Grief and grit as Indians remember 60 hours of terror (One Year After 26/11)

New Delhi/Mumbai, Nov 25 ( Some moments are seared into the collective consciousness of the nation — like 26/11. The utter helplessness came back to haunt on the first anniversary of India’s most wounding terror strike, but with it was a sense of resolve as thousands prepared to gather in various cities to remember the dead and also hope for a terror-free tomorrow.

The trauma started on the night on Nov 26, 2008, when terrorists who came by boat from Pakistan sneaked into its commercial megalopolis to begin a 60-hour siege that ended only on the afternoon on Nov 28. At the end, 166 people were dead, nine of the 10 terrorists killed and India brought to its knees as horrified citizens watched masked gunmen take over a much loved city.

It was terror in a television age played out for the world to watch. Mumbaikar or not, Indian or not, the scenes of terrorists taking over luxury hotels, a crowded station, a buzzing cafe and of top police officials being killed brought the vulnerability home.

Millions fearfully watched their television sets for three nights and three days, till the last of the terrorists were decimated in the Jewish Chabad House. The fires burning from the dome of the Taj Hotel, survivors breaking through glass to make their escape, two-year-old Moshe being brought out by his nanny from Chabad House while his parents were massacred inside… the trauma lives to this day.

As stunned security agencies probed the hows and whys of the most daring non-military attack that penetrated into the country’s most elite establishments, the government set itself a roadmap to secure India and found global backing in its war against terror.

In a statement on the eve of the anniversary of the Mumbai attacks, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Wednesday: “The attacks in Mumbai last year were an outrage. No one who watched the events unfold on television will forget the way that those responsible sought to cause the greatest fear and suffering.

“Their misguided aim was to create terror and uncertainty in the region. The government and the people of India were neither cowed nor provoked by these atrocities but stood resolute.”

A year on, the fallout has been changes in the security mindset and the premium put on strengthening internal security. Basic protocols, strategies and tactics for an appropriate response have been listed.

Making the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) – tasked with collecting intelligence in real time – fully operational has been perhaps the most tangible achievement.

“In the last 11 months, we have been able to bust 31 terror modules. Optimising

intelligence flow and coordination between different agencies has helped vastly,” said a senior security official who spoke about the valuable lessons imbibed.

Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put in charge of internal security after public outrage over the previous home minister Shivraj Patil’s seeming ineptitude, has set for himself a blazing pace to put in place critical strategies and strengthen intelligence systems, admits the country’s record has been mixed.

“… there are still critical deficiencies in budget allocations for the police, recruitment, training, procurement of equipment, introduction of technology, and personnel management.”

Pointing to obvious lapses when a police force equipped with old age .303 rifles took on terrorists armed with sophisticated weaponry, Manmohan Singh told police chiefs in September: “We need a new-age policeman who is more professional, better-motivated, suitably empowered, well-trained, one who places greater emphasis on technology for investigation and other tasks.”

Terrorism expert Ajay Sahni believes more needs to be done at a war-footing.

“Petty offences, which are not taken seriously by security agencies, are often found interlinked to a major terror operation. Our intelligence system should be in place. Effective security systems are needed to counter terrorism,” Sahni told Inditop.

Considering that Mumbai not just gripped the country’s consciousness but also drew global attention, intelligence sharing with foreign countries has also received a major fillip.

It is because of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation assistance that security agencies have been able to probe the links of David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana, currently in US detention, who are alleged part of the larger conspiracy behind 26/11.

Terrorism is a beast with an extraordinary ability to transform, and the war has still a long way to go.

But it will be fought with citizens vowing not to be cowed down.

“We have to move ahead in life,” said Priyanka Baliram Uke, a young manager in a private Mumbai company.

Fortified by his grief, 16-year-old Siddhant who lost his father Sushilkumar Sharma when terrorists stormed into the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in a blaze of bullets, is also determined to look ahead.

The family has set up the Shaheed Sushilkumar Sharma Foundation in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, in memory of the assistant chief ticketing inspector.

“We shall have commemorative prayer there Nov 26, organize a few children’s events with the theme of peace and anti-terrorism, felicitate people who display bravery and courage in day-to-day life. We shall repeat a similar programme in Kalyan on Nov 29,” said Siddhant.

For long India has managed to absorb the shock and move ahead. The lessons this time are different — it will no longer be business as usual.