Ten years ago, the 26/11 attack showed Mumbai’s upper crust in an unfamiliar, rebellious mood. Almost like a trade union fighting for justice.

The Pakistanis, in the year leading up to 26/11, had braved bullets, assassinations and persecution, to throw out a general and give themselves at least half a democracy. God knows, the Pakistani economic and intellectual elites have reasons to hate their politicians. But they had also checked out the generals for four decades and, wiser for that experience, had no intention of returning to their embrace. And exactly at the same time, the same classes in India had turned themselves into a lynch mob against the political class and, by implication, the whole democracy.

The one institution the Pakistani elites are suspicious of is their military. The one institution Indian elites respect and adore even today is their military. Mumbai’s 26/11 trauma made this even more evident and vocal.

Since TV chat shows, SMS and chain emails had already become the main forum of our domestic debate and political discourse among the upper crust, it was safe to go by the evidence of what you see and read there. Any number of illiterate emails and SMSes floated, cursing politicians, and spreading utter falsehoods about the Constitution and laws. There were calls to vote on the NOTA so, if this number was higher than votes polled by the number one candidate, it “will be declared null and void.” The only way to ensure there’d be no more attacks in future, apparently, wad to get rid of the politicians — and by implication this wretched democracy.

The evidence quoted was Article 49 (O) of the Constitution. A quick Google search would have told you that there was indeed an Art 49 (O). But it dealt with the protection of our monuments, not the right to negative vote.

Similar stupid, flippant and dangerous mythologies continue to be built: that we spend more on the SPG than on the NSG, the implication being that we value the lives of our prime minister and president more than those of ordinary citizens. Nobody checked the facts. Why let facts come in the way of holy indignation?

The same leading lights of Mumbai’s genteel classes, who never shed a tear when nearly 600 Mumbaikars lost their lives in several terrorist attacks before 26/11, now walked around with candles because the threat had moved beyond local trains to chic coffee shops and bars — incidentally, they still did not bother to light a candle in front of the CST station where more lives were lost than at both the hotels put together.

More than the hypocrisy, however, it was the message they were sending out to their countrymen that was important: that the political class has failed us, so please do not vote, or exercise that mythical negative vote. “Those who come in through our vote are more dangerous than those who come through the boat” was a favourite on the protestors’ placards.


Also read: 10 years on, 26/11 attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed is free and more powerful


The virus of Mumbai’s elites also struck its creative classes: the customary Marine Drive Amul hoarding exhorted the “real” terrorist to show up, and had a neta surrounded by black cats. We had several leading film and creative personalities demand that Pakistan, or at least its terror camps, be carpet-bombed. And actor Kabir Bedi declared on an NDTV discussion in his grave baritone that “we” have “incontrovertible” evidence of “ISI, Lashkar and Jaish” involvement and should start attacking them inside Pakistan. After all, he said, that is what the Americans are doing in Waziristan, etc, and what can the Pakistanis do except protest feebly?

Further, he suggested that we learn from Mossad and carry out “targeted assassinations” of the bad guys in Pakistan. How much peace that strategy bought Israel over the decades is not a question that this intellectual of the sixties would ponder over much. In fact the only really sexy idea to come out of all this rage was that we should stop paying taxes. Great idea, but must it be confined to Mumbaikars alone, I asked? Don’t the rest of us also have issues with our government?

It was easy to see where this rage was coming from. These attacks had brought terror to the doorstep of the classes that had long insulated themselves from our system of politics and governance. Over the years as our governance declined, or failed to keep pace with our society or economy, all of us learnt to become individual, sovereign republics. We send our children to private schools, get treatment only in private hospitals, have our own security in gated communities, never need to use public transport, even own diesel gensets to produce power, and in many parts of the country, arrange our own water supply, either through our own borewells or tankers. Then we suddenly get hit in one area — physical safety, law and order — which is still entirely in the hands of the government.

Knowing how thick-skinned our politicians are, and believing all the most horrible stereotypes about them, we see no possibility of changing them. So we look for desperate measures: compulsory military training, conscription, NSG base for every city. The armed forces, we say, are the only institution that can bring about this change. Pakistan has been owned by its army since its creation and see how lousy its law and order is, how the country suffers from daily terror attacks by its own, and how large swathes of its territory are nothing but extension campuses of its most notable contribution to the modern world: a university of jihad.

Yes, our governance sucks, we argued. But the solution for the Mumbai upper crust in the winter of 2008 was not to secede from it as well. Law and order is not public health, government schooling or power supply, all if which you can buy alternatives for. Why not privatize security, or just arm yourselves?

The whites in South Africa tried doing that and it did not work, we said. The racist governments of the past liberally gave them automatic weapons and some of the richest homes around Johannesburg used to carry signs that said: trespassers will be shot. But it did not buy them more security. Their homes just became bunkers, or high security prisons in which they locked themselves up.

The solution, we said then, lies in returning to the “system”, and challenging and changing it from within. Just as the poorer and the middle classes do around the country. Despite all the anger, disappointments and cynicism over the decades, more and more Indians are coming out to vote. They do not always love their politicians, they often vote them out. But they do it by using the power of the vote, not by disowning it.

Or, look at it another way: we, in our little charmed circle, can vent our rage on chat shows and in cyberspace. But the children of our farmers and working classes will always be there, to vote out bad governments on the polling day, and also to get into uniforms — khaki, olive-green or black — and risk their lives fighting terrorists and other enemies for our sake.

A version of this article was originally published on 6 December, 2008.


Also read: Hotel Mumbai provides a raw & rare look behind 26/11 Mumbai terror attack


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  1. There is political accountability as well. Maharashtra’s home minister, R R Patil, responsible for the city’s police force, lost his job for more than his Chhoti Chhoti batein remark. Similarly, CM Vilasrao Deshmukh, an easy going sort who would be seen at each filmi function, was also replaced, if the trigger was his sightseeing trip to the Taj Mahal hotel along with a film director. UPA I did swift damage control, by replacing the foppish Shivraj Patil with the technocratic competence of P Chidambaram. Administratively, the police commissioner was changed. One hopes other changes too were made, for Bombay and India looked very vulnerable during those four days.

  2. Rather than recycle a ten year old article, might it not have been better to examine what, if anything, we have learnt from the shock of 26/11/2008. Are we better prepared for such emergencies, and for dealing with their aftermath? Do we have better systems of accountability within our political and administrative systems? Of course, the answer to some extent is that one will never know, since any future shock will probably not come in the same form, and at the same scale as before (which is why it’s a shock). Right now, we are ignoring the ways our system is being attacked from within by politicians interested in creating communal chaos, and even urging contempt for the institutions that hold our society together, or that have any residual legitimacy. We will soon find ourselves helplessly watching as the Constitution is amended to turn our secular republic into a Hindu Rashtra.

  3. This is something which i have been looking from long time. Thanks Mr. Shekhar Gupta. 26/11 became a 9/11 kind of thing in India as elites were attacked. if only the perpetrators spewed bullets at railway station and had been shot, the day would have been forgotten forever like all those bomb blast days where an ordinary man dies. The so called self professed elites will however continue to live on an island oblivious to the fact that a tsunami can any day wipe them out

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