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Does India Need a Federal Agency to Deal Effectively with Terrorism and Inter-State Crimes?

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  • October 15, 2008
    Round Table
    Only by Invitation

    The spate of terror attacks in various towns and cities across the country and the subsequent debate on combating such acts of terror have brought to fore the need for a co-ordinated pan-Indian response. In this context, the IDSA’s Internal Security cluster organised a Round Table titled ‘Do we Need a Federal Agency to Deal Effectively with Terrorism and Inter-State Crimes?’, on October 15, 2008. A brief backgrounder was forwarded to all the participants prior to the discussion to set the tone for the discussion. The Roundtable was attended by eminent security analysts and former senior officials - Mr. B Raman, former Additional Secretary in the Research and Analyses Wing (R&AW), Mr. Prakash Singh, former Director General of the Border Security Force (BSF), Mr. D. C. Nath, former Special Director in the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Mr. Joginder Singh, former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Mr. P. P. Shrivastav, member of the North East Council (NEC).

    In his introductory remarks, Mr. N. S. Sisodia, Director General IDSA, said that the repeated acts of terror across the country indicated that the phenomenon has not only acquired a wide geographical spread but it also appears to be much more home grown than before. There is also evidence of lack of co-ordination among investigative agencies along with considerable amount of confusion about the facts, the likely perpetrators and the masterminds. This clearly highlighted the need to take a detailed look at existing laws and agencies and configure them to combat terrorism effectively. In the last few years many committees, task forces and commissions had recommended the setting up of a federal investigative agency, but this has not been implemented.

    Initiating the discussion, Brig. B. S. Sachar noted that the series of attacks in recent times has exposed the Indian state’s vulnerability to terrorist strikes and its utter inability to prevent them. The ‘Indianisation’ of jihad with the aim of destroying India’s secular and democratic ethos was a dangerous trend and needed an early and effective response. If the terrorist bombings continue in this manner, with the Indian state considered by foreign governments and investors as helpless, the inflow of FDI would dry up and travel advisories against visiting India would be issued, impacting the economy adversely. He argued that given the all India reach of the home grown terrorists and their control centre outside India, it was essential to have an all India perspective on their modus operandi, ideology, linkages and support base, to successfully prevent such attacks. A pan-Indian threat, he said, required a pan-Indian response both at the political and professional levels. He also advocated an inescapable need for the police to be given special powers.

    While agreeing with the need for establishing a separate agency for investigation and prosecution of federal offences, Mr. B. Raman expressed the need to first lay down the federal offences. According to him, terrorism and white collar crimes can be considered as federal offences, but there is a need to separate the two as the latter is prone to political interference. He felt that in the wake of terrorism assuming a new gravity, there was a need to have centralised co-ordinated investigation of these cases. The establishment of a federal agency should be based on the assessment of the duration of the terrorist threat. If there is a long term threat then a new agency could be set up, but if it is considered short term then an existing agency could be invested with special powers to investigate terror related crimes. He cited several ‘best cases’ from the Indian experience as well as from experiences of law and order institutions of other countries. In the Indian milieu, the working of Tamil Nadu’s Special Task Force in investigating Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and the Mumbai Blasts investigations were cited as models that were worth emulating. As good examples of strong and therefore effective institutions, mention was made of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which enjoyed overriding powers, authority and sanction to take the lead in investigating federal crimes. Mr. Raman also recommended special powers for interrogation and collection of technical intelligence. He highlighted the need for successful prosecution to act as a strong deterrent for terrorists. In the end he recommended that special powers should be incorporated in general laws (ordinary law of the land) instead of enacting new laws. This would allay fear in the minds of people, especially among the minority community.

    Mr. D. C. Nath stated that terrorism has grown from individual acts of violence to group acts, organisational activity to a movement. He argued that unless the need for a centralised response is realised by all political parties, the creation of a federal investigative agency would not be possible. He, however, suggested that instead of creating a new agency either the IB or the CBI should be empowered to tackle the problem suitably. He also emphasised the need for a non-governmental approach to tackle terrorism through public education programmes of, for example, Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) to make the public aware of its responsibilities. He also recommended that the concept of 'good citizen' should be propagated by educating the people about their fundamental duties. He also said that in the absence of a declared national terrorism doctrine, India will be handicapped in tackling the menace of terrorism head-on. Finally, he stressed on the need for enabling the police to respond effectively by filling up the vacancies in various police organisations and providing them better infrastructure and equipment.

