May 14, 2021
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Strategic Vastu Shastra

'Tough laws' or hollow metastructures like the NIA are no solutions to terror. What is needed is greater efficiency and capability in the execution of the quotidian tasks of anti-crime and anti-terrorist intelligence and operations, policing, enforce

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Strategic Vastu Shastra
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

There has been much breathless editorialising about ‘security reforms’ having been put on the 'fast track' since the hurried passage of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act (UAPA) by Parliament. Virtually no meaningful debate or discussion preceded the passage of these Acts, particularly regarding the mandate, provisions and resources of the proposed NIA, on the one hand, or the necessity or effectiveness of the clauses of the ‘tough law’ amendments to the UAPA. 

There was, however, much partisan posturing and, despite the enthusiasm of many a long-in-tooth expert, it can safely be said that these two instrumentalities have now already exhausted much (if not all) of their potential utility -- neither can be expected to have any significant impact on India’s capacities to counter the relentless waves of terror that will inevitably come in the foreseeable future; the passage of these Bills has, however, served to deflect the attention of an uncomprehending public and an uncritical media from far more pressing CT imperatives. 

Within the political calculus -- if there are no early repeats of Mumbai 26/11 -- this may just get the parties over the hump of the coming General Elections with no extraordinary pressure to do much more.

Nevertheless, the cheerleaders of the regime would have us believe that, with the establishment of the NIA, India will now have an agency "like the FBI". This would be laughable, were it not, at once, both tragic and contemptible. 

What is not understood, when imitative remedies such as the NIA are proposed, is that every ‘solution’ occurs within a particular resource configuration. Simply saying that America has prevented attacks after 9/11, so we must do what America did, is plain stupid. America does not have Pakistan -- the epicentre of global terrorism -- as its immediate neighbour. 

America has launched two major wars purportedly with the objective of containing the ‘sources of terrorism’ abroad. And, with a GDP of USD 14.14 trillion and a population of just over 300 million, its resources are, in comparison to India’s, with a GDP just pushing USD 1 trillion and a population of 1.2 billion, virtually limitless. 

Specifically, the FBI’s annual budget stands at USD 7.1 billion -- to match this for India’s population, we would need to envisage an expenditure of at least four times as much. The Centre’s outlay under ‘policing’ currently amounts to just USD 3 billion. While the total allocations for the NIA are still to be defined (indeed, would hardly have been estimated, given the haste and incoherence that attended the drafting of the NIA Bill) reports suggest that the ‘initial budget’ is to be a paltry Rs 20 million (about USD 423,000) as ‘non-recurring expenditure’ and Rs 30 million (about USD 634,000) as ‘recurring expenditure’ for the present financial year. 

There is also some talk of carrying our imitation further to create a Department (or Ministry) of Homeland Security in India as well. It would be useful to remind ourselves that this department’s declared Budget in the US amounts to USD 44 billion (excluding the budgets of the various agencies and departments it coordinates and controls). Its ‘secret’ budget is described by sources as ‘without limit’. The US also spends USD 650 billion on defence alone, within a total expenditure bill of USD 2,730 billion. The total annual outlay of the union government in India amounts to just USD 150 billion. 

Efforts to imitate American ‘solutions’ have already created a number of utterly dysfunctional agencies at the centre over the past years, including the National Security Council (with its ponderous ‘secretariat’ and advisory board), the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Department of Net Assessment and the National Disaster Management Authority (imitating the Federal Emergency Management Agency). 

Most of these institutions remain under-manned and under-resourced across all parameters, and operate under ambiguous mandates, with little effective or statutory authority, and every one of them has failed to secure the objectives of its creation. 

The NIA’s mandate, according to the Bill passed by the Lok Sabha on December 16, 2008, moreover, fails to correspond even remotely to the FBI’s mandate. Within the scope of the latter, the FBI is statutorily obligated to investigate every single incidence of a Federal Offence -- that is, every violation of Federal Law, or offence on Federal property. The NIA, however, is going to cherry pick "fit cases to be investigated by the Agency… having regard to the gravity of the offence and other relevant factors." 

But this is entirely counter-productive since terrorism is a complex and ongoing offence and the distinction between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ incidents can be misleading. Major conspiracies often comprise a succession of minor offences, eventually culminating in the final strike. On the other hand, if the NIA’s mandate was to be expanded (at some indeterminate point in the future) to cover every offence relating to its charter -- that is, "offences affecting the sovereignty, security and integrity of India, security of state, friendly relations with foreign states and offences under Acts enacted to implement international treaties, agreements, conventions and resolutions of the United Nations…" -- this would yield tens of thousands of case every year, and require thousands of skilled investigators within the Agency. 

It is useful, in this context, to note that the Centre has failed to provide the requisite manpower and resources even for a comparatively tiny Central Bureau of Investigation to fulfil its relatively insignificant mandate. 

