The multiple terrorist attacks that have left over 100 dead and several hundred injured and the prolonged standoffs between the terrorists and the security forces in Mumbai are at once a grievous tragedy and an attack on the spirit of India. In its method and scale, the shooting down of innocent people and courageous police officers in 11 different places across the city represents an affront to the Indian state of a type not seen in the recent past. Among the dead is the head of the Maharashtra police’s anti-terrorism squad, Hemant Karkare, who led his men from the front in engaging the terrorists and was shot. That military commandos and National Security Guard commandos joined in the effort of the police in countering the terrorists demonstrates the magnitude of the challenge that the desperadoes posed. The sophisticated arms that they used and the manner of the attacks point to a well-funded, well-trained group that bears the signature of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its several variants. Unlike in the case of many of the other terror attacks where bombs were placed stealthily in crowded places, this was a fidayeen attack like the one on Parliament in 2002. The targeting of well-known landmarks and high profile places, including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Taj Mahal and Trident hotels, and Nariman House, shows some foreknowledge of the place obtained by prior reconnaissance or through local collaborators.
The Hindu shares the grief and the shock of the families, Indian and foreign, whose members were killed in the dastardly attacks. The immediate task before the Maharashtra government should be to remove the sense of insecurity that has gripped the people of Mumbai on the streets, in public places, and within their homes. A greatly stepped up vigil, a visibly larger presence of the police on the ground together with the military and security forces, should go some way in restoring public confidence. The Government of India, which has been quick to rush the army and the naval commandos to help contain the situation, should come to the aid of the State in a massive way in creating a sense of security in the immediate term. Mumbai as the country’s financial and business centre has always been an obvious target for those seeking to destabilise the Indian state, and terrorists attacks have been occurring in the city with a distressing frequency in the recent past – among them the serial bombings of 1993 and the train blasts of 2006. The State’s fractious and often bitter religious politics has not helped in keeping religiously motivated terrorism in check.
To maximise international attention, the terrorists have targeted Café Leopold and Nariman House, both frequented by tourists, besides the hotels. Some reports speak of their seeking foreign nationals, mainly American and British, for hostage-taking. While some of the terrorists were killed, some have been injured and are in custody while yet others could have escaped after the shootings. The interrogation of those in custody should provide some details of the people and the organisation behind the attacks. The use of the sea route by the terrorists who could have landed on a small boat from out of a larger vessel in the high seas off the coast of Mumbai opens up the possibility of their coming in from Karachi. While the Government of Pakistan appears to be serious in putting any form of support that its Inter-Services Intelligence provided for terrorism behind and in its pursuit of improved relations with India, there are several groups in the country that go about quite openly recruiting and training people for terrorist attacks in India. Given the series of attacks within Pakistan itself, its government’s determination and ability to contain terrorist elements within is no doubt open to question. Nevertheless, Islamabad needs to be reminded once again to live up to the commitment made by President Pervez Musharraf to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on January 6, 2004 not to “permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner.”
The political fallout of the attacks is difficult to gauge right now. The Maharashtra and central governments, which have much to answer for, will obviously come under pressure to act decisively on the terrorism front. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has spoken of using existing laws such as the National Security Act, of amending the laws to close loopholes that could be used by terrorists, and of a Federal Investigative Agency to go into terrorist crimes. The United Progressive Alliance government would do well not to lurch towards the legal route, seeking to introduce draconian provisions drawn from the repealed and discredited Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) that lend themselves to easy abuse against the innocent and would hardly deter fidayeen attacks. In any case, the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act with equally stringent provisions has obviously not served as an effective deterrent. The focus instead should be on strengthening security through surveillance of public places, screening of entry, and more policemen on the ground. The Prime Minister’s stress on preventive measures, including strengthening the police and intelligence machinery and curbing the flow of funds to suspect organisations, is welcome. Owners of public places such as hotels need also to step up their vigil and put stronger security and screening measures in place. The strengthening of the intelligence machinery with increased manpower and more sophisticated equipment, which is promised every time a terrorist attack takes place, brooks no further delay. All this will no doubt constrain an open society and involve some inconvenience and costs but it is a price that has necessarily to be paid for security in dangerous times. The long term task should of course be to avoid the bitterness of religious politics and promote harmony among different sections.