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In retelling 26/11, an untold story of Indian journalism

Smoke billows out of the Taj Hotel during the
2008 terror attacks. (Fotocorp)

New Delhi, Nov. 5: Rajyavardhan Sinha, the deputy commissioner of Mumbai police’s special branch, was at home with his family when the state’s deputy intelligence chief called. Gunmen had opened fire at Leopold, a popular café among westerners, and the intelligence officer suspected a gunfight between Russian and Israeli drug gangs from Goa.

Reaching Leopold, Sinha found three bodies near the door, another 15 or so strewn around and a bloodstained waiter calmly cleaning up the mess as if a customer had just finished a meal.

Months before, Sinha and his close friend, deputy commissioner Vishwas Nangre Patil, had discussed the more-than-a-dozen intelligence warnings Mumbai police had received, including from the CIA, of plans by Pakistan-based terror groups for a major attack on Mumbai. They had talked about how senior officers refused to heed these warnings that included specific alerts about attacks on the Leopold and the Taj Hotel a few blocks away.

“When the shit hits the fan,” Sinha had told Patil about the ignored warnings, “you’ll be the one who has to deal with it.”

Late evening on November 26, 2008, as Sinha looked up at the ceiling and walls of the Leopold, he knew this was no gang war playing out in south Mumbai. These were jihadis, who had, Sinha said, “come to piss in our backyard”.

A new book by British investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark ties together dozens of vignettes like the one about Sinha and Patil’s premonition to not just reconstruct the Mumbai terror attacks but also ask afresh key questions that remain unanswered.

The Siege: The Attack on the Taj isn’t the first book on the Mumbai attacks — other authors have written memoirs, analyses or edited compilations of news articles.

But Levy and Scott-Clark are the first to use hundreds of fresh interviews and CCTV footage to re-enact, scene by scene, hour by hour, the horrific attack that brought India to a standstill.

“The unbeatable combination of in-depth investigation and gripping storytelling about one of the most important crises the country has faced,” said Chiki Sarkar of Penguin India, the publisher of the book, when asked what drew her to the story. The book will be released in India on Friday.

That it took two British journalists to pen the first such account of the attacks may appear surprising, but isn’t unusual, said V.K. Karthika, the chief editor and publisher for Harper Collins India.

“Indian journalists have written some of the best non-fiction around the world,” Karthika said. “But while there are exceptions, it is true that it is uncommon to find Indian journalists writing books that reconstruct specific events in the form of a thriller.”

Reconstructing big events in the form of a book has just not been in the culture of Indian journalism, argued Manu Joseph, the editor of OPEN magazine.

“Reporters are trained to look for what’s new, which is correct, but that reconstructing big events is also a part of journalism is perhaps not adequately taught,” Joseph said.

Narrative writer Samath Subramanian, who has edited a book on rising Indian writers for Penguin India, said news publications often assume readers have “the full picture” about an event because they’ve published multiple shorter stories on the event.

“That is changing, which is good,” said Subramanian whose investigations into India’s fishing industry led to the 2010 book, Following Fish.

Long-form writing in India has declined as a whole in the past 15 years, said Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief of the Indian Express Group, as news outlets have shortened story lengths in keeping with perceptions that today’s youth have shorter attention spans. “There was a pre-Google era and there is a post-Google era,” Gupta said.

But Joseph also argued that the absence of any reconstruction of the Mumbai attacks like The Siege by Indian journalists was not unique to this country, or to the 2008 tragedy.

When nations go through the kind of collective trauma inflicted by events like the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, or the November 2008 attacks in India, a reconstruction is frequently not the focus for their journalists and writers, Joseph said.

“If you look at the US after 9/11, all the books were about exploring what led to the attacks, who messed up, understanding the Taliban,” Joseph said. “There was no real reconstruction like The Siege there either.”

Gupta argued that Indian journalists would find it much tougher to write a book like The Siege — simply because much of the intelligence came from the CIA and tracing the roots of the tragedy would need extensive reporting in Pakistan. “We’re at a disadvantage to start with,” he said.

Sarkar, the Penguin India editor, argued in an email interview that “the non-fiction in the country has been brilliant.”

“But what Adrian and Cathy bring to the table is decades of investigation around the region in both Pakistan and India,” she said.

The authors, who often work as a team, have earlier written books on Kashmir and Pakistan. For The Siege, they spent months in Pakistani Punjab, connecting the links backward from the Mumbai attacks, to the places and people who orchestrated them.

The heroes, according to the authors, are mid-level officers like Patil and Sinha who risked their lives, Taj general manager Karambir Kang who refused to mourn his dead wife and sons till the crisis ended, and other hotel staff whose bravery has gone relatively unacknowledged.

Amit Peshave, the manager of a 24/7 café at the hotel, ensured guests were treated at Bombay Hospital, while hotel chef Hemant Oberoi used his knowledge of the labyrinthine innards of the hotel’s kitchens and store rooms to hide guests, and then smuggle them out to safety with his team, even as terrorists exploded grenades and shot at anyone alive inside.

But the terrorists aren’t the chief villains in the book.

The authors reserve their sharpest and most persistent criticism for senior police officers, and the Indian and American intelligence communities.

Then Mumbai police commissioner Hasan Gafoor paralysed the emergency response network by ordering his force not to attack the terrorists and to wait for the National Security Guard to arrive from Delhi, they write. Gafoor passed away in 2012.

Bureaucratic red-tape prevented the NSG — built for precisely Mumbai-like scenarios — from reaching the Taj till late on the morning of November 27.

US intelligence agencies received multiple warnings about the terrorist leanings of David Headley — now sentenced to 35 years in prison for the attacks by an American federal court — from his wives, the book points out. But they ignored these alerts, believing they in turn could use Headley to infiltrate the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Pakistan terror group that carried out the Mumbai attacks.

“The extraordinary number of extremely detailed warnings that were ignored, not taken seriously, under-developed and belittled, as well as the extraordinary bravery and ingenuity of a few good cops,” Levy said in an email interview was what struck him the most while researching for the book.

In one terrifying story, a police inspector listens in on conversations between terrorists inside the Taj and their handlers in Karachi. The terrorists had captured hostages and were preparing for executions. The inspector kept texting his superiors that hostages were about to be killed. But the police force kept waiting for the commandos from Delhi.

By comparison, Levy and Scott-Clark paint a far more complex picture of Ajmal Kasab, the sole terrorist caught alive, than the one India has come to accept.

The brutal terrorist was in search for acceptance — jihad just came along the way.

A mama’s boy, Kasab cried at the bus stand of his village, Faridkot in Pakistani Punjab, when he finally left for Karachi to begin his sea journey to Mumbai along with nine terrorist youths.

Had mama come for Kasab earlier — when his close friend Muzaffar’s parents came looking for him at their terror training camp, and took him back — he may never have come to Mumbai. When Muzaffar left, the authors write, Kasab tried calling home but could not get through, and eventually walked to the camp’s gate and waited.

No one came for him.