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Mumbai police caught unprepared

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-12-10

India’s commercial capital has been on the terrorist watch-list for a while. And yet, when Wednesday night’s attacks broke out, Mumbai police made fatal blunders, raising questions about their ability to protect the city from terror attacks.

Read our special report: 'Terror in Mumbai'


Click here to see our Face Off debate 'Mumbai attacks: why?'


Are Indians blaming the police? Read comments from our Observers in Mumbai


Mumbai gunmen 'showed no remorse'


To get a sense of the colossal law enforcement failure to anticipate, tackle and bring a speedy end to the Mumbai attacks, one has to look no further than a city map.


The Mumbai police headquarters, an imposing colonial Anglo-Gothic structure, is barely a block away from the Taj Mahal Hotel, where a group of attackers managed to enter the luxury hotel armed to the teeth with automatic rifles, grenades and firearms that could repel the country’s security services for almost 48 hours.


“It’s really shocking. It happened under the noses of the Mumbai police,” said Shishir Joshi, editorial director of Mid-Day, a Mumbai based daily, who has extensively covered the city’s police and crime networks. “We’re talking about a systemic failure. It’s not just an intelligence failure, it’s an operational failure as well.”


The attacks, which killed at least 130 people and injured about 370 others, were apparently carried out by around two dozen assailants. Indian security officials say their firearms were shipped into the coastal waters off Mumbai and brought on Indian shores in high-powered rubber dinghies, four of which have been recovered by the police.


A port city perched on the Arabian Sea, Mumbai is known as “the gateway to India”. The moniker comes from the “Gateway of India,” a landmark seaside basalt arch that faces the Taj Hotel. Most of the sites targeted in the recent attacks – the Taj and the Oberoi hotels, the Leopold Café and a Jewish center – were situated near the city’s famous seafront.


At sea about security


The seaside approach to India’s southwestern coast was the focus of attention 15 years ago, when a series of deadly explosions ripped the city. The firearms and weapons used during the March 1993 blasts were ferried in via the sea, prompting a 2001 inquiry report to bluntly state that India’s 7,516-km-long coastline was “largely unprotected and unguarded.”


More than a decade later, the city’s police still do not have a marine force to patrol the waters around the country’s commercial capital.


“The vulnerability of the country's coastal areas has been well known for a long time,” Commander Alok Bansal, a naval officer and research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) told the Press Trust of India. “Offshore security has traditionally been weak in India and this problem has not received much attention because Indian rulers are sea blind.”


Close ‘encounters’ of a fatal kind


But even on terra firma, the Mumbai police fumbled in the critical moments after the attacks began late Wednesday night local time.


In the first few hours after the coordinated attacks erupted across the southern tip of Mumbai, the city police force lost its three top cops.


Hemant Karkare, chief of the Anti-Terror Squad (ATS), Additional Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte and Police Inspector Vijay Salaskar rushed to the city’s main railway terminus Wednesday night, where there were gunshots being fired. The three celebrated police officers then chased the militants from the city’s spectacular Indo-Gothic train terminal, down narrow back alleys, where they were gunned down by the attackers.


“They were leading from the front, which is unusual. You wouldn’t have that in France or the US, you wouldn’t have the FBI chief move in on the front,” said Suketu Mehta, a journalism professor at New York University and author of the award winning non-fiction book, “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.”


In one fell swoop, the city police force lost its most experienced staff. Karkare had an intelligence background – he was with the Research Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian intelligence service, before he took over as ATS head. Kamte was a rising star in the city police force and Salaskar was a sort of celebrity cop – part famous, part infamous.


A former member of the city’s controversial “encounter” squad, Salaskar is believed to have killed dozens of alleged criminals on the job.


In a city with vast underground criminal networks, an “encounter” is a Mumbai euphemism for police gunning down criminals. While the police maintain criminals killed in an “encounter” were killed in self defence, human rights groups say the killings are often done in cold blood.


Mehta, who spent a lot of time with Salaskar while reporting his book, said the Mumbai police were frequently complaining about their lack of armour and ballistic power.


On Friday, The Times of India, a Mumbai-based daily, reported that it would be another year before city policemen could expect better bullet-proof jackets which could have saved the three top cops. The new jackets, which have been approved by the police top brass but never arrived due to delivery failures, are likely to be lighter with more body coverage and highly defensive against any ballistic attack.


Date created : 2008-11-28