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Three sets of questions

December 01, 2008

The country would like answers to three sets of questions.

  • First how much did the government know about the possibility of a terrorist attack, and what did it do with the information?
  • Second, how and why were 10 terrorists able to create the havoc that they did, and why did it take the National Security Guard and other agencies 60 long hours to end the siege of the Taj Mahal Hotel [Images]?
  • And finally, if there have been failures in the system that allowed the attacks to take place, will all (not some) of the people responsible pay the price?

From the various reports that have come out so far, there was a telephone intercept a week before the attacks, which suggested that a sea-borne assault on Mumbai was about to take place.

It is hard to get more specific intelligence than that; so was the tip-off acted upon, and measures taken to protect the city? The entrance to Mumbai's harbour is a narrow strip of water; even with limited resources, it should have been possible to police that stretch, to look out for suspicious movements, and to keep an eye on all vessels.

Such a check was done in the wake of the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts (when, too, the attackers and bombs were brought in over the water), and ship owners recall how boats were monitored after that attack, with registration papers examined and passengers screened. In other words, the job could have been done this time too, but wasn't.

The hotels were warned, but the security steps taken were amateurish (like leaving a rear entrance unguarded), which suggests that there was no proper police supervision.

It is hard for the lay observer to understand why it should take 60 hours for crack commandos of the National Security Guard to clear a hotel of four attackers.

Two explanations have been offered. First, the commandos were trying to minimise collateral damage (the hundreds of hotel guests who were rescued might have suffered in an unrestrained firefight); and second, the fidayeen were better informed about the lay-out of the hotel's rooms and passageways.

Given that the NSG reached the sites a full nine hours after the attacks began, did the authorities get from the hotel managements proper floor plans that would have helped the commandos plan their movements more effectively from the word go?

Finally, it is obvious that both the central and state governments have been found wanting. Shivraj Patil [Images] has resigned as the home minister after his situation became untenable. It is an exit that many in the country feel should have happened months ago.

P.Chidambaram has a sharp mind, is result-oriented and has been minister of state for internal security before, so he is a good replacement. As in 1997-98, he leaves finance at a time when the economy is slowing and the fisc is under strain.

Given the difficult economic circumstances, finance needs a full-time minister, and the prime minister's taking charge is hopefully a very temporary arrangement. What about the state government? Surely, the chief minister or the state home minister should take responsibility.

There has to be a climate of proper accountability at the political level, if the widespread disillusionment with politicians that has taken hold of ordinary citizens is to find an appropriate echo.


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