It is useful to pause here, for a moment. The CBI has suffered chronic manpower shortages, which are particularly acute at the level of senior officers and investigators. At top levels, all three posts Special Director/Additional Directors, for instance, are currently vacant. Two posts of Joint Director are vacant, out of a sanctioned strength of 18; the deficit at DIG level is 12 of 38 posts; 22 of 100 posts in the rank of Superintendent of Police (SP) are vacant or held in ‘additional charge’. Crucially, current vacancies at the level of Investigating Officers (IO), the cutting edge of the Agency, number 91, against an unspecified total strength. 

The CBI’s manpower profile, moreover, is a complete muddle, with officers drawn on deputation from entirely unrelated services -- the State Police Forces, the Central Paramilitary Forces, and other Police organisations. By the time they begin to learn the ropes of investigation, the time for repatriation to their parent departments, or, at senior levels, for retirement, looms at hand.

Against such a background, how can it even be imagined that the NIA would rise, fully formed, functional and efficient, from the womb of the earth? Given the Centre’s disastrous record of institution-building and the management of existing institutions, scepticism -- indeed, cynicism -- is not only reasonable, it is inescapable. The NIA can only cannibalize existing organisations -- already suffering from acute skill and manpower shortages -- for a small manpower component in the foreseeable future. 

Even in the long run, there will be inflexible caps to its capacities for recruitment of suitable personnel -- caps that now afflict virtually every Government organisation at specialised and supervisory levels. In the relatively small pool of educated resources in the country (India has an abysmal 9 per cent Higher Education Participation Rate, compared to 35 to over 60 per cent in most Western countries -- and 6 to 7 of this 9 per cent would be unemployable, given the quality of general education), a diminishing proportion is now willing to join the Government, despite a continuous dilution of standards in most services.

In its present form, consequently, the NIA is destined to irrelevance. A more comprehensive mandate, however, is an impossibility within the prevailing resource configurations. Moreover, several provisions -- including those relating to the NIA’s authority to supersede State investigative agencies -- may attract Constitutional impediments, and are certain to be challenged when the very first cases are taken up by the NIA. Further, it is not clear how an ‘investigative agency’, whose role comes into play after a crime has been committed, is going to prevent future attacks. 

For a final reality check, it is useful to note that Pakistan has had a Federal Investigation Agency since 1975. In case no one has noticed, that has not put an end to terrorism in the land of the pure. 

What is argued here is not that the NIA can have no conceivable utility within the architecture of counter-terrorist strategy, but that it can have no immediate utility within the circumstances currently prevailing in India; that this cannot be a national priority; and that the NIA that India is currently capable of putting up (in terms of manpower, resources and skills) can have no plausible bearing on the trajectory of terrorism in India. 

Moving on, it is, indeed, astonishing that the very political formation that has been vociferously arguing for over a decade that POTA was ineffectual in containing terrorism -- their favourite phrase was, "POTA could not prevent the attack on Parliament" -- is now offering a ‘tough anti-terrorism law’ as a solution to terrorism. It is, of course, obvious that the opposition to POTA was inspired by electoral calculations, and it is the case that these calculations may have changed dramatically after Mumbai 26/11. 

Regrettably, the half-truth of that original argument remains inescapable. A counter-terrorism (CT) law is as ‘tough’ as its implementing mechanism. Within the degraded policing and security environment in India, and the equally debilitated justice system, a ‘tough law’ will be of no more than marginal utility, if not entirely toothless, in fighting terrorism.

The disturbing reality is that, far from offering any ‘solution’ to terrorism, the NIA and ‘tough law’ Acts simply confirm that India, today, is a country utterly consumed by irrational belief systems and unexamined faiths. What we see here, is a triumph of form over content, a kind of strategic vastu shastra -- a symbolic shifting about of doors and windows, a shuffling of spaces, that has no realistic impact on the strength or utility of the edifice. 

The Government’s responses have, of course, not been limited to just these two initiatives -- although an overwhelming proportion of laudatory comment has been devoted to these. Crucially, there have been a large number of declarations of intent and official ‘sanctions’ for capacity augmentation in a number of critical organizations and agencies. It is useful to list the principal among these:

  • Home minister P. Chidambaram announced in Parliament on December 11 that National Security Guard (NSG) units would be established in four ‘regional hubs’, subsequently to be extended to a number of other such ‘hubs’. The decision is to be implemented ‘as expeditiously as possible’.

  • The home minister also announced that ‘gaps’ in intelligence gathering had been ‘identified’ and steps were being taken to fill existing vacancies in intelligence organizations and to provide them with advanced technical equipment. Significantly, the previous home minister, Shivraj Patil, had, in the wake of the Delhi serial bombings of September 13, announced the sanction of 6,000 additional posts for the Intelligence Bureau (IB), and for the creation of a new ‘Research and Technology Wing’ in the Agency dedicated to the continuous monitoring and analysis of terrorist operations and to assess emerging CT technologies.

