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18 July 2011, Gateway House

Terror returns to Mumbai

On July 13, three bombs went off in the busy streets of Mumbai. While the authorities try to apprehend suspects, the city remains enveloped in rain and a blanket of terror.

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I was playing tennis at my local club, the Bombay Gymkhana Club, when my cell phone began to ring. It was just past seven in the evening. The sky was overcast, a typical monsoon day. Almost at the same time, the cell phones of others on the tennis courts also started ringing. I immediately realised something unusual had happened. A series of bomb blasts have taken place, said the caller, one of them only about five minutes drive from the club.

We continued our game. India’s financial capital, a city of some 18 million people, has become almost blasé about terror attacks, six of them having taken place in the past few years, the last one on November 26, 2008, when two prime hotels and Mumbai’s busiest train station, were targeted by Pakistan-based terrorists. Close to 170 people, Indians and foreigners, died in that outrage. Coincidentally or not, July 13 was rumoured to be the birthday of the only Pakistani terrorist, Kasab, who survived that attack and who has since then been lodged in a Mumbai prison.

It had started drizzling when our tennis game ended. On my way to dinner at a friend’s place, I decided to try and drive to one of the three places, which were on my way, and where the bombs have exploded – a crowded area called “Opera House”, where operas had once actually been performed when the British ruled India. The site had been cordoned off by the police and I was not allowed in. TV footage that I later saw that evening showed a scene of carnage – bodies, limbs and mangled vehicles strewn all over the place.

Clearly, the timing and location of the three terrorist “soft” targets were carefully chosen. All were located in some of the busiest locations of the city and the bombs timed to explode within minutes of each other at peak rush hour (at least 17 people have died and over 130 been injured, 23 of them gravely, at the time of writing).

One of the locations was popularly known as “Khau Galli”, which literally means “eating lane”, where hundreds of people regularly collect to have snacks from roadside food vendors, after offices close. The heaviest casualties took place there yesterday evening. The explosives were planted in or near vehicles at two places and near a bus stop at the third.

The police suspect the bombs used were what are called Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), using ammonium nitrate, and filled with nuts and bolts, which act like shrapnel when the bomb explodes. These are essentially crude devices but can be highly effective in closely packed crowds.

Though no suspects have been apprehended at the time of writing, suspicion for the bomb blasts has zeroed in on an outfit called Indian Mujahideen (IM), responsible for some similar past attacks in which IEDs planted in stolen vehicles were also used. The IM, which operates through “sleeper cells”, is also known to have links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based terrorist group which carried out the November 26, 2008, attacks on Mumbai. In fact, two operatives of the IM were arrested only a day before the July 13 blasts, by the Anti-Terrorism Squad of the Indian police but they do not seem to have provided the police with any clues.

There has obviously been a palpable intelligence failure on the part of the Indian authorities. A carefully coordinated and well-timed attack like the one that took place last evening must have taken weeks, if not months, of advance planning. How come the Indian intelligence agencies did not get wind of the conspiracy? And why have more CCTVs not been put up, especially in the more crowded and vulnerable areas of Mumbai? Those are the kind of questions many angry Indians are asking.

Meanwhile, there is a silver lining: The reactions the terrorists hoped for have not taken place. “The intention of such attacks are two-fold”, says Arun Bhagat, a former senior police officer, “to create panic and thereby disrupt India’s economy and, secondly, to create a law-and-order problem by causing a communal backlash against the Muslim community. This did not happen after the 2008 attack and it has not happened now, showing the maturity of the Mumbai public.”

As I write this, the trains and buses have been running on schedule since early morning, schools, colleges and offices have recorded normal attendance. Mumbai is back to its bustling, busy self. The share market was expected to plunge downwards. Instead, after dipping in the morning, it actually went up slightly before the close of trading. The city has shown its resilience and its defiance. That is the best answer to terrorism.

Rahul Singh is a former Editor of “Reader’s Digest” and “Indian Express”.

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