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Too many investigators, too many misses

Investigators from 5 state police organisations are separately probing five bombings across five Indian states, all of them by the same terrorist group. They have between themselves caught or killed three “masterminds” so far, report Aloke Tikku and Vijaita Singh.

delhi Updated: Dec 05, 2008 00:13 IST

Investigators from five state police organisations are separately probing five bombings across five Indian states, all of them by the same terrorist group. They have between themselves caught or killed three “masterminds” so far.

It’s been 12 months since the first bombing, and the man now believed to have masterminded these bombings, Riyaz Bhatkal, is still free. Though the group that did it – the Indian Mujahideen – stands dismantled.

These bombings, more than any other in recent times, have brought home the need for one agency to investigate terrorist strikes. Less confusion, no duplication of efforts and, the best part, nothing slips through the cracks.

“We need one specialized agency to investigate terrorist attacks,” said former Intelligence Bureau chief Arun Bhagat. Experts said the political leadership, irrespective of their affiliation, must back the proposal.

Their logic is very simple: every terrorist strike in recent years has been the result of many factors coming together from many separate locations – both men and material. The investigative agency, therefore, must be able to cut through state boundaries and red tape.

“Every terrorist operation over the last few years was a result of decentralised operation,” said Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the strategic think-tank, Institute for Conflict Management.

For the Mecca Masjid blasts in Hyderabad in 2007, the explosives came from one place, the SIM card of the mobile phone used to trigger the blasts from another, the bombmaker was from Bangladesh and the operation was controlled by people across the border.

The Indian Mujahideen email claiming credit for the Ahmedabad serial blasts was sent through a hacked WiFi connection in Mumbai. And one of the cars carrying explosives in Surat had been stolen from Maharashtra.

The disjointed manner in which investigations are conducted would have led to the release of a terror suspect in Karnataka this year, said a home ministry official. At a review meeting in Delhi, a Karnataka police officer mentioned a particular terror suspect was being released shortly.

“A Tamil Nadu police officer present at the meeting realised this was the same man they had been looking for for a long time,” said a senior home ministry official, who was at this meeting.

“I fear this happens all the time,” the official said, requesting anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Lack of coordination – or the absence of an institutional memory as former intelligence bureau chief Bhagat calls it – however, is not the only problem.

There is a total absence of professional competence in state police outfits. “There is hardly an important terrorism case in the last few years except the Coimbatore blast case that the state police investigated thoroughly and successfully,” said a senior officer with the CBI, the only federal investigating agency in India.

“Almost 100 of the nearly 130 suspects in the Mumbai serial blasts were convicted only because they were investigated and prosecuted by the CBI,” a retired home ministry official said.

Over the last four years, only 84 people have been convicted of terrorism throughout the country; charges under Tada against 765 others could not be proven.

However, the CBI cannot step in and take over cases as can its American counterpart, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “We need a request from the state concerned to start investigations,” a CBI officer said. But having said that, it’s also true that the CBI is far from perfect. It’s been often accused of playing politics on behalf of the government of the day.

But a Central Vigilance Commission official said in CBI’s defence that it’s “minimal”. “It is as close to the ideal situation that you can have,” said the official. The commission oversees the bureau’s functioning. “It might help if the CBI or the proposed federal agency were to become administratively autonomous too,” he said.

But, experts warned, the government mustn’t stop after creating a federal investigating agency. It must also address the problems afflicting the state police organisations – from equipment to training.

Policing has been a low priority area for decades. With only 126 police personnel for every lakh people – compared to over 300 in the US and 425 in Finland - the situation is tilted in favour of law-breakers of every kind.

“This is not the way to deal with 21st century terrorism,” insists Sahni, convinced that till the states bridge this crucial gap, there is little hope of any real change in India’s ability to fight terrorism.

“If six of your top officers die in one attack,” says Sahni, “there is something seriously wrong”.