Is India Living Up to Its Post-Mumbai Promises?

  • Share
  • Read Later
AFP/Getty Images

Police personnel demonstrate martial arts at a training camp in Mumbai on Feb. 27, 2009

The terrorist attack on Mumbai last November, captured live on television throughout India and around the globe, was not the city's first encounter with violence or terrorism. It was, however, a rude awakening for a city known for its high-glam Bollywood industry and for a nation that rightly takes pride in being the world's largest democracy. Sixty hours after 10 gunmen assaulted two of the city's glitziest hotels, tens of thousands of Mumbai citizens marched in solidarity and outrage. Bollywood movie stars launched campaigns for political office. The city's galvanized youth promised to make their voices heard. How could the government and police forces have failed so badly? Could future attacks be avoided? Or would India have to come to terms with the fact that violence is inevitable in such a sprawling democratic country?

The public momentum turned out to be short-lived. "A city can't keep mulling a tragedy forever," says Naresh Fernandes, editor of Time Out Mumbai. "There was a brief moment where everybody said that we would never forget and lit candles and marched up and down, but by May, when the elections came around, people weren't willing to walk the walk." In May, despite soaring projections, voter turnout in Mumbai hovered just above 40%, similar to the city's previous election tally, and across the country Indian voters awarded the incumbent government — so criticized for allowing the attacks to happen — another chance. Seasoned Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had succeeded in calming the country by promising that the government would work to better protect India from external terrorist threats.

If the citizens' call for change has lost traction, what about the government's pledge to make it happen? In the wake of the attacks, the government took steps to untangle the bureaucratic web that stifled its response in Mumbai. It created the National Investigation Agency (NIA), an organization styled after the FBI, to take the lead on combatting terrorism. It also passed legislation granting authorities greater leeway in tracking, detaining and prosecuting terrorism suspects. "The government has improved efficiencies. There's no doubt about it," says Raghu Raman, chief executive of the corporate risk-consulting firm Mahindra Special Services Group. "They have made some new command and control structures. The tough part is to bring up the level of expertise. That takes years."

Some of these efforts have been wrought with controversy. There is criticism, for example, that the Indian government has gone too far in emulating the U.S., which granted sweeping government discretion in the name of national security after 9/11. One of the most controversial pieces of legislation is the newly amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which permits authorities to detain suspects for up to six months without charges, allows the denial of bail for foreigners and only very loosely defines "acts of terrorism."

The reordering of agencies under the NIA, however, has been more warmly received. Creating and training new units — not simply recycling old officers with new titles — has been vital, according to Raman. "For a change, it's not simply cannibalization. So it's not about the same officers being given more jobs. It's about new officers being posted and new units being raised. All of that is happening." Still, the process of getting more boots on the ground, police on the streets and, perhaps most important, ships at sea, remains a perilously long one. "It takes 18 to 24 months to get a fully trained sailor, about three years to get a fully trained officer," says AK Kumar, former director general of the Coast Guard. "There's no shortage of volunteers in our country, but by the time the effects are seen on the ground, it will take two to three years."

The country has also seen an increase in the number of private security guards stationed at hotels, malls and train stations. Today there are 5.5 million armed guards working for 15,000 security operators in the country, according to J.R. Trikha, executive director of the Central Association of Private Security Industry (CAPSI). That's a 30% rise since the Mumbai attacks, according to Trikha. Even in New Delhi, metal detectors accompanied by uniformed guards now frame the entrances to most hotels, malls and public buildings.

But while the very visible increase in the use of private security guards can be effective as a last layer of defense, it is far from the front line of security. "With the kind of population levels we have, the kind of systems we have which are not functioning up to the mark. Unless you neutralize the source, there's no way you can be assured there won't be any collateral damage," says Bharat Varma, editor of the Indian Defence Review.

The fact that there hasn't been any major violence since the first attack, despite a long and heated national election last month, gives Indians a reason to hope. "The conduct of the election has been a success for the security forces," says Raman. Security during the monthlong election was a major concern for the government, so much so that the highly popular Indian cricket league, scheduled to be held at the same time across the country, was moved to South Africa due to worries about potential terrorist strikes. Despite some violence at the polls, the country avoided a large-scale strike plotted outside its borders. "A lot of the credit must go to preemptive steps and intelligence gathering and foiling of attempts that must have been made," says Raman.

Still, Raman says there are a number of cultural changes that must be made in order to achieve a highly securitized India. "It's still not ingrained into the DNA of people that this is going to be a way of life in the 21st century. Kids are going to grow up in an environment where being frisked is going to be part of life," he says.

For Fernandes, the Time Out editor, the threat of terrorism still takes a backseat to everyday life. "If you travel by the local train, the odds of you falling off are much higher than some guy from Pakistan coming and opening his machine gun up at you," he says. "There are lots of things you can die from in Bombay; terrorism is just one of them."