February 21, 2020
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The Bom Bahia Siege

The worst part about public catastrophe is the personal wound...

The Bom Bahia Siege
The Bom Bahia Siege
The morning after a night of televised terror began with a triviality. The first thought that seized me when I switched on the TV at 11 am was that the Taj Mahal Hotel was still standing. When I went to bed at 6 am, the blaze was approaching the Saracenic Gothic dome. I bid goodbye to a beloved icon of my city, a part of my identity in Mumbai. The worst part about public catastrophe is the personal wound.

I write before the last ball is bowled in this ghastly one-nighter. But enough has happened. Over a hundred killed and three times that number wounded.

The Taj has filaments of nostalgia for many of us. It’s where the greats of the world lived since 1903—kings and presidents, Nobel winners, writers and thinkers. For me, it’s where Teddy Weatherford, the great jazz pianist, played at the Harbour Bar in the mid-to-late 1930s and where my parents foxtrotted at the weekly tea dances. In the wave of remembrance sweeping over, there are some stony questions. Why us? Who are these attackers and what do they want? What does this mean for the future of our city? The first has a two-part answer: us, because we’re a soft state with security that’s childishly simple to pierce and where foreign ministers accompany terrorist leaders to safe havens; us, because we’re Mumbai, the country’s City of Gold which, once hit, leaves a broken bone in our systems and structures. Our success is also our doom, at least we seem to be getting there.

Who are these people? I’m reminded of the pirates in the Gulf of Aden. After rescue, a crew of the Stolt Valor called them "animals". Not a bad description of the creatures who sprayed bullets on innocents. There is another likeness. Some 20 of them held at bay about 1,000 security personnel made up of the RAF, army and navy commandos, the city’s ats, companies of army grenadiers and city policemen. It’s the same apparent mismatch of strength: little speed boats attacking and subduing giant tankers. At the time of writing, little is known of the identity or demand of the attackers.

Barkha Dutt of NDTV, credited with many crises coverages, said on camera, "These men are here to die". That’s a major difference from the Somalian "animals": they’re in it for the ransom. The Mumbai attackers have different motivations. Senior officials characterise them as highly motivated, trained and meticulous planners. This suggests for good reason (for once) a "foreign hand". Our Lashkars, Naxals, Mujahideen, even "Hindu terror" are sloppy layabouts in comparison. The final difference is the technique: massive hostage-taking and targeting of non-Indians. There was even suspicion of an Arab-Israeli angle because some hostages are Israeli and Nariman House, one of the buildings attacked, accommodates a community of Jews, local and visiting.

Adversity breeds a few good things. An ISI-RAW hotline, for instance, suggested by Pakistan foreign minister. It may have been to reduce the chances of a Godhra-type backlash on Indian Muslims, or to head off the usual blaming of Pakistan for our troubles.

The attackers came by sea from the Gujarat side by a fishing craft and then by rubber dinghies fitted with outboard motors. They landed near Sassoon Dock, Colaba, from where they fanned out to 11 sites. They came by sea, as did the greatness of Bombay after the opening of the Suez Canal. But the symbolism may be in reverse. The venality and corruption of this city’s rulers have destroyed its quality of life and made the builder its decision-maker. They’ve turned away the investment and arrival of fine minds that made Bombay what it was. The spreading "meltdown" has dealt us a near-crippling blow in terms of wealth, growth and job creation. Will November 26 be the final tipping point?

"The spirit of Mumbai" is a PR myth about our recovery from 13 blasts some years ago. The Stock Exchange began functioning two days later and the city returned to near-normal. But that spirit has been crabbed by divisive politics of unprincipled politicians, for three decades now. It may have come to a head with the recent anti-north Indian violence and tactics of Raj Thackeray.

Bombay once had few rivals. Today, Delhi is an option for corporate headquarters; Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai for IT and other industries; Gujarat for new enterprise. Worst, now that technology destroys time and distance, there’s Singapore and Dubai as finance centres, the latter offering its seductive services as an efficient entrepot. It’s hard times for Bombay.

An ominous footnote: for all the terrorists killed or arrested, three escaped.

Gerson Da Cunha is Commentator and civil rights activist
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