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Months After Mumbai Attacks, Security Concerns Weigh on India

April 6, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Four months after a coordinated terrorist attack killed more than 170 in Mumbai, India is still plagued by outbreaks of violence despite some government efforts. NewsHour correspondent Simon Marks reports on the atmosphere ahead of the country's general election.

GWEN IFILL: Now, the first in a series of stories about India, a rising power plagued by terrorism.

Today, three bombing attacks in the state of Assam left 7 dead and 60 injured. But the prime minister said he would still campaign there tomorrow. India holds elections later this month.

Our series, from special correspondent Simon Marks, begins in the financial capital, Mumbai.

SIMON MARKS, NewsHour special correspondent: Business is booming at the Cafe Leopold in Mumbai. For 138 years, waiters here have delivered frosted pitchers of beer and hot plates of spicy Indian nibbles to tourists and locals who frequent this popular watering hole.

And now they’re protected by armed, private security guards, a symbol of the fear that continues to grip the city even as normal life is returning.

ERIC ANTHONY, manager, Cafe Leopold: In South Mumbai, like we never expected this to happen in South Mumbai.

SIMON MARKS: Eric Anthony has managed this family-owned business for a decade, and what he never expected could happen did happen last November 26th.

ERIC ANTHONY: This is the bullet that went from here, came out from here.

SIMON MARKS: At 9:30 p.m., he and his customers came under attack by two heavily armed men bearing sub-machine guns. The terrorist assault on Mumbai that would take more than 170 lives, and more than three days to subdue, had begun.

ERIC ANTHONY: That night, I really face death face to face. I was just shot. A bullet brushed me and went away.

Anger against two governments

SIMON MARKS: The violence at the cafe was just the start of a terrorist assault that moved on to the Taj and Oberoi Hotels, Mumbai's central railroad station, and the city's most prominent Jewish community center.

It took elite commandos 10 hours just to find an airplane to ferry them from their base in New Delhi to Mumbai. There, they battled the terrorists who slipped ashore via a commandeered fishing trawler and revealed gaping holes in the country's security infrastructure.

ERIC ANTHONY: That night, the police also was helpless. They came here after two hours, when people were shouting for help. I think after the attack the people -- the people are more responsible now, not the government. The government cannot do anything, because the police also has done nothing.

SIMON MARKS: Last November, frustration with the government's response to the crisis spilled over onto the streets.

"Down with politicians, down with Pakistan," the demonstrators chanted, their anger directed in equal measure at two governments they held responsible for the attacks: the country's immediate neighbor, where the terrorists came from, and their own, for failing to protect India's people.

RONNIE SCREWVALA, founder and CEO, UTV: I think the expectation -- and that was pretty much the youth of India actually crying out -- was really for some sense of action.

SIMON MARKS: But Ronnie Screwvala, one of Mumbai's most successful entrepreneurs, says the public's cry for action has in the intervening months been met mostly by rhetoric.

He's the founder and CEO of UTV, an entertainment conglomerate operating six commercial television channels, including an all-business network that broadcasts from a newsroom in Mumbai. And he worries that little has been done in the months since the attacks to make the city any less vulnerable to another band of dedicated terrorists.

RONNIE SCREWVALA: I don't think they'd find it harder or difficult at this point to do anything differently. And that's primarily because there's no central chain of command. And I think that's what really normally keeps a place, a city, a country secure in that context.

So until we actually get that into place, it's multiple authorities looking at their own jurisdiction or their responsibility. And, therefore, no, it can happen -- it can reoccur again at any time.

SIMON MARKS: In the capital, New Delhi, India's government acknowledges the country's ongoing vulnerability, but defines the situation in global terms.

ANAND SHARMA, minister of State for External Affairs: This terrorism is not only my problem. It's a global scourge.

SIMON MARKS: Anand Sharma is India's minister of state for external affairs, one of the government's top foreign ministry officials.

