HONG KONG — The death toll of nearly 200 from the carnage in Mumbai last week is small compared with the 5,400 people who die every day from AIDS-related illnesses or the 2,500 mostly children who die daily from malaria. Three hundred Zimbabweans died of cholera while the gun battles in India raged.

Nevertheless, there is something horrific about terrorist attacks that justify the publicity. In the case of Mumbai, there also is the danger of new hostility being triggered between two nuclear armed powers, as well as dangers of a clash between a secular way of life and religious fundamentalism.

The Mumbai killings presented glaring security issues. When I edited a daily paper for the Indian Express Group, I lived in the penthouse of the newspaper building, just across from the Oberoi Hotel. Because the kitchen was strictly vegetarian, with no garlic or onions used, I used to escape twice a week to the Taj Hotel to enjoy a beer and chicken pancake and to watch the smartly dressed monkeys and ragged children playing with hoops and trying to attract a few paise from passing tourists. Just 20 meters away from the Taj windows, hundreds of small boats rode at anchor with regular launches. Commercial and container ships and naval vessels plied the open seas beyond.

The Gateway of India and the sea were literally a stone’s throw away. Once anyone with weapons had gotten through the Gateway or climbed the sea wall that was less than a meter high, there was little to stop him or her causing massive bloodshed. The sea front is hundreds of meters wide and totally vulnerable.

Airports and governments reacted to the 9/11 attacks by bringing in stricter security checks of everyone entering an airport, effectively treating every passenger and airport worker as a potential terrorist. Few people would advocate scrapping the checks on the grounds that aviation terrorist deaths are not statistically significant.

Preventing terror strikes on a busy seaport city like Mumbai is altogether more difficult. Once the intelligence network, coast guard, customs and navy fail to interdict the terrorists, the city is at their mercy. Unless the authorities are prepared to stop and thoroughly search everyone entering by land or sea, the city will always be vulnerable. The Taj could have had stiffer security checks, but terrorists with AK-47s blazing would quickly blow them away.

Normal business would grind to a halt and modern city civilization would be under threat if every person were regarded as a potential terrorist. Governments and their officials would have to take draconian powers.

For India, there are critical issues of religion and Pakistan. Critics of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh say he should have shown greater anger when he condemned the terror and murders in Mumbai. But Singh is walking a tightrope, with not merely the fate of his fragile government at stake but the future of secularism and democracy in the world’s largest democracy.

Much has been made of antagonism between India and its Muslim neighbor Pakistan. But India’s 1.2 billion population also includes 150 million Muslims, who are already disadvantaged socially and economically compared to most Hindus and do not have the constitutional protections of lower-caste Hindus. So far, all but a tiny, largely unorganized, minority of India’s Muslims have preferred the prosperity of India’s secular umbrella — which is why it would be a surprise to find that the Mumbai attackers were homegrown.

Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, is particularly fragile politically with Singh’s Congress party and its allies facing a tough challenge from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its rightwing Shiv Sena allies. When the two won the state election in 1995 they changed the historic name of the city from Bombay to Mumbai, after a Hindu goddess. This year, the Shiv Sena has been campaigning for the Bombay High Court and the Bombay Stock Exchange to be forced to change their names, and some Shiv Sena hooligans have been demanding that shop signs in English be removed.

At the national level, the BJP is the main opposition party and would probably narrowly win an election held today, with a Hindu agenda that could damage India’s secular standing and antagonize the large minority of Muslims.

Then there is Pakistan. Indian sources cite evidence that the terrorists came from Pakistan and had links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which itself was previously supported by Pakistan intelligence and fought alongside al-Qaida. This fear has some foundation, given the seaborne assault and the reported deaths on a captured merchant vessel.

Prime Minister Singh himself was careful not to name Pakistan. Unfortunately, whenever claims are made that terrorists have Pakistan links, albeit unofficial ones, the government in Islamabad tends to go into dangerously sulky denial, claiming that Pakistan is also a victim of terrorism.

This may be happening again. Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. threatened that troops would be moved from the Afghanistan border to the Indian border if New Delhi ratcheted up the tension. This, of course, would mean that Pakistan, for all its protests about itself being under threat from terrorism, regarded India as the greater danger and would effectively be abandoning the fight against the terrorists within its borders. If this happened, the terrorists would have achieved an ambition beyond that of their killing spree in Mumbai.

Most modern wars achieve little except to inflict misery, and this would be particularly so in the case of any contest between India, population 1.2 billion, and Pakistan, population 170 million. India would gain little except coping with embittered Muslims if it conquered Pakistan, and there would be temptation for Pakistan to use nuclear weapons to hold the superior Indian army at bay.

This is the wrong way to go. It is disingenuous of Pakistan officials to claim that Pakistan-based terrorists are “nonstate actors.” Islamabad should get real, accept its own failings to deal with its own terrorists and examine how it can cooperate with Singh and India to the advantage and peace of both countries and the world as a whole.

Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express.

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