Fighting terror the Babu-way

It is an unequal fight. On one side are the terrorists of various ideological hues from the small numbers of raging Islamist extremists stalking the cities to the equally angry and committed Maoists controlling parts of the countryside. They are lean, mean, intent, and able to create mayhem at will in a country where order breaks down at the slightest hint of trouble and who seem to have ready access to explosive materials and arms and ammunition.

On the other side, ostensibly protecting the country and people are fat and flabby but proliferating state and central police, para-military and intelligence outfits who are invariably surprised by any new terrorist action no matter how often these incidents have occurred in the past. In contrast the innumerable police and intelligence organizations, tasked to know what the terrorists are up to, and to pre-empt them if they can and fight them if they must, are each led by serried ranks of babus, specialising mostly in fighting each other to a standstill,  which means in time-critical situations, decisions do not get made and actions are not ordered. What ensues is unflagging counter-terrorism rhetoric of politicians even as any attempt at institutionalizing coordinated intelligence collection and anti-terrorist actions rarely gets off the ground. The terrorists in India must feel lucky in the opponents they face.

It has been over three years since 26/11 but the layered system of maritime security is still mostly on paper. The navy is stretched by the overarching responsibility for preventing ingress by terrorists, the Coast Guard is squeezed by the navy and even more by the multiple but substantively nonexistent state police agencies and assets ashore and in the brown water tier of coastal defence. It seems anti-terrorism is another excuse for babus to make money, as the controversy over the acquisition by Maharashtra government of defective body armour reveals. So, whenever the Pakistani Lashkars feel up to mounting another Mumbai operation, the odds are the jihadi teams will move in on their targets unmolested.

More important than the actual fighting units – deficient as they are in many respects — is intelligence-gathering, which role the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) was originally meant to augment and streamline. Having cleared the bureaucratic hurdles erected by other organizations in the intelligence business, the NCTC now finds itself caught in the federal structuralist trap that the Home Ministry did not have the wit or the wisdom to see it was stepping into by not getting the assent of state governments. That’s the minimum that should have been done considering the Constitution, notwithstanding Article 73, principally accords states the responsibility for the “law and order” function. In mulling the division of labour, the Constituent Assembly, influenced by the realism and rootedness of Sardar Vallabhhai Patel, reasonably decided that being nearer to the ground and more familiar with local conditions than the remote central regime, state governments should be charged with maintaining law and order in their jurisdictions.

NCTC, however, grew beyond its core idea as an intelligence coordination unit and, doubtless prompted by Home Minister C. Chidambaram, benefited from bureaucratic aggrandizement. Along the way, it acquired the coercive police role of arrest and seizure of property as well. Not content with being merely an intelligence czar, the ambitious Mr. Chidambaram, has sought by means of an enlarged NCTC to become, the internal security overlord at the expense of the Constitutionally-empowered state governments. But before NCTC’s role inflation, the usual turf battles between competing intelligence agencies — Intelligence Bureau, Research & Analysis Wing, Central Bureau of Investigation, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, etc. that had held up realization of NCTC for some two odd years, obtained.  The “White Paper” drafted by the Home Ministry to dilate on the concept did endless rounds and was amended at every turn. The result was the last version had few similarities with the first one, and the NCTC’s supposed responsibilities had grown in tandem with the disagreements over its expanding brief and turf. Pushed by Chidambaram, Intelligence Bureau (IB) won out and was, not surprisingly, designated the nodal agency. This has happened concurrent with IB’s other pyrrhic victory — success in denying the National Technical Research Organization, the institution expressly created in the wake of the 1999 Kargil fiasco, and equipped with the requisite electronic scanning, tapping, and processing capability and skilled manpower, being denied legal sanction to undertake comprehensive electronic surveillance on its own.  Central Board of Direct Taxes, Narcotics Control Board, among six or seven other agencies are, however, so authorized. Go figure! It reinforces the notion that the Indian system is the country’s best facilitator of terrorism.

Little wonder NCTC has spurred resistance to it and not just by state governments ruled by opposition parties. With Omar Abdullah in Kashmir joining Mamata Banneji in West Bengal and the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham party making common cause with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha, in opposing NCTC, the game is tilted decisively against it. What is noteworthy is that the protesting states – Gujarat, Odisha, Bihar, Jammu & Kashmir, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, have land or maritime borders to police, and/or are engaged in tackling Maoists.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s assurances mean for nothing considering the near zero influence he has in his own government, especially with his senior cabinet colleagues. Further, because IB is virtually the handmaiden of the Home Minister, the opposition-ruled states have particularly to fear the misuse of the IB dominated-NCTC by Chidambaram and the ruling Congress Party at the Centre with a long record of manipulating central agencies, to settle scores, subvert law and order within their bailiwicks. The incumbent state governments could be tarred with either not doing enough to contain the terrorist threat or doing too much with the ensuing leaks to the media, about weak state governments or of biased state police running amuck, becoming grist for politics in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. In the event, NCTC minus states’ approval seems destined for the dust heap.

[Published as “Äs Babus fight terror” in the ‘New Indian Express’ Feb 24, 2012 at ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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