MUMBAI - Brutally damaged but determined, shell-shocked but standing firm, the
Taj Mahal Palace hotel has become a rallying symbol for Mumbai's recovery from
the multiple terrorist strikes last week which killed 183 people and injured
The Taj, Mumbai, a hospitality industry icon in India, was seized by gunmen on
the night of November 26, along with its competitor, the Oberoi-Trident and a
Jewish community center, all within a three-kilometer radius in south Mumbai,
the city's leading office, residential and tourist area.
After suffering India's worst terrorist attack, Mumbai quickly lived up to its
reputation of resilience. On Monday, the bustling Colaba
area near the Taj Mahal burst into noisy life in mid-morning sunshine, with
tourist shops and restaurants open and business as usual. Chatting and smiling
Western tourists casually strolled around Colaba, with no fear in anyone's
Apart from a security cordon around the Taj Mahal, the bylanes of Colaba
offered no traces of the area being the epicenter of bloodied mayhem 48 hours
ago as army and navy commandos fought to flush out well-armed, well-trained
terrorists holding hundreds of hostages from over 10 countries.
Then, in what now seems a barely believable nightmare, nearly 60 hours of
intermittent gunfire and explosions stopped in south Mumbai around 7.30 am on
Saturday, as the body of the last of the terrorists tumbled out of a first
floor window in the Taj Mahal that alleged Lakshar-e-Taiba (LET) operatives
seized. A quasi-commando sea raid from another country to massacre unarmed
civilians in the city had ended, and despite a last salvo of loud explosions,
the hotel was still standing. The LET is a banned militant group based in
Pakistan that has traditionally focussed on Kashmir, the disputed territory
between India and Pakistan.
If the Taj Mahal in Agra is a monument to love, the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai
became a symbol of defiance during the unprecedented ordeal.
The symbol of grief in the city is two-year old Moshe, the surviving orphan of
New York origin Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka, whom the terrorists
killed on the first night of the attack.
Baby Moshe, clutching a red ball and crying out for his parents, left for
Israel on Monday with his grand parents and his Indian nanny Sandra Samuel, who
saved him by escaping from the Jewish community building in Colaba that the
terrorists had seized.
On a Saturday night of candlelight processions, including near the Taj, in
which many expatriates from the US and European countries participated, one of
them said, "The terrorists want me to be afraid, and I am not afraid. I am not
For three nights and two days I watched in dismay as the Taj Mahal, one of the
most familiar landmarks of the city, struggled under fire, smoke, grenade
explosions and machine-gun bullets. Like other Mumbai residents with memories
of life in the century-old hotel, it seemed like Mumbai itself was fighting for
Each explosion seemed to confirm terrorist plans to blow up the Taj, similar to
the Marriott, Islamabad. But like Mumbai, the Taj survived, and candlelights
shone in serene triumph on the silent paved road between the Gateway of India
and the hotel by the Arabian Sea.
Early December days are usually when the brown-uniformed housekeeping staff of
the Taj hoist the hotel Christmas tree and lighted decorations in the marble
lobby. But Santa won't be appearing in the hotel for maybe another year, as the
Taj called its 1,500 employees for a meeting on December 1 to decide a future
course of action.
Hours after security forces handed back the hotel to management on December 1,
the Taj issued a statement at 1.00 pm on Monday saying the heritage building
had been sealed, until risk assessment teams studied damage after the terrorist
Also on Monday, a six-member Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) team that
flew in from the United States spent two hours sifting through wrecked suites,
blackened walls and bullet-ridden corridors of a hotel whose guest list is a
who's who of the world, including kings, queens, presidents, the Beatles and
Elvis Presley. The Americans were joined by a group from Britain's Scotland
India's Foreign Intelligence agency is reported to have said it received
information in September that Pakistan-based terrorists planned attacks in
In Chicago, US president-elect Barack Obama said that militants in South Asia
posed the biggest threat to the US, and emphasized his determination to fight
terrorism. "We cannot tolerate a world where innocents are killed by extremists
based on twisted ideologies," Obama told the media after announcing his
national security team. "We're going to bring the full force of our power - not
only military but also diplomatic, economic and political - to deal with those
threats. Not only to keep America safe but also to ensure that peace and
prosperity continue around the world."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to arrive in New Delhi on
Wednesday for talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign
Minister Pranab Mukherjee, to coordinate an India-US response following the
terrorist attacks in which six US citizens were killed.
Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram was appointed the new home minister
after his predecessor, Shivraj Patil, resigned on Sunday, accepting "moral
responsibility" for the attacks.
