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Stories of catastrophe, traces of trauma: Indian state formation and the borders of becoming.


The "act of terror" in Mumbai in November 2008 has been widely regarded as "India's 9-11." This article proposes that the proper setting of the "Mumbai attacks" is neither provided by what occurred in New York in 2001 nor by accentuating how the event engaged an audience of "distant others." It is, similarly, not made sufficiently comprehensible through representations of Mumbai as the most cosmopolitan space in India and of India as "shining." It, rather, consists in the violent founding of the Indian Republic and the traumatizing and traumatic vision that was inscribed through and into it. Such an alternative rendering of the "Mumbai attacks" offers a critical purchase on the notion of "governing traumatic events." It also situates the analysis in the tension between assumptions about an immanence of trauma and depictions of trauma as eruption and (dis)rupture. While the independence of India equals the traumatic in its function as a founding act or moment, the "Mumbai attacks" ought to be regarded as confirmation of reified and presently hegemonic forms of political life.


India, trauma, terrorism, Mumbai, community
  "Meaning is neither before nor after the act." (1)

  "The only way to contain (it would be naive to say end)
  terrorism is to look at the monster in the mirror." (2)

Since 2001, India has experienced a wave of terrorist attacks attributed to Islamist extremists. The state has continuously demonstrated its inability to preempt and respond to these. The latter was particularly manifest during and after the 2008 "Mumbai attacks" in which 166 people were killed and 304 injured when Lashkar-e-Toiba militants entered and wreaked havoc in India's financial capital for close to four days. This article draws on two broad dilemmas for understanding the implications of these acts of violence: (1) the significance of "traumatic" and "catastrophic" events to prevailing conceptions and representations of Indian citizenship and statehood and (2) the question of what it means for the state to redress and come to terms with the consequences of the traumatic and catastrophic. These questions are of concern considering the embedding--and partly co-constitutive--contexts of the entrenched Indo-Pakistan conflict and the grave socioeconomic and political margin-alization of India's 138 million Muslims (as estimated by the 2001 Census of India).

The cataclysmic and ghastly "act of terror" in Mumbai in November 2008 has been widely, and misguidedly, referred to as "India's 9-11." It is a resemblance, above all, assumed to reside in the event's place within a regional and global pattern of Islamist terror as well as in its perceived embodiment of the traumatic and the resultant need of a curative response. In contrast to predominant attempts to expound the significance of the Mumbai attacks, the present analysis suggests that the proper setting of the event is neither its relation to what occurred in New York seven years earlier nor the manner in which it engaged and kept an international or global audience transfixed. I argue that the act of violence--the unfolding of and response to it--is not satisfactorily grasped through the employment of the tropes of Mumbai as the most cosmopolitan space in India and of India as economically and geopolitically "shining." These accounts demote the need to situate the event within an appraisal of its confirmation or undermining of the underpinning logics of the Indian nation state and of the Indian democratic project. Such an undertaking is, however, crucial in order for its significance as a reproducing and restoring moment to be duly recognized.

As an alternative, this article argues that in order to establish whether the Mumbai attacks fit into a wider series of occurrences or represent a rupture the emphasis of any analysis ought to be laid elsewhere, specifically in the establishment of the Indian Republic, in the "constitutive moment" and in the parable of a (British) "transfer of power." I suggest that the Mumbai attacks allow us, first, to critically explore the notion of "governing traumatic events"; and, second, to elucidate the tension and impasse between a permanency of trauma and trauma as eruption and (dis)rupture. As a preliminary assumption, I propose that the independence of India, through partition and decolonization, represents the traumatic through its quality as a founding act or moment. It is an occurrence that inaugurates the "new" and, echoing Jenny Edkins, displaces or suspends existing forms of community (3) and dissolves and reorganizes the link between the body and its surroundings. (4) The Mumbai attacks are, in contrast, better described as occurring within and confirming reified, and presently hegemonic, expressions of political life.

The "Most Recent" Event

In November 2008, India experienced what has been coined its "9-11" and, by one commentator, "India's Katrina." (6) Ten Lashkar-e-Toiba militants entered Mumbai by the sea route, heavily armed, and with a blueprint for causing extensive destruction and suffering. After disembarking, they formed four groups: one initially travelled in a taxi to the main train station, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where its two members carried out an indiscriminate assault and later moved on to Cama and Albess Hospital, one went to the so-called Nariman House that hosted a local unit of the Jewish Chabad Lubavic "movement," a third to the upmarket Trident-Oberoi Hotel, and the last group made their way to the, equally exclusive, Taj Mahal Palace Hotel after having completed an attack at the Leopold cafe located on Colaba Causeway. (7) What seemed to be new was how "[t]he prolonged nature of the episode, which went on for 60 hours with the steadily mounting death toll, made it a slow-motion shoot-out and siege that mesmerized the world's news media." (8) After the three-day long incident subsided, one perpetrator remained alive. Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab was disarmed in a hijacked car that was moving in the direction of the Trident-Oberoi Hotel after he and his partner had engendered mayhem at several sites around the southernmost part of the city. (9) In April 2009, he was put on trial and, in May 2010, he received his death sentence. (10) At the time of writing, the verdict is under appeal to the Supreme Court of India. (11) In addition, two supposed local "accomplices" have been acquitted in two court instances and are awaiting the Supreme Court's decision on the State of Maharashtra's request for a reconsideration of the finding. (12)

