Indian Bomb Attacks: Analysis

Suketu Mehta
Author, "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found"
Tuesday, July 11, 2006; 3:30 PM

At least 100 people were killed and scores of others were injured in a series of bomb blasts that rocked the commuter rail network in Bombay, India's financial capital, during the evening rush hour Tuesday.

Read More: Bomb Attacks in Bombay Kill at Least 100 (Post, July 11)

Photo Gallery: Deadly Blasts Hit Bombay Trains

Bombay's commuter network has been hit by violence before. In 2002, a series of bombings rocked the financial city that killed 53 people and wounded more than 150. Those bombings, which shocked the nation of a billion-plus people, were blamed on indigenous Islamic radicals, many of them educated, middle-class professionals.

Suketu Mehta , author of "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found" was online Tuesday, July 11, at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss today's bombing attacks and analyze the political situation in Bombay.

A transcript follows.


Suketu Mehta: Hello and welcome to the discussion. I was raised in Bombay and now live in New York; I spent several years writing a book about Bombay, 'Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.' In the book, I investigated the serial bomb blasts of 1993 and spoke to some of the bombers. The events today bring back the ghosts of 1993. I now live in New York but have been following the events all day.


Washington, DC: Any news about whether the bombings are connected to the Shiv Sena riots that have been taking place in Mumbai these past few days?

Suketu Mehta: Not to my knowledge. The Sena riots were over the defacement of the statue of the widow of the party's leader, Bal Thackeray. But your question points to one of the greatest dangers looming on the horizon: the threat of large-scale retaliatory riots organized by militant Hindu parties like the Shiv Sena.


Also a Former Hill Road (Bandra Resident): Horrible. Simply horrible.

I read Maximum City, and I used the trains everyday. What is your honest estimate of the lives lost? I think it must be a magnitude greater than the 140 reported.

Also, do you believe that Shiv Sena, with its declining influence, could have done this? They may want to blame it on Muslims as a rallying cry. I wouldn't put it past them. thoughts?

Suketu Mehta:

I think you're right; judging from the pictures of the trains, and knowing how densely packed the Bombay local trains are (a nine-car train carries 4500 people during rush hour), the casualties, I fear, are going to be significantly greater than reported.

I do not think the Shiv Sena bombed the trains.


New York, N.Y.: The phone lines are still jammed as of 2 p.m. ET. Do you know if there's another way for NRIs and other concerned individuals to make sure their loved ones are okay? Is there a list yet of the wounded and dead?

Suketu Mehta: There's an excellent Web page of resources for journalists and anybody wanting to keep track of events, run by the South Asian Journalists Association


Washington, D.C.: I was just in Bombay for a wedding for three weeks and stayed in Santa Cruz, so this news hits hard. I read that one of the bombs went off near this fairly upper class neighborhood and that the first-class cars were hit. Are there any clues that specific people were targeted- religious, class, or otherwise?

Suketu Mehta: The bombs went off in stations all around the city, including Khar, Mahim, and Mira Road. But according to news reports, they all seem to have gone off in first class compartments. The bombers seem to have a warped sense of social justice, which fits with the mindset of the plotters of the 1993 bomb blasts that I met: there was a highly tortured form of self-justification that was going on. The 1993 bombers thought they were doing it for Islam, and in revenge for the anti-Muslim pogroms a few months earlier.



Washington, D.C.: As a former Bombay resident, I was pleasantly pleased at the way the city reacted to the bomb blast last time around. I hope the same sense will prevail this time as well -- nothing defeats the terrorists more than gettting back to normal within hours of such an incident.

Every resident of the city -- former or current -- walks wounded today.

Suketu Mehta: Bombay is not going to be beaten down by these blasts. In 1993, the blasts killed 257 people; one of the buildings bombed was the Stock Exchange. The plotters were hoping to cripple the financial nerve center of the city. When the Stock Exchange reopened two days later, using the old manual trading system because the computers had been destroyed, it actually gained ten percent in the next two days. Just to show them.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: How much confidence do you have in Mumbai police catching the masterminds of this terror act? Will these attacks end in our lifetime?

Suketu Mehta: The Mumbai police can be very efficient after the fact. It is no mean feat to organize seven separate bombings within a one-hour period; it was a large-scale organized conspiracy. Government officials are admitting that they knew some kind of attack was coming, but they failed to stop it. There's obviously been a massive intelligence failure.

I don't, unfortunately, think this is the last such attack on Bombay. It's too large and important a city to go unnoticed by the terrorists.


New York, N.Y.: What are the authorities doing to prevent a backlash against innocent Muslim civilians?

