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BOOK REVIEW: Kasab, The Face of 26/11

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Thanks to the Writer for the lovely emails despite the 'scathing review'

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, February 12, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Author: Rommel Rodrigues

November 26, 2008 was India’s 9/11 — or so they say. It was the day 10 gunmen held one city hostage for over 60 hours. A day that sent accusations flying across the border, and the fear of something deadlier being traded saw the international community scrambling for cover. India was breaking news for days. Pakistan also made headlines around that time but not for the same reasons.

They caught the perpetrator. Ajmal Kasab is exhibit A in the case against the country of his birth. What little is known about Kasab (the name literally means butcher), beyond his nationality (Pakistani) and vocation (deadly pawn) comes from a hastily complied sketch leaked to the media in the early days of the attack. The rest came from following the trail of breadcrumbs, obligingly left behind, that led to Pakistan — a nation viewed as both the donor and recipient of terror.

When Rommel puts himself in the shoes of the lone survivor of the death squad for a walk down memory lane, it is not for the view but the forlorn hope of finding skeletons in his neighbour’s closet. Using a wide angled camera, he pans into neighbouring Pakistan, the village where Kasab was born, the streets he traversed, the contacts he made, the secret dreams of handling weapons he harboured and the moment when he graduated from petty thief to hardened jihadist.

This excursion into Kasab-land is to understand what goes into the making of a “deranged fidayeen jihadi”. It is clear that had he not been reeled in by the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Kasab’s criminal tendencies would have found another outlet — albeit a less dramatic one. The writer collates the evidence, piecing together the life of a murderer from the cradle to the (court assigned?) grave to give readers their first inkling of the violent elements that operate below their nation’s radar.

The incredibly detailed recreation of life in a terror boot camp run by the LeT and its ilk (some masquerading as relief centres) claims to give an unimpaired view of the breeding grounds of home grown terror. He has padded his research with stories of disenfranchised youth, driven by poverty into the arms of waiting jihadist organisations.

Rommel has a vivid imagination. His interpretation of events turns a monster’s life around to serve as a springboard to launch an inquiry into the phenomenon of cross-border terrorism. But he proceeds to take several swipes at Pakistan without subjecting India to the same scrutiny. Meticulously researched though the book may appear to be, it begs the question: what is the true source of the author’s intel? Which part is pure speculation and which is grounded in fact?

In an interview given to Mid Day, the writer claims that second-hand information has been validated by experts and sources, yet the lack of footnotes/references is troubling. Which is why, at times, this reads like fiction based on a cocktail of facts and a liberal dose of speculation that stops short of breaking new ground.

The book follows the official script, challenging Pakistan’s defence of the ‘non-state actor’ and implicitly questioning its claims of independent terrorists misusing territory by first introducing retired army officers on the LeT’s premises and later placing serving ones at the scene. But his own description of events that point to contempt harboured by “the army of the privileged holy warriors” (as the radicals like to call themselves) for leaders and the military alike does not support such an alliance.

While the world tuned in to a long drawn out stand off and what appeared to be a lack of adequate response despite an advance warning by the CIA, the writer takes a more scenic route wilfully ignoring the law enforcement’s ineffectiveness and using RAW’s supposedly exceptional intelligence work to cover up their Blue Water Navy’s unexceptional role in countering terror.

Kasab, The Face of 26/11 claims to have surprising insight into its neighbour’s contribution to extremism but not when it comes to the state of its own homeland security. It sets out to establish the humane treatment meted out to the captured prisoner in a handy narrative, which serves to vindicate the Indian justice system. Human Rights Watch would love that part. And, when it talks of 576 incarcerated Indian fishermen, it suffers from a sudden onset of amnesia, forgetting their Pakistani counterparts languishing in Indian jails, some for decades.

The horror is magnified, as is the menace, and this insider look will stoke the paranoia. The book ends abruptly, a bit like the journey of the principal character. This nifty piece of detective work gives Kasab a plausible back-story but fails to account for the forces at play that allowed them to fearlessly wander the streets of India unchallenged without triggering red flags all over. In about 10 days the perpetrator will be sentenced by Indian courts. The book is just one more nail in Kasab’s pre-ordered coffin.

Penguin; Pp 276; Rs 595

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