February 19, 2020
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Come, Recast My City’s Horoscope

Our political and administrative system will fail us with practised ease. We can prevent that. If we will.

Come, Recast My City’s Horoscope

Do me a favour I can never, never repay. Prove me wrong—utterly, abysmally and shamefully wrong. Tell me that the deepest fears I harbour in my heart about our city and about our fellow denizens are totally misplaced. Go ahead, make my day, rubbish my piece. Show me that we don’t just care but are actively committed to saving our city from another 26/11 and I’ll recant every word here. Make me a happy man.

Between March 12, 1993, and July 11, 2006, there were eight terrorist attacks in Bombay, most of them with large quantities of explosives blowing up in multiple locations simultaneously, killing hundreds of people and crippling many more. In terms of body counts, the first—that’s the one in apparent retaliation to the demolition of the Babri Masjid—was the worst. Yet, 26/11 had a far greater impact on both the nation and the world. Was it because two of Mumbai’s archetypal landmarks were under siege, the most crowded railway station in the world, the CST World Heritage building, and the Taj Mahal Hotel, built partly to cock a snook at our British masters? Was it because the foreign press covered it non-stop while pretending most of the time that foreigners, especially those from the US, UK and Israel, were the only victims? Was it because Mumbaikars had never felt so helpless, frustrated and unprotected? Was it because the state government, the Mumbai police and the Union home ministry proved irrefutably that they were clueless, utterly at sea and had sat on their fat, corrupt butts doing the infamous bugger-all? Even after all those years since the mafia boss Dawood Ibrahim took it upon himself to be the left hand of God and blew up Mumbai to teach the country a lesson? Or was it because, coming right down to it, they didn’t really give a damn about the city and its citizens?

Whether it was one of these or all is irrelevant now. The fact is the denizens of Mumbai had never felt so let down. Perhaps for the first time, they felt they were on their own and must take charge of their lives and their city. When immediately after the calamity, the fundamentalist parties set about exploiting the situation to stoke up the fires of communal passions, various communities of the city got together at the Gateway of India and made it clear they would not allow any party to play politics with the city and its life. They went further: they made their dissatisfaction with the chief minister and the state home minister so clear that the Centre was forced to sack them and appoint new people to the posts.

So 26/11 was not going to be in vain. We had been traumatised, but hey, this was Mumbai. We never give up. We had learnt our lesson and we had changed forever. We were going to take responsibility for our city. We would stand together and be the masters of our united destiny. We would make the government accountable and rebuild the police force. After all the Bombay police were at one time not only the best in the country but, it was said, when they set their minds to it, their intelligence wing was so good they could crack any case. Yes, the good people of Mumbai would revamp all the agencies responsible for the protection and preservation of the city.

A committee was set up to find out what went wrong and the why and how of 26/11. But people in power didn’t allow its report to be published in full.

So we thought. But it took just a few days for the government to appoint a minister to supervise the overhauling of the force, the very minister who for over a decade has been held responsible for initiating the rot, total disarray and deterioration of the force. We stood by and watched. Nothing had changed. Mumbaikars had reverted to their comatose state. And it was business as usual for the government. The Ram Pradhan Committee was appointed to review what exactly had gone wrong and why and how. And what could be done to ensure that we were far better prepared. As usual, when the report was ready, it was not allowed to be published in full, and glossed over.

Indians have found the ultimate panacea for curing criminal incompetence and negligence, for mind-boggling greed and corruption at the very top. It’s a wonder that the world has not yet adopted it. All you need to do is to transfer the guilty party to a different city or place for a few months or a year and then bring him back to a far more powerful and responsible position.

The cynicism of the Congress immediately after it was re-elected at the Centre this year is truly breathtaking. The former chief minister of Maharashtra was appointed to the crucial post of industry minister at the Centre as a reward for his limp and paralysed response to 26/11, also for turning the most prosperous state in the country into a basket case where no industries wish to come any more, where the state of education has sunk to an all-time low, where malnutrition and farmer deaths are among the highest, to name only a few of his achievements.

