violence was shocking. But I can't say I am surprised by the use of terror on Indian soil. Three larger issues make India prone to terror: India’s democratic solitude in a dangerous neighborhood, where terror has long been a feature of politics, especially in Pakistan and Sri Lanka; India’s inability to create meaningful opportunities for its Muslim minority, even as Indian economy has boomed, and also its inability to save Muslim lives during riots; and the short-term conduct of Indian politicians, who for electoral reasons have so far been more concerned about whether terrorists were Muslim or Hindu, not about terror per se. Add to that some strictly security-related matters – such as the absence of counter-terrorist skills among India’s security forces, especially the navy, and the ease with which one can enter Mumbai, India’s business capital and a city of over 15 million surrounded on three sides by the sea – and you can see why Mumbai would be a terrorist target.   

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism counts more than 4,100 terrorist attacks in India since 1970. How is this attack different from incidents in the past, and what is to come? Is this “India’s 9/11?”

Yes, this is “India's 9/11.” Terror has struck India before, but terrorists have never demonstrated this level of planning and organization, and never chosen a target so symbolic of India's rising economic power. Even though cities like Delhi, Bangalore, and Chennai have emerged as big business centers since India changed its economic policies in the early 1990s and embraced markets after decades of central planning, South Mumbai remains the heart of Indian business. Moreover, in the earlier incidents of terror, small bombs were placed in bicycles, suitcases and trash. Those pale in comparison to the ammunition used in the recent attacks.

How will the country move forward?

It is normally said India is resilient. To some extent, that is true. Even as Mumbai burned, citizens in Bangalore and Chennai went about their daily business uninterrupted. But the scale of this attack does raise very important, and new, questions. India needs to have a multi-pronged response: how to deal with Pakistan from where terrorists most probably came, how to develop a strong counter-terrorism machinery and beef up India's security and intelligence in general, and how to make India’s Muslim minority more involved in the mainstream. Creative policy moves can begin to deal with the problem.

Could this violence have been predicted and/or prevented?

The world’s most sophisticated intelligence system exists in the United States, yet 9/11 happened. We can always be wiser after the event, but even the best security and intelligence systems cannot avoid a surprise. Good intelligence, however, should considerably reduce the odds of such events taking place in the future. That is now among the most important policy objectives for the Indian government.

How should the United States respond?

Washington’s role is becoming increasingly central in the region. Much depends on how much leverage Washington is willing to, or is able to, exercise on Pakistan. Sadly, Pakistan has become one of the terror capitals of the world. Some of the leading terrorist organizations are not only based there, but they hit targets within the country and outside with breathtaking planning and remarkable ease.