Mumbai Gets Closure on Its 20-Year Terror Trauma
(Corrects sequence of events in 25th paragraph of article published April 1.)
In late 1992 and early 1993, a series of violent events took place in India that damaged, perhaps irredeemably, the commitment of both state and society to the country's hard-won secularism and vulnerable interfaith harmony.
First, on Dec. 6, 1992, in the northern town of Ayodhya, a small army of frenzied Hindu right-wing activists tore down the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque built by the Mughal dynasty. In India's civilizational memory, Ayodhya is the birthplace of Rama, the legendary Hindu king of the epic the Ramayana and a central figure in the political imagination. Through the 1980s, India had been racked by agitation among Hindu militant groups to rebuild a temple that had once stood on the site of the mosque.
After the mosque was ignominiously brought down, without the state or central governments having done enough to protect it, Hindus and Muslims across the country were inflamed variously by triumph, vindication, rage, resentment and despair. Religious riots broke out across the country, killing more than 2,000 people, a substantial number of them in Bombay (now Mumbai), India's financial capital and its most liberal and cosmopolitan city. The secular fabric of the city was destroyed by the rioting, much of it instigated by the thuggish demagogue Bal Thackeray (who died late last year) and his party, the Shiv Sena.
Most of those killed in Bombay were Muslims, who comprised more than 15 percent of the city's population. Bombay was on edge for days, as citizens locked themselves in their homes and gangs rampaged. I was then a schoolboy living in a city suburb, and memories of those terrible days are still vivid to me.
When peace was finally brokered, it didn't last long. On the afternoon of March 12, 1993, powerful bombs went off simultaneously in 13 locations in Bombay, including the Stock Exchange, three prominent hotels and two marketplaces, killing more than 250 people and maiming hundreds. As the city reeled with shock once again, the police ran down many leads.
Within days, the bombings were revealed to have been the plot of the underworld boss Dawood Ibrahim, who had earned his stripes in murderous gang wars in the 1970s and 1980s and now ran his international crime syndicate, the D-Company, out of Dubai.
With help from Pakistan's nebulous intelligence service the ISI (which has a long history of supporting terrorism) and his many local contacts in Bombay, the city of his birth, Dawood had designed the attacks as retribution for the violence visited on Muslims during the communal riots.
In the days after the bombings, hundreds of suspects were rounded up (even as it became clear that the mastermind, Dawood's henchman, Tiger Memon, had already left the country). People were arrested and put into jail, charges were filed and a trial began that, including appeals, would last two decades.
Eleven days ago, India's Supreme Court passed final judgment upon the matter, upholding the death sentence handed down to the gangster Yakub Memon (Tiger's brother) in 2006, while commuting the death sentences of 10 others to life imprisonment. The judgment was received in India, as an editorial in the Hindu newspaper judiciously observed, "with a sense of ending, not closure." This was because the state hadn't been able to secure the two "absconding key conspirators," Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon -- both of whom are known to reside in Pakistan, and in Dawood's case, in a state of pharaonic pomp, his international syndicate stronger than ever.
While much of the media attention focused on the five-year jail sentence for the actor Sanjay Dutt for the illegal possession of arms, note was also taken of the sentences in the Supreme Court judgment that dealt with the Pakistani intelligence establishment's role in the bombings. As the prominent Indian lawyer Soli Sorabjee noted in the Indian Express:
"Another interesting part of the judgment is the court's finding that `some of the accused, upon arrival in Pakistan for arms training, were received by ISI operatives who took them out of the airport without observing immigration formalities. There was no entry in their passports when they left Islamabad for Dubai which indicated that the accused had a green channel entry and exit in Pakistan'. The court concluded that Pakistan had breached the UN mandate which obligated every member country to prevent terrorists from using its territory to harm other countries. ...
Those who believe this part of the Supreme Court judgment will strengthen our request to Pakistan to return Dawood Ibrahim and Co. to India are living in a fool's paradise. "
The 1993 Mumbai blasts have come to occupy a more prominent place in Indian public memory than subsequent terrorist attacks, such as the equally heinous ones of 2008 for which the Pakistani terrorist Mohammed Ajmal Kasab was hanged late last year.
