Mumbai: Before & After – 4

09 Dec


It is by now pretty common knowledge that a massive intelligence failure on the Indian side aided the attack on Mumbai. Members of the armed forces as well as top bureaucrats have chimed in; Shivraj Patil – our dandy Home Minister – resigned on ‘moral grounds’ which is apparently the latest euphemism for “suck at your job”; and even that inevitable fixture of the modern world viz. An Anonymous American Official has said that warnings were ignored.

Lost in the cacophony is one simple truth – the nature of terrorism is such that it will always be one step ahead.

Take the Mumbai siege for example: many people have pointed out that it’s almost unbelievable that 10 measly terrorists were able to hold off hundreds of trained commandos for 60 hours. What they fail to take into consideration is that the security forces were trying to save lives, rescue hostages, secure locations, manage crowds of curious/concerned citizens, deal with the media, carry out a joint operation with members of separate forces (the Navy, the Army and the Mumbai police) who seldom have occasion to come into contact with each other, and liaising with the government. The terrorists on the other hand had but one agenda – destroy everything in sight. They were lobbing grenades out of windows and off stairways, firing indiscriminately into crowds and had little expectation of getting out of the encounter alive. Guess who has the advantage here?

I’m not trying to be pessimistic but it’s rubbish to imagine that we’ll always be able to foil every terror plot ever hatched. Right now, conventional wisdom has it that this attack might have been averted if the Navy and the coastguard had paid proper attention to the intelligence handed them or if someone had bothered to pass along said information, depending on whose side of the story you’re listening to. But the fact is, the terrorists might have launched their attack from the shores of Pakistan but they came ashore by hijacking an Indian ship. Even if they had been stopped at sea, they would have had all the papers needed to pass inspection.

And let’s be honest, if they had been arrested somewhere near Porbandar and a newspaper item had appeared the next morning about a bunch of terrorists who had plans to storm Mumbai and shoot it up before blowing up the Taj – what would our reaction have been? We’d either have dismissed it and moved on to more “interesting” things or we’d have laughed it off because seriously, they wanted to do what? Where? What do these silly terrorists think this is? A Bollywood movie? Things like that would never happen in a million years! And if by some chance they made it all the way to Mumbai, they’d get shut down so fast…

Hubris, delusion, denial. This is why the Indian political class’ obsession with all things Pakistan has always put my teeth on edge. It’s one thing to be on our guard but our knee-jerk use of the Pakistan card meant that we could go on ignoring domestic issues regarding security. It’s true our neighborhood leaves a lot to be desired (isn’t it interesting that in all the anger towards Pakistan, hardly any mention has been made of Bangladesh?) but what’s the use of getting all hot under the collar about what your neighbor is up to when your house is falling down around your ears?

Since everyone these days has a list of things they wish the government would do, here’s mine.

1. Equipment – According to a 2007 Assocham report, India’s military is due to spend $30 billion over the next 5 years in imports alone. We’re buying all kinds of stuff from all over the world and I don’t begrudge any branch of the armed forces those upgrades. We all remember Kargil – or at least, we should.

But what about the Indian policeman? Forget terrorists, the Indian  crime world has more sophisticated weaponry than the Indian police. Ashok Kamte, Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salaskar, Shashank Shinde, Praksh More, Bapusaheb Durugade, Tukaram Omble, Balasaheb Bhosale, Arun Chitte, Jaywant Patil, Yogesh Patil, Ambadas Pawar, M.C. Chowdhary and Mukesh Jadhav were at risk on the streets of Mumbai doing their job everyday, it was just their fate that they fell to trained terrorists.

Surely the Indian government can spare a couple of billion dollars to buy our policemen better equipment? Aren’t we some kind of economic success story now? Do ask our new Home Minister, P. Chidambaram. It’s my understanding that he knows about these things.

