Friday, November 28, 2008

COMMENT: Dr Greg Barton tries to grapple with Indian terrorism ...

Dr Barton knows plenty about Indonesia. He's written some superb stuff on the subject of Indonesian Islam, and has authored an insightful biography of former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid (known to his people as Gus Dur). He is a sober and thoughtful analyst who has a strong understanding of Indonesian culture and language.

On the morning of Thursday 27 November 2008, Dr Barton appeared on the ABC's morning TV show with Virginia Trioli and Barry Cassidy. I'm not one to bag genuine academics, but I found Dr Greg Barton's performance on the ABC morning show a little disappointing. It's often hard for news programs to find "experts" on short notice, and it's even harder for experts to provide anything more than somewhat vague analysis early in the morning.

Dr Barton seemed completely out of his depth when talking about the Indian situation. A cynic might even suggest that Shane Warne could have provided at least as equally useful analysis on South Asian affairs. But that would be rather unfair.

I took notes of Dr Barton's interview after watching it on the ABC website and stopping and starting the video. The excerpts below are based on my notes.

It is quite surprising. More bombings wouldn’t have been surprising but this sort of attack across the city using guns – that’s surprising.

Attacks on major towns and cities by violent terrorists are common in India. One need only recall the Gujarat massacre in 2002 and subsequent communalist violence in Gujarat. There have also been attacks by Maoist groups on Hindutva politicians as well as Hindutva attacks on Indian Catholics in such states as Orissa. Hindutva groups have attacked other religious minorities as well as members of lower casts. Many of these attacks have involved brazen daylight attacks in busy urban centres including Mumbai, where Hindutva activists are active. Further, quite a few such groups are linked to organised crime gangs. Then there is the spectre of inter-caste violence. All these matters are well-known to Indians and India-watchers.

Dr Barton further claims that the fact that they target those with British and American passports ...

... does suggest an international jihadi terrorist group of the kind linked with al-Qaeda. It doesn’t mean that there are links with al-Qaeda here of course but that ideology does seem to be at play here.

Targetting foreign Western citizens (though some of those attacked included Singaporeans) doesn't automatically make a group linked to al-Qaeda. The group might be a Maoist or militant unionist group (from, say, Bihar or even Maharashtra) who doesn't like Western capitalist influence. Hindutva groups are also unhapy with Western cultural influences such as Valentines Day. There are Hindutva groups unhappy with India's growing friendship with Pakistan.

India is a complex place with all kinds of nuanced conflicts. But the only conflict Dr Barton seems to understand is the kind of conflict that led to the London or Madrid bombings.

Indian authorities have been saying they don’t have a domestic problem. It’s just a problem across the border. This appears further proof of a deep domestic problem.

Indian authorities have repeatedly said that they don't have a specific al-Qaeda presence within their Muslim communities. But they do acknowledge the existence of a range of militant groups, whether they be communalist militants of Hindu or Muslim or Maoist or separatist variety. Indians know they have a domestic problem. Mumbai itself has numerous domestic problems, including violent Hindutva groups and organised crime gangs.

The Indian police, the Indian military especially, are very professional and so we can expect some very good responses from them.

I hope this is true, but many Indians are highly critical of corruption in the police force. However, Mumbai police are supposed to be among the best in Asia, if not the world.

Dr Barton went onto make some perceptive comments about ...

... globalising influences ...

... and ...

... al-Qaeda-type concerns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’m not sure whether one could describe opposition to foreign troops in Iraq and/or Afghanistan as “al-Qaeda-type concerns”. This seems a little simplistic given that such concerns are shared by many Afghans and Iraqis themselves, including lawmakers from these two countries who are deeply opposed to terrorism. They are also shared by leftist groups inside India.

Of course, it may be that Dr Barton's analysis turns out to be absolutely correct and that some group linked to al-Qaeda is in fact responsible. One has to wonder why the group targetted Westerners specifically. Surely one would expect groups like al-Qaeda to specifically target Muslims as they usually do in areas with large Muslim populations.

Dr Barton's experiences and knowledge of Indonesia don't necessarily reflect the situation in Mumbai and the rest of India, where there have always been various layers of conflict simmering below the narrow surface occasionally picked up by Australian media.

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