A year after 26/11, India remains vulnerable, complacent

A year after 26/11, India remains vulnerable, complacent

It’s a year since Pakistan-based militants struck the financial capital of India, Mumbai, killing 163 people and creating panic among the city’s populace. The attacks drew comparisons with the attacks on Sept 11, 2001, in the US. The public outrage that followed was significant as there was an expectation that it would force the Indian government to address the systemic shortcomings in its security apparatus.

Yet a year after, little of significance seems to have changed. The country remains as unprepared for handling 26/11 like situations as it was a year back. The fact that there hasn’t been another major attack over the last year has little to do with greater governmental efficiency and preparedness. It’s primarily because Pakistan itself has become a target of the extremists as the nation’s security forces have been pushed by the US towards launching major offensives against them.

Though the sheer scale, scope and audacity of the Mumbai attacks put them in a different category from earlier terrorist incidents in India, it would be a mistake to suggest that they were India’s 9/11. To do so would miss the underlying issues that have allowed such horrific attacks to take place. After all, the Indian parliament, symbol of India’s sovereignty, was attacked in 2001 and India’s response then was as ineffective as it has been after 26/11.
It is no surprise then that public frustration is growing as even after the prime minister boldly declaring a year back that India “will go after these individuals and organisations and make sure that every perpetrator, organiser and supporter of terror, whatever his affiliation or religion may be, pays a heavy price,” the Indian government has nothing substantive to show to its populace.

The Indian response has been relegated to issuing statements and dossiers that the terrorist be apprehended. India had hoped that the pressure from the international community, especially the US, would be enough to force Pakistan to address Indian concerns. But it took Pakistan a year to even charge the terror masterminds of Lashkar-e-Toiba with planning and helping execute last year’s attacks in Mumbai.

A realisation is dawning in India that the strategic end-state that India seeks is rather different from the one that the US or the West at large is seeking. For the US, the priority is preventing an India-Pakistan conflagration so that the war in Afghanistan can go unhindered. India is therefore being asked to take Pakistan’s security concerns into account. It is being asked to resist domestic pressure to pressurise Pakistan and start engaging with the Pakistani government so that the situation on the ground could be prevented from becoming worse.
Meanwhile, Indian internal security sector reforms have not gone anywhere. As terrorist wreaked havoc on Mumbai for three days, Indian security forces struggled to get a handle on the situation. Apart from some usual tinkering with the institutional and legal frameworks, the government has not made any attempt towards a systemic overhaul. The report on Mumbai attacks has not been made public and so the public debate has occurred in vacuum. India’s ability to prevent attacks through intelligence-gathering and better policing remains at best questionable. The police forces remain underfunded and suffer from a lack of training.
The Indian government’s ‘anti-terror’ stance has repeatedly been shown ineffective. Not only have the terrorists continued to attack India at regular intervals with impunity — not a single major terrorist case has been solved over the past few years. The blatant communalising of the process under which the security forces were forced to call off searches and interrogations for fear of offending this or that community has led them to become risk-averse.
Still, India’s security forces are making an effort, as shown by the large number of security personnel who die year after year fighting extremists. But the government’s inability and/or unwillingness to face up to the security threat and firmly counter it might end up making such sacrifices meaningless.

Today the legitimacy of the Indian state is being questioned not only by groups on the margins of society and polity but also by mainstream political parties. As long as India’s response to terrorism is characterised by a shameless appeal along religious lines with political parties trying to consolidate their vote banks instead of coming together to fight the menace, India will continue to be viewed as a soft target by its adversaries and Indians will continue to fight terrorists in their streets.

As the security situation in India’s neighbourhood deteriorates further, it is only a matter of time before another attack will happen. No government can make India completely immune from terror attacks. What it can do is to better prepare the country to handle 26/11-like crises more effectively in the future. So far, there are few signs to suggest that the government has risen to this challenge.
(The writer teaches at King’s College, London, and is presently a visiting professor at IIM-Bangalore)

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