I’m sure the Americans and the Israelis and the French who’re selling us airplanes and tanks can scrounge up a few handguns and bullet proof vests to go with them. The kickbacks may not be as awesome – bulletproof vests are considerably cheaper than your standard fighter jet – but it might do wonders for the morale of our police force.

2. Training – All this equipment is of no use if we don’t know how to use them. If India can have joint military exercises with other nations, why not joint police exercises?

And by this I don’t mean classes on How to Fire Your Weapon although perhaps that will be useful too. But as millions of people move into urban areas all over the world, it’s becoming increasingly important for security forces the world over to understand urban warfare – what is it, how to combat it, who is at risk, how to defuse it, etc.

Another area where India would benefit from joint exercises is in the science of crime scene investigations. Anyone who saw footage of the earthmovers digging up graves in Noida after the serial killings knows that Indians might be major devotees of science in general but when it comes to things like gathering evidence and processing it, the Indian police lives in another century. I’m not sure exactly which, but it might be the 19th.

It’s why there’s always an air of skepticism about Indian prosecutions. How can you be really sure that this is the person who did this thing, you wonder. And when you combine this sloppiness with torture, a standard part of police interrogations that hardly anybody in India even seems to be bothered about anymore, it’s pretty much up in the air who or what you want to believe.

So many Indians object to us being called a third world country. You want to know what you must do to avoid being called a third world country? Stop acting like one.

Of course, thanks to President Bush, America’s hands are no longer clean in this matter so perhaps the FBI is looking to pick up a few pointers from us, but in an ideal world we’d at least be talking about effective interrogation techniques with other countries, given that so many of us are now (to use everybody’s favorite term) “in the same boat”.

3. Communication – Here’s Sitaram Yechury on why, all these years later, India has no federal security agency (emphasis added):

The government proposes to set up a federal investigation agency to deal with cases of terrorism and other pan-Indian crimes. This has so far not found favour with the states which legitimately fear that they will be kept out of sensitive security investigations. There has to be a co-ordinated mechanism to deal with terrorism but co-ordination needs to bring in the states.

Um, has anybody heard of this totally awesome new machine called the computer? You can do things like network and maintain databases on them which can be accessed from multiple locations by different people. It’s even possible to restrict access at different levels so that not everybody can read the same thing. I even heard a wild rumor about India being some kind of big cheese in this field. The government ought to look into it.

In all seriousness though, I don’t know if a federal agency will magically take care of everything that’s wrong. It seems to me that we want a federal agency for precisely one thing – so we all know who to look towards in times of crisis.

I don’t see why one of the million or so agencies already in existence can’t do the job, just more efficiently and with more powers. We need to simplify the hierarchy to let more information through – adding more layers sounds like a terrible idea to me. But maybe I’m missing something?

I’ve also heard talk about the government creating more bases for the NSG in other parts of the country so that response will be more speedy in the future. This is probably a good idea but given that the local police is always the first on scene, it might be a better idea to send delegations of local police for training with the commandos. In that way, we’re assured that there’s somebody on the ground in those first few crucial minutes who knows what is going on and what the incoming commandos are likely to require in terms of support.

4. Life – When I was a kid growing up in Delhi in the 1980s at the height of the twin threats of Sikh and Kashmiri militancy, there were certain things we were supposed to be on the lookout for: suspicious packages, ‘strange’ neighbors (the nice people who lived the next building over from one of our family friends turned out to be a notorious dacoit, his brother and his wife, all of whom had been on the run from the law for years), nervous drivers, etc. The police were doing their bit, of course, but these were things that made the citizen feel involved. It’s highly doubtful any of it actually ever worked, but it gave you a feeling that you knew what was going on and that you had a stake in it.

But these days people seem to want something altogether more draconian if Indian television is to be believed – no habeas corpus under certain laws! fingerprint citizens! relax gun permits! more executions! nuclear war! revolt by the armed forces!

I really wish these people would calm down. As John Oliver said on The Daily Show: “There have always been motherfuckers, there always will be motherfuckers, but what we can’t do is let them control our motherfucking lives. Fuck these fuckers.”

It sounds trite to say that the greatest revenge is to live well. But I remember back when the streets of New York were full of protesters marching against the then-upcoming Iraq War, I thought to myself: “Couldn’t take that away, could they?” Today as I watch the Indian media warmongering its fool head off, I look at the Mumbaikars coming together (like one of my favorites here) because their government can’t govern its way out of a paper bag, and get the same feeling.

[Previously: Pakistan, Indian Muslims, Politicans]


Posted by on December 9, 2008 in Life, Personal, Politics


12 responses to “Mumbai: Before & After – 4

  1. Amey

    December 9, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    states which legitimately fear that they will be kept out of sensitive security investigations.

    I don’t know about “legitimately” or otherwise, but the explanation I read had nothing to do with networking or anything technology-related. It seems the State governments of different parties than the Central Government are afraid to give up charge of investigations to central agencies (like CBI). They are supposedly afraid that this can be used politically to show them incompetent or out of loop.

  2. ravi nair

    December 9, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    1. Never show counter attacks on TV-terrorists handlers can send them info.
    2. Watching Pandu’s walking around with Lathis, makes us look incompetent.
    3. Someone lose those guns which most of them have now-they are vintage WW2 guns
    4. Have 1 CENTRAL agency and not many
    5. Have specialized forces to fight violent crime/terror etc placed all over the country
    6. Have the MOSSAD and CIA have permanent TUITION classes for our incompetent intelligence folks

    Wake me up when ALL of the above are done.

    Rip Van Winkel

  3. Hades

    December 10, 2008 at 3:01 am

    I will actually have to agree with Sitaram (and Amey) here. This is nothing to do with how to share the info, but whether the Centre will want to share it at all.

    As it is our federalism is quite week. If law and order is also taken away from the states, what will be left?

    This doesn’t mean that I oppose a FBI type organistaion but its powers will have to be defined very carefully.

  4. Prasanth

    December 10, 2008 at 4:21 am

    First of all, compliments for going about your analyses in such a systematic and engaged way. You are actually an odd one out. 🙂
    An aspect I would like to point out is how we respond to terror .We still seem to regard it as an oddity, something rare(at least judging by the rate of indignation of a lot of responses). The first step should be a recognition of the fact that terror is very difficult to prevent. At a connected level, there also has to be the recognition that terror is a weapon and a weapon like any other.
    The reason I say this is that some perspective needs to be brought back to the concept of fighting terror. The standard response to a terrorist attack is a huge lot of indignation in the immediate aftermath and then a lack of care. Unless we grow more sensitized to the prevalence of terror, combating it will only be a series of half steps.

  5. Amrita

    December 10, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Amey – ah, that’s what I suspected but I didn’t think any of them would actually come out in the open and admit it. So whatever we come up with will go the way of the CBI?

    Ravi – finally we find some things to agree upon! I actually think the equipment might come through sooner or later. It’s the one thing they can do and it has the promise of plentiful kickbacks in it. Win-win.

    Hades – lol, for a second I wondered who this reader Sitaram was! Yes, I’m a spaz. I think that’s a fair point but I don’t think this federal agency – or at least if they’re going after one modeled on the FBI – would have jurisdiction over all law and order situations in the states. As you say, there would have to be stringent guidelines involved in who gets to call who when and why.

    Prasanth – thank you, this is my way of trying to understand so it;s nice when other people can see stuff in it as well. And you’re right, this is neither new nor is it all that shocking except when it happens to people we care about. It’s been taking place in other parts of the country for years and by a variety of people at that without much comment. I’m interested in seeing how long people can maintain this sense of outrage and whether they’ll continue to try and make it count.

  6. naren

    December 10, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Hey, Amrita, that was masterfully written. Here’s a view that you might want to read

    R. Vaidyanathan is a professor of finance at IIM Bangalore. His view is that we don’t want a stable Pakistan because the army own’s its ass and if Pakistan is stable, it means the army is more powerful.

