(This article was first published on 27 November 2008)
The dust has yet to settle on the unfolding tragedy in Mumbai. At the time of writing, hostage situations persist in the Oberoi Hotel and the Nariman House, and commandos are still clearing the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Officials have not fully agreed on the chronology of events that have left at least one hundred people dead (including the city's anti-terrorist chief Hemant Karkare) and injured hundreds others, but the verdict is already in: this is the worst attack India has ever seen.
A sketch of what happened so far: on Wednesday night, armed gunmen landed by sea on various parts of glitzy south Mumbai, lobbing grenades and shooting indiscriminately as they stormed two hotels, a children's hospital, the city's major train station, and a high-rise complex home to many Israeli families. The militants took numerous hostages in the hotels, specifically targeting British and American citizens. They remain holed up in the Oberoi hotel and in the Nariman House.
What makes this "India's 9/11", as it is being dubbed in the Indian press? India and Mumbai, in particular, are certainly no strangers to terrorist attacks. Bomb blasts have shaken towns and cities across the country for fifteen years since the massive attack on the Bombay Stock Exchange in 1993. Just two years ago, bombs on Mumbai's commuter rail system killed nearly two hundred people. Only half that number of people have perished so far in the last day's violence.
It is the nature of the attacks that separates them from their numerous predecessors. The militants targeted iconic symbols - the majestic Gateway of India, the domed Taj hotel, the steepled Victoria Terminus - of the country's financial centre. Where prior attacks were concentrated on more pedestrian market places and public transport, today's militants hit the hub of the city's political and business classes and cultural glitterati. Prominent mumbaikars clutter the 24-hour news channels, recalling their visits to the famous Taj and expressing concern for loved ones and friends currently trapped in the hotel. For an elite that almost always emerges unscathed from violence in the country, the attack comes as a visceral shock.
Indeed, the attack was calculated to draw unprecedented media attention. Going after foreigners guaranteed the glare of the global spotlight (tabloids in the UK, for instance, were depressingly quick to spin an attack on the "heart of the heart of India" as an attack simply against the west). Sports pages around the world also report on events in the city, as numerous international cricket matches scheduled in Mumbai will have to be re-arranged. Most importantly, perhaps, the run-and-gun tactics of the militants - as opposed to more routine bomb blasts - provided an ongoing drama perfect for the hungry cameras of India's many news networks. Such violence has plagued the hinterland gripped by Maoist insurgency, and continues to scar strife-torn Kashmir. The citizens of India's metropolises, however, never imagined machine guns and grenades reaching their cities, their streets.
So if the character of the threat is novel, is its source new as well? Maybe not. Indian officials have long accused Pakistan's shadowy ISI intelligence service of planning and assisting terrorist incidents in the country. A heretofore unknown group - the "Deccan Mujahideen" - has claimed responsibility for the attack. But investigators suspect the involvement of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-backed Islamist militant group. Commandos heard the militants speaking in a Pakistani dialect of Punjabi. Investigators also suspect the gunmen to have landed from the sea, launching speedboats from a hijacked fishing trawler that has been found five miles off the coast. Lashkar-e-Taiba has been training maritime forces in Karachi, the Pakistani coastal metropolis. While relations have generally improved between New Delhi and Islamabad in recent years, further proof of Pakistani involvement may suspend the diplomatic thaw.
Within New Delhi itself, the fallout may be more consequential. The principal opposition party - the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - often uses terrorism as a stick to beat the ruling Congress Party-led coalition. The Congress government trimmed much of the tough, anti-terror Patriot Act-style legislation put in place by the previous BJP-led government. With elections upcoming and the Congress increasingly nervous, the clamour for more aggressive and invasive counterterrorism may win the day. As one TV talking head insisted, the west's approach ought to be followed: "We have to compromise on individual freedoms. In the west, the citizen is being made much more transparent. That is what we must do as well."