A Year After Mumbai Attacks, Public Scrutiny Exposes Systemic Failures

7 years ago

In the build up to President Obama's first state dinner, news anchors wondered in awe and glee what new surprises --- like the now-immortalized Princess Diana-John Travolta twirl --- the occasion would throw up. Given that their guests were the India Prime Minister and his wife, I didn't expect another dance surprise. But we got our wish in the form of the Salahis, the alleged "gate crashers" who are supposed to have exposed a hole in White House security.  ("The word's out that the State dinner's a tough one to crash" -- former White House social secretary. Ouch!!). Thousands of miles away in the chief guest's home country, the White House fiasco fell behind more serious headlines, as India remembered another massive security breach that led to the fateful Mumbai terror attack a year ago. And that is what this post is about. What has happened since then?

First, I am loathe to labeling the Mumbai attacks -- that went on for four days and three nights and claimed over 160 lives -- as India's 9/11. They may have been similar in tact, precision, planning and targeting (both were attacks on wealthy, commercial capitals), but several thousands have lost their lives to terrorism in India over the last decade. Nothing changed then. I ranted about our callousness toward terror in earlier posts here and here and here. In one of my own posts I had wondered if the lack of "twin-towers grandeur" in the attacks was making us complacent. Well, the terrorists delivered on that front too -- what a grand attack it was on Mumbai! Five-star hotels, rich people, international media attention, hostage situation. Could they have done any better?

Mumbai Recovers Following Terror Attacks

But has that changed anything? It depends on who you ask. There are cynics and optimists.

Accountability: It's not news that despite a decade of terror to learn from, we were simply not coordinated enough to deal with anything of this scale. The failure was top-down -- from intelligence failures, to political callousness, to weak policing. What's new is a higher level of public pressure to hold authorities accountable. It probably has more to do with the new, hot Right to Information Act and a growing population of educated and demanding citizens, than any epiphany that the government may have had. If we recall, it was public anger that led to the resignation of politicians responsible for the country's security. (One of them, who had to step down for implying the Mumbai attacks were a minor incident, is back in power after the recently-concluded state elections. So much for "moral responsibility" they keep claiming).

The first civilian effort came in the form of a book by the widow of a police officer who, along with the anti-terror squad chief, was gunned down on November 26, last year. In her book To the Last Bullet co-authored with a journalist, Vinita Kamte lays down the events of the night, accusing top police officers of systemic failure and then misinforming her during her inquiries. The duo obtained a lot of their information through interviews, demands for call logs and using the RTI Act. She argued that had her husband and the team got the back-up they asked for, they may well have lived. It is a scathing indictment of the policing system in Mumbai.
Needless to say, one of the top -- and well-regarded -- officers she has criticized has written to the government denying many of her accusations. He claims the facts will speak for themselves. So does Kamte. We are yet to hear the end of it.

The second one gets trickier: The government set up a two-member committee, headed by former bureaucrat Ram Pradhan -- to look into the lapses on 26/11 (26th on November) and ask for what is called an Action Taken Report. Conveniently, all the players decided to shield the report from the public. Except the public, of course. Among the several (a handful compared with post 9/11 lawsuits) Public Interest Litigations or PILs (equivalent to class-action lawsuits here), were those that required that the report be made public, including the ATR. A high court agreed. The Supreme Court did not. The clamor to make it public rose, until the report was allegedly "leaked" to news channel, CNN-IBN, before it was set to be tabled in the state Assembly. According to news stories, the report (which the author has refused to confirm), among other things, says what we already knew: that our system did not process intelligence inputs effectively, and there was lack of coordination/communication in the Mumbai police. Here's a piece of the report:

Pointing out that there had been several intelligence reports from August 2006 onwards indicating that the LeT was making preparations to "infiltrate fidayeen" into India by the sea route — 6 alerts on the possibility of sea-borne attacks, 11 on the possibility of multiple and simultaneous attacks and 3 on the possibility of commando attacks — the committee says "an overall assessment and proper analysis of these reports would have revealed a strong indication that some major terrorist action was being planned against Mumbai. The existing mechanism to make such an overall assessment was inadequate."

The report, which praises one of the officers that Kamte (above) criticized, has in itself received flak for restricting itself to interviews and not scrutinizing police log records. Here we have another drama unfolding. Will we ever see the real story?