In what way might the event (13) be talked about as "India's 9-11"? (14) The most evident manner in which it might be said to resemble the "original" (event) is in its reflection of David Campbell's description of how the "event-ness" of September 11 was "produced" through what he names the "reckless argumentation," whereby the occurrence is hastily and abruptly made "meaningful." (15) In other words, it is made "meaningful" by not remaining with the impossibility that each "event," each "trauma" embodies. Rather, we find a replication of an existing trend of "externalizing blame'" and of adopting a "purifying" gesture, a gesture that was present in the responses to the numerous "unsigned" bomb blasts that occurred between 2001 and 2008. (16) A fairly recent development in the story has been the unfolding of the role of an American citizen who, according to one account, in his plea bargain confessed to have made five "scouting trips" to Mumbai between 2006 and 2008. (17) The man's activities included producing "videos of the targets," establishing "coordinates with a GPS unit," and locating appropriate landing "sites in the harbor" for "inflatable boats." (18) It is a development that ostensibly confirms the pervasive portrayal of the event as spawned by and securely embedded in external resentment.

In an attempt to characterize the unfolding of the "act of terror," Benjamin H. Bratton has depicted the attacks as "both irregular and asymmetrical." (19) He writes:
  [t]hey were irregular in that the combatants were apparently civilian,
  armed tourists rampaging through civilian spaces until the uniformed
  men showed up, and asymmetrical in that the city (its buildings, its
  tourists, its state institutions) were assigned characterizations by
  these armed tourists in a fight to which they did not know themselves
  enrolled [...]. (20)

The figure of the "tourist" here seems particularly apt to consider since it seemingly allows us to establish how the Mumbai attacks were not traumatic; at least not in the sense of representing a "betrayal" of the "community" (21) or of collapsing or "obliterating" distinctions between the body and the surroundings. (22) The event is rather an example of an instance where order is intrinsically inscribed, not re-inscribed.

In the case of the Mumbai attacks, the preparedness for and the response to it bear the imprint of contexts where "acts of terror" are expected and, to some extent, comprehensible. We are, to invert Maja Zehfuss' comment about September 11, not "at a complete loss as to how to respond." (23) The attacks do not, in other words, constitute a violent act that shatters the "normal" course of time, at least not on the level of political community. On the contrary, Mumbai might be regarded as a space marked by, to use Seymour Spilerman and Guy Stecklov's terminology, (24) "chronic terrorism," a space in which "terrorist violence" is, to some extent, "part of the normality." (25) What might be conceived as "more" traumatic, more in line with the traumatic as a failure to abide by a promise to provide recognition, membership, and security, (26) is the seemingly frequent and disturbing use of torture and "encounter killings," the arrest of the "innocent," and the fabrication of evidence by the Indian police. (27)

Call on Response

The most prevalent representation of the state's response to the event is one of failure. (28) A significant aspect of the aftermath to the attacks was, consequently, an insistent vocalization of a need to act and to act strongly. It was a call for a forceful "response" that was primarily enunciated by "an urban, upwardly mobile class and an elite" that "captured the role of the citizen-subject." (29) These sections, according to Tania Roy, came to occupy the site of "a collective survivor-spectator," which, in the limited context of Mumbai, meant "the suspension of other, competing forms of urban memory, narration and identification [...]." (30) The most direct consequence of the event was the resignation by leading and supposedly "directly responsible" politicians, including Shivraj Patil, then Home Minister (31); another, the Parliament's accord in December 2008 on the issue of overhauling antiterror legislation so as to establish a National Investigation Agency (NIA). The NIA is responsible for investigating and prosecuting "offences affecting the sovereignty, security and integrity of India," with a mandate to carry out its work in the entire territory of the state. (32) However, the demand on a response was much wider and deeper. It was not restricted to antiterror mechanisms and to legal amendments. It was much more foundational. Questions relating to political community, citizenship, and the state's responsibility surfaced.

But how was this demand for a response formulated? What was the objective of such a response? As Antara Mitra notes, above all the response assumed the character of giving voice to negative sentiments regarding the state's function and the role of politicians. As such, it both tends to wield "negative stresses on policy making" and to reduce "the public faith in the state." (33) Mitra attributes the "response" to the role of the media; or, as she writes, "the sensational magnitude which the events turned to assume and the unprecedented public fury against the political establishment would not have been feasible without the media." (34) Furthermore,
  [t]he media coverage of the Mumbai carnage represents the climactic
  triumph of this visual, impressionistic culture of the corporate
  media which makes the public see only what the media itself wants them
  to see, without even questioning other incidents that might have been
  kept outside the media gaze, or provoking the debate on legitimacy of
  the sources of the deluge of free-flowing information. (35)

Mitra urges us to recognize that the trauma of the Mumbai attacks was already narrated, not waiting to be borne witness or testified to. This narration, of course, concealed and silenced, overwrote, and made abject. In the demands on a response, we find three strands: one calling for a swift and powerful correction of Pakistan's behavior or, rather, lack of action, (36) a second demanding that the state "provide security," (37) and a third articulating the necessity to overhaul India's ability to counter ter-rorism. (38) What we find in terms of an actual response is that none of these were realized and, of course, could not (and will not) be realized.

