Explosions in Mumbai

Mumbai TerroristA year ago today ten men in jeans and black t-shirts took ten minutes to hijack Mumbai, a cosmopolitan city that everyone here in India compares to New York. With guns and grenades and bombs in backpacks, they killed 164 people and left the city in flames. Most of the attackers were killed in the process, but one of the men made it through alive. A Pakistani in his early twenties, Ajmal Kasab was charged with murder, conspiracy and waging war against India.

India is a democracy with undercurrents of anarchy. Just since I arrived last week, a major news station was raided by right-wing thugs armed with bats and bars who slapped around the receptionist, beat up journalists, and threw a chair at an editor who they felt had criticized one of their political leaders. But the trial of Kasab proceeds slowly. “Bring Kasab to the Gateway of India and hand him over to the citizens of this country,” one widow was quoted as saying. “Let us get rid of him once and for all. Why prolong our misery?’’ Bits of news have shown celebrations that end with burning effigies of Kasab and expressions that the man’s execution should take place on the first-year anniversary—at the latest. Yet it appears that he’ll live to see another day.

I haven’t been to Mumbai yet in my travels, but from the vantage of this visitor, reading the headlines and talking to a few people to figure out what this anniversary means to them, most seem to have moved on to other concerns. The newspaper is alive and well in India if not elsewhere, its pages still expansive enough to annoy a seatmate. In the week leading up to the anniversary, the dailies covered the Italian report that showed how the attackers used phone systems out of New Jersey to orchestrate their plan and and debated what the FBI is and isn’t revealing about David Headley, and why. But the bigger headlines are about PM Manmohan Singh’s visit with Obama (apparently an invite to a US state dinner takes precedence over speech-making and flag-waving in Mumbai), and the sugarcane pricing that sparked street protests in Delhi. Yesterday, nearly every front page story was about the rancor between Muslims and Hindus, but the focus was not Mumbai but Ayodhya, where Hindus destroyed a sixteenth-century mosque in 1992 with zealous abandon, claiming it was a sacred Hindu site that had been desecrated by the Mughals. A report, sixteen years in the making and just leaked to the press, lays the blame for the mosque’s destruction flat at the feet of the same conservative political parties that are today inspiring armed men to attack journalists.

Sometimes, it feels as though the carnage of Partition that was the afterbirth of this nation is still mighty fresh, and a tiny yet vocal and often armed contingent wants no one to forget it. I suspect, from my outsider perspective, that most would prefer to.

This morning, the news showed live footage from Mumbai, where a police parade beat their drums as they marched in boring block formation. In the background, the sidewalks were utterly bereft of humans. This is India. Sidewalks are never empty. The new Force One, a highly trained military section of a few good men ready for the next attack, showed off their skills scaling buildings to a sparse smattering of applause. During another parade in Mumbai a few days ago, a paper reported, four of the tough soldiers had fainted in the heat when standing at attention for too long.

There were explosions last night outside of the guest house where I’m staying in Delhi. But it wasn’t Maoists or separatists or a raid from riled-up Pakistanis. Just celebrants lighting off firecrackers to mark the marriage between some young couple, starting their lives together. In one weekend, 20,000 couples were married in the city. With more than a billion people in this country, most—like people everywhere—have had enough of the drama of conflict. Leave the fighting to the cricket field, they say, as they click the remote.  There is no time to gather straw for the effigies.

Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.