There is a tendency to ask -Where were you when you first got to know?
Or when did you feel the first tremor?
Or see the ocean rise?
Or hear the gunshot?
…. Where were you…?
9/11 was one such event in time when those who survived it marked themselves safe and country singer Alan Jackson encapsulated the angst of having witnessed a watershed moment that makes one question everything.
Where were you when the world stopped turnin’-That September day?
Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbour Or did you just sit down & cry?
Well, in New Delhi, India it was approaching 10 pm on Wednesday, 26 November 2008 when I thought a good book in bed would be anyway more interesting than the news on TV that I began the exercise of closing the house down for the night.
Till Breaking News flashed on the screen and the anchor announced that there was news coming in of firing at Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminal, Mumbai.
I, of Indian stock, inured to unknown people dying or getting killed somewhere in this large country held the remote ready to switch off the television.
It was when the images now seared permanently into our national conscious, of two men with back-packs nonchalantly shooting into the crowd, that I sat back in shock and remained there for four days removing myself only occasionally for something that required my immediate attention.
Everything it seemed fell apart very soon.
After Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus, Cafe Leopold, Cama and Albless Hospital, the news of an ambush on ATS Chief Karkare, Additional Police Commissioner Kamte & Encounter Specialist Salaskar with their small team, was the final straw.
To an ordinary citizen, a TV viewer, it was a shocking insight into the functioning and the standard of professionalism of a force that is supposed to police our country.
Correct me if I’m wrong but did we not actually see on TV that ‘on the spur decision’, according to a witness Constable Niteen Matane a wireless operator, when at 11.55 pm Karkare left for Cama Hospital with Salaskar in the driver’s seat with Kamte armed with only an AK-47 & Constable Arun Jadhav who sat in the rear of the Qualis with a carbine?
Within seven minutes there was the sound of continuous firing and then absolute silence.
Those ordered by Karkare to man the rear gate of the hospital remained there, not sure what they were supposed to do. A police station down the road switched off its lights and locked its gate, assessing realistically its lack of ability to handle any onslaught.
The question that everyone asked to each other with this drama unfolding before our eyes-Isn’t there a set protocol?
A standard operating procedure?
How did these three senior officers in the Mumbai Police hierarchy leave together, minimally armed when they had no idea of what awaited them? Time and again after the ordeal was over people justified the bungling with-
This has never happened before.
This was an absolutely unimaginable situation.
How would various agencies know what to do?
Well, the simple answer is that worldwide organisations learn from the experience of other countries and from their own terror attacks, of which we had no shortage of. They certainly shouldn’t have to wait for an attack of such magnitude to befall them before they struggle to lay down procedure.
We, as a country have suffered from an unimaginable number of devastating terror attacks. We, as citizens have borne the brunt of this violence as the list below gives you some indication.
February 1998, the Coimbatore Bombings – 58 dead
December 2000 Red Fort Attack, in the heart of the capital – 3 dead
October 2001 J&K Legislative Assembly -38 dead
December 2001 Parliament House, the heart of democracy – 7 dead
September 2002 Rafiganj Rail Disaster – 200 dead
March 2003 Mumbai Train Bombing – 10 dead
August 2003 Mumbai Gateway if India & Zaveri House Bombing – 52 dead
August 2004 Dhimajee School Bombing-18 children dead
July 2005 RJB Temple Site Attack – 6 dead
October 2005 Delhi Bombings – 70 dead
March 2006 Varanasi Bombing -21 dead
July 2006 Mumbai Train Bombing -209 dead
September 2006 Malegaon-37 dead
February 2007 Samjauta Express -68 dead
August 2007 Hyderabad Bombings – 42 dead
May 2008 Jaipur Bombings – 63 dead
July 2008 Ahmedabad Bombing – 29 dead
September 2008 Delhi Bombing – 33 dead
October 2008 Assam Bombings – 81 dead
9/11 terror attacks in the US, 7/7 in London had already shown us how first responders get on the job and the way a police force and fire fighters react to an extreme emergency situation.
But what did we do?
We waited for a ‘spectacularly inept’, according to a US diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks, Home Minister who was found ‘asleep on the watch’ during earlier terror strikes in various cities, change his clothes three times to tell us that –
“No aircraft was available here in Delhi & then we called one from Chandigarh & dispatched 250-300 NSG commandos within two to three hours to Mumbai and I also travelled with them. It was a freight aircraft & we travelled standing”
According to Sandeep Unnithan @sandeepunnithan in DailyO of 12 June 2016 the Minister was being economical with the truth.
