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The Mood Is the Message: Mumbai in a Time of Terror

We talk of the "senseless" killing of terrorism. Here it was in Mumbai, senseless in the extreme. How can you not ask, what was it all for? Yet there are no answers, apart from the generic "cause maximum terror".

COMMENTARYdecember 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly18forum for the more extreme voices? Or can it find a sensible way forward, even in a conjuncture as trying as Mumbai 26/11, to promote a genuine social dia-logue that is attentive to the true risks and benefits of any particular strategic course? From the huge variety of voices seeking to be heard in India, the media seemingly distils out only those that serve its prior conceptions. Though diffi-cult in trying times such as now, can the media hear voices from across the bor-der? Would it have any use for instance, for the following observations from the December 2 editorial inDawn, one of the most restrained and sober voices in the Pakistan media:…what cannot be condoned is the behaviour of the Indian media, that taking its cue from the politicians – and from a culture of na-tionalism that is especially apparent where Islamabad is concerned – came down hard on Pakistan, often conjuring up fantastical descriptions of the way the siege of Mumbai was laid. Not only does this put pressure on the Indian government to keep up its accu-sations and resist moves for a cooperative stance, it also damages people-to-people ties, for after all, the media is meant to speak for the common man. It has also completely passed the Indian media’s attention that beginning on 29 November, Karachi, where the Mumbai marauders ostensibly set off from, was gripped by ethnic rioting on a scale never before seen. None of the known players in Karachi’s volatile political milieu owned any responsibility for the violence. As The Daily Times of Islamabad, another newspaper known for relative sobriety, commented in its 2 December editorial, the prime minister of Pakistan had asked for intelligence on the incidents and “at least one TV channel reported that an intelligence report sent to the prime minister has held India responsible for the mayhem”.This alibi,The Daily Times continued, was not really credible, since the history of strife between two of the city’s large ethnic communities – the Mohajirs and the Pashtuns – made the indigenous origin of the trouble an entirely plausible scenario.Elsewhere in the editorial columns of the same newspaper, there is the observa-tion that November 2008 has been the bloodiest month so far for the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. The country’s territorial sovereignty was “fast eroding” as non-state actors took over ever-expand-ing swathes of territory, denying the au-thority of the legally constituted Pakistani state. Foreign military intervention in Pakistan, if it came about, would be more on account of ongoing events in Peshawar than what had happened in Mumbai.In the circumstances, if India’s argu-ment that the Mumbai marauders enjoyed official patronage in Pakistan is accurate, then the Pakistani military and intelli-gence establishments are effectively guilty of treason against their own people. If that case can be made with some credi-bility it would surely be of interest to the people of Pakistan, who are heavily invested in a sustenance of the current phase of civilian rule. More than a mili-tary adventure, which could mire India in a worse strategic mess than the US today finds itself in, a candid and transparent dialogue between governments and peo-ple is what is required. That clearly, is not something that could be even begun, as long as the media continues to be an ac-cessory of militarism, rather than a voice of sanity and the public good.The Mood Is the Message: Mumbai in a Time of TerrorDilip D’SouzaWe talk of the “senseless” killing of terrorism. Here it was in Mumbai, senseless in the extreme. How can you not ask, what was it all for? Yet there are no answers, apart from the generic “cause maximum terror”. The question a lot of us here in Mum-bai have is simple: what was it all for? I mean, we’re sorrowful and angry about the killing, but we also would really like to know: what was it all for?Ten young men train for months, learn-ing about weapons and sea landings and elaborate guerrilla tactics. They pore over maps and data about the city until it’s all committed to memory, so much so that they know the city like natives. They take a sea journey, commandeer an Indian fish-ing boat, kill the men on it, they arrive in Mumbai. They spend the next 60 hours shooting, burning, throwing grenades and killing many more. They make no demands of any