Across the Aisle: Price of procrastination

UPA couldn’t constitute the National Counter Terrorism Centre. NDA must lose no time in doing so.

Written by P Chidambaram | Updated: January 8, 2016 5:30 am
Army men stand guard near the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot. (Reuters) Army men stand guard near the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot. (Reuters)

I write this with a profound sense of grief, contrition and disappointment bordering on despair.

Since the subject I have chosen for this special column is the terrorist attack on the Pathankot air force base, I resolved that I should weigh every word and phrase with extra caution before I commited them to paper and ultimately to print.

First, let me salute the valour of the seven men who were killed in the terrorist attack. Five of them were retired and re-employed jawans and, presumably, no longer subject to training or drill; one was killed despite being highly skilled; and one lost his life while engaging the terrorists. I mourn their deaths along with their families and millions of citizens.

Second, I rue the fact that several internal security tasks remained unfinished when the UPA government demitted office in May 2014, the most important among them being the constitution of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC). The key pillars of counter-terrorism are intelligence, analysis, and single command and control. More often than not, raw information lies as raw information and is practically useless. Honing information into intelligence is analysis and that is a specialist’s function. In the complex world of counter-terrorism, high-quality analysis requires a multidisciplinary approach bringing together the skills of the border guard and the computer technologist, the policeman and the professor (of chemistry or engineering or psychology), the spy and the scientist. The third pillar is a single command and control to undertake counter-terrorist operations.

I had reflected on the idea of an NCTC for many months. We had engaged with many experts in the field. We had studied different models. I was convinced that the NCTC was an imperative, especially in a federal system with as many police administrations as there are states and Union territories. We had already made a beginning with the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) within the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and in every state, and it required only two or three more courageous steps to constitute the NCTC. My feeling of remorse is because I did not succeed in notifying the NCTC before I left the ministry of home affairs on July 31, 2012. It is a long story and shall be told on another day. Suffice for the present to say that the NCTC was stalled by blind and unreasoned opposition.

The thousands of words spoken and written in the last few days (though I admit I have not heard or read them all) seem to have missed a fundamental change in the nature of the threat faced by the country today. One of the worst terror attacks on Indian soil took place on the four horror-filled days between November 26 and 29, 2008. Since then, there have been four major terrorist attacks and several minor ones. The major attacks were carried out in Pune, Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad. What marked them out as fundamentally different from other major attacks in the past was that there was no proven connection to Pakistan. They were carried out by Indian-born and Indian-bred terrorists. The investigation pointed to the Indian Mujahideen or SIMI and, in the case of the Delhi attack, to a Kashmiri group. Likewise, the minor incidents were also traced to Indian groups in different states.

That fundamental difference seems to have vanished since 2015. We seem to be back to the pre-2008 days. The Pakistani state or non-state is back as the source. Terrorist attacks in Dinanagar, district Gurdaspur, Punjab (July 27, 2015), Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir (August 5, 2015) and Pathankot in Punjab (January 2, 2016) and some minor incidents have been traced back to Pakistan.

Third, my disappointment is with the manner in which the counter-terror system in the government responded to the situation that had fundamentally changed since the middle of 2015. It is a fair inference that the foreign office, the defence forces and the internal security establishment have not noted the change and have not been talking to each other.

My disappointment turned to despair as the nation watched the response to the Pathankot attack. It was déjà vu. There was no sign of a “single command and control”. The Defence Security Corps re-employs retired jawans who are not much better than armed gatekeepers. The Garud Force is a defensive arm of the air force to protect air force assets. The NSG is a target-specific counter-terrorist force, not a battlefield unit. Yet, these were the units that were called in as the first responders. The one trained battle-ready counter-terrorist force, the army’s Special Forces, was nearby but not deployed to secure the sprawling base or the perimeter.

Does the home minister meet with the NSA, the home secretary, the special secretary (IS) and the heads of the IB and RAW every day? It appears not. Had MAC provided inputs in the days immediately prior to January 1? We do not know. Was the cabinet committee on security convened immediately after the security forces engaged the terrorists? There is no official word, but the home minister did not attend any meeting after January 2.

As the saying goes, “things happen”, but we cannot let things happen. The matter of security of the people cannot be left to individuals, however brilliant they may be.

We need an institutional arrangement and the response to a terror attack must be an institutional response led, no doubt, by brilliant individuals.

Is there a case for constituting the NCTC? Look no further than the Pathankot terror attack. The draft notification was revised after taking into account the states’ concerns and sensibilities. The revised draft leaves room for any reluctant state to join the NCTC after an interval of time (as was done in the case of VAT). The draft notification is on the home minister’s table. A copy is with the prime minister’s office.

The best message of reassurance to a shaken and sceptical nation and the best warning to our enemies that we take terrorism as a serious threat will be to notify forthwith the National Counter Terrorism Centre.

The writer is a former Union home and finance minister.