One potential arena for enacting a curative "response" and closure (to accommodate the need for a redress, for a response to the trauma as it was perceived by many) has been the trial of, and the death sentence given to, Ajmal Kasab. During the trial, which lasted 14 months, the defendant twice withdrew confessions, claiming that these had been made as a result of coercive treatment. (39) The trial came to represent a locus for an efficient correction of a wrongdoing, a rectification that was enacted as plain and unambiguous. It did not, however, parallel the function of the Eichmann trial as pinned down by Shoshana Felman; it was not principally "set out to deal with collective trauma, with collective injury and with collective memory." (40) Furthermore, it was not foremost set up to allow for the recollections and experiences contained in what is "hidden away by the individual traumatized subjects," subjects that transpire as "the bearers of the silence" to be heard. (41) Rather, it seems to minor Arundhati Roy's reading of an earlier instance of "terrorist violence." (42) The Supreme Court of India, in its decision not to overturn the sentencing of one of those deemed to have been part of planning the "Parliament Attack" in New Delhi in December 2001, proclaimed that "[t]he collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if [the] capital punishment is awarded to the offender." (43)

The certainties "produced" in the call for a response that followed the "act of terror" fail to accord with Jacques Derrida's maxim to "not hide from" the aporia, to not hide the aporetic "from ourselves," since "ethics, politics, and responsibility, if there are any, will only ever have begun with the experience and experiment of the aporia." (44) It should, in other words, be recognized that all responses to the event are innately aporetic; both in the sense of not being able to grasp the event itself and in the very formulation of the response, in the equivocalness of who can and should respond. Who is called upon to respond? In the present case, the state is both that which (inadequately) answers and that which is called upon.

In order to further examine the traumatic and catastrophic qualities of the event, the reasoning should be placed within a wider frame of governing trauma and in relation to another violent event, namely the instituting of independent India. This is imperative since it facilitates recognition of how the Mumbai attacks are entwined with the manner in which the Republic of India was established. The independence of India was an act of founding that, like all constitutive moments, absolved the collectivity from implication in violence. (45) Elsewhere, (46) I have suggested that the partition of British India fits into Alain Badiou's reading of the past century as the (failed) attempt "to think the enigmatic link between destruction and commencement." (47) The Partition is, thus, signifying both the disastrous uprooting and the accompanying death of a vast number of people and the triumphant inauguration of two independent states. It might also be said to fit Felman's description of the twentieth century as "a century of traumas" (48); through its apparent proscribing of an unmediated experience of violence, of bearing witness to violence, of providing testimony, and being listened to.

A Violent Founding

A remarkable aspect of the Partition has been the omission of a legal response and the lack of visibly memorializing practices or monuments. To use Felman's formulation, (49) "history" was never "put on trial." There was no formal recognition of the extensive physical suffering, no accommodation of accounts of suffering beyond that which played into the unfolding logic of the nation-state, no official commemoration, no one found to be "guilty," nothing that "encircles trauma." (50) Instead we have to seek the response to the "transfer of power," and the state's attempt at assuming responsibility, in the way the constitutive moment itself and the concomitant state formation was enacted, namely as an effort to institute unity, progression, and certainty. Gyanendra Pandey captures an important part of the enactment in his argument about the elevating of independence and muting of partition in depictions of August 1947, which for a long time equated the Partition with the abnormal, with the transient, with a corruption of history. (51)

To be precise, if independence is commonly represented as a normal, regular temporal sequence, the Mumbai attacks are perceived as a "trauma," as disruption, and as a blot. It is a trauma through its unexpectedness, through its unregulated violence. It is not, however, as the Partition violence, placed on the outside of historiographic practices of memorialization but comes to occupy the very site of reinstating, of confirming. However, we should not neglect that the events in Mumbai are not instances of (actual) trauma. It does not, as was suggested above, correspond to a moment or occurrence that makes "order," "belonging," and narration impossible. What made the Partition (and, indirectly, independence) traumatic is exactly that which is missing in the case of the Mumbai attacks. This "origin" or "originary trauma" is, nevertheless, what enables the latter event to be experienced. That is, to be placed within a sequence, within a secure narrative, even though represented as a "failure." The "most recent event" is, in other words, not traumatic per se; it is rather "produced" as traumatic. The Partition, conversely, is commonly assumed to stand for such a break-down of order and for an inability or failure to "experience" and to "communicate experience."

