Democracy and Security: “To The Last Bullet” by Vinita Kamte

March 27, 2010

What is the relationship between democratic governance and security? A recent book about the events of November 26, 2008, in Mumbai offers an insight.


What began as a bereaved wife’s quest to understand her husband’s last moments has crystallized into the foundation of public discussion on India’s security preparedness.

I have been meaning to get hold of a copy of “To the last bullet: The inspiring story of braveheart Ashok Kamte” by Vinita Kamte (With Vinita Deshmukh) (published by Ameya Prakashan,Pune, 2009) ever since I read press excerpts and discussions about five months ago. I finally read it earlier this week. The book is written in two parts, essentially. The first reconstructs the events of “26/11,” first from Vinita Kamte’s perspective and then through interviews and most importantly wireless transcripts obtained from the police. The second is about Ashok Kamte’s life and career.

The first part is of great interest, partly because it raises many questions about what happened that night. Unable to get answers to simple questions about her husband’s location and why he was there, Vinita Kamte used one of India’s most recent democratic tools—the Right to Information petition—to access transcripts of wireless communications that night. These reveal goof-ups, cover-ups, gaps in communication and not unpreparedness but an inability to use what was available in a timely fashion.

Since the Right to Information (2005) Act was passed, Indians have enthusiastically used it to push back the fortress-like walls that surround government in the name of secrecy or security and government has mostly responded by opening up and trying to improve governance. Ms. Kamte’s use of an RTI petition raises new possibilities. A question that both theoreticians and practitioners should consider: What changes can we anticipate when the security sector—anywhere—is forced to open up, answer questions and act with accountability, not to a committee or governing board but to citizens? There is nothing that stops any citizen, as Ms. Kamte, has shown from making what they learn publicly accessible.

Maldivians in 26/11: The power of ‘security’?

October 28, 2009

President Nasheed stated this week in an interview that Maldivian nationals may have been involved in the November 26, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.


Earlier this week, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives stated in an interview:

Any terrorist attack through the underbelly of India, that is peninsular India, would have to go through Maldivian waters. We will be the first to see what is happening. For example, if we had this equipment, we would have been much more vigilant about what was going to happen in the Mumbai [ Images ] attacks…that is why it is essential to safeguard Maldives’ territorial waters and defend our coastline.

Is it true that the Maldives has a serious issue with Islamic fundamentalists?

Yes, we have a serious issue with Islamist radicals, we know that many are being trained by the Al Qaeda [ Images ] in the northern reaches of Pakistan.

How do you know?

Because several Maldivians have been arrested by Pakistani authorities after they crossed into Pakistan from India. The recruitment of Islamist radicals takes place in the Maldives and their channel of movement is all the way up to Pakistan.

Are you saying that the Maldivians are being trained by the Al Qaeda in Pakistan, in Waziristan?

Yes, they are getting trained there by the Al Qaeda to fight the war in Afghanistan.

You talked about the Mumbai attacks and of being more vigilant about your territorial waters…what did you mean by that?

I believe that the identity of all the dead terrorists in the Mumbai attacks has not been broken down into nationalities. I feel there is a Maldivian connection to the Mumbai attacks.

In what way?

Well, we have information from the families of terrorists who are still in the Maldives about this.

This is, in and of itself, interesting. For one, President Nasheed is identifying the Maldives as a potential terror entrepot to India. Second, he says Maldivians are being recruited into Al Qaeda. Third, by stating that “the identity of all the dead terrorists in the Mumbai attacks has not been broken down into nationalities,” he is pointing to what we don’t know for sure and then adding, “I feel there is a Maldivian connection…” Not the “We know” of security establishments worldwide, but “I feel.”

Presidents don’t draw attention to their countries as places from which terrorists originate; not on the basis of “feeling.” So does he know something that others are overlooking?

Or, is this a “calling attention” motion of some sort? Maldives has been an active campaigner against global warming, but President Nasheed has taken the campaign to a different level by talking about purchasing land for displaced Maldivians and holding underwater cabinet meetings. There is a penchant for the dramatic in these actions that offsets the Maldives’ disadvantages of size and remoteness. Seen in that context, a teaser like this, strategically slipped into an interview with a popular news portal, must be intended to place the Maldives on South Asia’s security agenda.

But there is a broader point here, and one that all of us recognise intuitively. It is, as Ole Waever once wrote, that security is a ‘speech act.’ When you draw anything into the realm of security, it gets the attention it should get anyway. It ratchets up its importance instantly. As scholars, we sceptically debate whether this is what the non-traditional security research agenda is about, at bottom. As activists, we know well that it partly explains the genesis of “human security” reports; they are a way to underscore the urgency of public health, displacement, gender inequity and other humanitarian crises.

What does it mean however, when the President of a country like the Maldives states that its citizens might well be foot-soldiers in one of the world’s most complex security problems? If there are Maldivians involved in South Asia’s many terror attacks, then the Maldives will attract welcome and unwelcome attention. Some positive investment and foreign assistance will flow in, no doubt, but also a great deal more scrutiny and pressure than a small state and fledgling democracy can probably bear. And if it is all based on a “feeling”? What is the cost-benefit analysis of a statement of that? That’s something for all of us, especially for this intelligent President and his advisors to think about.

