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A month has passed by since my last post and the attacks on Mumbai. I did come up with several ideas for new posts in the past four weeks like review of the book Love in the time of Cholera by Gabo, update on the two pigeon chicks in my home, completing part 2 of Asset Bubble and I & Reservation post, an arbitrage theory of beauty and implications on marital prosperity among others. But repeatedly these ideas have been sidelined by the thought of Mumbai attacks. Despite a personal resolve to not write posts pertaining to politics or religion, not so much because of the controversies they invite but because of their sheer irrelevance to the present day world; I had to do it. Anyway, after I drew an outline of the post, I realized it won't be related too much to politics and even little to religion.

It is almost stuff for history now; however to set the tone of the post, I am summing up what ensued. On 26th November, few crazy young attackers (I will not acknowledge them as terrorists giving them credit for having achieved their motive of instilling terror in me) entered Mumbai, blew bombs in places and captured the Taj Palace, Trident Oberoi and Nariman House for a couple of days. They also engaged in random gun fire on Mumbai CST station and on the road. They were carrying Kalashnikovs, MP5s, some advanced kind of grenades, and some kilograms of RDX. After around 3 days (I had expected a minimum of 7 days; and it would have been, if it had blown up into an hostage crisis), 14 martyrs, a captured attacker, several hundred dead, even more injured and rescued, the Taj, Trident and Nariman House were recaptured. Some foreign nationals were killed in the attack and the FBI, Scotland Yard and, if some reports are to be believed, Israel's Mossad landed in India to assist in investigations.

Of course, Indian media outdid itself once again in the lows it could reach, the trough of which was a news channel refusing to cooperate with the ministry in the rescue operations. Once, in a discussion, a colleague claimed that India media has double standards. I refused to accept it, as it presupposes existence of standards in the first place. Sadly, I have been vindicated. It is not just a baseless outburst against the media; I was glued (probably like many others) to the TV set and was appalled to see the 11/26-11/28 coverage. I have watched the 9/11 coverage on a couple of leading foreign news channels and it was very different in its objectivity and lack of melodrama in the news (26/11 coverage appeared like a TV soap). Indeed after such abominable conduct reflective of a lack of essential self-censorship, Indian media has lost the moral authority to argue against Government intervention through a statutory code of conduct for media in such circumstances.

Theories of Attacks

There have been quite a few theories behind the attacks. The latest and the one backed by most evidence, accepted by FBI, is that the attackers came via sea route from Pakistan and that the attacks were organized and coordinated from the territories of Pakistan. The attackers have been proved to be Pakistani national's beyond reasonable doubt and links to Pakistan's ISI's involvement have been established, albeit not in a fool-proof manner.

The motives of the attackers are not known. An earlier theory, while the rescue operations were going on, was that the attackers planned to hold CST, Taj, Trident and Nariman House hostage for around 30 days. With a limited supply of dry fruits, steroid injections and ammunitions, I wonder how they planned to accomplish it. This theory is debunked.

Another theory is that they wanted to take 5000 lives (stated by the, now removed, home minister of Maharashtra in a press conference). But why not just blow up some busy place to do it? Why ask for people with British and American passports, when the attackers were inside the Taj and Trident? Why attack Nariman House? This theory also raises several questions. Answers to them will probably be found eventually as the investigation progresses. Although, I am not sure if I would want to rely on Kasab’s (the captured attacker) testimony alone, the reasons for which I will discuss in a while.

I have reached a somewhat disturbing conclusion, if this was indeed the motive. If it was so, then the organizers of the attacks had at least couple of options to accomplish their objective.
a. Plant RDX bombs at places and blow them up. Past few years have suggested it is not that difficult to do it in India.
b. Send people armed with guns, limited ammo, food supplies and few grenades to do the job.

Option (a) is efficient and effective. Also, in a war (which the attackers claim this is), one needs to minimize damage of lives to one’s side – making again option (a) preferable. However, as we know that they chose option (b). Maybe they didn’t have enough RDX. Possible, but highly unlikely.

One way to explain it is that the organizers of the attacks really didn’t see the plan through. It is possible, but less likely, given that they have planned this for several months.

Another reason could be they thought that the attackers could come out alive out of this by holding hostages (it also indirectly implies they viewed India as a soft target which will submit to their demands.) But the attackers stormed the targets in pairs. There movements were largely not coordinated, one group acting independent of the other. Without a commander on field (Ismail, one of the attackers, who has been claimed to be the leader could have been put to use more as a coordinator rather than a commander) and just in pairs, I wonder how they even thought they would be able to pull-off a hostage drama at multiple sites. It is possible that the attackers might have been told that it can be pulled off, but I doubt if the organizers really believed it could be done.