Suketu Mehta: The authorities should definitely put all their resources to preventing a backlash. After the 1992/93 riots and blasts, an NGO started a group of neighborhood unity committees, called the 'Mohalla Ekta Committees', composed of the police and local leaders of all communities, which are called every time there is the the possibility of riots. These committees have been very successful in maintaining the peace so far, and I hope they continue to work this time. Indian Muslims have stayed very far away from Al Qaeda and the like; they have voted with their feet and stayed in the country, rather than going to Pakistan during partition. On the whole, they recognize that life is better for them in India than in Pakistan.


Cambridge, Mass.: There's also an informal effort to put people in touch with those they are looking for, being run by some very committed (and patient!) bloggers. The blog can be found at Blog: Mumbai Help , which also links to a wiki set-up by the same people. It's pretty simple: leave a message saying who you want to contact, their phone number, and your name, and one of the volunteers will update the page as soon as the person either picks up the phone/texts back. Seems to be pretty organized, and I daresay considerably more committed/efficient than any official channels are likely to be.

Suketu Mehta: Thanks for the information.


Boston, Mass.: I think Bombay represents the best of all that's right about India. Why then do such attacks always take place in Bombay?

Suketu Mehta: It's precisely because of Bombay's significance, as a confident, welcoming city that takes in a million new people a year, that those who want to harm the country pick Bombay. Other Indian cities, such as Delhi and Varanasi, have also been bombed recently, but Bombay's significance as the financial capital of the country means that it's the best target for terrorists who're unhappy with India's progress.


Washington, D.C.: Please explain who you think is responsible for the attacks.

Suketu Mehta: The list of suspects is pretty short. I've read some reports suggesting that the Kashmiri militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba is responsible; and some Indian intelligence sources are fingering Dawood Ibrahim, the Pakistan-based gangster who organized the 1993 bomb blasts. These were huge blasts; they ripped metal trains apart. They would require large amounts of powerful explosives; this is not something you can brew up in your kitchen. It looks like a well-funded, well-planned operation, and I doubt it could have been staged without international backing. There have always been elements in the Pakistani state that have been hostile to India; which is not to say that the Pakistani government as a whole is responsible. But I think there are entities in the Pakistani security services that operate more or less autonomously. Their role certainly needs looking into.


Former Resident of Mehboob Studios, Bandra: Suketu, after this being the third terrorist attack on Bombay, is there any value of the police and security teams receiving any special training to head off any such future event from such teams from the U.S. and U.K. who have been doing this rigorously for the past few years?

Suketu Mehta: There needs to be far greater coordination between the Bombay police and other police forces around the world who're dealing with this issue. While I was writing my book, I got a top police official in Bombay an invitation to study terrorism at the Rand Institute in Washington DC. This would have helped the city enormously, as he was the detective who cracked the '93 blasts case. But the commissioner declined to let his subordinate take up the offer from Rand, because of his fear that it was CIA-affiliated. That culture of suspicion needs to change; India needs to learn how other democracies fight terror.


Washington, D.C.: CNN is reporting that because of the train attacks in India that stepped up security has been ordered for the trains in New York. Have you heard this?

Suketu Mehta: Commuter trains are the easiest target for terrorists, as we have seen in Madrid, London, and now Bombay. But it is difficult for a Westerner to comprehend the kind of overcrowding in a Bombay local train; they ferry six million passengers a day. A bomb that goes off in one of those compartments will have maximum impact. It is almost impossible to secure those trains, because there are multiple entrances to the stations; people often board the trains right on the railway tracks. Everybody is carrying packages: fishwerwomen with baskets of fish, laborers with crates, people selling everything from toys to underwear. It would be impossible for commuters to report suspicious packages, because every package is suspicious. The trains are central to Bombay just as the subway is central to New York; they are the great social laboratory of that city. And today, they became a charnel-house.


New York, N.Y.: What should be an appropriate response by the average man on the street in Mumbai?

Suketu Mehta: The great thing about Bombay is its open, generous heart. I wrote in my book about the 'hands from the trains':

"If you are late for work in Mumbai and reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, don't despair. You can run up to the packed compartments and find many hands unfolding like petals to pull you on board. And while you will probably have to hang on to the door frame with your fingertips, you are still grateful for the empathy of your fellow passengers, already packed tighter than cattle, their shirts drenched with sweat in the badly ventilated compartment. They know that your boss might yell at you or cut your pay if you miss this train. And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian or a Brahmin or an Untouchable. Come on board, they say. We'll adjust."

I hope - I know - that this spirit will endure. Bombay will adjust. Thank you.


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