I remember lucidly what I was doing on November 26, 2008 when news began trickling in of multiple terror attacks in Mumbai. Having returned home from work a little later than usual, I had just finished dinner and was settling in to watch a movie but decided to surf through some news channels instead.
At first, it was a footnote/ticker on the bottom of the TV screen. But within a few minutes, that trickle had turned into a confused jumble of ‘unconfirmed’ short reports, with nobody any the wiser on what was actually happening in the commercial capital of India.
Then came the reality of the nightmarish four-day-long terrorist attacks, which began on Wednesday, November 26 and carried on till Saturday, November 29. A total of 175 people died, including nine attackers, and more than 300 were wounded.
I was in Pune at the time, working as a Senior Sub-Editor with a national newspaper which had a formidable reputation for professionalism. Working in the media, I and my team found ourselves shocked and numbed by the magnitude of the 26/11 attacks and had to marshall all our moral courage and physical strength to report on the seemingly never-ending incident.
I got through to an employee of one of the hotels targeted by terrorists, who initially agreed to speak to me but then, inexplicably backed out, sounding panicked and almost scared. Security was beefed up at the Jewish centre in Pune’s upscale Koregaon Park and our days passed in a haze of disbelief over the scale of the 26/11 attacks. Yet, we all pooled in to keep the news flow going and continued to work (despite extraordinary pressure) in as professional a manner as possible.
At the end of it all, what remained were some very disturbing questions and very few convincing answers. For example, there was talk of a high-profile business tycoon being present at one of the targeted luxury hotels and another snippet about a cache of arms and ammunition having been found in another five-star property. Then there was speculation around why a Jewish community centre had been targeted. The prospect of the involvement of the ‘deep state’ and the crucial role played by David Coleman Headley — who was helped in his recce of Mumbai by the son of a well-known Bollywood director — also led to endless postulation.
Thirteen years later, some questions remain unanswered and prominent among them, as raised by B. Raman (Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi), are:
- What kind of intelligence was available — from the Indian as well as foreign agencies?
- How and by whom were the reports analysed, assessed and disseminated?
- Were the gaps in the available intelligence identified and was action taken to fill those gaps?
- Some media reports immediately after the attack had quoted a senior executive in the Taj Mahal Hotel as saying that security was strengthened in the hotel for some days before the attack, but was subsequently downgraded. Who took the decision to downgrade physical security? On what basis?
- Was a detailed reconstruction of the terrorist attacks made? Who made that reconstruction? What were the conclusions of that reconstruction?
- On what basis did the police come to the conclusion that apart from the 10 Pakistani terrorists who came by sea from Pakistan, no other Pakistani accomplice was involved on the ground in Mumbai?
- On what basis did the police come to the conclusion that apart from the two Indian Muslims arrested and prosecuted, there was no involvement of any other Indian Muslim?
- On what basis did the police come to the conclusion that there was no evidence of any pre-9/11 recce of the places attacked by the LET or its accomplices?
- Did the police seize the guest registers of the hotels attacked, make out a list of persons of Pakistani origin who had stayed there in the months preceding the attacks and verify their background? If so, did the name of David Coleman Headley, who had reportedly stayed twice in the Taj Mahal Hotel, figure in that list? The fact that the Mumbai Police became aware of Headley’s stay in the hotel only after they were tipped off by the FBI shows that the registers were either not scrutinised or were scrutinised superficially.
- Did the police seize the immigration records of the Mumbai airport to check the particulars of persons of Pakistani origin who had arrived in the days preceding the attacks and left in the hours following the attacks?
- Were the investigators able to get any evidence beyond the confession of Kasab, the lone terrorist captured alive? (Source: B. Raman (Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi),
Other pertinent questions include:
- Did the terrorists have support from any Mumbai-based or India-based individuals and/or organisations? What role did the son of the famous Bollywood director play in aiding and abetting the recce conducted by Headley, apart from his admittedly ‘minor’ role in the chain of events?
- What happened to the mobile phone used by Mohammed Ajmal Kasab? Are reports that former Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh “destroyed” a mobile phone seized from the 26/11 terror attack convict true? This claim has been made by retired Assistant Police Commissioner Samsher Khan Pathan. He had submitted a written complaint to the Mumbai Police Commissioner in July 2021 and asked him to investigate the entire matter and take necessary action against Singh
- How much did the live TV coverage of events unfolding on 26/11 assist the terrorists in planning, executing and modifying ongoing attacks? The Supreme Court, in its judgement in Md. Ajmal Md. Amir Kasab vs the State Of Maharashtra on 29 August 2012, had dedicated an entire section and several pages to the conduct of the media and how it endangered operations during 26/11. In a 2012 interview with media outlet Newslaundry, journalist Barkha Dutt had admitted the television channels’ role in endangering the lives of civilians as well as security personnel by not restraining themselves during live telecast. In her defence, Barkha Dutt has said that like in the Kargil War, during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, she became the ‘symbol’ for something every other journalist was doing. Barkha says, “Chaitanya Kunte said I was responsible for Hemant Karkare’s death. Hemant Karkare died the first night, I was in Delhi. The Chambers’ conversation that you report, that happened with other set of journalists as well. There were other reporters. I know who they were, I am not going to name them. The Oberoi story, I do remember having said at some point… not the exact number but when there was confusion over the fact that the hotel has been cleared, I did say that no, we still have reasons to believe that there are people who are trapped as hostages. That I did say. I don’t believe I was the only one who said it. Journalists across the board said that.” Barkha Dutt admits that perhaps in hindsight journalists did made mistakes during the Mumbai siege. However, she does add quickly that when they ‘realised’ (the same), from the second day they started deferring visuals of the live coverage of the attacks by 15 minutes. She ups her defence by saying that the media wasn’t aware that the handlers of the terrorists were monitoring news channels.