This leads me to conclude, that the organizers knew that it was not possible for their foot soldiers to come out of it alive. As I said before, in a war, one’s men are one’s most prized asset. Each man’s life is important. Since, saving their men’s lives was not a prime decision criteria, it could mean at least one of the following.
• The attack was meant as one-time diversion, not intended to be repeated again i.e. loss of lives was limited to this, to distract India, and possibly the world, from something. If one theory is to be believed, the intention was to incite attack from India on Pakistan’s eastern border forcing relocation of Pakistani troops from Pakistan’s western border, where they fight along with US forces against Al Qaeda and Taliban. But this is too much of a conspiracy theory for me, for; firstly we have a Prime Minister, who has little, if any, knowledge of geo-sociopolitical issues, and has even lesser incentives to engage them actively, as he is not popularly elected to the Parliament. For that matter, even the removed Union Home Minister’s case was similar. Also, with both countries armed with Nuclear weapons, a full-scale war is less likely. Moreover, it will be India’s loss if it would have gone to war. If however this is true, then Al Qaeda’s involvement in the attacks cannot be ruled out, for it would have been the direct beneficiary of such an eventuality.
• If it was not meant as one-time attack, it could mean that the organizers were not really concerned with loss of lives. This lack of concern implies for it means the organizers can recruit more such foot soldiers relatively easily for their war. This is upsetting. It is indicative of the idea that there are a larger number of youth who see such extremism as a way of life. This is the direct result of the instability and resultant unpredictability in several region of the world, dominantly Islamic, viz., Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, some African nations and some of the Soviet offshoots. Misguided youth are choosing the path of death willingly in return of what appears to me as a vain promise. I really don’t see entry into heaven (where fairies are at one’s service) – at least, that is what Kasab said he was to receive in return – as really something. (How much faith can be put into such a misguided youth’s testimony? How much of what transpired in reality is he expected to know? He can tell us only what he has been told or rather indoctrinated with.)
• Of course, one can dismiss the idea that this was just a senseless one-off attack and not a part of any larger scheme of things. But the objectivity of the actions – choice of an upcoming business destination like India which is getting close to the United States, killing foreigners, choosing internationally known targets all point to the idea of attracting global attention to the extremists’ cause. I see this as a pilot attack, and it was a largely successful one. The future holds the answer whether such an attack would be reattempted and if it would succeed.

Political Response

India’s political response to the attack, during and after, can be described as the work of a novice at best. Interestingly, our prime minister’s reaction to the situation came much after the reactions of international leaders had flowed in. The (removed) home minister’s clarification to the situation was that security of Mumbai was a state subject and not a centre subject – reflective of lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation. Maharashtra’s (removed) chief minister in his reaction seemed to be little bothered by what was happening, making it appear that he considered the responsibility of the attack did not lay with him or even if he did, it won’t affect him. Maharashtra’s (removed) home minister at least had an expression of worry on his face, though whether it was due to the fear of loss of his position or due to the enormity of the incident is a puzzle. He started claiming Pakistan’s involvement even before investigation had started. Indeed, stories like attackers landed by boat at Gateway and then made their way to the Taj were his creation. The opposition at centre restricted itself, for a brief while, from attacking the government, but most probably afraid of losing the chance to influence votes in the elections going on then, later on, exploited the opportunity as much as possible; in vain, as it appears now. And the otherwise vociferous and loud opposition parties at state level were largely silent, as if drawn into a coma. Cat got their tongues?

India’s steps on the foreign front during and immediately after the attacks were hmm… there weren’t any at all. Whereas, Pakistan’s foreign affairs minister was claiming innocence of Pakistan to its key allies, China, US and others, India’s foreign affairs department was sleeping. Where there should have been diplomatic efforts to gather sympathy as terrorized secular democratic nation and garner support against a terror-sponsoring theocratic state, there was nothing. All of this is related to the massive incompetence and lack of willingness of the Prime Minister, Home Minister and External Affairs Minister in handling such issues. At the same time, the remote-controlled operating structure of the ruling party at centre could have played a role in delayed response – as the stooges would have been waiting to be told of what to do or speak.

In effect, while the nation was facing one of its worst attacks challenging its sovereignty, the politicians were busy doing chance pe dance and there seem to have been no indications that they were in control of what was happening. I estimate confusion must have been rampant inside the Indian political structure at that time. Thanks to the clarity of purpose and action demonstrated by the brave Indian commandos, the situation was controlled. Although it could probably have been brought under control earlier, had they had quicker transfer facilities and the bureaucratic delays were avoided.

Problems on the surface

When an external organization/nation succeeds in attacking a nation, there could only be two reasons behind it at a high level.
• The external organization/nation is too strong (financially, capability-wise, etc) for the nation
• The internal structure of the nation is too weak to fight off such external attacks

In this case, the external bodies are strong. Terrorist organizations are well-funded, probably trained by people trained by premier intelligence bodies of the world and as I proved earlier most likely having no shortage of manpower. However, India too is one of the top 5 richest nations, purchasing power parity wise. We don’t lack intelligence or training machinery either.

