Systemic Weaknesses in India’s Counter-terrorism Policy

While the year gone by has not seen a major terrorist attack, systemic weaknesses in India’s counter-terrorism policy are continuing to hamper its successful execution. Though recent terrorist strikes have been sporadic and have been spaced out in time, the overall impression that has been created is that of an unstable internal security environment in which the initiative lies with the terrorist organisations and they are able to strike at will. The government needs to review its largely reactive policies and adopt pro-active measures to fight terrorism, particularly the variety that emanates from the soil of inimical neighbouring countries.

A democratically elected government ultimately has to reflect the will of the people in its policies. However, the “Panipat Syndrome” appears to have been deeply ingrained into the Indian psyche, in that the leaders and the bureaucracy react only when the tiger is already at the doorstep. What is needed is a coordinated approach, with all organs of the state coming together to formulate and implement a national-level counter-terrorism strategy to fight terrorism. The government must draw up a comprehensive strategy that is inter-ministerial, inter-agency and inter-departmental in character. Such a strategy must also balance the interests of the Central and the State governments.

India’s response to the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 was slow and laborious and poorly coordinated among the Central and the State governments and their various agencies. Coastal security was virtually non-existent; the Marine Police were too few in number to effectively patrol the vast area entrusted to them; they were ill-equipped and inadequately trained; and, there was poor coordination between the Coast Guard and the Marine Police. It took far too long to begin flushing out operations and then to eliminate the nine terrorists who were holed up at three separate locations.

Counter-terrorism policy must hinge around strong laws to fight terrorism. India’s experiments with POTA, TADA and UAPA have failed to deliver the desired results. Laws must be just and humane, but must not be designed to either be vindictive towards or shield any particular community or religious denomination. The experience of many other countries has proved that it is possible to formulate strong yet egalitarian counter-terrorism laws. The U.S. established a strong Department of Homeland Security and there has not been a major terrorist attack since 9/11.

One major source of the lack of a coordinated approach is the gross disconnect between how the Central and the State governments view counter-terrorism. The Constitution must be amended to move “law and order” from the State List to the Concurrent List so that the Central Government can act on its own initiative when necessary, particularly in the case of externally-sponsored terrorism. And, it is time the government bifurcated the internal security function of the Ministry of Home Affairs into a separate ministry headed by a cabinet minister.

Besides prevention through accurate ‘humint’ and ‘techint’ intelligence gathering, successful counter-terrorism requires the effective intelligence penetration of terrorist groups so that their leadership can be systematically neutralised by an empowered anti-terrorism agency. More comprehensive planning and better stage management are necessary for the quick elimination of a group of terrorists while they are on a killing spree. Post-incident investigation is aimed at unraveling the identities of the planners and the plotters and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the incident of terrorism. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) should have been modeled on the U.S. FBI to give it both preventive and investigative powers. The NIA needs to be reconstituted as it lacks teeth in its present form.

India’s intelligence coordination and assessment apparatus at the national level remains mired in the days of innocence. The NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid) and the NCTC (National Counter-terrorism Centre), which were announced by Home Minister Chidambaram with so much fanfare over two years ago, are yet to take off. It was reported recently that the three-member committee headed by the NSA and appointed to deliberate upon the organisation and the executive powers of the NCTC and its links with the NATGRID and the existing Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) has submitted its recommendations. These must be taken up on priority by the Cabinet Committee on Security.

Finally, the government must seriously consider enlarging the scope of its counter-terrorism policy to covertly eliminate the leaders of terrorist organisations abroad who are sponsoring terrorism in India. Unless the problem is addressed at its roots, the solution will remain beyond the grasp of the government.

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