Blasts widen communal divide
It is the city’s most celebrated monument — a large ceremonial arch built by the colonial British along Bombay’s balmy seafront. The Gateway of India was originally conceived after King George V visited in 1911. Immediately opposite is India’s most famous hotel, the luxuriously gothic Taj Mahal.
Here, local starlets rub shoulders with rich American tourists and student backpackers trying out the sofas.
The area is Bombay’s tourist hub, a place where snake charmers, balloon-wallahs, beggars and touts congregate in the hope of making a quick rupee.
But on Monday last week none of them noticed anything suspicious when a black-and-yellow taxi pulled into the Gateway’s public car park. At 1.07pm the taxi exploded, sending metal debris flying across the pavement. The result was devastating: more than 50 people were killed, while dozens were injured. Several victims of the blast appear to have been blown into the sea.
By the time the police arrived the road was awash with blood, abandoned shoes and broken glass. Police stations found themselves flooded with calls — as witnesses reported another explosion that had taken place a few minutes earlier in a crowded jewellery market, a short ride away, and also in the south of the city, close to a Hindu temple.
“There were legs and hands lying on top and inside my taxi. I had a miraculous escape,’’ said Lal Sahib Singh, a driver who survived the Gateway blast. “Bodies were strewn all over the place. I just picked them up and put them in the ambulance. I didn’t know whether they were alive or dead.”
It was, as the writer Ramachandra Guha put it last week, a bad day for India.
By Tuesday there were more questions than answers — with confusion as to the identity of the bombers, as well as to what they had intended to achieve.
One line of inquiry being pursued by detectives was whether the blasts were a reaction to the publication of a report into Ayodhya, the most explosive issue in Indian politics. Hours before the bombings, India’s chief archaeological body claimed to have found evidence of a temple beneath a mosque in the town, which was destroyed by Hindu zealots in 1992. Such a finding would effectively establish the legitimacy of the area as a Hindu shrine rather than a Muslim site.
Immediate suspicion fell on Islamist extremists. India’s hardline Deputy Prime Minister, LK Advani, hinted that Lashkar-i-Toiba, a Pakistan-based militant group, might have been responsible, acting with a banned Indian Islamist student group. But Pakistan, India’s perennial enemy during the half century or so since Britain’s departure from the subcontinent, was quick to make clear that it had nothing to do with the blasts.
“We deplore these attacks. We condemn all acts of terrorism and I think that such wanton targeting of civilians should be condemned in the strongest possible terms,’’ a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
The attacks come at a sensitive time for India, when relations between Hindu and Muslim communities are severely strained, and as India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prepares for a general election next year.
India has frequently blamed Pakistan for what it calls “cross-border terrorism’’ — when militants creep into India’s chunk of Kashmir from Pakistan and attack Indian army posts. Last year the two countries almost went to war after Islamist terrorists stormed the Indian Parliament building, with New Delhi holding Islamabad responsible.
But the snowy mountains of Kashmir are a long way from Bombay’s steaming slums: and the most probable explanation for Monday’s devastating bombings lies closer to home.
Bombay is a day’s drive away from Gujarat. It was here that Hindu mobs last year hacked and burned to death 2 000 Muslims. The communal riots, sparked by a Muslim attack on a train full of Hindu pilgrims, were the worst in India for 10 years and appear to have left some among India’s oppressed Muslim minority burning for revenge.
The man widely held to be responsible for the carnage is Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s anti-Muslim BJP chief minister. Two days before the blast he returned from a controversial trip to Britain via Bombay, where he paraded the ashes of an obscure Hindu nationalist freedom fighter. The gesture went down badly with Bombay’s large Muslim community but delighted the Shiv Sena, the city’s powerful and pro-Hindu former ruling party, famous for its thuggish right-wing supporters.
This week the streets of Bombay remained tense, with resentment building between Hindus and Muslims, after a decade of relative amity, since the last blasts in 1993. Nobody has quite forgotten the riots that shook the city after the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya in 1992.
The city could erupt again, many residents feel. “Bombay has not been safe since the 1993 blasts,’’ said Raju Jain, a 45-year-old jeweller sitting in a shop covered with fragments of glass, close to the scene of the first explosion. “It is getting worse. No public place is safe now. Anything can happen at any time.’‘
The most immediate victim of Monday’s bombings, though, is the peace process between India and Pakistan, which began four months ago when India’s Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, unexpectedly extended the “hand of friendship’’ to Islamabad.
The move followed months of bellicose rhetoric by both sides. Since then the two countries have restored diplomatic ties. They have restarted an international bus service linking New Delhi and Lahore. But the pace of détente has been slow. — Â