How much has India changed since 26 November 2008 after one of its most dreadful trysts with urban terrorism? Though often blamed for their collective amnesia, Indians did not erase the Mumbai carnage from memory, thanks to the diplomatic tussle with Pakistan on nabbing the perpetrators, which hogged headlines. A year later, a sense of trepidation prevails, partly due to fresh reports of an impending terror strike, as well a subdued apprehension that we are still not ready to tackle another bunch of terrorists.
There are reasons to believe that our response to the next terror attack might be only marginally different from 26/11, notwithstanding the heightened vigil. Glaring gaps seemingly persist in the security apparatus despite recent structural augmentations. The two key additions after 26/11 were the creation of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and upgrading of the National Security Guard (NSG) to a hub-and-spoke model, with the main base in Manesar and regional stations in four major cities—Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai. The overriding logic was that NSG’s nationwide presence would enable its swift movement and responses, while NIA could de-stress other federal agencies from investigation burdens.
Photograph: Ruth Fremson / The New York Times
These are welcome moves, yet they fall short of the actual requirements for a 26/11-type scenario. But for the five cities where NSG would be based, all others, including the highly vulnerable IT hub Bangalore, could still lose precious time between a terrorist strike and the arrival of NSG teams, potentially aggravating to a 26/11 situation.
For it is unclear whether NSG has gained the mandate to respond to a terror strike without clearance from New Delhi. Though state police departments are now vehemently modernizing and raising commando groups, their capability to deliver in an actual terrorist situation evokes little confidence. Yet there would be little left for NSG teams to do other than collect forensic evidence in the event of a suicide car bombing or serial blasts.
The onus of responsibility thus lies on two important structures in anti-terror management—state police forces and the intelligence apparatus. Ironically, very little has happened in these two despite palpable shortcomings in their capabilities. The standard denominator for failure attributed after every attack is India’s intelligence deficiencies. Questions have been raised on the lack of coordination and insufficient dissemination among myriad agencies working on this sensitive task, often with overlapping roles but limited convergence.
Institutions such as the joint intelligence committee (JIC) and the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) were designated to redress these issues but failed to achieve optimal results. Basic issues such as turf rivalries and a problem of “too many cooks spoiling the broth” continue to dominate the debate for institutional reforms. In the process, real shortcomings are often overlooked. A point of vital significance is the need to fill perceived gaps in intelligence gathering and processing, which suffer both on human (humint) and technical intelligence (techint). While the latter could be addressed through technological upgrades and empowering entities such as the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), a lack of substantial progress in strengthening humint remains a potent lacuna. Getting sleuths on the ground, collating vital information and tracking (and busting) terror modules are key areas which require trained manpower with covert operations skills and dedicated technical backup.
Passiveness of India’s anti-terror apparatus could also be attributed to the absence of appropriate organizational basing to mentor these tasks, which a dedicated body such as the multi-agency centre (MAC) could do, as an inter-agency coordinator for all counterterror tasks.
If we suppose these issues are sufficiently addressed, a more serious endeavour is the need for capacity building to meet actual contingencies. Expansion of NSG would only be one progressive step in this direction. The real challenge is to strengthen policing at the state level, for it would be the state police which will have the first opportunity to intervene in a terror situation. Police reforms and modernization have taken a toll despite a multitude of efforts. State forces are severely ill equipped, undertrained and insufficiently motivated to deal with such threats. Corruption, politicization and a lack of professionalism have been the bane of the Indian policing system. Besides being traditionally resistant to intelligence upgrades and commando training, they also have an awareness deficit on national security, which affects their responsiveness to terror situations.
This callousness applies to Indian corporate groups as well, which are in denial when it comes to security management, often putting the responsibility on the state. While many corporations which bore the burnt of terror attacks are now investing heavily in security upgrades, there are many industrial hubs which are sitting ducks for terror attacks. Despite an influx of security management firms in recent years, security awareness is yet to capture Indian business’ consciousness. As reports trickle in of a new terror conspiracy being hatched in the US, large companies would do well to spruce up their security assets, which could ultimately complement the national security infrastructure. They could also help create a culture of sensitivity to security, as part of long-term efforts to address potential threats to the country and the economy.
A. Vinod Kumar is fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Comment at email@example.com