May 30, 2020
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That Public Nightmare

A reliving of the 26/11 horror in the words of those who stood witness to it or reported the event

That Public Nightmare
That Public Nightmare
26/11—Mumbai Attacked
By Edited By Harinder Baweja
Roli Books Pages: 224; Rs. 295
A big shabash to Roli Books for being the first publisher off the mark to bring out a book on the November 26 terror attack on Bombay—always Bombay to me, not the politico-inspired Mumbai—now widely referred to as 26/11. Just as 9/11 has become a defining moment for the US, 26/11 has for India.

We all know broadly what happened on that fateful night. Ten heavily armed and diabolically trained terrorists came by boat from Pakistan to a small fishing village in the heart of south Bombay. From there, they split up, moving to their carefully chosen main targets: the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a Jewish centre (Nariman House), the Oberoi’s Trident Hotel and the Taj Mahal Hotel. En route to the Taj, they gunned down several customers and waiters at the Leopold Cafe, a popular tourist haunt.

For 60 hours, these gunmen held our financial capital hostage, killing almost 200 people. All the terrorists, except one, perished. One’s death was seen by millions on TV as he fell backwards from a window of the Taj’s Harbour Bar, after being shot by commandos.

The Indian TV channels had a field day. The verdict on whether they behaved responsibly is still out, but it is a pity that Mumbai Attacked fails to take it up. We now know that the terrorists’ handlers were carefully watching these channels and instructing their wards. For instance, the book reveals that three MPs were in the Taj at the time. One of them managed to escape and went to the nearby Colaba police station, where he gave an interview to a TV channel, disclosing that two of his colleagues were still in the hotel! The handlers apparently saw the interview and ordered the terrorists to take the MPs hostages and later kill them. Fortunately for the MPs, the terrorists were unable to carry out this order.

I happen to reside right next to Nariman House. I have been living there, on and off, for 40 years. But till November 26, I had no idea that it was the centre of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect. The terrorists knew better. If their masters have seen Steven Spielberg’s chilling film, Munich, on the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games by Palestinian terrorist outfit Black September, they should be afraid. Very afraid. Israel made sure that each person directly connected with the Munich massacre was eliminated, some of them by questionable means. You can be sure that Tel Aviv is already busy planning revenge for the Israelis that died at Nariman House, even if New Delhi isn’t.

But Mumbai Attacked is not about vengeance. It’s a graphic account by several reporters on what happened in those three terrible days. They have done a great job. The descriptions by Rahul Shivshankar and Ashish Khetan on the drama at Nariman House and the Taj are gripping. Harsh Joshi managed to get several excellent eyewitness accounts on the night of the attacks.

There are also some hilariously macabre details. An armed Israeli security guard who arrived at Nariman House, ready to take on the gunmen soon after they had entered the building, was mistaken by the surrounding crowd for a terrorist and roughed up! He had to take shelter in the Colaba police station.

Bachi Karkaria was hosting her son’s wedding at the nearby Colaba Agiary when the terrorists struck. One of her guests, journalist Sabina Saikia, staying at the Taj, tragically left early to return to her hotel, becoming a terror victim. However, the most thoughtful pieces in the book are by supercop Julio Ribeiro, who was also a guest at the wedding—as was I—and Harinder Baweja, India’s finest investigative reporter. Ribeiro makes the very valid point that at such times, leadership is crucial: "The policemen who first arrived at the scene of the attacks at the Taj and CST were clueless, leaderless and hopelessly outmanoeuvred." He also mentions the widespread public revulsion against politicians, who were nowhere to be seen when it mattered.

Baweja focuses on the security failures, how a number of telling pointers indicating an imminent attack on Bombay from the sea were ignored. We also know that it took 12 long hours for the nsg to come to Bombay but what I did not know was that the flight was delayed by 45 minutes waiting for then home minister Shivraj Patil. He must have been busy changing his clothes.

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