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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 to terrorism.

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 Bureau (IB).

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)





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