P Chidambaram took over the sensitive home ministry in the aftermath of the November 26, 2008, terror attacks in Mumbai.(Samir Jana/HT Photo)
P Chidambaram took over the sensitive home ministry in the aftermath of the November 26, 2008, terror attacks in Mumbai.(Samir Jana/HT Photo)

‘India does not have the capability to pick out Hafiz Saeed’: P Chidambaram

P Chidambaram took over the sensitive home ministry days after the November 26, 2008 attacks in Mumbai when 10 terrorists made their way to India’s financial capital via the sea route and held the city under siege for 72 hours.
By Harinder Baweja | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON NOV 22, 2018 03:47 PM IST

On November 26, 2008, 10 terrorists made their way to India’s financial capital via the sea route and held Mumbai under siege for 72 hours, killing 166 people at prime locations. P Chidambaram took over the sensitive home ministry days after the audacious attacks. The ministry was demoralised and the attacks exposed many chinks in the line of command, he tells Harinder Baweja. Excerpts from the interview:

You took charge of the home ministry soon after the audacious Mumbai attacks. What shape was the ministry, key to internal security, in?

I took charge on December 1 and my immediate tasks were to review the preparedness of the country to such outrageous assaults mounted by a neighbouring country. I needed to assure the people of Mumbai and India that more effective steps will be taken to forestall such attacks and to make sure that if such attacks do take place, to repulse them and save human lives. It was also important to review the laws pertaining to terror attacks and make suitable amendments. The ministry was quite demoralised. The 26/11 attacks exposed many chinks in the line of command. The most important gap I found was the response time of security forces and the civilian government was tardy and inadequate.

Political heads rolled in Maharashtra and at the Centre. Why were the bureaucrats spared especially when there was specific intelligence pointing to the fact that the terrorists would take the sea route? The name of Mumbai’s iconic Taj Hotel also featured in several intelligence intercepts

If responsibility has to be fixed on civil servants, it has to be fixed at the very top. The then home secretary was retiring in about a month, as was the Director, Intelligence Bureau. I asked myself what I needed to do about them and then also told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that I need continuity to get a grip of the situation. I decided to use their knowledge instead of suspending them. Both retired within two months.

Given the specific nature of the intelligence, could the Mumbai attacks have been stalled?

If an organisation like the Multi Agency Centre (which collates intelligence from all agencies) had been there, there was a good chance that the attacks could have been forestalled. The complete lack of sharing of intelligence between various organisations was a big problem. The army, navy and other agencies were not sharing their inputs with each other.

But India continues to remain vulnerable…

We are not as vulnerable as we were in 2008. There were attacks in Pune, Mumbai and the Delhi High Court after 26/11 but none could be traced to any source outside India. What’s happening more recently are attacks on military installations, mounted by groups located across the border.

Ten years after 26/11, the victims and their families have still not got justice despite concrete evidence that the attacks were planned and mounted out of Pakistan.

Ajmal Kasab was hanged and Pakistan was completely exposed. Pakistan has not denied that their citizens were behind the attacks. Yes, they have not convicted the terrorists they arrested. We, however, proved to the world that the attacks were planned, financed and mounted from Pakistan.

India opted for a diplomatic approach rather than a military response. Was a military option considered?

The military option was considered but was discarded as not likely to yield any tangible results. Short of going to war, we could’ve launched a cross border attack. A cross border strike was taken post 26/11. That was a deterrent. Pakistan did not launch an attack on Indian soil after that, at least till the UPA was in government.

Ajmal Kasab and Pakistan-born American terrorist, David Coleman Headley gave incriminating testimonies against Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed and the Pakistani intelligence agency, ISI. Why did you not push for Headley’s extradition?

Headley was a double agent. We ensured that he was punished. The US would not go beyond that because it would have exposed other agencies. We put relentless pressure on the US to ensure that he is punished even though there was tremendous pressure on them from within their own agencies which were using Headley as an agent.

A trial has been underway in Pakistan for 10 years now. The case just seems to be dragging. Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, the main accused, is out on bail. Isn’t the trial just a sham?

Pakistan is not a country governed by the rule of law as we know it. I do not expect anything to come out of the trial. Every player in Pakistan is only interested in not punishing the conspirators.

The Lashkar and its front, the Jamaat-ud-Dawah is no longer on the list of banned organisations. Hafiz Saeed is a free man and still gives speeches threatening India…

There are multiple power centres in Pakistan and they include the civilian government, the army, and terror organisations like the JuD and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. According to me, they share power and sometimes one defers to the other but essentially all three act in common.

Can Hafiz Saeed be picked out like the US did Osama bin Laden?

Soon after the Mumbai attacks, Hafiz Saeed was in a safe house in Karachi. He now roams around freely but we don’t have the capability of targeting him in a raid like the one the Americans undertook. We didn’t have the capability then (in 2008) and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if we have it now. If we had tried, we would’ve failed and that would have been a bigger blow. We conveyed diplomatically, in no uncertain terms, that any Mumbai-like repetition would invite retaliation and that message was strongly conveyed to Pakistan.

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