Save national security from the establishment

The bungled response to the Pathankot attack underscores the need for a three-pronged revamp: parliamentary oversight, a well-defined national security doctrine and an independent federal commission of accountability.

January 09, 2016 02:58 am | Updated September 22, 2016 11:05 pm IST

GAPS IN THE GRID: “Pathankot has shred to pieces the cycle of terror responses in India: from processing intelligence alerts, mobilising first responders, carrying out counterterror operations under a well-defined command-and-control system, minimising casualties and, finally, obtaining maximum intelligence to thwart possible future attacks.” Picture shows soldiers on watch at the perimeter fence of the Pathankot airbase. — PHOTO: AP

GAPS IN THE GRID: “Pathankot has shred to pieces the cycle of terror responses in India: from processing intelligence alerts, mobilising first responders, carrying out counterterror operations under a well-defined command-and-control system, minimising casualties and, finally, obtaining maximum intelligence to thwart possible future attacks.” Picture shows soldiers on watch at the perimeter fence of the Pathankot airbase. — PHOTO: AP

Most terror attacks in India are characterised by three critical missteps: ignored intelligence inputs, inconsistent security response, and heavy casualties.

Consider, for instance, the Pathankot and the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks. A few days before the boat with terrorists actually landed in Mumbai, the Intelligence Bureau had details of the specific location of a satellite phone used by terrorists on a boat moving towards the Mumbai coast. In the run-up to the attacks, there were at least two more specific alerts Indian agencies had about a possible attack on Mumbai.

After > 166 people were killed, hundreds injured, and India held to ransom for days and humiliated on the global stage by 10 terrorists, no one was held accountable. Those who were supposed to act on the terror alerts, those who were supposed to guard the seas and those who were supposed to protect Mumbai, all carried on with their professional lives.

>In Pathankot the story just got worse. The U.S. agencies had alerted their Indian counterparts around Christmas about a group of half-a-dozen terrorists planning to target the city. By early morning of January 1, a senior police officer reported his ordeal with the terrorists. Despite several hours available to intercept the terrorists in a limited space, New Delhi, in its wisdom, decided to waste time by flying in National Security Guard (NSG) commandos from the national capital, while thousands of trained army soldiers were already stationed all over Pathankot.

As with 26/11, the criminal neglect by those responsible for acting on the information would again be whitewashed. The Central government would again come to the conclusion that no one was responsible for the lapses that resulted in the humiliating attack and the mismanaged counterterror operation.

In all of its contemporary history, India has only been going around in a loop in its inability to tackle armed non-state actors. >Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Pakistan-based terror group suspected to be behind the Pathankot attack, was founded by Masood Azhar, who was one of the three terrorists freed by India in yet another embarrassing episode of terrorism on another year-end: on December 31, 1999, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to release three terrorists after Indian Airlines flight IC814 was hijacked to Kandahar, to secure the lives of the passengers.

Reshaping India’s security posture

Though India’s wars with neighbouring countries have played the most important role in impacting its security posture, terrorism has, in fact, been the biggest threat faced by the country on almost all major counts — the number of soldiers killed, duration of engagement with armed movements or the spread of the menace. However, terrorism hasn’t had a commensurate impact on reshaping India’s security posture and tactics, as well as political strategies.

That might explain why India has one of the poorest track records in tackling insurgencies. Various studies have shown that insurgencies with external support tend to linger on longer than purely domestic movements. Broad assessments of armed conflicts since World War II show that their average time span is just over four years. A RAND Corporation assessment of 89 armed movements said that they last for approximately 10 years on average; the government’s chances of winning a civil war keep improving as the armed movement becomes protracted. In India, none of those statistics seem to work. The Naga insurgency is as old as independent India, several other northern movements are several decades old, and Kashmir militancy started in the late 1980s. One can attribute their longevity to the role of neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and China in fomenting these movements, but it is a futile blame game considering the limited diplomatic options available to rein in those countries. Besides, practical statecraft will acknowledge that the use of non-state actors for tactical and strategic aims across the border is commonplace. Every battlefield, from Bangladesh in 1971, where the Mukti Bahini militia was armed and trained by India, to the present battlefield of Syria, where the U.S. and other international powers are arming militias, has similar stories.

Even-handed approach needed

However, there is a second aspect of terrorism/insurgency that can be better calibrated. At the core of the state response should be a well-delineated national security doctrine and security strategy. And the doctrine has to be placed firmly on constitutional values, especially equality before law. Addressing grievances of various groups and dealing with all wrongdoers with the same force of law is critical in this fight against terrorism. Successive governments have failed that test. When political expediency prevails over constitutional duties, the state cannot expect to defeat terrorism.

