Let's Not Get Distracted
After each major terrorist attack in
the recent past, senior government officials and ministers have conjured
up the idea of a federal investigative agency (FIA) or federal crimes
bureau (FCB) as the principal lacuna in the Indian system, which prevents
effective counter-terrorist responses. This is nonsense and would be
seen to be so, if the media was not so innocent of facts and realities.
Law and order, the argument goes, is
a state subject under the Indian Constitution, and the Centre has no
authority to act in the states. The states cannot handle the patterns
of terrorism that have ramifications that go beyond their — and even
national — boundaries. Hence, in order to respond effectively, the Centre
needs a constitutional mandate and an agency to respond effectively
Since we can't think of anything new
ourselves, the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) becomes
the model, and we immediately set about talking about an Indian FIA
(or FCB). But does a new central investigative agency actually enhance
our counter-terrorism capabilities? For one thing, an investigative
agency, by definition, would come into operation after the event — that
is, after the terrorist strike — in order to 'solve' the case. A purely
investigative model, consequently, can have at best a peripheral role
in the Centre's counterterrorism initiatives, and would have no conceivable
preventive role. While the best of such agencies may be a little more
successful in bringing terrorists to book — if they have not quickly
fled across the borders to Pakistan or Bangladesh, as is their wont
— it is not clear how such an agency would actually improve the record
of prevention or response.
More significantly, a traditional 'investigative
model' has little relevance even in the resolution of terrorist crimes
already committed. Terrorism is, in fact, a continuous and complex activity
involving persistent networks. It may manifest itself dramatically in
a terrorist attack, but its supporting structures and activities long
precede such an attack, and continue uninterrupted after it — and these
cannot simply be reduced to the group of conspirators in a particular
attack. If any investigative agency were to have a real chance of 'solving'
a terrorist 'crime', it would need to have continuous intelligence regarding
the preceding and succeeding networks and activities.
In other words, an investigative agency
focusing on terrorist crimes would also require the largest capacities
to continuously gather counterterrorism intelligence and to create a
national database on such activities and networks. The FBI, for instance,
has the largest criminal intelligence apparatus and database in the
US. In India, it is true that some of the major terrorist attacks that
have been 'solved' by various states are due to inputs from the Intelligence
Crucially, however, the entire talk
of the FIA is a red herring. Virtually every central enforcement and
intelligence agency is, today, undermanned, under-resourced and under-performing.
Acute manpower and resource shortages, for example, afflict both the
IB and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) — and, indeed, the
numerous other intelligence and monitoring agencies maintained by various
central departments — and these agencies are struggling to maintain
a modicum of efficiency in executing even a fraction of their mandates.
A recommendation of the Girish Saxena
committee to create a multi-agency centre and a joint task force on
intelligence under the aegis of the IB was confirmed by a group of ministers
(GoM) in February 2001. Till date, these remain shell organisations
and the government has failed to provide even basic infrastructure and
manpower for these organisations to get off the ground, despite the
fact that they are crucial to the acquisition and dissemination of terrorism-related
intelligence and to effective counterterrorism responses. The GoM also
recommended immediate recruitment of an additional 3,000 personnel in
the IB. Till date, just 1,400 additional posts have been sanctioned.
The IB, it is little known, has barely 3,500 field personnel involved
in information gathering across this country of 1.2 billion people,
and not just for terrorism. It's obvious that this is a minuscule fraction
of the numbers actually needed.
The question then is if the Centre does
not have the capacity to man or fund its existing agencies — every one
of which is under-resourced — where is it magically going to produce
the armies of officers and technical personnel and resources that would
be necessary to operate a fully functional FIA? The example of other
failed imitations — such as the Department of Net Assessment and the
Defence Intelligence Agency — both of which have remained incapable
of fulfilling their imagined mandate for lack of resources can give
us a fairly clear idea of the fate of any future FIA.
Why then do political leaders in Delhi
raise the issue of the FIA with such enthusiasm? This is, in effect,
analogous to the act of throwing a bone to silence a barking dog. The
media hounds the political and security establishment in the aftermath
of each major terrorist strike, and the FIA is a very convenient device
to distract attention.
It throws the entire debate into the
sphere of fractious Centre-state relations, and there is clearly no
possibility that such an institution can be created in the foreseeable
future, given constitutional provisions. An alibi for inaction is consequently
created. The FIA is not what we need to fight terrorism; it is the device
the government uses to defer effective action against terrorism.
(Published in Times of India, New Delhi,
August 6, 2008)