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The Parliament attack was 20 years ago. Are we more prepared today?

🔴 Manmohan Bahadur writes: Even now intelligence failures and social discord make India vulnerable to terrorism.

Written by Manmohan Bahadur |
Updated: December 14, 2021 7:26:12 am
Terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001. (Express Archive)

It was a typical Delhi winter morning on December 13, 2001. I was in my office in the Air Chief’s secretariat; Air Chief Marshal A Y Tipnis was away to the south. The fifth-floor office overlooks Rajpath and one has a grand view of the North and South Blocks and the temple of Indian democracy, our Parliament. As it was the “marriage season” in north India, we didn’t worry when fire-crackers went off, the sound coming from the direction of Parliament. The nonchalant attitude soon turned to worry as the rat-a-tat started sounding like gunfire on a range. I rushed into the office of the Vice Chief, Air Marshal Krishnaswamy. “Sir, there is firing near Parliament,” I blurted out, even as Delhi Police jeeps raced with their sirens blaring. Very soon, it was “action stations”.

The Air Chief was contacted on his mobile. His aircraft was re-routed and while he was in the air, a message was conveyed on a confidential radio frequency that on landing he had to proceed directly to a CCS meeting called by the Prime Minister. And so it was, but the resultant timeline of actions is not a rosy commentary on India’s national security consciousness and preparedness to tackle terrorism; it’s time to take stock.

Five well-armed terrorists were prowling in the nation’s capital, and our intelligence had no clue of what was to transpire against Parliament. That the attack happened two years after the 1999 Kargil war, where too intelligence was caught flat-footed, made matters worse. Has our intelligence improved thereafter? Seven years later, Mumbai 26/11 was confirmation that it hadn’t; that the LeT could train, finance and plan a trans-oceanic “voyage” of 10 terrorists who created mayhem in Mumbai was a sad testimony on the intelligence groupings re-cast post the Kargil Review Committee report. While a number of intelligence successes have been reported since then, what stands out has been the inability to discern the 2019 Pulwama strike, where 40 CRPF jawans died, Chinese incursions in Ladakh last year and the drone strike on Air Force Station Jammu this June. And have we forgotten the Uri deaths and the Pathankot airbase intrusion (both 2016)? We have many miles to go, and with a plethora of intelligence agencies — IB, RA&W, NTRO, DIA, NIA, State Liaison Units et al — it is time that demanding accountability becomes the norm, and a review of the intelligence set-up undertaken.

Intelligence cannot be 100 per cent successful (though this cannot be an excuse for repeated failures), but the capability to address the follow-up of an incident has been found wanting too. On November 26, 2008, Mumbai, and indeed the whole country, was held to ransom — and ridicule — for four full days. The follow-up to every “Uri” or “Pulwama” cannot be a trans-border kinetic strike, the effects of which have limited shelf-life. The adversary would be prepared for such a retaliation, since expectations have been raised sky-high due to the current political environment. So, what’s the way forward?

First, a bi-partisan toning down of political rhetoric is vital. There is much merit in the adage that “a wise man once said nothing”. Let fund allocation, revamping of training and actions (internal and external) speak for themselves. Let’s learn from Israel, which conveys its firm and steadfast anti-terrorism stand by having a robust intelligence gathering mechanism and social media messaging to keep the “other” guy unhitched — and a kinetic strike when required.

Second, half-hearted actions like Operation Parakram, launched after the Parliament attack, that mobilised our one-million strong armed forces for 10 months, must be avoided. There was no clear political end-state that the military action could support. Without going to war, India lost 1,874 army personnel, besides billions due to wear and tear of equipment and consumption of logistic stores. Did military activation deter inimical activity? The truthful answer is that a small duration asymmetric ascendancy was achieved against Pakistan (thanks partially to the pressure of the international community too), but soon status quo ante was restored as Islamabad returned to its “usual” unconventional modes of unsettling India. These have, and would, continue unless there is a clear political strategy backed by credible and sustainable hard power capability.

Lastly, the Parliament attack also points to a strife within our polity that the adversary utilises to our disadvantage. Even as the government takes steps to ensure physical security, it should also look at the social environment that encourages such activities. Mao described guerrilla warfare as “..fish swimming in the sea”, with fish being the guerrilla and sea being the people. So, just as to kill the fish (guerrilla), the sea needs to be drained, so too, to counter terrorism, the adversary’s policy of benefitting from social discord needs to be defanged by having an environment that negates their nefarious designs. This brings us back to the first suggestion of a quiet and determined bi-partisan approach to confront the menace of terrorism. This would be the greatest tribute, instead of the ritualistic wreath-laying to the 10 Indians who died in the Parliament attack, this day, 20 years back.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 13, 2021 under the title ‘Chinks in our armour’. The writer, a retired air vice marshal, is former Addl Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies

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