Lessons for investigating terror

Governments and police forces have their roles cut out.

Governments and police forces have their roles cut out.  

As one who was associated with the Bombay blasts trial for about two years (1999-2001), the latest conviction of six of the accused, including Abu Salem, gives me enormous satisfaction. This court order forms part of the second stage of the trial; in the first stage, the special TADA court designated for the purpose had in September 2006 convicted as many as 100 accused. Much more gratified must be the unfortunate relatives and friends of the 257 people who perished in the savage attack on March 12, 1993 that brought the great city to its knees.

My regret is that there is only a modest public understanding of the complexity of combating and investigating terrorism. The Batla House controversy of 2008 in Delhi is an example to mention for sheer politicisation of terror matters and putting dedicated policemen in a state of discomfiture and danger.

From investigation to trial

There are several misconceptions about what an investigation like the one into the Bombay blasts could achieve. The establishment, both past and present, is often accused of a failure to secure all the accused and get those available convicted by the court. The inability to bring the architect of the 1993 conspiracy, Dawood Ibrahim, to India to face trial has in particular been outrageously assailed as an index of the incompetence of our agencies. This is unfair, to say the least. Despite nearly foolproof evidence that he is being protected by the Pakistani authorities, my perception is that no amount of security cover can permanently shield such a fugitive from justice.

Looking back 16 years, the most important image in my mind is of a member of the judiciary who was scared to take up the case to conduct a day-to-day trial. He had to be assured of an incredible scale of security before agreeing. It is an entirely different matter that later on he rose to the occasion to dispense justice that is now hailed in many quarters. He also went on to adorn the Bombay High Court.

The public should know that it is not the investigator alone who needs to have the guts to unravel all the facts. The judiciary should also be enabled to build a corps of fearless judges who are not only knowledgeable about the intricacies of contemporary terrorism but also have the courage to steer the proceedings during a trial.

Inquiries into the 12 explosions in various parts of Bombay in March 1993 were first handled by the city police before being transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation to facilitate an investigation that had assumed pronounced international dimensions, with the escape from the country of one of the principal conspirators, Tiger Memon, and other prominent accused like Dawood Ibrahim already abroad.

The Bombay Police did an outstanding job in first identifying many of the large number of the accused and later bringing them before the special TADA court. They further produced enough credible evidence to persuade the court to frame charges against most of them.

The common impression that units of a State police are hardly equipped to handle investigations of such epic proportions was for once proved wrong by the remarkable groundwork done by the Bombay Police. The investigations into the November 26, 2008 attacks were again clinical, proving once again that in post-Independence India, despite the valuable resources and talent that are available in the States, we have been systematically diluting the capacity and skills of the local police forces. The political leadership is the main culprit for this dismaying phenomenon. Equally blameworthy is the police leadership, which had over the years meekly abdicated professionalism on the sometimes dubious plea of political interference. The National Investigation Agency, set up in December 2008, has somewhat filled in the gap in terror investigation skills between State and Central agencies.

Recent attacks in Europe, especially in the U.K., have convinced us that no amount of deterrence can foil adventurism on the streets. But merely beefing up numbers of policemen is of no avail. What is even more crucial is the need to constantly sharpen police reflexes vis-à-vis responding to an act of terror. The eight-minute reaction time displayed by the Metropolitan Police during the London Bridge attack deserves to be studied in detail and emulated.

Governments and police forces have their roles cut out. But what about the citizenry? Is it not the responsibility of the private sector and volunteer groups to prepare for the worst-case scenario without waiting for an actual disaster to occur?

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 5:27:33 AM |

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