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Plugging the gaps

Policy and administrative reforms are key to consolidating India’s fight against terror

Plugging the gaps

This September marked the 17th anniversary of the apocalyptic 9/11 terror attack in the US. The coming December would also mark the 17th anniversary of the terror attack waged on Parliament of India in 2001. In the last 17 years, US spent $2.8 trillion on the war against terror, thwarted nearly a hundred terror attacks on American soil, and waged two major wars. Any guesswork on the number of terror attacks India faced in that same time period, especially till 2014, would be a futile exercise since the list is very long.

In spite of some aberrations, US has shown enough resolve since 9/11 to ferociously secure the homeland, and do anything necessary for the same, while brushing aside all kinds of legal impediments, judicial interventions, and petty internal politics. Thus, there are major lessons for India to learn.

The American reforms

One of the biggest reforms brought in by the US was the creation of Department of Homeland Security (DHS), thereby synchronising the work of 22 different federal law enforcement agencies into a multifaceted and multidimensional internal security behemoth. That kind of streamlining is perhaps at the very core of avoiding duplication of work and turf wars. Threats and dimensions of conflicts have been changing rapidly and thus the creation of DHS, among others, showed the American determination to take the internal security threats as seriously as threats of conventional war.

The creation of Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) aimed at forging a partnership between various federal, state, and city level law enforcement agencies, also private entities was another major milestone of US in covering the last mile of security preparedness at the grassroots. And, the results are evident. US succeeded in thwarting the repeat of another 9/11 on US soil in the last 17 years. Shockingly, even after Parliament terror attack, followed by the 26/11 carnage, lessons were not learnt in India and politics took primacy over everything else.

The Indian story

In the last four years, thanks to Modi Government's efforts, India has not seen any terror attack in its major cities and towns, beyond the realm of the restive J&K region. During this period India has witnessed massive operations by security agencies against innumerable sleeper cells of terror outfits and Maoists. Counter-terror operations are at their peak in J&K while NIA has been systematically investigating terror funding syndicates and choking the money flow.

Yet, India's concerted efforts to secure the country from threats of subversive acts of terrorism are still mired in too many dissenting voices, warring agencies, legal wrangles, and petty politics. The coherent and cohesive action in unison has not been institutionalised between the Centre, states, and other agencies. They still work in their own silos. What ideally should have been a single integrated investigative, intelligence gathering, counter-terror special operations and prosecuting agency such as FBI, is functioning as three or four independent agencies such as IB, NIA, NSG, and CBI. Thus, India's fight against terror has challenges at the administrative level, policy level, and political level. Above all, there is a financial level challenge too.

Fight against terror needs more funds

Since 9/11, fund was never a problem for American agencies. Ideally, for one of the fastest growing economies of the world, which breached the trillion dollar mark in 2007, funds should have never been a problem for India either. Yet, leave alone taking internal security funding on a priority basis, every time even when the defence budget witnessed marginal increase, it has been greeted with much hue and cry by economic analysts of all shades and colours who have little understanding of security and for who every extra penny spent on defence or security is like added stress on fiscal health of the country. Unfortunately, such opinions are taken way too seriously in India. Over the years, money allocated to Union Home Ministry, much of which goes to Central Police Forces and intelligence agencies, has witnessed some increase (Rs 92,679 crore in 2018-19) but neither is it sufficient nor the same has been complemented by the proportionate spending of state governments on their security set up. India should ideally match its internal security budget with that of its defence budget, as is done by China.

Even though most states today have their own Anti Terror Squad (ATS), Quick Reaction Teams (QRT), as well as Anti-Naxal Units now, there is still a disproportionate dependence on Central Police Forces for every instance of emergency, in spite of Union Home Ministry spending considerable amount for creation of India Reserve Battalions (IRB) for states, 153 of which have been sanctioned till date. There is a pertinent need to spend more on capacity building at the local police station level. But many states have a major shortage in the number of active police personnel on the ground, which in some cases are above 30 per cent of their sanctioned strengths. Without an adequate number of feet on the ground, any kind of pre-emptive or prompt action to thwart or quickly neutralise potential threats is difficult.

Secure border with an iron fist

Policy-wise, India should take the issues of open borders and illegal immigrants more seriously than ever before. In today's era, no border is benign anymore. There is a pertinent need to seal the borders with Nepal and Bangladesh and consider those borders as perilous as the Indo-Pak border is. For far too long, the open border with Nepal and the porous border with Bangladesh have been used by Pakistan's ISI for nefarious activities in India. Today, there is a strong correlation between securing the mainland and preventing, with an iron fist, the entry of illegal immigrants along with all kinds of terror operatives from across the borders. Without a ruthless border policy and a free hand to SSB and BSF in dealing with violators, not only would demography alter illegal immigration but the porous borders would also continue to be used by India's adversaries for sneaking in men, money, and material for subversive activities inside India. The need for a fool-proof national border policy has never been more profound.

National Security is not a law & order issue

Given the profound internal security threat that India is facing, it can no longer leave everything to the whims of state governments who often clamour for autonomy during investigations in terror-related cases under the pretext that law and order is a state subject. India needs legal amendments which would make it clear that national security is not a law and order issue and therefore, anything which even tangentially has a national security implication, be it terror funding, terror attacks, organised crimes, or cross-border illegal activities, would automatically allow central law enforcement agencies to come to the picture and get involved in investigations. Non-cooperation should lead to institutional action against recalcitrant states. Further, much on the lines of creating IRBs for states, the Centre should not only support the creation of district-level QRTs and SWATs but should also ideally create an NIA office in every state of India.

Likewise, there is a profound need to create a critical infrastructure protection policy backed by an Act of Parliament to make it mandatory for every organisation, be it in private or public sector, operating in the realm of critical infrastructure, to invest a certain amount of their revenue on both physical and cyber security architecture.

Fight the psychological war

Just as it is important to fight the physical war against terrorism backed by intelligence, it is equally important to fight the psychological war unleashed on India. Security personnel putting their lives at stake for the nation should not be subjected to petty and frivolous prosecution by vested interests aimed at demoralising them. Men in uniform are sent by the nation to fight for maintaining the integrity of the nation. They don't go on their own. Thus, the onus is on the nation to protect them from those who attempt to demoralise them. It does not augur well if security personnel have to fight for their rights in a court of law.

Need for political maturity

It is also time for Indian polity to mature and avoid the kind of politics that India witnessed in Batla House encounter, Ishrat Jahan case, or Samjhauta Express blast. No other country would probably have treated a serving undercover army officer, in the manner Lt Col Srikant Purohit was incarcerated during UPA era, based on unsubstantiated allegations. Probably nowhere else Intelligence officials are threatened with prosecution for successfully intercepting and neutralising a terror unit planning to assassinate a serving Chief Minister, as it happened with IB officials in the Ishrat Jahan Case during the UPA era.

Finally, India needs a dedicated cadre of security and strategic affairs specialists in both, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Home Affairs. There is no luxury of time anymore for general bureaucrats to come from unrelated departments on promotion and then start all over again to learn nuances of security before being able to deliver. Domain knowledge is critical. Like business, fight against terror has to be at the speed of thought.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Pathikrit Payne

Pathikrit Payne

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