Something is seriously wrong with our counter-terror security establishment,” Parliament’s Standing Committee on Home Affairs has lamented in its latest report, tabled this week. Faced with the questions many Indians have been asking about January’s attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot — how the border was so easily penetrated, and why the base’s perimeter was so poorly guarded — the standing committee has, however, only platitudes to offer. Its calls for more effective police action against cross-border trafficking, to “effectively seal the border” and for “better intelligence and operational coordination” have been made dozens of times before — to little avail. The truth is that the resources to do what the committee knows needs doing just do not exist. Had it dug further, it would have discovered that Punjab Police patrol vehicles were operating for just a few hours a day because of chronic budget shortfalls that have meant funds are not available even for fuel and maintenance needs. It would have found that the BSF is desperately short of officer-rank personnel. And it would have found that the IB and R&AW are over a third short of staff allocations that were, in any case, drawn up for peaceful times when India did not confront significant terrorist threats. Throughout the security sector, the committee would have discovered, training standards are being diluted, and specialist skills are in short supply.
The real scandal is that it has taken so long for Parliament to wake up to the problem — and that it still isn’t demanding accountability. For decades now, flag-waving has been allowed to gloss over gross failures in security management. The disgraceful early conduct of the Kargil War by top military commanders, documented in scholarly work and legal proceedings in the almost two decades since, was never punished. There was no serious audit of the manifold failings of the Mumbai Police and NSG during 26/11, nor a lessons-learned exercise. In the case of Pathankot, the home ministry has been spending a great deal of energy on explaining to a bewildered nation how elite forces spent over 24 hours firing on a building from which not the smallest trace of weapons or explosives has since been recovered.
The problem has been a simple one: Accountability can’t be demanded unless security forces are given functional autonomy, and credible resources to go with it.
That is something no political order has wished to countenance. Having truly professional intelligence services, for example, would mean that chiefs of the IB or directors-general of state police forces would not be on hand to aid the ruling party at times of need. It would mean police officers would not be willing to cover up crimes by politicians, or their well-connected allies. To give up these powers, it seems, is much too high a price to pay for national security.