13th anniversary of 26/11: How Mumbai was betrayed and early signals ignored

If only his superiors at the police HQ and the Western Naval Command had taken his warning seriously, the tragedy could have been averted, recalls Sujata Anandan

13th anniversary of 26/11: How Mumbai was betrayed and early signals ignored

Sujata Anandan

Ehanraj Vanjari was the station head at the Cuffe Parade police station at the southern tip of Mumbai in 2008 when he sensed that the next attack on Mumbai would be from the sea.

Mumbai’s biggest fishing port is at Sassoon Docks in Cuffe Parade and in their interactions with him, the fishermen had reported strange sightings– unfamiliar boats, certainly not fishing trawlers, with strange men aboard who seemed to be looking for a landing site but swiftly sailed away once they realised they had caught the attention of the curious fishermen.

Vanjari recognised those sightings for what they were-- reconnaisance for a possible attack on Mumbai. He did not anticipate the scale of the attack, thinking it would be a limited strike.

So, he wrote to the Western Naval Command and the Coast Guard authorities, warning them that the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, standing close to the sea, could be in danger.

He might as well not have bothered for no action was taken. The Naval and Coast Guard authorities were upset that a mere police inspector should have written to them. They should have been approached by their equals like a Commissioner or a Director General of police they said.

At the police headquarters in Crawford Market, the reaction was no different. Mumbai’s top cops were furious at Vanjari’s insubordination, as they called it and suspended him. He was on leave less than a week later when the 26/11 attack took place. The police and others tried to cover up their dereliction of duty but someone leaked the letter to the media.

Obviously, there had been no intelligence failure but then the authorities tried to pass it off as non-actionable intelligence--which was not really true. For the drill with the police is that even hoax calls have to be taken seriously and checked out.

So many times, we would receive calls that bombs had been placed in a particular train. We knew they were hoax calls, that someone was late and about to miss his train, and hence the desperate hoax calls to delay its departure; but we still had to check them out because that one call we might be tempted to ignore might be the genuine one and we could not afford to risk it or take chances with people’s lives,” he recalls.

“We later learnt to look out for late arrivals and took them into custody, for making hoax calls to the police. They would thus miss their train anyway and the practice soon stopped,” recalls a retired police officer. So, all that they had needed to do in 2008 was mount a vigil across the sea and they might have spotted the terrorists.

Vanjari was still a serving officer when he appeared before the inquiry committee headed by former cabinet secretary R.D. Pradhan. So, he was necessarily guarded before them. But Pradhan spotted this hesitation and later when he decided to put his findings into a book, he asked the Mumbai police for Vanjari’s whereabouts.

He was told Vanjari had absconded and gone abroad and now had a foreign citizenship and so could not be extradited. The reality was that now as a retired cop running his own investigation agency, Vanjari was on television night after night speaking on security issues.

Then one day Pradhan came face to face with him in one such television studio and realised the hoax perpetrated on him and perhaps the people of the nation by Mumbai police...

Therein rests the tragedy of 26/11

(This article was published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 26 Nov 2021, 12:45 PM