“More than 200 NSG commandos left their base at Manesar 30 kms away from the airport at 12.40 am. They reached the ARC dispersal area at 1.40 am, the pilots were already there conducting pre-departure checks on the aircraft”
The aircraft had been topped with 70 tons of fuel ready to leave at 2am. If there was any wait it was for Home Minister Patil.
The Home Minister’s delay of one crucial hour in landing up late cost the country not only caused several precious lives but by then the terrorists had entrenched themselves so deep in the iconic Taj Hotel that it took the NSG three days to neutralize them.
The question remains why did the Home Minister choose to travel with the NSG when he had his BSF Embraer jet fuelled, parked & waiting.
By the time the night was over we knew of the attack on Leopold Café and the taking of Chabad Lubavitch, Taj Hotel & the last site The Oberoi- Trident Hotel-Mumbai was under siege. By 1 am the central dome of the Taj Hotel was bombed and massive fires raged in the building. That image was so shocking that it emblazoned in our brains, capturing the impotence of the State against, what we now know, was only 10 men, and hit straight in the gut.
Early morning brought the pathetic sight of the then Commissioner of Police Hasan Gafoor parked in his car outside the Oberoi-Trident which now served as his ‘base of operations’.
The Pradhan-Balachandran findings post 26/11 make clear that Mr. Gafoor was guilty of gross violations of standard operating procedures and ‘should have been in the command centre of the control room which might have helped in better utilisation of forces …’
They were however, officers as Director General of Police AN Roy who helped to develop an alternative response though he had ‘no operational responsibility’ to persuade residents of the upmarket National Centre of Performing Arts building in order to evacuate their flats. The police position in these flats became a key element in the NSGs final storming of the Oberoi-Trident.
Officers like Azad Maidan division Commissioner Issaq Ibrahim Bagwan battled terrorists at Nariman House keeping them pinned down till the afternoon when the NSG finally arrived. For most part though, it looked as if the leaderless force was left to cope with the situation.
By now the breathless and hysterical reporting of the media was in full swing. Miloni Bhatt specially comes to mind with her camera man being asked to show positions of the security agencies behind bushes, parked vehicles and even on trees.
I especially remember this moment because in absolute rage I called NDTV and asked the young woman on the line to stop this reporting. To which she responded very calmly with some condescension ‘Ma’am, we know what we’re doing. Please.’ And hung up on me.
Justices Aftab Alam & CK Prasad of the Supreme Court gave a stinging rebuke in 2012 to the electronic media –
“The coverage of 26/11 was driven entirely by commercial interest, TV channels put National security in jeopardy by their reckless 24×7 live telecast of security operations…”
“…. The coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks by the mainstream electronic media has done much harm to the argument that any regulatory mechanisms for the media must only come from within ….”
Dhananjay Mahapatra of TOI reports –
The court found the transcripts of conversations between terrorists holed in the Taj, Oberoi-Trident, Nariman House and their handlers in Pakistan. The terror masterminds were actually watching live telecasts and got important inputs about the positioning of the security forces.
Early morning on 29th November 2008, both hotels had been stormed by the NSG, with the Rapid Action Force and the Marine Commandos having cordoned off and surrounded the area the day before.
At the end of four days, we stood as a country, buck naked, ashamed.
Anyone who tells you of the Spirit of Mumbai and the wonderful little stories of the common people who rose to the occasion, is only trying to distract you from inadequacy and incompetence of those in charge.
Ten years down on this 26/11 we must ask the State of India, no matter which party is in office, some hard hitting questions.
Were those people in positions of power & responsibility held accountable for the carnage under their watch? Instead of being booted out, were they at best shunted around to low profile appointments in the best traditions of our civil & political machinery?
As former US Ambassador Mulford observed ‘the discipline & culture of the Indian bureaucracy is such that if these men stay on they will continue to wield power & would not be treated as damaged goods by the rest of the government….’
Have things changed?
Were the lacunae studied and fixed to counter the terror?
Were subsequent terror attacks handled any differently?
Are we any the safer?
Are you prepared for a 26/11 today?
If the response to all the above is shaky, weak and hesitant then every remembrance and eulogy to those who lost their lives is a betrayal.