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The Changing Face Of Indian Terrorism

Samanth Subramanian is a staff writer for Mint in New Delhi.

So much is still so unclear about the mechanics of the Mumbai terror attacks that, even these hours later, we're left only with the images off the television--of the Taj Mahal Hotel on fire, of the devastated waiting hall at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, of the army maneuvering around south Mumbai. And, grabbed from security cameras, of a few of the terrorists--in their early 20s, clean-shaven, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, and armed to the teeth.

Many Indians of my generation, I think, had come to classify terrorists here as ancient fundamentalists with ancient grudges, or as imported troublemakers, or as representatives of the severely marginalized. But throughout 2008, as terror cycled through Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, and New Delhi, it disturbed and saddened me most to find that the suspects were my peers by age, and often even from the so-called New India.

Among the callow recruits of the group known as the Indian Mujahideen, which made its regrettable debut this year, you'll find men like these: Mohammad Peerbhoy, a 31 year old principal software engineer for a Yahoo! subsidiary, who made Rs 1.9 million (around $40,000) a year; Mohammad Shakeel, a 24 year old enrolled in the final year of his Master's degree in economics; Abdus Subhan Qureshi, a 36 year old who worked for an IT company in Mumbai; and Usman Agarbattiwala, a 25 year old who holds, in the blackest of ironies, a post-graduate diploma in human rights.

I can only think of questions. What anger can fill a youngster almost overnight and convince him to cast his youth and his future aside to make his first kill? What is to be done if these men have exposed the lie beneath our shiny new Indian economy, which promised opportunities and progress for all? In the media, Peerbhoy was said to have undergone "sustained brainwashing"; how sustained does brainwashing have to be to craft a terrorist out of an upper-middle-class professional? Who failed whom? Did India fail, because she could inspire such matricidal sentiment so easily, or did her children fail, because they turned so thoroughly against a country that had seemingly been good to them?   

It may yet turn out that the young man on the security camera grabs, in a T-shirt emblazoned "Versace," the last two letters hidden by the strap of a shiny blue knapsack, his hands cradling a gun and his eyes gleaming, is not from India at all, that he smuggled himself into Mumbai purely to cause the mayhem he did. But the uncomfortable questions will have to be answered, and for India's sake, sooner rather than later.