Late one night in 2008, a warning message flashed on a computer screen at the Intelligence Bureau’s (IB’s) counter-terrorism unit’s Delhi office: One of hundreds of cellphone numbers on a counter-terrorism watchlist had just come alive. There was just one single officer on duty, charged with scanning through dozens of simultaneous calls, in the hope of catching a useful conversation. Idly, he switched to the new call — and began listening in to the first minutes of the tragedy we now call 26/11.
It was pure, blind luck: The SIM cards used by the Lashkar-e-Taiba had been planted on the group by a Jammu and Kashmir Police intelligence asset. Had the 26/11 attackers been given different SIM cards, the conversations that saved dozens of lives and exposed the perpetrators may never have been detected.
Thousands of kilometres away in Cheltenham, the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had enjoyed a ringside view of the plot for months — culled directly from the Lashkar’s own computers. Though they warned India of imminent attack, the GCHQ provided few details, fearful of embarrassing their ally, Pakistan. India found out the truth only because the dice rolled its way.
In 2009, then Home Minister P. Chidambaram promised an appalled nation he would make sure Indian security no longer hinged on chance: “We can no longer afford business as usual,” he said.
We evidently can, because we still are — instead of building modern counter-terrorism institutions, India has a martyrdom-manufacturing machine. For the past several months, Indians have been outraging about lives claimed by Pakistani jihadist groups — the deaths of three young soldiers in Pampore; the killing of National Security Guard (NSG) personnel in Pathankot; the shooting down of police officers in Gurdaspur. Even as India has been mourning these martyrs, it hasn’t called those responsible to account: A political leadership charged with building counter-terrorism capacity.
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In Pampore, military personnel were called on to carry out a room-intervention operation in a building housing civilians — a task for which they are neither intensively trained nor equipped. The NSG, which is, was put in charge at Pathankot — a very different kind of operation, involving cordoning large areas. Gurdaspur demonstrated, to all willing to see, exactly what happens when a police force which can’t even meet its fuel bills, let alone train at a firing range, meets well-resourced enemies.
Little has changed in the years after 26/11, well-orchestrated media hype notwithstanding. The deficits are most glaring in the case of state police forces — the women and men who, in most cases, respond first to violence. The case of Mumbai is illustrative. Last year, just 11,000 of the city’s 42,000-strong force received any firearms training — even though the rules only call on them to fire 60 practice rounds a year. The reason is simple — the state says it just doesn’t have the money.
The problem is accentuated by the fact that assault weapons can’t be fired at Mumbai’s only police firing range, after local residents complained of rounds deflecting into their homes. That means crack units set up after 26/11, like Force 1, can’t train on their M4 Colt 5.56 carbine and M107 Special Application Rifle — nor the regular police’s counter-terrorism units on their Kalashnikovs.
Even élite forces like the NSG suffer from chronic problems of acquisition and training. The chaotic siege at Pathankot, where the NSG took over 48 hours to clear a building where just two terrorists were holed out, stands in stark contrast to Paris, where the fighting was ended in hours — in some cases, minutes.
Few police forces and élite units, moreover, have tools their counterparts elsewhere take for granted — the NSG’s efforts to buy ballistic shields, for example, have bogged down in red-tape. Delhi Police, for its part, has neither specialist equipment nor protocols for dealing with attacks on schools, malls or theatres — all, as recent experience around the world shows, potential targets.
India’s intelligence services, the cutting-edge of any national counter-terrorism effort, aren’t doing much better. The IB has just two-thirds of the 26,867 staff it is sanctioned by the government. Training time has been slashed by half at its academy in a desperate effort to make up numbers. Even so, the IB’s central counter-terrorism office has just about 100 dedicated personnel; in the states, there are just six-seven personnel with this task, often also having other job functions. Ever since 1979, when a scheme earmarking talent for the IB was scrapped, it has also become short on officer-level staff.
The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) isn’t doing much better. In one critical station in the near-neighbourhood, where attacks on Indian targets have been repeatedly planned and carried out, the current RAW station chief doesn’t speak any local language — something that would be unimaginable for any foreign intelligence service.
Funding has at least something to do with the problem. Punjab Police’s budget for 2014-2015 gave it Rs 59 crore for fuel, instead of the Rs 170 crore it asked for. There was no provision for new vehicles; those bought earlier were funded from a Central scheme, which the finance ministry suspended this year. The constraints are so severe that rural police stations have been left with a maximum of two functioning vehicles for their jurisdictions, with fuel for just 100 kilometres a day.
Then there’s personnel. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has only 579 of the 816 personnel sanctioned, compared to the FBI’s 34,019 staff, over 12,000 of whom are actual investigators.
It isn’t that the problem is new. In 1953, India’s first-ever national crime survey lamented the absence of “improvement in the methods of investigation or the application of science to this work”. It called, among other things, for a “a better class of recruits”.
The failure of successful governments to act, though, points to a deeper malaise. Forces can’t excel at fighting terrorism unless they have a professional leadership and institutional ethos. Indian elites, though, have no interest in building police institutions that are both independent and accountable. From politicians seeking to subvert the law, to middle-class citizens who don’t want to be fined for traffic violations, there is a vested interest in the status quo.
Even uglier is this truth: Leaders profit from the martyrdom of women and men in uniform. In 1999, India set in place what scholar Max-Jeans Zins has called a “meticulously choreographed national funereal ballet”. The patriotic frenzy unleashed as the dead were hailed for their sacrifice swept aside questions about the command-level failures that caused the carnage in the first place. In the years since, the media has rarely called the national leadership to account for the unnecessary loss of life.
“No dumb b****** ever won a war by going out and dying for his country,” legendary General George Patton is reputed to have said. “He won it by making some other dumb b****** die for his country.”
This wisdom needs to be absorbed — fast.