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No end to preparedness in the fight against terror

September 08, 2011 14:07 IST

India has certain special features -- a strange disconnect between thought and action, lack of strategic focus in fighting terrorism and a national inability to focus on core issues for immediate response, says Colonel R Hariharan (retd).

Terrorists have struck once again in Delhi, taking the historical count of such attacks to more than a dozen. Apart from the tragic loss of lives of innocent members of the public, the repeated terror attacks in Delhi have exposed the soft underbelly of India's fight against terrorism.

Unfortunately, in our country, one can almost predict the immediate response to terrorist attacks because it is so pedestrian -- the prime minister assures the nation that the terrorists would be brought to book, Opposition leaders blame the government for its soft attitude to terrorism, the media blames the police, and everyone calls it an intelligence failure.

When Lashkar-e-Tayiba terrorists struck in Mumbai and went on a rampage on November 26, 2008, many probably expected India to react like the US did after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks. But India is not the US.

India has certain special features -- a strange disconnect between thought and action, lack of strategic focus in fighting terrorism and a national inability to focus on core issues for immediate response.

These features condition our thought and action in almost all spheres of governance.

For instance, India's 11th five-year defence plan is yet to be approved, even though the plan will end next year. So it is not surprising that procrastination is affecting India's readiness to fight terror.

Even the 26/11 attacks, which paralysed the nation for three days, despite all the rhetoric has served the limited purpose of policy-makers deciding to shake off their lethargy and gear up their act to fight terrorism on the national front.

But the policy formulations of Home Minister P Chidambaram, spelled out after his appointment in 2009, are not yet fully translated into action.

For instance, the Cabinet Committee on Security approved in principle the proposal for a National Intelligence Grid (NatGrid) -- an integrated facility to link the databases of 21 departments and ministries to improve the capability to counter terror threats -- only in June 2011, nearly three years after the 26/11 attack demonstrated the lack of coordination among government agencies as the number one problem in fighting terrorists.

Similarly, the home minister's proposal for creating a national centre for counter-terrorism is yet to become a reality.

Ammonium nitrate, which is freely available in fertiliser shops, had been one of the ingredients in many of the blasts.

Though it is at best a low-intensity explosive, its use in conjunction with a high explosive like PETN enhances blast intensity. A proposal to ban the free sale of ammonium nitrate taken up by home ministry is still to be implemented due to objections from the fertiliser ministry.

Despite these handicaps, if we take a cursory look as the news bytes of Delhi blast trickle in, there are some positive signs to show we are learning.

For instance, the police response was fast, in 40 minutes the injured were admitted in hospital and, despite the rains, effort was made to save the evidence at the site of the explosion.

The blast site was cordoned off. The National Investigation Agency team was on the scene almost on the heels of the police.

By the evening, the police had interviewed eyewitnesses to the blast and prepared sketches of two suspects for rounding up.

The composition of the debris has revealed a nitrate explosive was used in making a sophisticated bomb.

The exit routes from Delhi to neighbouring states were blocked. These may not appear major actions, but successful investigation of any terrorist act requires collection and analysis of each and every bit of information, as they help in the logical analysis of forensic, human and technical intelligence.

The public also showed increased awareness despite the initial panic. In their reaction, people had higher expectations from the government which in itself is a good thing as it showed greater public interest in protective measures being taken by the government.

Much has been made about the absence of CCTV at the gates of the Delhi high court, which is indeed a lapse. But even CCTV coverage is more handy to identify the culprit after the blast than the limited role it can play in preventing a terror strike.

In the fight against terrorism, there is no end to preparedness. India is in a state of transition from the bullock cart age to space age; so to galvanise the nation to fight terrorism is no easy task.

It cannot be left only to politicians or bureaucrats. There is a need to create greater awareness of counter-measures against terrorism.

There has to be closer interaction between law enforcement agencies and non-government bodies. And the media has to play a responsible role, and think well beyond higher TRP ratings.

It is time we stopped finger-pointing and scoring political brownie points. We need to take a look at where we have failed and how we can overcome them.

But, at the same time, we should dispassionately look at some of the glaring weaknesses. These include:

  • The absence of motivated leadership to discourage the terrorist from attacking the national metropolis. To achieve this, the political leadership has to take some bold actions, beyond making political statements with an eye on vote-banks.
  • Coordination among government agencies both at the state and central level continues to be a weak link. The bureaucracy has to demolish mental blocks and give up turf wars to achieve real-time coordination of their efforts.
  • Police modernisation in the states is woefully lagging behind desired levels of preparedness. As Delhi borders five states, it is essential this issue is given top priority.
  • Our judicial system has not been able to catch up with the modernisation process, thus affecting the whole country. There is a need to use technological tools to speed up delivery of justice. Similarly, we require stringent laws to ensure terrorists do not use structural weakness to act with impunity.

Colonel R Hariharan, a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as head of intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group

Colonel R Hariharan (retd)