By Shashi Tharoor in Kerala
There is a savage irony to the fact that the unfolding horror in Mumbai began with terrorists docking near the Gateway of India. The magnificent arch, built in 1911 to welcome the King-Emperor, has ever since stood as a symbol of the openness of the city. Crowds flock around it, made up of foreign tourists and local yokels; touts hawk their wares; boats bob in the waters, offering cruises out to the open sea. The teeming throngs around it daily reflect India's diversity, with Parsi gentlemen out for their evening constitutionals, Muslim women in burkas taking the sea air, Goan Catholic waiters enjoying a break from their duties at the stately Taj Mahal hotel, Hindus from every corner of the country chatting in a multitude of tongues. Today, ringed by police barricades, the Gateway of India - and gateway to India's soul - is barred, mute testimony to the latest assault on the country's pluralist democracy.
The terrorists knew exactly what they were doing. Theirs was an attack on India's financial nerve-centre and commercial capital, a city emblematic of the country's energetic thrust into the 21st century. They struck at symbols of the prosperity that was making the Indian model so attractive to the globalising world - luxury hotels, a swish cafe, an apartment house favoured by foreigners. The terrorists also sought to polarise Indian society by claiming to be acting to redress the grievances of India's Muslims. And by singling out Britons, Americans and Israelis, they demonstrated that their brand of Islamist fanaticism is anchored less in the absolutism of pure faith than in the geopolitics of hate.
Today, the platitudes flow like blood. Terrorism is unacceptable; the terrorists are cowards; the world stands united in unreserved condemnation of this latest atrocity. Commentators in America trip over themselves to pronounce this night and day of carnage India's 9/11. But India has endured many attempted 9/11s, notably a ferocious assault on its national parliament in December 2001 that nearly led to all-out war against the assailants' presumed sponsors, Pakistan. This year alone, terrorist bombs have taken lives in Jaipur, in Ahmedabad, in Delhi, and several different places on one searing day in Assam. Jaipur is the lodestar of Indian tourism to Rajasthan; Ahmedabad is the primary city of Gujarat, the state that is a poster child for India's development; Delhi is the political capital and window to the world; Assam was logistically convenient for terrorists from across a porous border. Mumbai combined all the four elements of its precursors: a grand slam.
Indians have learned to endure the unspeakable horrors of terrorist violence ever since malign men in Pakistan concluded it was cheaper and more effective to bleed India to death than to attempt to defeat it in conventional war. Attack after attack has been proven to have been financed, equipped and guided from across the border, the most recent being the suicide-bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, an action publicly traced by American intelligence to Islamabad's dreaded military special-ops agency, the ISI.
The risible attempt to claim the Mumbai killings in the name of the "Deccan Mujahideen" merely confirms that wherever the killers are from, it is not the Deccan. The Deccan lies inland from Mumbai; one does not need to sail the waters of the Arabian Sea to get to the city from there. In its meticulous planning and military precision, the assault on Mumbai bore no trace of what its promoters tried to suggest it was - a spontaneous eruption by angry young Indian Muslims. This horror was not homegrown.
The Islamist extremism nurtured by a succession of military rulers of Pakistan has now come to haunt its well-intentioned but lamentably weak civilian government. The militancy once sponsored by its predecessors now threatens to abort Pakistan's sputtering democracy and seeks to engulf India in its flames. There has never been a stronger case for firm and united action by the governments of both India and Pakistan to cauterise the cancer in their midst.
India is a land of great resilience that has learned, over arduous millenniums, to cope with tragedy. Bombs and bullets alone cannot destroy it, because Indians will pick their way through the rubble and carry on as they have done throughout history. But what can destroy India is a change in the spirit of its people, away from the pluralism and coexistence that has been our greatest strength. The prime minister's call for calm and restraint in the face of murderous rampage is vital. If these tragic events lead to the demonisation of the Muslims of India, the terrorists will have won. For India to be India, its gateway - to the multiple Indias within, and the heaving seas without - must always remain open.
• Shashi Tharoor is a former UN under-secretary general
and author of The Elephant, the Tiger & the Cell Phone shashitharoor.com
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008