Even so, the experiencing of the Mumbai attacks, even if recognized as being imbued with a sense of conceivable and distinguishable place through this conjunctional relationship is, as always, partial. It is particularly manifest in the proscribing of an inclusion of the "act" in an explanatory schema that discursively embeds it in the context of actual grievances, such as the Kashmir imbroglio, the communal violence in Gujarat, socioeconomic and political marginalization, and the need to tend to the Indo-Pakistan antagonism. Instead the "attacks" were produced as an event that could be situated within the existing framework of two related representations: first, of Mumbai as a "global city" and as the most "cosmopolitan" space in India, (52) and, second, within depictions of India as "shining."

The above inclination, obviously limits the rendering of the episode in significant ways, whereas an acknowledgment of its imbricated relation to the "constitutive moment" animates how it potentially resonates a deeper trauma. Instead the prevailing construal reinforces dominant notions of the expanse of the nation, of statehood, and legitimate conduct. It might here be added that the Mumbai attacks, consequently, seem to correspond with independence through the certainties that it affords the hegemonic narrative on the Indian nation, on the Indian state. The, for a long time authorless, cycle of bomb blasts, as exemplified by the explosions on Mumbai's commuter trains in July 2006, conversely, seems to resemble the notion and sensation of rupture that the Partition acted as a vessel for.

Another marked difference between the Partition violence and the eventness of the Mumbai attacks is, of course, the medial portrayal of the latter. The act of witnessing and the narrativization and dramatization of the event differ. As Ashild Kolas writes:
  [v]iewers were presented with live images of the burning Taj Mahal
  Hotel, heavily armed commandos in the streets, repeatedly interrupted
  by closed-circuit television (CCTV) still shots of 'terrorists'
  entering Mumbai's central railway station, footage of hostages waving
  from hotel windows, as well as gunmen firing from a high-jacked police
  vehicle into a crowd of reporters and onlookers. (53)

Kolas is correct in maintaining that "[t]hese images were all exceptionally powerful in bringing the drama of terrorism home to viewers." (54) The contrast with the narrativization, the delayed dramatization of the Partition is worth accentuating. If the survivor of the Partition violence has been assumed to constitute and to equal an impossible witness, the present-day "spectator-citizen," the media consumer, might, with Roy, (55) be described as "an 'invulnerable, all-seeing' survivor."

In addition, the independence of India, unlike the Mumbai attacks, approximates what Slavoj Zizek designates as a or the "Beginning," namely, "at the Beginning proper stands a resolution, an act of decision [...]." (56) It is the resolution, the act of decision that might be said to govern yet not encircle trauma. It governs and, simultaneously, constitutes the event of (be)coming as singular and noncontingent. In Hannah Arendt's terminology, it bears the marks of a "revolution," since it "confront[s] us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning." (57) What we also fmd, however, at this juncture is, to speak with Bonnie Honig, "the trauma of norm transmission or the imposition of law." (58) This concurrence of rupture and continuity is below referred to as the contingent truth to trauma.

Still, why read these two "events" together? Bratton offers us one possible reason when, while commenting on the Mumbai attacks, he maintains that "[t]o the extent that the state suppresses its original constitutional violence, the agents of subsequent exceptional violence against the state and through it become creatures of that first exception." (59) Such an interpretation of the event portrays it as a re-enactment of "originary" violence, of an originary exception laying down the border between the sanctioned and the abject, that which might be spoken and the unspeakable. However, it is a reading that risks neglecting Arendt's critique of taking a view of "history" as the enabler of "reconciliation" since it is deemed to order apparently "haphazard single actions" in a manner that resembles a "sequence of events." (60) The main error with such an approach would be the inclination to make the uncertain and "unpredictable" part of an "intelligible narrative." (61)

The Contingent Truth to Trauma

Even though the "act of terror" induces a need to interrogate and to revisit the very moment of founding and (be)coming in order to grasp its relation to (somewhat) reified conceptions of political community, the nation, and statehood, it does not equal a requirement to employ an idiom saturated by Carl Schmitt's notion of "the exception." This is especially so if it implies that the (called-for and actual) "response" will be read as an occurrence or manifestation of how the "sovereign," as paraphrased by Kenneth Reinhard, (62) "at the moment of emergency [...] transgresses the limits of the law for the sake of the reemergence of the fundamental opposition between friend and enemy that establishes the foundation of the political world." Rather, a revisiting is needed since it places the notion of "governing traumatic events" in the wider framework of the "problem of the new." (63) In other words, since it allows us to reflect on how the Partition and the Mumbai attacks might help us conceive and acknowledge contingency, viz. to think "an event that would not be" a mere "continuation of a preceding series." (64)

1 nere are two reasons tor doing this. First, the question of governing is intimately linked to our ways of conceiving temporality in terms of the manageable and controllable; thus rejecting and ignoring, as in the case of the Mumbai attacks, the key insight of modernity (or rather modernism), namely the inevitable and intrinsic ambivalence, wavering, hollowing-out. Second, the formulation "traumatic event" must be further anatomized. That is, why should we allow these terms to coalesce; why define the traumatic as eventual? Is the traumatic embodying the contingent, rather than repetition and an incessant return? A capacious question that, hence, needs to be provisionally considered in the remaining part is the relation between viewing the traumatic as occurring in the form of events or as a condition intrinsic to self-identity and subjectivation.

