Mumbai’s Taj Hotel is an ornate throwback to the British Raj. Its website boasts of hosting "Maharajas and Princes to various Kings, Presidents, CEOs and entertainers".
That reputation came back to haunt the luxury hotel when several gangs of armed men launched 10 separate, coordinated attacks on it and several other locations in central Mumbai including a Jewish community centre. The large hallway of the grand Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station where gunmen indiscriminately fired on the large crowd was transformed into a grotesque mess of luggage, blood and body parts. In total at least 172 have been killed and hundreds more injured.
Among the casualties are three senior police officers, including the Chief of Mumbai’s counter-terrorism squad. The scale and precision of the attacks has shocked the world.
The perpetrators called themselves the "Deccan Mujahideen" (Deccan is the term used for central, south India), a previously unheard of group that has security officials and analysts suspecting there are other powers at play. When an Indian news crew contacted one of the gunmen and asked what the group’s terms were he could be audibly heard asking others for a response. In the end the nebulous demand was for all "mujahideen" (religious warriors) to be freed from Indian prisons.
The obvious culprits are militants based in Pakistan, and a shortlist of most likely candidates all pointed towards the troubled South Asian nation. That was certainly the implication in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s televised national address when he called the perpetrators a group "based outside the country". Indian security officials have now publicly stated that they believe the assailants came from Pakistan.
There have been further reports that the attackers entered Mumbai via speedboats carried into the city’s harbour by a "mothership" travelling from the high seas from Pakistan. Conflicting reports have been given on whether the boat has been interdicted.
Daoud Ibrahim, a major figure in the Mumbai underworld now believed to be living in Karachi, Pakistan, is also suspected. Indian authorities believe he was involved in previous attacks by Islamic militants in India.
Another possible culprit is the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which has been banned by the Supreme Court of India for alleged involvement in past attacks. It may also be linked to the Indian Mujahidin, an Islamic movement blamed for attacks on New Delhi and Jaipur earlier in the year.
Another still is Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the militant group created in the 1980s by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence to conduct attacks on Indian soil, particularly in Kashmir. LeT is considered a terrorist organisation in most Western countries, including Australia. There are reports that the group has issued a statement denying involvement in the violence.
For the Western press the attacks are a shock because, unlike neighbouring Pakistan, India is not readily associated with politically motivated violence. That the militants appeared to target Westerners for murder and kidnap has heightened that fear. The image of India as a peaceful, mystical destination for tourists from developed countries has also been severely tarnished. As has the country’s reputation as one of the most stable emerging markets, what the business community describes as "Brand India".
Yet the Mumbai attacks are not the first by Islamic militants in a major Indian city — there have already been several this year. Five bomb blasts in crowded market areas of New Delhi, the nation’s capital, killed 22 in September. Mumbai itself fell victim to such violence only five months earlier when on 11 July seven bombs exploded on its train network killing 200 people. In May multiple bomb blasts in Jaipur, northwestern India, including at a Hindu temple, killed 80. The Jaipur blasts followed bombings in Ahmedabad and Bangalore in July. Islamic militant groups associated with Pakistan like Islamic Mujahideen and LeT have been accused of being behind these attacks.
Most of the victims in Mumbai, as with previous attacks in India by militants claiming to act in the name of Islam, were ordinary Indians — including Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.
Several groups — religious, Muslim and secular — have been implicated in bomb blasts and armed attacks throughout modern India’s history, particularly in the past 20 years.
Many survivors of the attacks were amazed at just how young the gunmen were. It is possible that some or all of them are disaffected young men recruited from India’s largely poor, marginalised Muslim communities. Although India has experienced an unprecedented economic boom over the past few years most remain mired in poverty. The World Bank estimates that there are 455 million people living below the poverty line, or on less than $US1.25 per day, in India.
There have been communal tensions, particularly along sectarian lines, in India for decades. In Gujarat in 2002, for instance, at least 2000 Muslims and Christians were killed after a train carrying Hindu members of the rightwing Shiv Sena movement were burnt alive in a train. There are real fears of reprisal attacks against Muslims following the violence in Mumbai, just as many Sikhs were targeted in revenge killings after a Sikh soldier assassinated Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.
The Mumbai attacks, which have been described as India’s September 11, risk giving India free reign against Muslim political movements whether or not they are involved in violence. The fact that Pakistan has a strong association with militant Islamic movements does not augur well for India’s Muslims either. Hitherto, however, India has remained relatively restrained in the face of past attacks by Islamic militants.
On an international level, the attacks may bring relations between India and Western countries closer together, particularly with respect to counterterrorism. There has already been a slow gravitation in that direction this year — the Bush Administration signed a nuclear power agreement with India that, although ostensibly relating to civilian nuclear power, effectively legitimates the emerging power’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. US security officials blame militants linked to Pakistan’s Army for a July attack on India’s Embassy in Afghanistan that killed a Defence Attache, a diplomat and two guards.
The message for Pakistan is as loud as it is clear: clean up the militancy or expect reprisals from India with the support of the international community.
Regardless of what lies ahead there can no longer be any doubt that the chaos which began in Afghanistan in the 1980s and spread to Pakistan a decade later has well and truly reached India.
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