In the span of 11 minutes, seven bombs ripped through the packed first-class carriages of commuter trains in Bombay last Tuesday. The force of the explosions split the carriages open and hurled passengers onto the tracks. Bruised, broken and bloodied, many made it to the hospitals. Many others who were in the centers of the carriages ended up at the morgue. More than 180 were killed and 700 wounded in India's worst terrorist attack since 1993.
Hours later, Shah was able to account for all his colleagues but one. Then the search of local hospitals began. Finally, just before dawn, he and his friends found the man they were looking for amid the pandemonium at the Sion Hospital morgue. Shah had to identify the body. "It was horrible," he says. "I can't describe it." Then the widow had to be called, and a funeral arranged. If Shah knew the steps, it's because he had seen it all before. He lost five colleagues in 1993, when terrorists blew up the Bombay stock exchange and 12 other targets, killing 257.
The attack last week was a reminder, to a world dazzled by India's economic boom, that the nation is not immune to problems that threaten cities all over the world, rich and poor. This time the terrorists' target was a global financial capital at the heart of the fast-growing Asian economy and a popular destination for foreign investment. The similarity to recent attacks on transportation networks in Western financial capitals was not lost on residents of Bombay. "First Madrid, then London, now us," says Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, a well-known Indian investor. "The terrorists were trying to attack the financial backbone of India, but it did not work." Indeed, in the aftermath of the bombs, Bombay's people showed resilience and bravery—just as those in Madrid, London and New York did in similar circumstances. The Sensex, India's benchmark stock index, rose 3% the day after the attacks. But for all the Mumbaiker spirit, the bombs showed that economic growth does not inoculate a society from those who want to use a bomb to make their political point.
Within hours of the explosions, police were combing through the wreckage for clues, anxious to counter accusations that they were unprepared. "They only have to succeed once, we have to succeed all the time," shouted the joint Anti Terrorism Squad chief K.P. Raghuvanshi, at a heated press conference. Local media had accused the squad of acting too slowly on intelligence tips that an attack was in the works. Speculation as to who was behind the attacks swirled wildly as investigators stayed silent, while the media filled the vacuum with rumors. For a few hours, India was transfixed by reports coming out of Kashmir. A man claiming to represent al-Qaeda said the group had set up in the disputed Himalayan territory, and it welcomed the bombings. Many analysts dismiss the call as a hoax, but the fear lingers that India may be highly vulnerable to international terrorist attacks, especially now that the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is aligned in a strategic partnership with Washington. "India is now a tool in the U.S. war on terror," says Mahesh Bhatt, a filmmaker and promoter of peace between India and Pakistan. "It is only logical that one day al-Qaeda will want to break that tool."
Last weekend, police released the names of three suspects, and the focus of the investigation settled on Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), a militant Islamic group based in Pakistan. LeT was suspected of working in concert with indigenous Indian Muslims from the banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). SIMI and LeT were accused of detonating eight bombs in Bombay in late 2002 and 2003, killing 70 people. Lashkar-e-Toiba, meaning army of the pure, has fought Indian rule in Kashmir since the early 1990s, and is believed to have links with al-Qaeda. Largely funded by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency in the '90s, LeT was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. in 2001. It was subsequently banned by Pakistan, but it has nevertheless been implicated in several attacks on Indian government buildings and in a recent massacre of non-Muslim villagers in Kashmir. Both LeT and SIMI deny any involvement with the bombings in Bombay, telling news agencies that "Islam does not permit the killing of innocents."
After the train attacks, police rounded up hundreds of the city's young Muslim men for questioning, though most were soon released. That did nothing to soothe some Muslims. "We are always the first to be blamed," fumes Majid Khan, a student from a Muslim slum in Bandra, not far from the site of one of the attacks. "We are tired of this police harassment. We are just as much a part of this city as anyone else."
Indeed, Muslims are as much a part of Bombay as they are of the country as a whole. India is home to the world's second-largest Muslim population. But in a nation of more than a billion, they are still a disadvantaged minority, and often the target of discrimination. Government surveys show that Muslims live shorter, poorer and unhealthier lives than Hindus and are often excluded from the better jobs. In urban areas, 40% of Muslims earn less than $6 a month, versus 22% of Hindus, and 30% of Muslims are illiterate, versus 19% of Hindus. Muslims make up 13% of the population, yet only 3% of government employees are Muslim. Of course, there are plenty of economic success stories among Muslims. Azim Premji, founder of the outsourcing giant Wipro Technologies, is India's richest resident. But many Muslims are alienated by the consumerism of the new India and feel excluded from the boom. According to the government's surveys, only 27% of Muslims have a salaried job compared to 43% of Hindus.
A mounting sense of persecution among young Muslims in India, combined with high unemployment and mounting anxiety about what many see as a global crusade against their religion, makes fertile recruiting ground for homegrown groups such as SIMI. Muslims resent the fact that four years after anti-Muslim riots killed more than 2,000 in the state of Gujarat, there have been few convictions. Police raids, detentions and the oft-reported abuses that occur under such detentions only add to their sense of being unfairly targeted. "Perceived injustice is the bedrock upon which all terrorist groups are based," says Bhatt. "We need justice for the crimes of Gujarat. Good government means hitting the violence head on, no matter who is behind it." But Ajai Sahni, director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, cautions that it's a big step from being disgruntled to bombing a train. "Everyone is a minority of some sort in a place as big as India, and almost every group has a grievance. The point is that not every group has someone mobilizing their grievances. Radical Muslims in India receive significant support and arms from outside." Though it has been accused by India of several attacks throughout the country, LeT has historically restricted its operations to Kashmir. However, the restoration of Islamic rule over all parts of the subcontinent remains part of its stated mission. Working with a group like SIMI, which has proven skilled at drawing urban youth to its cause, may enable LeT to extend its reach.
Hindu-Muslim animosity has had several flash points in India's history, starting with the Muslim Mughal conquest of the subcontinent in the 16th century—something India's nationalist Hindu opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is still attempting to undo with a campaign to demolish some Mughal mosques. That rift has driven the subcontinent's history—from partition, to three wars between India and Pakistan, the long crisis over Kashmir, and a nuclear arms race. Political parties such as the BJP have exploited those tensions to gain votes, further widening the rift. In Bombay, ironically, religious tensions are eased by the sheer impracticality of communal segregation in a city of 16 million. As survivors of last week's attacks pointed out, the train carriages may separate men from women (every train has a carriage designated for women on their own) but there are no carriages marked "Hindus only." Yet an attack like this one can peel back the veneer of ethnic tolerance, revealing a common Hindu belief that Muslims aren't truly Indian. "LeT, SIMI—it doesn't matter who was behind these attacks. They are all children of Musharraf," sneers Shah, referring to Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, as he stands outside the morgue where he has just identified his friend's body. "Palestinians kidnap an Israeli soldier and Gaza gets bombed. Here we have hundreds dead. I am praying for a Prime Minister with backbone. What will India do?"
Blame Pakistan, for one thing. On Friday, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh linked the bombings to its neighbor, saying, "These terrorist modules are instigated, inspired and supported by elements across the border." Tortuous peace talks between the two countries now seem all the more challenging, with India already announcing that it might postpone a meeting with Pakistan that had been scheduled for this week. Singh said he warned Pakistan's leaders "that if the acts of terrorism are not controlled, it is exceedingly difficult for any government to carry forward what may be called a normalization and peace process." Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, countered such criticisms by saying, "There should not be a knee-jerk reaction that everything happening in India starts in Pakistan." But in New Delhi on Friday, protesters burned effigies of Musharraf in the streets. Bhatt, who has spent the past three years cultivating Indo-Pakistan friendship through a series of cinematic and artistic exchanges, says such protests suggest the terrorists have already succeeded. "Their goal was not to kill 200 people. It was far more sinister. It was meant to drive a stake into good relations between Hindus and Muslims. Everything we have built between the two countries has been destroyed. Not by the attacks, but by the suspicions and the accusations."
Not all Mumbaikers share his gloom. Within a day, the city was almost back to normal. The train tracks were cleared, the victims cremated or buried. Commuters jammed station platforms once more. "It was a terrible thing, of course," says Mangesh Tandel, a clerk who had narrowly missed boarding one of the doomed trains, "but life goes on. We are all working class in Bombay, and for us the most important thing is work. There are no communal problems on a train." Look at the rescue efforts, says Tandel, or at the long lines of people who waited outside hospitals to donate blood, and it was clear that the attacks had not divided the city. "Everybody came to help the victims, nobody cared if they were Hindu or Muslim," he says. "The terrorists may be trying to create tensions, but it won't work in Bombay, no matter how hard they try." Keep hoping that's true.