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

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    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.
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    Americans Deirdre Byrne and husband Mark DiPaolo came to Pune from New York after 9/11.
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    The Mocha Cafe,right across the street from the bombed-out German Bakery, is a popular hangout for young Indians and foreigners alike. There is now a security check at the front door.
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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.

"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.

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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.

Some in Pune's Muslim community express appreciation that the police have refused to rush through an investigation. They credit the quiet and cautious approach with preventing a knee-jerk antagonism against their community.

"If you pressure [investigators], they may come out with any false story because they have to save their skin," says P.A. Inamdar, president of Maharashtra Cosmopolitan Education Society in Pune. He says the police sent warnings to schools about possible threats. "The Pune police have done a good job [and] all precautionary steps were taken 10 times."

Deshmukh says it's the well-­educated population that deserves the credit, not slow investigators. "Pune is largely an educated city, so people know the difference" between Muslims and extremists.

If Pune loses its image for safety, it jeopardizes its ability to attract the world's top talent, especially students. The majority of the half million students in this "Oxford of the East" come from other states in India, and 14,000 from abroad. Automobile, information technology, and energy companies have come to this city, just a couple hours from Mumbai, to tap this pool of educated young people.

The German Bakery stood at the social center of Pune, located in the toniest neighborhood and flanked by the world-famous Osho meditation center, an upscale hotel and sushi bar, and a Jewish religious center. For decades, the bohemian cafe spilled onto the street, serving up masala omelets, veggie burgers, and organic treats.

"This was a melting-pot target. You had young Indians, expats, ashram people, and then tourists who came through," says DiPaolo, who knew one of the four foreigners who died.

For a few weeks after the attack, DiPaolo didn't sleep well. But he and his wife, Deirdre, say they won't be intimidated. None of the expats interviewed was aware of anyone from their ranks who headed home because of the attack.

Anti-Western sentiment grows

"Since this has happened, I've been asked for ID about daily," says DiPaolo. "Ironically, the anti-Western sentiment has grown. I think a lot of the Indians feel like we are a big part of the problem."

Authorities have begun to crack down on tourist visas since discovering that only a small fraction of the 7,000 nonstudent expats have work visas.

Last October, Indian officials learned that Mr. Headley – a Pakistani-American the US accuses of helping plot the Mumbai attacks – had spent time in Pune. Desh­mukh notes that since 2003, half a dozen police actions have targeted Islam­ic militants from this city so close to Mumbai.

An initial flurry of security upgrades followed the Headley discovery, but then things mellowed. Now expats see an element of "security theater" in the large numbers of police – some behind sandbags – guarding the burned-out bakery site. Others mention divided viewpoints on new measures such as the end to curbside pickups of children at the international school.

One visitor at the Osho retreat, Stéphane Flamand, says the attack shook him, but only at first.

"It was quite scary. Now I decided to go into my fear, and now it's gone away," says Mr. Flamand, a Canadian who had lunch at the bakery the day of the attack. "The terrorists will go more on you if they feel your fear."•

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.

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