The Mumbai attacks hit India's rich the hardest. They may now take democracy more seriouslyby James Crabtree / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
Elegant apartment blocks stand tall above the gardens of Malabar Hill, the most exclusive district in south Mumbai. The area juts out on the far side of a bay, like the thumb of a hand stretching for the sea, as if trying to keep at arm’s length from the body behind. Property prices here rival downtown Manhattan. When the smog isn’t too thick, residents can gaze east across Back Bay, to see the city’s seething downtown fingertip. Few places would have given a better view of the smoke rising from the Trident Oberoi and the Taj hotels.
The attacks that began on 26th November, in which 188 died, shocked India. But unlike the events of 11th September 2001—to which they have been too readily compared—this was not shock springing from the unexpected. India is used to violence. The same group behind this devastation, Lashkar-e-Toiba, bombed Delhi in 2005. The next year, 209 Mumbaikers died when seven explosions ripped through their commuter rail system.
True, the latest attacks were more public and prolonged. The sieges, shoot-outs and hostages shinning down drainpipes had a cinematic quality suited to the home of Bollywood. But the novelty came in the choice of victims. Tragedy in India usually hits the poor, whether bombings, riots or the simple brutality of everyday life. This time, the gunmen attacked India’s prosperous new elite, many of whom died on the floors of the Taj hotel.
In choosing Mumbai, the Islamist radicals picked the icon of “India rising”—a subcontinental derivative of the American dream. This new national myth tells of a country escaping autarchy and socialism to become Asia’s superpower-in-waiting. Its proponents think India will soon outstrip China, powered by the English language, brainy PhDs and hi-tech knowhow. One day it might. But November’s attacks revealed many holes in this tale of hope. They also dredged up deep-seated insecurity among the elite that India’s recent rise could be all too easily reversed.
The course of the attacks revealed how thin this veneer of confidence can be. At first, crowds gathered outside the burning hotels, to cheer and backslap exhausted commandos, while wedding marches continued, pointedly, in the streets. For the 60-hour siege, the city pulled together. But this solidarity petered out before the last gunman was mopped up. Media focus turned quickly to poorly-equipped police with rusty Lee Enfield rifles and plastic helmets taking on terrorists with high velocity…