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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  India has to learn to put the pieces together: Gopal K. Pillai

India has to learn to put the pieces together: Gopal K. Pillai

Former Union home secretary about his assessment of how prepared India isfive years after the Mumbai attacksto ward off another such challenge

Gopal K. Pillai says the first responder to any event will be the state police, which necessitates the need to strengthen the force in terms of forming quick reaction teams and commandos. Photo: Premium
Gopal K. Pillai says the first responder to any event will be the state police, which necessitates the need to strengthen the force in terms of forming quick reaction teams and commandos. Photo:

New Delhi: Gopal K. Pillai took over as Union home secretary shortly after the Mumbai attack and played a key role in the revamp of India’s internal security apparatus. Currently a member of the National Security Advisory Board, Pillai spoke in an interview about his assessment of how prepared the country is—five years after the Mumbai attacks—to ward off another such challenge. Edited excerpts.

To begin with, how better prepared are we to prevent a situation like 26/11, were someone to attempt to make it happen again?

Can you prevent another attack? I am not so very sure. Whether we are better prepared—yes, I think we are. One is in terms of intelligence—we have set up the multi agency centre, where every day all the intelligence agencies are pooling their reports together, trying to make sense of the various reports. (They were) working in silos, we have managed to remove those. Natgrid (National Intelligence Grid) was supposed to be the next evolution of the multi agency centre, that has got delayed by two to three years, again... (because of) turf issues.

We have augmented the strength of the IB (Intelligence Bureau). IB training institutions have been set up. The second issue (is) of coastal security. We set up the coastal command, which is under the Indian Navy; we have the coast guard, and then we have got the state governments with their marine police, interceptor boats and so on. There is a series of 27 radar units which is coming up for the coverage of the coastal waters, which will get completed by about 2016. We have still got issues, including looking for the need for a separate cadre (for the marine police). Policemen generally like to work on issues of law and order and not so much getting into a boat and going away for eight hours, where there is no real excitement. Because we have got lakhs of country boats, we have put into place this system by which at every level we have put guys there who are like the eyes and ears of coastal security. These fishermen have been given walkie-talkie sets and if they see an unusual boat or a new guy, because they know the people there, they are supposed to alert the station. That communication system is possibly the best integrated of all the systems.

But it will take another two years before it is fully in place. The navy has done a number of mock drills, and at some places boats have been intercepted, but at some places the boats have been able to come. The third aspect is that the first responder is really going to be the state police force. Even though we put NSG (National Security Guard) hubs in place, the first responder is anyway going to be the state police. Therefore, strengthening the state police in terms of quick reaction teams, commandos—those have all been set up, and they have got advance training in how to handle sophisticated weapons. The real test there is how quickly and how efficiently you conduct mock drills.

The Delhi Police control room (and all other major cities) has got one platoon, which is 36 people, fully armed with bulletproof jackets, AK-47s in their hand, 24X7 they are available. The first thing is to preserve the scene of the crime. Put your barricades around it and, say, till the forensic examination is done, nobody can come within 15 feet of that incident. The media also has to be told that “look, you may like to get the best photo, but only after the forensic thing has been done".

Has the level of international co-operation between Indian intelligence agencies and others that went up in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, been sustained over the last five years?

We have now got a strategic security cooperation with a number of countries of the world. Anywhere they get information, we get some of it. But you have to finally look after yourself. While sharing is there, they will just give you a little bit of what they want. They don’t want their sources to get compromised; so even if they get information, they mask it. In (the) case of (suspected Mumbai attack plotter?) David Headley, the US knew very well that a sea-borne attack was coming, so they said “likely sea-borne attack on the west coast" but did not say Mumbai. So we have to learn to put the pieces together and know what that means.

Then-home minister P. Chidambaram went to the US specifically to look at the American national counter-terrorism set-up and he found that very effective. Now you have the states in India, which, rightly or otherwise, feel that their rights or preserve are being trampled upon. How crucial is an apparatus like the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) in the overarching framework of preparedness to counter terrorism?

