Thu, November 27, 2008
World > Asia-Pacific > India terror attacks

White Tigers say "Pay Attention to Me India"

2008-11-27 09:02:08 GMT2008-11-27 17:02:08 (Beijing Time)

His was one of the first faces to emerge out of the scenes of burning hotels, shattered glass and uniformed police in Mumbai.

"Is he one of the victims?" asked my roommate as I looked at the fuzzy image of a young man in a dark t-shirt, the word VERSA written across it in white. My roommate obviously hadn't noticed the AK-47 he was holding. But in a way he was right.

That man whose image was beamed across the world could have easily been one of the victims. "They were very young, like boys really, wearing jeans and T-shirts," a British tourist told The Times.

In short they were wearing the uniform of a young India. A uniform that allowed them access into the sanctum santorum of Indian high society which they then proceeded to blow up.

Little is known about the Deccan Mujaheddin who claimed responsibility for the attacks. The media are looking for the geo-political cracks that might emerge.

Does it have the finger prints of al Qaeda?

Is it a signal to the conciliatory noises towards India that Pakistan's new President Zardari has been making?

But the face of that gun-toting VERSA t-shirt-wearing assailant is haunting in its ordinariness.

Who is he?

Is he Indian?

Is he part of India's 9 percent growing GDP?

Was it ideology or was it promise of cash that sent him into the Taj hotel where Bombay's elite gather for cocktails and coffee?

"If you ever need to pee in South Bombay just go to the Taj" a Bombayite friend told me. "They won't stop you. You look like you are English-speaking."

The assailants, even as they demanded American and British passports, apparently were not English-speaking. They spoke in Urdu and Hindi.

In a country where every car entering one of the grand new shopping malls has its trunk inspected by uniformed security, how did they know they could walk into the five star hotel with AK-47s and grenades?

In the hushed glamor of the Taj with its 24-hour coffee shops and golden luggage carts, did they walk in through the front door, past the liveried doorman like they belonged? Did they stride into the dining room of the five-star Oberoi where diamond merchants make deals and Bollywood starlets wait to be spotted by gossip columnists like they wanted a table – dinner for three, we have no reservations.

"These are the places where what Indians call 'the creamy layer' hang out," says Mira Kamdar, author of Planet India on a recent webcast organized by the South Asian Journalists Association. She says these are the places where Bombay's elite feel safe and cocooned. It's their "islands of security" amidst the chaos of South Bombay. "It's the elite of Bombay who are really going to be shaken," says Kamdar.

Shaken, because the young-man-in-Versa tshirt didn't want to become the elite. He didn't want a place at the table. He wanted to upturn the table. He wanted to take the "creamy layer" hostage.

In India this is new.

Riots have raged through slums and housing estates. Bombs have gone off in local trains and underground markets. Even the Stock Exchange. But the five star hotel was off the menu. Until now.

When journalist Aravind Adiga wrote a novel about a chauffeur who kills his master, he called it The White Tiger because he said that was still the anomaly in India. He wondered why more servants didn't kill their masters. But he worried that "there is a new, very primordial, class divide between people who feel they have and people who feel they have not." In the glitzy breathless prose about India's skyrocketing GDP and its swelling middle class you miss the fact that many poorer Indians don't have the basic foundations of education and English that will allow them to succeed. Instead Adiga feared as the rich and even-the-not-so-rich shut themselves off in gated communities with names like Belvedere and Laburnum, the servants, the poor, become Ralph Ellison's invisible men.

Invisible, until they burst into every television set across India, indeed across the world, guns blazing.

Mira Kamdar worries that the "blunt instrument" way the Indian police round up young Muslim men will leave them even more alienated. The fears over security might lead to an electoral resurgence of an "anti-terrorist" Hindu nationalist party. Heads will roll about yet another intelligence failure and a city unprepared.

Those are the lessons to be drawn from the post-mortem of this attack. But the larger point has already been made. The world was shocked because this was the first time Mumbai, the tourist destination, was attacked.

Bali came to Bombay this November. The Leopold caféis where my friends who visit the city hang out with a coffee and a cigarette.

When I was in Mumbai earlier this year my friend and I whiled away an afternoon at the Taj bookstore. And though bombs also went off near a hospital and a busy railway station, it's these landmarks that resonated around the world.

"When I was in Mumbai in February I stayed at the Taj and ate the best fish curry I have ever tasted at Leopold's." writes Matthew D'Ancona in The Spectator. The terrorists chose their targets well for their explosive debut into Mumbai high society. High society is usually Page 3 in Indian newspapers. The young men and their AK-47s turned Page 3 into Page 1 in one angry stroke.

I don't know who the young man in the Versa t-shirt was.

He might be an Islamic militant. He might be a frustrated small city boy shut out of the IT economy. He might be a village boy who trained in a camp somewhere.

But his message was loud and clear.

Pay attention to me, he said to booming India.

And then he pulled the trigger.


Sanpid Roy

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