Mumbai, India’s most populous city and commercial center, has been the scene of a terrorist atrocity that has left at least 127 dead and more than 300 wounded.
Beginning late on the evening of Wednesday, November 26, seven or more sites in southern Mumbai came under attack from gunmen wielding automatic and semi-automatic weapons and grenades. Several bombs are also reported to have exploded.
The targeted sites included one of India’s busiest commuter railway stations, a hospital, a Jewish center, a café popular with tourists, and two luxury hotels.
The synchronized attacks are said to have been perpetrated by a group of 20 or more young, South Asian-looking men. They were clearly aimed at inducing panic and inflicting the maximum civilian casualties.
Indian army commandos were soon mobilized to suppress the attack and free dozens, if not hundreds of people, who had been taken hostage or had hidden from the gunmen at the Chabad Lubavitch Centre as well as the Taj Mahal and Oberoi-Trident hotels.
A tense stand-off, punctuated by gunfire and explosions, continued through the day Thursday at the two hotels, both of which came to be partially engulfed in fire. Only late in the evening Thursday did Indian authorities announce that they had secured the Taj Mahal. Military operations were said to be continuing at the Oberoi and at the Jewish Center.
There have been press reports, based on eyewitness accounts, that the terrorists deliberately targeted foreigners and specifically sought out US and British citizens at the targeted hotels.
However, the vast majority of the reported fatalities were Indian civilians, although this could conceivably change after the two hotels have been secured and thoroughly searched
One report listed the dead as six foreigners, the head of the Maharastra State Anti-Terrorism Squad, 14 other police and home guard personnel, and 104 Indian civilians, including dozens of railway commuters and several hotel employees. Seven foreigners and 26 police personnel were among the more than 325 injured.
Mumbai is India’s most cosmopolitan city, although in recent months it has been shaken by a reactionary, frequently violent agitation mounted by a split-off from the Hindu communalist and Maharastran-chauvinist Shiv Sena against workers from north India.
The Deccan Mujahedeen, a previously unknown group, is reported to have claimed responsibility for the attack. The Western media has been full of speculation that al-Qaeda, whose roots lie in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Middle East, instigated the Mumbai atrocity.
The BBC has reported eyewitnesses as saying the gunmen spoke Hindi, India’s principal national language, while Indian Army Major General R.K. Hooda has claimed that the attackers spoke Punjabi in intercepted conversations. One of India’s official languages, Punjabi is also the mother-tongue of the majority of Pakistanis.
In a nationally-televised address Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that “the group which carried out these attacks” was “based outside the country.”
In an apparent ratcheting up of Indian pressure on its arch-rival Pakistan, Singh threatened undisclosed reprisals against India’s neighbours if they fail to satisfy New Delhi’s demand to do more to suppress anti-Indian terrorist groups. “We will take up strongly with our neighbours,” said Singh, “that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated, and that there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them.”
Later Thursday it was reported Indian naval personnel had searched a Pakistani ship docked in Mumbai harbour and the Indian navy had apprehended two Pakistani merchant vessels off India’s west coast. Indian authorities have said that the attackers arrived in Mumbai by boat.
New Delhi has repeatedly blamed Pakistan for terrorist attacks, including a bomb-blast last summer at the Indian embassy in Kabul.
In 2001-02, the two countries almost went to war for the fourth time after India alleged Pakistan was responsible for a terrorist attack on India’s parliament and mobilized a million troops, for the better part of a year, along the Pakistani border.
The two countries have been pursuing a peace dialogue since January 2004. But New Delhi, conscious of India’s growing economic power and buoyed by a burgeoning strategic partnership with the US that has included the signing of a nuclear cooperation treaty and Washington’s strong support for India playing a major role in Afghanistan, has ceded no ground whatsoever to Islamabad on the vital issue of Kashmir.
Pakistan was quick to forcefully condemn the November 26-27 terrorist attack and express its support for the Indian government. From New Delhi, where he was participating in the latest round of peace talks, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned against a rush to judgment. “Our experience in the past tells us that we should not jump to conclusions,” Qureshi told Dawn television.
In a show of “national unity,” Manmohan Singh has offered to tour Mumbai with L.K. Advani, the prime ministerial candidate of the official opposition Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP.
