Friday, July 15, 2011

Why terrorists keep targeting Mumbai

NEW DELHI: As India's major gateway to the world, home to its central bank and top lenders, headquarters of its main stock exchanges and, most important of all, Bollywood, Mumbai has been a favoured target for those seeking to rattle the country.

With frightening regularity, Mumbai has been attacked by terror bombers again and again.

In March 1993, four months after Hindu zealots razed a historic mosque in Uttar Pradesh state, Mumbai suffered its worst attack in history. Terrorists set off 13 coordinated explosions in various parts of the city, killing some 260 people.

In August 2003, two explosions in South Mumbai claimed more than 40 lives. Three years later, a series of bombs set off in busy commuter trains caused more than 200 deaths.

Then came the dramatic, commando-style attack in 2008, when 10 gunmen hit prominent city spots and killed 166 people, including a Singaporean woman and several American citizens.

In between, several smaller explosions have taken place, though they did not make the headlines.

'It is a no-brainer,' said Mr Sushant Sareen, a New Delhi-based security expert. 'Mumbai is a favourite target because it is the financial capital of India and shaking Mumbai in a sense shakes up India.'

He added: 'But so far, the strategy hasn't worked. The city has proved quite resilient.'

Mumbai, India's largest city with a population of about 20 million, is home to people from every faith and ethnic group of India. Every day, thousands of new migrants arrive, seeking opportunities not available in the hinterland.

Many take shelter on the city's pavements until their fortunes improve enough to move into a shanty house. The luckier live in tiny apartments along crowded streets.

Local groups like the militant Hindu Shiv Sena party have built a mass base by opposing the migrant influx. Taxi drivers from Bihar, for instance, have been attacked by the Shiv Sena's thugs.

But, for the most part, Mumbai remains open and welcoming to all.

Some militant groups are also thought to get support from the underworld in their operations. After the 1993 serial blasts, Mumbai's king of the underworld, Dawood Ibrahim, fled India. The government believes he has since divided his time between Dubai and Karachi, cities where he reportedly has homes.

Policing such a tightly packed urban conglomeration is a nightmare, though Mumbai has won a reputation for efficiency over the years. Several terror cells have been busted in the past three months alone.

The miracle, some say, is that the city has not suffered more. For instance, the explosion that went off in the jewellery centre of Zaveri Bazaar on Wednesday was described as a 'medium- to high-intensity' blast, but only 11 people were believed to have died at this spot.

'Zaveri Bazaar is so crowded that you cannot take two steps without touching someone,' said Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who visited the site early yesterday morning. 'In a big metropolis like Mumbai, there are inherent difficulties when there is high density of population when lanes are narrow, houses are narrow and there are several floors in every building.'