The struggle for control in Mumbai

On Friday, war with Islamist gunmen continued to rage in the Indian city's downtown. Some hostages are freed, but others have been found dead.


Sascha Zastiral
November 28, 2008 11:02PM (UTC)

In the southern part of India's economic center of Mumbai, heavily armed soldiers and police are standing on every corner. Sharpshooters can be seen on the roofs and helicopters circle overhead. The city quarter is called Colaba, and it is here, in the southernmost tip of the city, where attackers struck on Wednesday night. Since then, they have largely held the metropolis of 18 million in their sway. More than 140 people have lost their lives in the 10 coordinated attacks; more than 400 have been injured.

Just days ago, Colaba was still a relaxed café and restaurant quarter, a favorite in Mumbai, India's most progressive city. Now, it is a war zone.

Advertisement:

Police cars speed down the Colaba Causeway right through the center of the quarter, blue lights flashing. They come to a stop in front of the Nariman House. On Thursday morning, hours after the first attacks, terrorists forced their way into the house, which houses the Jewish Chabad Lubavitch center, and took a number of hostages. On Friday, a rabbi, his wife and two Israelis remained in the hands of the attackers for much of the day.

Police have cordoned off the entire area. Hundreds of onlookers stand at the barricades set up by the authorities, craning their necks to get a look at the house. Journalists and photographers from across the globe shove their way among them. Then, a ripple of suspense makes its way through the crowds: helicopters begin circling over the building. At least seven heavily armed men in black rappel onto the roof of the culture center. They are from the "Black Cats," a highly specialized police unit.

Bulletproof vests

Not long later, the sound of machine gun fire echoes out of the building. Then, just before noon local time, sounds of a large explosion roll over the quarter. Then more shots. Within a half an hour, six further explosions can be heard from inside the house, and yet more gunfire. The police, all in bullet-proof vests, become nervous -- two of them impatiently begin forcing the crowd of onlookers further away. Quiet soon returns. Later on Friday, it was reported that police had gained full control of the building. A security official told Indian television that the commandos had killed two militants and found two other bodies, which appear to be the hostages.

While the battle was continuing at Nariman House on Friday, panic has begun to spread at the city's central station. Rumors have begun circulating that, just as on Wednesday evening, attackers have fired indiscriminately into crowds of bystanders. Police are quick to deny the reports, saying that three armed men had been arrested at a nearby hospital. But the streets empty out immediately, with people seeking safety in their homes.

Fear has gripped the city. The joie de vivre for which the city is well known has completely evaporated.

Advertisement:

The area around the Trident Hotel, formerly known as the Oberoi, has been cordoned off. Hundreds have collected near a side entrance to the building, among them Steven de Souza. De Souza is from the western Indian state of Goa, just down the coast from Mumbai. The 31-year-old with curly dark hair has worked in Mumbai for the last 10 years; he wears a dark blue T-shirt, his arms are crossed tensely.

"I really don't know if friends of mine are still inside, or if they are still alive," he says. He explains that he worked at the luxury hotel for three years a number of years ago. And he reports that, here too, special forces had rappelled down onto the building from hovering helicopters earlier in the day. "People came to the hotel because they were looking for safety," De Souza says. "It is awful what has happened."

Fear on their faces

Suddenly, there is pushing and shoving at the door. Police in battle dress push the crowd to the side and a hotel worker leads a man out of the hotel. He looks to be around 60 years old, is wearing a light blue shirt, glasses and is bald. "I have nothing to say," he says, in what sounds like a British accent, as he passes. "I was in my room the entire time." He is then bundled into a waiting car and driven away.

Advertisement:

It has been 36 hours since attackers forced their way into the hotel. The armed invaders took a number of hostages -- hundreds of other hotel guests were trapped in their rooms. On Thursday night, officials shut off power to the hotel so that the terrorists could no longer follow events elsewhere in the city on the television.

A bus drives up to the hotel. More and more people climb in, many of them clearly Westerners. The police on Friday freed nearly 100 men and women from their rooms -- they look exhausted, fear still written across their faces.

Ahmed Kahn sits in his taxi at a nearby street corner. Khan is in his early 40s, wears a long, graying beard and henna-dyed red hair -- and he is Muslim. "This is so wrong," he says in Urdu, holding back his tears. "It simply can't be."

Advertisement:

Like many other Muslims in the city, Khan comes from the poor state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. He came to Mumbai, he says, to work and to "provide his children with a better future." All the Muslims he knows, he says, are completely shocked by the attacks. "Islam is supposed to bring peace," he says. "But what these young men have done here is 'Haram'" -- forbidden. "Spilling blood is a sin."

