Just as the images of billowing smoke from the twin towers of New York are seared in the memories of people all over the world, similarly the television visuals of the raging fire in the ornate fa'ade of Mumbai's iconic Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel will be recalled whenever the deadly terrorist attack on India's financial capital Nov 26-29 is mentioned. The booming sound of gunfire as the security forces engaged the jehadis will also become a part of the nation's collective memory.
Although Mumbai is no stranger to such outrages - the Taj itself experienced a car bomb attack in 2003 - the latest tragedy stands out from the rest for the simple reason that it was an evidently commando-style raid by suicide bombers with the express purpose of inflicting as much damage as possible on some of the city's landmarks and targets of its prosperity and progress.
While in the earlier attacks, the terrorists planted bombs in market places or trains and then left the scene, this time they stayed on to battle the security forces and die or be captured in the process. Since they were all heavily armed and were able to take hostages, they could carry on the confrontation with the police for prolonged periods, which could not but have a hugely demoralizing effect on the city and the country. Since India had not seen such war-like scenes before, the impact was devastating and it would take some time before its political fallout could be measured.
It is possible that the terror groups had realized the diminishing effect of their earlier tactics of planting bombs in crowded places and vehicles. In spite of the initial shock and revulsion in those instances, the effect tended to wear off, leaving only the victims to mourn their losses. But gunbattles lasting for hours and the wheeling out of bodies covered in white sheets from five-star hotels can have a numbing effect.
They are also bound to dissuade tourists and business travelers from putting India on their itinerary. The prompt cancelling of the remaining two one-day internationals by English cricketers was a case in point. Since the terrorists were reportedly looking for foreigners with American or British passports, their Al Qaeda- and Taliban-type orientation was clear, for it wasn't only the Indians they wanted to hurt.
It is quite possible that the fidayeen or the suicide bombers had come from Pakistan by sea. If so, the outrage is similar to the attack on Mumbai in 1993 and also on Parliament House in 2001, which intended to eliminate India's political leadership. New Delhi's response then was to station its troops on the Pakistan border. There may not be any such move now because New Delhi may want Pakistan's new President Asif Ali Zardari to implement some of his promises to improve relations.
But India cannot forget that sections of the establishment in Islamabad remain outside the control of Pakistan's civilian leadership. As the suspected role of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the bombing of India's Kabul embassy last July showed, these elements are still not reconciled to the prospect of peace with India.
The possibility, therefore, that the assailants had come from Karachi cannot be ruled out. Besides, the involvement of the Pakistan-based militant group, Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT), which has long been engaged in terrorist acts against India, is a distinct likelihood. However, the funds and the arms and ammunition could not have been secured by the LeT only on its own. Some kind of official complicity is very much possible.
Considering that the events of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday have come to be described as India's 9/11, it may not be besides the point to hope that the country's response to the outrage will be as effective as America's has been to the fidayeen attacks on its soil.
If India can ensure, as the US has done, that there will be no repeat of acts of terrorism, it will be a remarkable achievement. However, the portents up to now have not been too favorable. As industrialist Ratan Tata said, there was no crisis management group in Mumbai even though the city had seen earlier terrorist attacks.
Till now, India has not reacted with sufficient vigor and effectiveness to the numerous outrages it has experienced through the years from the Kashmir Valley to Delhi and Jaipur in the north to Mumbai and Ahmedabad in the west to Hyderabad and Bangalore in the south and to Guwahati and Agartala in the northeast. These have not only continued at periodic intervals but have increased in scale and operational style, as the latest Mumbai incidents show.
The prime minister's recent decision to set up a task force to deal with the threat of terrorism and insurgency underscored the failures in this respect. Evidently, the terrorists have been able to establish fairly secure bases in the country with a sufficient number of local recruits who can help to plan and carry out the attacks with their detailed knowledge of the targeted areas.
Although the intelligence agencies have made a number of arrests, they have not been able to penetrate deep enough into these secret outfits to immobilize and eliminate them. The ease with which the fidayeen groups could enter the hotels and railway stations in Mumbai with their heavy backpacks showed the laxity of the security measures. It was the innocent who had to pay with their lives for such casualness.