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7 April 2011, Gateway House

Terror (Still) in Mumbai

After the attacks of 26/11, economic growth and tourist spots take top priority for security while street ventures and the mass transit centers like Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus -one of the targets of the attacks- are left unattended by the state.

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“India is target practice for the terrorists,” I was told by a senior foreign policy advisor during my first days in Mumbai.  “We have one foot between the second and third worlds.  Whatever works for the terrorists here will be what works for terrorism in the rest of the world.”  This idea left a strong impression on me as I visited the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST).  The train station is packed with people of all castes, classes, and religious creeds zipping past and through every opening to either their departing train or a spot to park their luggage and selves.  People hop aboard packed trains, with legs and arms dangling out of the crowded cabin.  They arrive faster than they depart. This was the site where two of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) gunmen indiscriminately shot at men, women and children for 90 minutes, uninterrupted by police or security forces.  With AK-56s, hand grenades and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the two gunmen managed to kill the greatest number of people during the 26/11 attacks, taking 58 lives and wounding another 104 commuters.  When the gunfire started, chaos broke out: people ran in all directions as others’ blood covered the tile floors, and many crowded into the terminal bathrooms for shelter.  Every picture I take at the train station has at least a 100 people in the frame.  It’s hard to imagine the horror.

I’m an American student who was offered an experience to travel to Mumbai and work with a  think tank on foreign policy, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.  As part of my role I’ve visited and spoken to people at the 26/11 sites: The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the Leopold Café, the Cama & Albless Hospital, the Chabad House, the Trident-Oberoi Hotel and the CST.  Each site is heavily traveled, packed with city locals and tourists.  All the attack sites are important to the landscape of Mumbai: some are symbols of towering wealth or a particular culture while others serve everyday commuting and public healthcare.  They are like sites that you would find in any cosmopolitan American city.  The targets were not, of course, randomly chosen: as a report by the RAND Corporation points out, attacks iconic symbols of wealth and power were designed to create fear and attract media attention.[1] I get the impression that fear and uncertainty still exists among all of the people of Mumbai.  Perhaps this was the real aim of the LeT: to upset the clocklike rhythm of the average working Indian in Mumbai and to sustain a level of fear and uncertainty.  Two years on, this fear seems to have manifested itself in the form of a widespread security culture in Mumbai.

Security, But For Who?

En route to the Gateway of India, Mumbai

The most visible legacy of 26/11 is the groups of private security guards that control the entrances of each attack site. Heightened security is new to the topography of Mumbai’s businesses and cafes, I am told.  The most ostentatious display of public and private security forces is the fifty-man garrison surrounding the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel.  Cars are blocked from using the roadways surrounding the building, and the security guards’ job appears to be to keep the road-space between the Taj and the rest of Mumbai free of people.  Like so much of India, this site offers its own stunning contrast: the majestic, gothic architecture of the Gateway of India and the Taj Palace – emblematic of the Crown Raj’s high-noon – juxtaposed with the most flagrant displays of poverty I have ever witnessed.  Small, 5 year old girls accost me for rupees while the older women in dirty saris prefer to ask me for food to feed their children.  The rich may be able to fortify themselves from future terrorist strikes, but they have not managed to wall themselves off from Mumbai’s pervasive poverty.

From the Taj, I weave my way through the street venders, tourists and begging children to arrive at Colaba’s most popular café, the Leopold.  The Leopold is like any sports bar in the U.S.  There are sixty odd people sitting in the café, conversing over coffee or a gigantic beer dispenser.  I’m told by a former Leopold waiter that when the attacks started, five girls died instantly from a rolled-in grenade.  Bullet markings from where an elderly couple had been shot dead are still visible behind table 15.  The security at the Leopold is an amalgam of police and private security guards:  police guards are stationed at each of the café’s three entrances and check your bags if you cross their line of vision.  Along the alleyway of the café sits a military style Humvee, equipped with what looked like automatic rifles.  Next, I’m told that there are private security guards stationed inside the restaurant.  However, on the multiple occasions I’ve entered the Leopold, I have only ever stopped once for a bag check and noticed a sporadic amount of guards watching the entrance.  I fail to see any additional security guards inside the restaurant — perhaps the Humvee is sufficient enough.

