India Plagued by Bloody Attacks
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. It's Thursday, time for our international briefing. We'll experience the different faces of Africa, we'll speak with women who took up arms during Liberia's long and bloody civil war. They'll talk about why they did it and what they're doing now to rebuild their country and their lives, and we'll hear about a festival to celebrate the art and culture of Africa.
But first, we want to go to India where a coordinated series of bombings killed more than 40 people on Saturday. It is just the latest in a series of attacks that have plagued the nation over the last several years. The National Counterterrorism Center here in Washington says that between 2004 and 2007, the death toll from terrorist attacks in India was second only to that in Iraq, but Indian authorities have made few arrests in these incidents, and that's left many citizens frightened and angry. Joining us to talk about this, Somini Sengupta. She is the New Delhi bureau chief for the New York Times. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. SOMINI SENGUPTA (New Delhi Bureau Chief, New York Times): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Can you tell us more about the attack on Saturday? Any idea why was the city targeted? How was the bombing organized?
Ms. SENGUPTA: Yes. The bombing was organized fairly well. There were a total of 17 explosions that went off in a very short period, one right after the other really right around sundown Saturday evening when the streets were very crowded, and first they went off on the streets and then a bomb went off in the very hospital that the wounded rushed to. And, you know, in the annals of bad attacks in this country, a hospital really has not been targeted in this way.
MARTIN: Any idea why this particular city was chosen?
Ms. SENGUPTA: Well, there have been reports that an e-mail was sent to Indian television stations about five minutes before the first explosions went off and it was by a group that called itself Indian Mujahedeen, and it claimed that it was in revenge for the violence that happened in Gujarat in 2002, in which a fire on a train that killed a number of Hindu pilgrims then resulted in attacks by Hindus on Muslims and it resulted in tremendous bloodshed, over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed. And this is a real flashpoint in the memory of Hindu Muslim violence in this country, so, whether or not this e-mail which claims that this was in revenge for Gujarat, whether there's any authenticity to it, who exactly this group was, whether there is such a thing as the Indian Mujahedeen and who they are. It all remains a mystery as in all of these bombings, it is really still unclear who's doing it and for what really exactly.
MARTIN: And the city where the attack took place, Ahmadabad, western India, what is the population like there?
Ms. SENGUPTA: Well, it's one of India's largest cities. It's 3.5 million people. It's an old city, a historic city, extremely crowded, all Indian cities tend to be a mix of all kind of people so, you know, if you're trying to hit just Hindus, you're going to be out of luck and certainly in the reports that have come out of the hospitals and the wounded, there are people of all faiths who were injured in this, as there have been people of all faiths injured in the previous terror attacks. In Delhi in the fall of 2005, the Bombay train bombings in the summer of 2006. There has been a mosque that was bombed in Hyderabad. There was a Hindu temple in Hinduism's holiest city in Varanasi that was bombed, so the targets really have been quite diverse, and in none of these attacks in the last three years at least since the time that I've been here, has it resulted in any Hindu Muslim clashes.
MARTIN: It has not.
Ms. SENGUPTA: So that's a very important point to keep in mind that if, as law enforcement officials suggest, these are geared - they're designed to prompt Hindu Muslim violence, that certainly hasn't been the case.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that. You were suggesting that there's a working assumption on the part of law enforcement that these attacks - and I also want to mention that this latest attack in Ahmadabad was involved, what, 17 or 18 coordinated explosions, and you pointed out that particularly diabolical was that two of them were in hospitals, which is I think something that most people would recognize as being particularly depraved. Why does law enforcement have the working assumption that this is sectarian or designed to stir up Hindu Muslim violence? Why do they think that?
Ms. SENGUPTA: Because Hindu Muslim violence would be deeply unsettling to the social stability of the place, to the economic growth of the country. So, there is this working assumption among Indian officials that this is designed to kind of, you know, throw things off to get people to turn against each other, and once they do that is extremely difficult to contain. But for whatever reason, these attacks have not succeeded in doing that, and even when mosques and temples have been targeted, there really have been no clashes between ordinary people.
MARTIN: If you're just tuning in you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about the recent bomb attacks in India, with Somini Sengupta of the New York Times. A senior member of the current government has suggested that the bombings are part of an international conspiracy to undermine India's economy. Does that theory have wide credence? Is there any evidence to back it up?
