Muslims and Hindus unite in backlash against terrorists who bombed Mumbai

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The message was scrawled in chalk on a brick wall in a slum outside Bandra station, just 50 metres from where the first bomb went off in a packed commuter train on Tuesday. "We condemn the ones who did a terrorist bomb here," it said in English. "The culprits should be hanged to death."

It was a message from the wrong side of the tracks. As the death toll from the Mumbai bombings was confirmed at more than 200 yesterday, suspicions about who was responsible centred on Islamic militants. The simple message chalked on the wall was the heartfelt response from a dirt-poor Muslim suburb of Mumbai where the people had watched in horror as the bomb went off and immediately rushed to help the injured.

The Mumbai bombings were more than just an attack on the India's financial capital. It is no coincidence that India has already started referring to the attacks as 7/11. Mumbai is India's New York, a city that, more than any other, defines the Indian dream. Every day, hundreds of migrants from the villages and rural hinterland arrive in Mumbai, hoping to make it big. The city has communities from every corner of India; every caste, every ethnic group, every religion is represented.

But it is also a city that has been riven by the Hindu-Muslim tensions that have haunted India over the past 15 years, with a history of riots, and bombings blamed on Muslim extremists. Whoever was behind the bombings appears to be trying to exploit those tensions. But this time, there have been extraordinary scenes as Mumbai's Muslims have come out in defiance to defend the unity of the city. Muslims queued for hours to give blood for Hindus injured in the bombings. Even the leaders of the hardline Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena, a party rarely given to praising Muslims, said they were "overwhelmed" by the reaction. "Hindus and Muslims walked hand in hand yesterday," said Manohar Kargaonkar, a party official.

Tanweer Sheikh, a Muslim from the Bandra station slum, said: "They are trying to split us, but they cannot. We are 99 per cent Muslims living here, but we were the first to go to help the people on that train. The police did a good job, don't get me wrong, but they don't have a police station here. We were the nearest so we had to help.

"We didn't care if we got Hindu blood or Muslim blood all over us. As far as we are concerned in this neigbourhood, we are Indians first, and Muslims or Hindus only after that."

All along the tracks, it was the poorest of Mumbai's citizens, Hindu and Muslim, who were first to rush to the aid of the injured on the trains, the migrant slum-dwellers whose shanty towns lie alongside the tracks. On the trains, India's rich and successful are brought face to face with the Dickensian squalor in which the poor live, sometimes in tenements that hang over the tracks, more often in corrugated aluminium shacks nailed against the railings at the side of the line.

At his shanty home next to Metunga station, Rajesh Jaktap was proudly brandishing a local newspaper with a photograph that showed him helping carry the injured from the wreckage. In the photograph, he was covered in the blood of the wounded. "I wasn't scared to help," he says. "We heard the bomb blast and looked out of our houses. People were screaming for help and jumping from the train while it was still moving. We all climbed over the railings and ran to help them. Some of the bodies had hands or legs missing. Some were alive and some were dead. We just picked up everyone we could and put them in rickshaws to be taken to the hospital."

All the bombs were set off in the first-class carriages of the trains. " They were all businessmen," Mr Jaktap says. "They are like VIPs compared to us."

His neighbour, Silvi Patangama, whose husband Mahindi was one of those who rushed to help, said: "Sometimes I feel angry when I think about it. The government is always trying to move us away, saying we can't live here. But we were the only ones who helped. Some of us gave up our own bedsheets to carry the wounded in."

In the next station up the line at Mahim, part of the roof had been blown away by the blast. Yesterday, police armed with assault rifles and machine-guns were keeping watch on the platform.

"Two trains were passing when the bomb went off," said Pradip Pujari, who was working at a fast-food counter near by. "People were injured on both trains. There were dead bodies everywhere. I'm a little scared to get back on the trains but I have to get home tonight. Last night the trains were all stopped so I stayed at a friend's house near by. I didn't sleep at all."

Officially, the government says it has no leads. Indian intelligence sources believe the bombings may have been a joint operation, planned for more than a year, involving several groups, including Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistan-based militant islamic group, and the "D Company", a politicised mafia gang that is believed to have been behind co-ordinated bombings in Mumbai in 1993. Police have openly accused Lashkar, which denies it was involved.

A spokesman for the Indian Foreign Ministry, condemned as "appalling" comments by the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Kurshid Kasuri, in which he appeared to suggest the bombings were linked to the unresolved issue of Kashmir. Mr Kasuri said he had been misquoted.

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