In his first press conference in his new position, Chidambaram on Monday
promised to take necessary action, and said the terrorist attacks were a
"threat to the very idea of India, a threat to the soul of India that we know,
that is secular, plural, open and tolerant. But I have no doubt that ultimately
the idea of India will triumph."
But, perhaps for the first time ever, the emerging involvement of Pakistan in a
horrific terrorist attack has so far been a side issue in India. Instead,
public anger raged against Indian political leaders.
The repercussions were felt at an all-party meeting at Manmohan's residence in
New Delhi on Sunday night. Patil and his counterpart in Mumbai, R K Patil, were
the first heads to roll in what appears will be series of high-level
resignations to appease furious citizens demanding accountability.
From street-level protests in Mumbai to news channel debates, a cross-section
of Indian society expressed outrage at political leaders mouthing inanities
after every terrorist attack.
"We want to honor those who have lost their lives and protest against
politicians who did nothing," a Mumbai resident said. SMS messages went around
Mumbai asking people to wear white clothes on Monday as a mark of respect to
Mumbai leaders turning up at funerals for terrorist victims were booed. When
Kerala state chief minister V S Achuthanandan offered condolences to the father
of National Security Guards commando Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, whom
terrorists killed in the Taj Mahal while he was rescuing an injured comrade,
the grieving father refused to meet the chief minister and told him to get out
of the house.
Mumbai was stunned by the brutality of the attack, yet there seemed to be more
shock and sadness than anger, that "boys" could unleash such a cold-blooded
massacre of unarmed men, women and children. Hostages released from the Oberoi
and Taj Mahal hotels narrated horrific stories of the terrorists, all under 30,
smiling as they cold-bloodedly gunned down hotel guests.
The Indian media have for the past three days published updates of apparent
confessions of the only surviving terrorist who was arrested by police on
November 26. They intercepted Ajmal Amir Kasab in a hijacked Skoda car as he
and his accomplice Ismail were heading to assault Malabar Hill, an elite
residential area, to kill high-profile victims. Ismail was killed in the
shootout, Kasab survived with a hand injury.
Produced in a Mumbai metropolitan magistrate court that sent him to police
custody until December 11, Kasab has reportedly confessed to being part of a
25-member LET team extensively trained for a year in LET camps at Mansera and
Muzzarafabad in Punjab province of Pakistan.
Asia Times Online reported on Monday that a small al-Qaeda attack intended for
Kashmir changed into the major LET assault in Mumbai. (See
Al-Qaeda 'hijack' led to Mumbai attack). The 25-member LET team was
shortlisted to 10 handpicked murderers. Kasab told interrogators the attack was
planned six months ago and they were asked to kill 5,000 people, particularly
targeting Israelis and white American and British citizens. The Mumbai police
said Kasab expressed no remorse or regret for what he had done.
Kasab is said to have told investigators the militants hijacked an Indian
vessel to take them into Mumbai and the men, aged 18-28, then went ashore in a
dinghy before splitting up to attack different targets.
The Indian government and media have refrained from strongly condemning
Pakistan. In a measured statement, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said
preliminary investigations pointed to "certain elements" in Pakistan being
behind the terrorist attack.
India's newspapers and TV channels have also been regularly carrying
protestations of innocence from the Pakistani army and political leadership, as
well as reporting messages from the people of Pakistan. Pakistani President
Asif Ali Zardari said on Monday the gunmen were "non-state actors", and warned
against letting their actions lead to greater regional enmity.
Leaders of the Muslim community in Mumbai have also acted against terrorists
who misrepresent Islam. The Muslim Council said the Marine Lines Bada Qabrastan
(cemetery) in Mumbai will refuse to bury the bodies of the nine terrorists
killed by security forces. The council told reporters it was sending a message
to all cemeteries in India that none of the bodies of terrorists who attacked
India should be buried on Indian soil.
Similar calls for national solidarity and unity came from Ratan Tata, chairman
of the Tata Group that owns the Taj Mahal. "We must show that we cannot be
disabled, divided or destroyed, but that such heinous acts will only make us
stronger," he said in a statement.
Ratan Tata, Mumbai and India do not have to look far for inspiration. On
November 29, Karimbir Kang, the general manager of the Taj Mahal, received news
that the bodies of his wife Niti (40) and their sons Uday (14) and Samar (5)
had been recovered from a locked bathroom in their residence in the hotel. They
had been hiding from the terrorists, and possibly died of suffocation from a
fire raging from explosions of grenades thrown by terrorists on the first night
of the attack on November 26.
Kang did not waste time in seething with anger, or words of vengeance and
self-pity. Instead, he contacted his chief, Ratan Tata, and consoled him: "Sir,
we're going to beat this. We're going to build the Taj back into what it was.
We're standing with you. We will not let this event take us down."