26/11: The nightmare at CST, 10 years on
Despite the poor standard of security checks, most commuters and residents now see the metal detectors and armed guards as symbols of how CST and other public locations in Mumbai have changed post the 26/11 attacks
It’s a bright, moderately humid November day and people are milling around at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CST) railway station in Mumbai. All through the day, one finds commuters rushing for suburban trains that originate from here and head out towards the suburbs. Someone is whiling away time, another is waiting for a family member and some are waiting for a particular train to roll in where a seat is assured.
Waiting for her friend at the station, advocate Hema Thaware looks a bit taken aback when asked about 26/11. She was in Mumbai till five years ago, and now lives in Pune. She commutes to Mumbai once a month to attend a course. “Actually, I didn’t remember about it. Now, when you asked me I recalled what happened that time,” she says sheepishly. “I don’t think things can change much going ahead. Look how crowded this station is; how much can the security be improved? Suddenly, now I am wondering if something happens again, what will I do?”
At the time of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Janmajay S. Pimparkar was head parcel clerk at what was then called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). He says: “I wasn’t scared then and I certainly am not scared now. If something like this happens again, I will fight back.”Pimparkar, who is now chief booking supervisor and has worked at CST for a little over a decade, feels the security at the station has improved by 30%. “Earlier, there were no CCTV cameras, the security guards were namesake and even the weapons were ineffective to counter such an attack. Now, it’s different,” he says. One big change he has noticed is that people are more cautious now. Instead of pocketing unclaimed baggage, they report it to the railway authorities.
CST, the headquarters of Central Railway, is a historic monument frequently shown in movies to depict the unrestricted arrival of strangers to the sprawling metropolis. And such is its ease of accessibility that two terrorists (one of them being Ajmal Kasab, the only terrorist caught alive) entered this epicentre of Mumbai commuters’ lifeline to wreak havoc for three days starting 26 November 2008. Around 50 people were killed and over 100 injured at the station premises in one of the deadliest attacks on the city.
A decade later, there seems to be little change on the surface. However, metal detectors are in place at the two main entry points of the station. Armed guards are constantly on watch, and it’s not surprising to see railway police roaming the premises. Even if the standard of security checks is poor, most commuters and residents see detectors and guards as symbols of how the terminus and other public locations in Mumbai have changed post the attacks.
“We have never been good at history; we are people who are good at math. People are bothered with jobs, money, EMIs, rents, the immediate concerns of living,” says Himanshu Kapadia, a corporate communications executive and a Colaba resident. More guards, detectors or checking luggage is not the way to keep this incident and its memory alive. It’s sad, says Kapadia, because people need a symbol of remembrance, something that will have meaning for people other than those who experienced the incident first-hand.
“In future, 26/11 should be remembered for the hardships, for people who lost their lives and how we urgently need working systems in place to fight terrorism. It cannot be just about 26 November. That’s just one day in a year. It has to be there every day for us to see, to remember,” he says.
Journalist-turned-scriptwriter Rommel Rodrigues, who wrote the book Kasab: The Face of 26/11 and co-directed a movie on the 26/11 terror attack, believes that people don’t consciously think about the incident any more. “People are resilient. I don’t think anyone carries the baggage of the attack,” he says.
“People, who lost their loved ones and those who were witnesses to the experience, will never forget the day. But for others, it’s not really on top of the mind,” says Mohammad Tofik Shaikh, a tea vendor, who became a hero at the time as he helped save several people during the 26/11 attack. A movie is being made on his life, he claims.
Lawyer Subodh Kurdukar, who works in Fort area where the railway terminus is located, believes that people have short memories; things move on and people see what is ahead of them and not behind. “Most people have to dwell in their day-to-day lives. We aren’t prepared for another attack, but still we have moved on,” he adds.
Shiv Kumar Bhadoriya, manager of Sai Sagar Fast Food, a Rail Ahar stall on platform 1, was at CST at the time of the attack. He first thought people were bursting firecrackers celebrating the Indian cricket team’s win against England in a match being played at the time. But when he saw people fleeing, he ran to take refuge near Crawford market area.
A decade later, we find him sweeping the floor in front of his kiosk. Bhadoriya, who migrated from Madhya Pradesh, has full faith in the security guards manning the station now. “Nothing of the sort will happen again. But people remember the incident. I get asked about the incident when people from my village come to Mumbai,” he says.
Inside the station, a manager, who doesn’t want to be named, is at a book stall for a year now and is under instructions not to talk to the media. A decade ago, one of the previous managers had been shot at during the attack, he says. The story has made its way to him, passed down by subsequent managers. He points at two gunshot entries on a wall inside the kiosk and says he isn’t afraid of working at CST, in spite of it being a possible target for terror attacks again. “I have worked in Jammu and Kashmir, in some Naxal areas. In comparison, this is nothing,” he says. Even obvious symbols of terror such as bullet holes in the wall are not enough to deter those who must earn for their daily survival.
In a narrow lane outside CST are lines of food and tea stalls. The street is usually crowded with people who quickly catch a bite and move on. On the day of the attack, several commuters managed to escape through this route.
Abu Bakr, manager of IK Tea Stall, came to the city a few months after the incident. He has worked at various places in the city, and for the last three years, managed the tea stall in this lane and even lives close by. The terror attack did not deter him then and he says that in future, it will not be a reason to leave the city. Like many migrants who come to Mumbai, his take is a philosophical one: “anything can happen anytime, anywhere”.
Bakr, however, does add that in comparison to other places, he feels safe in Mumbai. “In this area, security has been strict. There are routine round-ups done by the cops. When I open the stall at 3am, I see the beat cops on bike or car all the time. This level of security will not go down in years to come,” he says.
Prakash and Manisha Koli, a fisherman couple from Madh Island who come to CST on and off to do some shopping at nearby markets, agree. They have seen security being tightened at the coastlines and everyone’s documents being checked more regularly. “If someone doesn’t have documents in place, their boats can be seized. We have learnt to live with this because this is how the city is now and will be going ahead.”
But lawyer Mohammad Hussain Chaudhary, who travels to CST for work on a daily basis, says the government has been lax. “Sure, there are guards but at some stations, there is no thorough checking of people or their bags.” If we have to prevent more attacks in the future, Chaudhary believes there should be tighter security measures.
According to Suhail Gunja, a regular at Café Leopold and a Colaba resident, who works with a multinational company, the general feeling is that the incident is over and people have moved on. Cafe Leopold, which is frequented by backpackers and Indians alike, was among the targets of the 26/11 attacks. Between 9.30pm and 9.48pm, four terrorists sprayed bullets inside the café, killing 10 people. Ten years on, the place is packed and, in fact, a a small bakery unit has been added. The cafe is doing brisk business. The restaurant-cum-bar has kept the bullet marks intact, but Farhang Jehani, co-owner, Cafe Leopold, prefers to avoid making any comment on the incident as he wants to move on.
“People are immune to many things. The curiosity regarding the bullet marks is hardly there. Unless you have read up travel magazines or some articles about the attack, I haven’t heard people specifically asking to be taken to Café Leopold because of what happened there. It’s like any other bar in Colaba,” says Gunja. And while he likes it and there is comfort in familiarity, Gunja does say that the café has increased its prices a bit much.
When we entered the premises of Café Leopold, our bags were quickly frisked by polite guards. However, both Gunja and Kapadia, both regulars, who recently visited the café, say frisking is not a regular thing. Gunja says the security and frisking is an eye wash, in general. “People and their belongings are not thoroughly checked, be it in hotels or tourist destinations like Gateway of India. How secure is our city actually? It is still questionable and always will be,” he says.
Bengaluru-resident Darshan Dwarkanath, who lived in Mumbai in 2008, has a doomsday view of the situation.
“I really fear that something big might happen again and there is nothing to stop it. All the measures are just reactive,” he says. “If we want security, every lane and public area should have surveillance cameras that are constantly monitored, a model that smart cities follow.”
Can we really reach that standard even a decade after this “10-year anniversary” of Black Wednesday? Dwarkanath is sceptical.