Lessons from the Mumbai Terror Attacks

Prashan Bhushan

The recent horrendous terror attacks in Mumbai have woken up our elite citizenry of Mumbai and the country to the dangers of terrorism as nothing ever has. There have been many terror attacks in this country before -- each of those incidents killed almost as many or more people than the terror attacks in Mumbai. Only in the last few months, lumpen gangs terrorised and killed hundreds of persons in Orissa, Karnataka, Andhra and even in Kerala. Just last month, gangs of the local mobster of Mumbai, Raj Thackeray terrorised and beat up hundreds of poor and hapless North Indians, in Mumbai itself. Some years earlier in 1993, after the Babri Masjid demolition, more than 1000 persons were killed and tens of thousands of homes and shops were burnt by marauding gangs who raped, burnt and killed at will, while the Mumbai police watched and even connived in those massacres. In 2002, more than 2000 persons were killed, thousands of women raped, tens of thousands of homes burnt, in the most horrific manner by lumpen gangs in saffron robes, who operated with complete connivance of the Gujarat police and the Gujarat government. Hardly anyone, out of the hundreds who are easily identifiable, who were involved in those massacres have been brought to book till today. 24 years ago, this month, several thousand persons were killed and tens of thousands crippled for life by the poisonous gas of Union Carbide in Bhopal, let loose because of deliberate and criminally negligent corporate cost cutting. None of those responsible have been brought to book thus far. At the same time in November 1984, 5000 Sikhs were brutally massacred in Delhi and elsewhere with total complicity of the police and the Central government. None of those terror attacks, brutalities and massacres, evoked the kind of response from the elite citizenry of this country as we are seeing today. Unfortunately, we did not hear any cries of, "Enough is enough", or, "we will not pay our taxes", or "politicians must be replaced by CEOs to run this country", from our elite at those times. 
The energy of public anger can be usefully channelised to achieve many positive reforms in policing, intelligence and the security establishment and for preventing their misuse by the political establishment. “Get tough with terror”, is however the main battle-cry of the elite, goaded by the media. Let us therefore examine, what “getting tough” means, according to them. If India were to attack Pakistan, even the so called, “terrorist training camps”, within Pakistan, would it stop or deter terrorism, particularly the kind of suicidal terrorism that we are seeing today? Apart from running the risk of a war with a nuclear armed Pakistan, such an action is bound to politically destabilise that country, which will only make conditions within Pakistan more hospitable for terrorists operating from there. Already, the US war on Afghanistan (which was the US’s tough response to the 9/11 attacks), has destabilised the north-west Frontier province of Pakistan and made that territory much more hospitable to terrorists operating out of there. That is why Pakistan itself has seen so many terror attacks within that country in the recent past, including the attack which killed Benazir Bhutto and the one which killed a large number of US citizens in the Marriott hotel. We must understand that this is not a zero-sum game, where our “enemies’ loss is our gain.” Both Pakistan and India stand to suffer severe physical, social and psychological losses in the event of India using military force within Pakistan.  cartoon
It is now being said that the US’s tough response to the 9/11 attacks has prevented further such attacks within the US. Though there have not been any major terrorist attacks within the US recently, do the US citizens feel any safer now than before the US “war on terror”? All evidence suggests otherwise. The frequency of terror attacks in the world today, is more than 10 times of what it was prior to the US “War on Terror”. While much of these attacks are in Iraq and Afghanistan (many on US targets), the frequency of such attacks has also increased elsewhere. Many of these attacks are directed at US Embassies, US army personnel and US citizens. The latest “Worldwide Caution” issued by the US government on July 16, 2008, says that “Current information suggests that Al-Qaida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against US interests in multiple regions, including Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics including suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings and bombings.”  The Caution goes on to detail a very large number of terror attacks which have taken place after 9/11 on US Citizens and US targets across the world. It advises US Citizens traveling abroad, to “maintain a high level of Vigilance, be aware of local events and take steps to bolster their personal security.” Much of the increase in terror attacks worldwide has been a direct result of the anger in the Arab and Muslim world at the US attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, the killing and imprisoning of hundreds of thousands of innocent persons in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the imprisonment without trial of several thousand Muslims in the US after 9/11. Even if some of those who have been imprisoned may have been potential terrorists, the vast majority of those held on suspicion under the “Patriot Act” (the US version of POTA), are clearly innocent. Their incarceration for the last 7 years, without any charges and trial is also one of the causes of the resentment and anger against the US, which has fuelled the spurt in terror attacks worldwide against US interests. In fact the Mumbai attack was also an attack on US and Israeli interests apart from being on India.
