This Is The Week Of 26/11: Never Forget

In India, the anniversary of 26/11 comes and goes with only the bare minimum of remembrance. We don’t even bother very much about honouring those who acted with great bravery that day, rues Vir Sanghvi.

Watching America mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I was struck by the parallels with our own 26/11 siege of Mumbai. Both terror strikes traumatised the nations that were their targets. And both were masterminded from roughly the same region: Afghanistan/Pakistan.

And there, the similarities end. America has coped very differently with the after-effects of 9/11 than the way in which India has responded to 26/11.

There is, first of all, the Indian tendency to forget and move on. As the 9/11 memorials reminded us, America has not forgotten that day. It continues to mourn and honour the victims of those attacks.

In India, the anniversary of 26/11 comes and goes with only the bare minimum of remembrance. We don’t even bother very much about honouring those who acted with great bravery that day.

Many (if not most) of us have even forgotten the name of the Mumbai policeman who approached Ajmal Kasab despite being unarmed.

When Kasab opened fire, he grabbed the barrel of his gun and turned his AK-47 away so that Kasab’s bullets did not reach anyone else. The policeman died in the attempt (he took 40 bullets) but his bravery led to Kasab’s capture.

And yet Tukaram Omble is hardly a household name, even in Mumbai. (He did get the Ashok Chakra, posthumously, but sadly, he has now faded from public memory.)

As for the victims of the terror, they are remembered only by their families (and in the case of the Taj, by the hotel). They are never honoured or mourned in the way that America mourned those who died on 9/11.

You could argue, as many people do, that the US security and intelligence establishments failed in the run-up to 9/11. The CIA did not anticipate the attack, even though everyone knew that Osama bin Laden was out there and planning more attacks on American targets. Airport security in America was a joke — which is how the terrorists were able to take deadly weapons on to the planes.

The point is that these failures were addressed. There were Congressional hearings into the intelligence screw-ups, a commission of inquiry was set up and the intelligence and security apparatus was overhauled.

In India’s case, the failures that preceded 26/11 were far more serious. M K Narayanan, who was India’s national security advisor during the attack, has written recently that the intelligence available was ‘sketchy’.

But was it?

The CIA had penetrated the group that planned 26/11 (probably through David Headley) and had warned India that seafront hotels in Mumbai were going to be attacked. The Indian intelligence community has claimed that it even picked up radio transmissions from the boat that was bringing the terrorists to Mumbai. This information was passed upwards (and the buck stops with Narayanan) but simply not acted on.

Even after the attacks began, R&AW was able to listen to conversations between the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan. We know this because the tapes have since been made public. So the Indian government had information in real time about how the terrorists were proceeding.

And yet, we made mistake after mistake. We knew, for instance, that all Indian media reports were being monitored and the information contained in them was being relayed to the attackers. But nobody bothered to warn the media or even to put a blanket around the terror sites.

So the terrorists were told by their handlers that guests were hiding at the Chambers in the Taj Mahal Hotel: Information that TV channels broadcast.

And because nobody bothered to prevent TV, or at least ask for delayed coverage, from broadcasting the preparations for the NSG’s assault on Chabad House, the terrorists holed up there knew that the commandos were coming and opened fire at them when they arrived, killing one of the NSG’s men.

There was no accountability, let alone any kind of public post-mortem of the kind the Americans organised after 9/11. Narayanan happily continued in his post (before being made a governor) while a few politicians were sacrificed to assuage public concerns.

Narayanan has said that some of the security and intelligence failures have now been addressed. And indeed, some have been.

The NSG, which was delayed in arriving in Mumbai because of transport problems, now has its own plane. There are commando units in major cities. (The Mumbai police refused to engage the terrorists in the hotels saying it was too dangerous. Despite the bravery of Omble, I doubt if the city’s police force is in better shape now.)

But even Narayanan is not hopeful about the future. Writing in the Indian Express, he warned that the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan will make it easier for Pakistan to launch more terrorist operations against India. He is right. The hijack of IC-814 was facilitated by the Taliban in Kandahar in 1999.

Which brings us to the final difference between 9/11 and 26/11. The New York attacks were the work of al-Qaeda, planned in Afghanistan and carried out mostly by Saudis, the actions of what America calls non-State actors. The US has been able to retaliate and degrade al-Qaeda by launching drone strikes and killing many of its members and leaders. Osama bin Laden himself was killed by an American SEAL team.

In India’s case, the threat does not come from non-State actors. It comes from a State: Pakistan.

The world will not let India launch drone strikes or bombing operations at terrorist establishments within Pakistan, fearing that this could escalate into nuclear war. And even if we were to launch such strikes, the Pakistani army would only train and arm new terrorists at new locations.

That, finally, is the big difference. America can extract a terrible price from anyone who dares attack it. India, on the other hand, must fight its own war on terror with its arms bound firmly behind its back.

And so, we continue to live in peril, a danger that increases each month as such developments as the return of the Taliban strengthen Pakistan.

Vir Sanghvi is a journalist and TV presenter.

  • When Terror Hit Mumbai

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