Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The response betrayed unpreparedness. India went to war without a clear chain of command. This manifest inadequacy was apparent in respect of operational command (including intelligence collation, analysis and dissemination), information flows and public relations.

Bloody Lessons From Mumbai

The heroism must be applauded. But anti-terror operations need a clear chain of command, controlled perimeters, better communication, and a coherent public face.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 1 December, 2008

If the purpose was to bring India to its knees in any sense, the dastardly attack on Mumbai failed. The famous landmarks destroyed will rise from the ashes and tourists and investments will return. There are, however, painful lessons to be learnt. One salutes the courage and steadfastness in duty of those, including hotel staff that took on the terrorists and gave up or risked their lives and sustained grievous injuries in the process. But who was in charge?

Too many voices spoke; some out of turn - the NSG, Army, Navy, Maharashtra ATS and the Union Home Ministry. Thus the Taj and Nariman House were "cleared" more than once. The media by and large reined itself in as the operation unfolded, responding to advisories. No drill had been laid down. It was a matter of learning and improvising on the job. Yet, despite some badgering of rescued hotel guests and men on duty, tribute must be paid to many young television teams and anchors for their tireless round-the-clock coverage. Curious bystanders crowded around the periphery to watch "the show" and were only pushed back when limited "curfew zones" were announced to permit unhampered operations and ensure safety.

At least one bystander was injured by shrapnel. When the Nariman House encounter was prematurely declared "over", jubilant mobs rushed on to the street, dancing and shouting jais. They had to be pushed back later, reportedly with a mild lathi charge. This was dangerous exuberance as any terrorist still in the building or on the street could easily have thrown a grenade, causing further mayhem and panic. The penumbra of the operational zone was not secured.

It is now known that there were intelligence warnings of a maritime attack. Coastal surveillance and defences had long been prioritised but tardily implemented. Some uniformed men were seen clutching "heritage" .303 rifles and a shortage of bullet poof vests, helmets and night vision goggles was evident. A jawan said that they had received survival training to keep going without food or sleep for seven days. But the terrorists came well supplied with dry fruit to keep going. Why was the overall provisioning inadequate? Budgetary shortfalls? Red tape in securing sanctions? Procurement hassles? Corruption?  Familiar turf battles? A lack of Centre-State coordination and cooperation based on mistaken "federal" premises? The NSG lacked a building/floor plan of the Taj. Is this not (or should it not be) mandatory for all public and institutional buildings?

Beyond the heroism, there was an air of amateurishness about the operation. The attack on Mumbai was certainly one of the most brutal and ferocious launched anywhere, combining bomb blasts, hostage-taking, fedayeen/suicide tactics and diversionary side shows. But the response betrayed unpreparedness. India went to war without a clear chain of command. This manifest inadequacy was apparent in respect of operational command (including intelligence collation, analysis and dissemination), information flows and public relations.

The task of distilling lessons from botched intelligence and operations in Mumbai and other recent terror attacks (in India and abroad) should be delegated to a Kargil Review Committee-type of body with a mandate to access all sources and records and report within three months. This must then be immediately processed by an empowered Group of Ministers and implemented without the endless, empty babble that characterises so much of Indian governance and the idiocy of the coalition/federal blackmail that passes for politics. A crack of the whip at the top will find backing from a resolute and aroused national opinion. The outcome could be a structure and doctrine of homeland security with appropriate laws, federal powers, personnel, training and wherewithal under a revamped national security system.

Direction, coordination and accountability are lacking. Shivraj Patil, Vilasrao Deshmukh and R.R. Patil have gone unsung but this is only a beginning. Low politics has impeded police and intelligence reforms and anti-corruption measures for years on frivolous grounds. And Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi's crude comment about "lipstick and necktie, westernized Indians" demeaning politicians and democracy by holding candlelight vigils demanding  accountability for the Mumbai attack betrays a terrible sickness.

In 2002, this writer was asked by the then Defence-cum-External Affairs Minister to look at country's defence information system that was clearly inadequate or non-functional. His report "Information as Defence" was adopted by all concerned and then lost to petty turf battles with the I&B Ministry and a change of guard. The larger implications of the communications and information revolution in a globalised, instant world is still improperly understood by the Government. The Mumbai crisis had no spokesman, no ground rules or guidance for information flows. This is not to seek "embedded journalism" but for a well rounded information policy that can speak to hearts and minds.

Wars today are no longer fought on distant battlefronts.  Modern communications, television, the computer, satellite imagery and cell phone, have brought war and terror to every doorstep. Public opinion matters. Yet India's leaders have been amazingly shy of reaching out through broadcasts that can inform, mobilize and guide the nation. Did Maharashtra's Chief Minister or Mumbai's mayor broadcast to Mumbaikars to tell them what was happening, urge them to remain calm and not listen to rumours, and appeal for blood? Were public address systems employed to direct people and motorists to avoid certain no-go zones? The Prime Minister's broadcast was too pithy and did not reach out to the people of India or to the world. Such a broadcast is even now overdue.

And what shall one say of our jabbering, self-serving political class that could not refrain from cheap politicking. The Minister of Stat for Home Affairs, Jaiswal was reported by the Asian Age (Delhi edition) under banner headlines on November 29 as hinting that a Hindu conspiracy could not be ruled out for the Mumbai terror attack. Either he was grossly misquoted or the Asian Age and its sources were mischievously wrong. Not to be outdone, after a day's truce, the BJP used the occasion to push its electoral advertising against the Congress. And Narendra Modi, who had joined the loud Hindutva chorus denouncing Hemant Karkare, the late Maharashtra ATS chief, until November 26 for leading an alleged anti-Hindu conspiracy in pursing the Malegaon blasts, had the gall to visit the home of this fallen hero uninvited and offer to "assist" the family, even as he announced Rs 1 crore as compensation for the 14 ATS men who died defending Mumbai.

Finally, neither anger nor bravado should derail a firm but reasoned diplomatic and public response to the attack on India. Many leads point to Pakistani complicity. But there is need to differentiate between the Pakistani establishment and rogue elements within it and outside. Pakistani jehadi elements in collaboration with LeT and Al-Qaeda may have wanted to punish India for "interfering" in Afghanistan and consorting with America and Israel, while simultaneously provoking an Indo-Pakistan confrontation to draw away Pakistani military forces from the tribal territories and other Talibanised zones to the Indian border so that pressure on them is relieved.

President Zardari has promised all cooperation, pleading that Pakistan too is a victim of the same terror. This may be true but Islamabad must act demonstrably and effectively against jehadi elements and their training camps, sanctuaries and hate-seminaries like Mudrike near Lahore as well as specific ideologues and underworld dons who are known to be operating against India with impunity from Pakistani soil. Being in eternal denial will not help. International pressure must be relentlessly brought to bear on Islamabad to live up to its solemn commitments. India for its part has to stop being a soft state.

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