The lessons India hasn’t learned from 26/11

Five years after national outrage led governments to make big promises, the police and intelligence services are still battling chronic deficits of capacity

November 27, 2013 01:58 am | Updated December 05, 2021 09:06 am IST

In the last five years, India’s counter-terrorism response to 26/11 has consisted mainly of fighting words. File photo

In the last five years, India’s counter-terrorism response to 26/11 has consisted mainly of fighting words. File photo

There’s no date called 9/1 imprinted on our memories, the anniversary when School Number 1 in Beslan opens its doors so parents can walk past its peeling walls, all the way through the long corridor lined with the photographs of the children who were killed. That morning, on September 1, 2004, heavily armed men from the jihadist group, Riyad ul-Saliheen (the Gardens of the Righteous), walked in through the door of the Beslan school soon after the students and their parents did, and took 1,100 hostages. Three days later, when the siege ended, 334 people were dead; 186 of the dead were children, many executed at point-blank range, as the school was stormed.

In security services across the world, Beslan sparked off serious thinking on what is now called mass-casualty terrorism, leading to investments in special forces training, police capacity building, and intelligence-gathering. India didn’t care.

Five years ago, 26/11 provided a murderous wake-up call, this time, next to our beds. The bad news is this: no one woke up. India’s counter-terrorism response to 26/11 has consisted mainly of fighting words. For the most part, the flagship counter-terrorism projects launched after 26/11 now amount to little more than tattered flags, flapping in the wind.

Poor record

The government’s key post-26/11 projects have, almost without exception, floundered. NATGRID, intended to enable the monitoring of terrorist operations through existing banking, finance and transportation, hasn’t yielded to a single prosecution, and, according to intelligence officials, is years away from becoming a real time tool. The Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems Project (CCTNS) was to have linked all police stations across the country two years ago. It will soak up Rs.2.76 billion in 2013-2014, but is, so far, operating only on a pilot basis due to design and software issues. Former Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s Rs.640 billion National Counter Terrorism Centre has been put on hold, following objections from State governments.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has done somewhat better: sanctioned some 650 officers — though there are just 388 on the rolls so far — the agency has been able to lavish resources on the 72 key terrorism-related cases it handles. It bears mention that just two convictions have been secured so far.

It’s worth considering, though, that the NIA will at best prove an island of excellence, with a peripheral impact on the country’s investigative capacities as a whole. For one, the NIA’s numbers are tiny when compared to international standards. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which serves a much smaller population, has 34,019 staff, of whom 12,979 are agents, or trained investigators. More important, India’s State criminal investigation departments had a total of 11,279 personnel at the end of 2011, with 6,252,729 cases to handle. That means each officer, administrative and support staff included, was supposed to have been investigating a staggering 533 cases — a workload guaranteed to result mainly in failure.

Things haven’t gone much better for the government’s force enhancement programmes, either. The National Security Guard (NSG) has hubs in four major cities, as promised by the government after 26/11. The stark fact is, however, that the force is over 20 per cent short of its sanctioned strength of officers, stripping it of key command-level leaders in a moment of crisis.

India’s central paramilitary forces, or CPFs, have expanded to gargantuan proportions, rising from 906,504 personnel in 2012, up from 838,893 in 2008. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) alone is up to 2,22,000 armed personnel — 3,00,000 including administrators and support staff — up from 1,67,367 in 1999, when it was assigned a lead role in central counterinsurgency operations.

Yet, efforts to modernise the CPFs have floundered. In a thoughtful analysis, the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management’s Ajai Sahni has shown that the Ministry of Home Affairs has made available just Rs.900 million of the Rs.23.6 billion the CPFs said were needed for modernisation. The CRPF sought Rs.8.73 billion but has received Rs.200 million; the Border Security Force said it needed Rs.6.94 billion, but has got just Rs.200 million.

Even worse, police forces in the States haven’t grown or been modernised. Mumbai has the same numbers of personnel, for example, who proved so inadequate on 26/11. Efforts to expand police forces to the 220 police per 1,00,000 population norm advocated by the United Nations are nowhere near realisation. The police-population ratio has risen only modestly, to 138:1,00,000 from 120:1,00,000 in 2006.

Outdated curricula

In most police academies across the country, curricula are still based on pre-independence patterns, leaving forces desperately short of skilled investigators, analysts and technical experts.

The government’s much-vaunted coastal security initiative, too, doesn’t seem to have done much to secure India’s sea borders. India’s fishing fleet still hasn’t been fitted with a satellite-based tracking and identification system, necessary to stop attacks coming in from across the high seas. Earlier this year, the Comptroller and Auditor General said that “72 per cent of the fast patrol vessels (FPVs)/inshore patrol vessels (IPVs), 47 per cent of the advanced offshore patrol vessels (AOPVs) and 37 interceptor boats (IBs) were either on extended life or their extended life had expired.” It recorded that 36 of 50 coastal police outposts remained non-functional, since no police were posted there.

Earlier this year, the weaknesses of the system were brutally exposed when it was revealed that a 390-tonne armoury, the Seaman Guard Ohio , had operated in Indian waters for 45 days without detection. It evaded multiple coast guard patrols, as well as a search at Kochi port in August. In June 2011, the MV Wisdom ended up undetected on Juhu Beach in Mumbai; the next month, a Panama-flagged vessel, Pavit , ended up in the same place, again undetected.

Time running out

The Ministry of Home Affairs’ annual reports have dutifully recorded its determination to act—and then nothing has been done. In 2011-12, the Home Ministry’s annual report said it had asked all States to “carry out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard to firm up their additional requirements.” However, its 2010-2011 report, had said they had already “carried out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard to firm up their additional requirements.” The 2009-2010 report “carried out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard to firm up their additional requirements” in 2009-2010. The only thing that changed was the page numbers the text featured on.

It isn’t that nothing has gone right. In the year since then, police forces have made substantial investments in addressing those problems. Maharashtra’s Force1, after a poor beginning, is now rated among the best in the country, ranking alongside the NSG and crack military units in competitive commando exercises. Hyderabad has the 250-strong OCTOPUS force, drawing on the experience of the State’s feared counter-Maoist Greyhounds. Delhi set up a similar special weapons and tactics units in 2009, initially trained by military experts from India and abroad.

The bad news is this: these local interventions are just not enough. The figures show India’s main response to the events of 26/11 has been big talk. There still isn’t a policy document to guide police modernisation, nor a road map for intelligence reform and capacity-building.

For the past decade, India has had circumstance and luck on its side. Terrorism has declined steadily in all theatres, from Jammu and Kashmir to the North-East. Even Maoist violence has fallen in recent years, belying dark warnings of a red tide washing over India. These gains, though, have been predicated on three historically anomalous circumstances: the restraining presence of the United States after 9/11, a war between Pakistan and the jihadists it long patronised, and a favourable international climate, driven by record economic growth.

Each of these circumstances is giving way to new realities: tensions on the Line of Control are rising, jihadist groups across the border are resurgent, and fissures within India are throwing up new, violent challenges to both the Indian state and civil society. Each day, the breathing space India has had to prepare itself to address these challenges diminishes.

Today is as good a day as any for New Delhi to wake up.


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