I’ve been asked repeatedly whether I’m going to blog about the Bombay blasts, and I’m still in two minds about it. First of all, what could I find to say that hasn’t been said already in the outpourings of grief, shock, horror, condemnation and anger that we’ve seen so far? Like many I had friends and relatives affected by, even present at, the scenes of the attacks. I was deeply saddened to see CST, the Taj and the Oberoi and Trident become the scenes of an unprecedented and unholy carnage. My heart goes out to those who lost their loved ones, both among the victims and the men and women who fought to save them.
But I’ve also been alarmed, as have many, at the godawful mess we’ve made over this. The press and the politicians are the easiest punching bags to thump, with the armed forces of various stripe being next, followed by the police, RAW, the hotels, the navy, and ourselves, last as usual.
There has been plenty of criticism of the press on several counts; it would be tedious of me to repeat it. Though there were honourable exceptions, the electronic press did indulge in an unseemly feeding frenzy around the grief and tragedy of the victims, especially where the victims looked well groomed and spoke fluent English. In between there were righteous calls for various kinds of action, some of them wildly unrealistic and emotional. In the process the attack on Victoria Terminus was ignored at first, especially as the media turned up too late to get video grabs of the event, but with the upwelling of criticism in the blogosphere and print media this was quickly remedied by after-the-fact features on the venerable station. Meanwhile news around the country was practically off the air, including any reporting of Cyclone Nisha devastating the coast. Now, of course, the recent state elections have knocked the terror attacks off the number one slot. Certain aspects of the coverage were heartening and courageous, while others left you gaping in disbelief, such as the feeding frenzy around Moshe Holtzberg. I’m not an expert on childcare, but surely taking a golden-haired two-year-old to his parents’ memorial service and making him cry for the cameras is a bit much? Surely someone should have put their foot down and kept that child where he could eat, sleep and recover from his trauma in peace?
That our already leaky intelligence burst into a million streams of information easily accessible to the terrorists was not so much the press’s fault as the sluggishness of the forces to ensure lockdown of the area. As far as policy and management of the public face of this theatre of war were concerned, people were clearly making it up as they went along. They seesawed between giving the press and public unprecedented access to information and clamming up for no reason at all.
That we were, as ever, woefully unprepared was no surprise, but the extent of the shambles was a bit of a revelation. For instance, coming back to the information aspect of the operation. Confusion was created by the repeated use of the word ‘hostages’ . If there really were ‘hostages’ in the buildings, then the way the forces stormed them would have ensured that all hostages ended up dead. But in fact the terrorists were not taking hostages; they were shooting people indiscriminately, and at the most letting them live long enough to be human shields. The terrorists were apparently not interested in making demands or bargaining. Even after this was known, however, the commanders in charge of speaking to the press about the operation continued to use the word ‘hostages’, resulting in needless international puzzlement and criticism. Again, I’m not an expert on urban warfare, but surely the soldiers carrying out the operation should have been operating in conditions of lockdown, with everyone kept out of the scene of operations, a complete media blackout around the site (which means cut cable tv and shut down mobile networks to the hotels, not muzzle the press nationwide), and an evacuation of all civilians as top priority. Difficult to ensure in a busy city area, but possible if there is an urban response team in place. Yes, mobile phones and information networks allowed people to keep in touch with their families (that Indian imperative) and perhaps saved some lives, but it also probably allowed the terrorists to coordinate themselves, contact their handlers and keep the forces out for so long.
In a further display of incompetence, it’s now thought that one of the men arrested in connection with the 20 SIM cards used by the terrorists was one of ours, an undercover agent. Rumours of various kinds are flying around about him. If this is true, our undercover men aren’t reporting to anyone important likely to do anything.
