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Smoke and mirrors

We need to know what happened in the 26/11 attack. The UPA must set up a panel to uncover the truth, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Feb 05, 2010 21:33 IST

Will we ever know the truth about 26/11? Were there only ten terrorists who laid siege to the self-respect of a nation? When Israel opened a line of negotiation with the terrorists at Nariman House, how did the Centre respond? During the strikes, the Maharashtra DGP A.N. Roy publicly rubbished speculation that a line of communication could be opened with the attackers. But the intercepted tapes indicate that there were several openings to use negotiating skills at least to buy time — if not wear down the gunmen. And on these tapes you can hear the Israeli negotiator from his embassy in Washington imploring the terrorists to “give us two hours” in order for the Indian ambassador to get in touch with “the government in Delhi.”

It may well have been a deliberate strategy aimed at securing the safety of the hostages, rather than cede any demands. But a year later don’t we as a citizenry have the right to know what happened and how our government responded? I remember meeting a senior diplomat outside the Trident hotel who said his country had been told that negotiating with the terrorists to establish what they were seeking had not been ruled out. Later, Congress leader Digvijay Singh confirmed that the terrorists had made specific demands that were rejected. But his version was at variance with the official line that was being doled out.

Either way, why must there be so much distortion and opaqueness about what transpired during those 60 hours? Why must the truth be mired in the sarkari culture of denials, obfuscations and secrecy? The most recent debate around whether there was an Indian handler among those guiding the terrorists is emblematic about how little we know about what really went on. It was dogged reporting and careful analysis of the terror tapes that led journalists to zero in on the one man who was using distinct Hindi words that could only have been picked up in India. The initial bureaucratic explanation for this was that it was a deliberate smokescreen to mislead investigators. This was, of course, entirely dubious reasoning. Why would a Lashkar operative risk jeopardising a war-like operation by using words that the terrorists on the ground have a problem understanding? Would he really say “udaharan” that he then has to translate to “example” or use words like “yuvak” which he then hastily explains as “naujawan” — just to confuse the Indians? The gaps in communication are evidently natural and not part of some design as was initially sought to be suggested.

Now, finally, the home minister has spoken candidly about how it is possible that this handler could be Indian or someone who spent time in India and returned to Pakistan. But why must we be so defensive at the thought of confronting the truth? Why does the mere mention of an “Indian” link send us into a paroxysm of aggressive spluttering and muttering? I was surprised to hear the former police commissioner of Mumbai, M.N. Singh, argue on my television show that he understood the cageyness of the government on this score. It’s a matter of national interest, he said, and one that is extremely sensitive. But shouldn’t we have more confidence in ourselves than to worry that an isolated Indian terrorist is some sort of comment on our secularism or on our country’s Muslim community. The fact that nine bodies of the gunmen still lie unclaimed and unburied even a year after 26/11 is a bigger statement than the presence of one Abu Jindal in the Lashkar control room.

The mere mention of “local support” also triggers a similar defensiveness. When then Police Commissioner Hasan Gafoor went on record to say that Indian nationals were among the 16 men wanted by the police force for their role in 26/11, he was made to retract his statement within hours. But the former head of the National Security Guard, J.K. Dutt, who led the charge of the commandos, told me that the level of detail available with the terrorists made him believe that they could have had local backers. Two things stood out for him in particular. He said the terrorists knew the geography of the Taj hotel so well that they only stormed those rooms with multiple entries and exits to make it easier for them to operate. And then there was the curious case of their familiarity with the crowded bylanes around Nariman House, lanes in which Dutt argued anyone could get lost, even if they had been there before.

It’s always possible that the familiarity was based on information provided by David Headley, as it now transpires. But again — why must we hide behind speculation and guesswork?

This past week as I watched Tony Blair testify before a commission on his decision to take Britain to war in Iraq, I wondered when India may embrace that level of transparency. Home Minister P. Chidambaram has been a trailblazer in many ways, not just because he has energised a laggard ministry, but also for his ability to think aloud and openly on what the new security architecture may look like. The shame of 26/11 may belong to his predecessor, but going forward, it’s important that he settles the past. What stops him from creating a 26/11 commission along the lines of the 9/11 commission in America? If everyone from the American Secretary of State to the national security advisory could testify there in the full gaze of the public eye, why can’t our officials, politicians and policemen account honestly for those three days? After all, if the lessons of 26/11 are to be learnt and taught, one must first know what the unvarnished facts were. Surely, the truth doesn’t have to terrorise us?

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

The views expressed by the author are personal