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Governance Failures and the Anti-Political Fallout

The terror attacks in Mumbai that began on 26 November revealed a failure in governance on many fronts. The city has been victim to a string of disasters and crises in recent years, yet the emergency response was once again abysmal. A multiplicity of agencies was handing out information which was often incorrect. The people of Mumbai are very angry, but unlike in the past this anger shows little sign of being channelled into serious debate that will lead to constructive action. Instead the anti-political rhetoric that is being drummed up by the media will have a negative fallout and threatens to open the door for fascist tendencies.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 6, 200813Kalpana Sharma ( is an independent journalist and columnist based in Mumbai.The terror attacks in Mumbai that began on 26 November revealed a failure in governance on many fronts. The city has been victim to a string of disasters and crises in recent years, yet the emergency response was once again abysmal. A multiplicity of agencies was handing out information which was often incorrect. The people of Mumbai are very angry, but unlikein the past this anger shows little sign of being channelled into serious debate that will lead to constructive action. Instead the anti-political rhetoric that is being drummed up by the media will have a negative fallout and threatens to open the door for fascist tendencies. Wednesday, 26 November 2008 will remain etched in the col-lective memory of the 14 million inhabitants of India’s largest city, Mumbai, for a long time to come. This day will be remembered not just for the audacity of the attack by 10 heavily armed gunmen on the city but also because of the nature of the targets, the extended period over which the battle raged and the inevitable political fallout that will affect India and its relations with Pakistan. Residents of Mumbai are grieving, but also angry. The grief is over the senseless loss of life. Entire families gunned down while waiting for a long-distance train at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), people near a cinema hall killed, others eating in a restaurant, unarmed policemen in the line of duty, top police officials leading from the front and the rich and the power-ful as well as foreign visitors and tourists felled by bullets in the two luxury hotels. Failure of Governance The anger, however, is over what was clearly a colossal failure of governance. After every disaster in the city, whether it was the flooding in 2005, or the serial train blasts in 2006 on Mumbai’s lifeline commuter trains, there has been talk of disaster management, of quick responses at times of emergency, and of being pre-pared. Yet, each time, the authorities are caught completely unprepared.This time, the attack was unexpected and unprecedented. But within the first 45 minutes, when people had died at CST, when the gunmen had already killed three top police officials and made off with their vehicle, when other gunmen had entered the two luxury hotels in south Mumbai and when another group had stormed Nariman House, it was clear that this was an attack of an extremely serious nature. The local police was in no position to handle it. The only people trained to do so would be the National Security Guard (NSG).Yet, the union cabinet did not meet in Delhi until the next morning, and the NSG took an inexcusable 11 hours before they finally arrived in the city. In the mean-time, as we know now, the gunmen had already shot all the hostages they had taken at the three sites. But even on the ground, where routine emergency services could have been acti-vated, there were time lags. For instance, no one can understand why the fire tenders took so long to reach the two hotels where fires were raging, endangering the lives of people who had managed to evade the gunmen. It appears now that the fire brigade was ready to move, but they did not get clear instructions from the police. No one person or authority was in-charge until the NSG took over. And in those hours, most of the killing took place.Emergency response with fire equipment, ambulances, hospitals and information management are the minimum require-ments for effective disaster management. In Mumbai, all this has been discussed repeatedly as has the setting up of a central control room. Yet, nothing kicks in when there is a real crisis. And 26 November was a frightening illustration of such lack of preparedness.Information SystemAnother major lacuna was the absence of any kind of centralised information system. By Thursday morning, the city saw the Army, Navy, the Rapid Action Force (RAF), theNSG and the local police at the three locations. Yet, there was no central authority, on one who could provide cogent and accurate information on the nature of the attack, the number of gunmen, the death toll, whether there were hostages, etc. Information is a key factor in disaster managementof any kind. Often,the media is the most important source through which such information can be conveyed to the public. It is there-foreincumbent on the government to give regular updates with accurate and sub-stantiated information.Instead, one saw television journalists accosting any official they could find, impromptu press conferences held on site and the public, anxious to get a picture of what was happening, was given conflicting and often inaccurate nuggets of information.Governance Failures and the Anti-Political FalloutKalpana Sharma
COMMENTARYdecember 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly14Why did the state government, and the central government, fail to recognise the importance of information at a time of such an emergency? What stopped the state’s Home Department from taking charge and deputing a senior official to coordinate information from the different actors involved? The media were briefed separately, often through casually held press conferences on the roadside by the Navy, the Army, the police and ultimately theNSG, after the siege ended.In what must be a first, the chief of the Western Area Naval Command gave an “exclusive” to NDTV where he showed photographs of the ammunition and other things seized from one of the gunmen killed. Are there not norms that the armed forces are supposed to follow at such times?Even more extraordinary was the dra-matic press conference held by the Marine Commandos (Marcos). With their faces covered, their leader gave details of their action even as all three locations were still under siege. Would this be permitted dur-ing times of war?The Mumbai police were no better. Both the Mumbai police commissioner and the director general of police spoke separately to the press. As with the other briefings, there was little coordination in the infor-mation being put out into the public realm. For example, the number of gunmen who had landed in the city kept changing from 25 to 20 to 15 and finally 10. Some reports said they had landed in a rubber dingy at the Gateway of India on the eastern coast. Another said they had landed on the western coast, at the fishermen’s colony. None of this helped people who were watching and listening to the elec-tronic media, the only source of informa-tion, to feel reassured that the crisis was being tackled. At a time of such an unprecedented crisis, one would have imagined that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would send a message to the people of Mumbai. But even his intervention came after almost 20 hours. By then, no one was interested to hear what he had to say as it was evident that the gunmen were continuing to kill and destroy even as the NSG attempted to engage and neutralise them.And after the siege ended and the last gunman had been killed, the authorities still had no standard procedure to deal with access to the sites of the terror. As a result, journalists were walking through parts of the Taj Mahal Hotel even before the site had been properly secured by the NSG, all the forensic evidence gathered and handed back to the management. Why Nariman House?The attack on Nariman House could be an important clue to the real reason for this attack on Mumbai. Only Israelis and fol-lowers of the Chabad sect who visit it know this four-storied building, tucked away in a small lane in the more crowded end of Colaba. Even owners of the petrol station on the main road, where the gun-men threw a grenade before entering the building, knew it only as a synagogue. Yet, the gunmen knew the identity of Nariman House and chose it as one of the targets besides the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Oberoi-Trident Hotel. Why?Killing the Jews in Nariman House was in no way connected to reasons given by the killers in the email sent by them to news channels under the name Deccan Mujahideen, where they said they were doing this to avenge the injustices meted out to Indian Muslims since 1947.Both the Nariman House attack and the fact that the gunmen asked for American and British citizens to identify themselves suggest another dimension to the attack. Ever since the Indo-United States (US) nuclear deal and the strategic alliance with theUS, India is seen as being aligned to the US, a country that many around the world hold responsible for the injustices in west Asia. As a result, India might now be on the radar of terrorists groups in a way it never was before and the Mumbai attack could be a warning.Our 9/11?Since the attack ended, there has been a tendency in some of the media to compare what happened in Mumbai to 9/11. In terms of audacity, there could be some comparisons although the Mumbai attack was on a much smaller scale. The symbols of India’s economic power could be seen to be the two hotels targeted. But that is where the comparison ended.For 9/11 represents also American mili-tary action in Afghanistan and thereafter Iraq. It also reminds us of laws that were enacted that infringed the rights Ameri-cans consider so important. It also stands for a place like Guantanamo Bay where terror suspects have been incarcerated for years without trial. There is one section of the Indian elite that seems to want this entire package that goes with 9/11. Voices have been heard demanding that the government bomb terrorist training camps in Pakistan much as theUS did in Afghani-stan after 9/11. All this is happening at a time when relations between India and Pakistan were improving, when concrete confidence building measures were being put in place. Simultaneously, there are slogans aired on television channels and echoed by the general public like “Enough is enough”. Why do people feel they have now reached breaking point? And why has the anger against politicians, about the quality of governance, been diverted into a tirade that is anti-political, suggesting that people disengage from what is happening around them as a form of protest. One poster carried during a candle light march after the siege ended read: “No security, No taxes”.After earlier crises, Mumbai saw a higher level of involvement from civic society. For instance, groups that emerged after the 1992-93 communal riots to deal with the Hindu-Muslim divide have continued to function and have now branched into many other issues concerning the city, including civic issues. But this time the reaction is the opposite. One explanation could be the fact that this time, terror hit a section of society that has always felt secure. Mumbai has seen many attacks before this one. In 1993, serial blasts shook the city from its southern end, where a car bomb ripped through the Air India build-ing adjacent to the Trident Oberoi and continued to explode at short intervals right up to a hotel near the airport. On the way, they left behind destruction of a magnitude the city had never seen before. The blasts followed the worst communal conflagration in Mumbai’s history. But a day after the blasts, the city went back to work.Ten years later, in 2003, simultaneous blasts in the car park in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel and in the crowded Zaveri
