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Ear to the ground

india Updated: Sep 20, 2011 22:35 IST
Shishir Gupta

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hit the nail on its head when he rued the progressive degradation of the human intelligence collection capabilities of the Indian security agencies at the annual conference of state police chiefs last Friday. He actually underscored the fact that the Indian counter-terror machinery was now virtually dependent on stand-off, stand-alone technical inputs, latest weaponry, security software and gadgetry and had forgotten the very basics of policing and information-gathering.

The Indian security establishment is painfully aware that it was the old 'mukhbir' (informer) system or what Singh called the 'grassroots system' that got al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan and not US Predators and Tomahawk missiles. We cannot get the terrorists if we do not know what is happening on 'ground zero' and for that the beat constable has to be on the job and not on his mobile phone. There is an urgent need for more footsoldiers on the ground. A 2007 home ministry estimate reveals that there are only 145.2 police personnel per one lakh of the population as compared to more than 328.4 in the US and 252.8 in Britain. Only Jammu and Kashmir's figures (576.46 for every lakh) match Italy's that has more than 559.1 police officers per one lakh of population.

In simple terms, more footfalls mean more human intelligence, which has now become crucial given that home-grown and foreign terrorists use Voice over Internet Protocol phones and internet dialling websites run by global mafias to avoid technical detection. A closer look at the statistics reveals that the police to population ratio in the terror-hit states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal is pathetic. Lucknow leads the pack with only about 80.76 police personnel per one lakh of population. Maharashtra is only marginally better at 173.65 after two decades of gang wars and terror attacks and Delhi has a figure of 405.25 per one lakh but nearly one-fourth of its personnel are on VVIP security duties everyday.

If this is the strength of the police force in the states, the intelligence agencies fare no better. The Intelligence Bureau (IB), for example, has 50% vacancies at the cutting-edge levels. Seen in this context, one gets to understand why the past seven terror attacks since the blasts at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore on April 17, 2010 have not been solved by the state police or the security agencies.

However, the problem gets more acute if we look at the composition of the Indian police or intelligence establishment as the minority representation is minuscule compared to the humongous majority numbers. Our police and intelligence establishment have to be more inclusive if we are to know what is happening within the ghettos of Mumbra (Mumbai), Jamia Nagar (Delhi), Saraimeer, Sanjarpur and Faria on the outskirts of Azamgarh in UP.

The trust deficit between the police and the minority community is quite evident in Azamgarh district, its ghettos electronically monitored by state anti-terror units. The local police are barely present and governance is totally missing from the minority-dominated villages. Both the police and the minority community are afraid of engaging each other and view each other as threats.

The same is the case with Indian intelligence. At best, there are only two or three Muslim officers in the IB led by a very competent special director Asif Ibrahim. The minority representation among the senior officer ranks of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) is zero. There were only 31 Muslims among the 920 that qualified for the civil services in 2010, which is just 3.6% of the total intake. This raises a simple question: How will we know what is happening to more than 15.4% of our population if we do not reach out and engage them?

The answer is that we just do not know. We are prepared to wait for yet another Batla House encounter to neutralise the terror threat facing the nation. While it is nobody's case that all the past seven unsolved terror attacks were perpetrated by home-grown Islamic fundamentalists, there is an urgent need for enhancing human intelligence collection capabilities in order to synergise this with the advanced technical intelligence collection. One should not forget that the Indian Mujahideen terrorists openly took the air-conditioned state transport bus from Bikaner House, 500 metres from Delhi High Court, to target Jaipur on May 13, 2008 and returned to the capital by the Shatabdi Express. The terror module was busted four months later after the group got overconfident and provided vital clues in stolen cars used for the Ahmedabad bombing.

The Batla House police encounter on September 19, 2008 ended a three-year cycle of bombings, blood, gore and mayhem that began at Varanasi's Dashashwamedh Ghat in 2005 with the police and security agencies looking for communication intercepts and blaming all Pakistan-based groups in the interregnum. The second cycle of bombings has already begun from last year with terrorists maintaining total radar silence and bypassing normal police methods of terror investigation. It is quite evident that the terrorists are one step ahead of the security agencies in using Skype, online chats and servers based in Scandinavia for communications, funding and logistical planning.

Rather than declaring victory after every lead, the police and security agencies will have to seriously put their head down and look at terror footprints on the ground.