12 August, 2011

Salaam Mumbai

Uday India, 20 August 2011

"I am delighted to welcome Her Excellency Hina Rabbani Khar and members of her delegation, to India”, were the words of India’s External Affairs Minister on July 27, 2011. The venue was New Delhi, the city with Mughal vestiges and the date was exactly two weeks after July 13: the fateful day which signified a possible resurgence of cross-border encouraged terrorism in India. Two weeks had gone past and harried Indian security agencies failed to nab any human element behind the blasts, even after tracing innumerable phone calls.
                One thing was however noteworthy. Before the talks went ahead with the expected pleasantries and before Mr Krishna sounded the hyperbole of “a resurgent South Asia, proudly marching forth on a path of development, in a terror free and harmonious atmosphere” and in that venture, he sought the co-operation of India’s conjoined twin; Ms Khar met the Kashmiri separatists led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the Mirwaiz faction at the Pakistan High Commission.

The Three Stories 

Amit paced up with the preparations. Lest he missed out any object of importance, howsoever trivial it was, he kept on checking his baggage fastidiously. After all, it was for the first time, he was crossing Indian territory. The passport - the vital of them all and the dollars - the most crucial were all being thoroughly checked. The jumbo poster reflecting his four year old research; which he had critically built up using power-point, a somewhat boring job to him, was beside his baggage; nicely rolled into a cylindrical holder.
                His flight was next day, in the evening. In hindsight, it appears that Amit was both fortunate as well as unfortunate at the same time. His date of journey was July 12, 2006. He was going to board a Singapore Airlines flight to Seoul. His misfortunes were at least two-fold, if not manifold. One, he was boarding the flight from Mumbai. Secondly, the date of journey was a day after July 11, 2006. Well, on the other hand, he was fortunate enough not to board the flight on July 11!
                It was close to 7 pm in Mumbai on July 11, 2006, when Amit came to know from Ujjwal that Pratap had gone to Churchgate and not yet returned. His cell phone was not responding. Repeated calls made to him from different phones turned out to be futile. Amit and Ujjwal had more than sufficient reasons to send shivers down their spines.
                “I guess the police have jammed the network,” quipped Ujjwal. But Amit was skeptical. He kept on trying: his efforts missing the target in consonance with the inability of the Mumbai police to apprehend the serial blasts which unnerved the citizenry, bamboozling them to the horrifying extreme. Mumbaikars were rudely shaken up from their vada-pao siesta, in fact, after a long time almost forgotten since 1992-93, which had brought to limelight, the D-Company and its chief mentor Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar.
                “Dawood is supposed to be in Karachi”, fumbled Joseph, Ujjwal’s neighbour in the hostel. “Could he have done this?”, was Joseph’s bland query, as puerile as his ability to solve intricate problems in calculus.

                Ujjwal firmly retorted: “Please try to understand that Dawood works through networks.”

                “Yes, fine, I know that”, Joseph retaliated in a manner as if he was a defence expert, “but why will he do it this time around?” Joseph’s counter-argument was nonetheless interesting: “In 1993, they cited reasons of Muslims being slaughtered in Mumbai, their properties being vandalized. What will they substantiate now?”

                To cut the novel short, the triumvirate of Amit, Ujjwal and Joseph were successful in spotting the co-ordinates of Pratap, who in turn was superbly fortunate to miss the splinters from the bombs planted in pressure-cookers kept in the first class bogeys of the sub-urban trains. Amit could board his flight in the evening next day, taxied out of the deadly, ghostly city of Mumbai.

                Almost unscathed, life went on in the city. No major protests paralysed it in retaliation to the inefficiency of the police force. Bollywood kept on bombarding the outside world with its show-business. Amit, Joseph, Ujjwal and of course, Pratap completed their doctoral studies to move out of India’s financial capital in different directions. And the city waited not long though for another adventure.