Ms. SENGUPTA: Well there - there was a statement made by the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, in which Ahmadabad is located, and he blamed it on forces that are trying to destabilize India, but again, as I said, you know, no one really knows exactly who is causing this, whether there is an outside hand involved, whether these are all homegrown groups that are dissatisfied, disheartened for one reason or the other. They're extraordinarily easy to carry out, it seems, in this country, because cities, like I said, are very crowded and a relatively small bundle of explosives planted in a market can just do incredible havoc, can just get a lot of people.
You know, someone who is selling shoes, a kid who's selling lemonade on the street, ordinary shoppers who have come out, people who have gone to the temple to offer prayers. You know, you can do a lot of damage in a very small place with very little, and for that reason it has also proved extraordinarily difficult to apprehend the perpetrators. And, in the last three years that I've been here, three years and change, there have been at least 10 major attacks like this. In some there are 15 dead, in others there are 49 dead, as was the case this weekend. In the Bombay train bombings, there were 180 people killed. In none of those have any perpetrators been convicted.
MARTIN: Has that fact become important politically? I mean, do citizens believe that they're government should be more effective in combating this, or is there an air of resignation by this? Because I must confess, I was not aware that the level of violence from bombs was as high and as widespread as it is, until I read your coverage which sort of aggregated it all together. Do you know what I mean? I think I was used to thinking of it as an isolated situation sort of here or there.
Ms. SENGUPTA: Yeah. There is - there is anxiety about the inability to crack who's behind these cases. There is a lot of, you know, political back and forth going on, so the opposition party has really started attacking the government for its failure to prevent these attacks and the failure to apprehend the perpetrators. They've called for the reinstatement of all kinds of special very stringent anti-terror laws. The government, in turn, has said, well, policing is a state responsibility, and also said that this shouldn't be politicized.
You know you can take away two or three things from this, and one of them is certainly that first of all, terror attacks of this sort are very very difficult to get to the bottom of particularly difficult in a crowded place like any Indian city. And third India's police system is vast fully, woefully understaffed, and there are vacancies in every single police department and there simply aren't enough police officers to control traffic and escort VIP's through the streets and prevent ordinary crimes.
MARTIN: And why is that? Is the profession not well respected? Does it pay poorly?
Ms. SENGUPTA: Well, it - there is probably host of reasons for this, but all over the country police jobs are not filled. There are huge vacancies in the police - it's not the best paid job, certainly.
MARTIN: Has this situation affected people's sort of daily living?
Ms. SENGUPTA: That's a very good question. I mean I went out on Sunday around lunchtime to the markets in Delhi, just too sort of gauge people's mood and certainly there was a bit of anxiety, there was some uncertainty, people said they were looking around a little more. And you know in a couple of these recent bombings the explosives have been tied to the backs of bicycles. So, you know, a couple told me that they were eating chicken for lunch and they looked downstairs and suddenly for the first time they noticed a bicycle, and they thought, oh, could that bicycle be the one.
And you know, bicycles are ubiquitous in this country, they are the poor man's transport, so they're all over the place. So, is there some anxiety that folks are feeling? I sensed it, yes, but are they staying away from markets? It certainly doesn't seem the case. The bus stands and the markets, and the metro, the subway is as crowded as it always is.
MARTIN: May I ask you about you? Has it affected your sort of daily activities? You went to New Delhi after 9/11, when Americans became very sort of hyperaware of security, particularly in public places. What about you, has it affected the way you go about your business?
Ms. SENGUPTA: You know, it's so unpredictable. I mean, I've covered the conflict in Liberia, I spent a little bit of time in Iraq, I've been in the Congo - where the danger is quite different. And here in the kind of hurley burley of daily life in India it is sort of impossible to take precautions, if you know what I mean, or to, you know, change your movements in that way. But you know, after each one I certainly wonder, OK, well, which city is it going to be, which market is it going to be, and as a reporter I hope that I have you know, an extra pair of eyes on the back of my head.
MARTIN: Somini Sengupta is the New Delhi bureau chief for the New York Times. She joined us by phone from her office. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. SENGUPTA: Thank you very much.