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Security Alarm

The bogey of ‘intelligence failure’ masks the deeper infirmities of India's counter-terrorism apparatus. There is a complete absence of strategic vision, of the capacity to assess and prepare for challenges at all levels.

How is a country’s vulnerability to terrorism and sub-conventional warfare to be assessed? This question must be coherently addressed before serious attention can be focused on the challenge of counter-terrorism policy and response; it remains, unfortunately, almost entirely unanswered in the establishment discourse in India.

Instead, there is inordinate focus on transient patterns or specific incidents – a focus enormously provoked by largely uninformed and often distorted and sensationalised media commentary and coverage. After each new incident, a relentless search for novelty results in the discovery of ‘new patterns’, ‘new perpetrators’, ‘new technologies’, ‘new strategies, ‘new tactics’ and, crucially, ‘new intelligence and police failure’, and the inescapable necessity of ‘new’ and ‘out-of-the-box solutions’. Assessments are also deeply coloured by the character and magnitude of the latest incidents, rather than by any rational evaluation of trends, and the aftermath of the latest serial blasts in Ahmedabad (and subsequent discovery of large quantities of explosives and unexploded improvised devices) produced a reaction no different to what followed after the Jaipur serial bombings, the Lucknow-Varanasi-Faizabad courthouse bombings, the attack on the CRPF camp at Rampur, the two cycles of bombings in Hyderabad, the Samjhauta Express, etc. etc. etc., to name only a few major incidents in an unending series that goes back, if one focuses on Islamist terrorist attacks alone, at least a decade-and-a-half.

But the incidence – or lack thereof – and profile of particular terrorist attacks, or even the surface trends in terrorist violence, are not the best index or context of evaluation of the state’s vulnerabilities, and this is even now being dramatically demonstrated in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). For years, now, the Government has been boasting of the decline in fatalities in J&K, from their peak, at 4,507 killed in 2001 (South Asia Terrorism Portal data), to the sub-high intensity conflict levels of 777 killed in 2007, and down further to 328 killed between January and August 6, 2008. In this, and the ‘peace process’ with Pakistan – as well as its various ‘gains’ in terms of ‘people to people contacts’, back-channel diplomacy, the opening up of travel routes between Pakistan and Indian administered Kashmir – the Government discovered the crystallization of an inexorable process of ‘normalization’. Behind this Panglossian façade, however, was the reality of Pakistan’s unchanging intent and continuing support to Islamist terrorist and subversive groups operating in J&K and across India, and the acute instability of the prevailing equations of power between key players. The fact that the improvements in J&K were the consequence, not of any shift in the Pakistani mindset, but rather of abrupt constraints that emerged in the country’s capacities to openly support terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the US, were deliberately brushed under the carpet – though this was, from time to time, forced into public consciousness by dramatic terrorist attacks and, more recently, repeated and major ceasefire violations along the Line of Control.

The truth is, for all her great power pretensions, her rampaging multinational corporations, and her seven to nine per cent rates of GDP growth, India is a tremendously fragile state, deeply vulnerable to the threats of subversion, terrorism and sub-conventional warfare.

This is now more than evident in the abrupt and tragic meltdown that Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is experiencing in the wake of the Amarnath Land Diversion agitation. At the core of this fragility is the political and administrative infirmity that has gradually undermined the country’s security apparatus, systematically and progressively eroding its capacities, or where such capacities have been preserved in some measure, paralysing their exercise through political vacillation and constraints imposed through mandate and directives.

On December 18, 2008, for instance, as crowds dispersed from the ‘mass rally’ organised by separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (TeH) and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), they approached Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) bunkers in the old town and forced the personnel deployed there to withdraw. Under explicit orders from the highest authorities in the State not to fire on the crowds, the troopers reluctantly complied, abandoning their posts. Their bunkers were then smashed and reduced to rubble by the mob.

Across the old town in Srinagar, entire neighbourhoods have now been abandoned by the Security Forces on orders from above. These are the very neighbourhoods that were the hotbeds of terrorism and secessionism through the 1990s. It was through a slow process of attrition, fighting to gain control from street to street, house to house, at an enormous sacrifice in lives, that control was re-established in the Old Town. All these gains have now been wilfully relinquished by a weak, vacillating and directionless Government. And when the time comes – as it inevitably must – to restore the state’s control over these areas, it will, again, be the Security Forces who will have to pay in blood for the present political and administrative folly.

This has, with rare exception and some variance, been the history of terrorism and counter-terrorism in India: hard won gains have repeatedly been frittered away; advances that have been secured over years and decades are quickly surrendered in a moment of political debility or, equally often, partisan and criminal opportunism. And yet, when terrorist successes are registered, talk invariably goes back to ‘police’, ‘security force’ and ‘intelligence’ failures – despite the numerous successes these agencies have secured in brief periods of the crystallization of an unambiguous political mandate and direction.

The extended and unending sequence of Islamist terrorist attacks across India – culminating, most recently, in the Ahmedabad serial blasts and the failed conspiracy in Surat – once again, expose the utter hollowness of the country’s approach to counter-terrorism, if, indeed, any coherent approach can, in fact, be attributed to Government. As in the past, the subsequent political debate remains polarized, partisan, and entirely divorced from the realities of the ground. The issues being emphasised by the Government and the Opposition – the necessity of a ‘Federal Investigation Agency’ and that of a POTA-like law, respectively – are, in fact, altogether irrelevant to effective counter-terrorism responses at the present stage. The Government’s position, in particular, was intended, essentially, to distract from the necessary tasks of building capacities of response that had been ignored for decades, to the cumulative detriment of the national interest and security.

India has, of course, a substantial experience of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency successes. Regrettably, there is a comprehensive lack of institutional memory and learning, and the experiences of the past in different theatres have not been sufficiently studied, distilled and transferred to present and emerging theatres of conflict and terrorism. There is, indeed, a near total absence of strategic vision, of the capacities to assess and prepare for challenges at all levels. The result has been a succession of random and unstructured ‘emergency responses’ and improvised defences that have consistently failed to address and accommodate the magnitude and complexity of the challenge. The security establishment and political leadership have constantly been taken by surprise, and there is a comprehensive absence or failure of all emergency response protocols. At a macro level, the ‘battalion approach’ has dominated the state’s reactions to each new large-scale atrocity, and bodies of central forces have simply been deployed to the site of the latest outrage without plan or mandate, often abandoned to insurmountable odds, themselves transformed into preferential targets of terrorist and insurgent attack. Such randomized responses are the consequence of a chronic failure to invest in the creation of adequate capacities of response on the part of the state, and this is more than evident in the most basic data relating to policing and security in India today.

India’s vulnerabilities have also been immensely augmented by the continuous erosion of governance and administrative capacities; the degradation of grassroots politics and of cadre-based political organisations; the enormous expanse and growth of inequalities and inequities, particularly, but not exclusively, in rural India; and a range of demographic factors that create vast opportunities for extremist mobilisation.

Great faith has repeatedly been placed on ‘developmental initiatives’ in terrorism and insurgency affected regions to neutralize the recruitment base of and sympathy towards extremist groups. There has been a regular reiteration, at the highest levels of the national Government, of the need for ‘speedy land reforms’ and ‘streamlining’ the delivery mechanisms for implementation of various developmental and poverty alleviation schemes. These exhortations, however, neglect fundamental realities of the ground in areas of conflict, where the delivery mechanisms and administrative machinery of the state cowers under the shadow of violence, with Government officials often paying extortion sums and ‘revolutionary taxes’ to extremist groups.

The problem cannot, moreover, be dealt with by mere tinkering – which appears to the principal pattern of response at the national level, as well as in most States. The Group of Ministers’ (GoM) Report of February 2001 clearly noted that constitutional, legal and structural infirmities had "eroded the Union Government’s authority to deal effectively with any threat to the nation’s security", and called for "appropriate restructuring of the MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs)". After the United Progressive Alliance Government came to power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeatedly emphasized the enormity of the crisis and, just months into his tenure, in June 2004, promised a "comprehensive approach" which would "create greater synergy between our intelligence agencies, closer coordination between internal security structures". Regrettably, little of this promise has since been fulfilled.

The crisis of India’s internal security, today, arises out of the fact that the emergency response paradigm, which dominates – indeed, virtually exhausts – the state’s reactions to every emerging challenge, has collapsed. This paradigm fails to recognize that terrorism, proxy wars and insurgency are no longer transient ‘emergencies’ and are, rather, chronic conditions across vast and expanding areas of the country, which demand permanent, coherent, coordinated and colossal institutional responses, distributed right across the state’s jurisdiction, and empowering local first responders, rather than any centralised concentration of capacities.

It is the infirmities of the presently under-manned, under-trained, under-equipped and primitive security and justice systems, and not some inchoate ‘police and intelligence failures’, that lie at the core of our inability to effectively tackle extremist subversion, terrorism and sub-conventional warfare.

Briefly, for instance, manpower deficits in the security system are acute. India has a 126 per 100,000 police-population ratio, compared to Western ratio’s that range between 250 and over 500 per 100,000. Worse, the Indian ratio is worked out against sanctioned posts, and there is a 9.75 per cent deficit against sanctions across the country, with some States recording a nearly 40 per cent deficit. Leadership deficits are worse, and often staggering. Across the country, there is a 17 per cent deficit in the sanctioned strength of Indian Police Service (IPS) cadres; and some states record a deficit of nearly 40 per cent. These deficits in manpower and leadership, moreover, are often calculated against sanctions that date back more than two decades, and are woefully inadequate in terms of the country’s current population and challenges.

Further, Western intelligence and enforcement agencies are backed with cutting-edge technologies, the best technical support, enormous resources and responsive and efficient judicial and legislative systems. The Indian security apparatus, meanwhile, remains trapped in policing techniques and technologies, most of which date back to the early 20th Century, and even the best of which are decades old. Other elements of the justice system, including legislation and a formalistic, lingering, unaccountable and often hostile judiciary, offer little support to law and order administration or counter-terrorism in India.

In the public imagination, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) is a million-armed octopus, present and watchful everywhere. That is why, after each major terrorist strike, criticism of the IB and ‘intelligence failures’ is loudest. But even in Government, few people are aware that the total strength of field personnel engaged in intelligence gathering in the IB is under 3,500 for this entire country of 1.2 billion souls, and for all issues, not just counter-terrorism.

While, in the wake of the Jaipur and Ahmedabad serial bombings, the Centre sought to mislead the media and public by blaming fractious Centre-State relations and the Constitutional scheme for its deficiencies, stridently emphasising the need for a Federal Investigative Agency, it has offered no explanation for its failure to implement long-standing decisions – based on the Girish Saxena Committee’s recommendations – dating back to 2001, for a massive upgrading of technical, imaging, signal, electronic counter-intelligence and economic intelligence capabilities, and a system-wide reform of conventional human-intelligence gathering. Crucially, while the role of any proposed FIA could only be investigative, and would consequently come into play only after a terrorist crime is committed, it is intelligence that is the principal preventive tool, and this is the function of the IB. No one has ever argued that the IB has been obstructed by the States or by the Constitutional scheme in carrying out its duties across the country. Indeed, some of the most significant cases of terrorism that have been ‘solved’ have reached such resolution as a result of active cooperation between State Police investigators and the IB. The States are, in fact, eager for any help they can get from Central agencies to tackle the scourge.

Most ‘intelligence failures’ are, in fact, failures of capacity. Yet the Centre continues to ignore the most basic requirements of capacity building. The Multi-Agency Centre, the national intelligence database, and the Joint Task Force on Intelligence, which were to be set up under the IB, remain mere shell organisations more than seven years after the decision was taken to create these, with endemic manpower, technical, technological and resource shortages. The Saxena Committee’s recommendation to immediately increase the IB’s strength by 3,000 personnel, accepted by the Government in February 2001, had resulted in the sanction of just 1,400 additional posts till August 2008.

Another crucial area of persistent neglect is the National Identity Card Scheme, which has critical ramifications for all security related issues. Yet, decades after the decision to have a unique centrally issued magnetic identity card for each citizen, with embedded biometric identifiers, the project is still dragging on in the ‘pilot’ stage.

But the Centre is not at fault alone. Despite liberal Central schemes under-writing Security Related Expenditure and Police Modernisation in the States, the latter have failed even to spend the monies allocated (utilisation in 2006-07, for instance, stood at 63.71 per cent). The deficits in the Police Force are essentially the consequence of neglect and administrative incompetence in the States. The State’s are quick to blame the Centre for failure to provide ‘actionable intelligence’, but offer no explanation why no credible intelligence emanates from their own (in most cases, degraded or defunct) intelligence apparatus.

Imaginations often run riot to propose ‘new’ and ‘out of the box’ solutions to the challenge of counter-terrorism in India. The reality is, all the solutions already exist ‘in the box’. The problem is implementation, and regime after regime has failed on this count for decades. The very possibility of a coherent response to the rising challenges of internal security and to the dangers they pose to continued economic growth and development in India depend on the state’s willingness to recognize and competence to address, the endemic capacity deficits in its security, policing and justice establishment.

(Published in Defence and Security of India, Volume 1, Issue 2, September 2008)






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