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16/09/2011 | India - See no evil, hear no evil, do no good

Ajai Sahni

On September 7, 2011, a reception area outside gate No. 5 of the Delhi High Court was targeted by a terrorist bombing, which killed 13 and injured some 89 persons.


This incident comes, not as is widely being projected in the media and political discourse, as a reminder of India's extraordinary vulnerabilities to terrorist violence (which remain unchanged), but rather of the persistence of remarkable incoherence in the discourse on terrorism, and in the design and execution of the country's counter-terrorism (CT) responses.

The real political response to the challenge of terrorism in India has been posturing, diversion and deception. The approach has never been pragmatic, seeking, in good faith, to solve a problem which has been assessed within realistic parameters. Rather, the effort has been to politically exploit both the problem and its purported resolution, or to deflect criticism however this may be possible, in the event of visible failures.

The response to the Delhi High Court bombing on September 7, 2011, was no exception. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram immediately sought to pin blame on the Delhi Police. However, the Home Minister has, since the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, repeatedly gone on record to state that all of India's cities remained vulnerable. What, then, was the basis of the conclusion that the High Court bombing was a consequence, not of this vulnerability, but of specific failures on the part of the Delhi Police? There is an added irony here: the Delhi Police is directly under the Home Ministry's control, so any failure on its part would, eventually, place the responsibility at the Union Home Minister's doorstep.

Spokespersons for the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) have also sought to argue that terrorism can only be prevented if 'citizens' involve themselves in the various purportedly related tasks; and that Delhi's vulnerabilities were increased because of the disruptive protraction of Anna Hazare's organized protests and fast against corruption and for the Lok Pak Bill (anti-corruption legislation) between August 16 and August 28, 2011. On the other hand, critics of the Government, indeed, of the entire political class, have earned applause on the argument that common citizens have been left unprotected because an unacceptable proportion of the state's security resources is consumed by VIP security.

All this is arrant, dishonest or misconceived nonsense.

It is not the citizen's job to fight terrorism - though state agencies may seek citizens' cooperation; such cooperation would be eagerly extended if the credibility of and faith in the Police and Government existed in sufficient measure. In any event, it is the primary, indeed, primal, duty of the state to protect its citizens, all other functions only follow. The state cannot shift any fraction of the blame for its own failures onto citizens.

The argument that the Police can only provide security against terrorism, or to VIPs, or to public agitations, at any one time, is also sheer garbage. The security apparatus must protect the common man against terrorism even while it shields VIPs and guarantees the constitutional freedoms of democratic protest. There is no either-or here; the state is required to do all these simultaneously.

Opposition parties have been quick to sense the susceptibilities of the ruling alliance, and have drummed up a shrill campaign to highlight the 'failure' to send a 'tough message' by hanging terrorists, or by taking 'strong steps' against Pakistan. This is another stream of unmitigated nonsense. The US has done everything possible, with its far greater power, down to bombing and carrying out ground operations on Pakistani soil, with or without Islamabad's consent, to destroy the terrorist infrastructure that is inflicting daily fatalities on US, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan troops, across the border in Afghanistan, but has failed to end even what is now openly recognized as Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) support to various Taliban formations operating from Pakistan. India, with its spectrum of policy options never broadening beyond the option of talks or no talks, has no 'messages' to deliver to Pakistani state sponsors of terrorism. As for hanging a few convicted terrorists in India - while there is certainly a strong argument for this in view of the fact that the judicial process has been exhausted and its sentences need to be implemented if any sense of the rule of law is to be maintained - there is little reason to believe that this would make potential terrorists cower with unprecedented fear. The truth is that terrorism cannot be ended by 'sending messages' - however strong. It will end only with a dismantling and eventual destruction of all Pakistan backed Islamist terrorist and subversive networks on Indian soil.

Little has been done over the past years since commitments to this end were made at the highest level in the wake of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai in 2008. Acknowledging the probable 'external linkages' of these attacks, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had promised, at that time, that his Government would "go after these individuals and organisations and make sure that every perpetrator, organiser and supporter of terror, whatever his affiliation or religion may be, pays a heavy price for these cowardly and horrific acts against our people." Further, he assured the nation, "We will take the strongest possible measures to ensure that there is no repetition of such terrorist acts."

Since then, however, what we have seen in terms of augmentation of purported CT capabilities has been no more than a focus on imitative, meta-institutional and big-budget projects - the National Investigation Agency (NIA), National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), metropolitan National Security Guards (NSG) hubs, among others - which tend to create the illusion of power in agencies centralized at North Block, or in State capitals. The progress on these initiatives has, itself, been plagued by bureaucratic delays and a lackadaisical political rhythm. On the other hand, the even more urgent task of building fundamental capabilities of response at the level of the thana, the police constable, or the field intelligence operative, has substantially been ignored, or has been pursued within a time perspective that has no relevance whatsoever to the imperatives of CT.