What about the other costs of “Homeland Security” in the US? Homeland Security costs are in excess of $500 Billion annually in the US (several times India’s total Budget). From the preeminent economic and military superpower prior to 9/11, the US is today a superpower in precipitous decline having a debt equivalent to its entire GDP. It is today the most hated nation in the world, with approval ratings of only 9% in Turkey, 15% in Pakistan and just 30% even in its NATO ally, Germany. According to the report of the Pew Global Attitutes Project, “Since 2002, the image of the US has declined in most parts of the world. Favourable ratings of America are lower in 26 of the 33 countries for which trends are available.” Bush is today the most reviled President in all of US history, with approval ratings now around 20%. All this is part of the price paid by the US for its war on terror. And yet the bulk of our media, elite, and our security establishment want India to emulate the US in our fight against Terror.
It is useful to recall the prophetic words of Noam Chomsky, arguably the deepest social and political thinker of our times, in a short article that he wrote immediately after 9/11, on 12th September 2001. He wrote,
“As to how to react (to 9/11), we have a choice. We can express justified horror; we can seek to understand what may have led to the crimes, which means making an effort to enter into the minds of the likely perpetrators. If we choose the latter course, we can do no better, I think, than to listen to the words of Robert Fisk, whose direct knowledge and insight into the affairs of the region is unmatched after many years of distinguished reporting. Describing ‘the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a crushed and humiliated people’, he writes, ‘this is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American Shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia – paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally- hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.’ And much more.
Again we have a choice: We may try to understand, or refuse to do so, contributing to the likelihood that much worse lies ahead.”
The US “War on Terror” used the pretext provided by 9/11 to increase the power and funding of the military and security establishment and squeeze out civil liberties: something that had been on the US Administration’s agenda well before 9/11. They had said in their document “Rebuilding America’s defences” published a year before 9/11, just before Bush became President, that the scrapping the of Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, the treaty against Space Weapons, and a 50% increase in Military spending, though highly desirable for them, could not be achieved politically, “in the absence of a catastrophic and catalyzing event like a second Pearl Harbour”. 9/11 provided them with that catastrophic and catalyzing event which was seized to push through their agenda. And with such terrible costs and consequences to the US, its people, and indeed to the whole world.
Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine”, has written about how such “crisis” have been routinely used by hawks and neocons to push through unpalatable measures (such as the trillion dollar bailouts for private banks and corporations pushed in the present financial meltdown) which would not be accepted in normal times and which are totally counterproductive in the long run for society, but the crisis is used to scare them into accepting it at that time. The Mumbai terror attacks are also seen as providing a similar opportunity to push through another POTA or even a war with Pakistan.  
What can be done to meaningfully address the problem of terror? Revamping and depoliticizing our intelligence and investigative agencies and will certainly help. The Supreme Court had issued many directions in September 2006 to implement police reforms which several expert agencies of the government had recommended many years ago but which had not been implemented. They included setting up independent State and National Security Commissions, Police Establishment Boards, Police Complaints Authorities at the State and District levels, giving a minimum tenure to heads of field police officers at all levels including Police Chiefs etc. The thrust of these recommendations was to make the police and investigative agencies accountable to the law and free it from the strangulating control of the political executive. The Court had also asked the government, the NHRC, the Sorabji Committee and the Bureau of Police Research and Development to opine about the need for a Central Police agency to investigate and deal with Federal Crimes like Terrorism and organized crime. While the rest of the institutions gave their opinions long ago supporting such a Federal Police organization and suggesting how it could be constituted, the Central government has been dragging its feet over it. Most of the States have also not implemented the directions of the Supreme Court about the police reforms. None of the major political parties want to let go of their political control over the police which they have been misusing for partisan purposes. Thus implementation of reforms within the Police and Intelligence agencies is the main thing that could be done to improve security and reduce terror attacks. That is where public anger and energy needs to be directed – at a public campaign to force the authorities to implement the reforms. That will require sustained engagement with the government, judiciary and with Civil society. It will require time and effort –more than occasional candlelight marches.

While this can help in reducing the danger of terrorism, we must recognize that unless we deal with the enormous injustices in our society, we cannot eliminate such suicidal terrorism. For this, we need to do many things, but most importantly we need to fix our criminal justice system. We have an insensitive, communal, corrupt and failed judicial system. Neither the political nor the judicial establishment has the political will to fix it. We need a major public campaign for that. That is also where the public anger and outrage over the Mumbai terror attacks needs to be channelised. If we can succeed in doing that, it would be a major political achievement. If that anger only fuels reflexive jingoism, we will, as Chomsky warned, only be creating conditions for more devastating attacks in future.