Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Mumbai terror strike: A footnote in history

A decade on, 26/11, for all the optics that it generated, is no more than that

Ten years ago this day, India came under the most serious terrorist assault in its history. For three days of what seemed like unrelenting horror, 10 terrorists from Pakistan—hand-picked, armed and trained under the supervision of the Pakistani establishment—rampaged through the streets of Mumbai, attacking both high-profile targets and innocent civilians with appalling ease and impunity. The toll: 166 deaths, 308 injuries, and a nation left shaken and incandescent.

As breathless coverage transmitted the events in real time from the streets of Mumbai into their homes, Indians were dumbstruck at the scale of the tragedy and appalled at the tardy response of the security agencies, but as details of the assault unfolded, they gloried in the heroism of ill-equipped policemen in one of the world’s wealthiest and most vibrant cities.

It’s not as if India hadn’t been warned. The city was hit by a series of terrorist bombings amid worsening communal relations in 1993 and then in 2003, leaving a combined toll of more than 300 lives. Alarmingly, the abortive armed attack on Parliament of the world’s biggest democracy came within three months of 9/11. Responsibility remains hard to fix. Later reports comprehensively pointed to warnings issued by the local police in Mumbai although, equally, the intelligence agencies of three countries—India, the US and the UK—failed to piece together evidence of an imminent attack that they had gathered separately from a variety of human intelligence and listening sources.

India is not alone in the war against terrorism, nor, by any stretch of the imagination, was its fumbled response as unique as it is sometimes made out to be. As later events in Europe and America have shown, no country is ever entirely prepared for terrorist attacks. Time and again, countries with far more sophisticated and technologically savvy police forces have been caught out by the innovations of terrorists. If the Mumbai attack was the result of terrorists tapping into available technologies, including Google Earth and satellite phones, with handlers monitoring television coverage in Pakistan, others in Europe have used nothing more sophisticated than a machete or simply a car or a van. That is the nature of asymmetric warfare.

Ajmal Kasab and his tribe need no reason for their crimes. As the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told the UN General Assembly in November 2001: “We must firmly rebuff any ideological, political or religious justification for terrorism. We should reject self-serving arguments seeking to classify terrorism according to its root causes, and therefore justifying terrorist action somewhere while condemning it elsewhere. Those that advance these arguments should explain what the root causes of the brutal acts of September 11 were."

The masterminds of 26/11—the buck passes through
Lashkar-e-Taiba to the Inter Services Intelligence agency to the Army, all Pakistan-based actors—failed in their objective to destabilize or unnerve India.

In many respects, India is a much stronger and harder state today than it was a decade ago. Although its patience is sought to be repeatedly tested by Pakistan-based terrorists—whether in Jammu and Kashmir or, for instance, in the attack on the Pathankot Air Force Station in 2016—India has responded calmly, responsibly but resolutely, as is only appropriate for one of the world’s major economies. Apart from having to deal with Pakistan, which today is no more than a failing state on the run, India also faces growing Maoist militancy in its central region and a renewed spurt of secessionist violence in Punjab, once again with Pakistani collusion.

And yet.

Just as the attack on Parliament failed to derail India’s democracy (once again, it is in the middle of another noisy assembly polls and looking forward to an even more noisy general election next year), so too 26/11 was miserably unsuccessful in halting the onward march of Mumbai, the symbol of India’s market-led economic might. After a sharp slowdown, the Indian economy rebounded in the three months to December 2017 to overtake China as the fastest growing major economy, with gross domestic product expanding at 7.2% to its northern neighbour’s 6.8%. India, despite the occasional splutter, remains a formidable “natural ally" in the global compact for economic progress.

There’s a long way to go: India, according to the World Bank, must power all its engines to grow at 8% for 30 consecutive years to reach upper-middle income status. It cannot afford to be distracted. The good news is that it’s well on the way. A decade on, 26/11, for all the optics that it generated, is no more than a footnote in India’s history.

Was India’s response to the terror attack a calibrated one? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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