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Lesson from London

india Updated: Aug 20, 2006 03:58 IST

Mumbai and London — two different cities of different people and different cultures! Both in news for the same reason — terrorism and terrorists! The police in one city received the thin end of the stick, in the other, encomiums! The reason — one was caught unaware, the other doused the fire before it spread!

Revered journalists, Pritish Nandi in the English language press and Dinu Randive in the vernacular, have castigated the police and its political head, the Home Minister of Maharashtra.  Mr RR Patil is being targeted, albeit covertly, even by his colleagues at the instigation of corrupt police officials who have not been accommodated by him in postings of their choice.  He has the unenviable task of undoing the damage done by his predecessor.  The terror strikes have added to this good man's woes.

National Security Advisor MK Narayanan, in an interview to a TV channel a few days ago, did remark that there was some slip up in Mumbai, but he did not spell out the nature of the disconnect. Presumably, some general warning must have been communicated to the State Government, but it does not require much imagination to understand that it is humanly impossible for the police to check every intending passenger on our suburban trains which carry thousands of commuters every single day, particularly during peak hours.

The explanation for the success of the police in London lies in the difference between their approach and that of the police in our city or any other city of India.  These differences are apparent in the cultural makeup and mindset of our policemen rather than in the determination and abilities of the two forces.  In India, policemen are wont to treat citizens in a patronising and superior manner because all Government Servants, particularly those in uniform, believe that authority gives them the right to be the masters of the people! In Britain, the policeman treats citizens with respect and in return, is treated with respect.

Because of this deep cultural difference, Britain's Police can befriend residents in minority ghettos and obtain vital information about suspicious movements well in time to enable them to mount the surveillance required to neutralise any plot. Of course, this is not the case every time.  Last year, London's underground trains and buses were targeted without hindrance.

In India, with our caste and communal biases and also because of the relative lack of civilised communication between the police and the people, there are gaping holes which need to be plugged urgently if we are to succeed in obtaining prior notice of evil intent before the evil ones strike.  Imagine if our policemen in different parts of the city had friends in Muslim pockets where the terrorists perforce stay days before they carry out their diabolical attacks.  Strangers, or even residents whose movements suddenly attract adverse attention, would have been reported to friendly cops who would then have alerted their superiors and the intelligence wing.

Press reports indicate that there has been some bickering between the City Police and the Railway Police in Mumbai after the mayhem.  There is no justification for any misunderstanding, if indeed there is one.  The Railway Police has a very specific role to play in the City's policing and needs the support of the City Police to unravel extraordinary crimes that are committed in its jurisdiction.  In particular, terrorist attacks would involve people living in the City limits and the culprits would certainly seek refuge in the City after commission of the offence.  Only City policemen could possibly ferret out these culprits. What is required is a concerted effort by all the police units concerned to bring the criminals to justice. The Mumbai Crime Branch has had a glorious record in unraveling such crimes. It may take some more time, but with patience and determination, they are bound to succeed.

In the bomb blasts of 1993, the culprits were traced immediately because they were underworld characters bent on revenge for the killing of innocent Muslims a couple of months earlier.  The culprits had left a trail, including an abandoned vehicle with the registration licence which disclosed the identity of a principal culprit.  From there on, it was relatively easy to rope in the rest of the conspirators.  In the July-11 2006 attack, the perpetrators were the obviously much more sophisticated, determined, ruthless and brainwashed Lashkar-e-Toiba men who had planned the attack over a period of time and carried out their mission with precision.

The police are under great pressure to detect the case and because of this pressure, they sometimes allow their anxiety to get the better of their sensibilities, thereby raising the resentment levels of ordinary Muslims.  If too many unnecessary arrests are made, the chances of getting a breakthrough are proportionately reduced.  Instead of indiscriminately summoning people for inquiries, an appeal should be made to the Muslim community to help in identifying the terrorists. This is what the police in England would have done and that really is the difference in our approach.

Finally, a word about our perennial problem of tardy judicial trials.  In the 1992-93 blasts case, a special court was constituted and the judge had no other work except to try it.  Yet, it has taken him more than a decade to come to any conclusion.  It took the New York police department six months to bring to book the culprits of the World Trade Center bombing.  In Mumbai, the offence was detected within a month.  But while it took less than a year for the US Courts to hand down the sentences, 13 years have passed and the judgment in Mumbai has yet to come!  This alone encourages terrorists and others to cock a snook at the authorities.  Unless our legal system can discourage our lawyers from repeatedly asking irrelevant questions, pleading for adjournments and using other methods to delay trials, our judicial system will continue to be a source of amusement to those who want to break the law.

(The writer is the ex-police chief of Mumbai and Punjab and former ambassador to Romania)

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