The NCTC Controversy
India has been facing the evil of terrorism since 1971 when two members of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) hijacked an Indian Airlines plane to Lahore and set it on fire after asking the passengers and crew to leave the plane.
Except in J&K and the North-East, where the Army had to be asked to take over the leadership of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations, in the rest of the country, the responsibility for dealing with terrorism vested with the State Police. In Punjab, it was the police under the able leadership of K.P.S.Gill, the Director-General of Police, that effectively brought the so-called Khalistani terrorism under control.
In Tamil Nadu, it was again the police that brought the activities of the so-called Al Umma, a local terrorist organisation, under control. The police also dealt with the activities of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
In Mumbai, the successful investigation of the 1993 serial blasts was carried out by the police. Thus between 1971 and 1993, the police forces in different states were able to deal effectively with terrorism with the help of intelligence inputs and guidance, where necessary, from the central intelligence agencies.
The infiltration of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and other Pakistani terrorist organisations into India—firstly into J&K and subsequently into other states of India— from 1993 onwards gave a new pan-Indian dimension to the evil of terrorism and made Indian counter-terrorism experts realise that the police alone, however capable, would not be able to deal with the jihadi octopus of Pakistani origin. The problem was aggravated by the emergence of the so-called Indian Mujahideen in 2007.
The need for a pan-Indian counter-terrorism doctrine and architecture was increasingly felt in the post-1993 years, but unfortunately no action has been taken to evolve such a doctrine and architecture. Despite terrorism of the jihadi kind, originating from Pakistan, assuming a pan-Indian and global dimension, we continued to deal with it in an ad hoc manner with the help of the police in different states.
The Task Force for the Revamping of the Intelligence Apparatus, headed by G.C. Saxena, former chief of the R&AW, which was set up by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in 2000, drew attention to our failure to address the problem of pan-Indian terrorism in a professional manner and suggested the creation of a Counter-Terrorism Centre (CTC) in the Intelligence Bureau to deal with terrorism in a coordinated manner.
The CTC suggested by it was patterned after the CTC of the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which was then responsible for counter-terrorism in the US, since the terrorist threats to the US before 9/11 mainly emanated from abroad and were largely directed at US nationals and interests abroad. Since terrorism in India—whether regional or pan-Indian—was largely directed at homeland targets, the Saxena Task Force, of which I was a member, suggested that the proposed CTC should be part of the Intelligence Bureau and should work under the direction of the Director, Intelligence Bureau (DIB).
The CTC, as proposed by the Saxena Task Force, was essentially a preventive architecture responsible for introducing the principle of jointness in preventing terrorism. Jointness meant counter-terrorism experts from different agencies of the government of India working together under the leadership of the DIB for analysing and assessing the intelligence collected by different agencies and the police and giving directions for follow-up action.
The idea was that the follow-up action would still be taken by the State Police, but on the guidance and directions of the CTC, which was not given any executive powers of its own. The Vajpayee government set up the CTC in the IB, but named it the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC). Since it was not given any executive powers to act independently on its own in the jurisdiction of the State Police, there was no objection to its creation from the States.
Before his death in January 2002, R.N. Kao, the founding father of the R&AW, met Vajpayee and told him that without the co-operation of the State Police, the Government of India would not be able to deal with terrorism effectively. He also expressed the view that the National Security Adviser, being an officer of the Indian Foreign Service, with no exposure to the State Police, would not be able to command the required co-operation from the State Police. He, therefore, suggested the creation of a post of Deputy NSA to be manned by a senior officer of the Indian Police Service either from the States or the IB.
Kao told me that Vajpayee reacted positively to his advice and said that he would initiate action for the creation of a post of DyNSA to be manned by a Police officer, who was an expert in internal security and who commanded the confidence of the state police. By the time this post came into being, Kao passed away. When this post was created, it was filled up by another IFS officer who was an unknown quantity in the States and who had very little expertise in internal security matters.
The 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US Homeland brought out inadequacies in the functioning of the CTC of the CIA. It was decided by the George Bush Administration in 2004 to set up an independent organisation called the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) for ensuring jointmanship in dealing with terrorism and place it under the Director, National Intelligence. It also modified the counter-terrorism architecture in the US by creating a Homeland Security Council, which was distinct from the NSC, and placing it under a Homeland Security Adviser, distinct from the NSA.
When the Dr Manmohan Singh Government came to office in 2004, it created a separate post of Internal Security Adviser on the pattern of the USA’s Homeland Security Adviser and made him exercise leadership in all internal security matters, including counter-terrorism. M.K. Narayanan, former DIB, was appointed to this post.
In 2005, after the death of J.N. Dixit, the then National Security Adviser, Narayanan was designated as the NSA and asked to perform both the tasks of co-ordinating external and internal security duties. He was not able to devote adequate attention to internal security matters because of his preoccupation with the negotiation with the US on civil nuclear co-operation.
Internal Security Management in the centre consequently suffered. The progress in the implementation of the Saxena Task Force’s recommendation on counter-terrorism was slow and no attempt was made to draw up a co-ordinated Counter-Terrorism Doctrine and revamp our counter-terrorism architecture.
The result: The 26/11 terrorist strikes, which dramatically exposed the poor state of our preventive architecture. There was no co-ordinated follow-up action even on the limited intelligence that reportedly came from the US through the R&AW regarding the plans of the LET to launch sea-borne terrorist strikes in Mumbai.
After taking over as the Home Minister post-26/11, Chidambaram, who has assumed total responsibility for counter-terrorism management, has sought to revamp the counter-terrorism architecture. He initiated in particular four steps. Firstly, he decentralised the deployment of the National Security Guards and created the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to improve our investigation capabilities. Secondly, he instituted a system of daily meetings of the intelligence chiefs under his chairmanship to discuss the available intelligence and assess the evolving threats. Thirdly, he speeded up the implementation of the Saxena Task Force recommendation for the Multi-Agency Centre, which had gone into doldrums under Shiv Raj Patil, his predecessor. And fourthly, after a visit to the US, he decided to set up an NCTC partly—not totally— on the pattern of the USA’s counterpart.
While his first three steps did not meet with any opposition from the states, his attempt to create the NCTC has met with serious opposition because of his decision to keep it as part of the IB and give it independent executive powers of arrest and searches without the prior knowledge of the state police. His idea probably was that to meet situations where a state police dragged its feet for making an arrest, the NCTC should have its own powers of arrest so that it could make an arrest, produce the suspect before the Police and direct it to act against him.
This was a major encroachment on the powers of the state police without the prior concurrence of the states. In his NCTC architecture, Chidambaram has made two significant departures from existing practices in countries such as the US. Instead of making the NCTC an independent institution, he has made it a part of the IB. By giving the NCTC independent powers of arrest, he has violated the widely held principle in other democracies that a clandestine intelligence agency should not have police powers of arrest which could be misused for political purposes.
His failure to consult the states beforehand and his attempt to confront the states with a fait accompli which would have definitely infringed on their rights have created so much opposition that the very principle of jointmanship in preventing terrorism through a body like the NCTC, now stands suspected as a politicised measure to circumvent the states.
Apparently, there were inadequate consultations even at the centre as one could see from the opposition expressed by an increasing number of ex-R&AW officers to the move to make the NCTC a part of the IB. The controversy has not only become a centre vs state issue, but is also threatening to become an IB Vs R&AW issue.
At a time when there is an urgent need for unity of action against terrorism, creation of a preventive architecture against terrorism has become a highly contentious and politicised issue. While one has to welcome Chidambaram’s decision to postpone the implementation till belated consultations are held with the States, it is doubtful whether the opposition-ruled States, whose suspicions have been aroused, will now agree to the creation of the NCTC at all even if it is not given executive powers. The whole concept, which is necessary, has become suspect in their eyes. It is very unfortunate.
There is no hurry to create the NCTC now. The MAC could continue to handle the tasks of follow-up action on the intelligence collected and prevention. The States have not objected to the MAC and got used to it. Instead, Chidambaram should focus on revamping the counter-terrorism architecture by making the NCTC an independent institution without executive powers working under the direction of the DIB, who could wear two hats as the head of the IB and of the NCTC. The NCTC could work under the DIB but without becoming a part of the IB. It would be similar to the R&AW and the Directorate-General of Security, which are independent institutions working under Secretary (R ), who wears two hats.
In his address to IB officers in 2010, Chidambaram had suggested the creation of a ministry of internal security to focus exclusively on the operational aspects of internal security management. There has been no follow-up on this since then. The time has come to consider this proposal as part of the over-all revamping. None of these ideas would work unless he manages to reach a political consensus with other political parties and the states. Prior consultations with the states should be sincere and serious and not just a gimmick.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), R&AW, Cabinet Secretariat. This article was originally written for the Tribune, Chandigarh
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