A hundred lives lost, a hundred others shattered. A hundred memories marred, a hundred childhoods wrecked.
Of all the scars of terror India has witnessed, 26/11 is the ugliest. It was different. Delhi had always been the target; it was the financial capital Mumbai where chances were considered seldom. For the first time, highly trained terrorists in Pakistan used the sea route to enter the Indian Territory. 10 young men of Lashkar-e-Taiba, carried out one of the deadliest series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai, beginning on 26 November 2008. The attacks that continued till 29th Nov killed 164 people and wounded at least 308.
South Mumbai was the worst hit place with eight attacks at hotspots for tourists and crowd such as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, The Oberoi Trident, Leopold café, Cama hospital, the Metro Cinema, in a lane behind St. Xavier’s College, the Jewish community centre Nariman House and the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower which became the face of the attacks. There were even explosions in a taxi at Vile Parle and at Mazagaon of Mumbai’s port area. On 29th November, India’s National Security Guards conducted ‘Operation Black Tornado’ to flush out the last remaining attackers from Taj Hotel.
Their objective was to create terror and get some key terrorists released of the Kandhar hijacking. It was the first time when foreigners in the country were the target of an attack, transforming a domestic tragedy into one that ended up having significant international implications.
Of the ten terrorists, only Ajmal Kasab was caught alive. Based on his confessions and other evidences, his nationality as a Pakistani was confirmed. He was later hanged to death in Nov 2012 after a series of court verdicts. Another of the planners of the attack, David Headly, who under the direction of Lashkar chiefs had performed five spying missions in Mumbai, was arrested in Chicago in 2009. In his statement during the hearing of Mumbai special court in early February 2016, via a video link from his prison cell in the United States, Headley named Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief and 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed as the head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. While no evidence seems enough to prove the masterminds guilty in the eye of Pakistan, it seems the culprits might never be caught in the net. According the reports from October this year, Pakistan had asked for additional evidences for the completion of the trials there and had even alleged India of shying away.
26/11 is as much a story of courage as it is of fear. Courage that won over all hardships, courage that made the survivors hold onto their strength at the toughest times. Six security personnels put their lives down to ensure the safety of the common people. Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, an NSG commando, was killed at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Hemant Karkare, the head of the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, died in a hail of bullets from Kasab near Rang Bhavan. In their respective lines of duty and attempts to counterfeit the terrorists, Ashok Kamte, the Additional Commissioner of Police (East Region), Inspector Vijay Salaskar , Assistant Sub-Inspector Tukaram Omble and Police Inspector Shashank Shinde were all killed by Ajmal Kasab and his partner Ismail Khan.
The survivors live on to share how terrorism couldn’t shake their conscience, instead it united people, giving a hand of help to one another. Indian Express has also done a series of interviews with the survivors, in one of which, Hemant Oberoi, former grand executive chef of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel says that they didn’t want the guests to panic, and ensured that they were taken care of. While others struggled to save their lives, Viju Chauhan, in a helpless situation had two lives to save, the other being her unborn child. She was already in the labour room when two terrorists attacked the Cama and Albless Hospital near St Xavier’s College. She remembers that she bore the pain silently for the next 50 minutes, sweating profusely. At 10.50 pm that night, Pakistani gunmen Ajmal Kasab and Abu Ismail were on the landing of the stairway leading to the building terrace, lobbing grenades and holding off a team of policemen two floors below with sustained machine gun fire when her daughter Tejaswini was born, who is thus often called chhabis gyarah.
Post the attack, India did not retaliate overtly by any attack on Lashkar-e-Taiba or militant groups. It was not considered the right time to do so when the nation was already emotionally traumatized and fighting over security incompetency. To have done so would have only been emotionally satisfying. Instead to the world it could have been labeled just another India-Pakistan dispute.
An attack on Pakistan would also have weakened the newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari’s government in Pakistan, which sought a much better relationship with India than the Pakistan Army was willing to consider. The Pakistani Army would have gained more control. An attack at the borders would have had limited or no practical utility.
The four days also mark the ugliest phase of reporting and journalism. Security lapses glared on live TV for three days. False news and opinions crept into reports at times when the crystal truth was required. Early reports and unattributed theories raised the confusion. News channels received an email claiming the responsibility of the attacks, reportedly from some group called Deccan Mujahiddin. Two of the terrorists during the attacks even called the India TV, claiming to be from the same organization. However, when the mails were tracked, they traced to a server in Russia. The story of any such organization was just fabricated to give it an angle of the attacks being an internal crisis in India.
It was later found that the terrorists were monitoring the live news to safeguard themselves and make their targets clear. The incident became the reason for enactment of the Rule 6(1)(p) of the Cable TV Network (Regulation) Act, that says that no programme should be carried which contains live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces. Media coverage will be restricted to the periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate government, till such operation concludes.
Mumbai has risen back in these eight years. People often display strength and remain a supporting rock for others at difficult times, but that doesn’t mean that these strengths should be put to test so often. Some of the wounds have healed, while others are still in the process. Time is the best healer. But security reviews and action against perpetrators of terror is what must not be left on time.