Mumbai's Terror Is Over, but Panic Persists

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The shooting may have stopped in Mumbai, but not the panic it provoked: three days after the last of the terrorists laying siege to the Taj Mahal hotel was killed, Mumbaikars remain on edge following news that at least five terrorists may still be at large and able to strike again. "They're planning to attack schools and colleges," one panicky caller told a radio show on Tuesday. "They look like you and me," said another. "They can come into our homes and strike!" The source of their fear was a discrepancy between the number of attackers the police claim to have killed (nine) and captured (one) and local reports that the winter jackets and toothbrushes of 15 men had been found aboard a boat that had allegedly ferried the terrorists to their target. Mumbai police chief Hasan Gafoor dismissed that speculation Tuesday evening, during the first official press conference since the attacks. He insisted there had been only 10 attackers, working in five pairs, and that there was no evidence that they'd received any local help. Police say the interrogation of the sole surviving attacker confirmed this version.

Rumors and conspiracy theories are the norm in the wake of traumatic events such as last week's massacre in Mumbai, but the authorities have not helped matters by providing scant and sketchy information, leaving local media outlets, in their hyperbolic race for attention, relying more than ever on unnamed sources. (See pictures of Mumbaikars sifting through the rubble.)

The shooting had barely started when the rumor mill cranked up to full capacity. An e-mail began circulating Wednesday night blaming the death of Hemant Karkare, chief of Mumbai's antiterrorism squad, and two other top cops on an ambush by Hindu extremists seeking to hinder investigation of their organizations' terrorist links and implying that the entire attack was a big ruse devised by Hindu terrorist groups. Soon e-mail boxes everywhere were jammed with messages riddled with baseless speculation. "I got an e-mail saying it was all a conspiracy to create panic among voters ahead of the elections," says Leena Patil, a teacher who works with children with special needs. "And every day, there are new e-mails warning of further attacks."

Some of the rumors were flat-out bizarre. On the first night, some Colabra residents said the militants at Nariman House had demanded 100 kg of chicken. (Police said the men holding hostages in the Jewish center had made no demands at all.) And some people claimed that before opening fire at the Leopold Café, the gunmen had first enjoyed a meal — and had even left a tip.

One threatening e-mail prompted many Mumbaikars to stay away from Sunday's candlelight vigil. It warned that further attacks were being planned that day on Mumbai's stock-exchange building. The previous Friday, while fighting continued at the Taj, the Oberoi and Nariman House, TV channels reported that fresh firing had erupted at four locations near CST train station. Within minutes, shops in the busy market area were shuttered, and police arrived with sirens blazing, followed by breathless reporters. It turned out to have been a false alarm, and no one was quite sure how it had started.

Of all the security loopholes the recent terrorist attacks have exposed in India's disaster preparedness, the lack of a credible and efficient information-dissemination mechanism will probably figure way down on the authorities' list. India may be the world's IT superpower, but it lacks a rudimentary public-information system. Addressing that gap will prevent terrorist attacks from spreading panic disproportionate to their scale. At least the authorities appear to have made a start, holding a press conference at which the story of those five extra jackets and toothbrushes could be put to rest.

See pictures of Mumbaikars sifting through the rubble.

See pictures of terrorism in Mumbai.