Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai attack and its aftermath

The recent terrorist attack on Mumbai is being called India's 9/11. In sheer audacity of design, that is true. The US, whose mainland has never been attacked, could not have imagined that a set of planes could be transformed into enormous bombs. Nobody in India thought of a sea-borne invasion of Mumbai- the attackers are said to have hijacked a fishing trawler, steered it towards the Mumbai coast and then landed on motorised dinghies. Not just out-of-the box thinking but meticulous execution has been in evidence in both the cases.

In 9/11, the attackers targeted the World Trade Center, beloved symbol of America's financial capital. In the Mumbai attack, the targets were two high-profile hotels and a Jewish centre in India's financial capital.The objective was the same: to cause dislocation and mayhem in leading financial centres in ways that would capture the world's attention. Smoke billowing out of the WTC is one image that is etched in our minds; so will that of the Taj Hotel in flames. The Mumbai attackers have certainly met their objective.

9/11 changed America. Unilateralism and the doctrine of pre-emption became central to American foreign policy. There was the bombing of Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq thereafter.Also less noticed transgressions of international law such as a missile attack on Sudan, the bombing of a suspected nuclear site in Syria and missile and bomb attacks on terrorist hideouts in Pakistan. T

The US has made clear that it will not be bound by the UN or international law when it comes to the protection of its intersts. The US has also gone after terrorists in several countries and spirited them to other locations for interrogation and incarceration. It did this in Italy a few years ago- an Imam was seized by CIA operatives. An Italian judge has issued arrest warrants for the CIA operatives, a warrant that has no chance of being enforced.

Within the US, the full financial might and technological capability of the country has been brought to bear on preventing infiltration of terrorists. The issue of visas has become more stringent, there is far greater scrutiny of visitors (including strip searches) at airports, stepped up surveillance at home and abroad and an abridgement of civil liberties under the Patriot Act. These have ensured that no terrorist attack has occurred in the US after 9/11.

There have been comparable measures in the UK after its own 7/11. Surveillance through closed circuit TV is so pervasive that the Orwellian prediction of 1984 seems to have come true in the UK. On top of this, tapping of phone calls and monitoring of email has been stepped up- the American journalist Seymour Hersh has said that he would never use pay phone in the UK because there was little chance of the call being confidential.

One other country that has had success in the war of terror- in the sense of limiting attacks on its soil- is Israel. But Israel is unique. Not only can it pour huge finanicial and technological resources towards securing itself, it is willing to use the most draconian methods. A whole wall has been created between Israel and the occupied territories and entry through it into Israel tightly regulated. Palestinians have been beaten into quiesence in the most brutal ways.Above all, there is the intense determination of the Israeli people, military conscrption for all young people and the fact that Israel is a small country.

Where does India stand after the Mumbai attack? One, there is no question that security measures in key places, including hotels, will be at a higher level hereafter, causing no small inconvenience but that is something that people will come to accept.

Two, it's hard to see how the pressure to enact tougher terror laws can be resisted- even PM Manmohan Singh had to mention this in his address to the nation after the attack. This does mean a certain curtailment of civil liberties.

Three, there will be profiling of communities and a crackdown on suspects within these. These will create more alienation and hence a greater susceptibility to domestic terrorism.

Will terrorism decline in India in response to strong-arm measures as happened in the US and Israel? One must be sceptical. We do not have comparable funds or technology but that is not the only problem. We must reckon with the country's size and diversity. Above all, there is the problem of corruption and poor governance.

Key institutions of the state, notably the police and the judiciary, suffer from both corruption and poor governance. Strong anti-terror laws, in such a situation, will simply become weapons for persecution and extortion.

Vulnerability to terrorism, it is worth pointing out, is an aspect of corruption and an indifference to the rule of law. The political class will not prosecute or pursue high-profile cases of terrorism; businessmen will maintain links with the underworld; the police is more concerned with collecting bribes than with maintaining law and order;the media has no qualms about lionising celebrities who have been convicted in important cases. When a political party moots the idea of giving a Lok Sabha seat to the key suspect in the Malegaon case, that is confirmation that India in many ways has the traits of a banana republic.

Without an overhaul of governance, without greater accountability, it is hard to see how terrorism can be fought effectively. It is the democratic process and the rule of law that need to be strengthened for these to happen.

Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction to heightened terrorism is in the opposite direction- the abridgement of liberties, greater powers to the police, a contempt for politicians and the political process. On TV, I saw a bunch of ad-men pouring scorn on politicians and asking them to keep their hands off the law-enforcement machinery. That is a prescription for fascism.

The gloomy conclusion that emerges is that India will try to emulate the tough methods adopted by countries such as the US and Israel without having the commensurate governance or enforcement capability. This can only lead on to a downward spiral where terrorism is concerned.

1 comment:

Santhosh said...


Dont you think we are making the wrong comparison here. While, there might not been another attack on US soil since 9/11, but that has more to do with the fact that the US is 10000 miles away from the hot bed of terrorism and its neigbours are non-hostile nations and vast oceans.

Israel is complete opposite of what India is. Its homogenous and lacks a free society. What do you think the reaction would be if the government of India instituted a draft or national service?

We are in a unique position as a politically stable democracy surrounded by unstable countries with regimes of all kinds from friendly monarchs to military junta. And to add to that, we have porous borders as well. And we are not yet economically stable to even consider unilateral military action that the US invoked against Afghanistan or Iraq.

I guess, in the end, the more things change, the more they remain the same.