To take an example, the former Union Home Secretary, G.K. Pillai, who has been vocal in defence of the state's policies and response, noted, in the wake of the High Court bombing, that current deficits in the Police across the country totalled 1.8 million personnel, and, rather astonishingly, that it would take nine years to recruit these numbers. For one thing, over the coming nine years, requirements would certainly rise very substantially, creating a significant and new cumulative deficit. More importantly, however, it is not clear in which Holy Book it is written that 1.8 million personnel cannot be recruited in less than nine years. There is, of course, the perpetual lament about a deficit of training facilities, and even - perhaps more importantly - of suitable candidates for officer cadres and for an improved human resource profile in the constabulary. There is no reason why these deficiencies cannot be addressed on a war footing, creating the necessary trainers and facilities, and, where necessary, extending, intensifying and improving training programmes and curricula to create appropriate profiles, even if recruitment standards need to be diluted. There is no reason to believe that resources for these cannot be provided in a country where INR 34 billion are being sought for the proposed NATGRID, which would provide nothing more than a clearing house to 21 existing databases, most of them - including banking, credit card, visa, immigration, etc., - with peripheral relevance to terrorist operations or significant violent crime, though also including information available on Police records. The last category, however, is also the subject of a proposed Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS) project and the national intelligence database to be created under the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) within the Intelligence Bureau (IB). Evidently, the country has money to throw on multiple and overlapping projects, and there should certainly be no insurmountable obstacle to allocating budgets for accelerated recruitment and training to the Police so that existing and emerging deficits can be met on a war footing.

Numbers, moreover, are not everything. There is tremendous waste, mis-utilisation and mis-direction of human resources in the Police across the country, and remarkable gains can be secured even through improved allocation, retraining, reorientation and reequipping of existing forces. To take an example, Andhra Pradesh, in 2005, was among the States worst afflicted by Naxalite violence, with all 23 of its Districts in acute crisis. A focused campaign through 2006 and 2007 decimated the Maoists, reducing the insurgency to a marginal irritant in just eight border Districts, where Maoists continue to launch occasional attacks, principally against civilian targets (there has been no Security Force fatality in the State after May 29, 2008). Crucially, the Andhra Pradesh Police-population ratio in 2006 was just 98 per 100,000, and, in 2007 had fallen to 96 per 100,000, as against an all-India average of 126 and 125, in these years, respectively. An undermanned system cannot, of course, maintain exceptional levels of efficiency indefinitely, but the Andhra Police has demonstrated what can be achieved even with severely limited manpower.

Another example helps illustrate the sleepy pace of state responses. The use of ammonium nitrate as an explosive by terrorists was noticed as far back as 1997-98, when Delhi was subjected to a succession of bomb blasts. Since then, ammonium nitrate fuel oil (ANFO) devices have been used in numberless terrorist attacks - including the Delhi High Court bombing (though traces of military grade PETN were also detected in this last case). It was only after the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, that, in December 2008, the Home Ministry notified ammonium nitrate as a "special category explosive substance" under the Explosive Substances Act, 1908. On July 21, 2011, the Commerce Ministry issued a further notification that "ammonium nitrate or any combination containing more than 45% of ammonium nitrate by weight including emulsions, suspensions, melts or gels, shall be deemed to be an explosive." Ammonium nitrate fertilizers and products with higher concentrations continue to be freely available across the country, and there is no report suggesting even that their manufacture has been brought under effective regulation.

As far as Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorism is concerned, India has secured a high measure of unearned relief over the past years, as a result of Pakistan's rising internal crises, external pressures, and preoccupations with more urgent strategic ambitions in Afghanistan. Islamist terrorist related fatalities outside Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) have fallen from peaks of 262 and 367 in 2006 and 2008, respectively, to 20 in 2010 and 40 in 2011 (till September 11). Even in J&K, fatalities have declined dramatically, from a peak of 4,507 in 2001, to 375 in 2010.

This is an opportunity to secure an extraordinary consolidation in India's CT capabilities at the grassroots level. Policing in India, today, is a "broken system" reflecting high degrees of "dysfunction, abuse and impunity". The country's security apparatus fails to reflect her pretensions as an emerging global power. Technical and technological inputs are, of course, critical to any modern systems of intelligence and enforcement, but these will never be the outcome of technologies alone. It is the Policeman and the field intelligence operative - his training, orientation, capabilities and, crucially, mindset - that makes the difference between a modern and an obsolete enforcement apparatus. It is, consequently, the profile of these personnel - their education, training, skills and orientation, of course, but also their welfare and status in society - which must undergo comprehensive transformation. The task of this transformation has been emphasized ad nauseum by successive Government agencies, Police Commissions and independent commentaries. However, no Government, at the Centre or in most States, appears to have the will, or even the desire - given the potency and persistence of the politician-bureaucrat-criminal nexus the N.N. Vohra Committee documented as far back as in 1993 - to create a modern, efficient and empowered security apparatus, answerable to the law.

In the cacophony of partisan recriminations that has followed the Delhi High Court bombing, not a single constructive policy perspective emerges. Confusion, directionless rage, opportunism and, above all, ignorance - these exhaust the spectrum of the political discourse.

For all the hysteria expended in the wake of the present attack, and those that have preceded it over the years, the reality is that, at our present state of capabilities, we can neither prevent every possible attack (if this is ever possible), nor resolve every case that occurs. Our exclusive focus on and obsession with the terrorist incidents themselves is, in fact, part of the problem. These incidents are, and will always be tragic, irrespective of their frequency or the number of fatalities. More important, in terms of our CT policy, strategy and capabilities of response, is what is done, or, more likely, not done, between incidents. It is in this respect that Governments in India continue to fail, comprehensively.

South Asia Intelligence Review (India)


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