Saturday, November 29, 2008

Immediate Thoughts on Bombay

It is still too early to say anything meaningful about Bombay, while the bodies are still being counted, but here a few thoughts:

Someone held up this placard on NDTV today:

Mr. Terrorist I am alive. What can you do?
Mr. Politician I am alive despite of you
I am a Mumbaikar

Yes, there is a real, palpable anger in Bombay right now. And it is directed not just at the terrorists responsible for what happened but against politicians of all hues and the political system in general. The reaction of Bombayites and Indians all over the world is one of anger- but mostly directed against the political class. Farookh Sheikh (one of my favorite actors of the 70's and 80's and now a respected public commentator) pointed out the stark contrast between the sense of duty displayed by people like Taj GM Kang who continued to direct operations at Taj even though his wife and children had been killed by the terrorists on the one hand and the absolutely self-serving attitude of politicians on the scene.

There is much to be angry about. From politicians like Modi who tried to garner political points even as the operations were continuing, to the growing accusation that the NSG, who were thoroughly professional in their operations, were unsupported and tied up in protecting security for politicians - the disgust with the political system is apparent.

Why? Lets just take 2 examples:
This from the Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister R R Patel who spoke of the attacks (translated from Hindi) in the following way: "such small incidents keep happening everywhere. It could have been much worse so there was no intelligence failure"

What do you even say to that?

Narendra Modi (about whom the less one can say the better) standing in front of the Trident as operations were still continuing, taking up valuable resources that were no doubt employed to ensure his security and announcing 1 crore rupees to the family of the slain ATS chief Hemant Karkare. This when Modi and his goons placed enormous political pressure and threatened Karkare for his investigation of possible Hindu militants involvement in the Malegoan attacks. And he had the gall to offer a crore to the Karkare family? How crass can you get? The widow of Karkare revealed her strong but dignified revulsion by refusing the money outright.

And the Thackrey's? They and the MNS who deserve whatever is coming to them - they actually blamed the attacks on 'overcrowding of the city' no doubt referring to N. Indian migrants. This when the core of the NSG, army and people who gave up their lives in Bombay were from all over India. Scum is too kind a word.

Scum is too kind a word.

Yes, there is anger. And I feel it only too strongly, sitting thousands of miles away.

Vir Sanghvi has an op-ed in todays Hindustan Times in which he notes that there are only three countries with repeated terrorist attacks today- Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. I could add iraq too but he has a point. For all their faults, the Bush administration has ensured that no major terrorist act has occurred in the US. Bali, London and Madrid were also all turning points for their countries which have not occurred again. In contrast India has suffered more attacks in the last month than Iraq, according to a startling statistic.

And yet nothing concrete changes. Something's got to give. It just did and it is time for big changes.

If that sounds vague, let me offer 6 concrete, doable things that can change:

1. Their must be a review and reform of the security of important public places. That terrorists walked into the VT station, the Taj and other such obvious symbols and centers of Mumbai is mind-boggling. Bags should be checked, metal detectors need to be places at the entrances of such areas, security personnel need to be present. At all entrances. Not just the front. This is a given - it feels stupid to even write this.

At the very minimum, politicians, celebrities etc. they should not be allowed access to such areas and in crisis situations like this unless absolutely necessary. They should definitely not be allowed to conduct mini-press conferences, touting their own party platforms when a situation like this in progress. Also free up resources be reviewing the 'z' level security provided to VIPs.

2. On a larger scale, this was obviously a colossal intelligence failure. How did 10-15 people create all this chaos? This has to have been planned for months at the very least. They came by boats, they brought bags of ammunition, they had booked hotel rooms at the Taj where they set up control rooms and stored ammunition, they knew the hotels inside out...
The most galling thing is that RAW had apparently received intercepts that talked about a possible attack on Bombay around Nov. 18 where the route would be via sea. We hear this and you wonder- and? What are we supposed to do with that?
Regardless, this is a huge wake up call for Indian intelligence-obviously there needs to be a massive investigation into the missed signals and intercepts, there needs to be greater coordination between the different agencies, more material support and infrastructure for core groups like the NSG ( a dedicated plane seems to be a minimal starting point, so is better equipment) and much more support for basic policing and law and order.
Unburden the NSG from being tied up in protecting VIP's- there must be cuts that can be made.

3. Fire/ get rid of incompetent leaders and officers. Start with Shivraj Patil who is an unmitigated disaster.
ETA 11/30/08 He quit. And P Chidamabaram is the new home minister. Good

4. We must identify and be clear about what we mean by 'elements in Pakistan'. Does this mean the government? the ISI? non-state groups? Surely not the common people? By repeating age-old rhetoric about the 'foreign hand' we fail to acknowledge the paradigm shift of events such as the Mumbai acts, we hamper cooperation between the two countries on counter-terrorism which is imperative, we create more anger among diverse groups and we fail to focus on the groups and targets we need to combat. Words and concepts matter- they should be used widely.

5. Linked to this: Reassess political rhetoric. Be more circumspect and cautious when giving public and official statements. The entire Indian political class needs a lesson in PR - words are crucially important and this entire episode has seen irresponsible, self-aggrandizing and age-old tropes in the official reactions to the crisis.

Contrast this to the simple, effective and professional conduct of the people actually in the midst of the situation with the most to lose- the NSG commandos, policemen, fire fighters, hostages, tourists, Taj staff and ordinary civilians. They were quiet, matter of fact and humane. There is a lesson there.

6. The media needs to seriously introspect about their own ethics and professionalism. I've posted about this before so I won't belabor the point but if the Indian blogosphere is any indication, they will hear the disdain of many people and should think about it.

These 6 things are not small things but they are doable - they would go a considerable way in what is to follow.

I end this post feeling what so many Bombayites must feel right now- deeply sad, angry and disgusted at the way our politicians have responded to this crisis and immensely proud heartened and touched by the stories of bravery, kindness and (lets say it) heroism (trite as that may sound) from so many nameless people.


B. S. Prakash said...

Re point one: if these terrorists in this form had come to say Sarojini Nagar market -- would the mayhem be any lesser? I wonder. It is already too late when they arrive at a target--hence guarding targets in the conventional way as you suggest--i wonder, how much can be done in that manner.
The bigger failure is in intelligence

I liked point 5 and 6.

itinerant said...

1. Review and Reform, yes. But I think it is a task of humongous proportions, imagine the sheer number of people and the various kinds of luggage and all the riff rafs, that hang around, live in our railway stations. We have something called coolies too in this age and time. We have to be more creative with managing our specific problems.

2. I agree on this. Over haul is the word.

3. Shivraj Patil had to go. One should ask Sonia behan, why he was there? But I think it deflects attention. The problem is the system. Our politicians are just icing on the rot.

Why cannot we have experts for ministers, accountable to Parliament. Let the Prime Minister be a politician, the rest have to experts, chosen for their practical/implementable ideas. I have in mind the Bobby Jindal health program kind of stuff.

4.I think this time the Government of India did make that distinction between the government of Pakistan and the perpetrators.
Though, the talk of military option is not very welcome.

5. When Kargil happened, media was allowed unfettered access everywhere, till the army realized its folly?

One event, one team for press briefing. What is happeneing? Where? Etc.

(Aside- Vilasrao Deshmukh said in a Press COnference 15 hours after the attack, reading from a paper, that there were 20-22 men. I swear.)

6. The media, ah the media, bad habits.