Don’t play politics with national security

India needs to institute parliamentary oversight over intelligence agencies
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First Published: Tue, Jul 23 2013. 07 15 PM IST
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Few, if any, countries face the diversity of internal security challenges that India faces. From ultra-Left violence in the heart of the country to secessionist insurgencies in Jammu and Kashmir and various parts of the North-East to terrorist violence across the country fomented by Pakistan-backed groups represents the diversity of challenges on this score. It is futile to try and understand something as complex as this in a simple cause-and-effect fashion. Neither Indian academicians nor law and order officers offer such explanatory short cuts.
But politicians, however, like to keep things simple. Recently, Congress leader Shakeel Ahmed blamed the emergence of the terrorist group Indian Mujahideen (IM) due to the 2002 riots in Gujarat. He tweeted, “Indian Mujahideen (IM) was formed after the Gujarat riots, says NIA (National Intelligence Agency) in its charge sheet. Even now the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) will not desist from their communal politics?” This is simplistic to the point of being dangerous. While the Congress party has distanced itself from this controversial claim, the damage may already have been done.
This is not an isolated instance of a central investigation or intelligence agency getting caught in political crossfire. Recently, an Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer, Rajendra Kumar, found himself in a controversy over providing information that allegedly led to the Ishrat Jahan encounter on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in June 2004. The details of this case are murky and it is yet not clear if Jahan, a girl who hailed from Mumbra township near Mumbai was, or was not, a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group. It is quite possible that the truth of the case may never emerge.
Both cases illustrate a wider point.
It is the right of democratically-elected governments to give craft and implement security policies. It is an important distinction that differentiates democracy from authoritarian regimes. The actual implementation and operational details are, however, left to individual organizations. In many cases, the procedural details and methods are a sensitive matter: very often, they involve steps that are not considered exactly wholesome by normal standards of conduct. But this is the price that democracy has to pay to remain secure. The trade-off involved is that governments do not trample or try to cramp the operational freedom of such agencies and the latter do not indulge in criminal conduct. Such respect for boundaries is important if at all intelligence work and sensitive investigations are to proceed effectively.
In recent times, as the above mentioned examples show, this firewall has been breached. Increasingly, there are examples where short-term political advantages are sought to be gained by berating intelligence agencies and now Ahmed has used an affidavit filed by the NIA to illustrate what is purely a political scoring point.
There is danger that a vicious cycle will be unleashed. For example, it is quite possible that officers fearing danger of victimization may simply choose not to report and process vital intelligence. It will become hard to prevent terrorist atrocities in these conditions, leading to demands for “action” by the government to improve the functioning of such agencies. This will be an endless process and may finally end up hurting national security.
India now has a well-developed machinery to check abuses of power by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Human rights organizations, activists and courts play an active role. If wide amplitude in tolerating mistakes by intelligence and investigating agencies is acceptable, then human rights investigations, too, have gained a measure of acceptability.
It is time some thought was devoted on how to improve this system and keep it functioning well. As the situation exists today, every elected government has the right of oversight over intelligence and investigating agencies. In practice, this does not amount to much. Ideally, as in Western countries, it is the legislature that should exercise such oversight and democratically that is the right way to proceed.But for this to happen, parliamentarians need some training and appreciation of what constitutes intelligence gathering and how such agencies work. As a first step, an oversight committee involving senior members of Parliament from both Houses can be created through careful but thorough briefings on these matters. What should not be accepted is political interference of the kind seen recently.
Has political interference demoralized intelligence agencies in India? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Jul 23 2013. 07 15 PM IST
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