Unlike Cathy Caruth in her Unclaimed experience, I do not wish to postulate a possible "truth" to trauma. (65) If we, nonetheless, momentarily remain with the option to define trauma as a container of an inherent truth or facticity, the concept might, with Felman, be conceived as denoting a "wound, especially one produced by sudden physical injury" and as "a blow to the self (and to the tissues of the mind), a shock that creates a psychological split or rupture, an emotional injury that leaves lasting damage in the psyche." (66) Such blows to "the tissues of the mind" are, as Felman remarks, often a consequence of "an overwhelming, uncontrollable and terrifying experience, usually a violent event or events or the prolonged exposure to such events." (67) A key premise here is that "trauma can be collective as well as individual." (68) However, it can also be thought of as part of the projection of time as continuum. It is the latter assumption, much more than the emphasis on "psychic trauma," on the "traumatic syndrome" and the "physiology of shock," (69) that is the core concern of the present analysis. In other words, it is not an attempt to conflate psychological and social (or political) manifestations of trauma. Nor is it, more than indirectly, an engagement with the "continuous tension or oscillation between" the "mimetic" and "antimimetic" rendering of trauma. (70)

In order to depart from the above conceptual antinomies, we need to ask what the "subject" is while writing on trauma and the traumatic. What is the relation between a "subject" which equals, in Simon Critchley's words, "the name for the way in which a self binds itself to some conception of the good and shapes its subjectivity in relation to that good" (71) and the transposing of the traumatic "experience" onto collectives, abstract communities, and entire ingrained structures of cognition and practice? It is a question that acquires particular significance in light of the collective character of trauma attributed both to the Mumbai attacks and to the Partition. We therefore stand before a concrete dilemma: that of the possibility, and the need, to decide upon the relation between an "individual" Self and the collective or societal while drawing close to the notion of trauma. It is a dilemma that, evidently, alludes to the relation between a more psychological and sociological or political approach to the study of trauma. As such, it is an impasse that lies at the core of trying to conceive the relation between the traumatic event and (the limits to) political community.

Is the traumatic, for instance, part of the very existence of the Other; of the very attempt to relate to, be distinct from, and integrate the Other? Zizek seems to propose this when asserting that we ought to view the "encounter of the real" (72) as "always traumatic," as embodying the impossibility to "simply integrate it into my universe" since "there is always a gap separating me from it." (73) As Zizek writes, "(t)his (...) is what 'intersubjectivity' is actually about." (74) Recognition of how the process of "binding" is always exceeded by such a "gap," hence, ought to be affixed to Critchley's concept of the subject. (75) While considering the governing of the traumatic, of the event, of the Partition, and of the Mumbai terror attacks, we need to ask: what is the role of "the unfathomable surplus, the 'indivisible remainder' of the real" in these instances? (76) Put differently, what (if anything) remains beyond experience, beyond being integrated into the symbolic order? A tentative answer would be the reluctance to revisit the wound and to (also) "look at the monster in the mirror." (77)

The analysis presented here has partly diverged from Campbell's proposal "that trauma is that which exceeds experience and exposes the limits of language." (78) Instead it is argued that we, as the first part of the epigraph conveys, need to accentuate the centrality of the deed. Or, as Friedrich Nietzsche expressed it, "[...] there is no 'being' behind doing, effecting, becoming; 'the doer' is merely a fiction added to the deed--the deed is everything." (79) As Bonnie Honig explicates, "[p]rior to or apart from action, the self is fragmented, discontinuous, indistinct, and most certainly uninteresting." (80) By getting rid of the obsession of a unified, holistic, and known "doer" behind, and target of, the traumatic deed, we seem to find a productive ground for reconnecting with Critchley's notion of the "split subject." It points us toward a conception of trauma as, even though a structural condition, foremost contained in the deed, in the act. In the above scrutiny of the Mumbai attacks, this is displayed in the acceptance of a trauma that allows the limits to language and experience to be limiting.


Although the focal point for thinking ways of governing the traumatic as experienced in the form of the (or an) event has been "India's 9-11," the overall emphasis in the present analysis resides elsewhere: in the founding of the Indian Republic, in the violence of founding, and in the traumatizing and intrinsically traumatic vision inscribed through and into it, for example in the appearance of homogenous time, of "the people," of "Faustian development." (81) Accordingly, the undertaking has, on the one hand, consisted of thinking these two "events" separately and, on the other hand, to ponder their seemingly confluent yet disconnected relation.

My intention has been to work with two tensions that the two events represent, respectively. First, that between an assumed permanency of "crisis" or trauma (as, for example, a condition of modernity; as an aspect of the Marxian dictum "all that is solid melts into air" (82)) and a notion of trauma as transpiring as eruption and (dis)rupture. Second, the tension between representations of time as continuums (83) and as, to speak with Ulrich Baer, "occurring in bursts and explosions, as the rainfall of reality, [which] privileges the moment rather than the story, the event rather than the unfolding, particularity rather than generality." (84) As demonstrated above, such work is an indispensable reflection and representation of the dynamic tension between depictions of the ruinous, of failure, and the possibility of a seizure of ruins that is central to the Indian case.

