DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mumbai attack - the flip side

The carnage in Mumbai on 26th November 2008 caused senseless loss of scores of lives and damage of millions to public and private property. In its flip side, however, it triggered certain positivities, which if sustained and taken to their logical conclusion, could make India strong and capable of facing such eventualities in future with strength and fortitude. Signs of some of these positivities became evident as the stunned nation gradually recovered from the traumatic event.

The attack exposed the inadequacies of the internal security establishments, including those of the Mumbai Police. Devoid of appropriate weapons and training in countering terror the policemen became mere fodder for the terrorists’ Kalashnikovs. Despite some extraordinary instances of bravery, many, including police officers, stood no chance and were shot down. As the event unfolded over the 24-hour news channels, the saga of failure of the central and state establishments acquired classic proportions. The inaction of the state authorities, the Navy and the Coast Guard in the face of specific intelligence inputs, the avoidable deaths of the police personnel, delay in getting the National Security Guards (NSG) into the act for want of a dedicated aircraft when all the while death and destruction was being caused by the fidayeens, all incensed the stunned people.

Tempers running high, the generally apathetic people’s ire was directed first against the perpetrators of the heinous attacks and then, justifiably, at the political class. Mumbai has, over the years, suffered a series of bomb attacks in which numerous innocents were either killed, maimed for life or severely wounded and traumatised. And yet it was business-as-usual for the “establishment” – relaxed, lackadaisical and apathetic to peoples’ concerns and their safety. While the politicians had appropriated for themselves the cream of the security establishments – the well-trained and well-armed NSG – common people were left exposed and unprotected with a police force inadequate in their numbers and equipped with lathies (staffs) or with the antique 303 rifles.

Aroused passions led to candlelight vigils, mourning the avoidable loss of lives. Massive rallies held in urban India expressed solidarity with the distressed in Mumbai, asking for the heads of those who were at the helm. In their resentment people came together like never before. Religious divides disappeared, as did the differences of class and caste. From all walks of life, they, together, demanded security for their life and property.

Sensing the charged atmosphere, the chastened political class showed, in the ensuing Parliament session, a rare sense of responsibility. Deciding to shun their unruly behaviour causing frequent interruptions of the House proceedings, they – the government and the Opposition – showed unity of purpose seldom seen before. The usual mutual acrimony was, by and large, avoided and the members settled down to the sombre business of adopting measures to secure the country from similar attacks and enabling it to effectively counter them in the future.

Arming itself legally by enacting tougher amendments to the existing Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – a watered down version of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which it had earlier repealed in pursuit of minority votes – the ruling combine pushed through creation of a Federal Investigative Agency. The new Home Minister, who replaced his axed effete predecessor, set about the onerous task of revamping the internal security establishments. Striving to achieve better coordination and sharing of information among the various intelligence outfits at the Centre and in the states, he initiated steps to reinforce the elite NSG, de-centralise them and ensure their quicker deployment. The Navy and the Coastguard are also in for reinforcement and upgradation. The maritime borders are being brought under radar cover and the porous land frontiers are now going to be fenced.

Perhaps for the first time the inadequate numbers of our policemen and their want of preparedness became subjects of public discourse. Lack of leave and training-reserves and diversion of unduly large numbers for VIP security have rendered the force in every state overworked and ill-trained. Their archaic and obsolete arms –mostly ornamental –came in for scathing comments. The citizens of Mumbai were so outraged by the deaths of senior police officers because of their sub-standard bullet-proof vests that they raised funds for provision of proper protective gear for the city’s policemen. Many states now plan to fill the gaps in numbers and their weaponry.

Shaken out of its wits by “26/11” and the public anger that followed it the government, discarding its lethargy and general unconcern, has pulled up its socks and rolled up its sleeves. While some plan or the other is being announced everyday to strengthen internal security, the rumblings of strikes at terrorist camps across the borders are becoming louder by the hour. One can only wish that need for invasive action is obviated. What, however, would be needed is sustaining the tempo of preparedness to preserve the security of the country with internal unity, economic and military muscle coupled with an unwavering political will.
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