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Mumbai: The Uneducable Indian

Article first published in the South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR),

A long derided Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil has been forced out; Maharashtra State Home Minister, R.R. Patil has succumbed to public and media pressure and resigned after a crass comment that “such things keep happening in big cities”; the Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, is tottering on the verge of resignation after engaging in some heedless ‘disaster tourism’ at the devastated Taj Mahal Hotel; other heads are poised to roll. Has the latest Mumbai carnage pushed India beyond the ‘tipping point’ in its responses to terrorism? Is it now possible to expect a radical break with past patterns, where each major incident has been followed – to borrow a phrase applied to the Left parties during the nuclear debate, but which accurately describes the entire political class in this country – by some “running around like headless chickens”, to lapse quickly into a habitual torpor? And can India’s polarized and unprincipled political parties come to a consensual understanding and strategy on counter-terrorism, instead of subordinating the national interest to partisan electoral calculations and the politics of ‘vote banks’?

Regrettably, there are already too many signs that it is going to be ‘business as usual’ in India.

At the height of the confrontation in Mumbai, L.K. Advani, the Leader of the Opposition and the man projected as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate in the coming elections next year, kindled a spark of hope, calling for an all-party consensus on counter-terrorism, and declaring, “at this juncture, the country needs to fight the terrorist menace resolutely and stand together”. However, even before the fighting had ended, partisan political sniping had commenced on the round-the-clock television coverage and debates, and this has escalated to a point of viciousness even while the debris of the attacks is being cleared out. Crucially, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh convened an all-party meeting at Delhi on December 1, 2008, Advani and BJP President, Rajnath Singh, chose to absent themselves, though V.K. Malhotra, Deputy Leader of the BJP Parliamentary Party, did attend.

Governmental responses, moreover, show little sign of coming to terms with the enormity of the issue. The Prime Minister has chosen to emphasise amendments to the prevailing laws on terrorism – currently a set of toothless provisions inserted in 2005 into the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 – and the mirage of a Federal Investigation Agency that is intended to make all terrorism in the country miraculously vanish, simply because it pretends to imitate the American Federal Bureau of Investigation in nomenclature and intent. Neither of these initiatives, however, has any potential whatsoever to contain the rampage of terrorism across a country that remains pitifully under-policed, with a paper thin intelligence cover concentrated in a few urban centres and strategic locations. There has also been a reiteration of assurances that ‘maritime security’ will be beefed up, with more power and resources to the Coast Guard and Coastal Police Stations, and better coordination between these Forces, and with the Navy. But this is all tired old stuff and has been articulated ad nauseum, since 2001, with little evidence of change in capacities on the ground. Indeed, the critical capacities – those for policing – are actually undergoing continuing erosion, with the latest National Crime Records Bureau Report indicating that the police – population ratio for the country at large actually declined from an abysmal 126/100,000 in 2006 to 125/100,000 in 2007.

Of course, a few random sanctions for augmentation of capacities have been announced in the wake of past attacks – including the sanction of 6,000 additional personnel for the Intelligence Bureau (IB), immediately after the serial blasts in Delhi on September 13, 2008. Given the country’s turgid and obstructive bureaucracy, however, there are no signs of these sanctions resulting in an augmentation of capacities on the ground any time soon. The very idea of responding on a war footing, cutting through red tape and existing institutional limitations, does not appear to exist in any aspect of the country’s counter-terrorism responses.