Eventful fortnight in South Asia: Catching up

July 25, 2009

Communique from Egypt; a visit by Hillary Clinton; True confessions in a Mumbai court; misgivings in Sri Lanka; and outrage and introspection over airline security regulations.


This has been such an eventful couple of weeks in South Asian international relations that it’s useful to just step away and list what’s been going on.

1. India-Pakistan Joint Communique at Sharm El Shaikh, Egypt, July 16, 2009.

The Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers met on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Egypt. There was some speculation that the meeting would be inconclusive (read, pointless) but the ensuing joint communique has had Indian commentators and opposition leaders completely baffled. The communique delinks the 26/11 investigation in Pakistan from continuing India-Pakistan talks. This is a departure from India’s post-26/11 stand and would elicit commentary and criticism on its own. What has really riled Indian opinion-makers is the inclusion of Balochistan in the communique, hinting at Indian acknowledgment of a role in the Baloch crisis.

The text of the communique is online.


Shekhar Gupta, The Big Rewrite, Indian Express, July 25, 2009.

2. Hillary Clinton visited India last week.

The US Secretary of State spent five days in India, in Mumbai and New Delhi. What was really striking about the visit was the amount of time she devoted to ‘non-traditional’ security issues. Her most widely reported events included a breakfast with industry leaders; a television interview in the company of a leading actor discussing the important of civil society and citizen initiatives on education; a meeting with the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a pioneering Indian trade union of women in the informal sector; and a visit to a ‘green’ campus outside Delhi where the focus was on climate change issues. The traditional foreign policy segment of her visit seemed almost like an afterthought.

Moreover, Clinton stayed at the Taj hotel which was last seen under attack in November 2008. That has been widely read as an expression of solidarity with not just the victims of the terror attack but also India’s own war against terror. (See this for instance.) It is also a departure from the way US missions fortify themselves against the very communities they are meant to cultivate. (In all fairness, this is probably now true of most diplomatic missions.)


C. Raja Mohan, Before the chance fades, Indian Express, July 20, 2009.

3. 26/11 accused Kasab confessed in court

The whole world watched Kasab and his associates cause murder and mayhem in Mumbai last year. Only Kasab was captured alive, and although everyone had watched him in action, and he had spoken at length during the police interrogation, he was still taken to court. A special court facility was created in the interests of his security. Legal counsel was sought for him, and in spite of those in Mumbai who sought to deprive him of a defence lawyer, three people agreed to take on his case. The last lawyer made a valiant effort to get Kasab pronounced under-age; to improve the conditions of his prison tenure; to get him off the hook.

On Monday, July 20, Kasab decided to confess. With no word to his own defence lawyer.

Rahi Gaikwad, Ajmal admits to crime, The Hindu, July 21, 2009.
We were ordered to throw grenades first: Ajmal, The Hindu, July 21, 2009.
Rahi Gaikwad, From petty job to dacoity to terror camps, The Hindu, July 21, 2009.

And then, all injured innocence, two days later, Kasab asked to be hung if his intentions were suspect.
Hang me if my guilty plea is suspect: Ajmal, The Hindu, July 23, 2009.

The trial continues. The Indian establishment says his confession covers only part of the charge-sheet he faces.

4. Sri Lanka’s IDP camps: What is the P.O.A.?

As the clock ticks on the government’s 180-day rehabilitation promise, the questioning has begun. What does the government actually plan to do? Will they meet their deadline? And, most important, why is no one demanding answers?

5. Kalam and Continental Airlines

In order to understand why this is a diplomatic issue, it is important to know that in India several categories of VIPs are exempt from bodily searches conducted as part of routine security procedures. Former Heads of State certainly are. Moreover, beloved former Heads of State certainly are.

In April 2009, traveling out of Delhi by Continental, former President Kalam had stood in the queue like other passengers and been subjected to frisking, just as they were. He did not fuss.

In the last week, this has become a huge issue in India. A First Information Report (police complaint) has been filed against the airline, which claims it was following rules. The US Transportation Security Administration says Indian rules do not apply to its aircraft. In the meanwhile, every leading Indian politician has spoken out against the frisking and it has been taken up officially.

What Indian commentators are focusing on is Kalam’s own unpretentiousness. He stood in a queue, allowed the frisking without a fuss and did not lodge a complaint himself thereafter.

Kalam’s own personality invites outrage on his behalf, but can we truly say that every VIP—in an age of celebrity culture—is safe to allow without all the standard security checks? Can any state take that chance in a climate where young men get off a boat and shoot people at random in coffee shops and marketplaces?

A last note, befitting a fortnight like this: Vinod Mehta, Delhi Diary,, August 3, 2009.

Interview with Koteswar Rao, Maoist leader in India

June 10, 2009

Hindustan Times interview with Koteswar Rao aka Kishanji, deputy leader of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).


The leader of India’s Maoist rebels expresses support for jihadi attacks, excepting the attack on a commuter railway station in Mumbai on 26/11.

Snigdhendhu Bhattacharya, ‘We support Islamic terrorism,” Hindustan Times, June 9, 2009.

What happened in Mumbai on 26/11?

June 6, 2009

Sections of the press are already discussing the 26/11 inquiry commission’s report, which is yet to be tabled in the state legislature.


The inquiry commission set up to investigate the response to the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai appear to have exonerated the Mumbai Police. Journalistic investigations tell other stories and this is one:

Harinder Baweja, Slaughter House Files,, June 7, 2009.