In the encounter killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, or the terror cases of Malegaon, Samjhauta Express, Mecca Masjid, etc., the state’s prosecution has been differential and has varied depending on the government in power. The Central Bureau of Investigation and the National Investigation Agency are actively used as tools of the government of the day. Indeed, the Narendra Modi government is not writing out any fresh instructive manuals for Indian democracy, but only carrying on with the expedient practices mastered by successive Congress regimes and other coalition governments. This must end, if the Indian state is serious about fighting terrorism.

Political misuse of state organs and the complete lack of transparency in their operations have resulted in Indian intelligence agencies emerging as obscure centres obfuscating facts or exaggerating things, mostly to impress political masters or for other vested interests. The lack of accountability has also meant that field operations of intelligence agencies are mostly cottage industries run on fake sources or exaggerated claims. Underlying all of it is the significant financial benefits. The final result is that even when genuine intelligence alerts are available, they are not acted upon with seriousness. Most intelligence alerts of Indian agencies actually read like fantasy stories from unbridled minds. Most often, they are merely that.

>Pathankot has shred to pieces the cycle of terror responses in India: from processing intelligence alerts, mobilising first responders, carrying out counterterror operations under a well-defined command-and-control system, minimising casualties and, finally, obtaining maximum intelligence to thwart possible future attacks. The raid on the airbase has shown that terror responses cannot be left to the whims and fancies of a few individuals, however lionised they are. It has yet again highlighted the fact that India still does not have a laid-down policy response to its biggest security threat.

A documented security doctrine

It is time to finally accept the reality and move forward on a broad sweep of reforms in the security establishment. This could be done at three levels — parliamentary oversight, a well-defined national security doctrine and a national security strategy to implement the doctrine, and, finally, an independent federal commission of accountability on security matters.

There have been several discussions about improving the accountability of intelligence agencies and other federal organisations responsible for the security of the country. Many experts are apprehensive of an adverse effect of parliamentarians being given oversight of intelligence agencies. However, the fact is that there is no better accountability system possible. The diversity of Indian politics will ensure there is robust oversight, and that the mechanism is not held hostage by a few vested interests in Parliament.

As many experts recommend, it is >time for India to have a documented national security doctrine , like the Constitution, so that successive governments do not forget the fact that they are mere custodians of an idea called India, and not revolutionaries mandated with recreating the nation-state. The tweaking of India’s security concerns, based on their limited understandings and jingoistic or pacifist persuasions, has had a terribly adverse impact. When I.K. Gujral became the prime minister, he shut down India’s covert capabilities abroad in the simplistic assumption that it would bring peace; by rushing in the NSG to Pathankot and ignoring the huge Army capabilities available in the vicinity, the Modi government miserably mismanaged the operations in the airbase.

Standard response protocols

The doctrine should be accompanied by a security strategy that should spell out the state response to various kinds of security challenges. If it is a terrorist strike, then the decision-makers must know the responses expected of them, and not try to improvise based on their limited awareness. Command and control for such operations should also be spelt out in the document.

Finally, and most importantly, India must constitute a very credible, and >permanent, federal commission of accountability on security matters. This is important not just to bring in accountability to the security establishment, but also to ensure that the many insurgencies and terrorist challenges do not result in the intelligence and security apparatus getting a free hand to misuse their powers. Such a commission can also be a watchdog in places like Kashmir and the Northeast, where repeated allegations of human rights violations are haunting political efforts to find peace, and feeding terrorism.

India, and its security forces, can’t any more trust the wisdom of a few wise men to tackle terror threats, secure our assets and safeguard national interests. The first step is to write down what the rulers of the day should do when a terror threat occurs.

Veto power to the terrorist?

Terror strikes in India are uncomfortably closer than ever to major developments in the fragile relationship between India and Pakistan:

1December 25, 2015: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore
2January 2, 2016: Attack on Pathankot airbase
3July 10, 2015: Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif meet in Ufa, Russia
4July 27, 2015: Three gunmen infiltrate into Punjab; seven people killed, includes a superintendent of police
5Nov.-Dec. 2014: Jammu & Kashmir elections underway; Mr. Modi addresses rally in Srinagar on December 8
6November 27, 2014: SAARC summit in Nepal; Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif shake hands, Indian Prime Minister visits Jammu a day later
7November 27, 2014: Encounter in Arnia sector, Jammu; 12 people killed
8September 26, 2013: Twelve people, including a Lieutenant Colonel, die in two militant attacks on police and Army formations in Kathua and Samba districts. First major attack in Jammu province in almost a decade.
9September 29, 2013: First meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and recently elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York
10Jun 24, 2013: Eight Army jawans killed and 19 others injured in ambush near Hyderpora area on the outskirts of Srinagar
11June 25, 2013: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi visit the Kashmir Valley
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