India is no stranger to deadly terrorist attacks but the deliberate targeting of foreigners in Mumbai this week and the prolonged hostage sieges in luxury hotels frequented by Westerners makes this particular attack markedly different from previous outbursts of violence.
Foreigners have largely been ignored during the often bitter periods of inter-communal religious violence which, in recent years, has become an increasingly common feature of India’s landscape. Terror attacks have also, until now, tended to target Indian civilians in much greater numbers than they have outsiders. Ever since the mass bloodletting of Partition gave birth to Indian state in 1947, the government has often struggled to accommodate the demands of numerous religious and political sectarian movements that have waged a variety of low level campaigns against the government in Delhi.
These insurgencies were usually internal affairs, either inspired by radical leftwing politics, like the ongoing Naxalite insurgencies in eastern states, or were localised secessionist insurgencies such as those waged by Sikh nationalists in the Punjab during the 1980s.
But in recent years inter-communal violence, fuelled by growing tensions between the country’s minority Muslim and majority Hindu communities, has become an increasingly common phenomenon that threatens to tear apart the fabric of India’s traditionally tolerant society.
Sporadic fighting between Hindus and Muslims turned into nationwide communal rioting in 1992 when a mob of 150,000 Hindu extremists destroyed a Mughal-era mosque at Ayodhya that they claimed had been built on the birthplace of the god Ram. More than 2,000 people were killed in subsequent rioting whilst many of those who were behind the mosque’s destruction went on to become prominent members of current Hindu nationalist opposition party.
A year later Muslim terrorists struck back in revenge for Ayodhya by detonating 13 bombs across Mumbai, killing 257 people in what was at the time the world’s worst terrorist atrocity.
Simmering tensions continued to blight relations between India’s Hindus and Muslims and often flared up during clashed in Indian-administered Kashmir where Muslim militants, supported by Pakistan, have been fighting for an independent state since Partition.
In 2002 the Indian state of Gujarat was gripped by another wave of inter-communal rioting which killed more than 1,000 people, most of whom were Muslims. The riots began after a train carrying 58 Hindu pilgrims from Ayodhya was set on fire by a Muslim mob.
Similarly, rising inter-communal violence has also been coupled with a marked increase in the number of Islamist terror attacks on Indian soil over the past 15 years. Traditionally India has been quick to point the finger of blame at Pakistan-based terror networks such as Lashkar-e Toiba, who have been responsible for a number of deadly and audacious attacks in recent years including a 2001 assault on the Indian parliament and a previous bombing of the Taj Palace hotel in Mumbai five years ago.
But in the past twelve months India has been faced with the growing possibility that “home grown” terror networks, inspired by international terror groups like al-Qa’ida but comprised of Indian nationals, have begun waging war on their own people. A string of deadly attacks over the past twelve months, including serial bomb blasts in Delhi in September that killed 20 people and an attack in Ahmadebad in July which killed 45, have been claimed by a little known group calling itself the “Indian Mujahideen.”
Another group calling itself the “Islamic Security Force – Indian Mujahideen” said it was behind an explosion last month in India’s north-eastern state of Assam that killed 80 people.
Analysts believe the current attacks in Mumbai, claimed by a group calling itself the “Deccan Mujahideen” could be the same as or an offshoot of the Indian Mujahideen.
But whilst the current attack in Mumbai has been claimed by an Islamist group, Indian police have also uncovered evidence recently that radical Hindu groups may be starting to adopt similar tactics to their Islamist foes.
In September a series of bomb blasts in the town of Malegaon in the western state of Maharashtra left six people dead and was initially blamed on Muslim militants. But last week security sources announced that a Hindu extremist terror cell appeared to be responsible for the explosions leading to speculation that radical Hindu groups might be turning to the same sort of tactics used by militant jihadists.
Nonetheless this week’s attack which deliberately singled out western targets as well as killing scores of locals has opened a new chapter in India’s increasingly violent history and will undoubtedly reverberate for many years to come.