Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Death and A Stampede in Mumbai

[Note: Normally this blog covers issues relating to foreign affairs, intelligence and security. This post is an exception. This post is based on reports appearing in the electronic and print media].
While there are numerous occasions when the police in India are to be blamed for inaction, lapses or incompetence, the Mumbai Police cannot be held responsible for the stampede which took place in the wee hours of 18th January 2014 following the death of the spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

The stampede in the wee hours of Saturday, in which 18 people were killed and more than 50 injured, occurred when thousands of Dawoodi Bohras thronged Saifee Mahal, the Malabar Hill home of departed spiritual leader Dr. Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, who died on 17th January.

The circumstances leading to the tragedy 

The community leaders are alleged to have initially sent text messages to followers to refrain from coming to the residence of the spiritual leader. However, inexplicably a second SMS sent around 2150 hrs asked the followers to pay their last respects at Saifee Mahal. The second message is alleged to have been sent without informing or consulting the local police.

The residence of the Syedna is located at the end of 20-ft wide AG Bell Road. The followers were allowed to enter the house from the rear gate which opens into the Bhausaheb Hire Road and exit through the front gate at AG Bell Road after paying their respects to the departed leader whose body was kept on the ground floor. 

As crowds swelled, it was decided to allow entry from both ends. However, a little past midnight when the gates were shut, those already in the jam-packed AG Bell Road could not even move an inch, forget turn back and walk out.

The trouble started when the community leaders shut the mansion at half-past-midnight and the frenzied crowds outside were asked to return home. This message, however, was not conveyed through SMSes and people kept pouring in, not allowing the crowd in the narrow lane outside the house to turn back.

Explaining the circumstances that led to the incident, an IPS officer said, "Bohra community leaders yesterday informed us that no crowd would be allowed to gather at Syedna's residence.

"They said community members will pay their last respects during the funeral procession today and accordingly security arrangements were made."

"However, at about 9 PM yesterday, the leaders, without consulting us, began sending text messages informing the followers that they would be allowed to have a glimpse of Syedna at his residence. After this, people from the city and outskirts started pouring in," he said.

"We were informed about this change in plan after the messages had already been sent. We were told that about 4,000-5,000 people would turn up at his residence and security measures were made accordingly. But the figure swelled to over 60,000 in no time," the officer said.

As the gates of Saifee Mahal were opened and then shut abruptly, the mourners tried to force their way into the house, causing commotion and then a massive rush, he said.

"Before police could make further arrangements to manage the unexpected crowd, the tragedy had occurred," he said.

The so-called experts have ‘subsequent’ to the incident, said that the police could have done a lot more to thwart the tragedy, it must be pointed out that the police were given assurances by the community leaders that there would not be a large gathering outside Saifee Mahal.  

Primarily two factors were largely responsible for the tragedy, both of which cannot be attributable to the local police or any officer in particular:

One, the sending of the text messages asking the late Syedna’s followers to come to Saifee Mahal to pay their last respects without informing the police; and two the decision to allow entry to the followers from both the front and the rear gates of the residence and the abrupt shutting of the gates without any prior intimation.

Also, a posse of policemen led by a senior officer (Zonal Deputy Commissioner of Police) was deployed outside the residence to manage a reasonably small crowd, on the strength of the information given by community leaders. 

The onus of both the above-mentioned acts lies on the community leaders and consequently on the tragic stampede as well and not on the police. It is easy to be wise after the incident and easier still for former police officers to indict their colleagues.

 (At the time of writing this post, a probe into the stampede is being conducted by the Crime Branch of Mumbai Police).

Friday, January 17, 2014

Operation Blue Star – A New Controversy, Three Decades Later

A needless controversy is being raised about Operation Blue Star because of declassification of letters by Britain.

1984 was a tumultuous period in the history of modern India, and in particular Punjab and Operation Blue Star launched in the first week of June 1984 was the darkest chapter of that phase. Reams have been written by historians and experts on the volatile politics and the Khalistani militancy. However, the occurrences of the eighties and the aftermath of Operation Blue Star cannot be undone or erased from memory.

Today, nearly thirty years after Operation Blue Star, a new controversy has inflamed passions with the release of two letters in the United Kingdom which were hitherto classified. 

