The terror attack on the airbase in Pathankot, reportedly carried out by the Jaish-e-Muhammad, has raised several questions about how to respond to such attacks. The extended time taken by the security forces to neutralise the attack and secure the area as well as the losses suffered by them — seven lives were lost on the Indian side — has led to a clamour for the need to have the ability to respond more swiftly.
One view has been that the local police should have reacted faster and, at any rate, must improve their capacity to meet such an attack in future. This suggestion needs to be examined in detail since it would require a
total revamp of the police forces in the states. The police forces at the state level are primarily required to maintain law and order, manage traffic, and prevent and investigate crime. It is not desirable for such a civilian force to be armed with automatic weapons to respond to a terrorist attack.
Such a change in the work profile would require a paradigm change in the way police officials are recruited and trained. For instance, the bulk of the recruits in the police come from the rural areas and from the economically weaker sections of society. Physical tests at the entry levels are deliberately designed in a manner that does not weed out too many hopeful candidates. For the same reason, the training curricula, as well, cannot be too stringent.
Even on the job, a daily grind with 14-hour duty schedules, irregular food timings, consumption of unhealthy street food, is not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. One can hardly expect a constable, used to wielding a lathi and investigating crime, to suddenly take up sophisticated arms and combat well-trained terrorists.
So the first thing that policymakers have to decide is the kind of police they want, depending on the kind of tasks they expect the police to perform. This should be followed up by necessary improvements in the training facilities available for the police. Another important, yet often ignored, requirement for a force to be battleworthy is
regular firing practice. Yet another handicap is the lack of ammunition. The police forces get the ammunition from the ordinance depots, but in these depots, the requirements of the armed forces and the Central paramilitary forces are given priority. Between the constraints of the depot and the objections raised by the finance department, even sanctioned grants are not utilised.
The police would also have to modernise their work culture and daily processes. Policemen, particularly in metropolitan cities, could be equipped with short batons and communication devices so that they
can respond quicker.
In Pathankot, we were lucky that there was some intelligence input about an impending attack. As such, security at the base could be beefed up, including the mobilisation of the NSG. But we may not be so lucky all the time. The July 2015 terror attack in Gurdaspur is a case in point. In the November terrorist attacks in Paris, it was a precinct cop who first reached the attack site, although he was advised to withdraw and await the arrival of specialised units. In
San Bernardino in December 2015, specialised units had to be mobilised to deal with the situation. Thus, specialised units are essential to deal with such attacks.
Several strategic assets are spread across the country. As such, we will have to figure out how to raise such units closer to the location of our strategic or vulnerable assets. This would have financial implications for policymakers as these units would have to be suitably housed, trained, equipped and kept motivated. We also have to look at the way physical protection measures are taken at strategic installations. For instance, we often find incomplete or poorly built boundary walls and inadequate lighting, with hardly any back-up.
The Intelligence Bureau is tasked with periodic audits of vital and strategic locations but their reports are often ignored. Similarly, the recommendations of committees, set up to review the security of various assets, are also ignored. Concerned ministries are loathe to spend money and no one is held accountable for the failure to follow up on recommendations. While manpower is essential to provide security, investments must also be made in technology to secure assets.
The question is: What are we going to do about shortcomings in the security systems noticed during the Pathankot attack? Are we going to do anything at all?