26/11: The day terror hit us
Exactly thirteen years ago on the evening of November 26, 2008, a group of 10 Pakistan-trained terrorists landed near a colony of fisherfolk at Cuffe Parade on Mumbai’s southern coast.
Armed with automatic machine guns and grenades, they attacked, with military precision, multiple carefully-selected buildings in south Mumbai: A crowded Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus railway station and the nearby Cama and Albless Hospital; two five-star hotel complexes – the Taj Palace at Colaba and the Trident-Oberoi at Nariman Point; Leopold Café, a popular restaurant in Colaba; and Chabad House, a Jewish synagogue, also in Colaba.
The siege of Mumbai that started on November 26 ended three days later. By then, the terrorists had killed 166 persons and injured 238. Security personnel led by National Security Guard (NSG) commandos countered the attack and killed eight terrorists while one was killed by Mumbai police. The tenth terrorist, 25-year-old Ajmal Amir Kasab was caught alive after Tukaram Omble, an assistant sub-inspector, charged at him with just a lathi despite being shot five times and held onto to the terrorist’s weapon, allowing his colleagues to capture him. Omble died in the process, but Kasab was captured, tried and sentenced to death by a Mumbai court.
The incident shook the nation and the rest of the world. There was widespread anger against the governments in the state and at the Centre for their failure to prevent such an attack as well as their inadequate, scattered response to it.
Terror attacks were not new for Mumbai. India’s financial capital was struck by another coordinated terror attack on March 12, 1993, when the city was rocked by 12 serial bomb explosions, killing 257 and injuring 1400. In 2006, the city’s famed local train network was attacked with bombs exploding in seven suburban trains, killing 209 and injuring 700.
However, the 2008 attack was different. For the first time in India’s financial capital, terrorists barged into public places and opened fire, killing innocent people. It was unprecedented. With widespread anger among the people who were scared and felt helpless, the political fallout was inevitable. And quick.
On November 30, then Union home minister Shivraj Patil resigned, accepting moral responsibility for Central government’s failure to prevent the terror attack due to an intelligence failure and also the failure to effectively counter the terrorists. It was alleged that the delay in National Security Guard (NSG) commandos reaching Mumbai led to more deaths. The next day, state home minister R R Patil, whose department was directly responsible for the city’s and the state’s security and law enforcement – had to resign. The public anger did not die down. Chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh had to step down on December 5.
A minister in the then Deshmukh cabinet said, “It was a military-like operation by the terrorists. Intelligence agencies were unable to get much information beforehand. There were intelligence inputs that an attack was likely, but specific details were not forthcoming. But then, one cannot deny the fact that a city that had seen deadly terror attacks since 1993 was just not prepared for this kind of attack.”
He added, “Since 1993, trains or train stations as well as five-star hotels were targeted but no system was in place to prevent another terror attack at these places. This was evident during the 26/11 attack. The public’s anger was not surprising at all. It had an everlasting impact on the state; politicians had no option but to give top priority to security.”
Expectedly, 26/11 significantly influenced the way the government and the parties in power reacted to terror activity.
On December 8, Ashok Chavan, a senior Congress leader, took over as chief minister while Jayant Patil of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) became home minister. At the Centre, Congress leader P Chidambaram took over as Union home minister.
On December 30, Chavan appointed a two-member inquiry commission under former Union home secretary Ram Pradhan to probe the lapses in preventing as well as handling the terror attack, and also to recommend steps to be taken to avoid a repeat of 26/11. The Pradhan Committee submitted its report in April 2009. The government adopted most of its recommendations.
“Security became a priority and politicians (in power) understood it. Immediately after the incident and later after Ram Pradhan led committee submitted its report, several decisions were taken to restructure the police force. From a force than maintained law and order, it was made a security focused force,” said Chandra Iyengar, a retired Indian Administration Service (IAS) officer who took over as state home secretary in the aftermath of 26/11.
“We spent significant funds on upgrading the intelligence infrastructure. It was also decided to install a CCTV network across the city. Even private establishments were told to set up surveillance cameras in their premises. We also started focusing on coastline,” she said. The state government created Force One, its own elite commando unit similar to the NSG.
Iyengar said that in the aftermath of the dastardly attack, the government wanted to ensure that “we didn’t become a frightened society.” She said, “We wanted to ensure Mumbai remained Mumbai and hence avoided clamping down on public activities. Instead, we stressed on analysing each and every intelligence input. A statewide anti-terrorism squad was formed to deal with terror threats.”
A senior home official in the current administration said security measures have continued to remain a top priority of successive governments, even if parties in power kept changing since 2009. For instance, Devendra Fadnavis who headed the BJP-Shiv Sena government from 2014 to 2019 ensured that the city’s CCTV network project became fully operational during his tenure. The system that has been set up to gather intelligence and analyse any terror threat continues to function. “For us, the terror attack anniversary doesn’t mean much since it is a continuous process. It is an everyday job for the state’s security apparatus,” the official said.
Political analyst Hemant Desai said political parties realised that they could not take chances when it came to security. “Security and anti-terror measures are now on the agenda of every prominent political party. Of course, there were controversies. Decisions taken regarding the purchase of bulletproof vests for the city police, setting up CCTV network and even the quality of certain equipment bought for marine police faced scrutiny. However, by and large, the task of constantly updating the security infrastructure is taken seriously by politicians. Will it remain so? Well, that remains to be seen,” he said.
Though there were angry reactions, the ruling Congress-NCP combine returned to power in the assembly elections held next year in 2009. Desai said, “Ruling parties managed to deflect the criticism by quickly removing the home ministers and chief ministers to show that those who erred were being held accountable. The steps taken by them to upgrade security infrastructure probably convinced people that efforts were being taken to prevent a repeat of 26/11. Besides, a better performance of the UPA government on the economic front restored some goodwill among the public, and the mood of the electorate was not hostile to the ruling combine.”
The city has not witnessed any major terror attack in the 13 years since 26/11. “One might say we are lucky but if we see from the governance angle, it is also outcome of the effort of both Central and state security and intelligence agencies,” added the above-mentioned home official.
But can we truly say our government and its agencies have learned the lesson? “Let’s hope so,” remarked Desai.