kind, they don’t even seem to make an effort to contact authorities to state their grievances. They speak to the channel IndiaTV, but it’s a disconnected rant. And then they die, as they had to. Nearly 200 innocent residents of my city lie dead at their hands, many more injured.We talk of the “senseless” killing of terrorism. Here it was, senseless in the extreme. How can you not ask, what was it all for? Yet there are no answers, apart from the generic “cause maximum terror”.And there were 60 straight hours of that maximum terror. The first few of those, especially, were frantic and surreal, as shootings and bombs were reported from all over the city. In Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), the vast train station. At the Leopold Cafe, beloved tourist hangout. In the Taj Mahal and Oberoi-Trident hotels, later the focus of blanket news coverage. On Nepean Sea Road, lined with homes of the rich and famous. Outside the Metro cinema, where it actually happened on liveTV: a police jeep sped past, shots rang out and the man immediately in front of the camera began screaming, blood spew-ing from his hand. In Vile Parle, where a Dilip D’Souza ( is a writer who lives in Mumbai.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 6, 200819taxi blew up. There were reports of explo-sions, too, in Mazagaon and Borivali.How did these terrorists assault the city on so many different fronts? Why?***What’s Normal?Wandering through this city while the siege is going on, with all these questions coursing in my mind: as many people have commented, it’s a surreal experience. To begin with, it’s in the way ordinary things take on a different light. On the tracks at Grant Road station is a nondescript sign that says, in Hindi,Khatra Kshetra, (Danger Zone). It’s meant to warn you not to walk on the tracks. Today, it seems al-most weighed down with graver meaning. Today, it warns of random bullets and murderous grenades.And even so, there’s normalcy all around.The men playing cards on the train, ex-actly as groups of commuters always do. The chaps standing in the doorway craning their necks to catch somebody’s cleavage on a Bollywood film poster. The swarms of kids playing cricket. The two men sit-ting on incongruous blue swivel chairs on a major downtown road.I pass all these people, and I wonder: they too must think about what I can’t get out of my head right now. So is there a normalcy despite and during terror?But of course, outside the hotels under siege, normalcy means very different things. Under a host of flitting dragonflies, cameramen are everywhere. Young wom-en saunter about telling their cellphones that “Gunshots have been heard, an alert has been sounded”. Barkha Dutt, our best known TV anchor, tells her phone that “thePrime Minister will not speak till the operation is over”.There’s a commotion off to our left, and all the cameramen run over to get their shots. A muscular man beside me, wear-ing a T-shirt that reads “When I’m Good I’m Very Good, When I’m God I’m Even Better”, looks in that direction and says to nobody in particular: Range-wale aa gayen (The range people have come).I think he means “Rangers”, referring to armed men, and now I can see a contin-gent of Navy commandos striding into the cordoned off area. I don’t think they have ever been called “range-wale”, but everyone understands what the man means. But then he turns and points along the sea-wall, to several exhausted firemen taking a rest there. In Marathi, he tells a friend they are all from the Army. The friend, I imagine, will explain that they are not sol-diers, but firemen. But instead he replies with one word: “Cover?” The muscular man says one word too: “Ho”. “Yes”.I’m baffled as I stand there. Yet today, being baffled is normal.***What Happens To UsThough there is seriousness too.A couple near me asks a man who’s chatting with them – the wife nods her approval of this particular question – Minister mare kya? (Have any ministers died?). When the man shakes his head to say no, the husband goes on: Minister ko marne do, aatankwadi band! (Let a minister die, and that’ll be the end of terrorism). The wife nods some more.Yet are things really that simple? Their words come back to mind only minutes later, when Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil actually arrives at the scene. Over rushing cameramen withTV cameras held high – there are advantages to being six feet tall – I see several stern men with drawn guns trotting past. Following them is a white Ambassador – the car that’s still the choice of ministers – that sweeps around the bend and stops. Patil emerges – a short man with a moustache and a permanently quizzical look. Herded by his escorts, he disappears to confer with the men