I “discover” Chabad House tucked away in a rundown side alley.  This is the site of the first Jewish Chabad Lubavich outpost in India, founded by Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg.  It’s small and easy to miss.  The building is so obscure that I pass by it the first time, having to carefully circle back up the alley in order to locate its entrance.  I find the Jewish Center ultimately because there are two security guards stationed at the entrance of the gate – a piece of plywood walling the entrance.  After explaining that I’m not an Israeli national, I am shown a sign next to the Chabad House.  It is a High Court Order that prohibits entrance into the site.  The Holtzbergs were hosting a small dinner party the night of November 26th, the night the terrorists stormed the House.  The same RAND report concludes that the choice to attack the Chabad house was a premeditated choice to attack Jews and Americans.  If RAND is correct, then I assume the LeT gunmen were surprised to find a Mexican tourist at the dinner party on Nov. 26th.   Sajid Mir, the mastermind behind the LeT attack, listened on the phone as his men shot the Holtzbergs and their guests, five members in total.  Across the street, a local store owner said the TACK TACK TACK sound of gunfire was the most distinct sound you could hear on the silenced, deserted streets of Colaba that night.  “Everyone had run to a friend’s house or to a police station,” said the storeowner, whose sign was hit by a bullet.

The CST station has a similar security regime, with guards and metal detectors set up at each entrance way.  I’m not sure what purpose these security features serve, though, since I repeatedly hear the faint noise of the security buzzer go off as people pass through the checkpoints – with no response from guards or fellow passengers.  Other people walk around the metal detectors.  I’m told by a friend accompanying me that post-26/11, newspaper reporters successfully walked through the security check points with assault rifles and handguns.  In an investigative report carried out in September 2010 by Midday, Vedika Chaubey found that a majority of the metal detectors in the CST didn’t work, and those that did were either unmanned or manned by security guards inattentive to travelers setting off the alarms.[2]  I guess my journey proves that little has changed since Chaubey’s report.

At the domestic terminal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Station, Mumbai

The security culture in Mumbai after the 26/11 is difficult to understand.  I start to question the effectiveness of these security forces entirely: are they here to protect the public or to give the owners and public the illusion of safety?  The rise of private security companies parallels the decline of the official police presence in the city.  In his monumental work, Maximum City, Suketu Mehta reports that the ratio of policemen to people in 1998 was about 125 per every hundred thousand, or, roughly the proportion of security guards to people in the busy CST.[3]  The shop owner across the street from the Chabad House tells me that the people have no faith in the police.  “The police were useless,” he remembers, “the public was left in total darkness as to what was happening [during the attacks].”  He does not trust the police because he claims the police in Mumbai take bribes.  This may not be surprising given that average police salary is around 4,000 rupees a month.[4]  Similarly, a former Leopold’s waiter who was working upstairs in the café on the night of the attacks recommends that all cafes should beef up their private security.  Hesitant to comment directly on the police response to the attacks, he ambivalently endorses the police response overall.  “They are good when an attack happens,” he states, “and relax when an attack is not happening.”

The memory of the attacks has also translated into a disproportionate security culture.  There is a clear divide between who is fortified by the new security measures and who is not.  Tourist destinations in Mumbai are disproportionately represented with police and private security forces, while proper security forces are not provided for the most traveled areas in Mumbai: its train stations, hospitals and public roads.  The lack of proper security in the CST is especially surprising given Mumbai’s history of train blasts in 1994, 2006, and 2008.  Perhaps this bizarre pattern of security is a function of having one foot in the second and third worlds: economic growth and tourist spots take top priority for security, while the zopadpatties – street ventures and the mass transit centers – are left unattended by the state.

Ryan Stillwagon is a Gateway House Research Intern from Lehigh University, Pennsylvania. 

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[1] Angel Rabasa et. al., RAND: The Lessons of Mumbai, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2009, 1.

[2]Vedika Chaubey, “We are just sitting here,” Midday, 25 September, 2010,

[3] Robert F. Worth, “Lack of Preparedness Comes Brutally to Light,” The New York Times, 4 December, 2008,

[4]Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Vintage Books: New York, 2004, 161.


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