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A year on, we are still sitting ducks

Our response to 26/11 has been a failure. At the time we believed that the event was so horrific that Pakistan would stand isolated in the community of nations. And that our shared experiences would lead the US to help us in our own battle against terror. Both hopes have been belied, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 22, 2009 11:17 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Now that the first anniversary of the Bombay attacks is nearly here, this might be a good time to work out how much has changed since 26/11. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, many of us believed that we were at a watershed in India’s fight against terror and that things could never be the same again. As we shall see, I’m not sure it has worked out that way.

Police/Paramilitary: Now that foreign security experts have had a chance to examine the TV footage and to analyse those terrible events, there seems to be a broad consensus that the Indian security establishment failed.

There is something intrinsically shameful about a situation where ten young Pakistanis can hold India’s greatest city to ransom for nearly three days. Clearly, we took far too long to take out the terrorists and to regain control of Bombay.

Much of the fault lies with the Bombay Police. Despite several acts of individual valour, it seems obvious in retrospect that these ten men were able to completely outwit and terrify the thousands of policemen entrusted with keeping Bombay safe. Experts say that the first 12 hours of a terrorist situation are crucial. In the case of 26/11, the police did virtually nothing for those 12 hours. They refused to go into the Taj, the Oberoi or Nariman House on the grounds that the terrorists were better armed. Even when individual officers wanted to go in, their bosses pulled them back. It wasn’t till the National Security Guard (NSG) arrived the next morning that the battle against the terrorists began in earnest.

You can argue that the police were given shoddy equipment. You can also say that they are not equipped to fight terrorists. Both explanations are bogus. The failures of the Bombay Police on 26/11 had little to do with equipment and everything to do with poor leadership. And in this day and age, does it make any sense for a police force not to have a SWAT team or its equivalent trained for such situations?

The government has accepted that the police screwed up: the commissioner has been sacked. What is less clear is that it has made any attempt to ensure that should 26/11 happen again, the police force will be better placed to handle the situation.

On the other hand, there has been a difference in the way in which the NSG is organised. The force has finally got the aircraft and equipment it required and its men are now posted in cities all over India.

Intelligence Agencies: The reason why there have been so few terror attacks against the UK and the US in recent years is because their intelligence services are constantly monitoring terror modules and act to prevent attacks before they occur.

We know now that 26/11 was preventable. R&AW had forwarded intercepts that suggested that terrorists were on their way to attack Bombay to the office of the National Security Advisor (NSA). Shamefully, the government did nothing and let the attacks happen.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there were calls for a reshuffle in the intelligence set-up. The government rejected these calls and stuck by the men who allowed 26/11 to happen. Since then, the intelligence apparatus has fallen into even greater disrepair.

A well-researched series of articles in the New Indian Express (run by the former editor of the Sunday HT, Aditya Sinha) reveals how R&AW, India’s foreign intelligence agency, has been raped and ravaged by senior officials. The level of morale in R&AW is so low today that if an attack were to take place outside the CGO Complex, the spies inside would be too depressed to notice.

Despite the efforts of P. Chidambaram to strengthen domestic intelligence, there is very little to suggest that India’s agencies will be able to warn us of any future attacks. Bizarrely, the government has not just allowed the decline to continue, it has allowed it to get much worse than anyone thought possible.

Politicians: I was never a great supporter of the upsurge of middle-class anger against politicians. It seemed to me to be too knee-jerk and too unconsidered a response. The officials who had let India down kept their jobs.

The politicians were sent on enforced holiday.

Well, that holiday is now over. Vilasrao Deshmukh, who was removed as Maharashtra chief minister, now has a Cabinet post in Delhi. Former home minister R.R. Patil is back in the government. Shivraj Patil is about to be appointed a Governor.

So, the one visible evidence of change after 26/11 — no matter how symbolic or meaningless — has now been wiped out. It’s back to business as usual.

US/Pakistan: In foreign policy terms, our response to 26/11 has been a failure. At the time we believed that the event was so horrific that Pakistan would stand isolated in the community of nations. And that our shared experiences would lead the US to help us in our own battle against terror.

Both hopes have been belied.

Whatever horror the US felt over 26/11 has long since dissipated. Under Barack Obama, America seems to be abandoning the pro-India policy of old and there is no sense in which its attitude to Pakistan has been altered by the Bombay attacks.

Most disastrous of all has been our failure to successfully demand any kind of accountability from Pakistan. Our government speaks in two contradictory voices. On the one hand, our home ministry keeps sending dossiers to Islamabad and threatening Pakistan with dire consequences if it continues to back terror. On the other, the foreign ministry promises eternal friendship to Pakistan and even agrees to allow India’s alleged interference in Baluchistan to be included in a joint statement suggesting a kind of parity that at once destroys the Indian position that what Pakistan has done is so horrific that Islamabad deserves to be isolated.

Only one of these positions can be valid at any given time. The government cannot try both approaches simultaneously and then wonder why the Pakistanis laugh in our face and refuse to take any serious action against the men who sent the terrorists into Bombay.

And finally: It’s a depressing conclusion. But it is inescapable. Very little has really changed. A new terror attack like 26/11 can happen again.

And our government may not be able to protect us.

The views expressed by the author are personal