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Worldwide Locations

India's Antiterror Blunders

Indian paramilitary forces stand guard as candles placed by people in memory of those killed by militants burn in front of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai on November 30, 2008. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian paramilitary forces stand guard as candles placed by people in memory of those killed by militants burn in front of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai on November 30, 2008. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

By contrast, India's leaders—who invariably swan around with armed guards paid for by the taxpayer—can't even agree on a legal framework to keep the country safe. On taking office in 2004, one of the first acts of the ruling Congress Party was to scrap a federal antiterrorism law that strengthened witness protection and enhanced police powers.

The Congress Party has stalled similar state-level legislation in Gujarat, which is ruled by the opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. And it was a Congress government that kowtowed to fundamentalist pressure and made India the first country to ban Mumbai-born Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" in 1988.

The BJP hasn't exactly distinguished itself either. In 1999, the hijacking of an Indian aircraft to then Taliban-ruled Afghanistan led a BJP government to release three hardened militants, including Omar Sheikh Saeed, the former London School of Economics student who would go on to murder Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

More recently, the BJP, driven by tribal religious solidarity and a penchant for conspiracy theories, has failed to demand the same tough treatment for alleged Hindu terrorists as it does for Muslims. Minor parties, especially those dependent on the Muslim vote, compete to earn fundamentalists' favor.

In sum, the Indian approach to terrorism has been consistently haphazard and weak-kneed. When faced with fundamentalist demands, India's democratically elected leaders have regularly preferred caving to confrontation on a point of principle. The country's institutions and culture have abetted a widespread sense of Muslim separateness from the national mainstream. The country's diplomats and soldiers have failed to stabilize the neighborhood. The ongoing drama in Mumbai underscores the price both Indians and non-Indians caught unawares must now pay.

Sadanand Dhume is a former Asia Society Bernard Schwartz fellow and the author of My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist (Text Publishing, 2008).