The book traces the genesis of the 26/11 attacks to the tortured history of the subcontinent; it also explores the various persuasions of the ruling elite in Pakistan. A richly annotated, liberally footnoted research document, Saroj Kumar Rath’s Fragile Frontiers is a threadbare analysis of the plethora of questions surrounding the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008. It goes into, primarily, the why and who of the attacks; more crucially, how a handful of assailants were so successful in their multiple strikes with such precision and ruthlessness, and most importantly, why the security apparatus failed to detect and prevent the attacks. Nine locales, all crowded public spaces, ten men and three nightmarish days that Mumbaikars, specifically, Indians as a whole and the world in general will not forget in a hurry. Fragile Frontiers traces the genesis of the 26/11 attacks to the tortured history of the subcontinent, the psyche of its rulers, the establishment’s angst, besides the circumstance of geopolitical power-play, polity and imperatives. The narrative also, in the background of the Mumbai terror attacks, dispassionately explores the various persuasions of the ruling elite in Pakistan, the inherent permutations in the administrative bloc, the concomitant dilemmas in its military establishment and the collective dichotomy of its policies; while in no less measure, it dissects India’s defence response mechanism, the projection of future terrorism in the subcontinent and the floundering of its judiciary.
Coming on the heels of many publications on the subject, and a good five years after the dust has settled down, the book is refreshingly honest, thoroughly researched, and goes deep under the skin of the event with toothcomb precision. What sets its writing apart and above all the others that have come in the wake of the event is the incisive inquiry and the detail.
The detail behind the attack, the detail on the nature and the capabilities of all the probable actors in the event, of the methodology of the brutal operation, the detail of the well entrenched schisms and biases that guided the operation, the detail of the inexorable sense of purpose in the perpetrators, of the deviousness of the scheming behind the Karachi project, the detail of its accurate execution. And also in equal measure again, details of the ‘caught-unawares’ reaction of the Indian forces, the detail of the valiant fight-back, of the shock and trauma that followed, the detail of the ruthless pursuit of a coldblooded yet hopeless siege, the details of a judicial system that seeks to deliver justice but flounders in the nitty-gritty and is fettered by its own principles and question, details of the existential dilemma that plagues the stakeholders and above all, details of the security conundrum that hangs over the subcontinent.
If coercion can subvert, subversion can dismember. Ambition unmatched by opportunity, limited by circumstance and fettered by short-sighted policy can be dangerously selfimplosive. The Mumbai terror attacks were targeted to deflect attention but exposed the inoperative tenuousness of a polity without policy, an army without direction, a state with limited vision. Juxtapose this with an India, which with all its contradictions, is surging ahead in the comity of nations yet remains extensively nimble, with frontiers fragile yet vulnerable. And thereby hangs a tale. With meticulous, painstaking understatementFragile Frontiers nails the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks with surgical precision. It irrevocably connects the concept of terror and the acts of terror to the timelessness of the historical reality which is neither accepted nor forgiven.
It was geo-strategic expediency of one kind that determined the policy reversal that postulated a turnaround in approach and action, which in turn precipitated the divisive nature of projection and action in Pakistan. Diversionary or deterministic, when terror is the tool, subterfuge the operative method, with vulnerability being the key marker, it is irrational to seek reason in the procedure. When strategy is layered with ideology, bias matures into bigotry, hostility becomes rampant and fault-lines lie exposed. Rath exposes this tenet in its very many ramifications in the subcontinent with unerring precision. Startling is the exposure of the fault-lines of organisation, of the justice system, of the methods of enquiry, of the institutions, of ideologies. And in all this, the state on either side of the divide is a perpetuator, a vigilante, a spectator. Also exposed is the shroud of silence that veils the investigation, the deliberations and the discourse.
Fragile Frontiers vindicates in full measure Dr. Rath’s academic rigour and commitment to the study of an event that held India in a thrall unmatched and a dread hitherto unprecedented. 26/11 was an event that encapsulated a farce that has been brewing, surfacing, smouldering, and occurring since 1947. Hapless as the onlookers were, it is a fine balance that India needs to deal with astutely. Kid gloves are not the answer. As Rath concludes: “For India, an unguarded soft approach on national security could invite catastrophe.”
Published with the consent of Dhanalakshmi Ayyer. The book review was first published in The Hindu on February 9, 2015.