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Pune, India: A mix of Hindus, Muslims, and foreigners a target for a terrorist attack

Pune, India – with its cosmopolitan mix of Hindus, Muslims, entrepreneurs, and upscale hotels – is seen as a ripe target for another terrorist attack.

By Staff writer / March 25, 2010

Pune residents pass by the German Bakery, a gathering place for foreigners, students, and upwardly mobile. Indians. A terrorist bomb there killed nine and injured 57 last month.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Pune, India

Mark DiPaolo, an American stock trader in Pune, dropped into the German Bakery for his morning croissant, chai, and chats with friends. That evening last month, at home with his wife, they felt the massive bomb that ripped through the bakery and killed 17 people.

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"Boom. We knew what it was," says Mr. DiPaolo. They had been expecting an attack in sleepy Pune since last autumn, from the moment they heard that Pakistani-American terror suspect David Headley had spent time here. "We looked at each other and thought… here it comes."

The Manhattan couple had experienced Sept. 11, 2001 up close: She in an office in Midtown, he losing so many friends he stopped attending the funerals. Their move to Pune (POO-nay) – a city with little global cachet – unexpectedly put them even closer to the bull's-eye of a terrorist attack.

The German Bakery is no World Trade Center. But the bakery, like the towers, stood for cosmopolitanism, and Pune, like New York City, represents this country's greatest melting pot of foreigners, students, and upwardly mobile Indians.

The reactions of the two nations, however, couldn't be more different. The United States controversially went on the offensive in 2001. India has reacted to this attack and a string of others this decade with plodding investigations and incremental security step-ups.

Stay calm and carry on

When responding to terrorism, the Indian government has many considerations to balance. These include communal harmony between Hindus and minority Muslims, a tense relationship with nuclear sibling Pakistan, and a rapidly growing economy aided by legions of foreigners. As Pune slowly tries to make sense of what happened, the government's understated approach has helped some people get back into routines, but drawn criticism from others worried about safety.

"We should not be cozy citizens – we want the government to be very strict," says Vinita Deshmukh, editor of the newspaper Intelligent Pune. "In the US, after 9/11, no other terror attack has taken place. Why is it in our country it goes on for years and years? And when it happens again, we'll do the same thing, and the government will continue to do nothing."

Ms. Deshmukh criticizes the pace of the investigation, noting that weeks later, investigators had still not zeroed in on culprits. The coauthor of "To the Last Bullet," an account of the 2008 Mumbai (Bombay) attacks, Deshmukh is also frustrated that police desertions and other security lapses uncovered during that attack have gone unpunished.

A terror attack in Pune, India, and the cautious response to it, point up a dilemma: India must not threaten its minority Muslim population (or its nuclear-tipped neighbor, Pakistan), but it must make sure that economically important university students and foreigners feel safe.