26/11, when all failed Bombay

Each year, I wake up on 26/11 full of sadness. I mourn those brave people who gave their lives for my city. I mourn the innocents who were murdered by Pakistani terrorists. And I say a silent prayer, hoping that something like this never ever happens again.

But I also regret the fact that after all these years we still have not come to terms with the most tragic reality of 26/11: it could have been prevented.

At every step of the way those who were supposed to protect us fumbled and stumbled. And while it is Hafiz Saeed and the other Pakistani terrorists who planned this attack and whose hands are stained with the blood of innocents, there are many in India who are also to blame.

Let’s take apart the unforgiveable lapses that led up to the Bombay massacres.

Firstly, it is not true to say that 26/11 was a surprise attack.

Indian intelligence had more than enough notice. The CIA had told us that Pakistani terrorists were planning to attack Bombay from the sea and that a hotel on the seafront would be the most prominent target.

We know now that this information came from David Headley. But our authorities did very little. They did not even monitor the sea routes more carefully to prevent terrorists from landing in Bombay.

But it gets worse. Just as the terrorists were sailing towards Bombay, R&AW, our external intelligence agency, picked up radio transmissions from them. These transmissions made it clear where they were headed and when they would arrive. In any Western country, this would have been enough to sound an all-out alert. The navy and the coast guard would have been instructed to intercept the boat which carried the terrorists. The attack would have been foiled. Lives would have been saved.

But that’s not how things work in India. R&AW filed a report about the interceptions and sent it to national security advisor, MK Narayanan, at the Prime Minister’s Office. That report just lay there.

Nobody seems to have read it. Or if it was read, then nobody acknowledged it or acted on it.

And so, the terrorists were allowed free access into Bombay.

Secondly, even though we were monitoring the conversations between the terrorists and their handlers, we did not act on this intelligence.

R&AW had advance information that several SIM cards had been bought by terror organisations. It checked these cards on a regular basis, waiting to see when they would be activated.

On 26/11, the cards were activated and R&AW suddenly discovered that it could listen to conversations between the terrorists and their controllers. It is these conversations that are now replayed again and again on TV in reconstructions of the events of 26/11.

Bizarrely, none of this information seems to have been used to our advantage. Long into the attack, the NSG had no idea how many terrorists there were, where they were hiding or what they were planning. Despite being privy to the enemy’s plan in real time, our authorities continued to stumble in the dark.

Let’s take just two examples of how this information could have been used. We know now that the Pakistani handlers told the terrorists at the Taj to go to the Chambers because guests were taking refuge there.

The Indian authorities heard these instructions at the same time as the terrorists. They could have easily rushed cops into the building or tried to intercept the terrorists. Instead, they did nothing and scores of people were shot.

Or consider another instance. Pakistani handlers were monitoring TV coverage of the attacks and passing this information on to the terrorists. The authorities knew this was happening. Yet, they made no attempt to move TV cameras away from the scene or to even tell the press to refrain from reporting details of the operation. In fact, the navy’s commandoes even went so far as to hold a televised press conference in which they bragged about their exploits even as hostages were still being killed at the Taj.

What can you say about a country that has access to so much information and chooses not to use it? Nothing except for this: what use is intelligence to people who have so little intelligence themselves?

Thirdly, there is the shameful failure of the Bombay Police. On the night of 26/11 when there were four terrorists inside the Taj and two at the Oberoi, the entire Bombay Police sat back and refused to enter the hotels arguing that it was too dangerous. They would wait for the NSG to arrive the next day, they said.

The few policemen who had been called in by the Taj, when the firing seemed to be part of a gang war, quickly retreated once they realised that this was a terrorist attack.

Is it credible that a police force whose men routinely carry automatic weapons while on VIP duty did not have the capacity to take out two terrorists at the Oberoi Hotel? People died because the police force failed.

And yet, there were tales of individual bravery by policemen. Bombay owes a huge debt to Tukaram Ombale, who lost his life while holding on to Ajmal Kasab. It is because of Ombale that we were able to learn the truth about the operation from Kasab’s own lips. We owe a lot also to men like Hemant Karkare and Ashok Kamte, who died needless deaths because they had been misinformed by the police control room about the deployment of personnel at the hospital where Kasab and Ibrahim had been seen.

But these individual instances of bravery cannot make up for the complete failure of the police force as a whole. Nor can they make up for the absence of any chain of command. On the night of 26/11, as the sixth floor of the Taj went up in flames, the hotel’s officials pleaded with the fire brigade to train its hoses on to the fire. There were people stranded inside, they explained. The fire brigade refused. We have no orders, they said. And in fact, there was nobody to issue any orders. Because nobody was in charge the night that Bombay burned and bled.

So yes, I get emotional when I think of the events of 26/11. But I also get very angry. My city was attacked. And nobody cared enough to stop the attack even though they could have. And nobody tried hard enough to try and save the lives of the people of my city. It took the entire might of the Indian state three full days to defeat 10 terrorists.

And it was Bombay that paid the price.

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