Yesterday, in one of the worst attacks to hit India in over 20 years, a group of gunmen opened fired on 10 sites in Mumbai, at this point killing over 100 and wounding over 290. Details continue to trickle in but reports indict that over 200 are being held hostage in the prestigious Taj Hotel in south Mumbai. The attacks have shocked India and the South Asia region to its core.
While India has seen an escalation in attacks – particularly over the past year – the recent attack is unique in how it unfolded. Gunmen, some arriving on boat and others dressed in police uniform, targeted disparate targets and landmarks in south Mumbai including the Oberoi hotel, Cafe Leopold, CST Train station, and a hospital in the Villa Parle area. Many witnesses noted that the assailants were deliberately trying to target foreigners, particularly British and American nationals. Ordinary citizens on the ground in Mumbai have liveblogged the attacks and sent updates via Twitter (#mumbai), bringing the horror of the attacks into the lives of the rest of us in a way that wasn’t possible only a few short years ago (the Indian government has pleaded for people not to liveblog military maneuvers).
One eyewitness, a Indian businessman based in Hong Kong named Rakeh Patel, reported two youths – both in their twenties – took a group of 15 to the top of the Taj Hotel and demanded to know if anyone of them carried a US or UK passport. Another witness, Alex Chamberlain, a British national, said that the gunman sequestered a group of around 30 people to a restaurant in the Oberoi and demanded to know their nationality. Chamberlain reported, “They were talking about British and Americans specifically. There was an Italian guy, who, you know, they said, ‘Where are you from?’ and he said he’s from Italy, and they said, ‘Fine,’ and they left him alone.”
Elsewhere in Mumbai, the attacks (though one might call it a siege) shows little sign of abetting. The army has been called into the Taj and Oberoi hotel but little is known about the fate of the hostages or the alleged group behind the attacks, the “Deccan Mujahadeen.” For now, most observers are reserving judgement until more is known about the previously unknown group. But given past incidents, laying the blame at Kashmiri separatists – or Pakistan – seems likely. If past events are a guide, tensions will increase with Pakistan whether there is proof of their involvement or not. However, the civilian government of Ali Zardari – itself a product of political violence – does not have the military baggage of his predecessor, which may now make such a charge harder to stick.
One of those killed was Hemant Karkare, the chief of the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad. Karkare was widely admired for his thorough and fair investigations, including a pending investigation into a September 29, 2008 blast in India that was revealed to be the work of Hindutva supporters. Responding to this news, The Hindu wrote in an editorial: “The revelation that a militant section of the Hindutva network was behind the September 29 bomb blasts in Muslim-dominated Malegaon in Maharashtra and Modasa in Gujarat has shattered the myth propagated by the Hindutva campaign that only Islamist fundamentalism breeds terrorism.”
Meanwhile condemnations from world leaders poured in, including from US President-elect Barack Obama, and Muslim groups as well have also voiced their opposition to the violence. Based on past events, Muslims within India and elsewhere in the region are sensitive to how tensions can spill over into retaliatory violence, such as the massacres in Gujarat in 2002. But in troubling (and yet unsurprising) pattern, hardliners like Shiv Sena head Bal Thackerary have already exploited the violence to whip followers into a communal rage.
Speaking of the violence, Thackerary said, “(Shiv) Sena can’t sit silently when a conspiracy has been plotted against Hindus. The manner in which ATS has been torturing Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and others and the way false cases have been fabricated against them, it is clear that the government is out to crush, insult and humiliate Hindus. Sena is a Hindutva party with the interest of the Hindu community close to its heart. We will lodge our protest loudly and clearly.”
While it is tempting to refute Thackerary’s comments or to expound on the “saffronization” of parts of India, now is not the time. The analysis and theories about what happened today and what it means for India is secondary to the immediate need to care for the wounded, the familes of those who died, and most importantly the 200 or so hostages that still languish in south Mumbai, in addition to preventing tensions from perpetuating past cycles. Now is the time to pray and care for the people of Mumbai and hope that the coming days do not bring more bloodshed.
Zahir Janmohamed is an associate editor of altmuslim.com and co-founder of the Qunoot Foundation. He is based in Washington, DC.