Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Mumbai Terror Attacks - Views from Home

There is a scene in Harry Potter & The chamber of Secrets, where Harry & Ron are going to the Forbidden Forest to follow the spiders as per Hargid’s cryptic instructions. Ron, terrified of spiders keeps saying ,”Lets’ go back” only to be told not to panic. A few minutes later when man-eating spiders surround them with seemingly no hope of escape, Ron again asks “Do we panic now??”

That is the question a number of Mumbaikars will be asking themselves today. What we have seen over the last night is a series of terrifying, mind numbing almost inexplicably surreal attacks on the way we live our daily lives. Suureal because if a day ago if we had been told that the Taj & the Oberoi would be witnessing 14 hour hostage dramas, if we had been told that there would be public shootouts at CST, Chowpatty, Metro, Cama Hospital all at the SAME TIME, what would we have said? Would we have believed it? These are places we visit daily, I was less than half a kilometer from the Oberoi day before, there has been shooting right outside my office in Crawford Market, I cross Metro on my way to work daily. That there can be such a audacious orchestrated attack on all these places defies all belief and comprehension.

Everything has happened so suddenly that it is difficult to get any real hold on events or my feelings about them. When we first saw this on TV at around 10:30 with the attack on CafĂ© Leopold and apparently some shooting outside VT station the media response was typically confused and speculative veering between gang wars and terrorist attacks. The locations kept changing, reporting seemed hyperbolical “khoon se latpath laashen bikhri hui hain (there are bloodied bodies all around) and India’s 9/11 headlines” repeated 20 times for the same image. My initial reaction was that it was an isolated attack being blown out of proportion. Then as we watched more, events rose in scale to match the hype. We heard the explosion at the Taj the moment it happened, saw the wisps of smoke at it’s dome build up into a conflagration, saw a live video of terrorists driving down Metro in a stolen car shooting people as they went by with one person seemingly shot down in full view of the camera, when 3 of our top ranking police officers are killed trying to storm the hotels, realization sunk that this was something different, an attack on a scale and of a method not seen before in Mumbai, (which routinely clocks a series of blasts every couple of years), or anywhere in India before.

Many questions will be asked. How can a score of people walk into hotels and railway stations with a 12 hour supply of grenades, guns and ammunition? How can nobody know about such a co-ordinated action? Who do we blame this time? Whose head should roll - our immaculately dressed Home Minister, the Maharashtra Chief Minister or the Intelligence team? Most importantly do we the people yet again shrug this off and act as if things are normal again?

There or no easy answers to these questions or in some instances any answers at all. One cannot equally protect every square foot of the city or the nation without losing some efficiency somewhere. Many Indian cities as varied in their socio - economic characteristics as Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Jaipur have suffered these attacks. The current attack seems to focus on places frequented by foreigners with the aim of maximizing international impact and mentally bracket India in the same basket as Pakistan and Afghanistan. (Already England is apparently canceling their ongoing cricket tour.) One thing seems obvious, the idea is to create a fear psychosis, make us afraid to step out of our homes, make us look over our shoulder every time we walk the roads. If we do any otf these things we will be helping the people who do this win. That will be the final victory in the battle that began yesterday. But in not panicking are we being foolhardy? I don’t have the answer, unfortunately neither it seems, do our leaders.

There is a pattern to our responses now which is so predictable that to follow it is as painful as the terrorist attack itself. We call for greater central & state intelligence co-ordination, centralized intelligence agencies, choking the funds flow for these organizations, stricter terror laws, more closed circuit cameras, political parties bashing each other and more. Perhaps we need all of these but these are long term measures which will probably not yield result soon enough to prevent more rounds of attacks. The genie is out of the bottle, and it won’t go in so soon, I am afraid. We face bleak times, but let us face them united as Indians, not as Hindus or Muslims, or Bhaiyyas or Maharastrians, or Dalits or Brahmins but as Indians. If the answers have to come, they will only come that way.

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