Why the Mumbai Terrorists Failed

Indians walk and gather in front of the Taj Mahal hotel, one of several sites attacked by Islamist militants last month, in Mumbai during New Year's Eve on December 31, 2008. (Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Chicago – As the new year begins, my thoughts drift back to a night in Mayapur, India before the Thanksgiving holiday. I had been dreaming of a golden roasted turkey, surrounded by all the traditional trimmings of Thanksgiving dinner when suddenly my phone rang. “Hello?” Coming to full consciousness, I recognised my father’s voice on the phone, calling me from our home in Chicago: “Jenan! Are you ok? There have been terrorist attacks in Mumbai!”

As the events in Mumbai were unfolding, over 100 young interfaith leaders from 35 countries had gathered in Mayapur with unique perspectives on how to engage our communities in interfaith initiatives and share the vision of building religious pluralism in our world.

In India, Hindus make up the majority of the population at roughly 80 percent; Muslims, Christians and Sikhs comprise the remainder. With this diversity, India seemed like the perfect place to host the global interfaith conference I was attending, sponsored by the global interfaith organisation, the United Religions Initiative (URI), which is represented at the United Nations.

As the news spread, my fellow attendees and I discussed the possibility that these events could spur further violence amongst religious groups.

Would there be riots or attacks on Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs such as those that have occurred in the past two decades? Would places of worship be demolished just days before the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Mosque by a mob?

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The thought of thousands more dying, of a nation fallen victim to terrorism engaging in communal violence, sent chills down my spine.

I write this today, knowing that sectarian violence did not occur in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. In fact, marches took place in the days following these events by Indians of different religious backgrounds, coming together in condemnation of the acts and solidarity with the victims. I was relieved that a nation once plagued by interfaith tensions had so far avoided falling back into a cycle of violence.

To me, this was the India I remember as a child.

I grew up spending my summers in the Southern city of Chennai, the fourth largest city in India. Chennai shares the religious diversity of India in almost equal proportions. Despite the large disparity in size amongst the various religious groups, they have all lived together in Chennai in relative harmony for decades.

During my stay in India, I visited the Veera Savarkar Netaji Matriculation School, whose student population consists of Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Students dressed in their forest-green uniforms welcomed me with their scout cheer, clapping and chanting “welcome” three times in perfect rhythm.

They asked difficult questions about how the organisation I work for in Chicago, the Interfaith Youth Core, pursues interfaith work through dialogue and community service, and how this model could translate to their school in Chennai.

The school administrators are committed to building bridges with their neighbours to ensure that when events such as the attacks in Mumbai threaten to create interfaith tensions, they can call on the support of a community that is engaged through civic responsibility and pre-existing relationships.

To this end, the administrators and teachers at this school regularly invite parents to participate and volunteer in school programming. For example, many parents were invited to meet with me during my visit. The school arranged for a translator to translate my presentation into Tamil, the local language of Chennai and guests were encouraged to ask questions and to give their opinions on interfaith work.

But most importantly, these parents, coming from different religious backgrounds, shared a space where they could get to know one another and spend time reflecting on the experiences they have together. These educators are building this community on the shared values of education, pluralism and service, inculcated in the social fabric of the school and the community that surrounds them.

The Veera Savarkar Netaji Matriculation School is only one of many schools working to build a civically engaged community in Chennai, proof that pluralism can and does survive and thrive in India, despite the image that the Mumbai attacks have painted for the world.v

My thoughts now turn to the terrorists - the young men who felt compelled to act as they did. Did they act alone? What were their intentions? Was their true aim to divide the country once again by triggering sectarian violence in the name of religion?

If it was, I know that they failed. Life in India, even today after the attacks, proves that in a world of religious diversity, pluralism and co-existence continue to flourish.


* Jenan Mohajir is programme associate for the Outreach, Education & Training programme at the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).