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City of Brass

City of Brass

A recollection of Mumbai

This is a guest post by Zeba Iqbal.

On the evening of July 11, 2006 a series of bomb blasts ripped through several suburban train lines in Mumbai. Over 200 people died and over 700 were injured. I was living in India then and was amazed at Mumbai’s resilience. The city did not miss a beat.

Trains were running again that night, and by the next morning, it was business as usual – offices and shops were open. Mumbai was a little bruised, a little sad, a little scared – but on its feet.

Mumbai did not recover so quickly from the attacks of November 26, 2008. Almost 200 were killed and over 300 injured in ten separate shooting and bombing attacks across Mumbai (mainly South Mumbai). The siege which lasted 60-hours began at 9 pm on the 26th and ended on the 29th – paralyzed Mumbai for three days, and stunned it for many more.

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Halfway across the world in America, I celebrated a subdued Thanksgiving with family. We watched with disbelief and sadness as the horrific events of 26/11 unfolded in Mumbai. For those who don’t know Mumbai, it is the New York City of India. A big tough safe city that never sleeps. Like New York City, Mumbai is surrounded by water.

By all accounts, last year’s decentralized, prolonged form of real-time attack on ‘posh’ Mumbai was a successful mission for the perpetrators. Armed with a simple blueprint, the attackers vividly illustrated just how vulnerable cities near water are, and how difficult it is to safeguard them. A recent mock attack in Miami strengthened this hypothesis.

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Mumbaikars, and Indians at large, continue to be very critical of the authorities’ response to the attacks and infighting between police and other officials is ongoing. Most would say that Mutbai is no safer today than it was at this time last year. However, The attacks did result in heightened security, citizen campaigns and private debate.

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My annual visit to India this year coincided with the anniversary of 26/11. Though I am on vacation and admittedly somewhat disconnected I have been observing the lead up to 26/11 – in general, and also the attitude of India towards its Muslims – in specific.

The build up to 26/11 on Indian TV was somewhat limited at least partially because the trial of the one surviving gunman Ajmal Kasab is underway and the government had issued an advisory requesting balanced reporting. The media seems to have taken it seriously. The newspapers and the 24-hour news stations had some coverage on and before the anniversary of 26/11, but did not overshadow other news namely the Prime Minister’s visit to meet President Obama and the Liberhan report.

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This is my second trip back to post-26/11 India. As mentioned above, I do see a change in India’s attitude towards security and counter terrorism, but I am heartened to say, I don’t see any antagonism towards Muslims. The government, the media and everyday Indians seek justice for the perpetrators and harbor anger towards them. I was very fearful of that last year, but I have scanned articles, headlines and news stories – not one article or recommendation I have come across has ever questioned Islam or Indian Muslims with respect to the attacks. And it is worth remembering that muslims in India stood in solidarity with their Hindu fellow citizens, by forgoing the ritual sacrifice of cows on Eid ul Adha last year, and wore black armbands as a symbol of mourning.

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As an American Muslim, this is very refreshing to me. I know first hand what post-9/11 America felt like – it was and continues to be a struggle – against ignorance, internal division and external attack – and for mutual understanding, integration and a nuanced identity. Indian Muslims struggle too, just not for general acceptance, as reflected by India’s response to 26/11.

This makes sense because India has the largest number of Muslims in a non-Muslim country. Muslims are a majority minority with approximately 140 million Muslims (by conservative estimates) in India accounting for 13.5% of the 1.17 billion population. Muslims are overrepresented in the film industry and under represented in politics. Indian Muslims do have their problems with literacy, poverty and justice – but then so does India as a whole. Their problems (which do need to be addressed) are in sync with the overall Indian equation.

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Muslims are an integral part of the fabric of India – its history, its architecture, its culture. I am reminded of that every time I see a Muslim working alongside a Hindu, a Hajj terminal at an Indian airport, watch an Urdu play, eat halal chicken nuggets or chicken pepperoni at an Indian McDonalds or Pizza Hut or see Hindus and Muslims coming out of a dargah together.

I am oversimplifying to make point that 26/11 was not a watershed moment for Indian Muslims, India and terrorism. It was a watershed moment for India and terrorism.

Saying that Indian Muslims have a place in society, does not mean that India has not had its moments of significant communal strife, even in its recent history, but the economy is strong and private sector businesses are growing. As the middle class stabilizes, the BJP is losing power, and has recently been discredited in the Liberhan issue with respect to the 1992 Babri Masjid incident. In the face of tragedy particularly in urban India, attempts to divide on the basis of religious and communal lines have failed. Indians united on the issue of 26/11 and found power in numbers.

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The historic Taj Mahal hotel, a focal point of tragedy, destruction and heroism during the attacks had a simple message on their 26/11 homage page. The message ended with:

“Today we take a step forward. Tomorrow we’ll take many more.”

Zeba Iqbal is the Vice-Chair of CAMP International (Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals). She currently lives in NYC and works for Princeton University. Zeba is an active social and community networker and activist for the Muslim American community and is a 2009-10 American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute fellow.

  • Your Name

    The general conundrum of catastrophe is that there is no meaning, no sense, no predictive possibilities. How can one be certain he or she is never in the wrong place, at the wrong time, or in the unanticipated company of the wrong persons?
    The nature of the differences between random vs stochastic events always is that of predictability.
    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI

  • Zafar

    Great post Zeba. It’s not what happens to us but what we do, that makes a difference.
    Kudos to the Indian government for not rushing troops to the Indo-Pak border. Praise for the Muslim leaders that took a strong decision not to bury the dead perpetrators in India and much praise for Indians not spewing hate crime against muslims.

  • togret

    Thanks for this. I visited your site becuase of the stupid minarets decision in Switzerland, and have stayed to read more. This is very inspiring .. it is great to have such clear-eyed and informative reading.

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