Somber reflections at a shocking time – the Mumbai terrorist attacks

Thanks to the Blackberry, reality intrudes even when you’re in the middle of San Diego Zoo with your kids, watching the pandas be cute. It is a testimony to the desensitization on (ex)Mumbaikars that my first reaction was “Oh, another bomb blast?” I had been in the thick of things in 1993, racing home in a taxi after the stock exchange explosion, unaware that many other bombs had gone off in various parts of the city. It was a time before the 24-hour news cycle.

15 years later we returned to the hotel to find non-stop coverage from CNN and the laptop spewing out news from NDTV, but there were still more questions than answers. It has been almost 48 hours since the first attack and I suspect that Indians the world over have become forensic scientists for the last two days, poring over the bits of information and piecing together what really happened from blogs, eyewitness accounts and pure conjecture, while the networks stay mesmerized by the “movie-like” picture of commandos descending on Mumbai rooftops.

It is a failure of information at a vulnerable time for the country, and it is failure of information of another sort that brought India to its knees on Wednesday night. For all that criticism that has been levelled at the Indian police and armed forces for their delayed response, getting their top commanders killed and the long drawn out sieges at Mumbai landmarks, there is not much any defenders can do against an attack with AK-47s and grenades without incurring loss of life and limb.

The best defense against attacks like this is preventing them before they happen and it is surprising and dismaying that such a large body of terrorists were able to plan a meticulous plan with redundancies built into it without so much as a whisper of it being known to Indian intelligence. One report I heard out of the many disjointed ones suggested that security had actually been downgraded at the Taj a couple of weeks ago. Take it with a pinch of salt, but it certainly seems like nobody had a clue.

Unfortunately, this sad episode will only renew demands for reinstallation of POTA and crackdown on certain communities. An angry Indian even said, “George Bush may have been a rotten President but at least you didn’t have another terrorist attack since 9/11.” I put it down to shock, since I hope nobody would like to create an Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo in India, but it is a sentiment I suspect many Indians have thought or voiced in the last two days. It seems almost inevitable that the Congress will lose the upcoming elections and the forces of Hindu fundamentalism will be resurgent. Xenophobic goons like Raj Thackeray will be emboldened to single out foreigners( I cut a broad swathe with that term) without fear of punishment.I shudder to think of the long term implications of these events.

What is really needed, IMHO, is not a emotion-driven vendetta ( though with Narendra Modi prowling around Mumbai, I have my fears) but a cleansing of the police and counter-terrorism organisations. Hire the best people and give them a great deal of autonomy. Our space program has been successful because of those reasons and there is no reason why our intelligence and counterterrorism departments couldn’t be as well once the pernicious influence of politics is removed. I know from firsthand knowledge that there are some really talented people in the IPS – they work under tremendous constraints and would be much more effective if given the freedom to use thir talents without interference.

“This is not a time for appeasement,” you say. Certainly in the wake of these attacks there are questions about why the convicted criminals of previous attacks are still in jail despite their death sentence – there is a thirst for blood in the Indian populace that has not been allowed to die down because of lack of closure. But there is also a  danger of overreaction. Economic prosperity in India has not been well distributed and race relations have always been a tinderbox, only waiting for an excuse to set them off. I do  not mean in any way to minimize the horror and suffering of Mumbai, but the answer is not a witch hunt. Terrorism is less a war than a crime and sovereign nations like Pakistan that breed terrorism without sanctioning it have to be coopted to defeat this Hydra.

Meanwhile here are my questions and observations about the unfolding events –

– It is commendable that the Indian authorities have decided that they will not negotiate with terrorists; I wonder if the people held as hostages feel the same way. The numbers seems to be confusing – one report put the number of hostages at 200 yet only 30-35 had been rescued. The mind keeps skittering away from the conclusion that those numbers draw.

– Why were senior members of the Mumbai anti-terrorism units in the line of fire? One theory suggests that they were specifically targeted but it has not been supported by any real news. Yet.

– News networks have been pathetic at bringing the big picture. Tabloidism has pervaded every piece of visual journalism. For several minutes last night, I watched the drama unfold at Nariman House but not one time did any of the channels give us an update of what was happening elsewhere. There were also reports on a gun battle at the Ramada – completely ignored by the networks. Every channel keeps reporting 10 places targeted but none gives a list.  I expect eventually print media will put together a comprehensive report with time lines. The shallowness of broadcast media has been blindingly exposed.

– Expect a much more furious response to these attacks as opposed to previous bomb blasts. For one, it has exposed how vulnerable our cities are to armed conflicts. For another, this time the terrorists targeted rich people.

– I think the term “Deccan Mujahiddeen” was made up 5 minutes before the terrorists landed. This well planned attack cannot be the work of a fledgling organization – or this says something dreadful about the competence of Indian counter-terrorism.

– Expect life to get a whole lot more complicated and uncomfortable if you live in , work in or visit Mumbai. What needs to be done is to institute a system of identification for Indians to allow easy travel across the country. But this is such a daunting task and so prone to corruption and hacking that the political will will quickly evaporate. Instead, the knee-jerk response will be to install metal detectors everywhere. Airport security will increase exponentially. The stable door will be triple-bolted and locked.

My thoughts and prayers are with Mumbai at this dreadful time. It has risen like a phoenix from the ashes several times and I have no doubt it will do so again. I just hope the collateral damage is minimal.

Basab has his take on the attacks here.

4 thoughts on “Somber reflections at a shocking time – the Mumbai terrorist attacks

  1. Basab

    There are many things that the man in the street will need to get used to. More security, of course, but also seemingly trivial but important things like when the police asks them to clear the area, they can’t be hanging around getting underfoot of the police and also endangering themselves. When bad stuff is happening let the security forces do their jobs.

    Here’s a video where hard-to-control media meets hard-to-comprehend angry young man.


  2. Geeta Padmanabhan

    Can’t help thinking: We have satellite surveillance, high-tech tracking gadgets, and Google Earth. We gave Sri Lanka Radars. But we overlooked something so ancient and low tech like the enemy coming in boats to attack. And to think they hijacked a ship to row themselves in. It’s like looking out the window through a telescope while the cat quietly moves between your legs and heads for the kitchen.


  3. Srini

    Fingers keep pointing to the politicians and theirs, in turn, point to the ‘foreigners’. I’d like to see corporate India and its well touted captains come up with the plan, the money and the action needed to shore up the security systems and the infrastructure to support it. If the hotel tycoons got a wake-up call here, I sure hope, so did the rest of the business leaders. Sathyam’s founder has volunteered time and money to build out India’s Emergency Medical infrastructure. It’s time to take a page from his book and do something here.


  4. Geeta Padmanabhan

    A student wrote this and wants me to spread the word: “Every gun shot that rang in Mumbai must remind us that we don’t have much time to play our role in securing our nation. This is the heavy price we have paid for unity, to bring the throes of patriotism to every Indian street and citizen. Confident – as people of Republic India, we will emerge stronger than we are, both economically and politically, and continue our march with or without our leaders. JAIHIND. Yours, Seshasayee Gopi.



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