Nov 28, 2008

Columnists - Vir Sanghvi;Time to act

In the immediate aftermath of 26/11, even before the post-mortems begin and the excuses are offered up, three points need to be made. These are preliminary reactions but I think they will remain valid even weeks from now.

First, it is utterly and completely bizarre that while we whine about the Home Ministry, the intelligence establishment gets off scot-free even as Indians are murdered on the streets.

It is impossible for the police to guard every building or check every passenger. All over the world, terrorism is fought through intelligence. A good security service penetrates terrorist cells, monitors radio traffic and picks up intelligence about terrorist activity.

The Bombay attacks prove that we have the worst intelligence service of any major power in the world. These attacks were meticulously planned, involved two dozen attackers, many more terrorists in back-up roles, vast quantities of arms and ammunition and, probably, crores in funding.

Yet, our intelligence services had no idea that such an attack was being planned. Clearly, intelligence is the last quality that we should associate with our spymasters.

These attacks also demonstrate the hollow nature of the many claims made by various police forces to have ‘broken the backs’ of terrorist cells and arrested various ‘terror masterminds’.

The terrorists are completely unaffected by the puny efforts of our security forces. They strike when and where they want to. And Indians die.

We’ve had enough excuses. Heads must roll. You would have thought that by now at least one of the country’s spymasters would have offered to resign.

No one has. And so, dismissals become imperative.

Second, we should recognise that there is a new dimension to these attacks that was missing from earlier terrorist strikes. The aim of the Bombay terrorists was to continue the global jihad on Indian soil. That’s why they sought out American and British passport holders and that’s why Israelis and Jews were among the principal targets of the violence.

Combine that shift in emphasis with the sophistication of these attacks and some conclusions become inevitable. Clearly, these terrorists were funded and, probably, armed and trained by global jihadi forces. These were not angry students making homemade bombs. These were world-class terrorists.

That should tell us that India is now part of the global terrorist battleground. If the international jihadi network decides to treat us on par with Israel, England, America and other countries that are seen as enemies of its twisted version of Islam, then the Bombay attacks may only be a beginning. Worse may follow.

And we have no capacity to handle the increased level of threat.

Third, L.K. Advani was right when he said that these attacks were not like the usual bombings, but he was wrong when he drew a parallel with the 1993 Bombay blasts.

When we saw the television pictures of the Taj Mahal hotel in flames, it was not the 1993 blasts we thought of. It was 9/11.

It sounds flip and glib to say that these attacks constitute India’s 9/11. But that, in fact, is the truth.

The significance of 9/11 was that it made Americans conscious of the danger they were in and aware that nothing was safe; that terrorists could destroy such powerful symbols of American prestige as the World Trade Center.

In our case, 26/11 has had the same impact. By striking at the heart of prosperous and largely peaceful south Bombay, the terrorists have served notice that there is nothing they cannot do, and nowhere that they cannot reach.

Bomb blasts are painful, traumatic events. But this long drawn-out crisis is far worse in the damage it has done to the Indian psyche. The inability of the authorities to bring the situation under control in a few hours has worried and frightened Indians. With each hour that the crisis continued, we felt vulnerable, impotent and humiliated. It was as though we had lost control of our destiny. And we would never feel safe again.

Guesswork in the aftermath of a tragedy is always a risky business. But I wager that when the time comes to write the history of modern India, 26/11 will be remembered as the turning point in our attitude to terror. It will be remembered as the day when we Indians came to terms with vulnerability.

And, with a bit of luck, as the day when we demanded that those in charge of protecting us either did the job they were supposed to or left it to somebody more capable.

The government must realise that this is not just another terrorist strike. This one has changed all the rules, both in terms of the impact it has had on the Indian psyche and in the anger and fear that now course through our veins.

No more promises. No more speeches. It’s time to act.

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