Mumbai: Long grey fingers of dusk clutched the disappearing light, and in the growing dark, Damyanti Gohil sat at the edge of the roof, watching the labyrinth of alleys below. Behind her loomed the five-storeyed Nariman House, from where her 25-year-old son was shot in the back and killed.
Grief-stricken: Damyanti Gohil, whose son Haresh was shot by terrorists, at her house in Colaba, Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
On the night of 26 November, a historic conflict from a far-off continent came to the neighbourhood of Nariman House—which is clearly visible and dangerously close to the roof where she now sits—and claimed her son Haresh’s life.
People in the Colaba neighbourhood say the house was targeted because its occupants were Jewish, linking the attack to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they were caught—and Haresh killed—in the crossfire. They would rather not have Jewish neighbours again, they say, while acknowledging that the family which lived in the ravaged building was nice and friendly.
“That family was nice. We are very sorry about what happened to them. But we want to be safe,” Vimal P. Sanghvi, a jeweller who lives close to the Gohils, says. “And after this attack it seems that we were put in danger only because they were living here.”
Till now, a low-profile Jewish community numbering 5,000 has been living in peace in this teeming metropolis with followers of other faiths, including Islam. The community had never been targeted since a shipwreck brought Bene Israeli Jews to India at least 2,000 years ago.
During the panic caused by the 26 November attacks, few noticed that a pair of gunmen had invaded the nondescript Nariman House and taken six people hostage.
The building housed a centre for the ultra-orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement that offered refuge and solace to Israeli travellers and members of the local Jewish community. Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, and his wife Rivka, 28, ran the centre.
After three days, when National Security Guard commandos secured the building after killing the two terrorists, the couple and the remaining four hostages—all Jewish—were dead. The couple’s two-year-old son Moshe was rescued by his nanny.
The gunmen were likely drawn to the target by their anger with Israel, rather than any conflict with the local Jewish community, says Solomon Sopher, president of the Indian Jewish Congress. “We are the unintended victims of this attack. There have been Indian Jews since time immemorial and we have not just been tolerated but treated with love and affection by all sections of the community, especially the Muslims,” he says. “It is this outside influence that is playing havoc with our life in this country.”
For the Gohil family, Haresh’s loss was a particularly heavy blow. Haresh, who had a bachelor’s degree in economics and earned Rs20,000 a month working at a call centre, was the most educated and the highest wage-earning member of the extended family of 15. “We are worried. Will this happen again? Can it happen again? If the Jews come here, they are welcome. But will that bring terrorists here again?” asks Ajay Parmar, Gohil’s brother-in-law.
Others—such as Kuresh B. Zorabi, a consulting ophthalmic surgeon whose clinic is barely 50ft from Nariman House—are more forthright. “We would prefer if they (Jews) chose not to return to live among us and if they do, the Israeli consulate gives them security so that they may be safe and we may also be safe,” Zorabi says.
The fear of Israeli presence extends beyond Mumbai. Joe D’souza, who runs a taxi service in north Goa, says: “Like many of my friends, I am also scared that Anjuna beach may be attacked because so many Jews live there. Who knows what can happen?”
Israeli consul general Orma Sagiv said she understood these concerns because Israel has faced this situation in other countries too. The consulate refused to comment on providing security to Israeli citizens in India and said it was sure “the Indian government will do everything it can to provide security to people of the country and that will keep our citizens safe, too. After all, Israeli Jews will need some place to live in Mumbai.”
The Jews, one of the most persecuted communities in the world, have always lived in peace and harmony in India, says I. Samson, a former assistant commissioner of police who has a degree in Indian philosophy and is now a keeper of the Tohra in a Mumbai synagogue. “In many ways, India is the last bastion of the Jews. We have lived here in peace for so long.”
Samson says that he understands the anguish of the community, “but because we have never experienced discrimination here, what is now happening is very sad. The Indian Muslims have also always treated us well... So it is even more heartbreaking to feel fearful in India.”
On 29 November, while leading prayer at the Magen Hassidim synagogue, where only half the regular attendees had come, he carried his service revolver. “I know the terrorists had far better and sophisticated weapons than my revolver, but it helped me feel safe. I also closed the doors of the synagogue while we were praying. We have never done that before. But we could not take any chances.”
Ravi Nessman works with AP.