in charge of the operation. Later, he walks over to the media, setting off a feeding frenzy of cameramen and journalists, Barkha Dutt somewhere in there, and I can’t get within 20 metres of him. Later, a journalist who was pressed up next to him shares what he said: five terrorists killed so far, one captured, maybe 10-15 more inside.Press briefing done, Patil settles into his Ambassador. Escorts trotting again, he sweeps around the bend, towards the Taj Mahal Hotel. As he goes, I count. In a time of violence, when we all feel greatly inse-cure, the deputy chief minister must feel even more insecure. He’s making his way through our city in a convoy of 10 – that’s right, 10 – cars filled with armed cops, led by three more on motorcycles. The trotting officers, I guess, must be part of the circus.Moments like these: in my mind, I try hard to square them with hours of blood-shed, confusion and sorrow. I can’t, and I imagine many others can’t. And that may be why the couple thinks their inno-vative thoughts about ending terror using ministers.But if there are odd scenes, and people treating this as one big new circus come to town, plenty of us are also staring uneasily up at the hotels. As I stand there doing the same, I cannot help the thought, and it comes to me again and again. How easy it would be for one of these terrorists to peer out a window high up there, point his gun at us and squeeze the trigger for long minutes, watching as his tiny missiles smash their way into their targets – the muscular man’s formidable chest, or my puny arms, or Barkha Dutt’s short cropped head.And in fact, that’s just about what hap-pens, sometime during these tense hours, at the Taj. One terrorist there leans out and shoots at the crowd. A photographer and one or two others are wounded.So I stand there, but frankly, I’m terri-fied. Yet today, that’s normal too. Maybe we don’t stop to think about it, but that kind of feeling is what these 10 men set out to create, here in my city.***We VoyeursAt the Air India building the next day, crowds surge from here to there, like some clothed and hairy wave. Hostage coming out of that exit? Run over there. Distraught relative emerging from this one? Leap over the flowers to get back.After the end of the horrific ordeal at the Trident, hostages from the hotel – dead and alive – are being brought to the Air India building, next door.One exit is for vehicles to take them away. Curious onlookers press in to such a degree that they have a hard time getting through. The first car I see is a Scorpio that barrels through the crowd and up the ramp, waved on by a burly man who is helping families with the whole process. He shouts angrily at bystanders and by sheer force of personality clears a path for the Scorpio to pull in and drive out again with its sad load.
COMMENTARYdecember 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly20The other exit is through a small lobby where there is a collection of grieving rela-tives waiting for news. Each family has sent in somebody, and every now and then a distraught person emerges with whatever they have learned, and the sorrow ripples outwards from them. Two hostages, pale and trembling, are led away by parents through thronging onlookers and photo-graphers and cameramen running after them, alongside them, backward in front of them. Twice there’s news of a dead hos-tage, and the family stands shattered and crying, onlookers crowding around and photographers with long lenses contorting their bodies for their shots.A young woman in blue jeans and a green top is taking photographs of this sorrow with a tiny camera. After a few minutes, a woman from one of the families walks over and berates her. “Why are you taking photographs, for God’s sake? Don’t you have any human decency? And you’re a woman, you’re not even a man!”The young woman looks abashed, for several seconds. Then she resumes taking pictures. A while later I see that she has handed her camera to a friend and is actu-ally posing for a picture, green in front of the grief.The man standing right next to me speaks into his phone. “Look”, he says, “I desperately need you to get me someone high up in the police who can get me in to check out the dead bodies.” I can’t believe I heard this. Is this the level of voyeurism we’re getting to? So I turn to say some-thing angry to him. As I do, a weeping woman buries her face in his shoulder. This is one of the affected families. Just in time, I bite off my words.And it’s about then that I think some-thing that I eventually find myself think-ing at every scene of great disaster and sorrow I’ve been at. Sure, I feel contempt for voyeurs like Ms Green Top. But what makes me any different?