The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, in a recent report to the Rajya Sabha, has recommended that the government should immediately revive the idea of a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) as a unified counter terrorism agency. The panel has also asked the ministry of home affairs (MHA) to take a lead role in bringing about consensus on the issue among all the stakeholders.
One may recall the sweeping transformation of India’s internal security architecture following the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. It prominently included the creation of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid) as well as the revamp of National Security Guard (NSG). The Central government had also announced an ambitious plan to create a single overarching body for counter terrorism purposes by combining two distinct intelligence systems—predictive intelligence and counter-intelligence.
NCTC was meant to subsume the Multi Agency Centre (MAC), an intelligence-sharing “fusion centre" functioning under the Intelligence Bureau (IB), and its operatives were to have arrest powers throughout India. But in line with India’s dismal record of institution-building in the security domain, the NCTC has been the biggest disappointment of the post-26/11 reform process.
The proposed NCTC—whose aims included preventing, containing and responding to terrorist attacks—found itself trapped in the political quagmire of Centre-state relations during the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. In particular, the non-Congress-ruling states of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Karnataka, Bihar, Tripura and West Bengal were bitterly opposed to the proposal. Their main objection revolved around the potential violation of the principle of federalism as they argued that the NCTC would encroach upon the powers of the states. Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat, also opposed the NCTC, alleging that such a structure would interfere with the functioning of state security agencies.
NCTC was modelled on the American institution of the same name. In wanting to emulate the US model, MHA had overlooked a significant detail: the American NCTC is part of its Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI), which is manned by officials from the Pentagon, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Investigation Agency (CIA) and other agencies who can also access its databases. By analysing and collating terrorism-related information to support counter-terrorism operations of various intelligence agencies that have ground-level source networks, it effectively duplicates their analysis and assessment functions. But the Centre is neither authorized to conduct intelligence operations on its own nor does it have the powers to investigate or arrest.
The idea of keeping NCTC under the control of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) was both good and bad. IB is the nodal agency for counterterrorism, and it makes sense to house NCTC under it in a similar fashion to the MAC . But why IB’s control over NCTC created controversy is also not difficult to understand. It is an accepted principle in all liberal democracies that an intelligence agency should not possess police powers of arrest. Opposition parties expressed fears that if NCTC was made part of IB, the powers given to it under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act could be misused. The politicization of India’s intelligence agencies has often allowed the ruling parties to use these agencies for politically motivated spying. There were several allegations that the NIA was used by the UPA government for political purposes to probe cases involving alleged right-wing radical outfits. Moreover, the turf war between different intelligence agencies operating under different government ministries has also hampered consensus on the establishment of NCTC.
Eventually, in the face of heated political debates and resistance from various stakeholders, plans for NCTC were steadily watered down. The 2012 executive order had mandated the NCTC to function as an integral part of the IB besides giving it the powers of “arrest, search and seizure". The revised draft, however, stipulated it to work directly under the MHA. It was also clarified that upon identification of a terrorist or terror group, operations would be carried out in conjunction with state police.
For the last couple of years, there have been several unconfirmed media reports and speculation about the structure, mandate and legal framework of NCTC—the latest being that the NCTC will become an umbrella body encompassing all leading intelligence agencies whose respective heads will report to the NCTC chief.
India faces constant threats from terrorism, cross-border as well as from locally radicalized jihadists. But almost one decade after 26/11, what the Central government has to show for itself on NCTC is a muddle of proposals, minutes of committee meetings, turf battles, and political controversies.
Nobody can predict the fate of NCTC. However, anyone familiar with the functioning of India’s various intelligence agencies can argue that collection of intelligence or data generation is as big a challenge, if not bigger than coordination among intelligence community. As long as intelligence capabilities at the ground level are not substantially improved, institutional overhaul at the apex level will bear not the desired outcomes, but only another bulky bureaucratic structure.
Vinay Kaura is an assistant professor at the department of international affairs and security studies, Sardar Patel University of Police.
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