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Monday, December 29, 2008

Defenceless Victims of Reckless Driving

My mother tried to coax the little one to drink some milk, but he would not come anywhere near her. She chased him for a while, but he ran into the park across the road. So, she returned to her chair in the front-yard, where she and I were sunning ourselves that afternoon. A few minutes later I saw him running along the inside of the boundary-wall on the farther side of the park. A little while after that my mother noticed that he stood at the park's corner and was poised to cross the road. We resumed our conversation about something else and then heard him squeal briefly, once or twice, like he would when his brother bit his ear too hard, while playing. We did not turn around to see what might have made him do that.

"Woh pilla aap ka hai?" (Is that puppy yours?), said a woman's voice that broke the subsequent silence. She had been pruning some of the bushes in the park. The little brown dog's body lay sprawled in the middle of the road. The driver of the vehicle that crushed him had either not bothered to apply the brakes at all or not hard enough, since we heard nothing unusual.

The pup was one of three born to a stray bitch nearly a month ago. She was killed in a similar manner, a few days after giving birth, leaving her offspring in a hole in the ground, in the park mentioned earlier. My mother persuaded a couple of neighbours to take turns with her, to feed the young ones, with milk at first and then with biscuits or bread dissolved in milk. My friend Zakhmi guarded the orphans at night, coiled up on a mound of dirt next to their sleeping-quarters. They largely remained confined to the park until very recently.

Over the past few years, I have seen many such dogs, mostly young pups, mowed down by speeding cars around where I live. The drivers responsible for the deaths have little to fear in terms of complaints being lodged with the police (I am not sure if there even is a law in this country, regarding that.) or crowds gathering to beat them up and damage their vehicles or the news-media reporting upon their deeds, as might be expected if the victims happen to be human. Their own consciences appear to be the least of their problems, in any case.

The only plausible solution, it appears at the moment, is to construct speed-breakers on the road, but I do not have the resources and other local residents do not seem concerned. Government officials do not seem to have the issue anywhere on their list of priorities.

It would obviously be much better though, if people would drive more carefully and spare the lives of defenceless creatures that obviously can not be taught road-sense in the way that humans can be. I also hope that the readers of this blog-post will help spread the word around, since none of the animal-rights organisations in India seem to focus on prevention or to campaign for punitive legislation, even though some provide ambulance services for injured animals.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Stark Contrast

This is about two events, A and B, which took place in a country called India. Actually, both comprised a series of events, but these have been considered as single entities here, for the purpose of comparison. A large number of innocent people were killed in both these violent occurrences. That, however, is where the similarity ends. These were different in ways that include the following :

1. While A occurred only a few days ago, B occurred about 24 years ago.

2. While less than 200 people were killed in A, more than 4000 were killed in B.

3. While most of the victims in A were shot dead, in B some were hacked to death, while others were burnt alive after their hands having been tied behind their backs, their bodies drenched with kerosene and burning tyres put around their necks. The women-folk amongst the victims were, in the latter case, forced to watch the male members of their families being killed, including young children, after which they were raped and then killed. Some of the youngest victims were tossed in the air, to be killed by falling on to sharp-edged weapons like spears.

4. The victims of event A mostly included those present in the hotels and the railway station under attack, but during event B, people were dragged out of their own homes to be killed, after which their houses were set on fire.

5. While the police force fought hard against the killers in A, in event B it was either inactive or, in some cases, even assisted the killers by blocking the victims' possible escape routes.

6. While the army was called in within hours of the attacks having begun in the case of event A, it was called in after several days of the commencement of event B, in order to give the killers a free run for that long, even though it acted in an unbiased manner, once it was sent into the affected areas. It is a different matter, however, that there was not much left for it to do.

7. Whereas 9 out of the 10 killers in the case of event A have been shot dead and the remaining one arrested, nearly all of the killers in the case of event B are still at large.

8. While the alleged masterminds of A are said to be located outside India and are sought to be captured at the earliest, even if that involves launching attacks on a neighbouring country, those for B are all present within India and yet none of them have been brought to justice over the past 24 years. As a matter of fact, some of them have been legislators and even cabinet ministers in the government of India during that period.

Some of them, ironically, are protected by the men of the same elite commando force i.e. National Security Guards (NSG), which was sent in to fight against the attackers in A. The political party that these alleged masterminds belong to, won a huge electoral victory in the general election that followed event B, almost as if it was being rewarded by large sections of India's population for its 'good work' that was widely perceived to have included the organisation of the massacre.

9. Following event A, the prime minister of India declared that such events are a threat to pluralistic societies, while the (then) prime minister of India said following event B, "Jab baRaa peyR girtaa hai toh dharti toh hilti hi hai." (When a large tree falls, the earth is bound to shake.).

10. Following event A, there has been a large-scale outpouring of grief by various sections of the general public in the form of demonstrations replete with banners, black arm-bands and plenty of slogan-shouting, in addition to candle-light marches, chain-letters circulated through email, etc., while very little of anything like that was in evidence after event B or for the 24 years that have gone by since then.

