When times are bad, conspiracy theories become ever more lurid. My favourite conspiracy theorist in the wake of 9/11 was the Pakistani man who announced gravely that "The attack was conducted by George Bush — the father. He wanted to test the mettle of his son."
Now, as the city of Mumbai mourns its dead, voices in the Pakistani media and blogosphere are talking about a "Hindu Zionist" plot. According to this account, the killers were not Pakistani, or even Muslim. The attack was a joint operation between Mossad and the Hindu nationalist RSS. The dead Hindus and Jews were just collateral damage — the aim of the attacks was to turn world opinion against Muslims and Pakistan.
In fact, extremists of all varieties stand to benefit from the Mumbai attacks. As tension rises between India and Pakistan, Pakistani officials have threatened to move troops away from the "war on terror" in the north, and towards the Indian border. And in India, with the ruling Congress party already looking shaky in the run-up to next year’s elections, the opposition Hindu nationalist party BJP is accusing the Government of being "soft on terrorism".
But the BJP is rather selective in its attitude to terrorism. According to its leadership, the real problem is that the Indian authorities have recently been preoccupied with chasing the wrong sort of terrorist — Hindus instead of Muslims. Over the past few weeks, the Indian authorities have arrested a number of Hindu militants over a bombing in Malegaon which was reportedly aimed at "making India like what it was when it was ruled by the Aryans".
The same accused terrorists were said to be responsible for other attacks in Ajmer and Hyderabad and for the bashing of a Christian pastor in Pune. Most sensationally, in one court hearing they were accused of involvement in the 2007 bombing of the Samjhauta ("Friendship") Express train between Delhi and Lahore — an attack which the Indian authorities had previously blamed on the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI).
The alleged link between the Hindu network and the Samjhauta bombing was later downplayed, but the Pakistani media is citing this episode as evidence of the inherent untrustworthiness of the Indian authorities and their tendency to make unsubstantiated accusations against Pakistan.
The BJP and other Hindu nationalist organisations flocked to the side of the Malageon accused, claiming that they had been tortured and were being set up in order to court the Muslim vote. Now, they are claiming that the investigation into the alleged Hindu terrorist network distracted law enforcement agencies from the Muslim threat and the plans for the attack on Mumbai.
Among those killed in this week’s attacks was Hemant Karkare, the head of the Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad. Over the past few weeks, Karkare had come under savage attack from Hindu nationalist politicians for his investigation into the Malageon network. In the week before his death, police were investigating a threat to bomb his home.
The Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, (widely held to be implicated in the 2002 massacre of an estimated 1000 Muslims during communal violence in his home state) attacked Karkare as "anti India". This week, Modi arrived, uninvited, at Karkare’s home to offer sympathy and financial compensation to his family. The compensation was refused.
Extremism feeds extremism, as is no doubt the intention. With each attack, each bombing, each massacre, reconciliation becomes more and more difficult — but also more and more necessary. If the BJP is returned to office next year on a hardline Hindu nationalist platform, it will not bode well for any peace process with Pakistan. And Pakistanis cannot afford to have their attention diverted towards the "external" threat of India when Pakistan itself faces so many internal crises.
India and Pakistan share a common history, and even though their paths have diverged widely since 1947, they also share a common future. Whatever happens in one society will inevitably echo within the other. And right now, the echoes are ominous.