The letters were released in January 2014 as one of 500 documents from the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s office lodged in the National Archive thirty years after their original publication. 

One of the letters written by the Foreign Secretary’s Principal Private Secretary Brian Fall to his opposite number in the Home Office, dated 6th February 1984 refers to an "Indian request for advice on plans for the removal of dissident Sikhs from the Golden Temple". It states that the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is "content that the foreign secretary should proceed as he proposes". 

The other letter, dated 23rd February 1984, said an SAS officer visited India and drew up a plan which was then approved by Mrs. Gandhi. 

The letter dated 23rd February 1984, titled ‘Sikh Community’, noted “The Home Secretary will have seen press reports of communal violence in the Punjab. The Foreign Secretary wishes him to be made aware of some background which could increase the possibility of repercussions among the Sikh communities in this country”.
The ‘background’ in question was the covert role of an elite British military adviser in India.

“The Indian authorities recently sought British advice over a plan to remove Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Foreign Secretary decided to respond favourably to the Indian request and, with the Prime Minister’s agreement, an SAD [sic] officer has visited India and drawn up a plan which has been approved by Mrs Gandhi. The Foreign Secretary believes that the Indian Government may put the plan into operation shortly”.

The official position of the Indian government has been that the operation to flush out militants was a measure of last resort and hastily planned in the last week of May 1984. It is believed that there was no military or police action contemplated in February of 1984.  A close aide of Mrs. Gandhi at that time denied any British involvement in the military operation. There is a needless hullabaloo over the release of the two letters. Questions have been raised about the authenticity of the letters and politicians especially belonging to the opposition have called for an inquiry into the matter.

Firstly, the hue and cry over this issue is uncalled for. This is because intelligence sharing and discussions between representatives of intelligence agencies of friendly states is not uncommon. It needs to be pointed out that prominent Khalistani activists like Jagjit Singh Chauhan were based in Britain and it was normal for Indian security agencies to be in touch with their British counterparts. 

Secondly, the entire operation was planned and executed by the Indian Army personnel. True, there has been speculation about the nature of British involvement, if any, in the light of the recent revelation. Today, it can only be inferred that, the British SAS having expertise in flushing out operations of this type, was consulted about the viability of a military operation. (This view is supported by Praveen Swami’s article in the Hindu and a portion of which is reproduced below). It is also essential to remember that India did not have Special Forces like the SAS or GSG-9 and had to depend on the Army’s Para Commandos and personnel from the infantry units to execute this operation. The National Security Guards (NSG) was established in 1984 after Operation Blue Star.

Thirdly, if there was any involvement of foreign SF personnel, the extent and nature of the involvement can be confirmed only by the principal planners of the operation, namely, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Rameshwar Nath Kao, the top brass of the Indian Army – Generals Vaidya, Sundarji and R S Dayal. None of these personae are alive today. Mr. Girish Chandra (Gary) Saxena who was the chief of R&AW at the relevant time refused to comment on the controversy. Further, it must be emphasized that considering the equation shared by the then Prime Minister with Kao, it is highly unlikely that any third person may have been privy to the one-to-one meetings between Mrs. Gandhi and Kao. Kao was the first chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) and Special Adviser to Mrs. Gandhi on security.

According to an article written by Praveen Swami in The Hindu, former chief of the R&AW Girish Saxena initiated a series of meetings with the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, in the build-up to Operation Blue Star. 

The intelligence-sharing meetings, the sources said, were authorised by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and included at least one visit by a mid-ranking officer of the élite Special Air Service commando unit to frame an assault plan which would minimise civilian casualties. The SAS plan, the sources said, was rejected because Mr. Saxena was unconvinced it would work. Prime Minister Gandhi eventually handed charge of the operation to the Indian Army.

“The only plans we had were drawn up on the fly,” said Brigadier Israr Rahim Khan, who led the attack under the command of Lieutenant-General Kuldip Singh Brar. “Major Jasbir Singh Raina, one of my officers, infiltrated the temple dressed as a pilgrim, scouting out hardened defences inside the temple on June 2, just one day before operations to clear the complex began.”