I’m hoping that all the hype about brave men and martyrs won’t make us forget the fact that the NSG had to travel sedately to the site from the airport in a bus. If we had had a better organised response system, some of those brave lives might have been saved. While we get sentimental over their great sacrifice, we’re also salving our guilt at not have pestered politicians about this, not having made the right kind of fuss. Till now, whenever a strike has occurred, the biggest noise has been, ‘attack Pakistan!’ We’ve never looked at our selves and asked what we are doing wrng, from a simple practical point opf view. Not even after the Kandahar hijacking. It took 9/11 for us to tighten airport security, and that was because international airlines had to do this worldwide. While the operation was on, we were told the identity and origins of the ‘sole captured terrorist’. Now if you really want to prove who he is, is it sensible to blare his name to the world so that persons unknown can quickly erase all trace of his existence, then deny that such a person could have done the deed? Pakistan wants proof that he is the man India says he is. Somehow I don’t think you’ll find it in Lahore any more. The Observer claims to have found proof in Lahore, but the Pakistani authorities continue to deny that any such person as Mohammed Ajmal Qasav existed. When they do admit he lived and had his being, I personally will fall off my chair in disbelief.
The police — well we all know what’s wrong with them. Three men with working revolvers could have stopped the terrorists on the steps of the hotel, but none were to be found. Instead the law had to dive for cover from automatic gunfire. This is not an accident: various sections of society have worked long and hard to make this condition of the police a reality. We quake with fear at the thought of what the cops would do if they were really armed. In fact one way of stopping young men from turning into criminals is to make them cops, which ensures they’ll never come in contact with usable guns. That the police nevertheless did more than their duty in confronting these men speaks of a heroism that we as a society don’t deserve. We need to give the force the dignity and the strength it should have, and THEN give it automatics. Which means we have to stop thinking that we benefit from a corruptible police force and we must (I shudder at the enormity of the problem) stop corrupting them, please, now. And make it possible for them to live without corruption, to get jobs without paying kickbacks to politicians and making it up with bribe money from the public. Dare we hope that we might see this in our lifetime?
But let’s get something straight about this terror attack. It took place on Indian soil, most of the victims were Indian, with some foreigners. But it wasn’t about us. The real target of this attack was the goverment of Asif Ali Zardari. Ex-Pres Mushy has already said ‘these things didn’t happen in my time’. That’s like Al Capone saying the mafia were always polite to him. The involvement of foreigners means the US will lean hard on Zardari over confronting the militants at home; an encounter he isn’t prepared to have, and one the militants think they will win. Just to show they mean it, they then bombed Peshawar. The target of every cross-border terror attack on India is Pakistani democracy; we are just collateral damage. Unfortunately our own lot of crazies have learned the trick as well now.
Some good has come of this: people are at last sick of Muslim bashing. A BJP worker saw a woman in a burqa holding a baby, running towards a terrorist. The man shot her without breaking his stride. The woman and her baby died, but the watcher was changed. There is also a change in the attitude of Indian Msulims. Early this year, a convocation of Muslim religious scholars condemned terrorism in strong terms. After the attacks of 27 November, some Muslim cemeteries refused to accept the terrorists’ bodies for burial. This may be dismissed as an empty gesture, but we are beginning to see that terror is worldwide, and supporting it even in spirit is suicidal. We’re beginning to see what we’ve been doing wrong, all these years. Let’s hope this trend continues.
India has got used to terror. We scream and run, cry and mourn, then we wipe our eyes and go no. But perhaps we’ll pause, this time. Perhaps we’ll keep talking. Because is something about this time that is chillingly different. It wasn’t even like a terrorist attack; it was like those nightmares when crazy gunmen hole up in American campuses and shoot the hell out of all their friends. The terrorists were trigger-delirious (and also apparently out of their heads on drugs); they shot a tailor shutting his shop, a mother with a baby, a fisherman, seventeen innocent receptionists and guests in one go. They behaved like characters in a computer game. Now let me say at once that I’m a fan of computer games, and I don’t think this is evidence that they make people violent or encourage them to shoot the hell out of the world. Some of the best years of my life have been spent playing those games. No, these mass murderers were like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (as the offog commented). Those men were the Joker’s almost as if he’d trained them. They were shooting people for a laugh, to watch them die, or just because they could.
Bombs are anonymous. They’re like monsters let off the leash. Even a suicide bomb is like a parasitic growth on its carrier’s body, which destroys like a cancer. But here we saw who was holding the leash and leading the monster up and down the road like a lapdog. Now we know what the faces of our killers look like.
They look like us.