But I believe in the past decade, our internal capability to fight off such attacks has not kept pace. For starters, India’s defense budget for 2008-09 is just 2% of GDP. On average it has been less than 3%. Compare that to United States, a democracy third of our size. It has been over 4% of GDP (this for a nation which has amicable neighbors and almost an eternity of oceans on its west and east). Check this map which shows military expense as a % of GDP. Our neighbor on west, which for a considerable part of its life as an independent state has been a military dictatorship, spends around 3.5% of GDP and on east, over 4% of GDP. Of course, if compared in absolute levels, whereas India’s 2008-09 budgeted spend is $26.5billion, US will be spending over $600billion dollars. That is more than 22 times Indian defense budget, whereas US GDP is around 13 times Indian GDP. This lower budget translates into poor salaries for our defense, law and order professionals, poor equipment, facilities and amenities, outdated arms and ammunitions (World War 2 rifle vis-à-vis AK-47 and MP5) and last but most important, poor intelligence machinery. It takes MORE to preserve freedom and sustain a democracy.

Other dominant problem has been structural. The non-independence of the state law and order machinery or the central intelligence machinery from politics inevitably leads to politicians unduly interfering with the workings of these bodies, often to the peril of national security and sustenance of law and order. Coordination between various state and central bodies has been quoted as an issue. I fail to understand how creation of a new federal body would resolve that and not add to existing confusion and bureaucracy. The same thing could be possibly accomplished by a setting up a coordinating committee. A new body will add another ego in the equation, additional overheads, and probably little improvement in existing effectiveness.

Another structural issue surrounds the counter-terrorism laws. While the United Nations Counter-terrorism Committee had suggested that India needs stronger anti-terror laws last year, Indian government still considers that the present legal provisions are sufficient. The ruling party’s soft stand on the counter-terrorism law is part of its long standing appeasement policy towards of its vote banks, which I will discuss later. Their counter is the human rights violations resulting from the misuse of the law. It can’t be denied that the law is not liable to misuse. However, the trade-off between misuse of law leading to human rights violations and absence of law leading to attacks like the one in Mumbai has to be carefully weighed. In both the cases, innocents are killed. It is anybody’s guess which side the balance will tilt in such a trade-off in India, set in such a fragile context. To reduce human rights violations, what is needed are elaborate countervailing protocols to ensure that in execution of the statute, errors resulting from misuse of law are minimized, and, if possible, eliminated. It isn’t easy, but it is doable. Our anti-terror laws are indeed weak and they create incentives to inaction for the law & order and intelligence bodies. In the absence of an amenable environment, how are these bodies expected to perform their jobs?

The last issue, I believe, is that of gun control. The Arms Act, 1959 supplemented by Arms Rules, 1962 make it extremely difficult for law-abiding citizens in India to hold guns. Add to that, restrictions on private weapons manufacture and on import of weapons and you have made it nearly impossible for citizens to buy weapons, legally. The logic in favor of such legislation in present times would be that it increases rate of crime. There is little evidence to support this hypothesis. United States, where a gun can be bought like a car, has a small fraction of violent crimes resulting from licensed weapons. The logic against such regulation is aptly stated in the II amendment to United States constitution, specifically in the Bill of Rights: A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Indeed, if gun control was absent, it is likely that security at Taj would have been prepared with weapons after being threatened of an attack; it is likely that the attackers at CST would have never made out of the station alive; it is likely that the organizers would have considered twice before attacking the Taj, Trident or CST. The government now plans to increase the strength of the industrial security forces at centre level and establish an equivalent force at state level, to provide security to businesses. Is this force going to ensure security for all the businesses in India, from the nuclear reactors to the local provisions store? Besides, from where are they going to find enough men to fill in those jobs? The Army and law & order bodies are already short of manpower in India.

It is a constitutional mandate that India’s union government has to secure the citizens from internal disorder and external aggression. The past decade has shown that successive union governments have largely failed to do that. The state has proven that it is grossly underprepared to avoid occurrence of a situation like the Mumbai attacks and to handle it, if it happens. In such circumstances, the state should allow the people their fundamental right to defend themselves and deregulate weapons market. I am not claiming that there are John McLanes all across India who would do a Die Hard every time something like Mumbai attacks happens. (This also tenders merit to the argument of mandatory military conscription if gun market is deregulated, for at least some of the people would know how to fire a weapon and not be knocked out by the recoil on firing the first shot). There also is considerable signaling and screening value associated with gun decontrol. That rate of violent crime using weapons might rise marginally, is possible and it will have to be remedied through better education.

Problem runs deep

The problems on the surface can be remedied through some solutions, but the effectiveness of these solutions will be limited. That is not to say, that those solutions should not be thought of or implemented. If marginal improvement in effectiveness implies reduction of chances of loss of lives by even a basis point, it should be done. However, it should not be used as an escape route to run from the real problems; those problems which are much more serious than mere lack or excess of policy.
... continued in Part 2

2 Comments

arohan said... @ January 02, 2009

relaxing gun lawas will mean even a small crowd of muslim can hold entire city to hostage. on other side villages will fight each other deadly battles in UP & Bihar.

AP said... @ January 03, 2009

I doubt that actually. If you want to procure a weapon in India, it can be done illegally even now. So if villages have to fight each other to death or a village has to be held hostage by a group it can be done (remember Naxal attack on a village in Bihar some time back).

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