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    South Asia
     Jul 13, 2006

Mumbai attacks: A new spiral of violence
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - What adds to the significance of Tuesday's terror attacks in Mumbai is that they were aimed not just at paralyzing India's financial and commercial capital, but at causing mass casualties and triggering communal tension.

Terror struck Mumbai seven times in 11 minutes when the first-class compartments of local suburban trains were torn apart by powerful explosions. Close to 200 people were killed and more than 600 injured in the blasts.

Mumbai is India's financial capital, and the near-simultaneous blasts happened between 6:24pm and 6:35pm - at the height of the evening rush hour. Mumbai's suburban train system is one of

the busiest in the world, carrying more than 6 million commuters a day.

All the stations hit lie along a 60-kilometer stretch of Mumbai's western commuter line. Since all the explosions took place when trains were either getting into or leaving stations, investigators suspect that the explosive devices used were either remote-controlled or timed.

As the people of Mumbai tried to pick up their lives on Wednesday, shares on the Mumbai stock exchange only fell slightly in early trade as the market showed resilience. There had been fears of a major share sell-off, but the market was down by just 0.3%.

"The psyche of people has been battered as hundreds of lives have been lost but there was no damage to business establishments or property," an analyst was quoted by the BBC as saying.

The blasts came hours after a series of grenade attacks - believed to be the work of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) - ripped through Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Eight people - six of them tourists from outside the state - were killed in the blasts at Srinagar.

The LeT has denied any link to the Mumbai bombings. "These are inhuman and barbaric acts. Islam does not permit the killing of innocent people," a man claiming to be a spokesman of the LeT said in telephone calls made to newspaper offices in Srinagar.

"Blaming LeT for such inhuman acts is an attempt by the Indian security agencies to defame Kashmiri mujahideens."

Another leading Kashmiri guerrilla group, Hizbul Mujahideen, denounced the bomb attacks as "outrageous", saying it abhorred the killing of civilians.

For the third time in a week, Mumbai's residents have seen their daily lives grind to a halt. First it was heavy rains that submerged large swathes of the city. Then on Sunday, activists of the Shiv Sena - a Hindu right-wing party that has triggered communal violence several times in the past in Mumbai - went on a rampage, burning buses and pelting stones at shops and vehicles. And then on Tuesday came the serial explosions.

Tuesday's terror attacks are the worst in the city for more than a decade. More than 250 people were killed and nearly 1,000 injured in a series of blasts in 1993, including 55 people who died in blasts in the city's financial district.

Communal melting pot
Mumbai has suffered repeatedly from bloody Hindu-Muslim riots. Horrific riots occurred in 1992 and 1993, when hundreds of Hindus and Muslims were killed. The riots transformed cosmopolitan Mumbai's demography as tens of thousands of Muslims fled from Hindu-dominated neighborhoods in the city to Muslim areas and vice versa. Violent clashes between the two communities have occurred several times since.

Nobody has forgotten these riots. Many now fear a repeat of events. A commission of inquiry into the 1993 riots indicted Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray of inciting communal passions and provoking his party members to violence. The commission also found that Thackeray was directly involved in the riots by assisting in coordinating attacks on Muslims.

The possibility of Shiv Sena going on a rampage now cannot be ruled out. The party's political fortunes have been waning in recent years. Poor performance in state assembly elections was followed by a vertical split in the organization. Its cadres are demoralized and the party is looking for an issue on which to mobilize its ranks again.

An early warning signal of trouble came on Sunday when Shiv Sena activists engaged in arson and violence in Mumbai to protest the defacing of a statue of Meenatai, the Sena leader's late wife. Sena activists said they were also opposing a recent government decision to suspend the construction of a police station in Bhiwandi, near Mumbai, in the wake of violent protests by Muslims there.

The party signaled that it was on a communal course once again with a senior leader giving the defacing of the statue a communal color. The Sena's president had also warned Mumbai of more violence.

The terror attacks are likely to provide the Sena with an ideal excuse for going back to violence. On Tuesday, soon after the attacks, Mumbaikars - as the city's residents are known - helped each other across communal lines. While fear and anger were visible, communal tension itself was not evident.

That could change if the Sena sends out its soldiers to the streets.

This is just the response that anti-India jihadi groups are hoping for. Communal violence has in the past enhanced Muslim alienation from India. Soon after the 2002 Gujarat riots, for instance, hundreds of angry Muslims joined militant and extremist outfits. Should Mumbai erupt in communal violence now, the flow of angry youth to Muslim extremist outfits will increase.

A city blighted with violence
According to Indian intelligence sources, terror attacks in Mumbai were not unexpected. In October last year, 61 people were killed in three coordinated bombings at markets in Delhi, on the eve of the Hindu festival of Diwali.

In March, 20 people were killed when a bomb went off at a temple in Varanasi, Hinduism's holiest city. In May, a huge consignment of explosives was seized in Aurangabad, some 400 kilometers from Mumbai. Several operatives of the LeT, an al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group, which has its headquarters in Muridke in Pakistan, were also arrested in Aurangabad and other parts of Maharashtra (the state of which Mumbai is the capital).

While police are not ruling out the involvement of D-company - an underworld outfit believed to be behind the 1993 bombings and whose boss, Dawood Ibrahim, has at times operated out of Karachi in Pakistan - it is the LeT and the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) that seem to be the prime suspects.

Members of SIMI, a banned Indian organization, are said to "have provided a supportive hand to jihadi outfits like LeT and the Harkat-ul Jihadi Islami (HUJI) in recent years", an Indian intelligence official told Asia Times Online. He pointed to their role in the Mumbai blasts in 2003 and 2004, the attack on the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi temple/Babri Masjid (mosque) site in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya in 2005, the 2005 bombing of the Shramjeevi Express at Jaunpur and blasts in Varanasi earlier this year.

Founded in 1977 in Aligarh in north India, SIMI was banned by the Indian government for its "anti-national and destabilizing activities", for "making controversial remarks questioning the country's sovereignty and integrity" and for its "links with militant outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen".

The proscription of SIMI was controversial as the allegations leveled against it were vague and not substantiated adequately. Besides, the offences it was accused of and the provocative statements its leaders were alleged to have made were tame compared with those made by Hindu extremist groups against whom no action was taken. Earlier this month, India's Supreme Court turned down a petition filed by SIMI challenging the ban on it.

Intelligence officials point out that SIMI is opposed to some of the Indian constitution's core principles, such as democracy and secularism, as these, according to the outfit, are antithetical to Islam. Proponents of the ban on SIMI have argued that it, like the LeT, advocates the "liberation of India" by establishing Dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam) in India by either converting its people to Islam or by violence. The outfit is known to have adopted extreme positions on various issues of concern to the Muslim community.

Following the ban on SIMI, most of its leaders and scores of activists were arrested. Its offices were closed, bank accounts frozen and assets seized. However, alienation of the Muslim community in the wake of the US "war on terror" and India's crackdown on alleged "Pakistan-backed terrorists" as well as the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 contributed to a deepening of support for SIMI among Indian Muslims. The ban on the organization did not weaken it; it only served to push the group's activities deeper underground.

While local grievances have contributed to SIMI's expanding ranks, funds from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as well as some Indian Muslims abroad have fueled its growth. "The threat it poses to India's secular democracy has been enhanced by its links with jihadi organizations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba," said the intelligence official who spoke to Asia Times Online.

According to Praveen Swami, a correspondent with The Hindu newspaper, SIMI's links with the LeT became public in 1999, when Azam Ghauri, the Lashkar commander for its operations in the southern city of Hyderabad, participated in a SIMI convention in Aurangabad.

SIMI activists have also gone on to set up extremist outfits of their own. In southern India, for instance, SIMI activists set up the National Democratic Front in Kerala, and the Islamic Youth Center and the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu. Several of the LeT operatives arrested in Aurangabad were SIMI activists earlier.

SIMI is an attractive local partner for organizations such as the LeT as it has an all-India presence, with strong bases in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Assam.

For SIMI activists, cooperation with the cash-rich LeT has provided a substantial boost to the organization. Indian intelligence sources say that "on its own, SIMI does not have technical expertise to carry out high-profile terror attacks. This is provided by the ISI-backed [Pakistan's Inter-Intelligence Services] Lashkar-e-Toiba and the HUJI. In return, it provides them with foot soldiers here. It has contributed to terror attacks by providing logistical support to terror operations."

"The heart and brain of jihadi and anti-India terrorist outfits continues to be in Pakistan," police sources told Asia Times Online and "organizations like SIMI prove it with hands and legs to operate here." While the heart and brain remain beyond India's reach, security agencies are determined to sever the local links.

Police sources say what has hindered their crackdown on SIMI is the fact much of its activities is done through legal charitable organizations and seminaries.

Besides, SIMI enjoys support from some leading political parties. The Samajwadi Party, which is in power in Uttar Pradesh, "is handling SIMI with kids' gloves", accuse intelligence officials. The Samajwadi Party's vote base is among Muslims and it has been reluctant to crack down on the outfit's sizeable network in the state, as it does not want to alienate Muslims.

It appears that the Uttar Pradesh government was among the few state governments to oppose the extension of the ban on SIMI, although the hand of SIMI was obvious in several recent terror strikes in the state. Other political parties too, including the Congress Party, have refrained from firm action as they do not want to be seen as anti-Muslim.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

India rides out a storm (May 12, '06)

Terror arrests raise alarm in India (Jan 20, '06)


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