News

Year End Tragedies-Where does Mumbai go from here?

It was a brazen attack the city of Mumbai had never witnessed the likes of. On the evening of November 26, young gunmen opened indiscriminate fire on crowds in various places including a fancy café, a hospital, the train station, a Jewish centre and two luxury hotels. Hostages were taken. Hundreds were killed. Many more were injured.

Panic and fear gripped the entire city at a level and intensity not seen since the communal Hindu-Muslim riots that ravaged Mumbai in the early 1990s. Mumbai is no stranger to terrorism but this attack was different. A couple of the targets were magnificent landmarks that are symbolic of the city’s economic rise. All the above locations are in the wealthy enclave of South Mumbai, home to India’s business elite. Previous attacks in Mumbai had primarily been targeted at the working class; as such perhaps the rich and famous felt they were shielded from terrorism. This horrific incident has certainly dispelled that illusion – no Indian, rich or poor, will ever feel completely safe.

I was on my way to Miami when I heard the news. My friends and I couldn’t believe it. A few of us had grown up in that part of Mumbai and the Taj and Oberoi hotels are spots we love to visit. Had the attacks taken place a few weeks later during Christmas time, it was entirely plausible that we might have been among the hostages. It was indeed a chilling thought. A sense of dread engulfed me. I can now begin to imagine the horror and frustration that native New Yorkers felt on that fateful day seven years ago. It is very easy to say you empathize with a city that has been besieged by terror but unless you have been personally impacted by such an incident, it is impossible to feel the same quantum of emotion. Mumbai is where I was born, nurtured and educated. How could this happen to my city?

This feeling of helplessness and fear quickly turned into anger and rage when I learnt about the shocking security lapses and intelligence failures. It is alleged that the terrorists set sail from the port of Karachi and disembarked in Mumbai. Where was the border security on the high seas? How is it that they crossed into Indian waters without drawing the attention of the Indian navy? Perhaps I am being a bit stringent in my assessment – after all even the well-trained US Coast Guard is unable to detect and intercept dinghies and trawlers filled with illegal immigrants. Ok, but what about the warnings that US intelligence agencies gave their Indian counterparts about possible attacks in Mumbai by sea? Apparently security was beefed up for a few days at sensitive spots and then removed because things seemed normal. This is exactly the kind of “chalta hain” (anything goes) attitude that has permeated the entire Indian administration. Now I understand it is impossible to provide round-the-clock security at all locations for a long period of time, but surely the information conveyed by the Americans warranted at least greater security until the end of the holiday season. Another sorry situation was how long it took for the elite Indian commandos to find their way to the hijacked spots. According to the BBC, they reached Mumbai eight hours after news of the attack broke out. Further, their woeful training was manifest in the fact that it took close to three days to kill nine terrorists and end the siege.

Don’t get me wrong. These were brave men whose motives I would never question. Unfortunately, they did not have access to the training and skills that are commensurate with their responsibilities. Whose fault is that? I think the responsibility must lie with the Indian government, which has shamefully once again tried to pass the buck by blaming “external forces.” Anybody with half a brain knows exactly to whom this insinuation is pointed. The Indian authorities state that the sole captured gunman has confessed that he is Pakistani and received training in that country. A militant group called Lashkar-e-Taiba has been implicated. No doubt this is a very dangerous group (classified as a terrorist organization by the US) and it is imperative for those who were involved in these barbaric acts to be punished. However, too often the government has pointed the finger elsewhere to avoid answering difficult questions about its own misgivings. It is very tempting to place all the blame on “external forces” and thereby cleanse your own conscience of any guilt but are other countries responsible for India’s national security? Or is it the Indian government that has taken that solemn oath to protect its citizens? It is about time the government accept the harsh reality that there are and will always be pockets of extremism that wish to harm the country. It is counterproductive to continue to point fingers elsewhere but instead it may be more useful to take adequate security measures at home that will prevent such attacks in the future. Further, external measures, in addition to internal ones, must also be taken. Severe pressure must be placed by the international community on countries that harbor such perpetrators to bring them to justice. The comments made by Condoleeza Rice in this regard are very encouraging.

So where does Mumbai go from here? Preliminary reports suggest that after a few days of silence, life has somewhat returned to normalcy. Streets are bustling with people and trains are crowded as usual. This is a testament to the “spirit of Mumbai,” a term often used to describe the tenacity and resilience of the local community. I am not worried about Indians getting back to work and continuing to play their part in India’s amazing success story. What may be a bit more worrisome is the darker motive the terrorists had in targeting foreign nationals. The idea is to make them feel unsafe in India and thereby dissuade them from visiting and conducting business there. Foreign investment would slowly dry up and economic growth would suffer. Consequently, poverty would not decrease and further seeds of discontent may be sown among India’s disenfranchised minorities. This is a disastrous scenario. The international community cannot let this happen. India is a democracy that must succeed. The Indian tiger must continue roaring. The fundamental underpinnings of India’s economic success and value proposition are still strong. Foreign capital has and will continue to earn an attractive return. International businessmen and women have and will continue to find compelling business and career opportunities. The country has a lot to offer not only economically but also culturally and socially. As the influential US President FDR once said, albeit in a different context, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I am confident that the international business and financial community will reaffirm its belief in the Indian economy and the people of India.

Finally, I would like to share my thoughts on how the Indian Diaspora as well as Indians in India could get involved. I think these attacks have illustrated the institutional failure of the country’s governance system. I fear nothing will materially change unless we begin to play a more active role in India’s political process. The country desperately needs young and dynamic leaders to spearhead its political growth. India’s best and brightest do not feel the need to serve their country through government and politics. That spirit of service must be ignited. Economic growth without political reform is unsustainable. India does not need a political revolution. It simply needs a small cadre of dedicated and talented leaders. In the words of Margaret Meed, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Another Perspective
Vibha Kagzi (NJ), Contributing Writer

The word hope heralded Barack Obama to the forefront of the world, but in India the word has begun to diminish in its scope and impact; it is merely a misnomer for desperation. Yes, the spirit of Indians is resilient but do we really have a choice but to dream of change? In our land of aspirations and desires, only dream are tangible.dreams have become our reality. We dream of a prosperous nation, devoid of poverty and violence, only to be crushed by the brute forces of a known enemy, once again. There is upheaval on the streets, protests, accusations, even resignations by high officials. I have seen this cycle repeat numerous times now and the bittersweet fa‡ade of hope is beginning to melt. India’s sweet dream of becoming an economic giant by 2020 might just have turned into its worst nightmare. Can India return to an era of low GDP growth, high unemployment and increased poverty? In the words of Barack Obama, “Yes we can.”

December 8, 2008
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