And then, of course, there is a question of response to the very obvious role of Pakistan – and this is a palpable dead end. Even preliminary investigations have thrown up overwhelming evidence that every string of control in the multiple terrorist strikes in Mumbai leads back to Pakistan and to the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) – an organization that, under its new identity as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa continues to enjoy direct state support in Pakistan. In a rare outburst, Prime Minister Singh warned unnamed “neighbours” that “the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated, and that there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them.” His Government is now reportedly “under pressure” to act against Pakistan, and a range of hair-brained responses are doing the rounds in official circles, including massive troop mobilization along the border, mimicking the purposeless massing of troops under Operation Parakram, launched on December 16, 2001, after the terrorist attack on India’s Parliament. 680 soldiers were killed, without a single shot being fired, by the time Operation Parakram was, inexplicably, called off on October 16, 2002, with the unsupported claim that its undefined “objectives” had been achieved. If this worthless and counter-productive exercise is the model to be replicated in the present case, it would be no less than tragic. If, on the other hand, it is not, then there is little capacity – at this juncture – to design effective alternatives, in the foreseeable future, to impose any “cost” on Pakistan, and such capacities can only be constructed, gradually and systematically, over time, and with a clear strategy in mind – and there is little evidence of the latter at this juncture.

Indeed, the overwhelming focus of the Indian response to Pakistan’s role – either as the source of these attacks, or more direct involvement of the state’s agencies in engineering or facilitating them – appears to be concentrated on diplomatic efforts to bring international pressure to bear on Pakistan. This has been an apparently successful initiative, with world leaders coming out with some of the most unambiguous condemnations of the incident and commitments to support India’s efforts to address the problem in all its dimensions. Crucially, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to arrive at Delhi on December 3, on a visit that many expect (or, more likely, hope) will produce more than just a very strong ‘message’ to Islamabad. While all this will certainly make the powers that be in Pakistan squirm a bit, there is little reason to believe that the dynamic that has protected them in past and even greater transgressions, both in the region and well beyond, will not, once again, reassert itself. The truth is, it is not just India that is powerless to impose any unbearable pain on the basket case that is Pakistan – the ‘international community’, particularly including USA – are no better positioned. It is useful to recall, here, that US intelligence agencies concurred with Afghan and Indian agencies, that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) had engineered the terrorist bombing of the Indian Embassy on July 7, 2008, and there had been great expectations, at that juncture as well, that this would result in stronger action against Islamabad. Pakistan, however, has weathered many such storms and its diplomats and proxies are quick to range across the world peddling their theories of root causes and Muslim grievance to ever-willing audiences in the West and, indeed, even in victim countries such as India.

In the meanwhile, the attack in Mumbai has done what may well be irreparable damage to the “shining” image of the “emerging global power”. The utter incapacity and incompetence of India’s security apparatus has been incontrovertibly demonstrated in what may be an audacious attack by as few as 10 terrorists (nine have been confirmed killed and one is currently in custody, singing like a canary). It is crucial, here, to notice the exemplary courage, exemplary leadership and exemplary dedication to duty, among those who responded from the security forces, who were given virtually nothing to fight with, and who still put everything they had into the fight, with many losing their lives. Their personal commitment and attainment notwithstanding, the reality of the institutional and structural responses is disgraceful. While a detailed analysis of the counter-terrorism (CT) operation must wait till far more information is available, a few aspects are already evident.

The most significant of these is the sheer tardiness and inadequacy of response. The first shots in the multiple attacks in Mumbai were fired at about 21:40 in the evening of November 26, and the incident was already on national television by 22:00 (all timings are approximate and based on available open source reportage). Local Police contingents – including the Anti-terrorism Squad (ATS) headed by Hemant Karkare, who lost his life in the encounter – responded fairly quickly, but, lacking protective equipment, firepower and even the most rudimentary CT training, with tragic consequences, losing top line Police leaders in the very first engagements. After that, the world witnessed the most astonishing paralysis, as the locations of attack were loosely cordoned off by variously armed Police contingents, but no forces appeared equipped or willing to enter and engage for hours following. It was evident that even the most basic of response protocols had not been established, and the word repeatedly occurring in every live report in these long initial hours was “chaotic”. As one commentator in the New York Times noted, “The grainy television imagery suggested not so much a terrorist attack as the shapeless, omnidirectional chaos of Iraq.” Local contingents of the Army – arriving at about 02:50, more than five hours after the incident commenced – brought some semblance of order to the incident environments, but still did not enter the major sites of ongoing terrorist carnage. The first ‘special response team’ to arrive was a small group of Marine Commandos (Marcos), who actually sought engagement with the terrorists – but their own accounts suggest that they were not able to neutralize a singly terrorist before they were pulled out. Eventually, a 200-strong contingent of the ‘elite’ National Security Guard (NSG) was deployed at 08:05, in the morning of November 27, and this is the point at which the terrorists can seriously be considered to have been engaged. But the NSG went into the locations blind – with no maps of the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Oberoi-Trident complex initially available – and were extraordinarily tentative, unsure weather they were dealing with a hostage situation, and transfixed by their fear of inflicting civilian casualties – the reality eventually disclosed was that the massacres in the three principal sites, the two hotels and Nariman House, where a Jewish family was trapped, were over long before the NSG engaged. The result was a stand-off that lasted all of 62 hours.

