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An outdated force

The one reality that strikes us in the face with the latest terrorist carnage in Mumbai is that India has been comprehensively betrayed by its political leadership. For decades, politicians of all parties have bickered, distorted and exploited the issue of terrorism for partisan political ends, but have systematically obstructed efforts to create the necessary capacities in India’s police and security forces to fight this scourge.

What is tragically evident in the multiple attacks across Mumbai is the shoddiness of police responses in what has long been flaunted as India’s best-policed city, and the irrelevance of ‘specialist’ responses deployed hours after the commencement of the incident. The potential of any terrorist attack can only be neutralised or contained within the first few minutes; if this does not happen, that potential will inevitably be — marginally more or less — realised. The arrival of a highly trained and well-equipped National Security Guard contingent nine hours after, or even of naval and army commandos more than two hours after the commencement of the incident can have only limited impact on the magnitude of damage the terrorist could do. Indeed, any operation carried out against a maximum of 40 terrorists, which results in over 160 fatalities and hundreds of others injured, in enormous material damage and the disruption of the entire city as well as in the protraction of the incident for nearly 60 hours, cannot be described as a counter-terrorism (CT) ‘success’ by any yardstick.

It is clear that the ‘emergency response paradigm’ within which we are operating has long collapsed, but the national leadership — including elements of the security establishment — appears to have no capacity to think beyond it. Terrorist attacks are still seen as discrete incidents, whereas, in reality, they are mere links in an unending chain — elements of a protracted war that remain little understood. Terrorism is, in fact, a chronic condition, a permanent security challenge, and it requires a permanent and pervasive apparatus of response.

Contemporary CT imperatives can only be met by sufficiently empowering the police at the level of ‘first responders’, in other words, at the level of the thana. This is the force that first arrives at the scene of an attack. If it is incapable — in terms of training, equipment, orientation or mandate — of dealing with the incident, at least of physically containing the strike force within a small location, the magnitude of damage the terrorists will inflict will inevitably be much greater by the time ‘special forces’ arrive. The police, however, are, across the country, under-manned, under-equipped, under-trained and under-resourced, but wretchedly over-politicised.

If this presently degraded ‘force’ across the country is to be transformed into an effective CT force — if we are ever to restore the state’s upper hand in this war — the police will have to be virtually reinvented. There is a need to retrain the police at a massive scale, to modernise them, not in an incremental sense of giving them marginally better arms and equipment than they currently possess, but at the level that is needed for a 21st century police force fighting a 21st century terrorist scourge. Every police station in the country must have a full complement of CT-trained personnel, if not a full staff that has undergone such training. This, naturally, will require tremendous commitment of resources,

More than resources, however, it will require a political consensus to release the police from the stranglehold of partisan political control. The truth, today, is that no political party wants a professional police force — they want a force that can be subverted to partisan interests; one that selectively investigates certain crimes, or pursues certain criminals, including particular categories of terrorists, while studiously looking the other way where others are concerned. This was abundantly clear with the kind of filthy partisan politics that was played out against the Malegaon blast investigations. It is useful to remind the nation that the very ATS which was vilified, abused and denigrated by so-called ‘nationalists’ was the first to respond to the terrorists, demonstrating exemplary courage, unquestioning dedication to duty and the most extraordinary leadership — to the point that its top commanders — including chief Hemant Karkare — and its total complement of personnel put themselves repeatedly in harm’s way, risking, and in several cases, losing, their lives. If our citizens are to be effectively protected against future terrorist depredations, neither politicians nor a hidebound, obstructive bureaucracy — both at the Centre and in the States — can be allowed to continue to block the transformation of the police into a modern and effective force.

(Published in Daily News and Analysis, Mumbai, December 1, 2008)





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