For India’s flailing war on terror, this is yet another damning indictment. Seven years after 17 alleged SIMI cadre were arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy to carry out acts of terror, the case against them has been thrown out of court. Yahya Kamakutty and Peedical Abul Shibly were successful computer engineers when they were arrested; Mohammed Asif, Allah Baksh Yadavad and Ahmed Baig were studying medicine; the list of lives destroyed goes on.
The story, to many, will be depressingly familiar: of police locking up innocent young Muslims for crimes they could not solve.
Except, that isn’t the story — or not more than a part of it, anyway. The collapse of the Karnataka ‘jihad’ case points to dangerous deficits in police investigative capacity.
The investigation into the cell began in January 2008, when the arrest of Raziuddin Nasir led police to what they claimed was a plot to carry out a nationwide campaign of terror, led by SIMI chief Safdar Nagori.
First Additional Sessions and District Court judge Gopal Krishna Kolli’s 595-page judgment is a succinct record of what police didn’t have: evidence that meetings had taken place, that acts of terrorism were discussed at those meetings, and that the men concerned had any intention of committing crimes.
Yet, there’s plenty of reason to believe Nasir had explaining to do. Investigators discovered still-unexplained gaps in Nasir’s whereabouts right up to July 2008 — when he travelled from Karachi to Dhaka on a Pakistani passport, and then on a Bangladesh passport to Kathmandu. Part of that time, they alleged, was spent at a Lashkar training camp. His instructions from his Pakistani handlers, police charged, were to set up the alleged jihad cell in India.
In fairness, finding evidence for these allegations — centred around events and individuals in Pakistan — wouldn’t have been easy. But elite counter-terrorism units across the world have accomplished this.
Fifty-three of 60 terror plots in the US since 9/11 were pre-empted, analysts Jessica Zuckerman, Steven Bucci and James Carafano have recorded — each case yielding successful prosecutions even though their perpetrators attended terror camps abroad.
David Headley, who facilitated 26/11, was surveilled by FBI teams for months, until they succeeded in covertly recording damning conversations between him and co-conspirator Tahawwur Rana.
Investigations like these, though, require resources of an order no Indian police or intelligence organisation has. The National Investigation Agency has a staff strength of 488 to the FBI’s 34,019 — of whom 12,979 are agents, or trained investigators. The NIA’s budget is less than Rs 50 crore, the FBI’s $8 billion. The Intelligence Bureau and RAW, The Indian Express revealed last year, are both in excess of a third understaffed — that based on needs drawn up in the 1970s.
New York’s post 9/11 police force alone, Christopher Dickey’s book Securing the City tells us, has more experts than India’s intelligence services combined.
From the government’s own figures, it is clear these deficits are leading to the collapse of the criminal justice system as a whole. In 1953, the first year for which nationwide data is available, 48% of kidnapping cases which went to trial ended in a conviction. In 2013, the last year for which National Crime Records Bureau data is available, just 21.3% kidnapping case prosecutions succeeded in court. Even plain-vanilla robbery convictions fell during this period from 47% to 29%.
Fewer than a quarter of alleged rapists were brought to book in 2003; in 2013, that number was almost unchanged, at 26.5%. Arguably, the most telling statistic is this: in 1953, more than half of all murder prosecutions were successful; in 2013, this was down to 36.5%.
In 1953, India’s first-ever national crime survey said: “There has been no improvement in the methods of investigation or the application of science to this work. No facilities exist in any of the rural police stations and even in most of the police stations for scientific work.”
Fifty years and more on, that still hasn’t been done. There is no roadmap either for filling other deficits, or for meeting the future challenges of a rapidly urbanising nation facing unprecedented stresses. In this Budget, the government shaved Rs 800 crore off central police aid for modernisation.