Nine years have passed since the grim events of 26/11. Time enough, perhaps, to ask if India, as a state and civil society, has learned anything from it other than to mourn. In itself, there was no reason for 26/11 to become a hallowed date. There is, after all, no shortage of similar events in recent history. The al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, the massacre of schoolchildren in Beslan, the carnage at the al-Rawdah mosque in Egypt, and even the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 1993 and 2006 — each of these took a toll of lives greater than 26/11. Yet, 26/11 caused two key ruptures in India’s politics and public discourse. For one, it led to a distillation of public frustration with police and intelligence services, which seemed unable to protect India’s citizens. It crystallised the rage of citizens against the Indian state’s inability to act on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist groups. Indeed, it can be argued that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s search for peace with Pakistan lost much of its legitimacy that night. For all the fighting words 26/11 gave rise to, though, neither of these issues can be said to have been addressed in any meaningful way.
Although there is a thick alphabet soup of new organisations meant to fight terrorism, most are chronically under-resourced. India’s intelligence services remain desperately short of resources, running some 30 per cent below officially-sanctioned staffing levels that were decided on before 26/11. There are chronic shortages of everything, from language and area specialists, to personnel with specialist technology skills. India has been unable to fulfil its commitment to modernise basic policing and emergency services — the first responders at the time of a crisis. Forensics, investigation and intelligence capabilities are abysmal. Put simply, the systematic nuts-and-bolts work needed to defend India has not been done.
India’s relationship with Pakistan, secondly, remains fraught. To the delight of his constituents, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has adopted a hawkish posture on Pakistan — underlined by last year’s cross-Line of Control raids targeting the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The actual yields from his policies, though, are limited. Lashkar chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s release from custody last week shows how far the Pakistani state is from being compelled to act against its jihadist assets. India’s diplomatic and coercive efforts, too, have done little to degrade the capacities of jihadists in Pakistan. New threats like al Qaeda and the Islamic State are emerging, their growth fuelled by Hindu chauvinists who have set alight communal bushfires across the country. The next 26/11 will always lurk just around the corner unless the elements which went into its making are addressed. Like the Bourbons, India has forgotten nothing — and learned nothing.