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Asia-pacific

One year on, a police widow seeks answers

Video by Miyuki DROZ ARAMAKI , Olivier LE HELLARD

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2009-11-26

In the critical early moments of the Mumbai attacks, the city lost its top three cops and Vinita Kamte lost her beloved husband. A year on, she says the police force should learn from the blunders of the past – if only they would acknowledge them.

On the night of Nov. 26, 2008, as the first reports of a terrorist attack were just filtering out on local and national TV stations, senior Mumbai police officer Ashok Kamte briefly called home to say he was “leaving on an operation”.

A stoic, former sportsman, the 43-year-old Additional Police Commissioner was not a man to play up the hazards of his job. But his wife, Vinita Kamte, and their two sons understood them only too well.

“When he called just before leaving, our son wanted me to remind him to wear his bullet-proof jacket,” said Mrs. Kamte in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “He was watching TV and he probably sensed the gravity of the situation.”

Moments later, Kamte and two other senior police officials were killed when militants attacked their vehicle in a narrow side road outside a city hospital.

The loss of the city’s three top cops in the critical moments after the Mumbai attacks began was an enormous blow to the security services. In one fell swoop, the police force lost its most celebrated and experienced officers, exposing colossal security failures.

One year after the worst terrorist attack in Mumbai’s history, which killed 166 people – including 15 policemen - and lasted 60 terrifying hours, the police force remains one of the weakest links in the city’s defenses.

A chronically underfunded, poorly equipped force of about 48,000 policemen and women, the Mumbai police is charged with maintaining law and order in a teeming, bustling city of more than 18 million people.

In a rapidly-expanding city with an extensive criminal underworld, the caricature of the Mumbai policeman wielding a baton - or lathi as it’s popularly called - and World War II-era rifles, has never inspired confidence. Less so in the post-26/11 era, when the police force is likely to be the first line of defense against sophisticatedly armed and trained militants.

“No, I’m not at all reassured by the security of this city,” said Shishir Joshi, a veteran journalist who has extensively covered the city’s police and criminal networks. “This city is far too large to be handled by the police alone.”

Still seeking answers

But what alarms many residents is the police’s apparent failure to come clean on some of the blunders committed on that fateful night – a first step they argue, in learning lessons from the past.

For some of the families of the slain police officials, the loss of their loved ones is compounded by their failure to receive answers about the circumstances surrounding the policemen’s deaths.

In her book, “To The Last Bullet,” which she released earlier this week, Ms. Kamte slammed not only the security lapses but also the Mumbai police’s failure to supply vital information about their deaths.

“They didn’t give me any information,” she stressed. “You won’t believe the amount of correspondence I had to go through to try to understand what happened.”

A lawyer by training, Ms. Kamte had to rely on freedom of information requests to get a hold of documents, as well as witness interviews.

In her book, she argues that the police control room did not pass on vital information to the police officers in the field – information, she argues, that could have saved their lives.

Another murky chapter has been the controversy surrounding the missing bullet-proof vest of another senior police officer who was with Kamte when the gunmen ambushed their vehicle.

The wife of former anti-terrorism chief Hemant Karkare has filed freedom of information requests about the incident following media reports that questioned the quality of the vests. But the mystery remains unsolved.

The report by a government-appointed inquiry committee has examined the security lapses surrounding the 26/11 attacks, but the full findings have not been made public on the grounds that releasing it could affect the ongoing legal proceedings.

While nine militants were killed by security services, the lone militant survivor, Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, is currently on trial and could face the death penalty if found guilty.

A richer, better equipped force

On Thursday morning, police marched through downtown Mumbai in a display of strength during the anniversary commemorations, displaying new hardware, including armour-plated vehicles and amphibious vehicles.

In a phone interview with FRANCE 24, Mumbai police commissioner D. Sivanandan expressed confidence that the force was better prepared and equipped 12 months after the attacks.

“I can assure you that our response to any terrorist attack is significantly calibrated and well practiced,” he said. “We have upgraded our systems, our budget has increased, money has come and work has begun, technology-wise.”

At a solemn ceremony Thursday evening, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram unveiled a memorial to the fallen policemen at the city’s sea-front Police Gymkhana. Chidambaram also released a 72-page book titled "26/11, Eighteen" – commemorating the 18 servicemen – including 15 policemen – killed during the attacks.

The book, the work of journalism students, is dedicated to the families of the slain servicemen.

For one police widow though, the search for the truth will continue. “I’ve gone through so much in the past 12 months,” said Ms. Kamte. “My book has been my personal process of discovery. I’m doing this for myself and also for the force. They definitely need to reexamine and change.”

Date created : 2009-11-26

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