An Indian American professor acted as an interpreter in the unsuccessful attempt to win freedom for the hostages held by Pakistani terrorists in the Mumbai Jewish center during the 26/11 terror strike in 2008.
P.V. Viswanath has recalled in an article and an interview with Jewish-oriented publications how the terrorist he spoke to from New York displayed an eerie calm.
But it appeared to him that the Pakistani had already determined what he would do.
Speaking Voz Is Neias, Viswanath wondered about what could have been the final outcome of the negotiation with the terrorist Imran Babar who was at the Jewish centre.
Viswanath told the publication: “He was going to do whatever he was going to do, or had already done… So if the plan was to kill everybody, that was what he was going to do. Our talking to him … I don’t think would have changed events in any way.”
A convert to Orthodox Judaism with the Hebrew name Meylekh, Viswanath had volunteered to interpret for Rabbi Levi Shemtov, an emissary of the Chabad movement whose centre at the Nariman House had been captured by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyaba terrorists.
Gavriel Holtzberg, the rabbi who was in charge of the Chabad Jewish centre, his wife Rivka, and four others were murdered by the terrorists.
Holtzbdrg’s two-year-old son, Moshe, was saved by his nanny, Sandra Samuel, who hid him away.
The centre run by the Lubavitcher sect serves Jews in India and those visiting the country.
In an article in Forward, Viswanath wrote that he had a personal connection because he had visited the Chabad centre and met Holtzberg during visits to Mumbai, where he had grown up.
When Shemetov called the mobile phone of Holtzberg during the crisis, an Urdu-speaker answered, Viswanath wrote in his account of the “nearly 17-hour ordeal that soon had me in prolonged negotiations with the terrorists holed up in the Jewish centre, moving toward a deathly denouement.”
When he was patched into a conference call with the terrorist who identified himself as “Imran”, Viswanath recalled that the man’s “voice was so soft that I assumed the connection must be bad” but soon realised that “there had hardly been any tension in the voice at the other end … he had been calm and collected.”
The terrorist later identified as Imran Babar told him, “We haven’t even slapped them around,” when he asked the man about the condition of Holtzberg.
Babar demanded to speak to an Indian official and asked for a captured fellow terrorists to be brought to him, Viswanath wrote.
Babar insisted, “Put us in touch with the Indian government and we will let the hostages go,” Viswanath said in his Forward article.
Later while they were trying to find an official to talk to, Babar told them that one of his comrades had been captured and wanted him brought to him, Viswanath wrote.
“Do this, and we will let your friends go,” the terrorist said, Viswanath recalled.
“We lost our connection” when an Indian police officer who was ready to talk to the terrorist was found, Viswanath wrote.
“Unfortunately, we did not succeed in finding anybody else in Bombay, nor were we ever able to contact Imran again,” he added.
When they asked Babar how many of them were there, his calm demeanour appeared to give way.
Viswanath wrote that he grew annoyed and told him, “It seems like you’re not interested in saving your friends, that you’re asking all these irrelevant questions. Keep to business matters and think of how to do what we are asking you to do.”
Noting the general calm and matter-of-fact manner nature of Babar, Viswanath wrote, “Even during the few times that Imran expressed annoyance and uttered low-level threats, it didn’t sound as if he felt pressured in any way.”
“The police had cut off electricity to the Nariman House and had surrounded the building on all sides, including from the air, where helicopters were keeping a watch, but Imran gave no indication of being rushed,” he added.
When Indian commandos scaled down on the Chabad building from a helicopter they found Babar and another Pakistani, Abu Umar, dead.
Viswanath, whose family is originally from the Palakkad area in Kerala, is now the chair of the graduate programme at the Lubin School of Business, Pace University, New York City.
A polyglot, he says on his web page that besides English and his mother tongue Tamil, he is fluent in five languages, has varying levels of fluency in six others and has studied 12 other languages.
His linguistic interest in Yiddish, the language of some European Jews, led him to Judaism.