Exclusive documents that The Sunday Guardian has accessed through RTI reveal for the first time that there was a last minute postponement of the Home Secretary level talks to ensure that the top brass of India’s security establishment was in Pakistan when the dastardly attacks were carried out on the night of 26 November 2008.
The 2008 Home Secretary level talks between India and Pakistan were planned in such a manner that top officials from all wings of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were in Pakistan when Pakistan supported Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists attacked Mumbai.
While the talks were held on 25 November, the visit of the Indian delegation was extended by a day at the behest of the hosts so the Indian delegation could meet then Interior Minister Rehman Malik who was travelling. However, the Indian delegation also went further to accept Pakistan’s invitation to visit the hill retreat of Murree.
The whole delegation barring Rajendra Kumar, former special director of Intelligence Bureau (IB), who returned to India for “personal reasons”, was in Murree when the attacks began on 26 November.
The first copy of the “sanction order” of the delegation for the fifth round of talks clearly stated, “The Home Secretary level talks with Pakistan are scheduled on 25.11.2008 at Islamabad. In this regard, it is proposed that the delegation led by the Home Secretary would return to Delhi from Islamabad on 26.11.2008 by Embraer aircraft of BSF. The delegation would depart Islamabad at 1:00p.m. (PST).” However, a revised copy of the “sanction order” shows that the dates were changed from 25-26 to 25-27 of November and the correction was made by hand on a back dated file approved on 20 November 2008. The order reads: “Kind approval of Hon’ble Minister may be solicited to the deputation of 10-member Indian delegation (listed in para 2 above), to be led by Home Secretary to Islamabad, Pakistan from 25.11.2008 to 27.11.2008 (excluding journey time) for holding Home Secretary level talks. Pakistan, being a SAARC country, approval of Screening Committee of Secretaries is not required in this proposal.”
R.V.S. Mani, then Under Secretary (IS-VI), the officer who was handling the travel and procedural details for the India-Pakistan Home Secretary level talks, has come out and questioned Pakistan’s intentions. He handled the original sanction order only to learn later that the dates were revised at the last minute to conveniently have the entire top establishment of MHA stranded in Islamabad.
Mani told The Sunday Guardian, “The talks were scheduled for 25 November and it was only for one day. On 26 November, I got the news that the meeting was extended. It was only later at night when the attack began that it seemed like the Indian side had been tricked. The entire delegation was not even in Islamabad. They were taken to Murree to experience Pakistan hospitality.” Was it a coincidence or design? Mani explained how it was impossible to establish contact with any of the officials when the 10 terrorists entered Mumbai and started carrying out one of the worst terror attacks the country has ever witnessed. “It was around 10:30-11:00 pm on 26 November when we tried to contact the Indian High Commission through officers in the control room. They tried to establish contact repeatedly. It was a panic situation. They kept trying. Can’t tell when they finally managed to contact,” Mani said. However, the man who led the delegation, former Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta, conceded that it was no coincidence, but rejects all allegations of the team “holidaying” in Murree. He said, “Today in hindsight, we can say that while we were there for delegation level talks, there was a plan being hatched to attack India.”
“There is no need for speculation particularly when we are clear that there was a delegation level talk and the Home Secretary was there and an attack takes place here. That itself shows the intention of somebody or the other in the Pakistani establishment with the objective to derail a dialogue process which was not the first time,” Gupta said.
Documents that The Sunday Guardian has accessed clearly show that while there are two separate “sanction order” copies, there is no communication to suggest the change was done through “proper order”—hence, a handwritten change of travel dates on a file dated 20.11.2008.
Rajendra Kumar explained, “Talks were to take place on 25 November and the delegation was to return on the 26th. Talks were virtually over on the 25th. There was a suggestion from our host whether the delegation would like to go to Murree. I didn’t go.”
Kumar said that after the crackdown of the security apparatus in Gujarat by UPA, officers feared of being victimised, so they did the routine work of sending alerts, but took no effort to initiate action on those alerts. “The security apparatus in Gujarat had received inputs of an imminent attack. The LeT approached its cadre in Gujarat a few months before the Mumbai attacks, saying they would be sending arms and men for a very major action. But instead of carrying out an operation, the security agencies sent alerts to various wings of the Navy, Coast Guard and BSF. When the terrorists came, they saw these forces and went back and changed their plan,” Kumar said.
While the officials who were stranded in Pakistan have defended themselves, it seems like Pakistan succeeded in its motives. Madhukar Gupta also said that he was able to establish contact with Delhi around 9.30pm on 26 November after he turned on the television in Murree. Gupta said, “I spoke to all the senior officials concerned in India, with some more than once. I also asked for the plane which was scheduled to come at 1 pm to be sent at the earliest.” But the entire delegation was only able to leave Islamabad by noon of 27 November and reached New Delhi in the afternoon. By then, the counter terror opereations were underway with National Security Adviser M.K. Naraynan taking charge of the situation.