A few hours later, the police reported that the operation in the Trident was over. 26 bodies were found in the lobby and the hallways of the hotel. Here at least, the nightmare had finally come to an end.

Shooting people in the street

Advertisement:

But, a paralyzing silence lies over the center of Colaba. All the businesses are closed -- even the countless roving salesmen have stopped hawking their wares. The famed Leopold restaurant has also lowered its shutters. Glass shards lie on the sidewalk. Pools of blood have collected on the dusty pavement. A sharp rotting odor makes its way through the air vents in the shutters. Inside the restaurant, in the dark, plates with food on them still sit on the tables.

 

One can't help but be astonished by the eyewitness reports about what happened here on Wednesday around 9:30 p.m. Two young men are said to have entered the restaurant -- one of the city's most popular among foreigners and tourists -- to have an evening meal. After paying the bill, they stood up and exited the restaurant onto the street. There, they pulled machine guns out of their bags and began shooting people in the street and the restaurant. They then ran away. At this time, many of the observers who watched in shock thought they were dealing with an act of mafia payback, of the sort that had plagued the city not so long ago.

Boats full of terrorists

Advertisement:

At about the same time, two dozen accomplices docked a speedboat in a fishing port near the Trident and Oberoi hotels and entered the city bearing heavy baggage. Later the police secured the boat and found within it a dead body that has yet to be identified. Together with the other incidents, it had now become clear: these weren't incidents emerging from the city's underworld of organized crime; India was experiencing perhaps the most consequential terror attack of its history.

In the world famous Taj Mahal Hotel, the worst is not yet over. Many gawkers have gathered here to stare, not comprehending the blaze that has overtaken the historical building with its towers and domes. Smoke is still escaping from the luxury hotel. Fires have broken out as a result of the fighting between the attackers and the security services. Some of the rooms have been entirely blackened by soot. Dozens of fire fighters, standing directly next to the building, can't put out the blaze. The risk of getting shot by the terrorists is too high.

Within the hotel, the army has already secured 30 dead bodies, says the military spokesman. That the firefights continue is due to the fact that the terrorists had a very good understanding of the building's layout. The wallet of one of the attackers has been recovered. Within it is a passport belonging to a citizen of Mauritius, $1,200 in American currency and 6,000 Indian rupees.

Media and government officials are very involved in deciding where to place blame for the attacks. One Indian daily newspaper claims to have determined that the terrorists must have originally departed on a bigger boat from the Pakistani city of Karachi with the intention of invading Indian territory. The "mother ship" would have then released into the water the speedboat that went on to fatally attack India's financial capital. The newspaper claims that the terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba ("Army of the Pure") was behind the attacks.

Advertisement:

The Indian government has been very clear about who it blames. Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in New Delhi that "elements with links to Pakistan" were responsible for the attacks. Pakistan's Dawn News television station reports that Islamabad has been asked to send the head of its ISI intelligence agency to New Delhi to exchange information and evidence. On Thursday Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had already warned the neighboring country not to tolerate attacks launched from is territory against India, saying "there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them." Pakistan's government has already sharply criticized the attacks.

Attackers from India?

The first reflex among politicians and the media in India is always to blame Pakistan. And up until a few years ago India's archrival had indeed supported terrorist groups that carried out attacks in India. Up until 2001 former military dictator Pervez Musharraf had protected these groups as "freedom fighters." However after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Washington forced Pakistan into an alliance with the United States. An attack carried out by members of Lashkar-e-Toiba on India's parliament in December 2001 brought the two nuclear-armed states to the brink of war. Musharraf then banned the groups and made a show, at least for the media, of having its leaders arrested.

Following intense peace talks that began between the two countries in 2003, there was a sharp fall in the number of attacks by Pakistani terror groups. Even the trouble spot of Kashmir has been much quieter.

Advertisement:

However, it is also possible that the attackers come from India. Arrests after a series of attacks in New Delhi this September showed that members of the banned Islamic Student Movement of India (SIMI) had been forming terror cells. Many young Indian Muslims have become radicalized in the past 15 years. Fanatical Hindus carried out anti-Muslim pogroms in 1993 and again in 2002 in Mumbai and the state of Gujarat, in which thousands of people died. The police did little to stop the violence and only a few of those responsible ever faced trial. Hindu nationalist politicians who are thought to have at the very least condoned the mass killings, today play leading roles in Indian politics.

In the meantime there are scenes of panic in front of the Taj Mahal hotel. A man in a blue shirt lies on the ground. He is screaming it seems he has been hit by a bullet or part of a grenade that came from the hotel. Shots and explosions continue to ring out in the huge building. Mumbai's nightmare, which has gripped the entire nation of India for two days, is not quite over yet.

 


Sascha Zastiral

MORE FROM Sascha Zastiral

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••





Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •