26/11…what Outcomes do we want ?

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai - Ind...

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Three years after the attacks on Mumbai on 26/11 we have to ask ourselves :  are we any better off ? What lessons did we learn ? Could we prevent an attack or cope with it better today ?

On the anniversary of 26/11,  several of us question whether we have made any progress in our battle against terrorism. Many quote the success of the United States in preventing a major terrorist attack post 9/11. Others quote the ubiquitous surveillance cameras in the UK, as being a strong deterrent to would be perpetrators.

The general perception, which grows with each passing attack, is that India is seen as a soft state, vulnerable to and unable to protect ourselves, against such attacks. Spurred on by the impassioned anchors of the TV News channels, we indulge in collective breast-beating. “How can India claim to be a super power,” we ask “when we cannot even prevent a bomb blast? ”

Without wishing to defend the Government, which undoubtedly can and should do more to beef up National Security, this article proposes a simple hypothesis:

– we need to agree on the Outcome we desire;

– it should be achievable and affordable:

– when this outcome is achieved we should celebrate success – and publicise it as a failure of the Terrorists.

The general feeling among citizens is that there is only one possible outcome that is desirable in dealing with Terrorism and terrorists : namely no more terror attacks. In fact, there are several, three of which are outlined below. I believe if we closely examine these and make a conscious choice of which outcome we desire, then the chances that we will achieve the desired outcome and thereby deal with the problem are much greater.

Outcome 1 : Prevent any further Terrorist attacks, e.g. the USA model

This is clearly the most preferred outcome. There can be no doubt that the Dept of Homeland Security combined with the US Patriot Act, have made the USA a strong and secure fortress against terrorism.

It is also the most expensive outcome to secure. It is estimated that the expenditure on Homeland Security in the USA is currently 80 % higher than Education, and that cumulative expenditure in the past 10 years (both public and private) exceeds USD 3 Trillion. Can India afford a comparable expense ?

The Anti-terrorism legislation required to secure this outcome also raises questions on possible infringements of Human Rights. As Ian Lupstick points out in his insightful paper Trapped in the War on Terror 83,000 suspects were confined and interrogated in the USA post 9/11. Of these only 39 convictions were secured and only 1 foreign national was convicted.

Our experience in India of anti-terrorism legislation like POTA (Prevention of Terrorist Act) and MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act) has been mixed, with several reported instances of  mis-use and abuse, resulting in the repeal of POTA in 2004.

Thus, though No more Terrorist Attacks is the most wished for outcome, it may neither be affordable, nor the most desirable, given that the route to secure it may not be one we wish to take.

Outcome 2 :  Pre-emption & Retribution : root out the evil & punish perpetrators swiftly

This outcome as its name suggests relies on preempting terror attacks by targeting specific identified “terror groups”. In the event of an attack that we fail to prevent, our aim must then be to swiftly identify the culprits and prosecute and punish them, so that others are deterred from following in their footsteps.

Though not as water tight or secure as Outcome 1, many of us consider this as something, which we can legitimately achieve within the framework of our existing security and judicial systems.

The key Terrorist organizations are well known and even recognized as FTO’s (Foreign Terrorist Organisations) by the USA and other major nations. Why then, can’t we go in and “take them out”? Similarly, many of us are outraged at the amount the Indian State is spending on keeping Ajmal Kasab in custody, and cannot understand why, what should be an open and shut case, has taken so many years to bring to closure.

Regrettably the truth is, that no matter how desirable this outcome, geo-political considerations make pre-emption difficult if not impossible. As for the speed of our judicial system, this is something it is going to take a while to expedite, and a much larger issue than dealing with terrorism.

Thus though Preemption & Retribution is an outcome, that in theory, is much more feasible than the first outcome of  No More Terror, in practice it seems as difficult to achieve.

Outcome 3 : Harden selectively & Recover swiftly

As a very wise and senior Defence officer once told me : “A terrorist functions under the garb of an ordinary citizen. He becomes the enemy within. The only way to fully guard against terrorism is to police every citizen. If you can’t do this then harden those targets that you feel must be protected, and ensure resiliency everywhere else. Your success is in a swift recovery – if the Terrorist knows he cannot keep you down or break your spirit – he has failed”

This is the essence of Outcome 3. It is also the one that is most sustainable in the long run, and the most achievable in the immediate future.

A necessary first step is to identify locations that we wish to protect at all costs. These could be places like transport hubs, schools & hospitals, places of religious worship, popular market places, administrative, legislative & judicial buildings and police & defence establishments.

Hardened infrastructure implies both adequate and up to date human and electronic surveillance. Likewise Resiliency does not merely rely on the “spirit of the people” but means that Disaster Management and Business Continuity measures must be instituted and tested regularly. Regular fire drills must be conducted and Crisis Management teams and Business continuity protocols established at a building, locality and city wide level. Measures to seal off escape routes as well as arrange speedy evacuation in the case of an incident must be taken and tested.

While the State can undertake this for Public spaces and buildings, citizens should be encouraged to do the same for private spaces as well. The more “hardened” locations we have the harder it will be for terrorists to wreak havoc.

The interesting thing about focusing on this Outcome is that it provides insurance against more than just Terrorist attacks. It creates resiliency for any kind of disaster.


It is clear that each of the above outcomes is different. The scale of Resources both financial and human, needed to achieve each of these is also different. What is important is that we take a realistic and pragmatic approach to deciding what is feasible and achievable for us in the Indian context.

Rather than be-moaning the past, this is the dialogue we should have on the anniversary of 26/11 and arrive at a bi-partisan consensus on which Outcome we would like to focus on. Once our target outcome is clear, the chances that we will devote the necessary focus to achieving it are significantly improved.

The War against Terror is likely to be a long and prolonged one. It is time we tackled it with the pragmatic determination that is essential to help us prevail.

Note: This article was written by me for the Gateway House, an independent Think Tank based in Mumbai, as part of a special supplement and series of 13 Commentaries on 26/11. It is re-published on my blog with their consent.  


15 thoughts on “26/11…what Outcomes do we want ?

  1. I would prefer your solution No.2 to combat terrorism.If our political leaders show some will power to fight against terrorism, your solution no.2 will definitely deter other terrorists. The incidence of terror strikes can be brought down to a large extent.

  2. This is exactly the need of the country. Moreover we are geared up to face the natural calamities (tsunami),
    but failing to prevent terrorist attack.

    This is the responsibility of the government.

    Real thanks for 3 outcome.

  3. Dear Ms Meera,
    The bitter truth of international politics is that we have to depend on the US to get Pakistan moving. Despite audio records, Pak refuses to admit to Hafeez Saeed’s role in 26/11. We need strong leadership to ensure our case is heard globally. Just don’t see political will to ensure we are protected. Every anniversary of all terror attacks we debate and discuss, while other countries act. Feel so insecure and the feeling is so deep-rooted because I feel even on issues like terror and internal security, there is no bi-partisan approach…

  4. Your analysis is sound, and your response is pragmatic and sensible. The key problem is making it understandable and acceptable. If the choice is to be made among the three, the jingoists will take over the conversation, and insist on more theatrical gestures. India’s restraint in not attacking Pakistan after 26/11, which is the wise strategy, appears to many to be an act of cowardice. The country is full of paper tigers, who’d like others to go and do bombing and fighting for them. In such a charged context, you will have to persist and make these sensible ideas more widely known. (The adverse civil liberties implications of the first options are too obvious to need restating; thanks for pointing out how expensive the American Patriot Act has been, and how limited its outcomes).

    Salil Tripathi

  5. Does it really matter how much we talk and debate on this matter? Everyone knows that not much can be achieved with the present system of governance and with the men and women who are responsible for this governance leaving out a small minority that is honest. All we can hear are words and then more words and then even more words.

    The first real awakening in decades has been the anti corruption movement and even that is under attack by our own governance and governors. Most of us slightly more awakened know what is needed but do any of us really have the power to change things? You may continue to debate and discuss and that probably might bring about a tiny bit of change but only amongst the privileged intelligentia. What about the men and women on the street? They really don’t know and don’t much care and they won’t until strong men and women who are not scared of speaking the truth are in authority. Civility will work with civil people. When almost half the parliament is made up of people with a criminal record and the law ministry and other relevant authorities continue to waffle away on this matter, there is no hope for this country and it’s people.

    Did I come across as being too pesimisstic? Perhaps and perhaps not! 🙂

      • I haven’t. Not as yet. However, people like you need to take stronger steps to move into the political sphere. You took the first step in 2009 and it is good that you have continued even though the media does not give enough exposure to people like you due to ratings. However, I hope someone in your camp does have a nice mix of cynicism and idealism to make a difference to your campaign in future. The decent ones who entered politics after 26/11 seem to have too much of idealism and too less cynicism to make a difference. Good luck.

      • Yes, the tide is turning albeit slowly. Too slowly. It needs to be speeded up and it won’t be speeded up with the idealism that you see around you. Idealism in necessary but it is also necessary that someone in your team and in other teams like yours sees to it that decision are taken based on solid political sense. I still don’t see anything happening at that level. I hope to see that soon but have a feeling that I’m going to be disappointed again. I’ve more or less gone back to my armchair after the brief stint with the PPI and with Mona. I have participated a little in my own way in the IAC while the street campaign was on. And my only request to you guys is step up the pressure. Bring in the people who can hit hard. I am sure there are people like that around. And I do wish you the best on this. Cheers.

  6. My views & perceptions. Every citizen of India wants :
    (1) India to be and perceived globally as a strong republic, capable of protecting its people on its own soil and anywhere in the world. An Indian citizen must feel proud to be an Indian citizen as his state is backing him anywhere in the world. To hold an Indian passport must be globally perceived as a matter of pride and security;
    (2) that any act of terrorism committed against people in India and the Indian Republic will be met swift retribution and perpetrators brought to book swiftly. You cannot hide from the Indian government anywhere in this world, including the right of cross borders hot pursuit and tracking down of people and organisations;
    (3) that any foreign government or people of a foriegn state or even people of India causing or seeking to cause physical and/or economic harm to destabilise India shall be viewed and perceived to be any enemy/hostile state and that India is capable of dealing with and shall deal with them strongly, preferabaly diplomatically, but if necessary, in any other manner to protect its republic, sovereignity and that of its people;
    (4) that freedom of its people (to life, liberty, religion, speech, occupation, etc.), its diversity of cultures and unity as a nation is always upheld and respected as paramount by other nations within the borders of India;
    (5) that India’s internal problems and issues are its internal domestic affairs and do not require interference in any manner from foreign states or their people, and that these can, should and will be resolved internally, including the desire of some people to secede from or have more autonomy in, the Indian republic;
    (6) that ordinary civil and criminal shall not be applicable to persons declared as terrorists (aspecially to non-citizens of India) after a fair and sufficient enquiry, and that special laws shall apply including for swift trials, convictions and punishments, irrespective of world opinion;

    Some of these views may sound very harsh and radical, but these extra-ordinary situations and times that India is facing since decades since her Independence and becoming a Republic, certainly do merit and justify extra-ordinary and unconventional methods in dealing with them. After all, all the nations are not similar or identical eggs in one common basket.

    • Thanks for your comments Gautam. Your point of view, which has been very clearly articulated, is shared by many. What is needed is a public debate and consensus that this is (a) the majority view and (b) a set of outcomes that can be achieved. If not we may need to scale back our ambitions.

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