The view from the sixth-floor suites at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai is breathtaking. At sunrise, looking out on the Arabian Sea, one can see the majestic Gateway of India on the left, the red sun emerging across the bay, and boats of all colours coming into harbour, while the crowds start to gather on the street below. The sheer magnificence of the tableau is overwhelming, part and parcel of the fascination that Mother India exercises. This is the point from where the last British troops left old India in 1948; today, it is the point of entry for many foreign businessmen and women drawn by the allure of the new India.
As I watched on the television screen the smoke coming out of the windows of one of these suites, where I stayed many times, I could not but reflect on the tragedy and wanton destruction brought about by jihadi terrorists on today's India, the one country in south Asia with a vibrant democracy, a prosperous economy and stable institutions. Surrounded by a rocky neighbourhood, India has been a bastion of stability in a region haunted by violence and fanatic extremists. It is precisely for that reason that jihadists have taken it on.
Mumbai, the old Bombay, "Maximum City", with its 14-million population, its teeming masses, its condition as India's financial and commercial capital, headquarters of the stock exchange and of India's Reserve Bank, as well as of its largest economic groups- the Tatas, the Ambanis, the Birlas - is today one of the terrorists' favourite targets. Since March 12 1993, when 15 nearly simultaneous bomb explosions killed 257 and left more than 1000 injured, the terrorists have not looked back. In August 2003, 46 people were killed in two separate bomb blasts. In July 2006, they targeted commuter trains at peak time, killing 200 and leaving 700 injured.
But November 26 took this to another level, and will replace March 12 1993 as the city's most traumatic event. Although the number of fatalities may in the end be lower than on previous occasions, the ante has been upped. Rather than anonymous bombs, this is hostage-taking, grenade-throwing, machine-gun spraying with AK-47s at emblematic sites such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the fabled old Victoria Terminus railway station, the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Oberoi Hotel, the Café Leopold and others. The professional training of the "militants" (as the Indian media refers to them, in an awkward linguistic concession to their power) can be gauged from the fact that some of India's top cops were killed while fighting them.
Mumbai has not been the only terrorist target in India. So have New Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Jaipur, among others. From January 2004 to July last year, India had 3900 fatalities from terrorist attacks, a higher toll than any country in the world after Iraq, and more so than Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Mumbai remains the favourite, the "bull's eye".
The sources of jihadi terrorism in India are many. Much of it is of foreign origin, something to which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh alluded to in his speech after the recent events, by which he meant Pakistan. In fact, the mastermind of the 1993 Mumbai attacks, Dawood Ibrahim, is happily living in Karachi.
The Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir is widely described as another cause. Al-Qaeda's involvement cannot be discarded. On the other hand, Muslims in India, who number 140-million, have for long been at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and been the targets of political attacks by the Hindu right.
Yet, the overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims are peaceful. The complex operation that took place in Mumbai last week could not have been initiated domestically. The singling out of Americans and British, as well as of the Jewish Centre, unprecedented in terrorist acts in India, betrays the modus operandi of Islamic fundamentalist groups based in Pakistan, such as Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Muhammad. Three of the suspects held by Indian police are reportedly members of the former, traditionally funded by Pakistani intelligence. It has been confirmed the terrorists arrived by sea, most likely from Karachi. This comes only a few months after the bomb attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul which killed 60, in which Pakistani intelligence was allegedly involved.
India has been, after the US, the major target of Pakistan -based jihadi terrorism for the past 20 years, ever since the Mujahideen, having forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan, moved on to Kashmir.
To have prominent western observers such as Peter Berger say, as he did on CNN, that the only way to stop terrorism in India is by "solving the Kashmir problem" (giving in to Pakistani demands) plays directly into the hands of those who make Mumbai burn. The time has come to stop coddling Pakistan and the mayhem it is spreading in central and south Asia.