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Friday, November 27, 2009

One Year On, Nothing Has Changed

Nothing has changed. For better or worse, a year after the 11/26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the city remains unchanged. Ask most Mumbaikers today and it's hard for them to recall the true horror of 11/26.
[Prashant Agrawal]
Prashant Agrawal
As the attacks started, cell phones rang with improbable text messages that Nigerian drug dealers were having a gunfight. Soon, news channels reported that Mumbai was under attack by several armed terrorists. Their number and location were unknown, but they were roaming through South Mumbai. Cell phones stopped working as networks became jammed. No one dared venture out. A city of 20 million stood eerily quiet. As the night wore on, the picture became clearer, 10 or so terrorists had landed near Colaba attacking a women's hospital, Mumbai's largest train station, a Jewish center, a café frequented by tourists and locals, and most famously, the Taj and Oberoi hotels.
On the morning of 11/27, the world woke up to an unfolding terrorist siege at the landmark hotels. Mumbaikers started to venture out as authorities assured the populace that all the terrorists were either dead or holed up in the Taj and Oberoi. Nevertheless, text messages circulated rumors that another dozen terrorists were hiding out across the city ready to launch a second strike. A nervous city went back to work – all the while watching the hostage situation. When the siege ended, the city breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Even as the government proclaimed that the attacks were orchestrated by Pakistan, public anger was directed inwards against the perceived ineptness of the local government response. Citizens groups marched demanding better security. Special anger was vented at the state of Maharashtra's Home Minister who famously remarked "these type of incidents happen in big cities." Mumbaikers were outraged at the callous remarks. The government promised change: to increase security, to provide more capable ministers and to apprehend the alleged Pakistani masterminds of the attack.
Under intense international pressure, Pakistan arrested the head and five other leaders of the LeT, the group suspected of the attack. The Chief Minister and Home Minister were sacked. In the global euphoria of Barack Obama's victory, change seemed to be on the way in Mumbai and India as well.
If the next terrorist attack happens and Pakistanis are seen to be behind it, will the anger turn outwards?
A year later, nothing has changed. The city hums to the same rhythm it did a year ago. Leopold Café, where the attacks began, continues to be a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Victorious Terminus is still among the busiest train stations in the world. Cama Hospital continues to nurse the children and women of Mumbai. The Chabad have sent two Rabbis to continue serving Mumbai's Jewish communities.
The focal points of the attack, the Taj and Oberoi are up and running. Sitting in the cafes and restaurants of the hotel, life seems to have return to normal. Young couples enjoy dinner, tourists plan outings and businessmen conduct meetings. Still, the hotels remain one place where one is reminded of 11/26.
Security around the hotel is noticeably tighter. Machine gun wielding police guard the hotels behind sandbag barriers and to enter one needs to pass through metal detectors and a frisking. Yet, any frequent visitor to the hotel will often see the policemen sitting bored behind the barriers with their guns resting a few feet from their hands. As rent-a-cop security guards frisk you, it seems rude not to joke with security guards about finding something today. Security seems more about going through the motions than actually preventing any further attacks.
The same could be said about apprehending the terrorists. The Indian government went through the motions of being firm, but in the end, nothing. The sacked Chief Minister now has a plum federal cabinet post and the sacked Home Minister who seemed nonchalant about the attacks is back like a bad Wes Craven movie; he has been recently reappointed.
No one realizes it more than those of us who live in Mumbai, but the city remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It's not that Mumbai isn't safe. It's actually among the safest cities in the world. Women can walk freely late at night, burglary rates and murder rates are low for a major world city. In a city where every footpath has a name attached to it, anonymity is hard to achieve. Mumbai's police effectively cover the city making sleeper terrorist cells difficult to establish.
However, Mumbai is a difficult city to guard against externalities. She has a long coastline with hundreds of hips, ferries, yachts, and dinghies constantly traversing the Mumbai harbor. More than a million people travel by train daily. In the last year, the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai has issued at least three warnings of a heightened risk of a terrorist attack in Mumbai. The head of the Indian Army has warned that more Mumbai type attacks are likely. A new federal Home Minister, P Chidambaram, is bringing a dynamism to his post not seen for a while, but the question still seems not if, but when will the next strikes occur.
Mumbaikers know they remain vulnerable, know those of the same group that launched the attack roam freely in Pakistan and know the system in India hasn't changed much. At the same time, Mumbaikers see the destruction happening in Pakistan. If the next terrorist attack happens and Pakistanis are seen to be behind it, will the anger turn outwards? Frustration runs high. Indians don't expect the Pakistani government to do anything about their people, but their own government does nothing as well. A sense of frustrated, angry resignation reigns today. Is it the next attack that will galvanize action and the hoped for change? Certainly 11/26 was no 9/11. Maybe the next attack will be India's 9/11 after all.
—Prashant Agrawal is the CEO of indipepal.com based in Mumbai
 

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