Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 08:52 | SYDNEY
Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 08:52 | SYDNEY

Mumbai: When the smoke clears


Rory Medcalf


27 November 2008 11:30

A new day has begun in shattered Mumbai. Despite thousands of media reports,  it remains hard to get a clear picture of the many-pronged terror attacks that have shaken the world’s maximum city and reportedly left at least 80 dead and hundreds injured.

So the following thoughts on what these atrocities mean should be taken as very preliminary indeed:

The fact that perhaps as many as nine locations were struck simultaneously underscores that co-ordination is now the norm in terrorism on Indian soil. This compounds the difficulties for emergency response: one of the attacks was even apparently on one of the hospitals to which casualties would have been taken. And the everyday crowding and chaos of Indian urban life makes this country unusually vulnerable to terrorist tactics.

Even if the reports that the terrorists were seeking out American and British nationals turn out to be false, this violence was disproportionately aimed at foreign visitors and at India’s cosmopolitan elite : at least two five-star hotels, a major and iconic railway station, a restaurant popular with Lonely Planet readers, a cinema and the domestic airport were all reportedly among the targets.

It may be that one of the factors in the timing of these outrages was the state election in Jammu and Kashmir: the seven-stage election has been proceeding well for India, with a relatively high voter turnout helping New Delhi claim back some of the credibility it had lost in unrest in that disputed state earlier this year. But last night’s violence is about much more than Kashmir, and I would be astounded if the Mumbai killers turned out principally to be Kashmiri militants or motivated primarily over Kashmir.

Responsibility for the attacks has been claimed by a group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen. This could be an offshoot or a rebadging of the Indian Mujahideen, a terrorism organization including Indian nationals but with links and inspiration reaching into Afghanistan and Pakistan (though not necessarily, I hasten to add, the Pakistani government). Bearing in mind that the Pakistani links to gunmen who stormed India’s parliament in 2001 almost became a pretext for (potentially nuclear) war, even Pakistan’s ISI would be plumbing new depths of folly if it turned out to have even a finger in last night’s slaughter. (I say that even though some parts of ISI are in desperate straits this week.) 

Given the complexities of the likely attackers’ ideological origins and connections, it would be fair to speculate that the carnage in Mumbai is aimed at multiple goals. These involve rattling the Indian government and the Indian state, as New Delhi tries to pursue positive relations with a rickety democratic government in Pakistan, restore its credibility in Kashmir, support the Karzai government in Afghanistan and prepare for national elections across India early next year. Mumbai is India's financial capital — but unlike the 1993 bombings, this time the stock exchange was not a target.  

At a more basic level, the nature of this violence — large numbers of assailants using AK-47s and grenades at close range, and chancing capture or death — is a reminder that terrorist organizations seem able to find willing recruits in wider India, and not only in Kashmir. In other words, a serious domestic challenge for stability in India lies in the radicalized minority of young men in the country’s generally moderate Muslim community, their readiness to kill and be killed, and their potential to connect with, or a least be inspired by, Al Qaeda and its ilk. This at a time when many others in Indian Islam — for instance the clerics of the Deoband school,  often claimed to be an ideological wellspring of the Taliban — have denounced terrorism. Having said all of this, to my knowledge the nationality of the attackers has not yet been established.

In whatever way the situation in Mumbai ends — there are reports that shooting is still going on and hostages are being held — the challenge for the Indian government now will be to keep its nerve. Terrorism and the Congress-led government’s allegedly inadequate response was already an election issue. In a charged environment in which India’s enormous mass media can become a rumour-churning juggernaut, India’s politicians, including the Hindu BJP, will need to show and call for exceptional restraint to prevent bloodshed like Mumbai’s from feeding communal tensions and a potential backlash.

Finally, the tragic events in Mumbai are a reminder that India has had to face terrorism for far longer than has the West.  Now that India is a rising power and a major player in globalisation, its terrorist problem is undeniably the world’s.