It was Mumbai’s longest and darkest night
The tragedy that struck Mumbai on that fateful day in the last week of November 2008, quite hazy in the minds of many Indians living far away, is still fresh in the minds of thousands who were involved in tackling the terrorists who were rampaging through the city and those who laid down their lives fighting them. It was Mumbai’s longest and darkest night.
Ten terrorists who were evidently well-trained and committed held the city hostage for 60 hours although at the time the number was not known. They got into the city around 1 p.m., while the first attack took place at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) at 9.20 p.m.. An estimated 166 people were killed, more than 300 were injured. Mumbaikars are unlikely to forget the horror that was visited upon their city.
Reams of literature covering the event during the siege and after it was over have circulated around the country and the world because of the ghastly nature of the indiscriminate killing, including foreigners. Several post-mortems took place at various levels based on testimonies of those actively involved as well as post facto analyses by experts.
Amidst a pall of gloom several acts of heroism and timely action that saved many more lives were seen. The memories of brave policemen who gave their lives will remain alive for generations to come. As will the apathy, mental paralysis and complete lack of command, control and coordination at higher levels.
Intelligence failure and the post facto blame-game among various agencies has become the order of the day. Nobody took responsibility as is generally the case right up to the present day. While the Parliament in Delhi hastily assembled to take stock of the Mumbai attacks the more important measures for tightening national security were debated and then discarded because of the opposition of the states.
All that could be salvaged was the creation of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). It needs to be mentioned here that it was fortunate that an able person, Mr. P Chidambram was in charge of the Home Ministry in that critical period. Several quick followup measures were initiated in the ensuing weeks and months.
Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government too has taken a host of measures to ensure that the paralysis that gripped the decision-making levels during the 26 November 2008 attack is not repeated. Some of the important measures of note are: coastal security has been given high priority at both the national and state levels; at the state level additional coastal police stations are being set up; security of islands (with Coast Guard), tracking of vessels/boats; more detailed coastal mapping; security of non-major ports; fishermen biometrics/ ID cards; 60 fast patrol boats; chain of radars along the entire coastline of India, the state of Maharashtra having four.
The state has set up the Maharashtra Intelligence Academy and has activated Sagar Rakshak Dal, a network of around 25,000 persons from coastal villages for collecting human intelligence. A comprehensive CCTV network has been set up. Most importantly, a dedicated unit to counter terrorism, Force One along the lines of the NSG has been raised; it has been trained in Israel and Germany and has been equipped with latest weapons. Similarly Quick Reaction Teams (QRTS) have been trained and set up.
The digression into what went before as well as a short recapitulation of several followup actions that have been taken by the Government in Delhi and by the Maharashtra government were highlighted because although laudatory and far-sighted in many respects there does not seem to have been deeper analysis into several of the more glaring shortcomings that seemed far removed at that time from the immediate actions that were required to bring the situation under control. They should certainly have been studied by experts from various disciplines. The recommendations should have been examined and implemented within a given time-frame. Only a few of these have been analysed in this article.
The aspect of command and control will be considered at two levels. To begin with at the level of what happened in Mumbai on the evening of 26 November 2008 in the first few hours. Chaos and confusion in the hours immediately after an incident of this nature that was so out of the ordinary as to numb minds at the higher levels, many of them untrained, was to be expected.
However by midnight while the situation on the ground was being tackled by the first responders the Mumbai police with admirable efficiency and aplomb an overall command and control centre should have been set up. Its purpose besides exercising control of the elements that were deployed would have been to plan the response pattern and the men and material required for the ensuing few hours to begin with and ensuing day(s) after that.
More so to ensure that help coming in from whatever source is not deployed helterskelter or due to lack of proper guidance does not get involved in firefights with own elements already on the ground. (Such confusion has happened often in several countries even where command and control has been well-established).
By that time emergency hotlines would have been set up with the headquarters of various armed forces that might be called into play and a similar emergency centre in the concerned ministry in New Delhi. It is not known what these deficiencies were at the time and how much papering over, if any, took place once the situation was brought under control rather late in the day.
The aim of this paper is not to apportion blame by hindsight but to suggest measures for future episodes of this nature because even now there has been confusion about whose responsibility it becomes to coordinate response at various levels and in time. Pathankot comes to mind.
