Hari Jaisingh
Hari Jaisingh

Mumbai Terror attack: Lessons learnt, and not yet learnt!

Hari Jaisingh

Have the Indian authorities learnt lessons from the 26/11 Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist strike on Mumbai on 26, 2008 which killed 166 persons and injured over 600. The dead included security personnel and 28 foreign nationals from 10 countries. This was a dastardly act of Pakistan-based terrorists – a fact accepted even by the authorities in Islamabad. It is a different matter the army-controlled Pak establishment has not acted against what it calls “non-state actors”. The wealth of evidence however, suggests active Pak involvement in the gruesome attack in which helpless civilians were gunned down by well-equipped terrorists over three days in the glare of national and global television.

It was quite a chilling spectacle that exposed India’s commercial capital’s weak police system. Mumbai police personnel were not well-trained in counter-terrorism drill. Even the state’s anti-terrorism unit failed to strike because of shortages of ammunition. The police’s command and control system collapsed in the absence of proper intelligence inputs.

It is also a well-known fact, as reported, “even the country’s elite National Security Guards botched the siege of the Taj Hotel – setting alight rooms to flush out terrorists”.

Some of these harsh facts prompt me to raise certain crucial safety questions:

One, 10 years after 26/11, are our sea routes safer today?

Two, are coastal security gaps plugged?

Three, how about our overall national security apparatus? Have all the gaps in our national security infrastructure been plugged?

Four, how is our coordinated functioning of various external, domestic and state/city level agencies? It also must not be forgotten that Mumbai attacks took place mainly because of “slim non-actionable intelligence inputs” to the Navy. What could be more tragic than the fact that one small vessel carrying arms, ammunition and terrorists was able to enter the shores of Mumbai unnoticed and undetected?

There is no denying the fact a number of measures have been taken to make coastal security network full proof. Still, we cannot be sure whether our politico-bureaucratic “lethargic strategic culture” has been overcome by now. I keep my fingers crossed.

There is of course, no dearth of politicians’ rhetoric. Nor does Mumbai lack in show business of “oneness and unity” as we saw at the glittering anniversary event at Gateway of India with the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in front on November 26, 2018 – 10 years after the horrific attack on India’s swinging city.

At Bhilwara in poll-bound Rajasthan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a tough message to Pakistan, saying “India will not forget 26/11 and that “we are looking for an opportunity” to bring its perpetrators to justice.

Well, the people of this country have been waiting not for a tough rhetoric, but a solid action against terrorists. I know for certain that Islamabad does not care for our warning signals in which our leaders specialize. I am not sure how bilateral ties would shape in Imran Khan’s Pakistan following the opening of a pilgrim corridor to Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur across the border amidst multi-dimensional pro-Pak tantrums by Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu!

In Mumbai, it was really a spectacular function of strength on November 26, from actor Amitabh Bachchan to lyricist Javed Akhtar, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to union minister Piyush Goyal. They all underlined that vigilance matters in the fight against terrorism, and rightly so.

But, more than emotional responses, we need to have the requisite political will to deal with national crises. Take, for instance, Alexander’s invasion. The lesson was sharp and clear: we failed simply because we tend to ignore lessons from history. Indeed, foreign strikes and invasions have succeeded not because of their “military skills” but because of our lopsided characteristic of not learning right lessons in unity to stand up to the “invaders”.

On paper, everything looks fine.

First, the National Investigation was created to probe terrorism matters.

Second, four National Security Guard (NSG) hubs were set up for rapid response system to terrorist attacks.

Three, an amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was enacted to provide for the arrest and interrogation of terrorist suspects.

Four, the Multi Agency Centre (MAC), an intelligence agency clearing house, was set in motion. Its subsidiary MACs at state levels were also set up to do their assigned jobs.

India has surely learned some “valuable lessons” from Pak-sponsored 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai. However, the country has still a long way to go to deal with future threats from the terrorist groups operating freely on the other side of the border. The problem here is not of “non-state actors”, but the “Pak military- cum- terrorism axis” as seen in Jammu-Kashmir and beyond.

Then, we have to face “X factor” of China’s intentions and designs on India’s border areas. I never find myself comfortable with the Narendra Modi’s China policy. What is regrettable is everything seems to be shrouded in secrecy amidst big smiles of President Xi and Prime Minister Modi. The moot point is: can we neutralise the China factor vis-à-vis Pakistan? I doubt it. The South Block needs to explore new policy and strategic options to deal with the Islamabad-Beijing axis.

Unfortunately, India’s Foreign Policy suffers from adhocism as it gives the impression, rightly or wrongly, that everything in the corridors of power runs on the Prime Minister’s whims and fancies. This calls for deeper introspection by policy makers and experts. There can be no half-way make-shift houses in New Delhi’s policies and strategies.

Operationally speaking, India’s security system is still full of holes.

First, counter-terrorism (CT) operation suffers from poor police system. As an expert put it, “getting largely land oriented policing system to think in maritime fashion has not been easy”.

Second, major gaps exist in security relating to ports and harbours.

Three, we are still to provide Automatic Identification Systems for all the fishing vessels in Indian waters.

Four, there has to be better coordination among all related agencies in the counter-terrorism operation. This flaw became apparent during the Pathankot attack.

Five, at the national level, we are yet to evolve a common political consensus on Terrorism Take, for instance, two veteran politicians, Mamata Banerjee and Chandrababu Naidu, have said publicly that they will not allow the CBI to investigate cases in the states ruled by them. This goes against the spirit of federalism. Of course, the CBI has the dubious reputation of being “caged parrot”. Even the NIA and other agencies are falling in the same trap of politicized “caged parrot” of the ruling Sangh Parivar. This is not acceptable. No wonder, there is little coordination among various investigative agencies. This would destroy the very purpose of dealing with the problem of terrorism. What is equally shocking is lack of coordination between the National Security Guard and the Air Force’s Garud Commands. This is not a happy situation, Prime Minister Modi!