In Mumbai the rot runs deep and all around | ht view | Hindustan Times
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In Mumbai the rot runs deep and all around

The corruption in the government, the police, the municipality, the bureaucracy and every walk of life is all-pervasive. The only time Mumbaikars did raise their voice against this corruption was after 26/11 but that was no victory, writes Kiran Nagarkar.

ht view Updated: Dec 03, 2013 21:01 IST

Long before 26/11/2008, Mumbai had been a hot favourite of terrorist organisations in Pakistan, not to mention our friends in the ISI there.

They had been training us regularly so that we were seasoned victims by the time the calamitous moment arrived in 2008. I use the term had "trained us" advisedly. When a barbaric group ravages your property, kills innocent people in hundreds, attempts to subvert the institutions and economy of the financial heart of a country, disrupts peace and harmony in one of the biggest and busiest metropolises, and terrorises its denizens for the first time, shame on them. Indeed you are the victim of a horrendous crime. But when the marauding party keeps coming back and continues its depredations for the nth time, and you still haven't learnt your lesson, despite the fact that you have a full-fledged intelligence department, a major police force, a democratically elected government, a secular and vibrant polity and a sound economy, then one can only conclude that in a sick and sickening fashion, you are not merely a willing and masochistic victim but one who is complicit in the fate that visits you.

READ: The 26/11 narrative: unanswered questions

Starting with the multiple bomb blasts in 1993 in 13 different locations which killed over 350 people and injured 1200, the chosen method of attacks on the city was plastic explosives placed in symbolic buildings like the Bombay Stock Exchange or crowded localities and trains. For 26/11, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the ISI chose a totally different strategy. The city was held to ransom for 72 hours. The havoc that the commando-style visitors who came from the sea wreaked at the CST Railway Terminus, the Leopold Café, the Taj and the Oberoi-Trident hotels, the Cama Hospital, and the Jewish Community Centre at Nariman House is now one of the most unforgettable and tragic chapters in the city's history. Like the British soldiers in the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War many of the victims realized that 'Someone had blunder'd/ theirs not to make reply,/ theirs not to reason why,/ theirs but to do and die…..Boldly they rode and well, /Into the jaws of death/ Into the mouth of Hell'.

Indeed someone had blundered. The question is who? Who was responsible for the failures that led to 166 dead and over 300 injured? How do you compute the price of a life? If one of your close relatives died in the 26/11 attack, the government offered you Rs. 5,00,000. If you were injured, never mind how badly, you would get Rs. 50,000. Putting a price on a life is absurd but it is often a lifeline for the survivors. Death spells closure. It is the reverse for the injured. Often, it is the start of a grim, problematic and, at times, tragic future. How does one compensate the crippled and the living dead? If they've lost an arm, a leg, eyesight; if they are paralysed waist down and are crippled for life, Rs. 50,000 is a joke. And anyway how does one combat the psychological trauma? And who is going to pay the rehabilitation fees?

You could say that the Indian agencies in charge of safeguarding the people of the country suffer from a serious learning disability. Before the 1993 bomb blasts one of the small-time mafia soldiers had blurted out to the Police that a major RDX attack on various sites in Mumbai was in the offing. A new book called The Siege by two British journalists reveals that the CIA had tipped off the Research and Analyses Wing, our foreign intelligence agency time and again about a suicide squad slipping into Mumbai and attacking different locations. These warnings mostly fell on deaf ears. While there is more than a grain of truth to RAW accusing the Americans of playing a double game in allowing their mole David Coleman Headley to mastermind the 26/11 attack, it would be hard put to deny that the RAW did precious little to pursue the CIA warnings.

How well are we prepared today? Twenty years after the multiple bomb-blasts of 1993 and five years after 26/11, has the performance of the Intelligence Bureau improved considerably? While intelligence gathering is still in the hands of the IB and RAW, a new outfit called the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was established. How effectively is it doing its job? Frankly, it's hard to tell.

The most visible failure of 26/11 was the utter disarray of the Mumbai police department. Almost everybody was clueless and bumbling. There was no central supervising authority. However bravely a few police constables and officers may have acted, they did it on their own.

READ: Revisiting the NSG operations: what worked and what didn't

The credit for the rot in the police force can be squarely laid at the door of their corrupt political bosses in the government for the last two or three decades.

Has there been a radical change in the police response mechanisms? Much of the criticism was aimed at the utter lack of even basic procedures in times of crises. Are they in place now? And just as important, does everyone from the Director General of Police to the constable on duty know the entire series of steps involved in reacting to a variety of terrorist attacks? No procedure, however valuable, is of any use unless there is a rigorous drill performed regularly not only by the police force but by all private and government offices, schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, airports, indeed the whole population every few months. Is this done routinely but meticulously now? Have the home minister and the chief minister turned into ever-vigilant guardians of the citizenry, are they prepared 24/7? The signs don't look very promising. Unfortunately, the only way we are likely to find out is through the next round of bomb blasts or suicide squads.

