When terror struck Mumbai

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

The two powerful explosions in Mumbai on August 25, which killed at least 45 people, bring back memories of the serial blasts in 1993 and are seen as part of a pattern aimed at destabilising the State's economy.

THE Mumbai Police are confident about two things about the explosions that rocked the city, one at the Gateway of India and the other at Zaveri Bazar, on August 25: the profile of the group or groups involved and the local origin of the bombs. The bombs, placed in the boots of parked taxis, went off within moments of each other, at around 1 p.m, killing more than 45 people and injuring nearly 150, many of them seriously. While the Gateway of India is a favourite spot with tourists and local people alike, Zaveri Bazar is the heart of the jewellery trade and abuzz with activity at most times of the day. The taxi parked near the Gateway of India was fuelled by CNG and it is believed that the exploding cylinder added to the power of the blast. The police have questioned its driver, but the driver of the other taxi is believed to have died in the explosion.

At a press conference held six hours after the explosions, Mumbai Police Commissioner R.S. Sharma, said: "We are very clear about who is involved. The explosive was almost similar to those used in other blasts in the city [since December 2002]. There are many jehadi groups in the city. In the past we have made arrests in groups like SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India), Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jalees Ansari [of the Ahle Hadees religious group]. We continue to suspect these people." He added: "We are interrogating some people. That's why I'm speaking to you with some confidence."

Though no immediate arrests were made, the Mumbai Police insinuated about Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. According to them, the ISI has been active in the city. As far back as 1992, a self-styled Lieutenant General of the Khalistan Liberation Army was arrested and during interrogation he apparently admitted to ISI backing. The most recent arrest, that of a man with alleged Lashkar-e-Toiba links, was in April this year.

Since December 2002 Mumbai has witnessed seven explosions, leading to accusations of intelligence failure. Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal and Sharma have consistently denied these charges and even after the latest explosions Sharma said the police were continually receiving information about possible targets in the city. He cited the Gateway of India and Chowpatty beach as two such targets. Last year the police had cordoned off the Gateway of India after receiving a threat. The threats have been taken seriously by the Indian Hotels Company Ltd, owner of the Taj Mahal Hotel, which is as much an icon of the city as the Gateway is. R.K. Krishna Kumar, Vice-Chairman of The Indian Hotels Company Ltd., affirmed that the hotel has stepped up its security since last December.

While the specific type of explosive used was still unclear on August 25, police alluded to the possibility of it being gelatin, as in the earlier explosions.

The fact that no organisation has claimed responsibility for any of the blasts has made their task that much more difficult. The police are keeping tabs on various militant organisations present in the city, but admit that it is a gargantuan task to monitor every suspected movement in a city like Mumbai. In the past, certain types of explosives were seen as the trademark of certain groups. That has changed. "The modus operandi, the material used... any group can use anything and plan the attack in any way. September 11 proved that," said a police source.

In the present instance, there seems to be no specific reason for the timing or the choice of the sites. Past explosions were either retaliatory in nature or meant to observe the anniversary of some unsavoury incident. August 25 fits neither criterion. The two sites - the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazar - have only one thing in common: both are crowded. This seeming randomness of date and place led the State government to announce that the city was being targeted because of its status as the country's economic hub.

Addressing the press, Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said: "Since December, the city's economy has been doing very well. We have had a lot of investment and tourism, especially, has been good. I see this as an attack on the city's economy. It is an attempt to disrupt the city."

EACH explosion in the nine months since December, has been more severe than the previous one in terms of the death roll and the severity of the attack. In fact, August 25 brought back memories of the 1993 serial blasts, which killed 235 people, with rumours about more bombs going off across the city spreading thick and fast.

The first of the present series of blasts took place on December 2, in a Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) bus outside the Ghatkopar railway station, killing two persons and injuring 38. A second blast was prevented that day after the police defused an explosive device found on another BEST bus. Four days later, a bomb exploded at the Mumbai Central railway station, injuring 23 and damaging a restaurant and parts of the station.

On January 27, a bomb exploded in the market area outside Vile Parle, a suburban railway station, injuring 30 people. The police said that the next day another bomb was found in the vicinity of the station. On March 13, an explosion ripped through the first class ladies compartment of a local train at Mulund railway station during peak hour, killing 12 persons and injuring 70. Terror returned to Ghatkopar on July 28 in the form of another blast in a BEST bus. Three persons were killed and 35 were injured.

Forensic reports and police investigations have determined that the explosives used and the modus operandi were similar in all blasts. There were Gelatin sticks and ammonium nitrate was present in most of the bombs. Yet, investigations are unable to pin-point the culprits. The police are keeping tabs on various militant organisations present in the city, but admit that it is a gargantuan task to monitor every suspected movement in a city like Mumbai.

Eight persons were arrested after the December 2 blast and four, including Saquib Nachan, a prominent member of SIMI, were arrested after the Mulund explosion. The police said Nachan was involved in various anti-national activities and had been training Muslim youth in the use of arms. A day after the July 28 Ghatkopar blast, the police picked up eight persons allegedly belonging to SIMI and the LeT.

The police believe that the attacks are in retaliation for the communal pogrom that took place in Gujarat last year. As the commercial capital of the country, the city has traditionally been a target of various militant attacks. Among the areas chosen for attack, Ghatkopar and Zaveri Bazar have large populations of Gujaratis and Jains.

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