Surviving the siege Surviving the siege...

AN assault on the nation: The Taj Mahal Hotel becomes a battleground...   | Photo Credit: Photo: PTI


Though Mumbai has been battered before, both the nature of the attack and the responses to it have been different this time. It’s time to move beyond shrill nationalism to a more thoughtful response and a greater engagement with politics and governance.

The sounds of gunfire and grenades have died down. The dust has settled. The shards of broken glass and plaster are being cleared. The blood has been washed away. And the eerie silence has given way once again to the reassuring urban chaos that is Mumbai. But 10 days after the nightmare began in Mumbai, one that seemed not to end, that extended for three nights and two days, the scars are still raw, the images still sharp and the questions still unanswered.

On Wednesday night, November 26, the gunmen struck. They were not masked. They were like young people we see on our streets. By Thursday morning, Mumbai was paralysed. Why? This is a huge city, sprawling way to the north of where the attack took place, in the southern tip of the city. Trains and buses were unaffected. Yet, no one moved on that day.

Staying put

Two factors were principally responsible. One, the apparent randomness of the attack. Images of armed gunmen spraying bullets at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), a building as beautiful as it is important for the city, and thereafter all the way down the street to the junction where another landmark, the Metro cinema stands, forced people to stay off the roads. Any of us could have been on the street when the gunmen opened fire. Any of us could have been walking around the popular Colaba causeway, buying bags and scarves from the hawkers that line its pavements when the gunmen barged into Leopold Café and opened fire. Any one of us could have been like the man who stepped out of his shop to find out what the noise was about only to be shot by the gunmen as they made their way to their ultimate target, the Taj Mahal hotel.

The second reason was the non-stop television coverage. The terror attack might have been far from our homes. But television brought to us its terrifying sights and sounds. And the faces of the gunmen. No one slept that night. Few could summon up the will power to just turn the television set off and wait until the next day. As a result, the city was hooked onto this continuous horror show being played on all channels.

But the massacre in Mumbai also brought home to the people of this city a version of urban warfare they had never seen. The sight of commandos landing by helicopter on the roof of Nariman House, a little known Jewish centre in the crowded heart of Colaba, was even more unreal. You only saw such sights in Hollywood movies. Could this really be taking place in one part of our city?

A sense of unreality was compounded by the tone adopted by many of the reporters and anchors on the TV channels. It is as if they loved every minute of the action drama. “Look”, they called out, “there go the commandos smashing a hole in Nariman House.” “Listen, there’s a burst of machine gun fire.” “Watch. That balcony is about to explode. We will play it again in case you missed it the last time.” This was as obscene as it was insensitive.

For, in their excitement, the reporters almost made us forget the tragedy that had already been enacted in that building. A young Rabbi and his wife and three others had been taken hostage and killed. For the first time in the history of this city, people of the Jewish faith had been attacked. Mumbai, as much as Kochi, has a historical connection to Jews. The Bene Israeli have been an important part of the city’s history. Just a stone’s throw away from Nariman House is the Sassoon Docks, named after one of the many Jewish businessmen who contributed to the growth of Mumbai.

Mumbai has been battered before. Those who lived through the serial blasts in 1993 can never forget the fear, the sorrow, the sights of mighty buildings and landmarks of Mumbai shaken, of huge craters in roads, of bodies strewn around the blast sites, of the hundreds injured and dead.

The 2003 blasts, in the car park in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel, and in the crowded Jhaveri Bazaar came a decade later as a grim reminder that we were still vulnerable.

In 2006, the blasts in Mumbai’s trains, its lifeline, touched a vast swathe of the city’s population. An estimated 80 per cent of residents of Mumbai depend on the suburban trains for transport.

Not much choice

After each of these incidents, people got back to work. The shock was no less than this time. In 1993 and 2006 a much larger cross-section of the city’s population had been hit than this time. But people felt that they had no choice but to resume their lives. They were sad, thoughtful, hurt, angry. They wanted greater security. They realised it would be virtually impossible to police our train stations through which millions of people pass each day. They welcomed the closed circuit TV cameras. They even accepted, for a while, the metal detectors, even if they slowed down their dash to catch their trains.

Incidentally, it is the CCTVs installed in 2006 that gave us the chilling images of the two gunmen who wreaked such mayhem at CST, mowing down ordinary people patiently waiting for their trains, and then confidently striding out of the building.

Two years on, Mumbai has been hit again. This time, the form of the attack has been so unexpected, so different, that few made sense of it in the first hours.

Now that it is over, people continue to talk about it. Everyone has a theory about what really happened, how it happened. Dozens have stories of how they had a providential escape. Others have stories of being stuck in homes and restaurants near the site of the massacre, sitting in darkness all night, not knowing what was going on outside but hearing the terrifying sounds of explosions and gunfire.

And people in the city will continue to grieve. For, whether it is the family of the sweeper at CST who was killed, or the young management trainee at the Trident who did not live to fulfil her dream, or the prominent businessmen who were shot down in cold blood, each loss is linked to lives of people that together make up this diverse city.

Also, even as the television channels focused almost exclusively on the men in uniform and their valour, we are finally getting the stories of the real unsung heroes, the hotel staff, the announcer at CST, the ordinary people who risked their lives to save others.

But there are many questions that remain unanswered. And there are many choices that we in Mumbai, but also in the rest of India, will be forced to make about security, rights, choice and freedom.

So far, thanks once again to the shrill hyper-nationalism in much of our electronic media, there appears to be no space for a thoughtful response to this terrible tragedy. People who should know better are saying things like “We need a spell of martial law”. The channels are spurring on the anti-politician and anti-political mood in the middle classes.

Perhaps it is inevitable that people will vent their frustration in this way. But are such knee-jerk reactions, shouting, “Enough is enough” from the rooftops, going to make our city more secure? Will hating politicians and opting out of politics cure the crisis of governance that we face and that was exemplified by the handling of this crisis? Responsible citizenry does not begin and end with lighting candles and taking out processions. It requires efforts to formulate concrete alternatives, to consider what we can do and to demand what the government can and should do. Instead, we had the spectre of people walking around with placards stating “No security, no taxes”.

People will always hit out at politicians at times like this. But more disturbing is the media tendency of comparing the Mumbai attack to the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States. 9/11 has become symbolic of sudden, dramatic, and horrifying terrorist attacks. Mumbai was that. But 9/11 also represents the US government’s response to the attack by bombing Afghanistan and then Iraq. It also represents the curtailing of civil liberties and rights in the US to make the country more “secure”. It also represents Guantanamo Bay and the incarceration of people without trial for years.

Worrying talk

Already, this comparison is bringing out responses from middle class and rich Indians who are demanding that the government take some “action” against Pakistan. “We should bomb the hell out of them”, people are heard saying.

This is worrying and dangerous talk, particularly at a time when India and Pakistan were making concrete progress towards building the infrastructure for peace and when internally the democratically elected government of Pakistan faces serious challenges from the army and rogue Jihadi elements. The last thing India needs at this time is an escalation of tension with our neighbour. And those who advocate it should surely know that this would increase insecurity and open India up to more attacks rather than making us more secure.

The tragedy in Mumbai carries with it a cost, not just in lives lost and property damaged. The cost is a higher level of engagement by citizens who care with governance, with politics, with concerns that go beyond our own backyards. Once the dust settles, people tend to forget. Their anger gets doused as they go about their lives. But if we truly want “security”, we cannot afford to slip back into our perennial indifference.