The Mumbai terrorism incidents broke on the night of Nov 26th, 2009. I happen to have been here in Delhi and was awakened early Thursday morning when my daughter called from Harrisburg worried if we were OK. I spent quite some time following the developments as they unfolded on the TV.
It is intriguing that our discussion forum has been rather quiet on this incident. I was glad to see Autar ji’s expression of shock and disapproval of incidents from management. I also noted Claudia’s asking to hear some from Indian Sikhs on the subject but so far no one seems to have volunteered except Mandeep Bajwa’s mention of langar seva by Sikhs of the security personnel at the location.
I therefore chose to say something – not because I am an Indian Sikh [strictly speaking I am an OCI] but because I am a Sikh and to me any act of terrorism where innocents are brutally targeted is an anathema not only for being morally repugnant but also because my understanding is that the Gurus raised their voice in empathy with the suffering, they faulted poor governance and apathetic populace and did not want us to stay unconcerned in such situations. Both Baburvani and Zafarnama reflect on the ill effects of confluence of these factors on the society.
The incident the way it seems to have played out reveals a lot about the unprepared ness of the Indian State and Indian masses to be able to meet such planned incursions by a few committed protagonists. On the positive side the resilience of the people to face tragedy with almost fatalistic resignation showed strength of sorts. I will briefly dwell on both these aspects based on the images I saw.
The police lost more than a dozen persons including three of their top officers, killed by two terrorists – one of whom was captured in the encounter. It is unfortunate that the three officers let down their guard too early and became easy targets. It is sad for the families but also an unfortunate reflection on their personal lack of understanding of the nature of combat they were dealing with. This episode cannot but raise some serious doubts about the training of police and confidence that can be reposed in their ability to handle not just this kind of planned act by a highly motivated and trained group but even a simple bank holdup by some desperate persons.
The fire services did not seem to have much visible presence. The family of Karamveer Singh Kang, the GM of Taj was roasted alive in spite of his request for help because they could not pull resources together. The terrorists were lighting plenty of fires most of which kept burning till they died out of exhaustion.
I did not hear the anti terrorist squad [ATS] of Maharashtra mentioned on the TV. I am not aware how large that contingent is and what their role and resources are but I heard a lot about the head of the ATS who was seemingly the most important one of the three police officers killed.
The injured at VT were mostly seen carried by those around – in most cases by four persons, each holding one extremity of the victim. When the areas had been cleared one day later the ambulances were seen lined up around Taj for transporting dead and injured brought out.
In brief therefore I cannot but infer that the first responders – police, fire, ambulance and ATS – were not at all up to the task. And we are talking of Bombay that has seen so much of civil strife, mafia and terrorist violence. The situation in other major towns is not likely to be any better nor is the experience of previous encounters very reassuring. Significantly a foreigner who was also held up in the hotel was interviewed on the TV because he was guiding the others on what to do to stay safe. Those who matter hopefully heard his comment that it was a systemic failure.
Coming now to the Central Government’s role the failure of intelligence is clear. There are several reports of early warnings of the possible sea borne incursion and luxury hotels being the target but the Coast Guard seemingly did not become more vigilant. The hotels were welcoming to their potential guests as usual and the terrorists apparently succeeded in renting a room where their advance party stored munitions.
To tackle the terrorist attack, 200 NSG were flown in from Delhi with another 200 sent in about 24 hours later. The first batch arrived about 9 ½ hours after the incidents broke. By then the terrorists must have caused havoc within the Taj, Oberoi and Narriman House. Any way the NSG has been reported to have gone about professionally and methodically and sanitized the three sites in the next 36/48 hours and eliminated the eight terrorists who were holding these three sites hostage. They lost two – a Major and a Havaldar [Seargant]. A speculative question that no doubt will be asked is what would have happened if they had attacked more sites – after all Bombay is full of five star watering holes – would Indians have enough NSG to deploy and other resources to co ordinate the rescue effort in these highly over crowded, disorganized metropolitan cities with curious people more of hindrance than help.
The elite were more upset than understanding. Ratan Tata, owners of Taj, initially seemed more upset about failure of the Government than the plight of their guests or employees holed up inside. Shobha De was likewise indignant and ranting when Barkha Dutt politely cut short the interview saying she would talk to her when she was not as angry.
The pain and anguish was writ large on thousands of faces waiting for news of friends or family. There were crowds of people on balconies and roof tops watching what was going on. It was a live play mostly well covered by the media. Initially the press was on a hunt for the Home Minister’s scalp that seemed rather infantile given the gravity of what was going on situation but once they got past their initial hang up they did a good job. One TV channel. India TV even succeeded in engaging one of the terrorists in a longish conversation over the phone that left no doubt in the minds of the listeners that the person was not from Hyderabad, Deccan, as claimed by the group – the Government however seems unhappy at this intervention saying the media gave access to terrorists to gain publicity.
Mandeep Bajwa reported on the Internet that the Sikhs among the dead included Niti, the wife of the General Manager of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Karamvir Singh Kang and their two sons Samarvir and Udayvir; Roopinder Randhawa a teacher at BD Somani International Public School; Jasmine, the daughter of Mr Maninder Singh Bhurjee, Deputy Inspector General of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force who was a management trainee with the Oberoi and was killed along with her two colleagues at the reception.
There are a couple of important questions that may not have an easy answer. Firstly the bluster about being or becoming an economic superpower and a regional power may not sound credible unless India can show in a more demonstrable manner that its national strength is not merely in numbers – population, growth rate et al – but in being a people who are organized, socially responsible and vigilant with a Government at all levels that can assure the basic safety and security of people. The unfortunate fact that soon was becoming clear was that the total number of terrorists who caused so much havoc and held the might of Indian NSG, Navy Commandos, ATS and the entire Police and Para Military resources available at Mumbai at bay for nearly three days was just ten – three at the Taj, Two at Oberoi Trident, Two at Narriman House and two who attacked the C S T Train Station, Cama Hospital and a well heeled Restaurant frequented by the glitterati of this tinsel town.
The other issue is about the alternatives in courses of action that may be open to India. It seems the choices are very narrow. In spite of attack on the Parliament and this incident there is not much that India can do to Pakistan. The Western interest is limited to their security concerns and Indian security against sporadic terrorist attacks is not likely to factor into that paradigm and they would not like Pakistan [or Bangladesh] destabilized any more than it already is. Thus the solution will call more for strengthening defensive capabilities rather than eliminate the sources of problems abroad.
Soon after the frightening episode came to an end some political heads rolled – Shivraj Patil, the home minister at the Center and the Chief Minister and Home Minister of Maharashtra. None of the officials were asked to leave though there was speculation that the National Security Advisor and the heads of IB and RAW and Home Secretary could be replaced. The Naval Chief and the Maharashtra DG of Police publicly disputed that any actionable intelligence was made available to them prior to the incidents breaking.
The media succeeded in keeping the spotlight on the incident and tried to create some sort of coalition of the citizens to seek public accountability but it seems to have fizzled out. Things are back to business as usual after the Parliament put some teeth into the laws and the Foreign Office kept on making tough, often even contradicting statements about the course of action that India may adopt. The new Home Minister made a gallant pledge that he would not let another terrorist incident take place. He then went to Assam and his arrival was greeted by an attack by the ULFA as the newyear dawned. It is all quiet – even the media!