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India losing war on terror

Blaming the usual suspects, bumbling police and archaic laws. So how do we catch terrorists? Neelesh Misra ponders.

india Updated: Jul 26, 2008 00:18 IST
Neelesh Misra

When this newspaper ran a story last year about a confidential United Nations report ripping apart India’s anti-terror preparedness, the Ministry of Home Affairs quickly swung into action. Its officials wanted the journalist prosecuted.

Shooting the messengers, an old habit of Indian officialdom, is playing out with disastrous consequences virtually every month across India, the largest theatre of terror groups in the world where more than 70,000 lives have been lost to terror-related violence. India loves blaming the ISI for nearly everything that goes wrong here. But alongside, India’s government behemoth hates introspection. It hates fingers pointed at it on its capability to deal with terrorism.

Across more than a dozen states, India’s 2.2 million-strong police force, one of the largest in the world, is facing challenges of militancy that most policemen are not trained to deal with, and too busy to handle. Armed with the exact same skills, the policemen who rush to the site of a terrorist bombing also investigate bicycle thefts and guard the venues of VIP weddings.

Despite a police modernisation programme that has had hundreds, possibly thousands, of crores of rupees pumped into it, bulletproof vests, night vision devices, fast vehicles — and often, simply diesel or functioning generators and telephones — remain luxuries for most policemen in militancy areas.

When bombs and guns go off, there is a huge hole in forensic investigations, with the policeman’s truncheon seen as the most effective way to seek the truth from suspects.

And there is no effective national database to study suspects, compare patterns, strategies and weapons. Our border entry points — from where militants can simply walk in from, say, Nepal or Bangladesh or Myanmar — just don’t have computers. There is no real-time information sharing that would act as a force multiplier for different entities across the security spectrum.

All this could have been coordinated by a national body to tackle terrorism — like the US Department of Homeland Security — but the idea remains in the spider web of politics.

In courts, judges are often not equipped to deal with specialized terror cases — a luxury in a country with 10.5 judges per million citizens. The Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act did away with some of those holes, but rather than fix the misuse, the government did away with the law. Terrorism is dealt under an amended version of a 1967 law, enacted when there was no terrorism of the modern kind.

So, the nation might feel the terror threat, but terrorism — irony — is a state subject.