A Missile in the Living Room

A far-reaching study of the accused in the war on terror

01 February 2010
Mumbai Police survey the damage after a bomb blast on 25 August 2003.
Mumbai Police survey the damage after a bomb blast on 25 August 2003.

THE RDX (RAPID DETONATION EXPLOSIVE) used in the Bombay blasts in 1993 had come to India on boats that had dropped their cargo on the Konkan coast south of Bombay. In a stretch of white sand fringed by coconut groves is a village called Walavati, and I was going there to meet Iqbal Haspatel. He had been arrested on charges of terrorism a month after the Bombay bombings in 1993. When I went to Walavati, the special court was to deliver its judgment in the Bombay blasts trial. This was now 2006. It had been India’s biggest criminal case and the court had taken thirteen years to reach a verdict.

On 12 March 1993, there had been a series of bombings in Bombay—one bomb in the Stock Exchange, another in the offices of Air India, still others, placed in scooters and cars, in crowded areas outside a temple and elsewhere. These resulted in the deaths of 257 people. The bombings were to avenge the deaths of Muslims in riots just a few months before. All this was unleashed by the destruction, at the hands of a Hindu mob, of a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya. In those riots, according to a government-commissioned report, thirty-one police officers had killed innocent Muslims or, sometimes, participated in the riots themselves.

It rained for nearly all of the five hours it took me by car from Bombay to Walavati. The driver’s name was Sharda Prasad Pandey but he was called Doctor because he had been frequently ill as a child. Every few miles, to my great dismay, Doctor would press the brakes, and the car would skitter like water in a hot pan. The painted blue-and-white boards on the Sion-Panvel highway, offering clichés like “Time is Money, but Life is Precious,” suddenly appeared full of wisdom to me. Because of the rain, the hills around us overflowed with water. Small waterfalls dotted the hillsides. An elderly Muslim couple, hiding from the rain under a tree, stood so close to each other that they appeared to be embracing.

Then, when we were about a half hour short of Walavati, the rain stopped. We passed the Little Engels Childrens School, and Doctor expertly splashed a line of school kids with water from a roadside puddle. The traffic had slowed down on the winding road and I watched the cattle, tiny and lithe, grazing on the rain-washed blades of grass.

Walavati appeared—small, neat houses dwarfed by coconut trees, and, stretching around them, fields of paddy and Alphonso mangoes. At the Haspatel home, tea was served and a bed laid out for Doctor in a tiny room toward the front because he wanted to sleep. In the living room, on the desk was a file of yellowing newspaper cuttings. I was looking at a smiling policeman, displaying for the press a cache of captured goods. The photograph had appeared in the national newspapers on 14 April 1993, and the smiling man was Tikaram S. Bhal, who at that time was the Superintendent of Police, Alibaug. TheTimes of India had reported that an “arms haul was reported from Walavati area of Srivardhan late yesterday evening. Twenty-five projectiles and seventeen pipe bombs and ammunition were recovered from the creek. Combing operations were going on...” A missile had been found in the Haspatel living room. In its greater zeal, a right-wing newspaper had claimed that the materials recovered by the police were to be used to demolish the home of the leader of the Shiv Sena. It took four days for the police to realize that the “projectiles” they had found were actually parts of textile machinery and were called “bobbins” or “twist-blockers.”

Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, USA. His latest book, A Time Outside This Time: A Novel, will be published by Aleph next year.

Keywords: Kashmir Barack Obama Amitava Kumar war Indian non Fiction terrorism Evidence of suspicion war on terror police cruelty Muslim India