IDSA COMMENT

India’s Counter Terrorism Policies are Mired in Systemic Weaknesses

May 14, 2012

Two years after the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) was first conceived following the Mumbai terror strikes and three months after the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) gave its approval for its establishment, Chief Ministers have virtually vetoed the organisation on the grounds that its functioning will undermine the federal structure of India’s Constitution and that it must not be placed under the Intelligence Bureau (IB). The strong opposition came despite the Prime Minister’s assurance that, "It is not our government's intention to alter distribution of power between states and Centre. NCTC is to coordinate counter terror measures, and not to infringe on state powers."

The opposition, primarily from non-Congress ruled states, comes despite the fact that the structure of the NCTC approved by the CCS is a watered down version of the form in which the NCTC had been originally conceived by Home Minister, Mr. P Chidambaram. In an address to officers of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) on December 23, 2009, the Home Minister had envisioned the NCTC as an organisation capable of “preventing a terrorist attack, containing a terrorist attack should one take place, and responding to a terrorist attack by inflicting pain upon the perpetrators.” The NCTC had been envisaged as an umbrella organisation, which would exercise control over agencies like the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and the National Security Guard (NSG). According to the latest proposal, the NCTC will be placed under the IB and the existing Multi-Agency centre (MAC) will be subsumed in it.

The NCTC will draw up and coordinate counter-terrorism plans, integrate intelligence gathering and coordinate with all existing investigating and intelligence agencies. The NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid), which was approved by the CCS in June 2011, will provide a data bank of 20 databases such as travel records, immigration details and income tax records as inputs to the NCTC.

Unless the NCTC is empowered to conduct counter-terrorism operations like its US counterpart, on which the Indian version was expected to be based, urban terrorism will continue to remain a cause for concern. Without an effective NCTC or a similar organisation, the planning and execution of India’s counter-terrorism policies will remain mired in systemic weaknesses.

Even though recent terrorist strikes have been sporadic and have been spaced out in time, the overall impression that prevails is that of an unstable internal security environment in which the initiative rests with the terrorist organisations and they are able to strike at will. The government needs to review its largely reactive policies and adopt pro-active measures to fight terrorism, particularly the variety that emanates from the soil of inimical neighbouring countries.

India’s response to the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks was slow, laborious and poorly co-ordinated among the Central and the State governments and their various agencies. Coastal security was virtually non-existent; the Marine Police were too few in number to effectively patrol the vast area entrusted to them; they were ill-equipped and inadequately trained; and, there was poor coordination between the Coast Guard and the Marine Police. It took far too long to begin flushing out operations and then to eliminate the nine terrorists who were holed up at three separate locations. Materially, not much has changed to inspire national confidence that the next such terror strike will be nipped in the bud and if it does unfold, it will be quickly brought to an end.

The government must formulate a comprehensive approach to fight terrorism, and all organs of the state must come together to implement a national-level counter-terrorism strategy. It must draw up a strategy that is inter-ministerial, inter-agency and inter-departmental in character. Such a strategy must also balance the interests of the Central and State governments.

Further, it must be ensured that the counter-terrorism policy is based on strong but egalitarian laws. India’s experiments with POTA, TADA and UAPA have failed to deliver the desired results. Laws must be just and humane and must not be designed to either be vindictive towards or shield any particular community or religious denomination. The experience of many other countries has proved that it is possible to formulate strong yet egalitarian counter-terrorism laws. The US established a powerful Department of Homeland Security following the 9/11 strikes and there has not been a major terrorist attack on its soil since then.

One major lacuna in India’s approach to counter-terrorism is the gross disconnect between how the Central and State governments view counter-terrorism. There are glaring disparities in the views held in New Delhi and the State capitals. The Constitution must be amended to move “law and order” from the State List to the Concurrent List so that the Central Government can act on its own initiative when necessary, particularly in the case of externally-sponsored terrorism. And, it is time the government bifurcated the internal security function of the Ministry of Home Affairs into a separate ministry headed by a cabinet minister.

Besides prevention through accurate ‘humint’ and ‘techint’ intelligence gathering, successful counter-terrorism requires the effective intelligence penetration of terrorist groups so that their leadership can be systematically neutralised by an empowered anti-terrorism agency. Comprehensive planning and better management are necessary for the quick elimination of a group of terrorists during a strike while the terrorists are still on a killing spree.

Post-incident investigation is aimed at unravelling the identities of the planners and the plotters and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the incident of terrorism. The National Investigation Agency must be reconstituted as it lacks teeth in its present form. It should be re-modelled on the lines of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to give it both preventive and investigative powers. While there is no need to blindly ape any country, there is no harm in learning from the best practices abroad and incorporating them into Indian policies.

India’s intelligence co-ordination and assessment apparatus at the national level and counter-terrorism policies remain mired in the days of innocence. We are now living in the age of ‘new terrorism’ that is far more violent and diabolical than before and policies must keep pace with the emerging developments. Also, the government must enlarge the scope of its counter-terrorism policy to include covert operations aimed at eliminating the leaders of terrorist organisations abroad who are actively engaged in sponsoring terrorism in India so as to eliminate the problem at its roots.