There is also, of course, the long succession of intelligence warnings that were given to the State Government, and that were also passed on to the security establishments of the hotels under threat, but even the limited security measures that were implemented by both local Police and the hotel security apparatus were, as Praveen Swami notes, “lifted a week before the attacks, after businesses and residents complained of inconvenience.” Swami, quotes an unnamed Police source, further, as stating, “We also removed additional security… because our manpower was stretched to the limit and the personnel we had did not, in any case, have the specially-trained personnel needed to avert a suicide-squad attack.”

The Maharashtra State Government has tried to package this operation as a grand success, arguing that the terrorists had “come to kill 5,000 people” and to “blow up the Taj” (both pieces of unmitigated nonsense), and that, consequently, the eventual loss of life and damage to various structure, was not ‘as high as it could have been’. The reality, however, is that the multiple attacks – at 11 different locations – by a tiny contingent of terrorists, inflicting 195 fatalities (the figure is tentative, with numbers still rising, and pending official confirmation) and leaving over 300 injured, and virtually devastating two major locations (the Taj and the Oberoi-Trident), fully achieved their attainable potential and were complete successes from the point of view of their planners. They cannot, consequently, be thought of as anything but comprehensive failures from the point of view of India’s security establishment. Indeed, the Mumbai carnage shows every mark of a botched operation from the security point of view. If anything, security forces’ (SF) action appears to have trapped the terrorists in the locations, blocking off their avenues of planned escape – even as it gave them significant freedom of operation within them – instead of quickly neutralizing them, and protracting the carnage for an incredible 62 hours.

Despite the extraordinary courage and evident commitment of SF personnel and leaders, the reality is that there was a comprehensive structural failure in Mumbai. Any terrorist operation can only be contained, in terms of its potential, in the first few minutes. Which means that the “first responders” – invariably the local Police – have to be equipped, trained and capable of, if not neutralising, then, at least, containing the terrorists. If the first batches of Police personnel had arrived in sufficient strength at each of the locations of terrorist attack in Mumbai, with appropriate weaponry, communications, transport and other technological force multipliers (such as, for instance, night vision goggles and thermal imaging systems for the major standoffs in the Taj, Oberoi-Trident and Nariman House) and immediately engaged with the terrorists, they probably would have been able, in at least these three locations, to isolate the terrorists in small corners of the target structures and would have been able to minimise the loss of life, the material damage, and the operational time.

Many journalists ask the routine question after each of the increasingly frequent major terrorist strikes across India: why did this happen again? The more rational question, given India’s capacities for intelligence, enforcement and CT response, is: why does this not happen more often?

Imitative mantras, such as “strong laws” and “federal agency” will not diminish the threat of terrorism that confronts India. It is only the hard slog of building effective capacities – not incrementally, in terms of what we already have, but radically, in terms of what we need – on a war footing, that will help diminish the enveloping and, progressively, crippling, threat of terrorism confronting India. Only this can help the Government recover from the loss of public confidence and of international prestige that this devastating attack has inflicted on the nation. Regrettably, a national leadership – across party lines – that has repeatedly betrayed the national security interest for partisan political gains, does not demonstrate the necessary capacities for learning that can create defences within any time frame that could be immediately relevant to the trajectory of terrorism in the country.