Most Americans were shocked to learn that coordinated terrorist attacks struck the heart of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital on Wednesday evening. After all, India is not Iraq or Afghanistan or even Pakistan. According to pundits such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, India is a shining capitalist success story and the next global superpower. In the pro-globalization narrative, India’s eager-beaver working class has benefited greatly from neoliberal economic policies. Intellectuals extol India as the world’s largest democracy and an example for the rest of the developing world to follow. Today, India is a popular tourist destination for everyone from backpackers on spiritual voyages to white-collar executives on business meetings.
Americans are largely shielded from the shocking reality of India. According to the World Bank’s own estimates on poverty, almost half of all Indians live below the new international poverty line of $1.25 (PPP) per day. The World Bank further estimates that 33% of the global poor now reside in India. Moreover, India also has 828 million people, or 75.6% of the population living below $2 a day, compared to 72.2% for Sub-Saharan Africa. A quarter of the nation’s population earns less than the government-specified poverty threshold of $0.40/day. Someone should tell the starving masses who have remained largely marginalized and subjugated that India is a “success story” because that’s not reflected in most Indian’s lives. Income inequality in India, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is increasing at a disturbingly destabilizing rate. In addition, India has a higher rate of malnutrition among children under the age of three than any other country in the world (46% in year 2007)., India is possibly the world’s largest democracy by some definitions; however, as Mahatma Gandhi, once asked, “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?”
Pundits such as Friedman play golf with the global elite and then pontificate on perceived economic trends. In Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, he suggests that “Indians should celebrate Y2K as its second independence day.” Yet, by some estimates, the high-tech sector employs just 0.2 percent of India’s one billion people. Americans are largely unaware of the violent, systemic poverty plaguing India because the country is reduced to a caricature where everyone fielding Americans’ inquiries in call centers is prospering. Having lived in India for four years and visited the country every other year, I am painfully aware of the reality on the ground. India is a country where children are forcefully amputated by beggar-masters and sent to elicit money; where poor women sell their bodies to truck drivers and contract HIV at alarming rates; and, where American tourists nonchalantly spend enough money in one day to support a hungry family for months.
The recent attacks in India are morally repugnant, but the debate on how to curb terrorism needs to consider why people engage in such desperate acts in the first place. The perpetrators of yesterday’s violence targeted two of Mumbai’s most luxurious hotels: Taj Mahal and the Oberioi Trident. One night at either of these hotels costs, on average, Rupees 17,500 (US $ 355) in a country where the annual salary is Rupees 29,069 (US $590). The death of over a hundred people on Wednesday should deeply upset the world, but it should also lead us to question the death of the 18 million people who die annually from the systemic violence of endemic poverty. As Yale professor Thomas Pogge notes, the affects of poverty are felt exponentially more in certain parts of our “unflat” world: “If the developed Western countries had their proportional shares of [gratuitous] deaths, severe poverty would kill some 3,500 Britons and 16,500 Americans per week.”
Mahan Abedin, an insurgency analyst, told Al Jazeera after Wednesday nights attacks: “We have seen an increase in recent years in indigenous Indian Muslim organizations beginning to take a violent stance towards the Indian state and sections of the Indian society, particularly the commercial elite of places like Mumbai, in order to highlight, they would say, the sheer inequality of life in India.” Abedin continued, “there is a middle class of around 100 million who live very well but 800 million-plus people live in miserable conditions.” Even people who commit heinous acts of violence occasionally make a valid point. The latest attacks should not evoke a knee-jerk effort to ratchet up the so-called Global War on Terror but, instead, make us question how to avoid such attacks in the future. By showing genuine concern for the plight of the millions of people who are at risk of death from poverty and by honoring the sanctity of the lives of the most destitute, we have the best chance of defeating the ideologies of hate.
Guzder works for TIME Asia magazine in Hong Kong and is a dual-degree graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism and School of International and Public Affairs. Please feel free to email her at email@example.com