Barely inside the siege

Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s The Siege is a good and a fast paced read. But it is not an account recommended for the facts and the history of Mumbai terror attacks.

The seige

If Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab has become the face of 26/11 attacks, then the smoke and fire emerging out of the majestic Taj Mahal hotel has become the defining image of the carnage. Intricately orchestrated by Lashkar-e-toiba, the attacks are undoubtedly the most well coordinated and  precisely executed terrorist operation in the recent history of terrorism. The carnage, which threw India out of gear for over 60 hours, is also the most  reported story. Within weeks publishers had released books on the subject. Last year, on the 5th anniversary of the attacks, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark’s The Siege was added to that list. For a book written by investigative journalists and released five years after the incident, it is more of a narrative and less of investigation and disappoints on several counts.

While The Siege makes for a thrilling racy read, it occasionally falters on the accuracy of its facts and analysis. The authors bring to life the  fear, chaos and devastation felt by the victims, security officials and the terrorists themselves. Through personal stories of the dramatis personae, the book raises the curtain  on how India’s security establishment was completely caught off guard and miserably disorganised before it got its act together and neutralised the young terrorists.

The Siege is at best an incomplete compilation of the voluminous information available in the public realm. The language and style of writing does not redeem the authors from the fact that it only marginally offers any new information. Perhaps the only intriguing detail that has possibly never been reported before comes on page number 44, when Pakistan’s Major Iqbal “boasted they had a super agent at work in New Delhi who was known as “Honey Bee”. The authors offer no insight  to the identity of this person, who was providing “classified Indian files” that had been obtained from within the Indian police and army and which “revealed their training and limitations”. The authors, known for their investigative account of the 1994 kidnapping and hostage crisis in Kashmir, have no answer to the question – Who is Pakistan’s ‘Honey Bee’ in India?

The authors have tried to describe how Chabad House came to be added in the list of possible targets that David Headley was sent to India to scout for. The authors conclusion to this is, “the suggestion to it had come from a team of sixteen Indians whom Lashkar had recruited in Mumbai to produce lists of potential targets. A disparate squad, in Muridke the were referred to as chohay (the mice)”

The only other person to have made a statement about the possible involvement was the then Police Commissioner of Mumbai, Late Mr Hasan Gafoor. Answering a barrage of questions from reporters during a forced press conference, which I covered for CNN IBN, late Mr Gafoor had said that, “We have information of involvement of 16 locals.” Even before the Commissioner had  completed his sentence, all global and national networks went frantic  reporting the breaking news, only to withdraw it 15 minutes later. On orders from the then Home Minster Jayant Patil, Commissioner Gafoor called for another press conference to reverse his earlier statement. Since then, while there is certainty that there is some amount of local involvement, there is no clarity on who, what and how many they may be.

So when The Siege speaks of the involvement of  sixteen local Indians, one is not sure if this is backed by independent investigation by the authors, or whether it is a second or a third hand version of the anecdotes gathered during their reportage.  This almost casual and unsubstantiated reference to the local hand raise more questions and without answering any.

As the title suggests, the authors have attempted to draw out a complete picture of the bloodshed and havoc by focusing on the events unfolding inside the hotel. Yes, the Taj has become an iconic landmark of the country. But the only other reason could perhaps be the fact that the Tatas chose to give the authors liberal access into their preserved personal history of the grim event. This becomes apparent from the number of pages dedicated to describing the history and workings of the hotel, which tends to become boring. The pages start reading like elaborate pamphales on various aspects of the Taj. One feels that some officers have given a rather self glorifying account of themselves, almost bordering on arrogance. For instance reference to Vishwas Nagre Patil’s roots, his growth and the manner in which he has described his role almost convinces the reader that he alone could have neutralised the terrorists within the Taj with necessary weapons and back up. But for those who have followed the story closely will know that Additional Commissioner Vishwas Nagre Patil was only a small cog in the wheel, who was eagerly sharing cctv footage from the hotel that had clips capturing him with a gun in hand. On the other hand full credit goes to the authors for getting one of the most brilliant officers of Mumbai police, Rajvardhan Sinha. Relying on accounts by former NSG chief JK Dutta wasn’t the best of the advice for the authors. JK Dutta was far to busy giving television interviews and moving from one location to another. Of those alive, the real hero of the Taj Operation is Col Kuldeep Sheoran of the Indian Army who was then attached with the National Security Guards and was heading operations for the NSG inside the Taj. And his story is missing.

