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LONDON — India was a victim of terrorism long before the twin towers in New York collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001. But as the global “war on terror” continues, India has experienced increasingly lethal terrorism. The sheer scale, scope and audacity of the latest attacks in Mumbai put them in a different category from earlier terrorist incidents, but it would be a mistake to suggest that they were India’s 9/11. To do so would miss the underlying issues that have allowed such horrific attacks to take place.

India, in many ways, faces a unique set of challenges in dealing with terrorism. First, it has a structural problem as it is located in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods — South Asia — which is now the epicenter of Islamist radicalism. The vast tribal areas in Pakistan, which have never been under the effective control of any Pakistani government since independence, have become a breeding ground for Islamist radicals.

Driven out of Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion and the overthrow of Taliban, the Islamist extremists have found a new haven in the Pakistani tribal belt. From there they are wreaking havoc in Afghanistan and beyond, and their radical Islamist ideology is penetrating far and wide.

India cannot expect to remain immune from such influences. Though the Indian government likes to showcase the fact that very few Indian Muslims have become radicalized, most of the terror attacks in India in the last few years have involved homegrown radicals.

Second, and most significantly, India has a political problem. There is no political consensus across the political spectrum on how best to fight terrorism and extremism. The Bharatiya Janata Party is interested in making terrorism a primarily Muslim issue so as to generate votes from the Hindus. The Congress Party, on the other hand, has not allowed an open discourse on Islamist extremism to take place for fear of offending Muslim sensibilities.

Such vote-bank politics have created an environment in which political and religious polarization has been so complete that an effective action against terrorism becomes impossible to accomplish. India is stuck between the grave incompetence of the present government and the cynical political opportunism of the opposition parties.

The Indian government’s “antiterror” stance has repeatedly been shown ineffective. Not only have the terrorists continued to attack India at regular intervals with impunity — not a single major terrorist case has been solved in the past four years. At a time when India needs effective institutional capacity to fight ever-more sophisticated terror networks, Indian police and intelligence services are demoralized to an unprecedented degree.

The blatant communalizing of the process under which the security forces were forced to call off searches and interrogations for fear of offending this or that community has led them to become risk-averse.

Still, India’s security forces are making an effort, as shown by the large number of security personnel who die year after year fighting extremists. But the Indian government’s inability and/or unwillingness to face up to the security threat and firmly counter it might end up making such sacrifices meaningless.

Today the legitimacy of the Indian state is being questioned not only by groups on the margins of Indian society and polity but also by mainstream political parties. As long as India’s response to terrorism is characterized by a shameless appeal along religious lines with political parties trying to consolidate their vote banks instead of coming together to fight the menace, India will continue to be viewed as a soft target by its adversaries and Indians will continue to fight terrorists in their streets.

Evidence suggests that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai received training in Pakistan and were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant Islamist organization that operates from the tribal areas of Pakistan and has perpetrated a series of attacks on India. The Pakistani government denies this, but the disarray in Pakistan poses challenges for India.

If the Pakistani security establishment was involved in these attacks, then they underline Pakistan’s unwillingness to desist from using terror as an instrument of state policy. If however, these attacks happened without the knowledge of Pakistani establishment, then they underline an inability of the Pakistani government to control the groups that it created in the first place.

India can talk tough but what military options it has vis-a-vis Pakistan are unclear. What it can do is strengthen its defenses and strengthen its antiterror laws. But this would require a political leap of faith.

The attacks on Mumbai will be India’s 9/11 only if they wake the Indian political establishment from its slumber and help develop a national consensus on how to effectively tackle the menace of terrorism that threatens India.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.

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