In India governments since Independence have gone their own way and not taken measures that have been worked out by governments of advanced countries around the world. After many trials and tribulations these function well in almost all cases.
Practically all countries with armies worth reckoning have Chiefs of Defence Staff. Even after 70 years the government of India keeps dithering. The excuse is that while two services are amenable, the third one is not. Governments that make such excuses and get away with it can never be rated as first-rate, at best they can be rated second rate if not third rate. It shows rank indecisiveness.
This point is being highlighted because looking into India’s past the British, who ruled India, with a small British military force in the country were yet able to keep tight control because they had set up Area and Sub-Area Headquarters of the Army around the country to come to the aid of civil authorities in times of distress or any internal threat. The command and control was clear and these entities functioned admirably up to Independence and for some period after that.
Had such a practice been in vogue the Area Commander in Mumbai would automatically have brought the situation under control in much lesser time. He certainly would not have waited for NSG reinforcements to come in simply because commandos could slither on to the rooftop from helicopters and had superior weapons.
In Europe and elsewhere, women and young people often practice slithering from helicopters as a sport or a fitness exercise. Most if not all infantry battalions could easily do the same. The NSG commandos killed terrorists who were holed up at three locations by 29 November.
It needs to be mentioned here that in Paris regardless of the presence of the President, Prime Minister and the heads of the military being located in the city, it is the military governor of Paris who is responsible for taking over in similar situations in the first instance to prevent confusion in the first few hours. Meanwhile, the Cabinet or the Forces Headquarters can decide on future action, possibly asking the military governor to stand down thereafter. It so happens that the Military governor resides in his quarters at the Invalides above the Tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.
When the National Security Guard or NSG was raised in the early 1980s, it was trained primarily for anti-hijacking operations that were rife in the world at that time. The Special Protection Group’s purpose was well-defined. (Simultaneously the NSG was being set up to tackle the largescale threat coming from Bhindranwale that was causing havoc all over Punjab). Today, its frequent deployment hinders the quality of response that should be there in all states from coming up to par.
In Mumbai, the Area Commander could have tasked any battalion commander to send his Ghatak Platoon to deal with the emergency. Ghatak platoons in infantry battalions are well-trained to go after enemy tanks in war and carry out cross-border operations up to a limited depth. Their level of training is always high. To reiterate a Ghatak platoon would have completed all actions that were pending till the NSG arrival ~ creating a mental paralysis of sorts ~ well within the first 30 to 40 hours if not earlier with the assistance of the Mumbai police already deployed.
It is hoped that the NSG will be sent in more selectively unless it is occasionally to send in teams to hone their skills from time to time. Further, like Maharashtra, all states should raise their own specialist forces based on Force One of Maharashtra as a model.
To say that cowardliness might be a factor is too strong a word to use. The fact is that our people have not been trained even mentally to be the first responders in case of internal emergencies of various types that take place all the time all over the country. Invariably they wait for some higherups or specialists from outside to take charge.
A case in point is the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel in Mumbai that turned out to be one of the major targets and where the greatest damage to the edifice took place. On 26 November there were many people dining and wining in the restaurants of the hotel. In fact it was the favoured place for officers of the army, navy and police, both serving and retired, to take tea in the evening. Over the hours most of them were evacuated by the fire department with ladders.
Instead of fleeing did it not strike even one of them to decide to stay on and ask for weapons to be sent in? Had they done so and asked for weapons to be sent in through the same rescue route, the terrorists could have been dealt with effectively. Of course there is the off-chance that many of them who might have had a derring-do idea might have had second thoughts as they might have felt that a better action plan to deal with the situation was under way. As it turns out it was not the case.
The Taj is a labyrinth that even frequent visitors find difficult to find their way. In the blackout it would have made life more difficult for the attackers holed therein. The small force under an army officer would have had advantage of surprise as well. Army officers are certainly trained for adverse situations.
An Area Commander would have certainly used this method to deal with the situation. The most-heartening part of that episode is that many Taj employees ~ all of them civilians ~ did not panic and stayed at their posts at least till the guests had been evacuated. There are several other aspects that need further deliberation for the future. These will be dealt with in a subsequent paper.
The writer is the author of Third Millennium Equipoise. (Courtesy: TS)