India papers over its security cracks

Posted in India | 17-Dec-08 | Author: Sudha Ramachandran| Source: Asia Times

An Indian police officer stands guard at India Gate in New Delhi. The Indian parliament on Wednesday agreed tougher anti-terrorism laws in the wake of the Mumbai attacks.

BANGALORE - The Indian government has finally awoken from its stupor and begun taking long-overdue steps to improve internal security. A little over a fortnight since terrorist attacks in Mumbai left almost 200 people dead, the cabinet has approved proposals to amend the anti-terror law and the setting up of a National Investigation Agency (NIA) to streamline all terror probes.

The cabinet decision comes close on the heels of Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram's announcement in parliament of a series of measures to overhaul the crumbling and creaking internal security system.

India has suffered many terrorist attacks in the past. The recent one in Mumbai, however, exposed as never before just how vulnerable the country is to terrorism. Less than a dozen terrorists were able to hold the city hostage for over 60 hours. Intelligence agencies failed to follow up on leads to prevent the attack, ill-equipped police were unable to take on the well-armed terrorists, and anti-terrorist squads were unable to respond effectively, with commandos taking over six hours to reach the city.

The government's inept handling of the crisis led to widespread public outrage. And with general elections due in April or May next year, the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) cannot afford to be seen as weak on terror.

The measures include training more commandos, improving the capacity of intelligence agencies, the setting up of a federal investigation agency, beefing up coastal security and strengthening anti-terrorism laws.

Chidambaram announced that the National Security Guard (NSG), the country's elite counter-terrorism force, would be strengthened. Commandos would be stationed in several regional hubs rather than located in one place - near Delhi - as they have been. They will be better equipped and provided with their own aircraft to improve logistics, he said. The government will also set up around 20 counter-terrorism training schools across the country to train commandos recruited from the state police forces.

In the light of the existing coastal security apparatus failing to prevent the terrorists' entry into India via the sea, the government plans a new coastal command under the Coast Guards to oversee the Coastal Security Scheme initiated by the Home Ministry in 2005. Steps will be taken to improve coastal surveillance, including the induction of over 100 advanced patrol vessels in the next five years.

An overhaul of intelligence and investigative agencies is also in the pipeline, Chidambaram promised, with the intelligence agencies equipped with the latest equipment and their manpower increased.

The measures have been widely welcomed, but several doubts are already being raised about how effective they will be. The proposed measures ignore an overhaul of the police force, which is in most cases the first to respond to terrorist attacks.

The police force in India is understaffed, ill-equipped and poorly trained. No overhaul of the security system will be effective without improving the capacities of the police force.

Security experts had said that expansion without first addressing the root problems in the system will only result in more of the inefficiency and lethargy of India's security apparatus.

The setting up of NSG hubs in several cities will no doubt enable the commandos to react quickly to crises, but before training more commandos, the government needs to address the multiple problems that beset the NSG.

The tactics the NSG used to flush out terrorists from the Taj Mahal Hotel were more akin to those used to combing mountains for terrorists, rather than modern hostage-rescue operations, Praveen Swami has written in The Hindu. This draws attention to the fact that from its style of functioning and tactics to the equipment and clothes of its commandos, the NSG is more like a conventional military unit than a crack commando force.

This is partly because the NSG is composed not of full-time special forces personnel but of soldiers deputed from the Indian army. "Flaws in the NSG's structure, approach and tactics have to be corrected before expanding the force or else we will end up spending a lot of money to train commandos who are incapable of tackling the kind of terrorism that hit Mumbai," a retired NSG commando told Asia Times Online.

As for the NIA, the agency will probe terrorist attacks across states as well as terrorism-related crimes like drug trafficking and counterfeit currency. Whether state governments, opposed to any incursion into their preserve (law and order is a state subject in India), will support this is another matter. There are questions too over where such a federal agency will fit in.

India has the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), which is in charge of external intelligence, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which is supposed to gather intelligence relating to internal security, and a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), its premier investigation agency. Then there is the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO), which collects technical intelligence from satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Besides, there are the intelligence units of the police, the armed forces and so on. But what will the National Intelligence Agency's relationship with these agencies be? From where will it draw its manpower? From the already understaffed IB and CBI? And how will it do things differently from the existing agencies?

The rot in the intelligence agencies is so deep that cosmetic changes will bring no benefits, said a retired IB officer. Intelligence officers are badly in need of training, and fierce inter-agency rivalry has resulted in reluctance to share information. There is also deep reluctance in RAW and IB to hire Muslims (the latter is said to be marginally more open to recruiting Muslims), weakening the agencies' intelligence-gathering in critical areas.

There is a need for more intelligence operatives. Intelligence agencies are woefully understaffed. IB for instance has a strength of 25,000 and a third of this consists of secretarial and support staff. It has only 3,000 field officers, most of whom are engaged in collecting political intelligence. Only around 400 operatives are assigned to keep an eye on terrorist activity; this in a country of a billion-plus that is among the worst victims of terrorist attacks in the world.

But while expansion of intelligence agencies is urgently needed, "an expansion in the absence of correcting the existing ills of the system, will only mean more of the same", ie more incompetent officers, said the retired IB officer.

Of all the proposed measures, amendments to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) to strengthen it against terrorism could be the most challenging for the UPA government. On coming to power in 2004, it scrapped the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government had enacted earlier on the grounds that it was being misused.

The government will need to give the NIA and other agencies sufficient legal powers while at the same time avoiding POTA's mistakes. The cabinet has approved significant changes to the UAPA, including setting up of fast track courts. Law-enforcement agencies will also be given powers to detain suspected terrorists and their sympathizers for up to 180 days as against the current 90 days. Bail provisions are also being tightened.

The UPA government is in a difficult situation. On the one hand, it has to deliver immediately and secure people from more attacks. This requires quick steps. However, measures to overhaul the security system will take a long time to implement. Even if the NSG begins training today, it will be at least a year before the commandos will be ready to take on terrorists like those that attacked Mumbai. Building training infrastructure for commandos or preparing cops to take on terrorism will take time.

There is concern that authorities will try quick-fix solutions and adopt a palliative approach to the problem rather than address the rot in the system. After the Mumbai attacks, the then-chief minister of Maharashtra, the state of which Mumbai is the capital, announced the setting up of a state commando force. Around 500 commandos would be ready for action in four months, he promised grandly - but even basic training for the NSG commandos takes at least six months.

Experts are also pointing out that even the most sophisticated training and equipment for intelligence operatives, commandos, police and others in the security chain will not help unless the various agencies are headed by experienced professionals rather than those with political connections. Besides, there is a need to separate internal security from vote-bank politics.

Will the government go back to its slumber after having announced an overhaul? The coastal security scheme announced in 2006 amid much fanfare is yet to take off. One excuse touted is that there isn't enough money to implement the scheme. The grand plans announced by the Home Minister could suffer a similar fate and his promises to improve security of ordinary citizens in the face of terrorist attacks remain just that, promises.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.