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Opportunity knocks down

Whatever the government’s considered policy might be, it is bad counter-terrorist strategy to give them assurance of impunity, writes Ajit Doval.

india Updated: Dec 22, 2008 23:15 IST
Ajit Doval

People want change. There have been two dozen major terrorist incidents in the last four years that have left over 900 dead. Against this backdrop, the audacity of the Mumbai carnage has generated unprecedented national fury. Anger was compounded by the US’s ABC News quoting intelligence sources that warnings shared with Indian agencies were specific:

“...from the sea against the hotels and business centres in Mumbai”. From street corners to drawing rooms, there are angry outbursts against the polity, systems, laws, State apparatuses and intentions and capabilities of those entrusted with the task of national security. Change we must. But anger is probably the worst stimulant for the change required.

There is another tragic side to the story. In India, governments agree to ‘change’ only when bled or pressurised beyond their political endurance. The government making laws to fight terrorism, which are a near repeat of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) that it repealed on coming to power four years ago, is illustrative. Do we always need ‘Mumbais’ to trigger the change?

There is an outcry to keep politicians out. In a democracy, if they have to be excluded from countering a threat that challenges our civil society, we first have to abandon democracy. Tackling Pakistan, enacting the right laws, running the government and insulating the populace from jihadi influence are all part of a political process. In a democracy, elected
representatives have to do all this.

It is the politician’s indifference and low prioritisation of terrorism that is the problem — not his over-indulgence.

While terrorism should figure high on India’s political agenda, it is the execution of counter-terrorism policies and
apparatuses that should be depoliticised. Today, it is the other way round. The Supreme Court’s judgements on depoliticising the police and its repeated demands for compliance have been ignored by politicians both at the Centre and in the states. This is illustrative of where the problem lies. Terrorism cannot be fought unless the police are reformed. This can’t take place unless the police force is depoliticised.

Terrorists have to be fought both in the defensive and offensive modes. While in the defensive mode, we have to protect our people and interests; in the offensive mode, we have to neutralise and deter our enemies. Operating exclusively in the defensive mode is like playing football with one goal post where you only take the hits. This way, the defending team can never win. Fourth generation warfare against an invisible enemy can’t be won unless the costs are made unbearably high for the perpetrators and supporters of terror. A credible covert capacity, the use of which can be controlled and calibrated, will be an effective deterrent.

Unilaterally lowering the deterrence threshold — like the declaration in Havana on September 15, 2006, that Pakistan was a ‘terrorist victim State’ and not a ‘terrorist-sponsoring State’ — only reduces the pressure on the enemy and emboldens it.

Whatever the government’s considered policy might be, it is bad counter-terrorist strategy to give them assurance of impunity. The nation needs to build deterrent covert capabilities against terrorism.

In the defensive mode, strong anti-terror laws — substantive and procedural — are necessary. It is gratifying that the government has almost re-enacted Pota. However, in the proposed new law, inadmissibility of disclosures made before the police remains a lacuna. How can the police get evidence of the planning, preparation and logistics that lie beyond their reach and jurisdiction? Making admissions even before senior police officers inadmissible will only help the terrorists.

How can a society unwilling to trust its police against a foreign terrorist expect a policeman to lay down his life to protect it?

A seamless integration of the three functions that go in fighting terrorists — developing operation-grade intelligence, coercive action to pre-empt or prevent terrorist actions and investigation — is required. One of the reasons why terrorists are able to display greater surprise, speed and success in their operations, despite low human and material resources, is that each terrorist group synergises all the functions that go into perpetrating a terrorist act. A unified national response will check the menace of passing the buck that has cost the nation for so long.

The creation of a National Investigating Agency, though a move forward, will prove to be inadequate unless all counter-terrorist intelligence tasks are placed under a unified command-and-control system. An investigating agency, at best, may get a few more convictions in the courts. But a ‘war against terrorism’ cannot be won in the courts. What we need is a
National Counter-Terrorist Agency with stand-alone capacities to fight terrorism.

For empowerment of the state police, states should be encouraged to enact laws to control activities of organised criminals, counterfeiters, gun-runners, drug syndicates etc. who have collaborative linkages with terrorists. It is regrettable that the Centre has not accorded its concurrence to many anti-terror state legislations like those in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh for years, even as such a law exists in Maharashtra.

It matters to a nation what happens to it . But what is more important is how it responds to it. Today a national consensus can be the driving force for bringing about many changes that are long overdue. Let us turn a calamity into an opportunity and force a change in our antiquated security set-up and make it a state-of-the art instrument that serves the nation.

(Ajit Doval is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau)