Sucheta Dalal :Bombay's tragedy:
Sucheta Dalal

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Bombay's tragedy:  

December 4, 2008

 The Rape of a Fortress By Pavan Nair


The now defunct Bombay Fort overlooked the harbor in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries much like Fort St George and Fort William at Madras and Calcutta. These were the seats of power and the headquarters of the Bombay, Madras and Bengal Armies. And rightly so since maritime power was paramount. They also provided incidental protection to these cities which were the hubs of trade and commerce. The fashionable Fort area is now the seat of the Western Naval Command of the Indian Navy. It was this area which was attacked by a highly trained and motivated group of terrorists on 26 November. The western fleet, the strike force of the navy has an impressive flotilla which includes an aircraft carrier. It has under its command the submarine arm of the navy and much of its aviation resources as also the marine commandos or MARCOS as they are now famously called. The western fleet is responsible for protection of the western seaboard from attack by sea besides protecting the EEZ and shipping lanes in our territorial waters used by merchant vessels. The Coast Guard which is the navy's poorer cousin is responsible for 'brown' or muddied waters along the entire stretch of the eastern and western seaboard. The DG of the Coast Guard is a Vice Admiral from the Indian Navy and all the resources of the Coast Guard come under the command of local naval headquarters during operations.

The GWOT has been waged since 11/9/2001. Our own war started much earlier when Bombay was hit by simultaneous bomb blasts in 1993. Bombay Port and city are obvious and lucrative targets for any inimical intelligence agency or terrorist group. The west coast has been used on several occasions for landing arms, ammunition and explosives as was exposed during the Bombay blasts. In a chilling film shown on CNN-IBN in 2006, the vulnerability of the coast to the ingress of terrorists with explosives was documented. Two reporters hired boats and were able to penetrate each of the three tiers from blue to brown waters and then to the coast which is supposed to be protected by what is called the marine police. They were able to land contraband in broad daylight. The exercise itself was a major breach of security which could have landed the reporters in big time trouble. The officer commanding the western fleet is designated FOC-in-C or flag officer commanding-in-chief. He is the chief authority in charge of coastal security just as an army commander is in charge of the security of the area of his command even though the BSF or any force is deployed on the border. Any breach of this security is therefore his direct and personal responsibility notwithstanding the fact that he is in command of a blue water force. There is a possibility of small vessels landing on isolated stretches of coast; therefore it is incumbent on the security establishment to take such measures which will make this difficult. No such measures were taken and therefore the entire security establishment from the Prime Minister downwards is culpable.

That the breach of security took place near the headquarters of the Western Naval Command is unacceptable. Whether or not 'actionable' intelligence was available is not the issue. Bombay port itself and naval and merchant vessels in docks or at anchor could have been targeted; indeed the flagship of the FOC could have been attacked. That the terrorists chose softer targets does not exclude this possibility. That a specific intelligence warning was indeed issued makes matters more serious. In an interview, the naval chief has said that co-ordination between the Coast Guard and the navy needs to be improved. This is an admission of systemic failure in his chain of command. Yes, a few thousand vessels go in and out of Bombay harbor every day, therefore there is a need to create a secure zone around the city and port. Similarly other installations like the BARC and nuclear facilities on the eastern seaboard need protection from sea. One can only hope and pray that our 'strategic resources' are safe. The US navy has been on station 24/7 to protect territorial waters and the long and open seaboards to the east and west. Every resource including submarines ply the waters at periscope depth. There is continuous and extensive air coverage. Whether this is done by the coast guard or navy is irrelevant. Maritime protection is the ultimate responsibility of the Indian Navy and it has failed in its duty to visualize possibilities and see through scenarios like the one which has shaken the security establishment to its core. That may be the only good thing to come out of the incident.  

There is little use in maintaining a blue water navy if our own waters are unprotected. The primary role of the navy must remain the protection of the eastern and western seaboards. Projection of force overseas cannot compromise this. The security establishment has its task cut out. But they have to get the strategy right first. If heads are to roll then, then it is incumbent on the FOC-in-C to resign his commission on moral grounds. His fortress has been violated. His fleet could have been scuttled. In war time this would have been a court martial offence. If the naval chief feels that his budget is insufficient then he should have tendered his resignation when the allotment was made. He can do so now. The lesser said about the MARCOS and their performance both on and off the camera the better. That the NSG took two days and nights to complete an operation after launching the assault is something which will be discussed in strategic circles as how not to conduct an anti-terrorist operation. But that is another story.

-- Sucheta Dalal