Twenty Years After 9/11, End of an Era in the US, but the Story Continues in India

India benefited from the post-9/11 world in many ways, but it also consolidated a more damaging distortion to the psyche of the Indian society that continues to shape the country we live in.

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I write this from the US where I am currently teaching, 70 miles from the site of the horrifying 9/11 terror strike in New York. Coming immediately in the wake of the American failure in Afghanistan – humiliation or defeat are perhaps more apt descriptors – the 20th anniversary of 9/11 earned a lot of reflective coverage here. Newspapers, magazines, portals and journals were full of thoughtful and sombre pieces, largely critical of American conduct in the past two decades, blaming those directly involved in the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of them were very personal and moving, like this one from James Laporta for the Associated Press.

The bulk of the commentary assesses the impact of the last 20 years on the US and the direction the world’s sole superpower took after 9/11 with the Global War on Terror. Though India was not directly involved in the GWoT – despite the great desire of L.K. Advani and a host of prominent Indian commentators who argued for it at the time, and continue to dispense wisdom even now – 9/11 had a huge impact on the country, in at least four major ways.

One, 9/11 was a major setback globally to the separatist cause in Kashmir. In the narrative that gained ground, there was no appetite in the Western world for any Islamic separatist insurgency. You couldn’t imagine a top US official like Robin Raphel promoting the Hurriyat or issuing pro-Kashmir statements after 2001. Pakistani support, with its post-9/11 taint, further discredited Kashmiri separatists in the West, a matter not helped by the orthodox Islamic imagery of the militants and Hurriyat leaders. It was a fatal blow to the Kashmiri separatist movement and a shot in the arm for the Indian state.

Two, it dehyphenated India and Pakistan geopolitically. Pakistan became part of Af-Pak when the UPA government snubbed Richard Holbrooke’s desire to club India with it. Indian plaints about Pakistani support to jihadi groups and terrorism started resonating in the West. A new generation of post-Cold War soldiers, diplomats and officials in the West who cut their teeth in the post-9/11 world saw Pakistan, and consequently India, in a different light. Despite Islamabad’s continued tirade about being blamed unfairly, it could never overcome the kind of acidic descriptions used by Hillary Clinton and Admiral Mark Mullen. India’s high rate of economic growth in 2003-2012 helped, too. The dehyphenation has suffered a bit in recent years under the Modi government, which focused incessantly on Pakistan as an adversary, as part of its majoritarian anti-Muslim domestic project, but the hyphenation can never return to its status in the pre-9/11 era.

Three, the US presence in Afghanistan and its military and economic commitment there provided a conducive environment for New Delhi to focus on other pressing challenges. The all-time high GDP growth rate and the lifting of 270 million Indians out of poverty between 2005 and 2015 could be achieved because of the stable external environment, facilitated in no small measure by American boots on the ground in Afghanistan. If India’s energies were consumed by chaos in Afghanistan and its spillover, it would have found it tougher to grow so fast.

Four, it significantly bolstered the Hindutva agenda in India which was already working on its majoritarian project that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The narrative of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate assumed validation from and was cleverly fused in the West’s post-9/11 narrative. The 2002 Gujarat riots were in the aftermath of 9/11. The attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 further polarised the public mindset. The media and popular culture started assuming that every terrorist had to be Muslim, and portrayed Muslims accordingly. The damaging consequences of that narrative are being borne by Indian society today, when Muslims face the prospect of random targeting by thugs on the streets. This is dressed up as a political masterstroke by the BJP, building and appeasing its Hindu vote bank, even as the RSS works towards its pre-Independence project of establishing a de jure Hindu Rashtra.

In the US, the post-9/11 phase is seen to be ending with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is a sense of closure, even though the clock can never be fully turned back and the after-effects of 9/11 will persist. In India, there is no recognition, appraisal or acknowledgement of the impact of 9/11 on its economy, society, security, diplomacy and polity. India benefited from the post-9/11 world in many ways, but it also consolidated a more damaging distortion to the psyche of the Indian society that continues to shape the country we live in. It may be the end of an era in the US, but the story is still continuing in India.

Sushant Singh is an award-winning journalist who has served in the Indian Army. He has taught political science at Yale University.