Even in a country that has endured more than its fair share of terrorist atrocities, last week's events in Mumbai came as a vicious shock to India's system. The attack that began on Wednesday evening will long be remembered for its chilling mix of indiscriminate butchery and meticulous organisation. Well-armed Islamist gunmen – most likely linked to the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, backed by elements of Pakistan's intelligence services – tore through the heart of the metropolis, storming Mumbai's main station, a children's hospital, a high-rise complex, two hotels and a tourist restaurant. The militants reaped a terrible toll that spared no segment of this world city: Indian and foreigner; rich and poor; Hindu, Muslim, Jew and Christian all numbered among Mumbai's dead.
Just as they were calculated to do, the terrorists' unforgivable deeds drew unprecedented media attention to Mumbai. No attack in recent memory has so transfixed the entire nation or so catapulted India into the glare of the international spotlight. Unlike the boom and vanish of bomb blasts, the unfolding drama of the run-and-gun rampage left Indians glued to their TVs, surfing the country's multitude of 24-hour news networks.
As frantic reporters reminded us minute by minute of what they did not know, millions watched with helpless fascination. The terrorists achieved that very modern success of a 21st-century media spectacle. In the eyes of the world – and in those of many Indians – India had finally materialised on the map of the global "war on terrorism", closing ranks with London, Madrid and New York. The attack on Mumbai was supposedly "India's 9/11 moment".
But in my opinion this is definitively not a "9/11" for India, and it cannot be slotted comfortably into the larger puzzle of the "war on terrorism". From a Western perspective, the events in Mumbai acquired real international significance only after it became clear that the militants targeted British and American citizens in the Taj and Oberoi hotels, as well as Jewish families in the Nariman House high-rise. There were echoes, to be sure, of Bali in 2002 and the US embassy bombings Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998. But I found it almost surreal to comb the front pages of many British newspapers on Thursday morning. It was as if India was merely another faceless arena for the clash between the West and radical Islam.
Mumbai does not belong in the same continuum of Islamist attacks on Western targets abroad such as that in Bali. Make no mistake, this was a blow aimed at India as much, if not more, than at the West. The terrorists singled out iconic landmarks in downtown Mumbai, including the Taj Hotel, which sits next to the majestic Gateway of India, a symbol of India's historical openness to the world. South Mumbai is the hub of business and cultural activity in India's cosmopolitan financial capital. To bring death and destruction here is to strike at the country's image of itself as an aspiring world power.
At the same time, the carnage in Mumbai doesn't share the implications of the attacks in Madrid, London and New York. India hardly needs to be woken up to the threat posed by Islamist militancy.
Ever since the 1993 blasts at the Mumbai Stock Exchange, India has weathered a rising tide of attacks. Two years ago, serial bomb blasts on Mumbai's commuter rail system killed about 200 people (a similar body count to last week's atrocities). More recently, Islamist-linked attacks have targeted public spaces in the west, south and far east of the country. Were any one of these outrages to occur in the West, it would be seen as cataclysmic. In India, this sort of terrorism has acquired the resigned air of routine.
This is what makes much of the Indian reception of the attacks in Mumbai so noteworthy and, in its own way, depressing. As the drama unfolded, Indian TV commentators veered towards the sensational, frequently invoking "9/11". Whereas attacks in the past mostly hit the marketplaces and trains of the lower middle class and poor – the "overcrowded parts" of the country, as one news anchor indelicately put it – never before have the more genteel climes of Indian society been so brutally assaulted. Prominent Mumbaikars cluttered the 24-hour news channels, recalling their visits to the famous Taj and expressing concern for loved ones and friends currently trapped in the hotel. For an elite that almost always emerges unscathed from violence in the country, the attack cut close to the bone.
But it reflects poorly on the world's largest democracy that the Indian press suddenly placed the country at a "9/11"-style crossroads.
India has suffered devastating attacks of this kind before. The murder of Indian citizens – no matter what their breeding – should have jolted government and civil society from their slumber long ago.
Kanishk Tharoor is associate editor of openDemocracy.net
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies