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A Triumph of Form over Content

India's political establishment is manifestly running on empty. After each major terrorist strike, quick hope is ignited that, this time around, the Government will 'wake up' and initiate steps to effectively fight and neutralize terrorism. These hopes have been particularly acute after the carnage at Mumbai on 26/11, not only because of the sheer scale of the loss of life and property, but also because of the profile of the targets - the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel, the Oberoi-Trident, and the Jewish Centre at Nariman House - as well as because of the relatively more vociferous media and public reaction. For the first time, moreover, several senior politicians actually lost their jobs in the wake of a terrorist attack - the Union Home Minister, as well as the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Finally, it momentarily seemed, politicians - reeling under the rising tide of visible public revulsion - would be forced to take cognizance of the growing threat of terrorism and to act effectively to protect citizens against future attack.

In the weeks that have followed, however, it seems that politicians are more interested in finding new and theatrical ways of doing nothing, focusing principally on the political and electoral fallout of the Mumbai attacks, rather than on creating capacities to fight the menace. Two Bills have been hurriedly rushed through Parliament - amending the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to introduce 'tougher' provisions against terrorism, and creating a new National Investigation Agency - and a flurry of measures have been announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). But the truth is that, far from offering any 'solution' to terrorism, these proposals simply confirm that India, today, is a country utterly consumed by irrational belief systems and unexamined faiths. What we see here, is a triumph of form over content, a kind of 'strategic vastu shastra' - a symbolic shifting about of doors and windows, a shuffling of spaces, that has no realistic impact on the strength or utility of the edifice.

The passage of the NIA Act in the Lok Sabha - with virtually no meaningful debate or discussion on its mandate, provisions and resources - has been greeted with breathless enthusiasm by many long in tooth 'experts'. All these believe that, by this single decision, India will now have an agency "like the FBI". Regrettably, it is certain that the similarity will stop at the surface resemblance in titles.

What is not understood, when imitative remedies are proposed, is that every 'solution' occurs within a particular resource configuration. Simply saying that America has prevented attacks after 9/11, so we must do what America did, is plain stupid. America does not have Pakistan - the epicentre of global terrorism - as its immediate neighbour. America has launched two major wars purportedly with the objective of containing the 'sources of terrorism' abroad. And, with a GDP of US$ 14.14 trillion and a population of just over 300 million, its resources are, in comparison to India's, with a GDP just pushing $ 1 trillion and a population of 1.2 billion, virtually limitless. Specifically, the FBI's annual budget stands at $ 7.1 billion - to match this for India's population, we would need to envisage an expenditure of at least four times as much. The Centre's budget under 'policing' currently amounts to just $ 3 billion.

There is also some talk of carrying our imitation further to create a Department (or Ministry) of Homeland Security in India as well. It would be useful to remind ourselves that this Department's Budget in the US amounts to $ 44 billion (excluding the budgets of the various agencies and departments it coordinates and controls). The US also spends $ 650 billion on Defence alone, within a total expenditure bill of $2,730 billion. The total annual outlay of the Union Government in India amounts to just US $150 billion.

Efforts to imitate American 'solutions' have already created a number of utterly dysfunctional agencies at the Centre over the past years, including the National Security Council (with its ponderous 'secretariat' and advisory board), the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Department of Net Assessment and the National Disaster Management Authority (imitating the Federal Emergency Management Agency). Most of these institutions remain under-manned and under-resourced across all parameters, and operate under ambiguous mandates, with little effective or statutory authority, and every one of them has failed to secure the objectives of its creation.

The NIA's mandate, according to the Bill passed by the Lok Sabha on December 16, 2008, moreover, fails to correspond even remotely to the FBI's mandate. Within the scope of the latter, the FBI is statutorily obligated to investigate every single incidence of a Federal Offence - that is, every violation of Federal Law, or offence on Federal property. The NIA, however, is going to cherry pick "fit cases to be investigated by the Agency… having regard to the gravity of the offence and other relevant factors." But this is entirely counter-productive since terrorism is a complex and ongoing offence and the distinction between 'major' and 'minor' incidents can be misleading. Major conspiracies often comprise a succession of minor offences, eventually culminating in the final strike. On the other hand, if the NIA's mandate was to be expanded to cover every offence relating to its charter - that is, offences affecting the sovereignty, security and integrity of India, security of State, friendly relations with foreign States and offences under Acts enacted to implement international treaties, agreements, conventions and resolutions of the United Nations - this would yield tens of thousands of case every year, and require thousands of skilled investigators within the Agency. It is useful, in this context, to note that the Centre has failed to provide the requisite manpower and resources even for a relatively tiny Central Bureau of Investigation to fulfil its relatively insignificant mandate. The CBI, for instance, has suffered chronic manpower shortages, which are particularly acute at the level of senior officers and investigators. How, then, can it be imagined that the NIA would rise, fully formed, functional and efficient, from the womb of the earth, when the Centre's own record of institution-building has been utterly disastrous? In its present form, consequently, the NIA is destined to irrelevance. A more comprehensive mandate, however, is an impossibility within the prevailing resource configuration. Several provisions relating to the NIA's authority to supersede State investigative agencies, moreover, may attract Constitutional impediments, and are certain to be challenged when the very first cases are taken up by the NIA. Further, it is not clear how an 'investigative agency', whose role comes into play after a crime has been committed, is going to prevent future attacks.

For a final reality check, it is useful to note that Pakistan has had a Federal Investigation Agency since 1975. In case no one has noticed, that has not put an end to terrorism in the land of the pure.

Moving on, it is, indeed, astonishing that the very political formation that has been vociferously arguing for over a decade that POTA was ineffectual in containing terrorism - their favourite phrase was, "POTA could not prevent the attack on Parliament" - is now offering a 'tough anti-terrorism law' as a solution to terrorism. It is, of course, obvious that the opposition to POTA was inspired by electoral calculations, and it is the case that these calculations may have changed dramatically after Mumbai 26/11. Regrettably, the half-truth of that original argument remains inescapable. A counter-terrorism (CT) law is as 'tough' as its implementing mechanism. Within the degraded policing and security environment in India, and the equally debilitated justice system, a 'tough law' will be of no more than marginal utility, if not entirely toothless, in fighting terrorism.

Another of the proposals that has generated great enthusiasm is the location of National Security Guard (NSG) centres or units in critical metropolii across India, in order to avoid the delays that were witnessed at Mumbai, where the NSG unit was operationally deployed nearly ten hours after the commencement of the terrorist attack. The conventional wisdom, here, is that this occurred because of the NSG's centralization at its headquarters at Manesar, some 50 kilometres outside Delhi, delays in the political decision to deploy, and the absence of dedicated air transport.

But the proposal for the location of 'elite' NSG units in several strategic and urban centres across India - what can accurately be described as the 'Rambo model' of response - is also ill-conceived. The idea is that these small contingents of this 'crack' Force would quickly be able to smash up any terrorist group that may have the audacity to attack. Regrettably, it can be anticipated that the terrorists will not do us the courtesy of attacking where we are prepared for them; consequently, delays in actual deployment of the NSG - while they may not be as interminable as was the case in the November attack at Mumbai, will still remain significant. Worse the NSG's present record at Mumbai does not support a very positive assessment of its capabilities. Even if the delay in arrival at the incident sites is discounted, the awkward reality is that, considering the sheer protraction of the incident and the magnitude of damage just eight terrorists inflicted with small arms and grenades, their eventual neutralization can hardly be considered an exemplary operational success.

It is essential to recognize, here, that any terrorist operation can only be contained or neutralized, in terms of its potential, in the first few minutes. Which means that the 'first responders' - invariably the local Police - have to be equipped, trained and capable of, if not neutralising, then, at least, containing the terrorists. If the first batches of Police personnel had arrived in sufficient strength at each of the locations of terrorist attack in Mumbai, with appropriate weaponry, communications and transport and immediately engaged with the terrorists, they probably would have been able to isolate the terrorists in small corners of the target structures and would have been able to minimise the loss of life, the material damage, and the operational time.

The reality is that, while 'special forces' such as the NSG (or, better, Quick Response Teams within the Police setup) may play a significant tactical role in counter-terrorism, the strategic success of India's counter-terrorism responses will depend overwhelmingly on the capacities, mandate and effectiveness of its 'general forces'. It is, however, in these that the greatest and most intolerable deficits currently exist.

That is the core reality that needs immediate attention. It is obvious that the Centre has come under enormous political pressure to show 'quick results'. However, the will to address the tasks of capacity building, which constitute the real responses to terrorism, within a timeframe that could have electoral relevance (the General Elections, we must remember, are just around the corner) is still lacking. But unless the endemic capacity deficits - both in quantum and quality - are addressed across the intelligence, enforcement and justice spectrum, an 'effective response' to terrorism cannot be devised.

It is useful to look at the sheer and distressing magnitude of some of the existing capacity deficits.

The first and greatest of infirmities exists at the level of general policing. India had a police-population ratio of just 125 per 100,000 in 2007, and it is useful to note that, despite so much hysteria and posturing over the 'terrorist threat', this ratio actually fell marginally from 126 per 100,000 in 2006. Most Western countries have ratios ranging between 225 per 100,000 to over 500 per 100,000. Western Police Forces, moreover, tend to confront challenges that are far less acute that those Indian Police Forces are facing, and are, in any event, infinitely better equipped, trained and resourced than their Indian counterparts, many of whom move around on foot, armed with nothing more than a lathi (cane) or an 1895 vintage .303 rifle, and with little training in the use of the latter.

There is, moreover, an acute deficit in the leadership cadres in the Police today. There is a 15.3 per cent deficit against sanctioned posts among officers in the ranks of Director General (DG) to Deputy Inspector General (DIG), and an astonishing 35 per cent deficit in the ranks of Senior Superintendent of Police to Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP). Significantly, sanctioned strengths are long outdated, and absolute numbers required are well above those currently approved. What we have, consequently, is not only a weak Force, but one that is weakly led.

A great deal of noise has also been made regarding the 'failure' of the Coast Guard to interdict the Mumbai terrorists despite 'specific intelligence' regarding the threat and, possibly, their initial movement. Once again, an assessment of real capacities of response is necessary. The Indian coastline is as much as 7,516 kilometres long. Reports suggest that as many as 50,000 trawlers are registered in just Maharashtra and Gujarat. To patrol this vast coastline, the Coast Guard has a sanction of 106 patrol boats, of which just 92 are currently operational, and 52 aircraft, of which 45 are presently in flying condition. Even if specific intelligence was available that terrorists had hijacked an unidentified fishing vessel, it is not clear how a fraction of this Force, which would be available on the Western Coast, would have been able to locate and interdict the offending vessel among the tens of thousands of fishing boats that are at sea in the area at any one time.

Finally, intelligence is by far the most powerful CT instrumentality in the State's arsenal, and it is, again, here that some of the greatest infirmities exist. Apart from the entire issue of coordination and dissemination of intelligence, it is useful to look at the basic capacities for intelligence gathering. The Intelligence Bureau, for instance, has a total strength of some 13,500 officers and personnel involved in intelligence operations, of which under 3,500 are actually involved in the task of field intelligence gathering, for this entire nation of 1.2 billion souls. This is for all issues that come under the IB's mandate, not just CT. The dedicated resource for CT intelligence is in the region of about 300 (these figures are fairly reliable but not authoritative). As for the capacities of the State Police intelligence apparatus, these, with rare exception, hardly bear mention in a current CT context. These absolute deficits in capacity are, of course, infinitely compounded by the loss of operational intelligence because of the absence of proper processes, databases and coordination mechanisms.

It is useful to recall that this is the position that prevails nearly a decade after the enveloping failures of intelligence that preceded the Kargil War (1999), and that were documented in great detail by the Girish Saxena Committee, which submitted its report as far back as 2001. The various recommendations of the Saxena Committee were examined and accepted, with some modification, by the Group of Ministers in February 2001. Regrettably, implementation has remained tardy, partial and ineffectual. One of the recommendations, for instance, called for a 'multi-agency set up' to confront the challenges of terrorism. This was formally 'implemented' through the creation of two new wings under the IB: the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) and the Joint Task Force on Intelligence (JTFI). MAC was charged with collecting and coordinating terrorism-related information from across the country; the JTFI is responsible for passing on this information to the State Governments in real-time. Regrettably, both MAC and JTFI remain under-staffed, under-equipped and ineffective, with even basic issues relating to their administration unsettled. Their principal objective, the creation of a national terrorism database, has made little progress. The JTFI was also given the responsibility of upgrading counter-terrorism capabilities in the State Police Forces, as part of its mandate to improve intelligence-gathering across the country, but no actual programme of training or capacity enhancement has been initiated.

Unless these crises of capacities are addressed, it must be accepted that terrorists will continue to strike against targets across India with virtual impunity. Terrorism is, in essence, a 'small commander's war' - it is 'first responders', the units immediately located in the field, ordinarily the local Police - who must be empowered to respond effectively. No creation of top-heavy 'metastructures' - institutions at the Centre - is going to alter the capacities on the ground. The necessary capacities have to be created at the most decentralized level - albeit within the context of a coherent and centralized strategy of CT response - and this, in the Indian context, must be at the level of the thana, the chowki and the mobile police units. These may be backed by special force QRTs, but unless the quality of general policing is not enormously improved, the capacities to respond to and to contain terrorism will remain ineffectual.

There has been a desperate casting about for suitable 'models' for counter-terrorism in India, and overwhelming attention has been fixed on Western - and particularly American - 'solutions'. This is entirely misconceived. For one thing, simple resource constraints imply that American 'solutions' have little relevance for India (though some lessons can, no doubt, be learned). More significantly, India has had its own powerful counter-terrorism successes - in Punjab, in Tripura, in Andhra Pradesh, to name three. Regrettably, the country's security establishment appears to have no institutional memory whatsoever, and these experiences have not even been adequately documented or analysed to yield their lessons, both of successful and unsuccessful strategies and tactics. While the patterns of political violence, the ideologies of extremism, and the tactical details of response would certainly demonstrate wide variations across these three theatres, there are certain principles that remain constant. Among the most significant principles that can be extracted from the rich Indian experience are:

  • Recognizing the time frames of the conflict: a 'protracted war' paradigm - and not the prevailing 'emergency response' paradigm - must dominate both strategy and tactics. Imposing overwhelming short-term objectives to the larger detriment of long-term objectives will yield failure.

  • The creation of decentralized capacities within a coherent CT strategy - this alone has real potential for success in India.

  • Intelligence led operations.

  • Development of capacities within local Police Forces (and where these are deficient, paramilitary and military Forces as a temporary stopgap) to execute narrowly targeted anti-terrorist operations.

  • Building a global consensus against terrorism: even today, terrorism has many and influential apologists and rationalizers within the establishment in many countries - including India and other liberal-democracies. Ending the tolerance of terror in the national and international discourse is an urgent imperative.

  • Ideological contestation of extremist dogmas underlying terrorism.

  • Harnessing soft power projections to counter-terrorism goals.

  • Inflicting demonstrable defeats on terrorism.

  • Punitive strategies against sponsoring states and organisations - including, among others, the imposition of unbearable costs on support structures.

  • Effective international cooperation and collaboration at operational levels, going well beyond existing instrumentalities of Joint Working Groups and bi-lateral or regional treaties.

  • Significant improvements in the justice systems to deliver quick judicial outcomes through transparent and credible processes.

  • Democracies must devise institutional structures of response that are cushioned against the psychological impact of terrorist actions and the panic responses they often provoke, and internalize more strategic orientations to contemporary protracted and irregular warfare, including terrorism.

The problem in India is that the policy debate never focuses on the real issues of capacities and capabilities - manpower, training, equipment, technologies, mandate and orientation. Instead, everything is reduced to unproductive finger-pointing, reductionist slogans, symbolism and electoral calculations. Unless India is cured of the canker of its perverse politics and myopic leadership, the future can only bring greater and more frequent tragedies.

(Published in Seminar, No. 593, January 2009)





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