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India no safer today than it was 5 years ago

On the anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, it is not surprising that the first thoughts that come to mind relate to the safety and security of the country. The obvious question to be posed here is: Are we safer today than we were five years ago? Sadly, the answer will be no.

There are two ways that you assure security — through deterrence or defence. The former implies the ability to inflict so much pain on the perpetrator that he desists from attacking you. The latter, on the other hand, means creating structures and systems which will ensure that the perpetrator is not able to launch an attack on you.

On both counts we remain wanting. Far from being able to punish the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its ISI masters, we witnessed the expansion of the footprint of the outfit across the polity of Pakistan via its front organisation, the Jamaat-ud-dawa (JuD). Confronted with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the deep state of Pakistan has encouraged the pro-establishment radicals like the JuD/LeT to create a Difa-e-Pakistan Council, which groups some 40 religious and radical political outfits under its umbrella. Anyway, after the hue and cry following the Mumbai attack, the LeT has remained low-key and the ISI has worked on the alternate strategy of encouraging the Indian Mujahideen to do its dirty work. The advantage here is that all its foot soldiers are Indians, while its leadership, also comprising of Indian Muslims, resides in Pakistan.

India is unable to deter Pakistan as such because it is a nuclear weapons state. The simple truth is that in 2001 and in 2008, India was, in fact, deterred from undertaking military retaliation against Islamabad because of nuclear weapons. Somehow, we have not been able to find the space for combat between the use of conventional and nuclear weapons in a manner that can deter Islamabad.

Anyway, since 1991, New Delhi has a policy of not undertaking tit-for-tat terror strikes against Pakistan. Islamabad will periodically hint darkly at Indian involvement in strikes on its soil. It says that India is supporting Baloch nationalists and even the Pakistani Taliban. But India is doing nothing of the sort.

Most likely, it is funding some of the separatist organisations in Pakistan. But this is a far cry from actually planning, training, arming and launching strikes against civilian targets in the other country. Indeed, Indian policy since the mid-1990s and through the course of several governments, United Front, Congress or BJP, has been to engage Islamabad in a dialogue to resolve all outstanding issues. 

What about shoring up defences at home ? Here, too, the record is mixed. As a result of the Mumbai fiasco, which also involved a failure of intelligence, the government finally gave a green light to the Multi Agency Centre (MAC), a clearing house of intelligence relating to terrorism run by the Intelligence Bureau (IB). But whether the MAC actually delivers the goods is something we don’t really know.

Several measures have been taken to strengthen coastal security such as putting up special radars and creating a new coastal command under the navy.

States have also set up the maritime wings of their police forces, though not many are really functional. The biggest problem with regard to preventing a boat-load of terrorists slipping through is the lack of an effective transponder system through which the authorities are able to keep track of India’s vast fishing fleet.

The biggest weakness remains the state-level police forces and intelligence systems. The politicisation of the police makes it difficult to create a professional force which will think more about doing its duty, rather than making money through various dubious activities. The IB and R&AW will be only as effective as the ground intelligence we are able to capture, and here, sadly, little or nothing has been done to make sure that there is an effective intelligence network that goes down to the thana level.

At the heart of the challenges is the inability of the Union government and the State governments to work together in a common cause. Even though the police is headed by all-Indian Indian Police Service officers, we often find that once they are in the state, they fight tenaciously for the their turf which, in any case, is decided on by even more short-sighted politicians. For an effective counter-terrorist organisation, we need a seamless setup.

There was a time when the Union government believed that you could resolve the problem by throwing money at it — radar stations, interceptor boats, new organisations, weapons and equipment galore.

But today, we are in an era when money is short. Last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said as much at the combined commanders conference in New Delhi.

He called on them to seriously look at the various recommendations made by task forces appointed by the government to enhance our national security capability. In particular, he called on them to take up the challenge of “establishing the right structures for higher defence management and the appropriate civil-military balance in decision-making that our complex security environment demands.”

More important, instead of saying what politicians usually say, that the government will not skimp in spending for the country’s security requirements, Dr Singh delivered a blunt message that “we will have to exercise prudence in our defence acquisition plans and cut our coat according to our cloth … While we must take into account the capabilities of our adversaries, we have to plan our long term acquisition on the assumption of limited resource
availability.” 

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi 

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