Posted by: Manjeet Krpalani on November 29, 2008
I am home after a long day at the Jewish Centre, the Taj and the Oberoi. Around the Jewish centre, young Jews, members of Bombay’s 3,500-strong Jewish community, were walking around talking to the media, trying to explain the different strains of Judaism to a predominantly Hindu audience. The Jews in Bombay largely have Maharashtrian names, and speak the local Marathi language better than Hindi, India’s national language.
The Jewish centre was located between an Ismaili place of worship, and a Hindu temple. No one noticed the Jewish centre, and few who live in the Colaba area know the Ismaili worship house even exists among their midst. The Jews are peaceable and integrated, and so are the Ismailis, Shia Muslims who are followers of the Aga Khan. As for the Hindu temple, it’s dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god, who is beloved of everybody and often has non-Hindu devotees.
Such is the sunny, international and secular nature of Bombay’s Colaba district, a district full of communities and nationalities more interested in good food, shopping, and meandering around the small lanes and alleys. Now, it’s full of police vans, huge white Rapid Action Force vans, Emergency Response Vehicles, commando cars, and television vans with generators so loud that the reporters could hardly be heard above the din. All the shops are shut, but an eatery, Kailash Parbat, established in 1947 and an institution in Colaba, is giving out free water and bread-and-dal to the thirsty and the hungry.
Around noon, there are shots and grenades go off. By now, the rumours have begun to fly – the Reserve Bank of India has been attacked, so has the Victoria Terminus station, the Marine Lines station. People are starting to feel afraid. Bombay has never been like this. The streets are forlorn, save for the usual crowd surrounding television cameras. Nobody wants to talk to reporters. They say they are not afraid, but really, they prefer not to talk to reporters.
At the Taj and the Oberoi, it’s worse. There is gunfire and grenade attacks, other loud blasts – maybe RDX? – every 15 minutes. The bodies are coming out every 30 minutes. It’s frightening.
Meanwhile in Delhi, the government has released some information. Some of the dead terrorists are revealed to be from Pakistan, one has an identity card from the Maldives. The prime minister of India asks for the chief of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, to come to Delhi. The Indians can’t figure out who these terrorists are, perhaps the Pakistanis can help? Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who happened to be visiting Delhi on November 26, assures India of all help needed.
We are desperate for any help we can get. The terrorists are all young men, perhaps some young women. They have been without food for 48 hours, without rest or sleep, with energy, ruthlessness and tremendous physical strength. And they are cold-blooded, ruthless killers. Yet 400 of India’s elite guard can’t overpower them at the Taj Mahal hotel.
Who are these people? They are young and dedicated with the power to surprise. Intelligence sources in India say they have been trained with military precision, as good or better than the US Marines. A retired Indian colonel said to a friend he’d have been proud to be the commander of such a group, they were so efficient. Some within and outside of India suspect it is far, far more sinister than Al Qaeda. Surjit Bhalla, an economist and chairman of Oxus funds, wrote in his column for Nov 28, “This is modern urban terrorism, initiated by individuals who are loath to see progress on the India-Pakistan front, or among Arabs and Israelis. With uncanny predictability, terrorist strikes occur in these two areas whenever there is hope for long-lasting peace” as there is right now.”
Others think way beyond the local. This, says a friend, is criminality gone amok, private militias being trained criminally. The recruits come from the ranks of the disaffected of south Asia, and the funds, say some, come from the middle east. The idea is to wreak havoc, and destabilise those they believe are seeking peace among old enemies.
Will they succeed? I’m not sure they won’t.