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Bombay, Nov. 26 2008

Posted by: Manjeet Krpalani on November 27, 2008

India’s most deadly terrorist attack started innocently, at the Leopold Café on Bombay’s Colaba Causeway, the city’s main drag.

I was at the Indigo Deli, a trendy café in Bombay right near the famous Taj Mahal Hotel, along with the usual rush and the usual dinner crowd of Western and Oriental tourists and businessmen, hip local Bombayites. At about 9:30 pm, my companion’s phone rang: there’s been a shootout at the Leopold. We think, oh, it’s those drug addicts at their usual squabble, the Colaba area police, located right across the road from Leopold, will lock them up overnight.

I know the area well; it’s the old Fort of Bombay, where I lived for almost a decade, and till last year. I know the area’s grand sea-facing boulevard, the colonial back streets, the heritage houses lining the side streets, and also the dark side of the streets - the curbside prostitutes, the lurking drug peddlers.

I thought, let me walk around the corner to Leopold, and check it out. But as I walked towards the door, I found the restaurant’s shutters down. “Ma’am, we are under police orders not to let anyone out,” said the manager. I fought, argued, I’m a reporter, I have to go; besides, we are right opposite the headquarters of the Maharashtra State Police, there’s no problem. Leopold was one block south, the Taj was one block west. Okay, they said, and opened the door. I’d left my notebook on the table, and when I went back to get it, my friends had drawn this on the page: a cat, smiling, tail perked up, with the legend: “Happy Shooting @ Leopold!!” By the time I returned to the door, it had been locked again, and we were prisoners inside.

By then, it seemed, so was half the city prisoner. Our phones began to ring; don’t leave, the Taj hotel is under siege, so is the Oberoi hotel; there’s mayhem at the Cama Hospital, the main Victoria Terminus station. We needed to get home, I needed to get out. Somehow, my companions managed to get the restaurant doors opened, and we slipped out. It was eerily quiet. Before I could turn towards the Taj, I’d been bundled into my friend’s car and taken home. Five minutes after I got home, located near the famous Girgam-Chowpatty Beach, the police announced they had shot and killed two of the terrorists just down the road from me.

I locked my doors and windows, checked in with my neighbours, turned on the television, and got into war mode. Kept a large kitchen knife on my bedside table, torch, cell-phone fully charged. I got into bed fully clothed, put some money in my pocket and a gold bangle on my hand, just in case the money didn’t work while negotiating with the bad guys. The latter is a survival trick I learned from my parents, who escaped Pakistan for India virtually overnight many years after the Partition of the two countries in 1947.

The terrorist attacks had blanketed all the television stations. This is south Bombay, where India’s elite live – its elite businessmen, its elite politicians, its elite stores, its elite hotels, companies, institutions, secular religious symbols, its best harbour. It hosts the stockmarket, the lofty high court, Bombay University, and Bombay’s old-money aristocracy. Down the road from the Taj is Navy Nagar, where India’s top navy units are located, and the world-famous Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

The country is riveted. By 10 pm, everyone was on the phone with each other. I said to them with immense confidence, don’t worry, Bombay has the best cops, and the best of the best is Hemant Karkare, chief of the anti-terror squad. He’s a thinker, he can smell a terrorist from a mile away, he thinks globally, he is the sharpest, smartest policeman I know. I’d met him at a meeting a year ago, where he asked Vijay Nambiar, the special advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, why the UN didn’t have a focus on terrorism, as it was a serious global problem. Nambiar didn’t have a good answer. But Karkare told me later that in this world of global terrorism, all us citizens should start taking a personal interest in issues of foreign policy.

Thirty minutes later, Karkare, who had rushed to the Cama Hospital, walked into an ambush and was killed by the terrorists who had laid siege to the hospital. I wept. Karkare was a hero of mine. Our finest protector and citizen, gone.

That leaves Bombay without its best counter-terrorism brain, and India without a prayer. Two other colleagues of Karkare were killed – an assistant commissioner, and Vijay Salaskar, Bombay’s most famous ‘encounter’ specialist, whose record of hunting down terrorists, criminals and other baddies, had become legend over the years.

Who were these terrorists? No one knew.

The long night began. The Taj was up in flames, the Oberoi hotel in flames, hostages in both hotels. Businessmen both Indian and foreign, stuck.

