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Mumbai massacre

India has suffered what many are calling its 9/11. Here one of the country's leading journalists int

In the summer of 2005, I moved with my family to live and work in Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra State. I came after living for several years in Kolkata, in the east of India, a city that, after decades of genteel dwindling and gradual reconciliation with its diminished sense of itself, was beginning to look up. As I settled down, I found Mumbai to be all the things that Kolkata was not.

If Kolkata was bashfully apologetic and self-deprecating, wry and ironical, Mumbai was brash and self-congratulatory. It was chest-thumpingly aware of its own importance and its position at the heart of India's rapid growth and change. The nation was being transformed by an economic miracle that had implications far beyond the Arabian Sea on whose edge the sprawling city of 19 million people was perched.

We found a flat in Bandra, a western suburb on the seafront. It was once predominantly a Christian locality, with many churches, and dotted with quaint cottages hugged by creepers. This was a neighbourhood in which, as Amit Chaudhuri wrote in his novel Afternoon Raag, the "Portuguese names - Pedro, DiSilva, Gonsalves - twang in the air like plucked, silvery guitar strings".

All that has changed over the past decade. Although it is only ten miles away, Bandra once seemed so far removed from the city's downtown (the area in which terrorists unleashed their audacious, murderous attacks) as to seem a place where you bought a weekend home. But now it is right in the heart of things.

Because outrageous property prices were pushing people ever further outward from the city's southern downtown tip (the business hub and centre of old money and aristocracy), Bandra had become the new midtown: nouveau riche, prohibitively expensive and fashionable in an edgy sort of way. The old cottages were being ripped apart, replaced by often ugly - but always lavish - towers of apartment blocks.

And now the soundtrack to our lives in Bandra, as in so much of Mumbai, is the relentless noise of old buildings being demolished and new ones going up: the clang of the hammer, the whine of the drill, the rumble of the bulldozer. Bandra is an embodiment of what Mumbai is now all about: wealth and social climbing, the need ostentatiously to proclaim that you have arrived.

The main Hindi film studios are not far from this neighbourhood, and most of the stars of the industry have moved out to Bandra, weary of the daily travel from downtown (where they once used to live) to the western suburbs (where they go to work). It isn't merely them. Anyone who wants to be in Bollywood is trying to move into Bandra as well, living far beyond their means in one-roomed flats little bigger than ten square feet. It is as though being in Bandra, close to the stars, takes away some of the sense of remoteness from their aspirations. Here they are, in the city of dreams, still dreaming.

In his novel Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra captured something of this feeling when he portrayed Mumbai as a city of magical possibilities: "It could happen. It did happen, and that's why people kept trying. It did happen. That was the dream, the big dream of Bombay."

Living in Bandra offers a sort of a start. If you can live here - and it is hard - who knows, you might soon find a role in a movie, a role that would put you on the billboards, like the stars you so admire but whose success you also resent. Bandra is Beverly Hills with terrible roads. Everywhere you go in the neighbourhood, there are reminders of the movie stars' presence.

Mumbai is in love with its own self-image and the awe it inspires in others; it has no patience with those in whom it does not inspire a sense of wonder. This is a city that exemplifies the new India: keen to inspire envy, in a hurry to get ahead, revelling in its importance and never shy of parading its not inconsiderable wealth.

Every week in the newspapers, there are reports of how Mumbai pays the most tax in India; how it has more billionaires than any other city; how its rentals and home prices are among the highest in the world; how it is getting richer and richer by the day. The business of making serious money drives Mumbai.

That business never lets up, even in the face of calamity. Mumbai is no stranger to catastrophe. In 1992, there were communal riots that threatened to rip apart for ever the secular fabric of this most cosmopolitan of Indian cities. In 1993, serial blasts tore through Mumbai, an event that has become the material for dozens of Hindi movies. In 2005, a month after I moved here, 934mm of rain fell in a 24-hour per iod, a world record. The deluge unleashed the worst floods in the city's history, killing hundreds and destroying thousands of homes and livelihoods. In 2006, bombs went off on the city's suburban train network, killing more than 200 people.

Mumbai has been repeatedly brought to its knees, and repeatedly it has picked itself up, and got on with life. There is a phrase that has become not so much a commonplace as a vulgar truism, one that people reach for as a shorthand to describe the city's indomitable nature: the spirit of Mumbai.

But something is different now. These latest attacks have truly shaken the spirit of the city.

This is what we know so far. The terrorists came by sea from Karachi, Pakistan. They were armed with enough guns, ammunition and explosives, and were sufficiently ruthless and well trained to be able to hold out for 62 hours against India's elite commandos and army. The terrorists held hostage two luxury hotels, the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi-Trident; the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the city's main railway station; a cafe called Leopold's, popular with tourists and backpackers; and a five-storey residential building that housed the city headquarters of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group. All the locations were in south Mumbai.

The strikes were timed to play out on worldwide daytime television. As the story of the attacks began to unfold from the night of 26 November in India, it coincided with Thanksgiving in the US. The terrorists were specifically looking for visitors with British or American passports. And at the end of the three-day killing spree and pitched gun battles, 173 people had been murdered. (That was merely the official count; the actual estimate of those killed is much higher.) Twenty of the dead were foreigners.