    He says we should wage economic war against them.

    Pit our products against theirs (basmati rice, e.g.), even subsidize them if required.

    Bluntly threaten any nation that supports it militarily with complete economic boycott. Germany for instance is planning to give Pakistan a huge arms package. Threaten to throw ALL German companies out. They need us more than we do. (I believe this).

    Bring about complete economic collapse by every mean possible, including spraying them with counterfeit currency (this sounds a little drastic, but then it forms core strategy for the ISI towards India)

    Drastic, but worth a dekko

  7. sachita

    December 11, 2008 at 1:01 am

    For the most part, if we actually follow the security measures we already have, we will be a lot more secure. I have seen so many security lapses at the airport compared to the rest of the world (includes taiwan, seoul, singapore airports)
    and wondered how we manged to escape air attacks. The lapse is in the attitude of the authorities not in the security arrangement in place.
    I agree with the equipment part, especially after reading about a policeman who had to hide behind a pillar because his gun was jammed and another police man because he didn’t have a gun in ht efirst place.
    I felt we are the ones who are sending our policemen in a suicidal mission and not the terrorist who seemed to well equipped by hte way.

    On the investigation part though, after reading Black Friday and Maximum city, we do seem to have strong indigenous ways that shows we are quite capable.

    Whatever it is, I do see if Britian and USA can prevent it, we should be able to prevent it, atleast not make it a monthly affair.

    This is something I feel strongly about, that we should tighten up our internal security before we go ahead and wage a war, because if we are going to wagea war against them, they are going to comeback to us in the same mode and we better be prepared internally as well.

  8. Mamma Mia! Me A Mamma?!?

    December 11, 2008 at 1:21 am

    What I love about your pieces is that they are always well-thought out and through. Not a word out of place, no OTT emtions and everything written with the steady voice of reason guiding your hand.

    Arnab Goswami should really invite you to be on his next political panel/debate…more people need to listen to your voice.

  9. M

    December 11, 2008 at 12:51 pm


    such *Sensible* suggestions… the 80s, didn’t India engage with Israel on terror-fighting tactics? Can’t we do that again?

    I’m a little wary of the tell-me-if-you-see-something-suspicious thing because it has the potential to become such a witchhunt, but it did work in the 80s…I remember the intense vigilance in Delhi at the time, even in obscure localities.


  10. Sanghamitra

    December 11, 2008 at 2:11 pm

  11. Amrita

    December 11, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Naren – the thought of economic sanctions hadn’t even entered my head! That’s pretty do-able! I don’t know if direct sanctions will work – I don’t have the figures but I don’t think India and Pakistan actually do much business. A fair amount but not as much as you’d expect two neighbors to do. But we could totally lean on third countries. esp in this market.
    The counterfeit currency is a real problem in India according to my dad and his friends in the export community. All along the coast there are stories about shipping containers that show up – with the full knowledge of the ports authorities and customs – containing bucketloads of fake cash. It sounds like one of those crazy rumors but so many different people from different areas have said it that I’m inclined to believe it.

    Sachita – that’s my feeling too re: following existent laws. About the investigation… I know they get the job done but they could do so much better and with so much more efficiency. I remember reading that there were only two labs in India that would do the DNA tests for the CBI when the Noida killings were reported and it just sounds so frickin backward! But it’s just part of the whole – the entire law and order system is broken and all I’ve really advocated above is putting on a new coat of paint and redecorating the place. the building is still a ramshackle mess.

    Mamma – awww, just as long you’re reading, I’m all good. thanks.

    M – for every step we take forward, we seem to take a step back. It’s like every time we meet a new threat we need to learn how to deal with it from scratch. Like we can never learn from our past experiences and mistakes.
    I know what you mean about it turning into a witchhunt but it seems like the least invasive option to me so far. And communities in India are anyway all up in eaxh other’s business, so why not make it work for us? 😀

    Sanghamitra – thanks for the link, look forward to reading it.

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