Another day, another terror attack. As they were going home from work during rush hour on July 13, Mumbaikars heard chilling news of a familiar kind: Bombs were going off in different parts of the city.
When the dust had settled after three blasts in the busy commercial areas of Opera House and Zaveri Bazaar in south Mumbai and Dadar in the center, 20 people were dead and more than 80 injured. Sophisticated improvised explosive devices were used in the attacks, pointing to the hand of a professional terror group. There was chaos as mobile-phone networks were briefly jammed, people ran for cover, rumors made the rounds, and heavy rain disrupted rescue operations. It was the fourth attack in Mumbai involving serial terrorist strikes in the last eight years, making the vibrant, diverse, politically stable city one of the world's terror capitals.
If murmurs of "Pakistan" circulated in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it wasn't without reason. It is now well established, both by the trial of Ajmal Amir Kasab in India and more recently that of David Headley in Chicago, that the deadly terrorist strikes in Mumbai in November 2008, in which 174 people lost their lives, were plotted by the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba with the help of that country's security services, the ISI. But there were no immediate leads about the identity of the terror group involved in last week's blasts, and the Indian government's response was considered and temperate.
If there was anger, it was mostly directed at the coalition Congress-NCP government in power in Maharashtra, India's second-most populous state, of which Mumbai is the capital. The city's residents believe that the state government has been lackadaisical in its efforts to combat terror, helping to make Mumbai a preferred target for terrorist groups both within and outside the country. The first inference to be drawn from the attacks, it was felt, was that the government hadn't learned any lessons from the cataclysm of Nov. 26, 2008. Indeed, the government could afford not to, as the Indian Express pointed out in an editorial called "City/State":
It is too soon to make any definitive statements on the antecedents of these latest bombings in Mumbai. However, it is not too early to evaluate some aspects of Mumbai’s response to the emergency and its crumbling infrastructure. What has been highlighted yet again this week is Mumbai’s continued exclusion from the horizon of Maharashtra’s policy-making.
This is caused by well-understood structural factors. As is the case for most state capitals, Maharashtra’s political leadership rarely worries about the voters of Mumbai, as their bases are outside the city; the capital exists, in the mental landscape of many of them, as a place where money is made, and from where funding comes.
And an editorial in the Hindu titled "Little Learned from 26/11" excoriated both the Indian government and Maharashtra state leaders for failures on different fronts:
Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram [...] explained the absence of intelligence this time by noting that the perpetrators of this carnage had “worked in a very clandestine manner.” Responses like this are of a piece with a longstanding official tradition: after each tragedy, cities are promised that gaps in policing will be filled, and lavishly praised for their spirit of resilience. The same resilience marks the lives of peoples in Karachi or Beirut, surely not models we should emulate.
The unpleasant truth is that the much-vaunted police modernisation effort the government began after 26/11 has just not delivered. Not one of the five urban terrorist attacks that preceded the latest Mumbai bombings has been solved. Emergency response capabilities have not improved significantly since November 2008. In Mumbai on Wednesday, the injured were evacuated, like cattle, on trucks and other readily-available transport; hospitals ran short of blood; traffic snarled and rumours proliferated. Mr. Chidambaram has correctly pointed out that India is located in one of the most dangerous regions in the world. That makes it all the more imperative to develop the capacities our police and intelligence services desperately need: better training, better skills, better working conditions. Instead, the focus of the post-26/11 effort has been on raising special forces and acquiring cutting-edge technology, assets which the existing system simply does not have the foundations to use to good effect.
These assertions were echoed by the security expert Ajai Sahni, in a long and comprehensive piece in Outlook called "That Recurring Nightmare":
The reality is, India's counter-terrorism capabilities remain minimal, and, despite large quantities of money spent — and misspent — since the 26/11 attacks, these have been augmented, at best, marginally, and in tiny pockets. [...] In the meanwhile, proposals to improve basic policing and intelligence gathering have made little progress.
Since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, moreover, the state police has not significantly improved its preventive CT capabilities. Instead, the focus has, again, been on symbolism, such as the setting up of the 'elite' Force 1 and the acquisition and positioning of armoured cars at street corners. The crucial imperative of improving general police capabilities has largely been ignored, and the police constable remains essentially what he was — poorly trained; poorly integrated into the intelligence chain; operating in conditions of extraordinary stress; and held in wide contempt by both the public and his own masters.
[...] It is significant, in the present context that, according to official documents put together by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2010, Maharashtra was among seven States that had fared poorly in modernising their police forces. Maharashtra failed to use the funds allocated by the Centre for upgrading the police and intelligence apparatus, and to submit its utilisation certificates (UCs) for funds spent. As a result, Maharashtra was denied additional allocations, and its "funds have been diverted to other responsive states." The MHA noted that the 'poor performance' States had outdated and obsolete weapons and, even where modern weapons were supplied, police personnel were not trained for their use. Deficits were also noted in police communication networks, transportation and forensic capabilities.
Compared with previous incidents, this time there was more cynicism about Mumbai's fabled "spirit of resilience," which one grizzled newspaperman, Kumar Ketkar, called simply a "survival instinct," rooted in the detachment needed to exist in the city. It is a detachment that requires the resident of Mumbai to carry on the day after a crisis as if nothing has happened. In a piece called "What Mumbai Spirit?" that appeared on the Website of the New Yorker, Naresh Fernandes, a veteran journalist and editor of Mumbai's edition of Time Out, observed:
The city’s ability to pick itself up and march right back to work in this way has, after previous attacks, routinely been hailed by politicians and society leaders as evidence of the indomitable “spirit of Mumbai.” Thursday morning, that cliché was notably absent in the newspapers and on TV. In fact, for the first time, Mumbai citizens were expressing an antipathy towards that phrase. Perhaps they were finally mindful that politicians who had praised the spirit of Mumbai had used this presumed resilience as an excuse to absolve themselves of the need to take the difficult decisions necessary to actually make the city safer and more livable. Shortly after the blasts, a Bollywood music composer named Vishal Dadlani sent out a tweet that warned, “First person to suggest a candle-march gets a resounding slap. We need real changes, real measures. Not your stupid tokenism!”
It will, however, take much more than tweets and rousing text messages to effect real change. It suddenly became clear this morning that the sentiment many had identified as the Mumbai spirit was probably epic apathy all along. And, really, who could blame the residents of this city of just over twelve million for being too exhausted to think about anything other than their gruelling daily routines? Behind the sparkling Bollywood façade it projects to the world, Mumbai is a city riven with gargantuan problems. It’s more slum dog than millionaire. More than sixty per cent of the residents of India’s financial capital live in shanties, with twenty thousand people packed into each square kilometre. The pollution is often throat-searing; the water supply and road systems are overstretched. The trains, which carry about 6.9 million commuters every work day, are designed to transport seventeen hundred passengers each, but in peak hour bone-crunchingly pack in forty-five hundred travellers. Life in Mumbai is a daily battle that leaves little energy for luxuries, such as joining campaigns to pressure the administration to provide the basic amenities that residents of most cities take for granted.
The blasts occurred a few days before two important diplomatic encounters, and are sure to be high on the agenda of both. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in India on July 18 for a three-day visit, and the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan are scheduled to meet in the last week of July to review the peace process.
By the weekend, the commercial districts where the blasts took place were back to work -- they had no choice. But perhaps the least Mumbaikars could do is to find out a bit more about each of those who lost their lives last week. Meanwhile, in the Indian capital, a survey by a newspaper of the security arrangements in New Delhi railway station exposed a familiar state of laxity...
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author of this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at email@example.com