I still recall with undiminished horror the traumatic events as they unfolded during the terrorist assault on Mumbai on November 26, five years ago. What puzzled me and many others I am certain, is the virtual absence of any coherent management of the crisis. The mostly ad hoc, uncoordinated and often counter-productive responses led to far more damage, loss of life and sullied reputations than one would have expected. And yet, to date, there has been no thorough and objective postmortem by a body of respected and credible individuals, on the pattern of the Kargil Commission, which may have identified the multiple lapses that characterised the government’s response to the crisis and recommended measures to avoid any recurrence of a similar tragedy in the future.
The Government of India has a well-established and fully empowered crisis management system precisely in order to deal with such emergent threats to national security. There is a Crisis Management Group (CMG) headed by the cabinet secretary, which is mandated to convene to handle the various exigencies that inevitably arise whenever a major crisis strikes. This may be a hijacking of an aircraft or a hostage crisis or a natural disaster. The CMG has a standing composition of senior officials of key ministries, agencies, defence and security services. Depending upon the nature of the crisis, other relevant ministries, state governments and agencies may be co-opted. For example, in my capacity as foreign secretary, I would often be invited to participate whenever there was an external dimension to an emerging threat. The management of media coverage of a fast-evolving situation was also an integral part of such crisis management. The CMG would be constantly monitoring developments based on the latest information put at its disposal by different sources. Its decisions would be promptly executed because key decision makers were represented in the group. This well-laid down drill leaves political leadership free to focus on the political management of the situation without getting bogged down in operational issues.
From the manner in which the situation unfolded on 26/11 and subsequent days, it was clear that the established mechanism was either not operationalised when most needed or if it was, it clearly failed to fulfill its mandate. There was no media management at all and the free-wheeling TV coverage became a valuable guide for the terrorists and their handlers to adapt their tactics in response. Some agencies involved in rescue operations appeared more interested in getting their five minutes of fame on TV screens rather than in fulfilling their responsibilities. Reports that the NSG commandos could not be moved to Mumbai swiftly because of lack of ground and air transport would never have happened if the CMG was performing its clearly-defined role as a coordinating body. This issue needs careful investigation because we cannot afford a similar failure in future.
In the aftermath of the crisis, the government set up a National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and a Counter-Terrorism Centre (CTC). This is typical of our penchant to establish new structures and additional layers of bureaucracy without addressing the real lacuna in our security setup. Firstly, we need to get the balance between VIP security and public security right. In India today, there is clearly a class structure when it comes to access to security. The frequent sight of our political leaders being surrounded by a ring of well-armed commandos or moving in convoys of several vehicles with armed personnel mock at one of the worst police/population ratios (134 per lakh of population) anywhere in the world. One does not grudge security cover for key political figures and senior officials serving in sensitive positions but I think we have, in recent years, gone overboard in this respect (three policemen per VIP), neglecting the urgent and compelling need to enhance overall and basic policing and street level public security.
Secondly, while we may have well-equipped and professionally staffed NIA and CTC, we have failed to appreciate that any system is as good and efficient as its most junior foot soldier. The best superstructure will be a house built on sand unless it is supported by well-trained and highly-motivated personnel at the lower rungs of the hierarchy. Law and order is a state subject. In most states, the police constable, the sub-inspector, inspector and even the deputy superintendent of police are often recruited through a patronage system rather than on merit. Once recruited, there is hardly any training or career management. Many recruits are barely literate. Their conditions of work and livelihood are often pathetic. State governments have been guilty of treating police forces as a partisan political tool and have allowed large vacancies to build up with regular policing and maintenance of law and order suffering in the process. If there is a crisis there is immediate recourse to central paramilitary forces or even the Army. This is a dangerous trend and unless addressed swiftly, we will continue to have the kind of gaps which enabled Pakistan-based terrorists to penetrate virtually unchallenged, into the heart of India’s commercial capital. The 26/11 attack was a wake-up call but we continue to be in denial.
Finally, there are bigger and overarching challenges we face in managing national security. Over the years, we have created a vast arbitrage economy through administered and differential pricing of key resources and services. This has led to the criminalisation of significant sectors of our economy. The kerosene mafia is only one such instance. Such criminalisation, tolerated and sustained by political forces, subverts law and order structures, such as still exist, and create opportunities that terrorist elements can exploit. We need to confront these uncomfortable realities honestly and sincerely. Amidst the competitive politics that is the hallmark of our democracy, there needs to be a political consensus on initiating long-overdue reforms, which are well-known, without which the safety and security of the people of India cannot be assured. The lessons of 26/11 must not go unaddressed.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary
The views expressed by the author are personal