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 6, 200815Bazaar reminded Mumbai’s residents that the city was still on the radar of terrorists seeking revenge. This time the link was with the 2002 communal carnage in neighbouring Gujarat, a state closely linked to Mumbai city.In 2006, Mumbai’s lifeline, the com-muter train system fell apart as simultane-ous blasts went off in first class compart-ments in several trains at peak hour, kill-ing 187 people and wounding many more. The people affected were a vast cross-section of the city’s population. The reason, once again, was linked to Gujarat andthesense that Muslims were being targeted. But once again, the city went back to work.The 2008 attack is the very first where the elite of the elite of the city have been affected. It is also the first time that for-eigners have been targeted. And the first time that Jews have been killed. The pro-longed urban war, seen live by millions of people, has been more disturbing in some ways than the previous blasts that came suddenly and ended. The vulnerability to terror attacks, which every city in the world faces today, requires citizens to be as prepared for emergency situations as the authorities and as alert as the intelligence agencies need to be. But the anti-political rhetoric drummed up by the media negates efforts to generate this kind of debate. Disengagement from politics is the exact opposite of what is needed at such a time. It leaves spaces open for the emergence of individuals who declare they know the answers, for “heroes” who people believe will fix everything, for fascism. Mumbai, Militarism and the Media Sukumar MuralidharanThe media has encouraged talk that the Mumbai terror events of 26 November are India’s equivalent of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. There are indeed vital lessons to be learnt by India from the US experience with “9/11”, though not of the kind widely imagined. By stoking the anger of hand-picked guests and unsubtly suggesting where the direct responsibility for the Mumbai outrage lies, the electronic news media, in particular, have seemingly predetermined whatever strategic choices may be available to India. There are occasions in history when collective trauma brings a nation intimately in contact with its deepest anxieties. Mumbai 26/11, to use the media shorthand for the horror that began one night in November and carried on for close to three days, was one such. The terrorist attacks that began on 26 November and transformed itself swiftly into a 60-hour long siege of three landmark buildings inIndia’s commercial metropolis,have deeply transformed the national polity. The true consequences will take a while manifesting themselves. But it is a con-juncture that demands calm sobriety, while tending naturally to drift towards intolerance and authoritarianism.Protracted and painful, the siege of Mumbai was the first terrorist atrocity to be covered in real time by India’s booming electronic media industry. When the demolition at Ayodhya happened in 1992, the industry was in its infancy and the site was brutally cleansed of media persons of all descriptions, before the deedwasexecuted. Ten years later, when rioters and arsonists held sway in the state of Gujarat for close to a month, the horrors were carried to all corners of the country by a vigilant media. But the pain was not quite so sharply felt, since the people with a significant voice in the nationalpoliticaldialogue had no more than a very shallow association with those most directly afflicted.Instantaneous BlowsTerrorism has since then repeatedly visit-ed India, not as long-drawn episodes, in-volving a slow haemorrhage of public con-fidence, but as devastating and instanta-neous blows – that stun and stagger, but allow for a quick recovery of morale as civic processes kick in and people who cannot really afford the luxury of staying disengaged from daily routines, resume their normal activity.Mumbai 26/11 was designed to be the opposite: a long-drawn bloodbath that would claim lives and at the same time test the country’s response capabilities, sap its self-confidence and imprison it in prolonged contemplation of a tableau of destruction. It was meant to heighten the mute awareness that the wider public had of its own helplessness and its seeming lack of influence in major decisions.Expectedly, the mood was quickly transformed into unending convulsions of rage against the politicians who seemingly hold all the power, but had allowed an atrocity beyond imagination to occur. And disturbingly, it seemed a short transition from raging against the politicians, to rag-ing against the political system that has ensconced them in authority.Enlightenment has been sought in the most unlikely quarters, with the United States (US) being upheld as an example worthy of emulation. Since the 11 Septem-ber 2001 attacks on its territory, said one commentator after another on the numerous channels that were collectively orchestrat-ing the national catharsis, there had not Sukumar Muralidharan ( is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

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