Why is it then important to concurrently consider these moments or acts of possible (re)founding? What hangs on it? It, above all, evokes what Honig refers to as the "paradox of politics." That is, the acknowledgment that the constitutive function of the law, "its never fully willed role in processes of subject formation", in democratic settings brings forth a requirement to repeatedly and recurrently "subject law to democratization by way of amendment, augmentation, or nullification." (85) Accord-ing to Honig, the latter ought to be conceived as acts of "refounding." (86) Throughout, the present analysis has contested the idea that the Mumbai attacks constitute a trauma in the form of a rupture. It, rather, stands for a reconfirmation and validation of dominant forms of "subject formation," of prevailing notions of lawmaking. Furthermore, I argue, with Eric L. Santner, that "[t]he task of inte-grating damage, loss, disorientation, decenteredness into a transformed structure of identity [...] is [...] one of the central tasks of [...] the 'work of mourning'." (87) In India, the difficulty with responding to the Mumbai attacks, to mourn in this way, is to some extent an effect of the failure of the Indian state to, at its inauguration, perform this task. Since, to phrase it in Honig's language, the instituting act was, by the political elites, projected as "contained and final rather than boundless and cyclical." (88)

Nevertheless, this does not preclude a proper refounding, a proper reopening. As Honig discerns, "even foundationally secured foundations are always imperfect, fissured, or incomplete and [...] these imperfections are the spaces of politics, the spaces from which to resist and engage the would-be perfect closures of god, self-evidence, law, identity, or community." (89) The trauma, in other words, fissures in order to open up space for the political; the breach or gap is, by necessity, "there," indicating, singling out, forcing upon us the borderless limits between inside and outside. To conclude, my overall argument consists of a hopeful anticipation. It is this anticipation that we need to keep on returning to in order to allow for a response that is responsible, for events that constitute breaks and beginnings, for a reopening of those totalizing practices which is the nation-state. The case of the Mumbai attacks teaches us not to confuse the "production of trauma" with an encircling of trauma and to hesitate while confronted with a demand to collapse the event, any event, into rupture as beginning.

Declaration of Conflicting

Interests The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The author wishes to express his gratitude to Birgit och Sven Hakan Ohlssons stiftelse for its financial support during the period of research in which the article was written.

Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

37(3) 253-265

[c] The Author(s) 2012

Reprints and permission:

DOI: 10.1177/0304375412450843



(1.) Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009(1978)), 12.

(2.) Arundhati Roy, "The Monster in the Mirror," The Guardian, December 13,2008.

(3.) Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), Chapter 1.

(4.) Jenny Edkins, "Ground Zero: Reflections on Trauma, 1n/distinctions and Response," Journal for Cultural Research 8, no. 3 (2004): 247-270,255.

(5.) For a critical exploration, see Tania Roy, "'India's 9/11': Accidents of a Moveable Metaphor," Theory, Culture & Society 26, no. 7-8 (2009): 314-328.

(6.) Jyoti Thottam, "India: After the Horror," Time, December 4,2008.

(7.) For comprehensive description, see Angel Rabasa, Robert D. Blackwill, Peter Chalk, Kim Cragin, C. Christine Fair, Brian A. Jackson, Brian Michael Jenkins, Seth G. Jones, Nathaniel Shestak and Ashley J. Tellis, "The Lessons of Mumbai," Rand Corporation Occasional Paper (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2009), 5-6; and Saroj Kumar Rath, "New Terror Architecture in South Asia: 26/11 Mumbai Attacks Inquiry," India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs 66, no. 4 (2010): 359-381.

(8.) Rabasa et al., "The Lessons of Mumbai," 1.

(9.) Ibid., 5.

(10.) See Vikas Bajaj, "Mumbai Gunman Sentenced to Death," The New York Times, May 6, 2010.

(11.) J. Venkatesan, "Kasab Moves Supreme Court, Challenging Death Penalty," The Hindu, July 29, 2011.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) With Andreja Zevnik, the "event" is here conceived as an occurrence "that influences the existing symbolic order in such a way as to cause it to change" and, with Eric L. Santner, as the site where "contingency and necessity, eventfulness and essence, coincide." Andreja Zevnik, "Sovereign-Less Subject and the Possibility of Resistance," Millennium: Journal of International Studies 38, no. 1 (2009): 83-106, 96; and Eric L. Santner, "Miracles Happen: Benjamin, Rosenzweig, Freud, and the Matter of the Neighbour," in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology, ed. Slavoj Zizek, Eric L. Santner, and Kenneth Reinhard (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 76-133, 97. Grasped in this way the term seems to be akin to what Michael Bernard-Donals, influenced by Jean-Francois Lyotard, has named "limit cases," that is "instances in which 'the testimonies which bore the traces of the here's and now's, the documents which indicated the sense or senses of facts,' have been destroyed." Michael Bernard-Donals, "Conflations of Memory: Or, What they Saw at the Holocaust Museum after 9/11," CR: The New Centennial Review 5, no. 2 (2005): 73-106,102. Bernard-Donalds here quotes Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 57. However, he leaves out Lyotard's recognition that such an obliteration also applies to "the facts," "the names," and "the possibility of various kinds of phrases whose conjunction makes reality."