We should. The argument that making the report public would expose weaknesses in our system appears specious at best. The terrorists have already been attacking us. They have already infiltrated our system. What "weakness" is left for us to expose? We've tried the confidentiality approach. Let's go the public way for a change. Let the system be answerable to the public instead of hiding behind the fig leaf of security threat.

Law and Security: Are we any safer now? People seem divided. Technically speaking, the lone surviving attacker, Ajmal Kasab, is going through the hoops of a dramatic trial. Of course, many Indians still wonder why a terrorist caught in the act hasn't been sent to the gallows yet and is being tried with the Indian taxpayer's hard-earned rupee. But the court is staying its course and the trial is on.
On the other hand, India has finally, finally set up a central intelligence agency -- the National Investigation Agency -- that has the mandate and power to investigate all terror acts across the country. Have these helped to assuage fears?
News reports and blogs show the wide gap in people's perspectives. Nita at Wide Angle View of India -- in response to pessimistic comments on her post about the attacks --  is optimistic and believes her city Mumbai is better equipped now and lists a few steps that the government has taken to strengthen security, including filling up police staff positions, beefing up the coast guards, more interaction with foreign intelligence agencies including the CIA and FBI, among others:

Its not as if nothing has happened after 26/11/2008. Things have happened, some things have been planned, and more will be done. Things cannot change overnight that is for sure but I think there has been an improvement, as the facts show. One hopes that there is better preparedness next time.

Sanjukta at Desicritics.org, like so many of Nita's readers, seethed with cynicism as she listed other parts of India that were reeling under years of insurgencies with no respite:

I am sorry to say but on this anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks I can't help but being at my cynical best. Cynicism, despair, anger, frustration and helplessness have hit an all time high. All these talk of unity and solidarity seem to be such overstatement and the idea of one India is such a farce.
No body cares, they don't even know about the blood and gore going on in so many parts of the country. From media to the youth on twitter, the so called 'one India' consist of Bombay, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad and few more. So much talk about unity and solidarity, why can't the people of Mumbai come out in large numbers on the street when another home grown terrorist tries to divide and kill people on the basis of language and region?

No matter what our outlook, one thing's for sure: we still have a long way to go before we can have a lean, mean security machine ready to deal with terror the way it needs to be dealt and not as another law and order situation. And public scrutiny may be the only option to keep our government from inaction.

Filmmaker Dan Reed's HBO film Terror in Mumbai   (video link via Nita's post) is a grim reminder of the horror of the attacks. But this answer to a question during an interview with the filmmaker is what I fear may dim our memories, something we can ill-afford:

The chief resemblance between Mumbai - or 26/11 as it is known - and 9/11 is the unbelievably daring, high-concept design and imaginative planning of the attack. It confronted the security services and the public with the "unthinkable" and, like 9/11, led to a failure of imagination on the part of the security forces tasked with defending the city. A key feature of both attacks was that they produced heart-stopping, symbolic images of the destructive power of the terrorists: In Mumbai's case, the flames pouring out of the Taj hotel, the symbol par excellence of India's prosperity. But the similarities end there, and it struck me immediately how quickly the city had moved on. Six weeks on, there were relatively few physical signs of the attack left to be seen - some boarded-up rooms at the Taj, a few bullet holes at the railway station, the burnt-out Chabad House. In fact the mass of humanity which surges through the main railway station every day had already begun to flow back within hours of the attack, with passengers sleeping on stone floors just a few yards away from streaks and pools of half-dried blood. Life goes on in Mumbai, because not to travel means not to work, and the loss of a day's wages is a big deal for an average family in the slums. So I got a strong sense that the human tide simply wiped away any traces of the attack, and most of the city returned to normal within days. [...] Previous terrorist attacks on Mumbai had always targeted primarily the urban poor - mainly commuters. But now two five-star hotels had been attacked, and the well-to-do of South Mumbai felt suddenly defenseless and betrayed by the failure of the police and security services. But the protests, earnest though they were, came to nothing and fizzled out pretty quickly with no political follow-through.

More on the attacks:

Kamla Bhatt's round-up post
Deepa at Mumbai Magic posts a poetic tribute by her cousin
Sush Jaitly at Make Splash wants the probe report made public
Bloggers on Blogadda
Vir Sanghvi on the media's mistakes on 26/11,  Hindustan Times

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