Thursday is the prime minister’s question hour day in the Rajya Sabha. So at 11:25 am on December 13, Atal Behari Vajpayee was getting ready to leave his residence when Vijay Goel, minister in the PMO, called up to tell him that both houses of Parliament had been adjourned, so the PM need not come. Vajpayee decided to use the time to clear some files. Had he gone as scheduled, he would have entered the compound from his special gate just as the terrorists’ car drew up at Parliament.
A similar stroke of luck may have saved Vice-President Krishan Kant’s life. At 11:30 am, BJP MP Mahesh Chand Sharma dropped in at Kant’s chambers just as the vice-president was leaving Parliament. Seeing Sharma, the vice-president sat down again. This single act also probably saved the lives of dozens of parliamentarians, because it was Kant’s security that, in anticipation of his arrival, was alert. It was they who challenged the intruders and ultimately killed them. "If I hadn’t entered the vice-president’s room at that precise moment, god knows what would have happened," says Sharma.
In minutes, at 7, Race Course Road, Vajpayee got a call from his parliamentary office that there had been some firing in Parliament. He spoke to home minister L.K. Advani, President K.R. Narayanan, the vice-president and parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan over the next two hours. Says Goel: "The PM told us security forces were on the way and that there was nothing to worry about."
For a place as secure and well-guarded as Parliament, covered as it is by several security agencies, the very idea that an explosives-laden car with suicide bombers could break in was considered preposterous till the sunny winter morning of December 13. The terrorists inside the white Ambassador car with a fake home ministry pass and an India Habitat Centre sticker on its windshield who challenged the might of the Indian State right inside its citadel obviously thought differently. And they very nearly succeeded.
The ambitious attack stunned India’s somewhat violence-inured political and security establishment as never before. After all, this was no Kashmir or far-away northeast where leading political institutions have been targeted for decades now. This was right in the heart of the Indian capital, in the most visible symbol of India’s democracy. December 13 has left the political establishment and the NDA government groping for a suitable response.
Later in the day, Vajpayee said on TV that the "battle against terrorism had reached its last phase" and that "we will fight a decisive battle to the end". Within hours of the assault, an emergency meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) took stock of the situation. Heads of security agencies told Vajpayee, Advani and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh that the time for "tougher" and "unconventional" security methods had arrived.
The CCS sounded another, more ominous, warning. There could be similar attacks on other high-profile installations. The CCS resolution, though, was firm: "By the attack, the terrorists have yet again flung a challenge at the country. The nation accepts the challenge. We will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors—whoever they are." On December 14, Jaswant Singh announced in Parliament that there was credible technical evidence that the attack was the handiwork of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba.
What then are the options before the government? Outlook spoke to a cross-section of politicians and officials to draw up alternative courses of action that the government can take.
- Cross the LoC in a full-scale military operation to take out the terrorist training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK);
- Covert operations to destroy the training camps;
- Press US President George Bush to move hard against Pakistan;
- Increase dramatically the cost of infiltration and exfiltration along the LoC;
- Do nothing now and wait for an opportune movement to strike.
But the last option may not be possible under the circumstances. Amid the huge uproar and criticism from the Opposition, the government cannot be seen to be doing nothing in response to this audacious act of terror. Top ministers and officials seem to be evaluating the other courses of action. Certainly, given the public outrage, crossing the LoC is one of the most popular alternatives. BJP party spokesman V.K. Malhotra told reporters that the need of the hour was "hot pursuit" to destroy terrorist camps in PoK. "We should take a decision as early as possible on a proactive policy against terrorists," Malhotra said.
A large group of BJP MPs who met Vajpayee on December 14 told him India should adopt a stand similar to the US’ post-September 11 where despite all the doubts expressed, the Americans pounded the Al Qaeda into submission. Not surprisingly, Malhotra also used this opportunity to impress upon political parties to pass POTO, the anti-terrorism bill. But as of now, the Opposition appears unwilling to relent. Well-placed sources in the government, however, said that "crossing the LoC was not something that the government is considering at this point", thereby implicitly suggesting that if vital installations continued to be targeted in this fashion, India may not have an option. Government sources also indicated that crossing "the LoC would have been politically a good option at this stage".
Top government advisors on security say that chances are the government would, however, opt for covert operations against terrorist camps in PoK. "The only way you can tackle covert warfare is to do it covertly yourself," reasons one official. Some analysts say that India will have to up the ante dramatically when it comes to movement across the LoC. Says security analyst Kulbir Krishan: "While the border fencing in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat are working like a song, the situation along the LoC is different. Pakistan-trained militants can enter and leave India without paying a heavy price. That has encouraged terrorists to come in and leave almost at will with very little casualties." According to Krishan, more army and Rashtriya Rifles units need to move to the LoC and leave the policing and detection to the local police and paramilitary forces. Barbed wires, evenly-spread land mines and use of sensors are other measures that the government will have to take if it is to get a grip on infiltration, because once inside the Kashmir valley, a militant can travel almost anywhere in the country.
Diplomatically, India—on a high after its successes in Afghanistan—is already sounding out the US about exerting pressure on Pakistan to curtail its cross-border terror. President Bush, within hours of the attack, called up Vajpayee to offer his condolences and to reassure him of continued assistance. The next day, US ambassador Robert Blackwill informed Advani that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was willing to assist Indian agencies in the probe. Says one official: "The results are there to see. Gen Pervez Musharraf actually offered condolences to the Indian government and none of the militant groups are even willing to take the credit for the attack, something unthinkable just two months ago." According to government sources, South Block is already considering sending a special envoy to Washington to present India’s point of view and concerns.
While Advani told reporters on December 13 evening that the security forces needed to be lauded for their sacrifices—there are not many who will argue with that—the attack on Parliament has indeed raised questions about India’s Kashmir policy. Advani’s critics, for instance, say that while the home minister has been attacking terrorism from Delhi and his constituency in Gujarat, he has rarely made a trip to the state, depending, instead, on his advisors for taking decisions, and some of these advisors may have gone to the Valley even less than their boss.
For, after December 13, the stakes have clearly risen manifold. From the macabre details pieced together with the help of eyewitness accounts and security officials, the terrorists were all set to enter the Parliament building and take one or several vips hostage. Police recovered large quantities of dry fruits on the person of the slain terrorists, which lends credence to the theory that they were prepared for a long siege. What could have happened if they hadn’t run into the Vice-President’s security detail is a scenario too dreadful to speculate on. Says Rajya Sabha MP and former journalist Rajiv Shukla: "Once inside, it would have been easy to walk into the well of the house and remember, the PM was expected to be at his seat at that time." Ironically, he wasn’t around because of the adjournment over the Opposition uproar over POTO, a bill that is supposed to protect against terrorist attacks like this one.
Officials warn of tense days ahead. There are proposals already to ban vehicular movement inside the Parliament grounds and raise the levels of security which has become quite ‘routine’ of late. There are journalists who cover Parliament on a daily basis, hundreds of other personnel who work in the five-acre campus that makes security a nightmare. "It is in the nature of political gatherings that no one can be pushed around too much," admits a police official. The terrorists, who security officials say had made a couple of dry runs earlier, were obviously aware of this particular pitfall of democracy.
Clearly, the attacks have opened up a can of worms. The government has to act and the first step could be some heads rolling in the security set-up. But the key question is whether this would be enough to stop what remains politically a volatile and fluid situation. The government needs to take, and be seen to be taking, the "decisive action" it has promised the people.