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The 2011 Mumbai Serial Blasts and India’s ‘Resilience’

Ms Shruti Pandalai is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 19, 2011

    India has been applauded for “exercising admirable restraint” in the wake of the July 13, 2011 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. 1 And Mumbai has been commended for its “resilience” and ability to stand up and move on after every terror attack that has scarred its recent history. For the ordinary Mumbaikar and the ordinary Indian, the question is: “do we have a choice”? Every time it’s a sense of tragic déjà vu.

    The Home Minister has argued that “no intelligence (on the attack) does not necessarily mean an intelligence failure.” 2 Such statements have triggered charged debates on whether India has learnt any lessons at all from 26/11? The message seems to be that the security-intelligence overhaul undertaken after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks has failed to deliver. Even more disheartening is the pace at which this overhaul has been carried out.

    Most experts have said that while it is unfair to blame the intelligence agencies alone, it is evident that they are being “outwitted by the terrorists.” 3 Everyone is quick to blame the system, but herein lies the problem; we were supposed to have corrected the system post the 26/11 attacks. The good beginnings then made have been plagued by inter-agency turf wars, competing interests and political fault-lines.

    The current dossier for the ambitious plans for re-organising the security-intelligence apparatus in the country has “not yet begun”, “delayed” and “work in progress” peppered across most of its columns. For instance, the National Counter Terrorism Centre set up immediately after 26/11 is still to come into being, way past its deadline of the end of 2010. Its support organisation, the National Intelligence Grid, is off the ground, but not functioning to its potential due to differences among the top brass. The National Technical Research Organisation is yet to be notified as a “monitoring agency” – despite the clearance from the Cabinet Committee on Security – due to opposition from the Intelligence Bureau.4 Any agency to be empowered has to be notified, to be free to intercept and access information. Currently, they require permission on a case by case basis, which considerably prolongs the process.

    Even the National Investigation Agency set up right after 26/11 as the nodal federal agency for investigating terror-related cases has met with limited success. The Home Minister observed that “intelligence sharing has improved in comparison to what it was earlier”, but obviously a lot more needs to be done.5 A senior official speaking off the record observed that in most instances sharing of information among the agencies was being held hostage to one-upmanship and turf wars with vested interests taking precedence over national security.

    Analysts believe that the signs of an imminent attack have been around. Post Osama bin Laden’s elimination, a spike in attacks was expected. There has been an increase in the number of foiled terror plots in the past few months; from bombs suspected to be planted on trains to the ones diffused outside the Delhi High Court and the recent arrests of over “two dozen Indian Mujahideen (IM) and SIMI (Student Islamic Movement of India) members from Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Mumbai” in June 2011; which now are believed to have held vital cues to the 13/7 Mumbai serial blasts. 6

    Terrorism specialists like B. Raman believe we have got the basics all wrong. “The inquiry ordered by the Maharashtra state government after the 26/11 terror strikes only went into the deficiencies of the police. The deficiencies of the central agencies were not inquired into by the government. The result: We have not learnt the right lessons. That is why most of our discourses on dealing with terrorism are on general terms and not in specific terms as a result of lessons drawn from each strike.” 7

    If one were to isolate and look at proposals specifically for police reform, the changes are few and far between. According to official figures, India’s police-population ratio is just 140 per 100,000 people, while globally the ratio is an average of 270. 8 It is also an open secret that India's main internal spy agency, the Intelligence Bureau, “has less than 5,000 field agents to gather ground information from a population of 1.2 billion.”9 More often than not their main mandate is to be “political agents”. For two years now the government has deliberated on a proposal by its own task force on Intelligence to create a Citizen Intelligence Network (CIN) to make ordinary citizens part of the intelligence gathering mechanism.10 This proposal was part of a package of sweeping reforms initiated by former National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and even had the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security. The thrust was on locally gathered human intelligence (HUMINT) to assist technical intelligence. These proposals have also gathered dust.

    The N.N. Vohra Committee set up after the 1993 blasts over 18 years ago recommended a series a police reforms. Each time Mumbai is targeted that report is revived and then forgotten. The approach is always ad hoc and never pre-emptive. We expect the National Intelligence Agency to work like the American FBI. But the truth is that the NIA is grossly under-funded. Further, the national intelligence grid to facilitate a seamless flow of information from inter-connected databases is hampered by invasion of privacy diktats. And the various agencies are still engulfed in turf wars.

    It is time to prioritise. While new friends like the United States have pledged support for India’s counter-terrorism efforts, the fact remains that the Indian police and security forces suffer from several handicaps. As one US Embassy cable, revealed by Wikileaks, observed: “India’s police and security forces are overworked and hampered by bad police practices, including the widespread use of torture in interrogations, rampant corruption, poor training, and a general inability to conduct solid forensic investigations [...] They also regularly cut corners to avoid working through India’s lagging justice system, which has approximately 13 judges per million people. Thus Indian police officials often do not respond to our requests for information about attacks or our offers of support because they are covering up poor practices, rather than rejecting our help outright.” 11

    We need to change this widely-held perception of India’s security apparatus. While the beginnings have been made in right earnest, what is required is the political will to put national security above political posturing. For, even resilience, if stretched, could prove fatal.