26/11 anniversary: Why security remains a Mumbai state of mind
Some private properties are secure, ready to counter another attack. However, vast swathes of the city remain vulnerable
Mumbai: The magnificent and sprawling Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CST), a UNESCO world heritage site, was constructed with a blend of Victorian Gothic Revival and traditional Indian architecture in 1888. Its design did not account for the 21st century phenomenon of terrorism. After the concourse witnessed the bloodiest massacre on the night of 26 November ten years ago—60 of the 166 casualties happened here—tens of door frame metal detectors were installed at multiple entrances to the station and its platforms.
As commuters stream in and out of the station, the detectors beep. The tinny sound is now part of the sensorial experience of negotiating one of the busiest railheads in the world serving both suburban and through trains. Central Railway, whose headquarters is also the building, handles nearly 4.5 million commuters every day only on its three suburban routes of Mumbai. The detectors beep and people rush past, unstopped and unhindered, unchecked.
If these detectors were meant to prevent another terror strike at CST, they are of little use. Just as similar detectors and sandbags placed at Churchgate, the Western Railway end-point of the city’s rail network about a kilometre away, are. Or, for that matter, detectors at any railway station along the network. Trained staffers keep tabs in control rooms, but as a railway official points out, when half a dozen people walk through as many scanners every two seconds in only one part of a station, and this goes on for hours on end, it’s a logistical near-impossibility to stop-search-clear them. Two youngsters with backpacks carrying mid-size metal tools went through these scanners, unstopped and unquestioned, in a recent local media sting operation; it proves the point.
The casualties at CST that night might have been higher had it not been for the presence of mind of railway announcer Vishnu Zende who, from his cabin atop the station master’s office, saw two masked men shoot indiscriminately and lob grenades; he instinctively blared on the public address system that commuters should use platform one exit to quickly leave the station. “Nothing prepares you for this, you just do the best you can,” he says, unconsciously highlighting the human element and quick thinking as the average anti-terror responses. He and others who keep the CST moving should have been trained in counter-terror operations by now; it is not even on the cards.
Securing the city
Two years before 26/11 shook the nation, a series of coordinated bombs had gone off in Western Railway’s suburban trains—seven in about 15 minutes—taking 189 lives and leaving nearly 800 injured. That attack had traumatized Mumbai to its core. With seven million commuters using the city’s rail network, the Central and Western Railway routes and stations are all sitting ducks for determined terrorists. But if every beep at multiple entrances-exits at every station is checked and airport-style security checks introduced, Mumbai’s rhythm will simply grind to a halt.
About 2.5km away the CST is the statuesque Gateway of India and the majestic Taj Mahal Hotel. Among India’s finest luxury hotels, the attack inside and on the Taj on 26 November 2008 turned into a three-day siege. It left more than 40 dead and scores injured. Here, door frame metal detectors are of the highest standard possible and every beep is taken seriously, every bag scanned and checked thoroughly, every person sized up by discreetly placed security personnel.
The pavement and road abutting the hotel are sanitized, cabs and stray vehicles not allowed to park, pedestrians loitering on the pavement are given “the” look. Every possible effort is made, overtly and covertly, to ensure safety. Here, it is possible to believe that another terror attack could be prevented or met with an immediate and appropriate response. At the other luxury hotel complex, the Oberoi and Trident overlooking the sea at Nariman Point, the security apparatus is no less intimidating, its layers visible only to a discernible eye.
In a nutshell, the stark difference between the public and private theatres of 26/11 attack shows the vulnerability of Mumbai to another terror strike. Some properties and installations are secure, walled in, and ready to counter another attack. The rest of the city, large swathes of India’s capital to commerce, finance, law, entertainment and services, remain vulnerable. The next attack could be literally anywhere in a city that houses nearly 18 million—a mall, a school or a series of schools, the iconic Bandra Worli Sea Link, religious places, airport, refineries, nuclear establishments, slums, anywhere at all. And, this vulnerability is heightened by its coast.
“Mumbai is defending the targets that are defensible, this doesn’t mean that its overall vulnerability to a terror attack is lower than earlier…increased patrolling and protection of high-value targets does not mean the city is safer than it was,” says Ajai Sahni, counter-terrorism expert and executive director at the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM). That there hasn’t been an attack in ten years is less a testimony to its enhanced overall security than to the over-arching geo-political climate after 26/11.
A history of terror
Twenty-five years ago, when Mumbai was still Bombay, it had witnessed the first-ever heinous and coordinated terror attack. A series of 12 RDX-laden bombs went off at different locations at as many locations in southern and central areas at lunch-hour on 12 March 1993. The audacious attack was aimed at the Bombay Stock Exchange, Air India headquarters, passport office in Worli among other targets. It claimed 257 lives and left nearly a thousand injured.
