07.14.11

Mumbai’s High Terror Risk

Mumbai residents are springing back from Wednesday’s deadly assault not as a result of their “spirit,” but because they are resigned to their city being a magnet for terrorist attacks, says Anuj Chopra.

In December 2008, just hours after the final gunman was neutralized, shoals of protesters gathered in a public square abutting the bullet-scarred Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel in Mumbai. Standing amid a flock of pigeons, many of them angrily bellowed jingoistic slogans, some clamored for tough action against Pakistan, and many others vowed never again to pay taxes to their inept government that took 60 hours to subdue a bunch of baby-faced terrorists.

The protesters reflected the collective angst of a bruised city stunned by the brazen terrorist assault. Mumbai is no stranger to gunfights and bomb blasts, but this was the worst terrorist attack ever. On November 26 that year, 10 Pakistani gunmen went on a bloody rampage around a crowded train station, two five-star-hotels, and a Jewish community center, killing 166 people.

On Wednesday, less than three years after that incident, Mumbai witnessed yet another deadly terrorist assault, which left 17 dead and more than 130 injured. Three blasts, caused by a lethal cocktail of explosives planted in parked vehicles, went off in a diamond market, a business district, and another crowded suburb during the evening rush hour.

But this time, the city is mourning without the same paroxysmal displays of rage. A day after the serial bombings, ashen-faced relatives poured into city hospitals to identify charred and disfigured bodies of people killed in the explosions and visit the injured hit by flying shrapnel. The mood was somber, but overall in the city, it was business as usual. Shops opened, honking cars filled the monsoon-drenched streets, the local trains were chockablock with officegoers, and the benchmark Sensex of the Bombay Stock Exchange closed higher by 22 points.

For many outsiders, this symbolizes Mumbai’s euphemistic “spirit”—its indefatigable resilience, its famed ability to spring back to life even after the worst calamities.

The city’s “spirit” is highly overrated—it springs back because it has no other choice. Mumbai is India’s financial capital and its economic nerve center. It alone contributes a third of the country’s tax collections—around 1 trillion rupees annually. If Mumbai comes to a halt, India risks coming to a halt.

The city is a magnet for migrants from around the country—millions of daily wage earners working in one-room factories in shantytowns or construction sites—who would go hungry if they skip work even for a day. More than 60 percent of the city’s 19 million people live in slums. During the monsoons, many have to struggle to keep their shanties, cobbled together from tarpaulin sheets, from submerging under water. A day after the bombings, many plucked up the courage and went to work, hoping that a bomb did not lie in their wake.

A sense of realism has eclipsed the anger that erupted after the 2008 attacks.

A sense of realism has eclipsed the anger that erupted in the streets of Mumbai after the 2008 attacks. The city has witnessed four terrorist attacks in the last eight years—most of them were bomb explosions in crowded marketplaces, orchestrated to inflict maximum loss of human life. Over the years, with every attack, the public mood has ebbed from outrage to a feeling of resignation and helplessness.

Since the 2008 attacks, metal detectors, dog squads and gun-wielding security personnel behind sandbags have been planted at all important installations in the city, including railway stations, airports, malls, multiplexes and hotels around. But Mumbai still is not safe.

The very nature of Mumbai, a seaside port city, makes it vulnerable to attacks. It symbolizes India’s economic strength, and its softest target. By targeting Mumbai, it is easy to wound India. With its large population, it is easy for terrorists to melt in the crowd. People realize that packs of explosives could be planted around any corner in this crowded city, waiting to explode in the faces of innocent citizens.

Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, has vowed to “relentlessly pursue the perpetrators” of Wednesday’s bombings. He made similar promises after the 2008 attack, but most citizens are critical of Singh’s ham-fisted approach in dealing with terrorism. Despite the government’s ibest diplomatic efforts, multiple dossiers of evidence against perpetrators of the 2008 attack, and lists of most-wanted fugitives shared with Pakistan, the clampdown on militant groups inside Pakistan has been an ineffective and cosmetic exercise.

But the anger in Mumbai is not so much against Pakistan, as it is against its own government—for failing to protect its people. The government can stop 99 percent of all terrorist strikes, Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent of the ruling Congress party, said after Wednesday’s attack. But, he conceded, there is no guarantee that terror won’t strike Mumbai again. “It is very difficult to stop [every] terrorist attack,” he said. The people of Mumbai know that all too well.