2 years later, Mumbai terror attacks still cast shadows

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 5, 2010 

WORLD NEWS OBAMA-INDIA 1 MCT

When U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Mumbai on Saturday, he'll stay at the Taj Mahal Hotel to show solidarity over the so-called "26/11" attacks- the shootings, bombings and hostage takings that began on Nov. 26, 2008. He'll see a memorial there and deliver a statement commemorating the victims, including Americans.

MARGARET TALEV — Margaret Talev/MCT

MUMBAI — Nearly two years after a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai by Pakistani-based militants killed more than 160 people and rocked India's business and cultural center, life has returned to a semblance of normal.

Commuters still use the CST train station. Western tourists and locals still pack Leopold Cafe. The luxury Taj Mahal and Oberoi-Trident hotels, rebuilt from the damage, are persevering.

Life goes on, albeit with a new layer of pat-downs, bag checks and parking restrictions.

Still, anti-Pakistani attitudes here have hardened. So have many Indians' frustrations with the United States for its support of and reliance on Pakistan for the war in Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaida.

When President Barack Obama arrives in Mumbai on Saturday, he'll stay at the Taj Mahal hotel to show solidarity over the so-called "26/11" attacks: the shootings, bombings and hostage takings that began on Nov. 26, 2008. He'll see a memorial there and deliver a statement commemorating the victims, including Americans.

Obama also will talk about the U.S. and India's common resolve and increased cooperation in the global fight against terrorism. In preparation for his visit, the president told the Press Trust of India news agency that the United States had impressed on Pakistan its responsibility "to bring the perpetrators to justice . . . transparently, fully and urgently."

For many Indians, that's not enough.

They say that their neighbor Pakistan can't be trusted. They cite allegations that intelligence forces in Pakistan knew about — and even fostered — the attacks. They say that any military or financial help that the United States gives Pakistan can be used against India.

"The predominant sentiment was anti-Pakistan, not anti-Muslim or anti-U.S.," said Reena Wani, a Mumbai-based gynecologist. "What did upset people is that the U.S. did not take a stronger stand in censuring the role of Pakistan in this terror attack, which was really very obvious."

Wani said there was "a lot of positive enthusiasm" about Obama's visit, but also a desire for the United States to distance itself from and put more public pressure on Pakistan.

Screenwriter Shibani Bathija said that since the attacks, there'd been "a great dent in the legendary secular, cosmopolitan spirit of Mumbai" and both Pakistanis and Muslims in India were under "intense scrutiny and suspicion, and no amount of reasoning seems to affect the negative emotional charge."

Bathija, who wrote the screenplay for "My Name Is Khan," about a Mumbai-born Muslim in post-9/11 America, said that Indians "expected the U.S. to get behind India much more, and in a more obvious way after the attacks."

Enthusiasm for Obama's election has been eroded by what Indians see as a tepid response by his administration to India's insurgency concerns, Bathija said. The president's visit to India can begin to restore some faith, she said, but many are holding out for a "true shift" in U.S. policy.

Developments with Pakistani-American terrorism accomplice David Headley also have stirred concerns about U.S. cooperation. Headley's a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant turned operative for Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist group, who's pleaded guilty to conducting surveillance and helping to plan the Mumbai attacks.

For months, there was speculation in India about whether the U.S. was keeping Headley from Indian investigators because it had something to hide. That relaxed after American officials gave Indians access to Headley. However, in recent weeks, revelations that U.S. officials had been tipped years ago to concerns about Headley by two of his wives, yet didn't share specifics with India, generated new questions, even though American officials say they did pass on relevant intelligence information before the attacks.

Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush, who now heads an international consulting firm, said that Indians' frustrations about the United States in connection with the attacks had been receding, but that the recent Headley developments gave them new life.

As for overall India-Pakistan tensions, Armitage said, "Another Mumbai attack would not be tolerated by India if they thought Pakistan was behind it."

The prominent Indian journalist M.J. Akbar has said that the United States has made it clear that its own priorities and people trump India's. In a column before Obama's visit, Akbar wrote that "Obama needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs Obama" and "Pakistan is now the omnipresent ghost in the room when India talks to America."

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