***AheadTwo days after the end of 60 hours of hor-ror, I wander downtown again. This is now definitely a new tourist attraction. Huge crowds throng the Gateway of India plaza in front of the Taj, though a large part of it is still cordoned off and patrolled by armed men. There are ice cream and snack and drink vendors, people taking photographs in every direction. Camera crews are all over the place. One anchor with a British accent tries to tape a seg-ment where he begins “Indian security ex-perts tell us...” but for some reason the camera keeps failing, or he stumbles over his delivery. So like a stuck record, he says those few words again and again.Various groups have gathered for their own remembrances. Many light candles. There are two people from something called “The Way To Happiness”, lighting flames and handing out books that say happiness lies in safeguarding and improv-ing the environment. Others put up posters expressing sorrow and resolve. “Terrorism kills people”, says a scribbled note in green on one, “but not the unity of Mumbai”.There is also anger. Palpable anger. A large crowd gathers around a man who, with a finger held aloft, shouts heatedly about how we should get rid of our politi-cians, or at least take away their security cover. A man listening shouts back that the government should give weapons to us “aam janta” and we’ll drive back any ter-rorists who dare to attack us. In a pointed comment on the widespread belief that the police is poorly equipped, another man responds to this saying: Haan, haan, lathi se ladho! (Sure, sure, fight them with sticks!). Somebody else manages both anger and sadness in his voice as he men-tions the names of the three police officers who, with about a dozen other constables, were killed by the terrorists: Vijay Salaskar, Ashok Kamte and Hemant Karkare. “Why did they die?” he demands.With feeling running high like this, I’m a little surprised there isn’t more anger directed towards Pakistan, from where the lone captured terrorist says they all came. Maybe there are other spots in the city where people are spewing abuse at Pakistan. But here and now, most of it is reserved for India and our leaders. I wonder about that. I wonder if it’s because people have grown used to fingers pointed across the border over the years; but after this outrage, they are well and truly disgusted with the failures of those we elect to rule and protect India.Perhaps that’s why we have already seen two ministers resign from their posts, and a third likely to follow soon. One of those two is the very same R R Patil, the man with the 10-car convoy and the trot-ting guards. To my knowledge, this is the first time after a terror attack – and we’ve had so many – that Indian politicians have accepted responsibility and resigned.It’s one good outcome of all the anger. But it’s also being channelled in different directions. Triggered by this attack, I know of efforts to call for police reform, to denounce hate speech, to take TV channels to task for their coverage, and more.But there’s more than just those things. For too many Indians, our hostile relation-ship with Pakistan translates into suspi-cion of Indian Muslims. Every time there is terror in India, the suspicion overflows again, fuelled by insinuations from any number of Indian demagogues, driven on by our ignorance about the way our own neighbours live.After these 60 traumatic hours, certain-ly there are whispers and insinuations, but ... perhaps I’m just being optimistic, but this time, my sense is that there’s a degree less suspicion. That we are starting to tire of demagoguery. That we want answers and accountability and governance from our Indian leaders, and security in our In-dian lives. That we recognise that this was an attack on us all, and thus we’re all in this together.About Rwanda, Ryszard Kapuscinski once wrote: “[W]hat strikes you most [here] is its deep provincialism. Our world, seemingly global, is in reality a planet of thousands of the most varied and never intersecting provinces. ...For most people, the real world ends on the thresh-old of their house, at the edge of their village, or, at the very most, on the border of their valley.”In a Mumbai still recovering from horror, I get the fleeting feeling that we want more than just our thresholds, or provinces that never intersect. Maybe we’re starting to yearn for the feeling of community with those around us, community regardless of religion or language, community that is, in the end, our best guarantee of safety.And if we are really yearning like that, it might just be the silver lining to 60 very black hours. Then the question “What was it all for?” might just yield an unexpected but very welcome answer.

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