Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mumbai (July 13, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

When “London pride” was invoked a year ago to describe the grit and resilience of a city that remained undaunted by the horrible terrorist attacks on the Underground, it carried a measure of novelty. There was absolutely nothing unprecedented in either politicians or the media of Bombay (now renamed Mumbai) gushing over the remarkable display of the “Mumbai spirit” after the bomb blasts that killed nearly 200 people last Monday evening.

Human life, it is said, is remarkably cheap in India. Even so, it speaks volumes for the fortitude of Mumbaikars, as they like to refer to themselves, that after enduring Monday’s carnage and the total disruption of the public transport system, it was back to business with a vengeance next morning—with the stock exchange climbing three per cent.

The patience of Mumbai has been repeatedly tested by terrorism. In March 1993, 13 simultaneous explosions at important public buildings, including the stock exchange and the Air India building, killed 257 people in Mumbai and left another 1,400 seriously injured. There was a predictable sense of outrage but no recrimination. Mumbai, after all, was weary after five days of vicious sectarian clashes, involving Hindu and Muslims, in January that led to 900 people being killed. At that time the tensions had centred on the demolition of a 16th century mosque in faraway Ayodhya, which Hindus claimed as their own.

After 9/11 heralded the scourge of Islamist terror, Mumbai was attacked on August 25, 2003. Two powerful car bombs, including one in the car park of the Gateway of India, a British-made monument that has become the symbol of the city, killed nearly 60 people. The perpetrators, it was subsequently discovered, were Muslim activists who, it was said, wanted to extract revenge for the murder of fellow Muslims during the riots in the neighbouring state of Gujarat. Mumbai, once again, refused to be provoked, not least because the purpose of the bombings was never clear. It was a case of mysterious enemies targeting innocent people.

The rationale behind Monday’s seven serial explosions in the first-class carriages of commuter trains isn’t quite apparent 24 hours later. Nearly 200 people have died and the identity of the terrorists is still a matter of conjecture. Intelligence agencies and the police strongly believe the blasts were the handiwork of Islamist terrorists. The involvement of shadowy organisations such as the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the outlawed Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI) which has training camps in Bangladesh, is suspected. There are also suggestions that the Mumbai blasts were timed to coincide with the grenade attacks in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, by LeT terrorists which killed six tourists from Calcutta.

Police investigations may bring out the details of the murderous conspiracy in Mumbai. For the moment, however, bewildered Mumbaikars are asking the questions: Why us? What do these terrorists want? In London and Madrid, the bombers were protesting the presence of British and Spanish forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. But there are no Indian troops assisting the US peacekeepers anywhere in the world. There is, of course, a Muslim secessionist movement in Jammu and Kashmir but, with the exception of last October’s bombing of two crowded markets in Delhi, the Kashmiri separatists have confined their activities to the northern state.

The Mumbai blasts lack both a face and an ostensible reason. Some of the terrorists may be motivated by a crazy wish to usher in an Islamic Caliphate throughout the world but this desire is too fantastic for ordinary comprehension. There are also some rogue elements within the Pakistan security establishment which would love to bleed India with “a thousand cuts.” Yet, popular antipathy towards Pakistan is nowhere as intense as it was when the Indian Parliament was attacked on December 13, 2001 and the then Prime Minister angrily promised a “war to the finish”.

Today, Mumbaikars combine a sense of horror with an air of phlegmatic resignation. They have put their admirable sense of community—rushing the wounded to hospital, donating blood for the injured, feeding stranded commuters and offering lifts to total strangers—over any contrived outrage against an invisible enemy.

The adversary, however, is not entirely unknown. Over the past two years, India has been in a state of denial over mounting evidence that the emerging threat is not from those acting at the behest of their controllers in Islamabad, but home-grown jihadis. In Mumbai, for example, the finger of suspicion is pointing to terrorist modules based in either the town of Aurangabad or the cyber-city of Hyderabad. Last month the police seized an incredible 43 kilograms of RDX and 13 AK-47s from the tourist town of Ellora, near Aurangabad. The man facing charges for organising the bombings in the temple town of Varanasi on March 7 this year is a small-time Imam from a neighbouring town who was earlier a full-time SIMI organiser. The audacious attack on the disputed temple in Ayodhya last year too was facilitated by local Muslims acting in concert with terrorists who entered from Bangladesh.

The suggestion that Islamist terrorism has developed strong roots within the country is uncomfortable for the government in New Delhi to face up to. The Congress Party, the regional parties and the Communists who are the constituents of the coalition depend substantially on the 13 per cent-strong Muslim population for political sustenance. This explains why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has encountered strong resistance for pressing on with India’s deepening strategic relationship with the US. It also accounts for the government’s complete unwillingness to act on intelligence reports that the protests against President Bush’s visit last February had the generous backing of the clerics in Iran.

Around the same time as Bush visited India, the Congress and Communist-dominated state legislature of Kerala passed a unanimous resolution seeking the release, on “compassionate grounds”, of a Muslim extremist who masterminded a series of explosions, which killed 58 people in the southern city of Coimbatore in 1998. A Cabinet Minister took his appeasement policy to the absurd level of joint meetings with a look-alike of Osama bin Laden!

India has often boasted that its vibrant democracy ensured that there was no Indian to be found in Al Qaeda. Nominally, the claim is incontrovertible but Islamist terrorism is not manifested through the direct control of bin Laden alone. The LeT, HuJI and SIMI are carbon copies of Al Qaeda. They all have Indian Muslim adherents, including educated professionals, many of whom have received arms training in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Indian politicians have frequently blamed the “foreign hand” for terrorism in the country. The assertion is not untrue but after Monday’s carnage they would also do well to look at a growing home-grown menace. The Mumbai blasts may symbolise Islamism in India coming of age.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator and a former Managing Editor of India Today.

(Published in Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2006)

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