                Two years are what most institutes and universities in India and abroad provide for a post-doctoral scholarship to ‘beggarly’ Indian PhDs. But Joseph was lucky enough to bag an extension to another term. And this was his enjoyment time he and his comrades of the old Mumbai-days were busy reminiscing at their preferred location the Leopold Café at Colaba, South Mumbai. Amit was struggling to be as ecstatic as Joseph, basically smiling under peer coercion. The poor lad was exasperated with tackling his phoren boss.

                Nonetheless, the four musketeers were enjoying their drink at Leopold, and at times glancing toward the busy road, in some unknown apprehension; as if. It was well past 7 pm and Ujjwal urged the others to leave as they had to meet Prof. Diwakar one hour later. As Pratap turned his back toward the main road to settle the dues, he heard shells being fired; sounds which were unfamiliar to not only the four old friends but by reasonable estimates were seemingly horrendous to other visitors in the café as well.

                Within moments, some of the customers fell. Before anyone could comprehend the reality, pools of blood splatlered the greasy floor of Leopold Café. Amit’s, Joseph’s, Pratap’s and Ujjwal’s evening, their homecoming to India, were severely jolted by the terror mechanism which had embedded itself in Mumbai since 1993. Was it the D-company this time? Was it the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) or the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)? Was the Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) the mastermind behind the attacks? Such questions kept on hitting their minds incessantly like projectiles; seeking answers to those were simply useless at that juncture however.

                Bullets were not only pumped into Leopold Café, basically targeting foreigners; miscreants also sneaked into the neighbouring Nariman House and held on for a couple of days till the equanimity of the commandos of the elite National Security Guards (NSG) turned the tables. It was November 26, 2008. News of casualties started pouring in from Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus and Oberoi Trident Hotel, another hub of foreign nationals.

Mumbai had been taken hostage.

                July 13, 2011 was slightly different. The four musketeers were no longer in Mumbai. Joseph was searching for his next scholarship and Pratap had settled in the Land of Washington; maybe for good, and maybe due to the fear of being bombed in Mumbai. It had been hard to contact Ujjwal whereas Amit had cocooned himself in the safest city of India; Kolkata: the city of dilapidated palaces.

Talkative Neighbours

Three sessions of talks were held between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan on June 23-24, 2011; and exactly three major explosions rocked Mumbai, barely three weeks later, on July 13.

                Under the resumed dialogue process, the Foreign Secretaries Salman Bashir of Pakistan and Nirupama Rao of India met in Islamabad for bilateral talks on ‘peace’ and ‘security’, encompassing the cliché Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and the contentious issue of Jammu and Kashmir.

                And it was Dadar, Opera House and Zaveri Bazaar, all crowded areas, where Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) splintered to take into their obnoxious fold; according to conservative official reports (till 23:00 hrs on July 13), 13 dead and around 80 injured.

                Non-official media reports retorted with higher numbers of 20-21 dead and over hundred forced to lie in hospitals and nursing homes. This incident mirrored, to a lesser extent, the fifth anniversary of the horrific July serial train blasts in the city.

                Three general questions loom large at this critical juncture. One, do these blasts indicate the resurgence of non-state actor-led cross-border terrorism in India? Two, to what extent have the Indian security apparatus failed (or succeeded) in combating urban-centric terrorism? And third, would this act of terror impede the verbal transactions which have been initiated at the diplomatic levels between India and Pakistan?

                As Nirupama Rao boldly asserted in Karan Thapar’s TV show Devil’s Advocate that “nothing is set in stone”; at least as far as India-Pakistan rapprochement is concerned, the bilateral atmosphere seems to be devoid of adventurous ‘atmospherics’, at least in the foreseeable future. On the one hand, Ms Rao confirms that “there has been a very glacial pace to the whole process as far as the 26/11 trials are concerned.”

                On the other hand, she informed the Indian media and public at large of a couple of positive bytes about the Pakistani government. She said: “But let me tell you what kind of feedback we got from the Pakistanis at this round. And they spoke of the need to discuss all the serious and substantive issues between the two countries and that terrorism was at the forefront of this.”

                Rao confessed to Thapar that there was hardly any visible progress in Pakistan regarding the 26/11 trials. But, the lack of progress, according to Rao, should not mean that dialogue was not an option with Pakistan. Hence, one thing was not uncertain at all; that is, the resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue process shall not be stalled. The expected meeting between the respective foreign ministers in New Delhi at the end of July happened as scheduled.

                In this regard, it is noteworthy to quote Ms Rao again: “I think the decision to reengage with Pakistan and to talk about the issues that divide us, that Ministers said, I think is a very realistic approach to dealing with problems with Pakistan.” So, the fact of the matter is resuming dialogue with Pakistan is the official line taken by South Block till the civilian government in Islamabad vouch in being not involved with any ‘non-state’ actor-led terrorism in Indian cities.

                In fact, Mr Zardari had come to reprimand the blasts in Mumbai; which will ease matters between the two nations. After all, Islamabad itself is wary of terror and hence a bilateral joint framework to tackle the scourge is the sanest approach to bring peace in South Asia. Furthermore, the Indian ministry of Home Affairs is yet to establish any linkage between the blast and terror groups based across the Indus and hence is unable to indict the Pakistani state apparatus directly.

                With the third question resolved, the answers to the first two are relatively straightforward. First, the July 13 Mumbai blasts are more of a desperate attempt on the part of the ultras to reassert their ‘lost’ grip over the terror network in India. After 26/11, India has witnessed about 31 months of peace, to be precise. A brief interregnum was a solo piece of violence at Pune in February, last year. Thus it will be far-fetched to assume that the July 13 incident implies a re-invigorated terror regime in India.

                And such a hypothesis was echoed by India’s urbane Home Minister, Mr Chidambaram, when after the blasts, he stressed the ‘efficiency’ of his police force as reflected in their capability of keeping India sufficiently terror free for a considerable amount of time.

                With the Maoist insurgency spreading its tentacles deep in the countryside and with stones being pelted in Kashmir at the security machinery, it seems that the Indian security forces have done reasonably well to contain cross-border bred terror. Well, it could be the case that involvement of global jihadi networks in Afghanistan and Iraq may have depleted their intensity levels in India and that has incidentally raised the success levels of Indian forces.

                Nevertheless, it would not be preposterous—in times to come—to assume further terror attacks in India, mainly in its major cities. It will be a gargantuan job for the security apparatus to make India absolutely terror-free. And for natural reasons, people’s anger at the government’s [in]action will continue.

                Here, it won’t be less than worthwhile to compare the joint statements of the meetings of foreign secretaries of the two neighbours spread over years.

                For instance, in 2011 it reads: “Under the resumed dialogue process, the Foreign Secretaries of Pakistan and India met in Islamabad, on June 23-24, 2011 for bilateral talks on Peace and Security including CBMs, Jammu and Kashmir and promotion of friendly exchanges. Three sessions of talks were held.”

                In 2006 it went like this: “The Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan met in New Delhi on January 17-18, 2006 to commence the third round of talks under the India-Pakistan Composite Dialogue framework. Foreign Secretary of India Shri Shyam Saran led the Indian delegation while the Pakistan delegation was led by Foreign Secretary Mr Riaz Mohammad Khan. They discussed issues related to ‘Peace and Security including CBMs’ and ‘Jammu and Kashmir’. The talks were held in a cordial atmosphere and were constructive too.”

                Do we observe any major discernible change in a span of 5 years? Despite the gruesome tale of 26/11, and the Sharm-el-Sheikh diplomatic fizzle, India and Pakistan are ‘talking’ with each other. There is one change however. Talks now, are mere parleys; and not within the ambit of the so-called Composite Dialogue: a mere change in nomenclature? Meanwhile, India had kept a sustained pressure on the civilian authority in Pakistan through its bulky ‘dossier diplomacy’; which nevertheless has not produced any tangible results for India.

As the experts say

On July 24, 2011, in the state-sponsored Indian Television channel DD News, intense discussions were going on amongst strategists and ex-armymen regarding the ‘fate’ of internal security in India. The anchor cited the comparison with our northern neighbour, China. The Chinese had pumped in to the tune of $105 bn, as per Beijing’s nomenclature, for Domestic Security; which incidentally, is $10 bn-$15 bn more than the budget on external security.

                The Director of New Delhi based Institute for Conflict Management, Ajay Sahni, however argued that he found no reason to lament on the budget or the lack of it as he saw the existing budget not properly utilised. The elite NSG, still flexing its muscles because of its coronation through Operation Black Tornado during that ill-fated 26/11, does not have enough bullet-proof jackets for its personnel. Whereas, at the other end, armoured vehicles are being bought to combat urban-centric terror; a definite signature of ridiculous decision-making: that is, arming without thinking.

                It remains a fact that Force One, the special weapons and tactics emergency response force set up after 26/11, is still short of bulletproof jackets, night-vision equipment, secure communications kits and blast-proof eyewear, writes Praveen Swami in The Hindu. It even lacks a training base and is short of officers.

                The panelists stressed human intelligence as the key to successfully tackling terror; which in fact is no stupendous thinking in the backdrop of its effective implementation against Osama bin Laden. Another panelist, E N Rammohan, former Director General (DG) of India’s Border Security Force (BSF) advised on empowering the state police forces in the cutting edge technology to handle terror. Listening to Rammohan, this author was reminded of a bolder proposal from Maj Gen. Dhruv Katoch, Additional Director of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. Maj Gen Katoch believes that India needs to do away with the elite Indian Police Service (IPS) and rather build up its state police services as a bottom-up approach.

                Strategist Praveen Swami, on the other hand, is quite critical of the Indian authorities. In his Op-Ed in The Hindu, he writes: “India’s post-26/11 police reforms painted stripes on a donkey and passed it off as a tiger.” The Associate Editor of The Hindu further informs us regarding the infirmity of our security apparatus. Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad, according to Swami, “still has less than half the required number of personnel; its special weapons and tactics unit is undertrained and under-resourced; its coastal security programme has run aground.”

                Though Swami contemplates the setting up of a NATGRID, even if mired with procrastination by cabinet decisions, Ajay Sahni comments that such institutional frameworks will be epitomes of “garbage in and garbage out” unless backed by solid ground network (read, human intelligence).

Salaam Mumbai

In his regular column for Uday India on May 21, 2011, Prakash Nanda wrote: “We have seen how openly the LeT staged an impressive rally in Lahore in memory of Laden.” Furthermore, he asserted: “And most important, we have the Pakistani establishment which will always keep Ladenism live and kicking for its sheer survival.”

                With a one-and-a-half times increase in population over 20 years (after the liberalisation in 1991) being compensated with 4 times increase in Gross Domestic Product; with a dip in official poverty rate from 45 to 32 per cent of the total population, with number of billionaires in Forbes’ rich list going up from 1 to 49; and with a rising urban population; India will remain a lucrative target for terrorists, whether abetted by state actors or not. Actually, India will remain a soft target because of the vacillation exhibited by the policy-makers residing in New Delhi.

                And as the July 21st issue of The Economist recommends another ‘bang’ in the Indian economy like that happened 20 years back, it is mostly assumed to realistic proportions that explosive ‘bangs’ decimating lives would continue to accompany India’s growth as it had had since 1993. Pessimistic futuristic predictions could be averted though. An Indian government imposing itself in world fora with the tag of a Realist is not simply hypothetical, but a preferred option. Indian democracy must exert itself.

                Till then, Mumbai will continue to endure blasts; may be ‘a-periodically’ but as a matter of routine. The Mumbaikaars will tolerate them without a din. And at every casualty, we will say: “Salaam Mumbai.”

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