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Securing India at the Gates

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 22, 2009

    Indians can perhaps heave a collective sigh of relief for an almost terror free 2009. Now that the dust of 26/11 analysis has settled down, it is time to take a second look at India’s efforts to secure the country from further terror strikes.

    In the last one year, India has established a National Investigation Agency and a new mechanism to beef up coastal security by giving the Indian Navy a major role in it, and added a number of NSG posts at some of the major metros. The government of Maharashtra has pledged to improve the functioning of the State Police Organisation by streamlining its functioning and giving it more ‘state of the art’ equipment, though allegations of dereliction of duty against some of the senior police officers and the apparent witch hunt against former Commissioner Hassan Gafur is not helping the morale of the police force.

    Armed and paramilitary forces the world over follow a concept of a ‘three tier’ security process in which three perimeters, at the outer most, the middle, and in the immediate proximity of the Vulnerable Area (VA) or Vulnerable Point (VP) needing protection, are envisaged. Air Defence also follows the same concept; the idea being to intercept the threat at the farthest distance and if that becomes impossible, say due to inadequate warning, in the middle distance and, if that also fails to tackle the threat at a point near or even at the VA or VP. This provides a near impregnable defence if suitable and effective instruments such as radars, aircraft, missiles and anti-aircraft guns are available in adequate numbers. In air force parlance, the four steps involved in the process are, Detection, Identification, Interception, Destruction.

    Such a concept could also be applied to a ground/surface threat. India has all along been complaining that the terrorist threat emanates from across the borders with Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh and also through numerous points of entry, both legal and illegal, along the international borders, and the long coast line. Terrorists are known to have used many ingenuous methods to gain entry into India. Forged documents, circuitous routes, fake identities are some of the most common tactics. As part of the various Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) with its neighbours, India has opened many bus, rail and air routes especially with Pakistan and Bangladesh. All of these are routinely used by people from both sides to meet friends and relatives, trading activity and tourism/ casual visits.

    While all routine immigration and customs checks are carried out to establish the identity of the individuals entering India, there is always the possibility of a few undesirable elements slipping through the net due to systemic problems such as inefficiency, corruption and benign neglect. The ease with which Tahwur Rana and David Headley gained visas and freely roamed about in the country is a case in point. It would not be incorrect to say that about 0.5 to 1.0 per cent of those entering India may be of questionable antecedents and can therefore quite easily and freely mingle with locals to plan, aid and carry out nefarious activities such as smuggling, drug and human trafficking, and above all terror strikes. Some of them may be able to remain undetected in India for long times and live under false identities.

    It is thus clear that once undesirables enter the country it is well nigh impossible to prevent them from causing damage especially when they do not care about losing their life. It is therefore imperative that we reinforce the existing mechanism to stop the undesirables at the ‘gates’ or the border rather than build excessively expensive and unwieldy security structures such as more NSG posts, armoured cars and heavy weapons to confront terrorists after they have already entered our ‘kitchen’. The methods to fight them at this close proximity are extremely inefficient, wasteful and costly in human lives and damage to national assets.

    CBMs are undoubtedly needed to improve the overall climate in the region but that does not mean that we should be lax about vetting and verifying the credentials of prospective visitors. Even in advanced Western countries and indeed in many others in West and East Asia, immigration authorities are very strict and even ruthless until the identity of visitors is established. By simply tweaking of the present system it should be relatively easy to spot the suspect at the border road/rail crossing, aircraft door or at a waterway transit point.

    This would need the ruthless weeding out of corrupt and inefficient individuals posted at these sensitive locations and even increasing cadre strength to ensure that they remain alert at all times of the day and night. An updated computer data base linked to the data bases of various intelligence agencies is an urgent necessity. Further, the selection, recruitment and training of India’s immigration, customs and border security personnel must be far more scientific with the tests/examinations based on aptitude and psychological evaluation rather than ‘multiple choice’ questions. The authorities must not treat these highly sensitive posts as routine selection for lower or upper division clerks. Senior officials from these departments must pay surprise visits to the immigration counters at the airports and other entry points until the field level worker understands the importance of his or her job and the zero tolerance for error.

    Border and coastal security can also be enhanced if the local population is co-opted for the job of quickly identifying strangers in their midst. Coastal villages are very well knit and the fishermen communities are both very alert and well informed of the goings on in their areas. The inhabitants of ‘Dhanis’ or hamlets in the rugged Rajasthan desert are equally co-operative in helping the authorities. Where possible, former police constables and army officials and soldiers could be encouraged to live in border areas if comprehensive schemes to improve the rural infrastructure such as roads, railways, education and health facilities are developed so as to increase the stake of the local to contribute to his own security by remaining vigilant and helping the local government authorities. China, for example, has implemented such border area development schemes all along the difficult mountainous frontiers and very successfully eliminated the need to constantly increase the number of paramilitary forces. The Border Management department of the Ministry of Home Affairs needs to do much more in this regard.

    Another very urgently needed area of reform/modification is co-ordination between the multiple intelligence agencies at the Centre and States. Their databases must be computerised for better and rapid access if that is not already done.

    To summarise, instead of beefing up army/police/paramilitary forces in the towns and cities, the government needs to urgently take measures to prevent entry of the criminal and terrorist elements at or close to the border. Until proved innocent even a passenger boarding a commercial airliner must be treated with utmost caution. It is possible to dramatically reduce trans-border crime and terrorism if these very simple and affordable steps are taken.