Mumbai is India’s most prosperous as well as most cosmopolitan city. The city’s local trains everyday carry about 7 million diverse people, and to this gigantic fare is everyday added 1200 families who reach city from different corners of India in search of better life. Mumbai, also India’s tinsel town, is not only known for its exquisite places and lifestyles, wealth and poverty but also as a constant target of terrorist attacks since the menace raised its ugly head in the Indian subcontinent. In the past decade, it has been the target of terror attack at least five times in 2003, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011. In these attacks, it is the common people who bear the brunt as the targets are usually (perhaps to the sole exception of attacks on posh hotels in 2008) busy market places, local trains, train stations, hospitals, etc. While earlier this year huge fire wrecked havoc in one of Mumbai’s suburbs displaying in national and international media abysmal poverty as a mark of city’s paradox of wealth and poverty, the terror attacks make it clear that Mumbai remains a favourable target for terrorists as whatever happens in Mumbai instantly catches the eyes of the nation and the world, thus in a way fulfilling the aims of the terror designers and their organizations to highlight their presence and activities.
The bomb blasts at the three locations in south and central Mumbai on 13 July 2011 killed at least 21 people and injured about 131 people as per the official sources. The death toll may rise with passing hours, as there are people who are severely wounded in the attacks. The targeting of three locations named Zaveri Bazaar, Opera House and Dadar west in the rush hours were aimed at causing maximum damage to the people. The attacks also pricked the claims of authorities that after the Mumbai attack of 2008, Indian security and intelligence agencies have been successful enough to foil terrorist plans and attacks. India’s home minister recently observed that so far the year 2011 has been peaceful as there has been no terrorist attack. And within days of his statement, the bomb blasts took place. Though India invested heavily in anti-terror operations post-2008, it still appears not fully capable to counter the attacks. After 2008 India witnessed five terror attacks in various parts including New Delhi, Bangalore, Ahmadabad, Pune and Varanasi, Bangalore. Perhaps two factors explain the difficulties in these operations. First, the terrorists mostly target the busy market places or places which are mostly crowded like trains and that too during rush hours, hence making difficult security operations including surveillance of a particular area. In the case of Mumbai, it is one of the most crowded cities of India, with population at about 21million. Like any big city there are always bursts of activities in Mumbai (any commuter in a local train in the city particularly during rush hours can feel the hustling and bustling of the Mumbai life). Hence, it becomes difficult to always keep a tap on developments in a particular locality in this huge city. Hence, while people this time appreciated quick actions by the Mumbai police and authorities, the fact remains that Mumbai still remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
The question then emerges – how to tackle the terror menace in countries like India, or for that matter any other country which is a victim of terrorism? International criticisms have poured in as many countries condemned the attacks in clear terms. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov who was in a bilateral meeting with his US counterpart in Washington expressed strong disapproval of these ‘despicable’ acts which are aimed at creating an atmosphere of ‘fear and division.’ Countries like the US, China, Pakistan, Canada, Australia, etc. have expressed strong criticism of the incident. But, there seems something is lacking at international arena to make a coordinated effort and to devise mechanisms such as to share real time intelligence to fight the menace. Though there are some effective bilateral mechanisms between countries, there is apparent lack of a unified attempt in this context. The Af-Pak tangle is a clear cut example of this conundrum.
Amidst all these bad news, perhaps one positive thing is that India has not accused any particular country for this attack. The earlier habit in a section of Indian establishment was to point fingers at Pakistan for terrorist attacks in India. This restraint is perhaps a welcome sign for India-Pakistan rapprochement which was lagging behind since 2008. India’s Home Minister, P. Chidambaram clearly stated that there must not be any ‘pre-determined assumptions’ towards accusing any particular entity in this heinous act. Though he argued that India lives in a troubled neighbourhood, and countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan have become centres of terrorism, there is no apparent reason to accuse neighbours for this barbaric act. Though yet unconfirmed, there is an argument floating around that the detractors of Indo-Pak dialogue might have triggered the blasts to derail bilateral peace process. This month itself India is going to host two significant events. Pakistan’s foreign minister and the US Secretary of State are visiting India to deliberate on diverse issues of importance. In this backdrop, the bomb blasts will likely push the leaders to think in more pragmatic terms how to tackle the menace. While India accuses Pakistan to use terrorism as an official instrument against India, Pakistan has accused India for not resolving contentious issues including Kashmir.
Is there a large picture attached to these blasts in Mumbai? An analysis of the recent developments in the wider region of South Asia provides some indications in this direction. The recent standoff between Pakistan and the US, the killing of Ahmad Wali Karzai, the powerful half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the rising to power of Ayman al Zawahiri and some Indian Mujahideen’s links to Al Qaeda as the last year’s arrest of an Indian techie in Paris revealed, present a picture of terrorism in the region with wider implications for the world. Though Indian authorities at present suspect the role of Indian Mujahideen, a home grown fundamentalist and terrorist network (emerging out of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India), which is comparatively amateurish and less sophisticated in comparison to other terror groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba or Al Qaeda, a wider linkage in triggering these blasts cannot be ruled out.
Though the recent blasts were unable to dent the spirit of Mumbai and its people, or putting in a different way, though the attacks were unable to affect India’s policy options towards its neighbours or other aspects of its policy making, it certainly challenged India’s recently acquired expertise in counter terrorism operations. There is certainly a wider angle. The menace of terrorism is not bound to any particular nation or group of nations, it transcends national boundaries, and it holds devastating potentials for the human society.
Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India.