  • India Reserve Battalions are being raised in a number of States, with financial assistance from the Centre. The Union Government has authorized two companies in each such battalion to be raised as "special commando units", with additional central assistance for their training and equipment.

  • A decision has been taken to set up 20 counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism schools in different parts of the country for training commando units and State Police Forces. 

  • MHA has advised all States to establish 24x7 control rooms, linked to offices of Superintendents of Police and District Collectors in the State, to collect and disseminate intelligence relating to terrorism and other forms of organized violence. 

  • Defence minister A.K. Antony announced the decision, on December 20, to set up nine Coast Guard stations, in addition to the existing 13, for better coverage of the country’s 7,516 kilometre coastline. Acquisition of ‘cutting-edge equipment’ and interceptor boats on a ‘fast-track basis’ was also approved. The Coast Guard was also authorized to lease and hire ships from the global market for its surveillance and patrolling activities. 

  • Some announcements have also been made by various state governments, including Maharashtra. Maharashtra has announced its intention to raise a special unit, Force One, "on the lines of the NSG commandos". To strengthen coastal security, the state government has authorized the acquisition of 36 speed boats, twelve of these "immediately". The state minister of home affairs also saw it fit to announce the intention of recruiting the incredible number of 25 personnel to ‘strengthen the intelligence network’.

It is not possible, here, to give a detailed critique of each of these proposals. It can be said, however, that most of these are, at best, marginally incremental, and, at worst, entirely misdirected. 

The decision to locate ‘elite’ NSG units in several strategic and urban centres across India, for instance, -- what can accurately be described as the ‘Rambo model’ of response -- is ill-conceived. The idea is that these small contingents of this ‘crack’ force would quickly be able to smash up any terrorist group that may have the audacity to attack. Regrettably, it can be anticipated that the terrorists will not do us the courtesy of attacking where we are prepared for them; consequently, delays in actual deployment of the NSG -- while they may not be as interminable as was the case in the 26/11 attack at Mumbai, will still remain significant. 

Worse the NSG’s present record at Mumbai does not support a very positive assessment of its capabilities. Even if the delay in arrival at the incident sites is discounted, the awkward reality is that, considering the sheer protraction of the incident and the magnitude of damage just eight terrorists inflicted with small arms and grenades, their eventual neutralization can hardly be considered an exemplary operational success.

It is useful to reiterate, here, that any terrorist operation can only be contained or neutralized, in terms of its potential, in the first few minutes. Which means that the ‘first responders’ -- invariably the local Police -- have to be equipped, trained and capable of, if not neutralising, then, at least, containing the terrorists. 

The reality is that, while ‘special forces’ such as the NSG (or, better, Quick Response Teams within the Police setup) may play a significant tactical role in counter-terrorism, the strategic success of India’s counter-terrorism responses will depend overwhelmingly on the capacities, mandate and effectiveness of its ‘general forces’. It is, however, in these that the greatest and most intolerable deficits currently exist.

It is crucial, in this context, to note that, despite so much hysteria and posturing over the ‘terrorist threat’ over the past years, the police-population ratio in India actually fell marginally from 126 per 100,000 in 2006 to 125 per 100,000 in 2007. As repeatedly emphasised in earlier articles, most Western countries have ratios ranging between 225 per 100,000 to over 500 per 100,000. Western Police Forces, moreover, tend to confront challenges that are far less acute than those Indian police forces are facing, and are, in any event, infinitely better equipped, trained and resourced than their Indian counterparts, many of whom move around on foot, armed with nothing more than a lathi (cane) or an 1895 vintage .303 rifle, and with little training in the use of the latter. 

While the various initiatives and sanctions announced can, at best, help in marginally augmenting capacities, it also remains the case that their implementation is, itself, suspect, given the government’s past record. Specifically, one December 20 report in the Indian Express suggested comprehensive failures even in utilizing funds allocated for security upgrades. For instance, of Rs 7.15 billion allocated for the Police under ‘plan expenditure’ in the current financial year -- largely for acquisition of weapons and equipment -- Police organisations under the MHA had spent a mere 10.7 per cent. 

The National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), the apex technical intelligence body set up on the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee, had spent, till November this year, just Rs 1.95 billion of a total allocation of Rs 24.20 billion. The NTRO received Rs 18.5 billion in 2006-07, of which it ‘surrendered’ (as unspent) Rs 14.14 billion on the grounds that it could not ‘finalize’ purchase of required communications equipment. 

Sanctions and allocations, consequently, have little bearing on capacities and implementation within the Indian system. As one Western commentator notes, "You don’t deserve any praise for doing what you're supposed to do. But in India, bureaucrats who actually do their jobs are virtually heroes."

These are the core realities that need immediate attention. It is obvious that the centre has come under enormous political pressure to show ‘quick results’. However, the will to address the tasks of capacity building, which constitute the real responses to terrorism is still lacking. A large part of the problem is that these tasks cannot be addressed within a timeframe that could have electoral relevance (the General Elections, we must remember, are just around the corner).


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