November 27, 2008
New Orleans In the late afternoon before Thanksgiving Prachee Sinha of the ACORN International staff and I were riveted to the Times of India website for news of the terrorist attacks throughout Mumbai. Prachee was raised in Luchow and came over to work with me from Delhi, first training as an organizer with New Orleans ACORN and now working in the critical development area to support our embryonic operations on four continents. Her count tabulated more than 65 terrorist attacks in India over 2008 thus far, but this was the worst of them all. The demands, such as there was one, was for “all mujahedeen being held” in India prisons to be released, and was issued by a group hitherto unknown in India.
Raising the specter of jihad in India has the ability to unleash the worst of communalist reactions around the historic tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Here the terrorists targeted heavily trafficked and tourist areas around the city, and seemed to be especially looking for United States and English residents.
Pictures on IBN, the CNN affiliate, showed the dome of the Taj Mahal Hotel on fire. The Taj is a well known hotel in the Coloba area which more than many areas is a central tourist zone in the sprawling city once called Bombay. The hotel is almost directly across from the Gateway to India in the old harbor area. The Gateway was built to welcome Queen Victoria when she visited India during her reign, many years before Independence.
I had first visited Mumbai during the time of the Worlds’ Social Forum meeting there in 2004. Donna Bransford, the first ACORN International employee, and I were staying in 200 meter Lonely Planet rooms along the waterfront a couple of blocks down from the Taj. In the predawn I would frequently run through the Gateway plaza and along the sidewalk fronting the Taj with its sleeping doorman, cab drivers, and security. While on that trip I sometimes would venture into the lobby to sit on a couch and read a paper on a steamy Mumbai January night to enjoy the air-con, as it was sometimes called. If the Taj was not 5-star, lap of luxury, it must have been sitting right next to it.
On Thanksgiving morning the Times of India said there were than 100 dead and as many as 300 injured. There were still perhaps 200 hostages in the fancy Oberoi Hotel. There were an unknown number in the Taj. Cherry pickers had pulled some of the guests from the upper floors, but it was also felt that the terrorists with AK 47’s were on some of the same floors. Reports were that the basement was still fortified with hotel guests. These are areas that in their own way are the twin towers of Mumbai or perhaps a better comparison would be if there was a famous, upscale hotel across from the Statue of Liberty or a similar iconic area, then you can picture the rambling Taj looking at the harbor through the giant Gateway.
Unclear if this will move people in the city or even nationally so the analogy falls apart quickly. This is a country that is not inured to terrorism but sees it too frequently to stop in panic.
Vinod Shetty, ACORN India director, sent us a message we received at dawn that speaks to the resilience of Bombay residents:
Thanks for your good wishes, all of us are fine, and Mumbai will be back, I am at work and things are slow , but Mumbai is getting back on its feet, the spirit of the mumbai working class cannot be supressed by a handfull of gunmen.The people will overcome the terror unleashed on this country. Some of the politicians who otherwise go around making provocative communal statements are hiding behind their heavily guarded gates.
The rest of us will keep hoping and praying that there is much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving both here and around the world, including Mumbai.