(14.) It is, evidently, a terminology that is highly problematic. For example, as Tania Roy writes, the transference of "the 9/11 idiom" onto the Mumbai attacks contains a gesture that "re-territorializes American 'rhetorical capital' for a range of local interests, aspirations, contests and histories." T. Roy, "'India's 9/11,'" 316. As a consequence, it equals what Cathy Caruth has described as the "inscription of the event of a catastrophe in the generality of another's history." Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 19%), 30. Such appropriation finds embodiment in the effects occurrences such as the one in Mumbai have in "the West" (and this is evidently an important aspect of the "governing of the traumatic event"), as they are viewed as a confirmation of a need "to colonize the future and reduce future insecurity" posed by terrorism and the risk that this kind of incidents "migrate to western cities." Jon Coaffee, "Protecting the Urban: The Dangers of Planning for Terrorism," Theory, Culture & Society 26, no. 7-8 (2009): 343-355,345,350.

(15.) David Campbell, "Time is Broken: The Return of the Past in the Response to September 11," Theory and Event 5, no. 4 (2002), paragraphs 2-5.

(16.) See Ted Svensson, "Frontiers of Blame: India's 'War on Tenor'," Critical Studies on Terrorism 2 (2009): 27-44; cf., Sumit Ganguly and S. Paul Kapur, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Islamist Militancy in South Asia," The Washington Quarterly 33, no. 1 (2010): 47-59.

(17.) Jane Perlez, "American Terror Suspect Traveled Unimpeded," The New York Times, March 25, 2010.

(18.) Ibid.; for more, see Praveen Swami, "New Details Emerge on David Headley's Jihad Plans," The Hindu, December 16, 2009, and Praveen Swami, "Rana Convicted of Aiding Lashkar," The Hindu, June 10, 2011.

(19.) Benjamin H. Bratton, "On Geoscapes and the Google Caliphate: Reflections on the Mumbai Attacks," Theory, Culture & Society 26, no. 7-8 (2009): 329-342.

(20.) Ibid., 334. Faisal Devji (2008) has (as read by Saskia Sassen in "When the City Itself Becomes a Technology of War," Theory, Culture & Society 27, no. 6 (2010): 33-50, 40), conversely depicted the perpetrators as "highly-skilled 'commandos,'" actors that, to employ Sassen's language, approximate "counter-terrorists" through the ostensible similarity between their behavior and activities carried out by agents involved in "military operation."

(21.) Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics, 4ff.

(22.) Edkins, "Ground Zero," 255.

(23.) Maja Zehfuss. "Forget September 11," Third World Quarterly 24, no. 3 (2003): 513-528, 522.

(24.) Seymour Spilerman and Guy Stecklov, "Societal Responses to Terrorist Attacks," Annual Review of Sociology 35 (2009): 167-189, 173-183.

(25.) Ibid., 175.

(26.) See Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics and her "Ground Zero."

(27.) See Human Rights Watch, The 'Anti-Nationals': Arbitrary Detention and Torture of Terrorism Suspects in India. (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2011).

(28.) For example, see Harsh V. Pant, "Indian Defense Policy at a Crossroads," Asia-Pacific Review, 17, no. 1 (2010): 124-144; Kalpana Sharma, "Governance Failures and the Anti-Political Fallout," Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 49 (2008): 13-15; Strategic Comments, "Terror in Mumbai," Strategic Comments 14, no. 10 (2009): 1-2.

(29.) T. Roy, "'India's 9/11,'" 316.

(30.) Ibid., 316-317.

(31.) Ashild Kolas, "The 2008 Mumbai Terror Attacks: (Re-)Constructing Indian (Counter-)Terrorism," Critical Studies on Terrorism 3, no. 1 (2010): 83-98,86.

(32.) Lok Sabha Debates, December 17, 2008.

(33.) Antara Mitra, "All for Brownie Points!: Reappraising the New Commercial Media and Media-Terrorism Nexus in the Context of the Mumbai Attacks of 26/11," Asia Europe Journal 7, no. 3 (2009): 433-447, 436.

(34.) Ibid. The function of the media, hence, amounts to what John B. Thompson refers to as the "despatialized simultaneity" of electronic media, i.e. its ability to make "distant others [...] visible in virtually the same time frame." It is a phenomenon that enables presence ("distant others" can be "heard," they can be "seen") without necessitating a "spatial locale" shared by the "distant others" and those "to whom they" are "visible." John B. Thompson, "Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private Life," Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 4 (2011): 49-70, 57.

(35.) Mitra, "All for Brownie Points!," 440.

(36.) Gautam Navlakha, "Lessons from the Mumbai Attacks," Economic and Political Weekly 44, no. 11 (2009): 13-16.

(37.) For example, see T. Roy, "'India's 9/11,'" and Soutik Biswas, "Will India's Security Overhaul Work?" BBC News, December 11, 2008.

