On the third anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, home minister P Chidambaram told HT that several measures to revamp the security architecture post-26/11 have taken off, but "tardy decision-making and misplaced apprehensions," are holding up several others. Excerpts from an interview:
After 26/11, you had said it can no longer be business as usual. There is a general perception of complacency in government and do you fear it is back to business as usual in security?
Two kinds of things have happened after 26/11. There is a realisation among the security forces and those in charge of the security forces that we have to build capacity urgently and improve our capability to prevent as well as punish terror attacks. Therefore a lot of things have happened at that level. However, at the administrative level, where plans and decisions have to be made, where funds have to be allocated, I am afraid, there is not that sense of urgency.
Which are those areas that require quick improvements?
Counter-terrorism, particularly the NCTC, NATGRID, cyber security, CCTNS and improving our capability to gather technical intelligence. We need to get over problems of both tardy decision-making and misplaced apprehensions. Technology is the game changer, but technology triggers fears in people's minds. We should get over that fear and embrace technology.
Pakistan has not done much on punishing the culprits of 26/11. Is it unwillingness or inability?
Both. Before we try to answer that, we must ask the question, who is in charge of Pakistan. ISI and the army have significant control over security matters. The civilian government is unable to decide the course of action; is weak and unwilling to risk any confrontation with army or ISI. That's why it is unable to keep its promises to us.
There have been talks about a joint mechanism between India and Pakistan to fight terrorism. You think it can help?
I have not supported the idea. How can we share intelligence with a country that we know has state actors, non-state actors and rogue elements who are acting against India. I think any joint effort with Pakistan on the terror front is very far away until we have a government in that country that is in control and is willing to fight terrorism.
You spoke about people fearing technology. Some of your colleagues in the cabinet have expressed concerns regarding privacy when you set up NATGRID for instance, that will have surveillance powers.
These are legitimate concerns. But these are not concerns that cannot be addressed. Take NATGRID. We are putting in place the best technology that is available. We are putting in firewalls; external checks and auditing. Anyone who accesses information through NATGRID will leave an inerasable footprint or trail. As technology throws up new security features, we will include them. But the fear that technology will breach privacy cannot hold us back from going ahead with NATGRID. Without NATGRID the databases that are scattered cannot be brought together.
The US reportedly asked Pakistan military chief Gen Kayani to take away a mobile phone being used by Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi while in custody, to be in touch with LeT cadres. But Kayani refused. This corroborates with our information?
Lakhvi was a key player of 26/11 and an accused in Pakistan. In fact, he is one of only two key persons of the 26/11 plot who have been charged in Pakistan. The other accused are all foot-soldiers. We have identified a number of key players; six names and one pseudonym I gave Mr Mallick, my counterpart in Pakistan. None has been arrested. I am not surprised that they are treating Lakhvi with a lot of affection and generosity.
Did we come close to any threat comparable to 26/11 after 2008?
57 terror modules - small and big ones - were identified and disrupted after 26/11. At any given time, there are several plans underway. There is always somebody who is planning a spectacular attack.
So there's no guarantee that 26/11 will not happen again?
I don't know of anyone who can guarantee that there will be no further attacks. Despite our high alertness and preparedness, it is possible that someone will slip through the net and an attack could take place. For example, a lot of people think in the US no attack has taken place after 9/11, which is not true. There have been three successful attacks and three nearly-successful attacks. At the same time they have also busted a large number of modules. All that we can do is to remain alert, identify and disrupt the modules, and in the event of an incident respond firmly, quickly and with adequate force.
Can you name one or two things that are your priority now?
On NCTC, we are still in the twilight zone. I hope we will take a decision soon; it is an idea that is long overdue. And I hope we can muster the courage to take bold decisions, when we move to more complicated areas such as cyber security.