11. Whereas politicians are being criticised and even being abused following event A, the politicians perceived as being largely responsible for event B were able to build up a huge fan-following, on account of which, as mentioned above, they were able to win general elections with a huge margin of victory, soon after the violence.

12. One of the most prominent slogans that have been raised after event A is, "Enough (of terrorism) is enough!", but since there have hardly been any protests after event B, over the past 24 years, except by some of those belonging to the same community as the victims, there is no question of any such slogans having been raised. However, soon before event B, one of the slogans raised was, "Khoon ka badlaa khoon se laiNgay!" (We shall avenge blood with blood (of innocents who had nothing to do with the incident sought to be 'avenged')!)

Incidentally, if event A is substituted by any other instance of terrorist violence in India and event B is substituted by any other instance of communal riots in the country, the contrast is likely to remain almost as stark.

The foremost question that arises in my mind, in view of all of the above facts, can be summed up in one word i.e. why?

Update: March 7, 2009. Apparently, I am not the only one who has noticed the contrast. The following is an excerpt from a letter published on page 14 of the March 2009 issue of the Indian edition of the Reader's Digest:
"This country is known for its double standards. Orissa was targeted by our "in-house" terrorists and no one really cared about the innocent civilians who were burnt alive or about a nun who was gang raped in front of mute policemen. But when it comes to Mumbai being terrorized, every politician is playing his part and the whole nation is voicing its opinion."

Monday, December 01, 2008

Prima Facie: A Few Observations on the Mumbai Attacks

In view of the recent events in Mumbai, in particular, and India, in general, after I put aside the feelings of pride based on the valour displayed by the officers and men of the Mumbai Police and Fire Brigade Departments and those of the Indian Army, Navy and various special forces, the staff of the Taj Mahal and Oberoi-Trident hotels, in addition to those of grief on account of the loss of so many innocent lives, I have the following observations to make:

1. Hemant Karkare, who was the chief of Mumbai police's anti-terrorism squad (ATS), died in the course of the attacks, having been shot thrice in the chest, even though he was wearing a bullet-proof jacket. It leads me to wonder whether those who were responsible for procuring the jacket decided that Mumbai's policemen did not need a jacket that could stop bullets fired from an AK-47 or whether they, in fact, accepted bribes to procure jackets that were not up to the requisite quality standards.

2. A contingent of the National Security Guards (NSG) was flown in from New Delhi to tackle the gunmen. Their flight took off from New Delhi at about 1:15 a.m. on November 27, even as the attacks had begun at about 9:15 p.m. on the previous day. They are reported to have gone into action at only about 6:00 a.m. on November 27.

The Marine Commando Corps (MARCOS) of the Indian Navy, stationed at Mumbai itself, was ultimately called into action, but that too happened several hours after the NSG contingent had become airborne.

The NSG's men are supposed to be able to get ready to board an aircraft with all their equipment within 30-45 minutes, but in this case it took much longer as an aeroplane had to be arranged for first. Later, apart from those who were dropped by helicopter on to Nariman House's roof, the rest had to be transported there by buses requisitioned from the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking (BEST).

Apparently, no one had ever considered before that action by an elite commando force may be required in a city like Mumbai, in case of a terrorist attack, at any point of time and planned for it at all.

3. The press-conference conducted by a section of MARCOS that took part in the operations made two things very clear. They were not even provided with a copy of the building-plan of the Taj Mahal hotel, before they were sent in and secondly and even more importantly, some essential equipment that they did not have included night-vision devices.

The terrorists were able to strike at will, more or less, since they knew more about the building-plan than the commandos. It may be worth noting here that if a skilled set of commandos are provided with the layout of a building that they are about to storm, even a few minutes before they move in, a huge difference can be made in the effectiveness of their operations and, therefore, help them save more lives.

Since the MARCOS did not have night-vision devices, the terrorists could escape when they encountered the commandos in the dark and cause much greater damage later. It also led to two of the commandos suffering from serious injuries in that particular fire-fight.

The building-plan could have been provided to the MARCOS by Mumbai's civil authorities, if not the hotel's management.

As far as the procurement of essential equipment is concerned, perhaps the chiefs of the three defence services could exhibit the same kind of unity and strength of will while asking for it, as they did while trying to get a salary raise equivalent to bureaucrats and policemen for themselves and the soldiers they command. The bureaucrats and politicians in the Ministry of Defence might then let them have it.

4. The NSG not only lost one of its men during its operations at Nariman House, but also failed to save the lives of five people that the two gunmen holed up there had taken hostage, even though it managed to kill the gunmen. Another commando of the NSG was killed during its operations at the Taj Mahal hotel. Although I am not fully competent to comment on this, but I do wonder whether the NSG's skills are getting rusty owing to a lack of time and resources to practice for such situations, as a large number of its men have been employed as personal security guards for the country's top politicians.

Incidentally, some of the politicians protected by the NSG have been widely accused of embezzlement of crores of rupees, nepotism, incitement of communal riots, deliberate inaction during widespread communal violence (in which thousands of innocent people were robbed, raped and/or killed in a brutal manner and their properties set on fire) while serving in positions of power, among other such grave charges.

5*. Unlike the MARCOS, who were very careful about protecting their identities, many of the NSG's men did not wear the balaclava helmets issued to them in a proper manner, while they were in action at the hotels and at Nariman House. As a result, the faces of many of them were revealed to television cameras. A number of them spoke briefly to television news-channels after the encounter at Nariman House was over, with their faces uncovered. An injured NSG commando admitted to a hospital in Mumbai has been interviewed by television news-channels including BBC World Service and NDTV 24x7. Although they do not seem to have realised this, such actions could expose the men, while they are off-duty, as well as their families to retribution by terrorist organisations.

Perhaps it is time for their senior officers to remind them to be more disciplined, like the MARCOS.

6*. The interviews with the injured NSG commando made it clear that the NSG's men also did not have night-vision devices, just like the MARCOS.

7. When Lieutenant General N. Thamburaj, chief of the Indian Army's Southern Command, held a press conference on the morning of November 28, he mentioned that the NSG had suffered casualties, but he would rather not say whether these had been fatal or non-fatal, since that could, according to him, affect the remaining terrorists' frame of mind. I knew as soon as the words were out of his mouth that the NSG had suffered fatal casualties i.e. some of its men had lost their lives. If I could make that out, obviously the terrorists also could, if they managed to listen in to the Lieutenant General's statement.

8. The electronic news-media in India, it appears, has still not come of age. While the BBC World News channel called in intelligence analysts and anti-terrorism experts to discuss all that was unfolding, Indian television channels interviewed actors and directors from the Hindi film industry, in addition to members of the general public, to discuss the state of affairs in Mumbai, besides making an attempt towards sensationalising minor discoveries, even as bullets flew and their reporters stood outside the buildings under attack, counting the number of gun-shots and explosions that they could hear. Also, news from all other parts of the country and from the rest of the world was almost completely taken off air for the duration of the attacks, which was nearly three days.

9. I think I will not be surprised at all if it is found that the terrorists and their arsenal came in through a regular route for smuggling via sea, after the usual amounts of bribes having been paid to the staff of relevant government agencies that were on duty.

10. Not so long ago, investigations by the Hemant Karkare-led ATS revealed that recent bomb-blasts in the town of Malegaon, in Maharashtra, which led to the loss of many innocent lives, were planned and executed by certain Hindu right-wing organisations and subsequent arrests included Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and a serving officer of the Indian Army i.e. Lieutenant Colonel Srikant Purohit.

Initially, when the Sadhvi was sought to be linked to senior leaders of the principal opposition party in the lower house of parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on account of information dug-up by the news-media, it sought to distance itself from her. However, later on, when it became known that no substantial material evidence had so far been gathered against her by the ATS, the party's president, Mr. Rajnath Singh, and its prime ministerial candidate, Mr. L. K. Advani, began to defend her in a big way through public statements.

More recently, however, Mr. Karkare and his men were reported to have obtained clinching evidence in the form of video and audio recordings of meetings in which the Sadhvi, the Lieutenant Colonel and their cohorts were seen and heard planning the bomb-blasts. These were, apparently, found on the laptop computer of one of their co-accused. It was also reported that the ATS meant to make the entire plot public, after tying up a few loose ends, very shortly. If that had happened, Mr. Advani, Mr. Singh and their party-men might have found themselves at a loss for words with respect to this issue, especially while facing the electorate in the upcoming general elections.

Now that Mr. Karkare is dead, though, no one really knows as to what is likely to become of the investigation. The new chief of the ATS may not be as upright an officer and may not pursue the matter as vigorously. In any case, the accused in the Malegaon bomb-blast case and the BJP have already benefitted from the Mumbai attacks, in this respect, since the attention of the news-media has been diverted completely.

So, ultimately, the Islamist militants who attacked Mumbai appear to have come to rescue of the Hindus accused of terrorism in Malegaon. It seems as if there is greater solidarity amongst the Hindus and Muslims who are terrorists than those who are the common citizens of India. As a matter of fact, India might not have been a victim of terrorism at all if there had been greater solidarity between the majority community i.e. Hindus and the various minorities like Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

I have seen in this country something that can only be termed as 'selective grief'. Whereas there is a huge outpouring of grief and rightly so, from all over the country, when nearly 200 people are killed in a terrorist attack, it is also true that there are large numbers of people who celebrate the killings of 2000 or 4000 people during communal riots by rewarding politicians widely perceived as having organised and presided over these with huge electoral victories, as happened in the elections for the Gujarat state legislature in 2002 and for the Lok Sabha in 1984, following anti-Muslim and anti-Sikh riots, respectively. Many of these politicians, as pointed out earlier, are now protected by personnel of the same NSG that battled against terrorists in Mumbai over the past few days. It is almost needless to add that these powerful men and women have been able to successfully prevent or stall legal proceedings against the majority of those responsible for communal violence or, when proceedings have been completed, to have them acquitted of most of the charges. Factors like these help provide fresh local recruits to terrorist organisations, in the form of actual combatants as well as those who provide logistical support.

*Updates to original blog-post, on December 04, 2008.