The decline and fall of the Mumbai Police It's hard to believe today that the Bombay Police were considered one of the best, if not the best in the country till the late 1980s. Things have changed a bit. While there are undoubtedly a few good men in the IPS, it is now taken for granted that most posts are secretly auctioned for every rank and the topmost ones purportedly fetch tens of crores. One or a group of ministers, bureaucrats and some obliging middlemen are pocketing the money in exchange for a desirable rank and a highly lucrative posting. The majority of police do not come from super-rich families. So where do they get black money from? Obviously, from their area of operations, and the largesse of that munificent soul residing in Karachi and Dubai known as Bhai.

It's a well-known fact that a great number of low and high ranking policemen are in the pay of the mafia bosses. But as King Henry in Jean Anouilh's Becket put it, it's understood that the deal is 'favour for favour'. For some reason both journalists and the population of the country prefer to assume that the favours never cross into the forbidden territory of terrorist attacks. Who then exercises such exemplary restraint? The Bhai or the police officers? Or is this Lakshman Rekha a convenient chimera that no one is prepared to expose? Who's to say? While the culture of venality is pervasive amongst the police of every rank, there's no denying that the Force is also demoralized, perhaps beyond repair. The credit for this must go to every hue of political leadership in the city.

READ: 26/11 attacks: Pak lawyer says documents inadmissible, accused may walk free

Nothing fazes Mumbaiites
Foreigners, not to mention our own people, often talk about the courage of Mumbaiites, how they go back to work the very next day after a terrorist attack, how courageously they face the future. Michael Moore, in his book Fahrenheit 9/11 talked about how Americans have been living in the grip of fear after that fateful day. Those who travel by local train in Mumbai (and of late by BEST buses too) crushed for hours are indeed a brave lot. May be we Mumbaiites are made of tougher stuff when it comes to terrorist attacks; may be we really face life undaunted by calamity. But it's also likely that the explanation is more mundane. The poor and lower middle class have little choice but to attend work the very day after terrorist attacks unless they want to be sacked from their jobs and starve. Besides, let's not forget that the idea of being resigned to one's fate is sewn into the lining of our Indian brains. Add to that our perpetual song: What can we do? Who can fight the bureaucracy and the government?

The corruption in the government, the police, the Mumbai municipality, the bureaucracy and every walk of life is all-pervasive and staggering. The loss to the exchequer is astronomical. The newspaper headlines and TV anchors may scream and rant but we take it all in our stride. Nothing but nothing shakes us up. Perhaps even more to the point we don't really care what happens to us or our city. We may be under attack and under siege and what is our response? We crib, curse the powers that be and the system, but we carry on regardless, not lifting a finger or joining hands with millions of our fellow-citizens to tell our political bosses we've had enough, that we expect them to do their job to protect the lives of the citizens of the city.

The only time we did raise our voices was almost immediately after 26/11. Thousands got together near the Gateway of India, protested and put pressure on the Centre. The then incompetent chief minister and home minister lost their jobs, though for different reasons, but within months we were back to square one. Actually it was worse. The former chief minister was promoted to the Centre and the earlier home minister was back in the saddle with the same portfolio. The apathy and indifference too were back in place and there was not a peep out of the people of Mumbai.

The lion's share of responsibility then clearly lies with all of us, the people of Mumbai. It's as if we were letting our enemies, the merchants of death, know that they were free to walk into our city any time with impunity.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
What does the crystal ball tell us about the future? Next year is election time. If the Congress comes back to power (unlikely as that seems at the moment), we'll have more of the same lacklustre leadership. If the central government has been singularly incompetent in gathering intelligence, preventing and responding to terrorist attacks in a coordinated, effective, and rapid fashion, it has by and large, kept its cool and shown maturity in dealing with Pakistan.

The restraint, despite extreme provocation, has paid off quiet but handsome dividends. The world sees us for what we are, a mature democracy despite our glaring faults. There are border clashes, there's major mismanagement in Kashmir, but we haven't had our finger continually on the trigger while Pakistan has gone from one crisis to another.

READ: Laskhar-e-Taiba, 26/11 villain and India's enemy at the gates

On the other hand, what can we expect from the BJP and its Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi if he wins the election? There's no forgetting that his formative and even later years were spent with the RSS. Despite making a show of his new-found love for Muslims, he's a hard-core extremist Hindu as he so forcefully showed us in the Gujarat riots. Recall also Sushma Swaraj thundering in the parliament that she would have ten Pakistani soldiers killed for every single Indian one. Will we be sending our own Hindu mujahideens across the border to terrorise the Pakistanis?

Diplomacy, wisdom and statesmanship and a carefully measured response will not stand much of a chance in the face of gung-ho patriotism and the macho notion of bravery and retaliation. How far will that thoughtlessness escalate the level of violence? The problem with hyperventilating rhetoric is that it builds up steam and velocity on its own and is incapable of listening to saner voices. The trigger-happy consequences then can be deadly to say the least. We can only hope that the nuclear option is never under consideration at any point.

Kiran Nagarkar, award-winning playwright, novelist and author of the acclaimed "Ravan and Eddie" and "Cuckold" among other titles, is a quintessential observer of Mumbai and its myriad facades