    Mr. Prakash Singh said that terrorism had become a pan-Indian phenomenon and had developed linkages with global Islamic Jihad. He brought out the dangerous manifestation of organised crimes like arms smuggling, drug trafficking, counterfeit currency, etc. and recommended the need to enact special laws to deal with such crimes. The Indian Penal Code, which was enacted in the 19th century, cannot deal with present day crimes. He then gave details of the Public Interest Litigations he had filed in the Supreme Court on police reforms. He advocated that incidents of terrorist violence and organised crimes should be treated as an act of aggression and any law passed to tackle these crimes should be described as a law 'in defence of the country'. Supporting the idea of setting up a federal agency, he said that it is necessary to have an institutional framework to deal with terrorism. In his view, the setting up of a federal agency did not need an amendment but a correct interpretation of the constitution. He also clarified that the states will not lose their jurisdiction over federal crimes with the setting up of a new agency, given that both the centre and the states would have concurrent responsibility. He opined that the charter of the CBI should be enlarged to include suo moto investigation of terrorist and organised crimes and there was no need to have a separate agency to deal with such offences. He also advocated the need to enhance the capacity of the police instead of raising more paramilitary battalions.

    Mr. P. P. Shrivastav said that the need for a federal agency is very well accepted by all right thinking people. He argued that the country’s internal security problems have international linkages. Hence, instead of a national response, a united international response to tackle this problem should be undertaken. Establishing a link between organised crime and terrorism, he said that wherever there is illegal accumulation of money, it would eventually lead to terrorism. He described both terrorism and white collar crime as multi-dimensional aggression perpetrated not only by non-state players but also by states. He highlighted the need for creating public awareness to fight such aggression. He recommended that the National Security Council Secretariat be entrusted with the responsibility of formulating a centralised response to terrorism. He backed Mr. Prakash Singh's efforts of approaching the judiciary to formulate a response strategy against terrorism and organised crime.

    Mr. Joginder Singh also supported the establishment of a federal investigative agency. He, however, said that unless it is backed with requisite sanctions, constitutional status and infrastructure, it would remain ineffective. He highlighted the lack of proper infrastructure and equipment with the police, due to which it could not respond effectively. He said that a federal investigative agency should not be treated as a panacea and states should also build expertise to investigate and prosecute cases of federal law violations. The fear among states that once the investigation is taken over by the federal agency it will move at a pace the central government wants it to move, is somewhat justified. He recommended that only terrorism, counterfeit currency and narcotics should be included in the list of federal crimes, which he felt would be agreed to by the states. He emphasised the need to build trust between state agencies and minority communities. To improve the quality of human intelligence he recommended that more Muslims should be recruited into intelligence agencies.

    Dr. Arvind Gupta, Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at IDSA, said that India is faced with the terrorism problem because the state has ignored governance and police reforms. He felt that unless ground level policing, physical infrastructure of police stations and intelligence gathering are strengthened, a federal agency might not be able to deliver. He said that it is also important to create public awareness and publicise success stories of police investigation and prosecution. He concluded by saying that at the heart of things, it is a political issue.

    Differing from the general view, Col. S. K. Saini argued that a holistic approach should be taken to tackle terrorism. He argued that state government agencies should be strengthened rather than centralising such crimes due to the peculiar federal nature of our polity. Mr. Ali Ahmed viewed the whole debate of increasing terrorist threats with international linkages as an exercise to justify the need to have a federal agency and tougher laws. He considered it important to trace the causes of the internal security problems facing the country. He recommended that the federal agencies should investigate all such groups that are subverting the state's authority.

    In the final analysis, it can be said that there was a consensus on the need to have a centrally co-ordinated investigative response to terrorism. However, the consensus was not in favour of setting up a separate structure, but to empower existing agencies like the CBI to carry out investigation and prosecution of identified federal crimes. To achieve a consensus among the states for centrally co-ordinated investigation, it was recommended that to begin with only willing states should be co-opted. When the investigative agency becomes successful, more states would be keen to join such an arrangement. It was also felt that police reforms should be implemented without any further delay. Last but not least, the public should be made aware of its responsibilities through NGOs and trust should be built among various communities of the country, thus paving the way for harmony.

    Compiled by Dr Pushpita Das, Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.