For one thing, the 1993 attacks were the first major terrorist incidents in a city that has since become resigned to facing them.
Second, they were plotted by a man who was at that point an Indian national -- in fact, the son of a Bombay police constable -- and a gangster of whom many Bombayites were secretly quite proud. Many locals were employed to drop off the cars laden with bombs, and the explosive RDX used for the blasts was shipped into the country by paying off Indian customs officers. The blasts revealed serious flaws in India's internal security and civil society that haven't yet been adequately addressed.
Third, the bombings and their major and minor protagonists have been extensively and memorably depicted in journalism and cinema, such as in the journalist S.Hussain Zaidi's extensively researched book "Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts" and Anurag Kashyap's magnificent film based on that book. It wasn't just Dawood Ibrahim who acquired near-mythic status. Other protagonists of the case, such as the policeman Rakesh Maria and the publicity-shy judge hearing the trial, Pramod Kode, did too. The same goes for Zaidi himself, who recently produced a book tracing Dawood's family background, his beginnings in Bombay's gang wars and his many connections to the city's elites.
As Zaidi observed in an interview last year, Bollywood, Bombay's glitzy and all-pervading film industry, "idolised Dawood as India's Don Corleone." It helped, of course, that even though he is a Muslim, Dawood wasn't an Islamist in the mold of Osama bin Laden. His relationship with Pakistani terror networks is one of convenience, not of shared ideological convictions. Zaidi conducted the last available interview with Dawood, in 1997. It's worth reading both for how Dawood cleverly plays the ingenue, disclaiming responsibility for all the charges against him, while also baring his fangs. ("Zaidi Saheb, because I respect you, I pardon such an irreverent line of questioning.")
A survey by Forbes magazine in 2009 listed Dawood at No. 50 among the world's most powerful people. This isn't just because of the size and power of his syndicate and his enormous wealth, but also demonstrates how indispensable he has made himself to Pakistan after first arriving there as an (exceptionally welcome, but nevertheless dependent) refugee. In a piece on Dawood published in 2000 by the Pakistani journalist Ghulam Hasnain, "At Home In Exile," we learn:
"On the run from Indian authorities for well over a decade, and one of the key accused in the 1993 Mumbai blasts, Dawood has found a safe haven in Karachi....
Now Dawood doubles up as an ISI-backed don in exile in Karachi who remote controls an empire spread across Mumbai-Gujarat-UP-Delhi-Dubai. In return, he's the ISI's main source of information from India and helps in espionage operations. While this has helped him exploit the Pakistani system to his advantage, his money power (Indian agencies estimate he's worth about Rs 2,000 crore [or $368 million at 2013 rates]) has catapulted him into Karachi's social circuit."
And in a piece in the Hindustan Times titled "We Know Where He Is, But...," the journalists Smruti Koppikar and Manish Pachouly wrote:
"Dawood Ibrahim continues to elude Indian authorities mainly because he and his vast network of men and resources are treated as assets in influential sections of Pakistani establishment. ...
The situation may not change till India manages to exert international pressure to have his bank accounts and assets frozen under international laws, as the United States had attempted to do about 10 years ago, sources added. Dawood was declared 'specially designated global terrorist' by the US in 2003."
This was a case that, to quote Hussain Zaidi's picturesque formulation, dragged on "as endlessly as Draupadi's saree." One of the world's great metropolises watched with fascination and horror for 20 years as a judge painstakingly went through more than 26,000 pages of evidence and the depositions of 686 witnesses and pronounced verdicts on 123 accused.
The bombings were a ripple effect of riots unleashed in great measure by Bal Thackeray, a man lionized by the city, never tried for his role in the violence and widely mourned when he died last year. One might say the 1993 bomb blasts case was Mumbai's long journey into the depths, and silences, of its very own heart of darkness.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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