The nature of the attack was so spectacularly complex that one cannot de-link it from the assaults on the Trident, Leopold cafe, Chabad House, and the CST station, the bloody massacre of Mumbai police’s top three officers, or Ajmal Kasab, David Headley, and now perhaps even Abu Jundal. Even the Indian side of the story has to be complimented with details from Pakistan and the USA. The authors have gone into great detail to describe the life of David Headley, Ajmal Kasab and workings in Pakistan. But this is merely a beautified account of the details that have been officially recorded in the video and court confessions, charge sheets, witness statements and other official documents of the Indian and American courts. The reader is left yearning for more information from Pakistan, details from their dossiers, official records, court statements, scenes of Kasab’s village, perhaps even an interview with Hafeez Saeed and Zaki-ur-rehman Lakhvi.

As soon as the authors move beyond what has officially been recorded, their account appears confused, weak and unverified. For instance, the authors talk about an Indian handler in Pakistan called Abu Hamza, whose real name is Sayed Zabbiuddin Ansari. He is further described as, “a 28 year old Indian by birth, raised in the rural hinterlands of central Maharashtra. He knew Mumbai well. Fluent in Hindi, Marathi and Urdu he travelled to Pakistan in his teens.” Who by using a second name Hamza began to teach Ajmal and the team serviceable Marathi and Hindi so they could talk to a taxi driver and ask for directions.

A little research would have revealed that on June 20, 2009, Ajmal Kasab, who had earlier pleaded “not guilty” to the 86 charges against him, offered an impromptu confession before the court and impulsively offered his version of the complete truth. Those present in the court can vouch for the honesty in his tone and demeanour. He was a broken boy and had repeatedly hinted that India should do away with the formalities if they were to hang him. After all he had come to India to embrace death. Staying alive was killing him. During one such weak moment, he told the court, “I think I am innocent” and “I wanted to confess, but did not since Pakistan was not owning me. Now I have learned that Pakistan’s agreed to my being a Pakistani and is ready to prosecute the offenders. I’m voluntarily confessing to the charges without any external source.” This confession was not before the magistrate and hence not admitted as court evidence. But it is at the end of his  long monologue Kasab said that an Indian by the name of Abu Jundal taught them Hindi. He had notother information about this Indian. Much before the book was released, Abu Jundal was deported to India and is now charge sheeted and is facing trial for his role in 26/11. As to Sayed Zabauddin Ansari, he has been acquitted by two courts in the case. The question then remains, if Abu Jundal is the Hindi teacher, then who is Abu Hamza? And vice versa. It is anybody’s guess as to why the authors did not probe further.

Despite getting Rakesh Maria and Deven Bharati to speak on record, the authors fail to present the facts neutrally and in the sequence of events and police wire taps connected with the execution of Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salaskar, and Ashok Kamte. While one can empathise with Mrs Kamte for her personal loss, it is important acknowledge the utter chaos within the entire police machinery. The authors themselves have sketched out a detailed picture of the workings inside the police control room through Rakesh Maria’s experiences. However, their perspective and insight on the lapses during the wire communication between officers and different units on ground has been borrowed from Mrs Kamte’s analysis of the event. This is a grey area and should have been addressed with caution.

In the end, even after five years, the book leaves the unanswered questions as they are.

As a journalist who has covered the story in detail, when I read the acknowledgments and notes on sources, I feel sad that some of the sources had no direct presence on ground when the attack was underway. Some had not even covered the court proceedings or reported on the story. I am hoping that the authors have been more prudent than just relying on secondary sources. Despite having the information and access on the Indian side, I would not have had the courage to pen an account of 26/11. For that full marks to the authors for bringing this one on the table, especially for conveying the human aspect and emotions with sensitivity that infused life in the routine investigative processes.

The Siege is a good and a fast paced read. But not an account that I would recommend for the facts and the history.