Before other international cities felt the tremors of terrorism, Bombay had. The idea of the city as a vulnerable target acquired a security and public dimension at that time. In the next 15 years, there were nearly half a dozen attacks of varying intensities—the most severe being July 2006 one—including at Gateway of India; at Zaveri Bazar, India’s gold souk; at suburban Mulund station.
The 26/11 attack was different; it turned out to be a siege of the city for nearly 60 hours—unlike anything that had gone before. The live capture of one of the ten terrorists, Ajmal Kasab, helped trace the trail back to the masterminds, Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi in Pakistan. They have not been brought to justice for the crime—yet—despite India’s efforts.
“From 1993, we have come a very long way,” says M.N. Singh, former police commissioner of Mumbai who also led the investigation in that attack.
“The machinery created, the systems put in place, the training to officers have taken us from zero to say about 60% on the security paradigm. The remaining 40% is the most important, and it includes deployment and coordination between different agencies. I’m not confident about it.”
In the security apparatus, Singh believes that the coastal security—or the lack of it—remains the big worry. Mumbai’s 114km coastline is protected up to 12 nautical miles off the coast by three major coastal police stations, two of which were set up after the 26/11 attack. Its 12 speed boats—the ones not being repaired—patrol the coastline. But the coastal police are hemmed in by a shortage of equipment and human resources. It took ten years to only plan Marine Operation Rooms at ten locations.
It would be ideal if the resource-strained and trained-for-land Mumbai Police didn’t have to nurture a coastal wing, if it could take over at the shoreline and handle everything on land while the waters are guarded by the Coast Guard and the Indian Navy, says a top cop on the condition of anonymity. The coordination between the three agencies is hardly the most efficient—between 2011 and 2016, three large vessels including an oil tanker had drifted into Mumbai and run aground without hindrance.
“Coastal security has huge gaps,” says Sahni, adding, “In ten years, they managed to put transponders on about 1,000 vessels as a pilot project. The Gujarat-Maharashtra coast alone has some 50,000 vessels or more at any time. Also, India passed a law requiring transponders to be installed on vessels which are 20 metres or more in length. Who is to say that terrorists won’t come in a vessel 19-metres or less?”
The good news
Two aspects have visibly and tactically changed in Mumbai after 26/11 attacks—the symbols of security across the city which give the impression of enhanced counter-terror capabilities, and raising and training of Special Forces in the police in almost military-style.
There are improvised sandbag bunkers and traditional roadblocks across the city, though they are typically manned by police with rifles of British vintage. Security perimeters around some sites are a regular occurrence. Specially fitted bulletproof jeeps now watch strategic locations. New imported weaponry has been acquired. There’s a fleet of armoured vehicles in camouflage colours; specially trained personnel sport a distinct military look. A CCTV set-up with nearly 6,000 cameras has been installed across Mumbai (private properties are encouraged to have their own CCTV networks) with a command-and-control room to track them.
There’s Force One, a specially raised commando unit with hand-picked officers fitted out military-style and trained in counter-terror methods. The Mumbai Police now has Quick Response Teams (QRTs) within its ranks. The National Security Guards, which took a day to be mobilized and arrive in Mumbai in 2008, now has a hub in the suburbs. Sections of the special units have been sent to Israel and Scotland Yard for counter-terror training. That Mumbai has come through many more terror attacks than London is, of course, another matter.
With commando units and QRTs, with new weaponry and training, Mumbai Police’s response to a 2008-style attack would be better now, says K.P. Raghuvanshi, former chief of Anti-Terrorism Squad. But the question to ask: Have these acquisitions and crack units had an impact on everyday policing in Mumbai. The answer, according to security experts, is not encouraging.
Kalpana Shah, artist and gallery owner, speaks for many Mumbaikars when she says, “I lost my husband (Pankaj Shah, builder) in a five-star hotel, a protected environment; I can’t even think of what goes through the minds and hearts of Mumbaikars who live every day without so much security.”
The first responders in a terror attack, as Mumbai knows well by now, are its policemen and women; their capabilities remain what they used to be. After all, Kasab was captured alive at a standard nakabandi by beat policemen who had lathis and old rifles.
“Unless there is a very high quality enhancement in the general police force, unless they can keep every street and woman safe, unless they are adequately trained the newly acquired resources and expertise remain fragmented. And Mumbai’s vulnerability remains high,” says Ajai Sahni.
Top cops point to another area—decoding and communication of high-value intelligence in real time. The platform for coordination between external agencies, national and local agencies is far from adequate; intelligence is useful only when “actionable information” is passed on in real time to the end-user, in this case the Mumbai Police, say senior officers.
With all this, it is clear that the forces’ capability to respond to a terror attack has improved in the last ten years but its capability to prevent—or thwart—another attack is open to debate. And, while strategically important parts of Mumbai are more secure, most Mumbaikars in the rest of the city live with only hope in their hearts that terrorists won’t come calling again.
Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based journalist and editor, writes on politics, urban issues, gender and media. She covered the 1993 and 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.