By Michael Shank

Post-catastrophe finger-pointing is both natural and necessary. Crisis responders frequently call for accountability (“Government, why didn’t you protect us?”) and summon mass appeals to rationality (“Why did this happen?”).

Mumbai was no different.

Hardly a manic minute passed after the massacre before Pakistan was pulled into the frame. The range of speculation regarding the origins of the Deccan Mujahideen — from the more formal Inter-Services Intelligence in Islamabad to the more renegade Lashkar-e-Taiba in Karachi – was unsurprising. Given Mumbai’s – and more generally India’s – escalating violence in recent years, the public’s understandable need to identify the culprits must not usurp a concomitant quest for understanding, and subsequently quelling, a violent context. Despite continuing claims to the world’s largest democracy, India remains structurally violent – the system is simply not serving the populace.

While a deserving analysis of the country’s continued disservice to Dalits – or “untouchables” – would be more than meritorious in assessing systems-level violence, it is worth noting now that Muslims are emerging as more disadvantaged by India’s democracy than Dalits, and have now usurped Dalits as the country’s quintessential underclass. This new development has serious implications on the potential for violence.

On socio-economics, comprising roughly 14% of India’s population of 1.1 billion, nearly half (43%) of all Muslims live below the official poverty line of $1.25 a day. This poverty rate corresponds with the Muslim workforce rate: less than 50% of the Muslim male population is employed (contrast this with Dalit male employment of 53%). Additionally, Muslims are less likely to have electricity and water than Dalits. Politically, Muslims remain unrepresented in the government (holding 5.7% of all state jobs), in the foreign, police and armed services (holding 2-3% of all jobs) and in politics (holding roughly 4-6% of all House parliamentary seats, or less than one-half of the Muslims’ population share).

This all mixes together for a potentially volatile brew for the unrepresented – whether in the financial capital of Mumbai or the political capital of Delhi. But the underclass – whether Dalits in the past or Muslims in the present – were always a part of Indian society, so why the violence now?

What is noteworthy about these numbers is that while the Dalits were previously devoid of the ideological and instrumental mechanisms to respond violently to the inequity in India’s democracy, the Muslim community is equipped via national and international sources (both ideological and instrumental). What is also noteworthy about these numbers is the correlation between poverty, political representation and peaks in violence. For example, studies show that spikes in unemployment are followed by spikes in homicides; the higher the percentage of families living in relative poverty, the higher the violent offenses; and finally, relevant to India, ethnic and religious dominance doubles the risk of violent conflict.

What tips India’s increasing risk of violent conflict into reality is the shame experienced by the underclass. Shame – in the case of Indian Muslims, stemming from socio-economic and political exclusion – is a powerful motivator towards violence. Determining shame’s course of reprisal is whether or not the shamed has acceptable means and mechanisms by which to seek retribution. As noted before, Muslims remain underrepresented in most political and economic sectors of society. Agent provocateurs, in response, whether native or foreign, come equipped with the ideological and instrumental means to give voice to this shame through violence.

Reducing the risk of India’s violent conflict, then, requires not only recognition of the culprits, national or neighborly, who wreaked havoc on Mumbai but perhaps more importantly, in an effort to curb sustained endemic violence, recognition and a willingness to remedy the root causes of conflict – that of poverty and underrepresentation, politically and economically.

Having stayed in the Oberoi Trident hotel this summer, for a conference hosted by the Indian government on “business, peace and sustainability”, I recognise the need to immediately safeguard a traumatized public by bringing to justice those who devastatingly undermined the security of Mumbai. But this effort must be coupled with a long-term commitment to eradicating the climate in which violence grows. Until a majority of Muslims see the tangible benefits of India’s democracy – socially, economically and politically – India will not only be the world’s largest democracy but also the most dangerous.

Guardian News and Media Limited 2008