This will bring no comfort to the Muslims of Mumbai or India’s Muslim minority as a whole. Advani is a rank Hindu communalist, a lifelong member of the Hindu supremacist RSS, and the principal leader of an agitation to build a Hindu temple on the site of a famous mosque in Ayodhya that climaxed in 1992-93 in the worst communal rioting in India since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent. Advani is also a close associate of the BJP Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who incited in 2002 a pogrom against the state’s Muslims, with a series of statements that implied Muslims were collectively responsible for a train fire, whose origins remain in dispute, that killed several score Hindu supremacist activists.
Whoever were the authors of this week’s terrorist attack in Mumbai, it was a vile act that will only serve reaction in India and internationally.
The White House will invoke the Mumbai events to justify the “war on terror”—the predatory policy the Bush administration has pursued around the world, but which found its supreme expression in the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The incoming Democratic administration of Barack Obama shares the same basic imperialist goals as its predecessor and has given every indication that it will employ much of the same rhetoric, first and foremost the claim that the US is locked in an open-ended war on terror. A spokesman for president-elect Obama, Brooke Anderson, said the “co-ordinated attacks on innocent civilians” in Mumbai “demonstrate the grave and urgent threat of terrorism”; then added, “the United States must continue to strengthen our partnerships with India and nations around the world to root out and destroy terrorist networks.”
Obama has been advocating a major intensification of the US-NATO war in Afghanistan, including extending it into the border regions of neighboring Pakistan, in the name of destroying al-Qaeda and the terrorist threat to America.
Manmohan Singh in his address to the nation Thursday promised to strengthen India’s anti-terrorist laws, i.e. give security forces greater powers, a longstanding demand of the BJP and the political right. India’s police and security forces have an atrocious human rights record, including frequently resorting to dragnets, torture, and summary executions
The past two days’ events in Mumbai are a godsend to the Hindu supremacist right.
The BJP and it allies have been rocked by the recent exposure of a Hindu supremacist terror network, with connections to the Indian military. Police say this network was responsible for twin bombings on September 29 that killed 6 people and is suspected of carrying out other bombings, including possibly the 2006 attack on a train bound for Pakistan that killed 68 people, most of them Pakistanis. Several of the chief suspects have longstanding and close ties to the BJP and other prominent Hindu nationalist organizations. (See: “India: Hindu supremacist terror network had ties to military”)
So fearful are the BJP and its allies of the political fallout from the exposure of the Hindu terror conspiracy that they have been mounting a hysterical campaign against the special anti-terrorist police, whose activities they have hitherto praised to the sky, accusing them of mounting a vendetta against Hindus.
Unquestionably the BJP will seize on the Mumbai atrocity and its horrific toll in human life to try to suppress public discussion of, and derail the investigation, into the Hindu terrorist network.
Exposure of the network was threatening to disrupt the BJP’s plans to place at the center of its campaign in the coming election the charge that the Congress Party, the dominant partner in India’s United Progressive Alliance coalition, is “soft” on terrorism. The BJP has long tied this fatuous claim to communal incitement—to claims that the Congress won’t take the stern measures needed to defeat “Islamic terrorism” because it is intent on “coddling Muslims.”
Speaking Thursday, BJP leader Advani called for “patriotic unity” and “communal harmony,” but then in the next breath served notice that the BJP sees the Mumbai atrocity as grist for its electioneering. Said Advani, “In the context of what has happened last night in Mumbai, there is no doubt that both the UPA Government at the Centre and the Congress-NCP coalition Government in Maharashtra have a lot to answer for.”
In declaring this week’s attack to be a “continuation of 13 March 1993,” Advani may, however, have said more than he wished. On March 13, 1993, a Muslim-led criminal gang carried out a series of bombings in Mumbai. The bombings were in retaliation for pogrom-style riots that had killed hundred of Muslims in Mumbai two months before as part of the communal bloodletting triggered by Advani’s campaign to build a Hindu temple on the ashes of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya.
The rise of Islamacist terrorism in India is not principally due to forces outside the country. It is a consequence of the Indian elite’s increasingly pronounced promotion of Hindu communalism, as exemplified by the rise of the Hindu supremacist BJP over the past quarter-century. Even a recent Indian government inquiry was forced to conclude that India’s 140 million Muslims face systematic discrimination and police harassment and are at, or near the bottom, as measured by key socio-economic indicators, of India’s overwhelmingly poor and grossly unequal society.