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HindustanTimes Sat,20 Sep 2014

Barkha Dutt

Hide and seek
Barkha Dutt
June 19, 2009
First Published: 22:43 IST(19/6/2009)
Last Updated: 19:46 IST(25/7/2009)

Remember how angry India seemed in the days right after 26/11? The anger back then had an almost anarchic quality to it. It was understandably primal, sometimes incoherent, often applied indiscriminately and marked by the dangers of self-combustion. Even so, we had all hoped then that the public anger might be channelised into a productive push for genuine change. Instead, the big bang really seems to have ended with a mute little whimper. We appear to have forgotten all the questions we sought answers to as a people. We seem to have erased the horrific memories of our own vulnerability. That must explain why there’s hardly any outcry over the Maharashtra government’s decision to keep a crucial 26/11 report far away from the public eye.

How did ten terrorists hold an entire city to ransom for over 60 hours? Were the brave policemen of Mumbai let down by obsolete weaponry and sub-standard bulletproof jackets? What of the nine cops who fought Ajmal Kasab’s AK-47 with just their wooden lathis? Or the extraordinary assistant sub-inspector Tukaram Ombale who was riddled with bullets when he leapt unarmed on Kasab’s rifle, pushing its barrel down and thus making his arrest possible. Did a lack of clear-headed leadership botch up the operation? Who was manning the police control room and calling the commands? Was there even a centralised command structure in place? These were some of the fundamental questions that the Ram Pradhan Committee set out to answer.

Now, Ram Pradhan has been a former governor and home secretary. His colleague, V. Balachandran, has worked with Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). Presumably, these credentials alone should be enough to testify that these are men who understand the many sensitivities of ‘national security’. And yet, that’s exactly the euphemism the state government has been hiding behind to justify its decision to keep the original report secret.

Instead, it’s released an ‘action-taken’ report in the state Assembly, underlining the fact that the Congress-NCP regime rejects several of the conclusions in the original report. In effect, all this makes a mockery of the principle of transparency. And even worse, it trivialises the need to learn from the mistakes we made as a country on 26/11 by pushing everything back into the quagmire of competitive politics.

The BJP-Sena’s conspiracy theory has it that the secrecy shroud is to protect three state ministers in an election year. Congress politicians privately say that Pradhan’s report has unfairly singled out the former Commissioner of Police, Hasan Gafoor.

But frankly, all this is a matter of political squabbling and, so, beside the point. In any case, much of the original report has already leaked its way into the public domain, albeit in dribs and drabs. And Pradhan has gone on record to say that there were no ‘sensitive’ bits that justified any censorship.

So, why does the Maharashtra government want to look like it has something to hide? Why does it want to undermine its own credibility by disregarding the findings of a committee that it had appointed to begin with? If it’s Assembly elections they are worried about, doesn’t verdict 2009 show them they needn’t worry?

Parties that seek to politicise terror don’t touch a chord; but surely nor do parties that obfuscate facts and hide them from their people. The Congress shunted out its chief minister right after the attacks and still swept the city of Mumbai in the general elections. If nothing else, the mandate should have given its state government the confidence to be open, accessible, and brave.

Mumbai also draws parallels with another great city, New York. And not just because both are financial capitals of their countries. They are cities that share the characteristics of extraordinary energy and grit. Not to mention the commonality of a grimy underbelly that has fascinated countless authors and moviemakers. So, we even borrowed the syntax of the New Yorker to describe our own doomsday. 26/11 became our 9/11 despite protests from so many others who thought the analogy was an association with George Bush and a war gone terribly wrong. Yet, we failed to learn the most precious lesson that the Americans could teach us — transparency.

In 2001, the US Congress voted to create a bipartisan, independent 9/11 commission also known as the ‘National Commission On Terrorist Attacks Upon the US’. The Commission held more than 12 public hearings and its 570-page report is available to anyone who wants to download it from the internet or buy it off a bookshelf. For two years, Americans watched their country and government come under microscopic scrutiny on subjects ranging from political oversight to intelligence failure. At the end of the hearings, the Commission’s findings were unsparing.

Terrorists had been able to force passenger planes into the twin towers because a ‘failure of imagination’ had prevented America from understanding the al-Qaeda threat. “The United States government was simply not active enough in combating the terrorist threat before 9/11,” it said. Of course the findings of the commission were fiercely debated, including by CIA veterans and it was another few years before its proposed reforms were implemented. But the fact is that neither the process nor the conclusion were kept hidden from American citizens.

So, if Ashok Chavan’s government had put Pradhan’s report in the public domain and then opened it up for public debate, that would have been acceptable, maybe even wise. It’s not disagreement that’s the problem; it’s opaqueness and secrecy. In fact, I think it would have been reassuring to watch the testimonies of officials and experts on, let’s say, national television — held in a controlled, but uncensored atmosphere. It would have certainly been a whole lot more comforting than watching the same still images of a faintly smiling Ajmal Kasab embracing his AK-47.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV.


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