On the Anniversary of 26/11, India Needs to See Beyond the US Model of Counter-Terrorism

Homeland security will be better served by basic fixes in India's law enforcement system rather than by the deployment of sophisticated technology and weaponry.

Note: This article was first published on November 26, 2017 and is being republished on November 26, 2018.

Mumbai attack mastermind and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed – who carries a bounty of $10 million announced by the US for his role in terror activities and whose arrest in January this year was seen as a signal of a broader shift in Pakistan’s treatment of extremists – walked from house arrest a free man on Thursday. The timing couldn’t have been more ominous. The 26/11 Mumbai attacks took place today exactly nine years ago. 166 people were killed and over 300 were injured in those attacks.

Away from the media gaze on Hafiz Saeed, the Pakistani court conducting the trial of the seven suspects, including LeT (Lashkar-e-Tayyaba) commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, late last month ordered the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to appoint a “focal person” to press for getting the Indian witnesses to Pakistan to record their statements in the case. The suspects have been facing charges of abetment to murder, attempted murder, planning and executing the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The trial has dragged for over eight years also because of repeated transfer of judges hearing the case. As many as nine judges have heard the case in the past eight years.

Thankfully, there has been no major terrorist attack beyond Jammu and Kashmir in the country since 26/11. Is this because our security architecture is more muscular now and our law enforcement agencies are better equipped to prevent such an attack? How are we placed today against a total of 52 terrorist groups that are active in different parts of India?

India’s counter-terrorism experts need to appreciate the fact that the American brand of dollar-driven, technology-obsessed, biometric profiling-based Homeland Security architecture won’t work in our context. Homeland security has cost successive US governments billions of dollars right from the Bush years of the war against terror. India can’t afford that sort of budgetary expenditure. But even if we could, the hard reality is that this vast multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation of ours cannot be secured and protected or policed in the way the US has been.

Ours is not that kind of nation, not that kind of homeland, not that kind of neighbourhood. Our history, geography and political economy make us different from the US and unresponsive to the American way of doing things. We have a hostile nuclear weapons state as a neighbour that is perennially consumed by its own internal political permutations and combinations and slowly spinning out of control. Pakistan’s political economy being what it is, India can’t afford to wish away the dangers of living with a difficult neighbour.

We have around 170 million Muslims who are being targeted as a community in the name of cow protection and pushed to the wall. Every day, young men and women face trials and tribulations because of their religious identity. If even a tiny fraction of them were to totally lose trust in the state machinery and start doubting their worth as citizens of this country and radicalise, they would end up as a threat not just to India, but to the whole world. If ten well-armed foreign terrorists could hold off the NSG commandos and the police for three days, what model of homeland security can secure and protect our nation from the collective anger of alienation, perceived or real, of Indians?

A few brief observations are in order.

One, the strength of Muslims in the Delhi Police is at an all-time low. Until July this year, it had nearly 1,300 Muslims or 1.7%of the total actual strength of 76,348. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) ‘Crime in India’ reports, since 1999 the Muslim percentage in the police department (excluding Jammu and Kashmir) has hovered around 3%. Given the fact that Muslims in India number more than 170 million or 14.2 % of the population, such representation is extremely low.

Two, anti-terrorism laws in India have a conviction rate of less than 2%. More often than not, the law enforcement agencies are using them a means of putting inconvenient people away without bail for a long time and eventually letting them go. The erring police investigators can literally destroy the lives of innocent persons who are wrongfully accused and even convicted of crimes they had nothing to do with. From investigating officers who do not testify truthfully, to police officers who manufacture, destroy and suppress evidence, and even law enforcement officials who have improperly influenced witness identifications and suspect confessions, there have been many instances where police misconduct has resulted in wrongful convictions. This has been the pattern right from the beginning. When the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) was in operation between 1985 and 1995, the maximum arrests under the law were effected in Gujarat, a state where there was not even a single case of terrorism during that period.

Three, India’s tryst with counter-terror strategy is not merely about technology. It is about accountability of the police as the most visible arm of the Indian state and their competence as the first responder as well. Raising more and more armed battalions and sanctioning more funds won’t solve the problems on the ground.

Four, the state governments are in no hurry to implement the famous Prakash Singh judgment, that is the Supreme Court 2006 directives on police reforms. As long as chief ministers and their cabinet ministers can use the carrot of lucrative postings and post-retirement sinecures and the stick of one-line transfer orders, they are under no obligation to take the police leadership seriously. So, from the political angle, the Prakash Singh judgment is as relevant as a seatbelt in an aircraft that is destined to stay parked on the runway. As things stand today, it is farfetched to expect police reforms to rejuvenate our internal security architecture.

Five, in 2012, 36 CRPF men died of mosquito bites and heart attacks as against 37 in Maoist violence. In 2013, as many as 22 CRPF men fell to the two causes as against 20 to Maoists. In 2014, while 50 CRPF men died in Maoist attacks, 95 died due to various illnesses. Of these, 27 fell to malaria, while 35 died due to heart attacks. The data says as much about the poor working conditions and lack of medical care for jawans in Naxal areas as it does about the pitiable conditions of the local communities. The predicament of the constabulary, the first responder, beyond the Maoist-dominated areas in India, is no better. A visit to any police barrack and its toilets will prove this point. No police force can serve a country well with this kind of physical dilapidation, let alone fight terror.

After the Dantewada incident in 2010 in which Maoists trapped and gunned down 75 security personnel, P. Chidambaram, the then home minister, suggested the government could “revisit” its decision not to deploy air power, pointing to his desire to raise the pitch of the current battle. Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik was the first to react. He said he was opposed to deploying the air force against the Maoists because the armed forces are trained for lethal operations to kill the enemy, not fight “our own citizens”. India’s counter terror strategists would do well to remember Naik’s wise words. Rabid rabble-rousers like Hafiz Saeed will come and go. India’s internal security is too delicate a subject to be handled like a military problem.

Basant Rath is 2000 batch IPS officer who belongs to the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. Views expressed are personal.