It is important in the sense that this is the only way in which you will be able to get integrated information. The NCTC and the Natgrid are two essential pillars, the third being the CCTNS (Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems). All the three are, in one sense, a little delayed, in spite of the cabinet committee on security having approved them. But they are important because we don’t get information otherwise.

But then the NCTC in its current avatar is essentially under the IB. But the original idea was for the NCTC to be different from the IB. Now that the IB has effectively subsumed the NCTC, do you think its effectiveness has gone down?

I think the IB, in a sense, has to look at itself afresh; it can’t be the old IB. The Natgrid is just a tool. Suppose you want information about, say, a person called “Ramaswamy"—you heard him in some chatter on the LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba). Now, may be you heard that this “Ramaswamy" had gone to the Gulf. Because all the airline details are with you on the Natgrid, I can now tap into those and see a hundred “Ramaswamys" who may have gone to the Gulf, one from Tamil Nadu, another from Kerala, and so on. Then you can narrow down and see if someone is a 40-year-old “Ramaswamy" or a 60-year-old. So you narrow down, and then the IB gets into the act of verifying. Now, Headley came (to India) nine times-eight times before the attack and once after. Somewhere, signals should have come, why is this guy coming eight times.

There is a lot of political antagonism which is holding up the NCTC. So, doesn’t someone have to really rise above all this and think out of the box, because we have a lot of regional parties?

The political scenario is so vitiated that the Congress and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) are not talking to each other. The amount of mistrust is so strong because of the way that things have panned out that nothing is going to happen till post-elections. Post-elections, people will have to find a common consensus. NCTC is just a name; it is the principle that is really important.

The inquiry committee into the Mumbai attacks listed quite a few lacunae in the system and made suggestions. Now, how many of those suggestions have been implemented? And, are there things that can never be done and will probably remain only on paper?

See, one basic issue, which we don’t pay enough attention to, is basic policing. If I don’t get my basic policing right, the foundation is weak. If my local constable is a guy who doesn’t get paid money and, therefore, he is then becoming corrupt because he has to make the money since his father has sold his agricultural land and jewellery to make him a constable—“I am going to make five times the money that I earn, since I have to get my father his land and my sister or daughter married off". So one of the first things we did, when we started, was a transparent, merit-based recruitment system. We removed interviews, had objective-type questions (and) technology introduced to make sure, if you are physically unfit, now we have got biometric equipment, and all the tests are videographed, so you can’t bring anybody else (as an impersonator). We have a very, very corrupt force overall.

Today, whether I like it or not, I have got 1.2 million people who are recruited (nationally) in the other way and only 200,000 who are coming without paying (bribe) money. I still need another five to ten years before I have a key mass, say 50% who have come into the police force without paying money. Even the IB was very short (of manpower). We created thousands of posts. Now, we can’t recruit thousands at a time. The IB training establishment can train hundreds a year. We set up two more training establishments. It takes two years to set up an establishment; after recruitment, the guy trains for two years, then he goes out into the field, he takes two years to learn the operation. So I am really looking at 2017-18 before new recruits who have come in become operational on the field.

Now, (in Maharashtra) R.R. Patil was the home minister, he was removed (after the attacks), now he is again back as the home minister. And look at his interference. Every posting and transfer he will do himself. Political class in India still looks upon the police as if it’s an agency to do my political work.

In the next few months to a year, the US will move out of Afghanistan. Is that likely to be a major threat to India?

You see, primarily it is based on what Pakistan is going to do. Pakistan is most likely to keep the pressure on India because the Pakistan army still calls the shots there. If you are going to have a situation there (in terms of a political upheaval), then a lot of people may come in from there. But, my point is, what are we doing to get the people of Kashmir on our side?

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Updated: 25 Nov 2013, 10:44 PM IST
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