In the morning, the terrorists are still there, burning down the Taj room by room. It’s almost like the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The hotel is an Indian icon. It was built in 1901 to challenge the British apartheid of Indians in their establishments. In retaliation, Jamshedji Tata built Asia’s grandest, most glamorous and European-style, seaside hotel, the Taj Mahal Hotel, which allowed “only Indians and Enlightened Europeans.”

The terrorists are giving interviews to the local Hindi channels. “We are seven terrorists in the Oberoi hotel, we are from Hyderabad, we are the Deccan Mujahuddeen, we want you to stop attacking Muslims and our brothers, sisters and mothers, and release all the mujahuddeen imprisoned in India,” said one of the terrorists. He sounds like a young boy with a Bollywood dialogue, not a ruthless killer who can lay low India’s tough protection agencies. Pictures of the terrorists are released. They are young boys, clean-shaven, smartly dressed, with back-packs which hid their AK-47s. They look like computer engineers. They know all the tricks now, about how to look like the rest of us.

It is still not clear how they got into the hotels, despite the strict security. The chief minister of Maharashtra says the terrorists came by boat. It’s believable. India’s long coastline, especially in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, is criminally unmanned by the state. Dhows carrying everything from RDX to smuggled fabric and opium, routinely dock here. I have seen them myself. No one stops them; local politicians look the other way and take the proffered bribes.

The city had been warned just last week, my sources tell me. Yes, but as with 9/11, who knew where and how to protect? Besides, everyone was distracted by the global financial crisis and the discovery of Hindu fundamentalist extremists who were as bad as the Muslim ones.

What’s clear is that this is not a local affair; this is an international one. Al Qaeda with local support. As usual, India is target practice for the bigger goal: America. Indian cities first, then American cities. Now there’s also Chicago, Obama's hometown, in addition to New York. The warning has been given.

In 2003, there was a terrorist bomb blast outside the Taj Mahal hotel. The Taj’s ground and first floor windows had been shattered. I lived right there, so I rushed to the scene of the blast. Himanshu Roy, the young deputy director general of police for Maharashtra, was already there, a calming presence. The Taj had sent help and medical aid for injured passers by, and water for the thirsty. All the state leaders including the municipal commissioner and the chief minister showed up. They gave interviews and said, this will not stop us.

In 2003, I wrote, yes, this will not stop us. (See “It’s a different India this time,” from September 8, 2003.) It was indeed the turning point for India. The country had just begun to emerge from its economic darkness; the ordinary man smelt prosperity. Instead of the city shutting down and people taking to looting and murder, the Bombaywalla stopped, saw – and moved on. He had just begun to dream of a better life for his children. He went back to work, the trains ran on time, the foreigners continued with their lunch and dinner and Rajasthan tour plans. The Taj replaced its glass frontage in an hour. India became the new emerging markets phenomena.

In 2008, I predict: this will stop us. This will hold us back. We are furious, but we are also weak, and now we are also afraid. India has become a soft state. There is no Hemant Karkare to protect us. Our politicians are weak. The ruling Congress Party cares only about dynasty politics and caste equations and winning the next election. Homeland security does not interest it. This is the kind of fertile environment for the rise of a tough, anti-secular leader. People say, don’t be surprised if Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, is made a front-running prime ministerial candidate in the 2009 elections. He would be good for discipline and economic growth and homeland security. But it would compromise the secular nature of India, that inner beauty of this highly adaptable, ancient civilization.

The new U.S. consul general in Bombay has just come from a tour of Baghdad. Bombay should have been a relief, but instead he is suddenly occupied with protection, not commercial, issues. For, as my friend, author Suketu Mehta said, “Who thought Bombay would turn into Baghdad?”

Reader Comments


November 27, 2008 2:32 AM

If the terrorists came by boats, the Indian Navy should be red faced. They must have sailed from right under the Navy's nose. The way the attacks were conducted, they appeared to have been well planned, with help from locals. What's happened to the state intelligence? Didn't they get a whiff of what was happening? It is sad that top cop Karkare had to lay down his life due to inefficiencies of the politicians. Our cops work under tremendous interference from politicians. They are told when to go slow on investigation and when to let off culprits. When will India learn to punish the corrupt?

Jack Ewing

November 27, 2008 4:41 AM

Wonderful piece, Manjeet. Glad you're safe.


November 28, 2008 10:25 PM

I think this is soooo crazy as im sitting here in the u. im so sad for you and what is going on in your country right now i pray for you all and peace be with you all

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