India can tackle terror effectively only when politicians and officials stop looking at it as a piece of turf to fight over, and start treating it as a threat to our nation.
Immediately after 9/11, when President George W. Bush addressed the nation and declared war on terror, he ensured that former President Bill Clinton, then travelling in Europe, was brought back to the U.S. and stood by his side. Ten years later, America had much cause to celebrate. Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist, had been located and eliminated in a house in Abbottabad, a stone's throw from the Pakistan military academy at Kakul. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, President Obama insisted on having his predecessor, President Bush, by his side while addressing the nation from Ground Zero. On both occasions, the Presidents sent a tough message to America's enemies. Beyond the symbolic, President Bush's gesture in September 2001, and President Obama's in September 2011, of having their predecessors by their side while addressing the nation, sent the strong message to America's detractors that when it came to national security, both Democrats and Republicans were one. All mature democracies put up a common front on national security issues, for these are issues that threaten the way of life that a nation state has accepted for itself.
India faces two such existential threats, one from jihadists inspired by Pakistan, and the other from Maoists. Sikh terrorism was brutally put down by the State, but one hears of attempts to revive the movement in the Punjab, with the backing of the Inter-Services Intelligence. Innocent lives lost in terrorist attacks in India since the advent of terrorism would have certainly crossed over a hundred thousand. The LTTE had not figured in U.S. records till early 1996. Two Americans were injured in the LTTE's attack on the Central Bank of Colombo on January 31, 1996 — and that was enough for the LTTE to figure in U.S. records as a terrorist organisation! In the United States, each citizen's life is precious. In India, we go from one crisis to another, reducing the lives of our citizens to mere statistics.
As early as November, 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that the Maoist insurgency is the single biggest threat to India's security. More than seven years have passed, yet we do not have a clear and coherent policy for dealing with this threat. Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are the States affected by Maoist terror. As soon as he took over as Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram tried to get all these States on board for working out a co-ordinated strategy to tackle the Maoists. The Central government was keen to supplement the efforts of the State governments in fighting the Maoists, and simultaneously going in for integrated development in areas vacated by the Maoists. But it was obvious that all political parties did not agree with the strategy — some still believed they could talk to Maoists and bring them round! It is not that Mr. Chidambaram did not invite the Maoists for talks. His only condition was that they abjure violence. Police and law and order figure as item numbers 1 and 2 in List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution — meaning they are within the exclusive preserve of the States. Once a State decides to go its own way in tackling a problem like that of the Maoists, there is little that the Central government can do. As someone said about the Dantewada incident, in which 76 CRPF jawans were brutally ambushed and massacred by Maoists, “the vote has become a four-letter word that impales decisions, a disincentive for the political parties from doing the right thing.”
In the last 10 years, Maoists have succeeded in killing one jawan for each cadre killed — a highly adverse ratio for the security forces. There have been over 18,000 violent incidents in this period, and the problem shows no signs of abating. No doubt police is a State subject. But in the case of Maoists, they move around freely through the jungles and remote villages along the borders of multiple states. While it is accepted that operational success against the Maoists will depend on the quality of intelligence back up that the State has, as amply proved in the case of Andhra Pradesh, this can happen in the nine affected States only when they have a common strategy, build trust in one another and the Central agencies, and back up one another against the Maoists. It should not be forgotten that the goal of Maoists is to overthrow the democratically elected government through an armed struggle. They have used talks to regroup and strengthen themselves, each time. In this, they are the true disciples of the LTTE, as much as they are in the art of making improvised explosive devices, which they learnt from the Tigers in the late 1980s.
The Mumbai carnage by the LeT in November 2008, or 26/11 as it is known, is considered world-wide as the most violent terrorist onslaught after 9/11 and, in that sense, a game changer. This was a good occasion for the nation to make constitutional adjustments to enable an appropriately strong response to terrorist attacks. Parliament hurriedly passed the amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the National Investigation Agency Act. The latter was to focus on investigations of terrorism related cases only. Though the government claimed that the NIA could take over any terrorist case registered in any State after receiving a directive from the Ministry of Home Affairs, the fact remains that since its inception, the NIA was given only one case that took place in Delhi last year, though there have been several crucial blasts in Mumbai, Pune and Delhi. No attempt was made to mobilise public, and across the board political opinion before framing the NIA Act.
It is clear that the Central government is just not confident enough to use the full capabilities of the NIA, again due to compulsions of the federal kind. It may be recalled that Mr. Chidambaram was quoted in WikiLeaks as saying the NIA was “pushing Constitutional limits.” Then why did the government create this agency?
Jihadists plan centrally, and operate by choosing the place and time of attack. Recent investigations show that some groups have morphed into independent cells and go on their own attacks. If the line of investigation being pursued by the Delhi police holds good, and it is proved that Iranians were involved in the recent attack on the Israeli diplomat, it means a whole new dimension of the jihadist threat. The National Counter Terrorism Centre that Mr. Chidambaram initially had in mind was to subsume several Central Agencies like the NIA, the NSG, etc., together with the Multi Agency Centre which was being operated by the Intelligence Bureau. The aim was to give NCTC a clearly defined role in preventing terrorist attacks, and if an attack took place, of investigating them holistically. But what was finally approved was a truncated version of the original, keeping the NCTC within the Intelligence Bureau, and giving it powers under the UAPA for arrest, searches and seizure. It is this provision that has disturbed the States. They have not been given powers to register and investigate cases, as they have been in the case of the NIA.
NIA & NCTC
No intelligence agency has powers of open investigation — by their very nature, they operate in the shadows. The NIA will be answerable to the courts for its actions on searches, arrests and seizures. What about the NCTC? Will it get cases registered by the local police after the arrests, searches and seizures? What if the local police refuse to cooperate? Will the NCTC produce their secret records in courts? The NCTC could very well have functioned within the IB, and searches, arrests and seizures could have been organised through the NIA. Was this option not considered because of ‘turf'?
National security is too serious a challenge to be left at the mercy of political and bureaucratic bickering. One recalls with nostalgia former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao requesting the opposition leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to lead the Indian delegation to the U.N.'s international conference on Human Rights — it sent a strong message that India would not be pushed around, and was capable of facing international pressure as a united country. Unfortunately, we lack leaders of vision today.
(Radhavinod Raju is a former head of the NIA.)