Mumbai attacks: Looking for some character

8 years ago

The three days of excruciating pain that Mumbaikars suffered and survived last month hit home like no other terrorist attack in India, as I watched the horror unfold, safe in my living room 10,000 miles away. I lost a former senior colleague to the Taj Mahal Palace hotel siege. I was saddened, shaken and sobered. The next time, it could be my family or my close friends, in their own homes, in my home country. 

Much has been said, and rightly, about the failings of a country -- which easily qualifies as a terror veteran -- to secure its people against such attacks, to put in place a semblance of a viable anti-terror system.

But it's the utter lack of purpose or urgency that has enraged me more than anything else. And, luckily, it has angered an entire nation. Besides the obvious big hole we have for anti-terror tactics, some of us have shown, and again, a blatant lack of character: a basic instinct that not even a national emergency like Mumbai could suppress for long.  

That, to me, was most hurtful, enraging, and calls for some immediate introspection.

Like always, it begins at the top, with our leadership.

First the good news: heads rolled. Finally. The bad news: when and why they rolled.
Until December 26 -- when terror claimed the Indian elite as well -- the common man was the target of most attacks. I don't recall a single politician worth a  national mention losing his/her life in a similar terror attack. (Former prime ministers  Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi died in attacks, but they were targets of a different political story).

Is this the reason for such remarkable callousness on the part of our leaders?

Or is it sheer lack of character?

The Leadership
Let's start with the Home Minister (Minister of Home Affairs), who is responsible for law and order, and internal security. According to its own vision statement, the ministry should strive to "eliminate threats to internal security including militancy, insurgency and terrorism". As a citizen, this is the office I'd go for answers. But for some curious reason, no one in power has been answerable thus far.

Until now, no one has even so much as taken responsibility for failing to protect the country's citizens. We are just expected to live with terror, like bad weather. After Bangalore, Ahmedabad and New Delhi were attacked in quick succession barely six months ago, the Home Minister came under pressure to quit, and that too in style (one TV channel got after him for finding time to change his shirt three times while Delhi burned).

It never happened. We are not used to taking responsibility for anything. Accepting our failings, somehow, shows us in poor light, no? We don't see that as strength of character.

But Mumbai did it. The attacks were high-profile, stunning and had caught the world's attention. The pressure to quit was acute, despite the fact that the country goes to poll next year and the ruling party will have to do a lot of explaining while campaigning.

The home minister, Shivraj Patil, finally quit, taking "moral responsibility" for the attacks. So did the national security adviser (how could he not?).

* Next on the guillotine was R.R. Patil, deputy chief minister of Maharashtra -- the western state of which Mumbai is the capital -- for calling the attacks a "minor incident". Here's his masterpiece:

 

In a big city such as Mumbai, incidents likes these keep happening.

He had to be asked to resign by his party chief, a move that he later had no qualms crediting to his "own conscience".

* Next to go was his boss, the chief minister of Maharashtra, Vilasrao Deshmukh. While he said he took "moral responsibility" (that's the new catchphrase) for the attacks in his capital city, the fact that he walked into the damaged hotels with his Bollywood actor son and a filmmaker days after the attacks, didn't help either (the press called it a "terror tour") . He pleaded that the film maker's presence was a coincidence, but it didn't look too good.

* Our leadership hit a new low, when the chief minister of the southern state of Kerala put his ego ahead of a dead officer -- Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan -- who lost his life in the gun battle at the Taj hotel. The CM  turned up at the officer's parents house in Bangalore to offer his condolences, after he was criticized for not doing so sooner, as the parents originally hailed from his state. The distraught father, who had just lost his young son, turned the CM away. Granted, it was not the most gracious of refusals, but he is the mourning parent and he gets to vent first, right? So what does the CM do? Hear him vent:

In an interview to a TV channel in Bangalore, the angry CM made matters worse by saying: "It was for Sandeep I had gone, otherwise even a dog wouldn't have visited them. I never expected this. A soldier's father should have displayed better behavior...It seems Unnikrishnan (Sr) got all worked up. He was blaming us for the delay in calling on him and taking many names, including that of the Karnataka chief minister.”

He had to apologize, unwillingly (since he claimed he had been 'misquoted'), but no, he didn't leave office.

The Politics
The politics that followed the attacks was expected. But we hoped, at least this time around, we will see some character.
Not happening.
Bipartisan (multipartisan, in our case) politics is not a part of our vocabulary. Soon after the attacks, the right wing came down heavily on the ruling Congress Party for being weak on terror (remember, elections next year!). They are not too off the mark, but given that the right wingers have the image of being hard on minority communities, such rhetoric can only radicalize more minds, exactly the kind of fodder terror needs.

The cake, however, goes to a Maharashtra politician, who was mad at not being named the next Chief Minister of the state.

The People
It's the people of India, the common man, the educated urban elite who have thus far been insulated from such attacks, who gave me hope. We are waking up from our slumber and making our leaders accountable. We are telling our leadership that we are coming after them for answers and they are solely responsible for our safety, not our neighboring country, not the terrorists. If I have been burgled time and again, who should I go to for help? The cops, right? Not the burglars. I will have to find a way to fix my home, make it secure. What's the point of blaming the burglar? He just accomplished what he came to do!

People have taken to the streets and to the Internet (see below for blogroll) with a vengeance. More power to them.

A tip of the hat to all the valiant soldiers and citizens-- most of them poorly equipped --- who fought with the terrorists with all they had.

We have had our failings too. Reactions like calls to banning all Pakistani artists from India -- the entertainment industry has quite a few of them -- are little more than knee jerk and the lowest rung in diplomacy. I'm not convinced that an artist will benefit in any way by antagonizing the country that has made him/her a star.
Yes, if there's a loophole in our immigration policies, by all means, fix it. Cutting off cultural ties is going to achieve nothing.

But the call for accountability was crucial: people in power need to know that they can be made to go. Anytime.
That they will have to hold themselves responsible for national failures.

The realization is dawning. Slowly. Four Indian states went to polls last week. No amount of terror politics helped. We need to keep at it.

Divya writes a guest post for Nita: What role did we play in the Mumbai terror attack
Compulsive Writer: War is not the answer
Agelessbonding: Rebuild India Mission
Churmuri: Should we really 'learn' from the U.S.?
Annie Zaidi about Mumbai after the attacks, Known Turf
I love life...so I explore: Confused and Angry
Ingrid Srinath at Citizens for Peace (via Blogpourri)

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