I first came to know of the Mumbai terrorist attacks on Wednesday afternoon through an e-mail from the folks at the South Asian Journalists Association. Initial reports that some people had been injured quickly turned into at least eighty dead (the current tally is close to 200). My first worry was about my brother and his family, who live in Mumbai. A call that night confirmed that they were fine and safely at home when the terrorist onslaught started. So were our other relatives, although one of my wife's cousins had a close call, since he was all set to head out for a dinner engagement in the vicinity of the incidents before a cellphone call from a friend warned him.
Technology turned out to be both a blessing and curse in following the attacks. Through high-speed Internet, I was able to watch live Indian television's round-the-clock coverage of the assaults and the rescue operations. (One of the main Indian channels is available at ndtv.com.) This wouldn't have been possible even a few years ago, and provided me an amazing amount of detail about the whole saga. But all those scenes of killings and destruction made me feel awful.
Though the attempts by the Indian media to label this as "India's 9/11" seem a slightly desperate attempt to resonate with a Western audience, the impact on India seems to be huge. The audacity of the assaults, the symbolism of the targeted sites, the live television coverage-all combined have made this terrorist attack's impact larger than ever before. And on top of everything else, this incident is the culmination of a series of bomb blasts over the past couple of years that have left hundreds of people dead in big cities all over India.
Now, a wide variety of groups have been responsible for these attacks. Two major bombings within this year in Northeastern India (in the towns of Guwahati and Imphal) seem to be the work of local secessionist movements. And recent revelations point to a Hindu extremist group for a huge blast on an India-Pakistan train in early 2007 that killed sixty-eight people, when it was initially thought to be the work of militant Islamic elements. But the Mumbai attacks seem to be quite certainly the handiwork of jihadists. The seeking out of Americans and British citizens and the attack on the Jewish center, the first significant case of anti-Semitism on Indian soil, are strong indications of this. (India has been remarkably free historically of anti-Semitism with, for example, one of Bollywood cinema's earliest superstars, Ruby Myers, and one of the top generals in the Bangladesh War, Jacob Farj Rafael Jacob, both being Jewish.)
So, which particular group was responsible? The evidence indicates that it is quite likely Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group that has waged an armed campaign against Indian rule in Kashmir. Both U.S. and Indian officials have converged in their assessment that this outfit is responsible, and leaked information from the one captured terrorist also points in that direction. The organization was quite freely operating in Pakistan till a December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament prompted General Pervez Musharraf to crack down. Even today, the Indian authorities say that the group is able to operate semi-openly. (The BBC has a good recent history of the outfit.)
From there we go to the next question: Was there official Pakistani involvement in the attacks? Here, the fact that the country now has an elected civilian government is cause for relief because it is highly unlikely that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (Benazir Bhutto's widower) even knew about the attacks beforehand. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was obviously moved and shaken when he was on Indian television. The only possibility is of rogue elements within Pakistan's dreaded intelligence outfit, the ISI, collaborating with the terrorists, and so far not even the Indian government is saying this.
The attack has markedly increased tensions between India and Pakistan. It will result in the Indian government's attention being directed even further away from developmental issues. And it will lead to a national hardening of mood and suspicions.
Nothing good will come out of this.