This year, many hundreds of people have been killed in terrorist attacks across India, in Jaipur, Hyderabad and Delhi. High-profile terrorism in cities (70 blasts and attacks) has killed 400 people in India over the past seven months alone. But the November assault on Mumbai suggested something not hitherto evident: that India was now firmly on the deadly map drawn up for attack by global jihadists.

After each of the previous attacks on Mumbai, people could begin to guess why they had happened. In this instance, there was obviously shock but there was also profound bewilderment and confusion. How exactly? And why?

India has been quick to insinuate that Pakistan is linked to the strikes. The one terrorist who has been caught and interrogated has told investi gators that he was trained by Lashkar-e-Toiba, a jihadist group based in Pakistan.

For ordinary people, however, there are no clear answers or explanations. No one can tell why this happened or when something similar might happen again. Stumbling and groping, Mumbai has had its sense of security and confidence eroded. Never before has the city so acutely felt its own fragility.

Of the five locations, it was the attack on the Taj Mahal hotel near the Gateway of India that was, in terms of symbolism, the most resonant. Mumbai's monuments are secular, and the 105-year-old Taj, built by a Parsi businessman because he was turned away from a hotel for being Indian, is the picture-postcard emblem of the city. It is to Mumbai what the Empire State Building is to New York and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It is Mumbai.

As pictures of the smoking hotel - flames leaping out of windows, panes shattering, crows taking off in the foreground at the sound of gunfire against the plumes of smoke that darkened the afternoon sky - flashed up on live television, and later, as the Taj Mahal closed down for repair on Monday, Mumbai saw the attack on its signature hotel as a violation unlike any other.

On Sunday 30 November, a groundswell of protests against the attacks began in Mumbai. There were candlelit vigils, marches and peaceful demonstrations with eloquent placards. The resentment, for the moment, seems to be directed at the perceived failure of the intelligence services and at politicians. In a nationwide survey conducted by the Hindustan Times, one of the country's best-known and most influential English-language broadsheet dailies, 84 per cent of the respondents felt that the government was not doing enough to fight terrorism.

With general elections due in 2009, the ruling coalition headed by the Congress Party bore the brunt of the anger. Shivraj Patil, India's home minister, stepped down on Sunday. By Monday morning, Maharashtra's home minister, R R Patil, had quit as well. The indications are that Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Maharashtra, is on his way out, too.

How India will react to the attacks will shape the events of months and years to come. Already, the peace process with Pakistan is in jeopardy. And with India's dismal history of strife between Hindus and Muslims (in 2002, the main opposition party, the BJP, was accused of the biggest anti-Muslim pogrom in modern Indian history), the country will do well to be particularly vigilant against communal conflict.

Time and again over the past week, commentators have referred to the attacks on Mumbai as "India's 9/11" - a world-historic moment of change after which nothing can be the same again. That is indeed the most convenient analogy to use. But if one were to assume that it is so, that assumption brings its own complexities.

As the novelist Amitav Ghosh wrote in an essay published in the Hindustan Times: "If India can react with dispassionate but determined resolve, then 2008 may yet be remembered as a moment when the tide turned in a long, long battle . . . Defeat or victory is not determined by the success of the strike itself. It is determined by the response."

And what, now, of Mumbai? How will this city withstand these ravages and go about its business? How resilient can the city prove it- self to be?

Mumbai is the glittering exemplar of the new India and the national success story, yet it is also a city of dichotomies. Nowhere in India (perhaps even in the world) is the gulf between the affluent urban elite and those who live beneath the poverty line as pronounced as it is in Mumbai. Nowhere, perhaps, is the urge to cross over from the side of the underprivileged to the other as deeply consuming.

The degree to which these attacks have scarred Mumbai, and the extent of the damage they have inflicted, was symbolically represented on Thursday 27 November when the Bombay Stock Exchange did not open for trading. The business of making money might drive Mumbai, but the shock of being violated had stalled it.

The following Monday morning, still numbed, the city was returning to its frenetic self. Children went back to school. Hotels had been turned into fortresses. Offices were open, and the roads were filling up with the sort of traffic which is usually so dense that you can hear the conversation in the car alongside yours when you stop at traffic lights. Money was being made – and lost – on the stock exchange, as usual. Markets were doing business. And in homes, cremations or burials over, hundreds were beginning the process of grieving and reconciliation.

Mumbai, hurt and angry, was still grappling with how to come to terms with what had happened but it was also beginning to get on with the business of getting along, of going on.

In a way, this is the story of India, the world's largest democracy: learning to carry on after assaults on its pluralist democracy, and being, in the end, able to do so.

In his book India After Gandhi: the History of the World's Largest Democracy, Ramachandra Guha argues persuasively that it is no small triumph that India, as well as its democracy, not merely exists at all but continues to thrive. "India will go on," Guha quotes the novelist R K Nara yan telling V S Naipaul in the 1960s.

In its darkest hour, that is Mumbai's triumph, too. Mumbai will go on. As India will.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai and author of the memoir "You Must Like Cricket?", published by Yellow Jersey Press (£12)

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror