Above: Maharashtra Governor Vidyasagar Rao (in the middle) and CM Devendra Fadnavis (in blue jacket) paying tributes to martyrs on 26/11/Photo: UNI
Even 10 years on, the country is not fully prepared for another terrorist attack and is bogged down by petty politics and lack of co-ordination between various agencies at the grassroots
By Col R Hariharan
Are we better prepared for another attack like 26/11? Unfortunately, the answer is not simple as it is interwoven with the international environment, and internal political and structural dynamics.
On the 10th anniversary of the Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008, in which 166 people lost their lives, relatives of the victims came together at the Gateway of India, facing the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel which bore the brunt of them. The media went on a high, bashing Pakistan and its “deep state” while recounting details of the attack.
Internationally, Israel and the US came out with strong statements of solidarity with the victims of the attack and India. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his message said that the fact that the perpetrators of the attack had not been prosecuted so far was “an affront to the families of the victims”. He called upon all countries, “particularly Pakistan, to uphold their UN Security Council obligations to impose sanctions against the terrorists responsible for this atrocity, including LeT and its affiliates”.
International solidarity, particularly from the US and Israel, is expected as their citizens were victims of the attack; moreover, they had been in the forefront of the international war on jihadi terrorism. Despite this, in the world of realpolitik, national interest is invariably the sole consideration for nations aiding other countries in fighting their wars, particularly terrorism. So India has to fight its own war on terrorism.
There is unlikely to be any change in Pakistan’s attitude in prosecuting Hafiz Saeed and six others involved in the Mumbai attack. This was evident from the presence of Punjab minister Fayyaz ul-Hasan at a function organised by the Jamat-ut-Dawa, founded by Saeed, on November 26, 2018. The backdrop on the stage was a huge blow-up of Elias Davidsson, author of the book, The Betrayal of India: Revisiting the 26/11 Evidence. Hasan’s presence at the function lends credibility to Pakistan’s right-wing narrative of how India orchestrated the whole Mumbai “drama” in November 2008.
This was not unexpected. The Pakistan Army calls the shots regarding defence and India policies and uses trans-border terrorists as a strategy to bleed its neighbour.
In fact, there are clear indications of Pakistan trying to revive Khalistani terrorism in Punjab, leveraging this movement’s connections in Canada, Italy and the UK. On November 4, 2017, the Punjab police arrested five men said to be part of a Khalistani module that killed RSS members in Ludhiana, Dera Sacha Sauda followers and a Christian pastor in October-November, 2017. The suspects, on interrogation, confirmed that the Khalistan Liberation Force carried out the killings at the bidding of Pakistan spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence. Since then, Punjab police and intelligence agencies have scaled up their vigilance on Khalistani activities.
According to the Punjab police chief, tech-savvy young men are influenced by Khalistan separatist propaganda on social media. The grenade attack by two Khalistani terrorists on a Nirankari satsang in a village near Amritsar on November 18 is a strong reminder that Punjab could emerge as an option for Pakistan-supported terrorist operations in the near future. So the question really is not our readiness to face yet another Mumbai-type attack, but to face a massive attack launched by educated, tech-savvy and indoctrinated terrorists and aided by inimical powers. And the way to face them is to overcome our core weaknesses in the war against terror and structurally improve our systems.
The abysmal response of the counter-terrorism apparatus to the 26/11 attacks showed that the national leadership had failed to establish a fool-proof system to handle terrorist threat. In fact, these attacks showed the same systemic weaknesses seen in the earlier Mumbai blasts case of 1993 and the parliament attack in 2001.
The 26/11 episode revealed that there were glaring systemic weaknesses, both at the state and central levels. There was lack of co-ordination in intelligence gathering and dissemination which could forewarn and help agencies respond before a terrorist strike. After an attack takes place, the security response is often uncoordinated, tardy and delayed.
CO-ORDINATION OF INTEL
After the 26/11 attacks, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram mooted a radical overhaul of India’s security and intelligence apparatus. The National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), a network to collate data from the databases of various agencies and ministries, came up in 2016. NATGRID’s data is now available to 11 central agencies, including the Research and Analysis Wing and the Intelligence Bureau. Two phases of NATGRID have been implemented and two more, related to banking transactions and internet usage, are in the offing. The National Investigation Agency was created on December 31, 2008, to combat terror. Its director-general, YC Modi, has claimed it is a success story with a conviction rate of 95 percent in 165 of the 185 cases registered since its inception.
However, the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), modelled on the lines of the National Counter-terrorism Center of the US and meant to be receiving actionable intelligence inputs, has run into rough weather due to political wrangling. Many chief ministers see it as an instrument of the centre to poach on the preserve of states where public order and policing are concerned. This stalling is a major failure in intelligence sharing on a real time basis between states and the centre.
State policing continues to be the weakest link in national security. Many states have not implemented the recommendations of successive police commissions to improve the quality of policing. So, after 2008, though the centre allocated more funds to improve and strengthen state police forces, their capability varies widely from state to state.
The fact that 10 LeT terrorists could travel by sea unchecked for four days and infiltrate Mumbai to carry out the 26/11 strikes exposed the vulnerability of our maritime security. To rectify this, the Coastal Security System was refurbished with more fund allocations for coastal infrastructure, including police stations and radar installations.
According to the Indian Navy website, at the apex level, the National Committee for Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS) co-ordinates all matters related to maritime and coastal security. Joint Operations Centres have been set up by the Navy in Mumbai, Visakhapatnam, Kochi and Port Blair, manned by the Navy, Coast Guard and marine police. They act as command and control hubs for coastal security. As a result, inter-agency co-ordination between nearly 15 national and state agencies has improved. Also, a chain of 74 automatic identification system receivers, complemented by 46 coastal radar installations, cover the entire coast.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, a proposal to create a National Maritime Authority to ensure cohesive policymaking and effective co-ordination for coastal security figured in the president’s address to Parliament in June 2014. However, this has not materialised so far; so NCSMCS continues to be an ad hoc solution. Overall, our coastal security is better than it was in 2008 but it is still a work in progress. Its weakness is the continued neglect by states, reflected in the indifferent performance of coastal police personnel who lack marine capabilities.
The world over, governments have been grappling with enacting laws to handle terrorist threats. India is no exception. Our judicial process, never known for speedy disposal of cases, adds to the agony of enforcement agencies. There is lack of a viable counter-terrorism act. There is confusion in jurisdiction between multiple central and state security agencies. Cross-border issues, with political ramifications, also affect the apprehension and prosecution of terrorists in sanctuaries abroad.
The Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, already contain provisions related to terrorist activity, including the offence of waging war against the government, sedition to bring hatred or contempt or inciting disaffection towards the government. These have been used in prosecuting terrorists involved in almost all cases of terrorist attacks, including the 1993 Mumbai blasts case and 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Kasab’s trial.
After the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, the parliament enacted in 1985 the terrorism-specific Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). It was used extensively to combat insurgency in Punjab. The Act defined “terrorist act” and “disruptive activities”, put restrictions on the grant of bail and gave enhanced power to detain suspects and attach properties. After widespread allegations of misuse, TADA was allowed to lapse in 1995.
In 2001, after the terrorist attack on Parliament, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 2002, was enacted. POTA covers political dissent, allowed prolonged pre-trial detention and reversed the presumption of innocence of an accused. Misuse of some of its draconian provisions led to widespread protest and it was repealed in 2004. However, courts allowed investigation and prosecution of cases booked under TADA even after repeal of the Act. As a result, a number of cases are still pending and many accused are languishing in jails without trial.
At present, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), originally enacted in 1967, is used as the primary anti-terrorism law. It enables the State to impose reasonable restrictions on the rights to freedom of speech and expression, peaceful assembly without arms and formation of associations or unions that threaten national sovereignty and integrity. However, it has been amended by Parliament five times. It was under the UAPA that five activists were recently arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon case for alleged support to CPI (Maoist-Leninist) activities (it is a proscribed organisation).
Since Independence, India’s integrity and unity have been threatened from time to time by separatists, left-wing extremists and terrorist organisations supported by Pakistan. However, its enactments to combat these disruptive forces lack clarity. Law-enforcing agencies, too, have to respect the constitution and be accountable for their actions to prevent misuse of Acts like the UAPA. Unfortunately, with party polemics vitiating the political climate, we may continue to meander in combating the forces threatening our national sovereignty.
—The writer is a retired officer of the Intelligence Corps and associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group