Terrorism Update
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How secure are we really?

We are as secure as we want to be, and security always comes with a price tag. We are willing to pay this price when it comes to personal security – hence the high walls and the burgeoning of private security agencies in affluent colonies. But when it comes to the more diffuse problem of national or institutional security, this willingness is compromised by political interference, established privileges and, most significantly, by oversized egos. Professional assessments and considerations are simply not allowed to prevail.

The security system in Parliament is the most dramatic case in point. At present, this system is completely irrational, giving the most significant role – both in access control and protection of the main premises – to agencies who lack the requisite intelligence backup, and firepower to confront the terrorist challenge. There is a multiplicity of agencies charged with various aspects of security, an inevitable diffusion of responsibility, and enormous scope for lapses in co-ordination and communication. The difference in status between the humble constable and the "VVIPs" is also simply too great, and checking at various access points is little more than a formality. Locations where VVIPs collect require the total co-operation of these persons – and this has been conspicuous by its absence. MPs and their visitors ordinarily have an overbearing attitude and treat security personnel with contempt.

It is significant that, despite these weaknesses, the terrorists in the December 13 incident were just about able to penetrate the outer perimeter when they were engaged and neutralised.

I have had the opportunity to visit high security areas in many countries, including Parliaments of two where the terrorist threat perception is extraordinarily high – Sri Lanka and Israel. The one thing that was common to these was the stringency and inflexibility of procedures, irrespective of the rank of visitors. These are the attitudes we will have to inculcate – in our VIPs before they can be inculcated in the security personnel.

The ‘chinks’ that are being noticed in ‘security’ after the attack on Parliament – and the earlier attack on the J&K Assembly – are consequently not a correct reflection of the real capabilities of India’s security establishment. Parliament and the entire complex of higher governance – including the Parliamentary Annexe, the North & South Blocks and the President’s Estate – can be effectively protected if they treated as an integrated unit under a single Agency. To ensure foolproof security far greater controls will be required – the sanitised area must be extended; checks, searches and barricades will have to be administered at several stages, etc. But had this been attempted before December 13, I am entirely certain, there would have been a furore in Parliament, and the government would have come under attack for compromising Parliamentary privileges.

While there can be no absolute guarantee against fidayeen attacks, the potential for such attacks can certainly be minimised and their impact contained. Such attacks become effective only when they reach the target, and there are many methods to ensure that this does not happen, at least within highly secure premises. Intelligence, technology, preventive arrests and a range of defensive procedures and practices can secure these ends. But the purely professional judgement of security experts under a single responsible agency must be allowed to prevail without political interference. The role of technologies is very significant, as long as we remember that counter-technologies are constantly emerging, and there can be no substitute for regular upgradation and human vigilance.

The discourse on a law against terrorism has been distorted. POTO is certainly needed, though it is no panacea. ‘Terrorism’ as opposed to a ‘terrorist incident’ is a complex phenomenon, involving support structures and functions that are altogether divorced from the macabre theatre of blood. POTO is needed if these structures are to be dismantled. I am, moreover, increasingly of the opinion that an even harsher law is needed to tackle cross-border terrorism and foreign terrorists. Such a law must contain harsher penalties and less stringent tests of evidence than are laid down in the obsolete Indian Evidence Act. It must have wider scope to use as evidence, not only intercepts of telephones but certain categories of intelligence inputs as well – including taped conversations – where it may not be possible to bring witnesses to testify.

(Published in The Economic Times, December 18, 2001)





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