Some killing questions about terrorism - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 19 May 2008

Some killing questions about terrorism

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 20th May 08

The 1st of June 2006 seemed like an unusually good day for the police: three heavily armed Pakistani fidayeen were shot dead while storming the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. Alert policemen had apparently forestalled a massacre within the complex; and a communal bloodbath across India.

In fact, that one-sided fire fight was the climax to a superb Indian intelligence operation. The terrorist cell that aimed to set RSS blood boiling had been deeply infiltrated; an intelligence mole risked his life to pass on every detail of the coming attack. He should, but will never, publicly receive a medal from the President. Others like him work anonymously to thwart most terror attacks that are planned against Indian targets.

But our intelligence agencies failed to predict the Jaipur blast conspiracy, which took 80 lives last Tuesday. The important question --- of why couldn’t the agencies zero in beforehand --- has been lost in the destructive finger pointing that characterises the Indian response to such tragedy. As always, the post-mortem has revolved around political charges and counter-charges: the revocation of POTA; being “soft on terror”; Bangladeshi migrants; and the need to press Pakistan for action against terror.

Not one politician or public figure has asked: why are just 20,000 people authorised to an Intelligence Bureau (IB) that is charged with the security of a billion people? Even if every IB employee was a field operative, of the kind that infiltrated the Nagpur cell, each would need to watch over 50,000 Indians. In fact, barely 2000 of the IB’s employees are field operatives; the remainder are tied up in administration --- manning headquarters, liaison with bureaucracy, budgeting and accounting, and the myriad tasks that the government creates for itself.

Nor has anyone questioned why the already understaffed IB has 4000 employees less than it is authorised. The numbing answer: an “optimisation scheme” to cut down on government employees froze recruitment for several years.

Not a single politician has asked why the recommendations of a Group of Ministers (GoM), constituted after the Kargil intelligence debacle, have not yet been implemented. Recommendations to expand the IB at the ground level; to set up Joint Task Forces for Intelligence (JTFIs) in each state; and to create a Multi Agency Centre (MAC) to bring together, compare and assess intelligence from different agencies; all these gather dust while terrorists gather strength.

Nor are there questions about why attempts to strengthen intelligence agencies immediately founder on the rocks of bureaucracy. Police and intelligence officers swear this is the dastardly handiwork of the “IAS lobby”. Whether or not there is a deliberate design here, requests for manpower and resources are successfully blocked by endless questions by junior IAS officers about why those are needed. The result: the IB has cobbled together an ad hoc Joint Task Force for Intelligence, without any permanently deputed members, and run with resources gathered from within the agency. 

If good intelligence is essential for thwarting terrorist attacks, a well-structured police network work picks up early warnings about an impending attack. But ground level policing is even more neglected than intelligence. Societies across the political spectrum --- from western-style democracies to authoritarian regimes --- divide their territory into police “beats”, assigning each a policeperson. That policeperson intimately monitors his beat, which could consist of a market; or a group of houses; or even a couple of villages. In India, though, there are too few policepersons for realistic monitoring.

The country’s 11,840 police stations are manned by some 10,12,000 policepersons; each cop must police some 1000 citizens. In geographical terms, there are 43 cops for every 100 square kilometres; each average beat is more than 2 kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide. But who has heard a politician ask the questions: can a single policeperson effectively cover so many people in such a large area? Why are we not boosting police manpower?

Compounding the shortage of manpower is a legislative framework that is 147 years old: the Police Act of 1861. There have been many failed attempts at creating a new structure: a National Police Commission submitted a report in 1981. In the years that followed, the National Human Rights Commission, the Law Commission, the Ribeiro Committee, the Padmanabhaiah Committee and the Malimath Committee also reported on this issue. A committee under Soli Sorabjee has prepared a model draft Police Act in 2006.

And here political point scoring begins again. Since law and order is a state subject, each state must legislate its own police act. Just ten states --- Assam, Bihar, Chhatisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal, Karnataka, Kerala, Rajasthan, Tripura --- have actually drafted new police laws. Others, like Tamil Nadu, have complained that the centre is encroaching into the legislative domain of states.

In 2006, in one of its periodic huffs, the Supreme Court laid down directions for each state to implement before 1st January 2007. These include structures to insulate the police from political interference, and the separation of the investigative wing of the police from its law and order machinery. But the ground reality remains evident in the lack of success in solving --- and, therefore, failure to pick up useful information from --- the terror attacks in Malegaon (Sep 06), the Samjhauta Express (Feb 07), in Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid (May 07) and Lumbini Park/Gokul Chat (Aug 07), Ajmer Sharif (Oct 07) and now in Jaipur.


  1. Hi Ajay,
    Pranab here.
    Gr8 article..just wanted to point out one error..63 people died in the blast not 80 as u have mentioned..

  2. Hi Ajay
    Wow i hear a constructive criticism from our indian media than blunt accusations. Hat's off.


  3. A very well researched work with pragmatic solutions. Keep it up!


  4. Hi Ajay,

    This is eye opening as usual. I really wonder if the IAS Lobby is actually our worst enemy. They manage to scuttle every move that gives any extra power/leeway/importance to another wing of the executive. When we have the next round of terrorist attacks - we will find the PM, Home Minister, CM and sundry politicians and officials saying that "we will not be cowed down by these attacks". I really wonder how long we will have to live like this. No wonder even the Supreme Commander of the armed forces is essentially a rubber stamp (albeit of the PM). Wonder how this can be set right?

  5. The point is one hundred percent valid; great research, credible figures, irrefutable logic. It is unlikely, though, that anyone will listen anytime soon.
    Where do terrorism, law and order, the preservation of ordinary freedoms that the law grants us on paper etc stand in our national consciousness or discourse except in scoring political brownie points? Where does the issue of governance as a whole stand? Do they, as issues, affect the outcome of electoral politics? If they don’t (and they don’t, really), where is the question of actually building organizations and systems to address these issues?
    Different strata of people have different imperatives. Most are engaged in the grim business of just surviving from day to day; terrorism would be a joke to them. The rest are high on their many opiates, like ‘double-digit’ economic growth, the next leap in salary, reservations in government jobs etc. All else is peripheral, a sensation to be savoured on the TV and the papers and gradually forgotten.
    Can we expect politicians to not only spare the resources and time to indulge in such trivia as terrorism and law and order, but also to let go of the handles of influence they have on the enforcement machinery by professionalizing and fundamentally restructuring it.

  6. Congrats on a good post. Now what needs to be done is to bring the topic on the front pages and let some action begin. there is also the related issue of lack of active encouragement by the police bureaucracy of pro-active approach due to various nexus that have developed over the years and that need to be broken if this country has to progress faster and in a more equitable manner.


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