In another arena, S.S. Virk has replaced A.N. Roy, one of the prime architects of the debacle on 26/11, as director-general of police. Virk is a phoenix. Twenty-three years ago, the Election Commission had him arrested on charges of corruption in Maharashtra; he was released on bail and then brought to Punjab as dgp. Now he’s back. As Jean Anouilh’s Henry II tells Becket, “Favour for favour.” Virk owes the Maharashtra government big time and he will have to return the favour. The man in charge of Mumbai is police commissioner D. Sivanandan. He dismisses his failure as chief of state intelligence at the time of 26/11 with a line that uniquely redefines his former job. “How is the state cid meant to know about terrorists from Pakistan?” Figure that out.

But to Sivanandan’s credit, he’s at least addressing one of the major problems—outdated equipment and guns without bullets. The police force is finally getting some new hardware like machine guns, assault rifles, grenade launchers etc. But the malaise in the police department and its failure is a direct consequence of the rapacious greed and divisions in the political leadership. It’s absurd that 40,000 inadequately trained men and women are expected to look after a population of 20 million. (New York, to put things in perspective, has a population of around 8.27 million and a police strength of 37,038.) The real villains, however, are endemic corruption and politicisation. The law-enforcing agency is riven with factionalism and internecine hostilities. If there’s any loyalty, it’s not to the force but to rival ministers, to one’s caste and community.

The finest equipment or biggest police force cannot be effective if the most elementary but essential systems are not in place. In the 26/11 attacks, all the procedures were there in black and white, except that nobody thought it worthwhile to practise drills to simulate a smooth and logical progression of a series of coordinated actions that would protect the people and the city, and reduce loss of life and property to the absolute minimum.

Can we, the residents of this benighted megapolis, hold our government, police and other systems to account and force them to ensure 26/11 isn’t repeated?

The opposition could not have asked for a better cause and effective weapon than 26/11 with which to beat down the government. The bjp, the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena could have seized the initiative at this critical juncture and focused on 26/11 and gained the gratitude of the populace by forcing the government to have a plan of action, which would be put into immediate effect and thus made sure that they themselves would be elected. But the bjp is busy with its infighting while the rss is disciplining it and quibbling about its stance on Muslims, who have been part of India for over a thousand years. The Sena and its nephew, the mns, cannot see beyond the Mumbai-for-the-Marathi-Manoos rhetoric. They want to put up a 350-crore statue of Shivaji Maharaj in the middle of the Arabian Sea without understanding that this remarkably astute and wise king knew his priorities as few other leaders in India have. He never lost sight of the fact that his first duty was to protect and preserve the people. And, by people, he meant everybody who stayed within the territory. The Congress got re-elected by default and the Shiv Sena and the mns are now trying to outdo each other by demanding that Maharashtra should come before the country.

Whether we like it or not, terrorism is here to stay for a long time. Mumbai, it’s obvious by now, is the favourite hunting ground for both Pakistani and local terrorists. Since terrorists are by nature competitive, they are bound to try and raise the bar for mayhem and murder for the next instalment of 26/11. When will the self-administered anaesthesia wear off from our zombie minds? One can only marvel at our capacity to forgive, or rather, ignore the government and the police force who let us down so badly. Our insouciance is so pervasive we just don’t give a damn. After all, we are still alive. And anyway, it’s all written in our horoscopes and in the holy books. We cannot and must not escape our lot.

Can we, the residents of this benighted and beleaguered city of ours, not see that the only help we are likely to get is us? Neither the government nor the police are going to wake up, move heaven and earth to protect us unless we force them by holding them accountable at every step. It’s up to us to instil a vision, direction and cohesion in both these institutions and to formulate a plan of action with annual targets. It’s going to be more difficult than starting from scratch. It will take years to rebuild the police department, and even longer to wrest the city from the rapacious greed of our leaders.

The dead are gone. All we can do now is to take care of the living. There is only one God. And her name is life. She is the only one worthy of respect. All else is irrelevant. The terrorists cannot understand this. But can we? How else can anyone explain that we are so cavalier about the deaths of the victims of 26/11? One of these days, if we do not shake a leg now, we too will take on the mantle of victim.

Our choices are limited. Either we do something or let the barbarians take over.

(The writer is a novelist and a Mumbaikar.)

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