ANAND SHARMA: Yes, we had failures. We must admit as a government. The prime minister of the country had the humility to apologize. Our government has apologized to the people publicly immediately. We apologized in parliament.

But there is no country which is safe. There is no country in the world which can provide ironclad security.

SIMON MARKS: The Indian government is taking measures to try and improve the country's security. The waters off Mumbai are now patrolled more heavily by the Indian navy and the coast guard.

And the government is creating a national investigation agency, empowered to take a national lead in the fight against terrorism and circumvent regional red tape. There are also plans to base elite commandos in four of the country's major cities.

REAR ADMIRAL M. P. TANEJA (Ret.), Indian Navy: We, as a people, I think, don't do things so quickly. We like to think, mull over, and then actually take action.

SIMON MARKS: But retired Rear Admiral Mahendra Pratap Taneja, a 36-year veteran of the Indian navy, says he thinks change should be coming faster.

REAR ADMIRAL M. P. TANEJA: The sad part is that what really should happen on ground in terms of security in the apex level of coordination hasn't quite got off the ground as it should.

Business returns to normal

SIMON MARKS: None of that is preventing normal life from flourishing on the streets of Mumbai. An outdoor food market in the suburb of Mahim is operating at full tilt after being closed for several days immediately after the attack.

Traders like Mahuri Aymunmari, who has sold fish here for the last 15 years, say they now see more police patrols than before.

MAHURI AYMUNMARI, market trader (through translator): They've told us not to touch anything suspicious, be a little more aware. We definitely feel better now that there's more security.

SIMON MARKS: And business in general in India's financial capital is returning to normal. Conferences are underway in Mumbai again. Planes flying into the city from global destinations are full. And hotel managers caught in the crossfire last November are expressing optimism about the future.

Devendra Bharma is the executive vice president of Oberoi Hotels, which owns two of the properties damaged in last November's attacks.

DEVENDRA BHARMA, executive vice president, Oberoi Hotels: I think the India story is still very good. The attacks did slow it down initially. I mean, that was just for that initial month or two period. But the India story is still strong. And we strongly believe that India is a rising economy and people will come back to India in spite of what's happened.

SIMON MARKS: One sure indicator that life in Mumbai has returned to normal is that its movie business, known as Bollywood, is back in full swing.

Last November, movie sets like this one fell silent, the city's artistic community not wishing to engage in acts of frivolity at a time of national crisis. Today, those concerns have melted away.

But Bollywood icons say there has been a change in Mumbai and in India more generally since last November's attacks. Movie director Ken Ghosh says audiences are no longer satisfied with the traditional music-saturated love stories. Today, he says, they demand more from the silver screen.

KEN GHOSH, film director: There's a lot more things in the pipeline, where, you know, it's not only about songs and dances that we are normally known for, but our films need to say something now. Cinema is a mirror of society, so we're only going to make films that the audiences want to see. So that is definitely, you know, going to make an impact on what we say and how we say it.

SIMON MARKS: The political impact of the Mumbai attacks will be known in a few weeks time when the country's general election is completed. The polls open on April the 16th here in the world's largest democracy, and they'll stay open for nearly a month.

Amid a heated debate about its handling of the crisis, the Congress Party, which leads the incumbent governing coalition, acknowledges that the terrorist strike and its aftermath are key election issues.

ANAND SHARMA: It was a very difficult situation, so we have learned very hard lessons from it, not performed or delivered, people will throw us out. They'll re-elect us if they feel that we have done a good job, like anywhere.

SIMON MARKS: Last November, the reputation of the country's rulers seemed tattered by the public's reaction to events in Mumbai. Today, some of the anger has dissipated, as the city has resumed its primary role driving India's still-impressive economic growth.

But many in the city remain anxious that Mumbai is still at risk, a symbol of India's modern-day success and a tempting target for further terrorist action.

GWEN IFILL: Simon's next report looks at the debate in India over redeveloping the country's slums.