(38.) For example, see Manoj Mate and Adnan Naseemullah, "State Security and Elite Capture: The Implementation of Antiterrorist Legislation in India," Journal of Human Rights 9, no. 3 (2010): 262-278; Rabasa et al., "The Lessons of Mumbai"; Paul Staniland, "Improving India's Counterterrorism Policy after Mumbai," CTC Sentinel 2, no. 4 (2009); John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, "Preventing Another Mumbai: Building a Police Operational Art," CTC Sentinel 2, no. 6 (2009).

(39.) BBC News, "Twists and Turns of Mumbai Court Drama," BBC News, February 4, 2011.

(40.) Shoshana Felman, The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 7.

(41.) Ibid.

(42.) A. Roy, "The Monster in the Mirror."

(43.) Ibid.

(44.) Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 41.

(45.) Bonnie Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), Chapter 2.

(46.) Ted Svensson, Meanings of Partition: Production of Postcolonial India and Pakistan (Coventry: University of Warwick, 2010) [Unpublished PhD thesis].

(47.) Main Badiou, The Century (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 44.

(48.) Felman, The Juridical Unconscious, 1.

(49.) Ibid., 11.

(50.) Last-mentioned formulation borrowed from Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics, 80.

(51.) Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

(52.) For an instance, see Rabasa et al., "The Lessons of Mumbai," 1. For a dissection of the figuration of Mumbai as a space wherein "metropolitan freedoms" are made possible. see T. Roy. "'India's 9/11'" 315, 318.

(53.) Kolas, "The 2008 Mumbai Terror Attacks," 86.

(54.) Ibid.

(55.) T. Roy, "'India's 9/11,'" 320. Roy here draws on Samuel Weber's work (2002).

(56.) Slavoj Zizek/F. W. J. von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), 14.

(57.) Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 2006 (1963)), 11.

(58.) Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner, 32.

(59.) Bratton, "On Geoscapes and the Google Caliphate," 337.

(60.) Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin Books, 2006 (1961)), 85.

(61.) Ibid.

(62.) Kenneth Reinhard, "Toward a Political Theology of the Neighbor," in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology, ed. Slavoj Zizek, Eric L. Santner, and Kenneth Reinhard, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 11-75,15.

(63.) On the latter, see Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (Part Two: Willing) (New York: Harcourt, 1978), 28ff.

(64.) Formulations borrowed from Linda M.G. Zerilli, "Castoriadis, Arendt, and the Problem of the New," Constellations 9, no. 4 (2002): 540-553,540.

(65.) Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, p. 1ff, cf., Leys, Trauma, 269.

(66.) Felman, The Juridical Unconscious, 171. See also Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 3.

(67.) Felman, The Juridical Unconscious, 171.

(68.) Ibid.

(69.) For example, see Leys, Trauma, 2-3.

(70.) Ibid., 10.

(71.) Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (London: Verso, 2008 (2007)), 10.

(72.) In Edkins' interpretation the "Real" stands for the "excess, something that cannot be symbolised." It is an "excess" that represents "a stumbling block," or, as Edkins writes, "it is what prevents the social order from becoming complete." Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics, 66. We find similar expressions in Santner's discussion of "human history" as "an enigmatic ruin" and of the appearance of the "human world" in the shape of "a surplus that both demands and resists symbolization." Eric L. Santner, On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 2006), xv.

(73.) Zizek/von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World, 25.

(74.) Ibid.

(75.) Such recognition seems to cohere with Critchley's own reasoning on the "split subject." Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, 10-11.

(76.) Phrasing borrowed from Zizek/von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World, 26.

(77.) See note 2.

(78.) Campbell, "Time is Broken," paragraph 1.

(79.) Cited in Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 78.

(80.) Ibid., 79-80.

(81.) On the latter, see Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 1985), Chapter 1.

(82.) Such rendering reflects Santner's proposition that "social formation," as a domicile for being, does not merely signify a dwelling "that we did not choose." It, more importantly, "is itself permeated by inconsistency and incompleteness," an "incompleteness" that we, by necessity, are required to "address" and be "answerable" to. Santner, "Miracles Happen," 86. It is a suggestion that appears to be consonant with Caruth's idea that "both the language of trauma, and the silence of its mute repetition of suffering, profoundly and imperatively demand" to "be seen and heard"; it "commands us to awaken." Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 9.

(83.) Representations that Ulrich Baer has referred to as "Heraclitean" and which Kimberly Hutchings, with Walter Benjamin, would designate "clock time." Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002), 3-7 and Kimberly Hutchings, "Happy Anniversary! Time and Critique in International Relations Theory," in Critical International Relations Theory after 25 Years, ed. Nicholas Rengger and Ben Thirkwell-White (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 71-89,71-72.

(84.) Baer, Spectral Evidence, 5.

(85.) Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 25.

(86.) Ibid.

(87.) Eric L. Santner, Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), xiii.

(88.) Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner, 38.

(89.) Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, 9.

Ted Svensson (1)

(1.) Department of Political Science, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

Corresponding Author:

Ted Svensson, Department of Political Science, Lund University, SE-221 00 Lund, Sweden Email:


Ted Svensson is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Lund University. He holds a PhD in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick.
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