a decade after 26/11, are we safer?

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A decade after 26/11, the post-event developments can at best be termed a mixed bag

by Nitin A Gokhale

In the collective memory of the rest of India, the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 — more popularly known as 26/11 — may have become a hazy event, but for Mumbaikars, especially those who lived through the horrific three days of mayhem and bloodbath, the nightmare will not go away ever. The cliché about Mumbai’s famed resilience is out of place and does not take into account the permanent scars the attack has left on the residents of the megapolis

A decade after 26/11, the post-event developments can at best be termed a mixed bag. While the anti-terror grid across the country has been strengthened, we still don’t know if these measures are adequate to tackle future, more lethal attacks. The general reluctance in India to learn hard — and correct — lessons from a tragedy makes one slightly cynical about the efficacy of changes that have certainly taken place in the country’s intelligence and security setup since those fateful days in 2008. Were India a more introspective nation-state, the post-attack enquiry would have been brutally frank and not a half-hearted, ticking-the box ritual that the Pradhan Commission turned out to be.

The whitewash of a job notwithstanding, in the decade since 26/11, there is better synergy among different intelligence agencies, quicker exchange of information and a system in place through a hub-and-spoke method to have the country’s most potent anti-terror force well-positioned in different places to tackle any potential terror attack. Some states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi, to name just three, have raised well trained counter-terror forces. India’s intelligence-sharing with Western agencies has reportedly become better than it was in 2008 and before but there is no guarantee that the Western governments will not once again be stingy with timely actionable intelligence as they were weeks ahead of the 26/11 attack. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and we will have to see if the US, in particular, will be more forthcoming in sharing real-time intelligence instead of playing its own games aimed at keeping its fraught relationship with Pakistan — a major source of terror attacks worldwide — on an even keel.

By all accounts, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had planned the attack like a military operation through a set of highly indoctrinated, motivated and well trained Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) terrorists. And yet it has got away with any tangible punishment for an outrageous and brazen attack on India’s financial capital.

The execution of the plan was flawless too until an unarmed but brave Mumbai police constable, Tukaram Omble, managed to pin down one of the terrorists, Ajmal Kasab, at the cost of his own life. Kasab’s testimony, his subsequent trial and finally his execution may have brought closure to one of the strands of the conspiracy but the bizarre trajectory of a sham trial in Pakistan has continued to cast a long shadow on India-Pakistan relations.

Consider This: The case in a Pakistan anti-terror court against seven people charged with planning, financing and supporting the Mumbai terror attack has seen at least seven judges being changed and a determined prosecutor dying under mysterious circumstances in the past nine years. Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency identified many Pakistani and Indian witnesses once the case began. While the statements of the Pakistani witnesses have been recorded, Pakistani authorities continue to plea that unless Indians also give their statements, the case cannot proceed. Indian legal experts say this is just a pretext as Indians can only give forensic evidence and eyewitness accounts but cannot reveal how the conspiracy was hatched. In any case, the Pakistani case fails to name the key conspirator LeT chief Hafiz Saeed in the charge-sheet.

In conclusion, India has perhaps come to realise that it has to fight its own battles, closer ties with the United States and other western nations notwithstanding. In that respect, recent changes in the national security setup, aimed at bringing more cohesion among myriad agencies, should be welcomed. Of course, better equipment for specialised forces like the National Security Guard, improved infrastructure and induction of the latest technology for surveillance and analysis must go hand-in-hand with more resource allocation for HUMINT (human intelligence). Re-energising intelligence agencies like the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing should be top priority — if it is already not — but more than anything else the need is to have a political executive that will empower and trust these agencies to do their job unhindered once a broad mandate is given. Therein lies the trick for safer India.

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