x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Obama arrives in Mumbai

The US president has arrived in India to find parts of the city have been under lockdown for the past few days and residents blame the American president for ruining the Diwali festival.

Barack and Michelle Obama view the 26/11 memorial at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, site of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.
Barack and Michelle Obama view the 26/11 memorial at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, site of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

MUMBAI // Barack Obama has arrived in India to find parts of the city have been under lockdown for the past few days and residents blame the US president for ruining the Diwali festival.

He was received by Salman Khurshid, an Indian politician, the the chief minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan and the US ambassador to India, Timothy J. Reomer before being whisked off on a Marine One helicopter to the Taj Mahal Palace hotel and towers, where he will stay during his two-day visit to Mumbai.

After offering a single, white rose, Mr Obama wrote a message in the guest book while Mrs Obama looked on. Then they read through the names of those who lost their lives, which are inscribed on a wall by the “tree of life” memorial in the hotel’s courtyard.

In a short speech addressing a group of people who braved the attack and those who lost family members to the Mumbai terrorist attack in November 2008, Mr Obama praised the city and its people, calling the Taj hotel a symbol of the “strength and resilience of Indian people.”

"There has been a great commentary on our decision to begin our visit here, in this dynamic city at this historic hotel. Those who have asked whether this is intended to send a message, my answer is simply absolutely,"

He said the two countries were working together to avoid more attacks by sharing intelligence and demanded the culprits be brought to justice.

"We today, US and India are working together, more closely than ever to deepening counter-terrorism (cooperation), to keep our people safe," he said. “We go forward with confidence knowing that history is on our side.”

They also visited Mani Bhawan, Mahatma Gandhi’s home that has been turned into a museum. Later, Mr Obama will meet with Indian and American business heads and speak at the US-India Business Council meeting at the Trident hotel.

In preparation for his visit, the pavements have been given a fresh coat of paint and all dustbins from the route that Mr Obama will take have been removed. They have been viewed as a potential safety threat, that could hold explosives.

Instead the city’s municipality has deployed 1,600 cleaners who have had their Diwali holidays revoked, to continuously clean the garbage from the streets, which will be especially filthy from the bursting of firecrackers during Diwali.

“He should have come before or after, not during Diwali,” said Mohammed Shamim, a taxi driver who drives around the Colaba area, where the president will be staying.

“Because of him business is not only at a loss, it is a disaster. There are no tourists in the hotels. All the roads are closed and the locals are not venturing this way to celebrate Diwali,” said Mr Shamim.

Beggars and hawkers who usually sell souvenirs around the Gateway of India that faces the hotel Mr Obama will stay in, have also been cleared and the roads blocked to everyone, including tourists. Fashion street, a vibrant shopping area that sells export surplus clothes, was shut down by the police on Friday afternoon, as dozens of them patrolled the streets on foot.

“Even the police are complaining that they cannot celebrate Diwali with their families because of this visit,” said Mr Shamim.

Bade Miya, a legendary cart that sells kebab rolls to late-night revelers after Jamal Shaik, the owner, parks the cart behind the Taj Mahal hotel has been shut down till Monday. Mr Shaik said the police called for a meeting three days ago and asked him to close shop during the busiest and most profitable time of the year. The police told him they were going to set up barricades and no cars or carts would be allowed around the vicinity of the hotel. The city will not compensate him for the closure of his business.

“Of course there will be loss,” said Mr Shaik. “But it is loss for everyone and they are all suffering like us. And we must do this for our country. For the security of the American president.”

Neha Bedi, 27, who works at a design firm lives in Colaba and her offices are in the neighbourhood of the Taj hotel said the police had come around to her flat and issued a warning to not burst firecrackers after 10pm on Friday, a day before the president arrived, and today, when Mr Obama will be in the city.

“The younger kids are heartbroken,” she said. “Now thanks to Obama, you cannot burst firecrackers.”

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae