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INDIA: Mumbai Attacks One Year Later

NEW DELHI, Nov 26 2009 (IPS) - “A bullet whizzed past us smashing the window to smithereens! My terrorised daughter slid under the nearest table. Everybody ran helter-skelter to save their lives. Just then three menacing-looking youths dressed in black exploded into the wedding hall, brandishing AK-47s. They started shooting indiscriminately, and soon our wedding venue was transformed into a battleground for dead bodies.”

Tilu Mangeshikar, a Mumbai-based doctor, was attending a wedding at the Taj Mahal Hotel on the fateful night of Nov. 26 last year when a Lashkar-e- Taiba assault squad laid siege to the hotel. Her eyes were misted over with tears as she relived that night’s horror to IPS.

It has been a year since India’s financial capital, the 14 million-strong Mumbai—the world’s largest city—was pulverised by 10 heavily armed men, who killed 166 innocent people, injured hundreds and wrecked property worth billions.

For three whole days, India—and the rest of the world—watched in shock and disbelief as the Mumbai massacre unfolded before their eyes. The images of the Taj Mahal Hotel, with its iconic dome enveloped in plumes of smoke, intrepid fire fighters disgorging hundreds of hostages from charred sites, wailing relatives of the dead, the tsunami of anti-government protests led by angry Mumbai residents are still fresh in the nation’s collective memory.

But today, on the first anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on Indian soil, the question on every Indian’s mind is—‘Are we any safer now than we were a year ago?’

The responses are indeed mixed. Experts feel that though Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s efforts to contain terrorist exports from Pakistan have at least shielded India from another major terrorist strike in the past year, the country needs to do much more to tackle terrorism. India not only needs to beef up its internal security systems and plug the existing loopholes but also put in place a long-term programme for fighting terror.

A report by a task force of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry on national security and terrorism released last month offers some insights. By charting out what went wrong during the Mumbai attacks, the report has highlighted the exiting lacunae in the country’s security architecture and given recommendations for both the security agencies and civilians that could stonewall a 26/11 repeat.

Security experts have warned in the report that Pakistan’s dubious policies on terrorism and its military establishment will continue to threaten India’s security in the coming years. “Pakistan will continue to maintain its infrastructure of terrorism—including networks that recruit, train, equip and finance jehadi outfits—inside Pakistan territory,” the report said.

Indeed, the underlying fear of external threat lurks in many minds. “The Mumbai attacks were expected to mark a turning point in the global struggle against terrorism, but for the common man not much has changed,” said Dr Prakash Kalra, head of a citizen action’s group in Delhi and a former army official.

“The outrage expressed by people, the media and political leaders raised hopes that Nov. 26 would mark a watershed to end terrorism, but in reality the terror threat still looms large over the country.”

The Indian government’s response to the 60-hour long complex Mumbai attacks highlighted several key flaws in the country’s general counterterrorism and threat-mitigation structure. These include intelligence failures and lack of coordination between the central security agencies—the Research and Analysis Wing and the Intelligence Bureau (IB)—and the local police in Mumbai.

The attacks also accentuated the gaps in India’s coastal surveillance and the coast guard’s shortage of equipment: a ludicrous 100 boats for more than 5,000 miles of shoreline and minimal aviation assets.

Writes defence analyst Maroof Raza in ‘The Times of India’: “… In an era when a terrorist carries an automatic AK-47, many of our policemen are still stuck with the antique action rifles. While a terrorist uses GPS (Global Positioning System) navigational systems, our policemen and soldiers use VHF (Very High Frequency) radio sets that can’t function in cities like Mumbai with high-rise buildings. In short, we have to equip the police to fight the terrorist like a terrorist.”

According to a senior navy official, who declined to be named, the physical security reviews based on vulnerability perceptions have to be an ongoing process in India.

“Follow-up action to plug gaps in physical security does become arduous in a country of India’s size, given its huge population and numerous potential soft targets. But despite this, to prevent a 26/11 replay, we must have a constantly updated vulnerability map,” he said.

However, mention must be made of Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s slew of measures to strengthen the country’s anti-terror mechanism. Over 40 billion U.S. dollars have been set aside for India’s defence modernisation by 2012. The home ministry has also fortified the Intelligence Bureau and galvanised Multi-Agency Centres in the IB to function more efficiently.

In addition, the National Security Guards, whose commandos tackled the Mumbai terrorists last year, now have four hubs, each with an operational strength of 250 personnel, across multiple cities.

The ministry is also establishing more pan-India Counter-Insurgency and Anti-Terrorism Schools across the country. Coastal security is also being beefed up. In addition, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has been amended to reinforce the legal and punitive provisions of law to combat terrorism with renewed vigor.

“I have been warning Pakistan,” Chidambaram said in a speech earlier this month, “not to play games with us. The last game should be the Mumbai attacks. Stop it there….”

Although such measures augur well for national security, the accountability of the Indian political class has come under the scanner. For instance, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government—which was ruling at the centre when the Mumbai attacks transpired—bounced back to power in New Delhi this May.

The return of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine in the Maharashtra assembly last month also drew outrage from concerned sectors. Maharashtra—whose capital is Mumbai—has even reappointed Home Minister R.R. Patil, who had been sacked last year on charges of incompetence. Ditto for erstwhile Maharasthra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who has been inducted as a central union minister.

There is also considerable rancor among the Indian public about Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone Pakistani terrorist caught after the Mumbai carnage, who has not been sentenced for his dastardly act. On the contrary, the Indian government has spent a whopping 30 crore India rupees (6.447 million U.S. dollars) on his security and health since last year.

However, renowned Supreme Court advocate Kamini Jaiswal believes that all citizens—including criminals—have a right to a fair trial, according to the Indian criminal justice system. “The whole world’s eyes are focused on this sensitive case,” the lawyer told IPS. “So India not only has to do full justice to Kasab but also be perceived to be doing so. We don’t believe in instant justice as there’s no concept of Shariat law in our country. So the court may take time, but the verdict has to be just.”

Experts feel that apart from the judiciary and political class, there is an urgent need to involve civil society, too, in tackling terror threats in India. “The government isn’t the only solution in such cases, it is only a part of the solution,” opined Ashok Aggarwal, senior advocate of the High Court and convenor of Social Jurist, a citizens’ action group.

“Voluntary organisations, citizens’ groups, non-government organisations should all work cohesively to put an end to terrorism. The United States and Britain both have programmes for public participation to increase awareness of terrorist threats.”

The U.S. has not allowed a repeat of 9/11. India must similarly say an emphatic no to a repeat of the Mumbai-style attacks that threaten the very fabric of its existence.

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