I distinctly remember the moment when I found out about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. It was my sophomore year at Colby College, and one of my Government professors pulled me aside before class and told me that there had been a terrorist attack in Mumbai, and that I should check on my family. I only had extended family in Mumbai, and a quick call to my mother confirmed that they were all fine. I was never that attached to the city. I had only visited Mumbai twice before, and my impressions were mostly colored by Bollywood and Suketu Mehta’s brilliant book, Maximum City. But, even though I was across the world in a parochial New England town that had fewer people than most Indian apartment buildings, I remember being absolutely distraught while following the events over the next 48 hours; a ragtag band of 10 Pakistani gunmen had brought an entire nation to its knees, killing more than 160 people, injuring more than 300, and holding off the Indian forces for over 60 hours in downtown Mumbai.
Five years later, the mastermind of the attacks, Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba’s chief, Hafiz Saeed still walks free in Lahore, Pakistan despite a USD 10 Million bounty on his head, the Indian government still has done no significant post-mortem on the attacks despite every politician’s annual elegies, and the Pakistani foreign ministers, including Rabbani Khar, have the gall to say that India should move on. It is in this context that Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy wrote ‘The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj‘, a meticulously detailed account of the attacks, from the origin of the terrorists in Pakistani Punjab to the sheer incompetence of the Indian forces.
Reading The Siege was excruciating. It was deeply saddening, blood-pressure raising, and totally engrossing at the same time. It narrates the attack from the perspective of the guests, chefs, and workers at The Taj, from the security forces involved in the counter-terrorist operations and also has narratives from the terrorists themselves obtained through phone intercepts during the siege. It also provides impressive background on the lives of Ajmal Kasab (the lone terrorist captured alive – executed in 2012) and David Coleman Headley (the Pakistani-American CIA/LeT double agent who conducted surveillance in Mumbai for LeT – currently in prison in the US). While the language is flawed (trite, wordy and awkward) and the action, often, too difficult to follow, Clark and Levy humanize the conflict. The heroism of the hotel staff, the brutality of the terrorists, the sheer, utter ineptitude of Indian forces ranging from systematic intelligence failures preceding the attack to the incompetence of Mumbai Police Commissioner Hasan Gafoor to the dithering bureaucratic failures at the Home ministry (it took over 10 hours to get the counter-terrorist commandos from New Delhi to Mumbai though the force was ready to fly to Mumbai within 20 minutes of the first gunshot) really sticks with you, making your blood boil and curdle.
But most importantly, the book asks the important question – what has been done? The short answer – nothing. LeT remains active in Pakistan and Indian cities remain as vulnerable as before. There is no evidence to prove that this tragedy forced the Indian government to completely re-tool its security and counter-terrorism strategies. Many ill-conceived ideas, like the National Counter Terrorism Center, remain just that – foolish and ineffective. Thankfully, there has been no attacks on that scale since, and perhaps that is a sign that something that was done is working. Although, I think you’d really have to be a fool to believe that; Indian authorities, meanwhile, will continue to fail its citizens.