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India faces real threat of biological warfare

January 01, 2013 15:45 IST

There is a plausible threat of bio weapons being used against India by non state actors, reports Vicky Nanjappa

Indian Intelligence agencies have said that the threat of a biological warfare against India is not something they would rule out.

A recent report by the BioWeapons Monitor listed India's position on biological warfare. Animesh Roul, executive director, Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, who was part of the team that prepared this report, discusses the report and the threat India faces from bio weapons.

There is a plausible threat of bio weapons use, though the chances of state actors using it against India are slim. However, there is a threat from the non state actors.

India has not faced a single bioterrorism incident, either from non-state actors (terrorists/criminals/deranged scientists) or from inter-state rivalries involving 'capable' state actors. Of course, we often face the so-called 'bio scares' intermittently due to the suspicious nature of a natural outbreak or a possible human intervention (eg. Plague in Surat, Japanese Encephalitis in Siliguri, Bird flu/Swine Flu outbreaks in Northeast and Pune). Also, India has its share of man-made bio weapons related scares/blackmail in the past. Three examples of 'bioscare' could be cited, where a possible angle of non state actors/person/scientist with criminal intent, could be noticed in the last decade.

The 2001 postal letter scares in India (followed by the actual anthrax letter attacks in the US). All were hoax and some letters did contain wheat flour-like powdery substance. For instance, powder laced letters were received by the then Maharashtra deputy chief minister's office till late October 2001, were found to be anthrax negative.

In October 2010, a threat letter from an unknown terrorist group called Indian Mujahideen (Assam) to launch a biological war in the northeast state of Assam; a classic case of bio terror blackmailing by non state actors. Their demands were to free all jihadi leaders held at the Guwahati central jail, end operations against jihadi forces in Assam and stop all ongoing development projects in Assam.

Recently, the brother of US Vice President Joe Biden received a package allegedly from India containing a white powder, though it being a bio weapon has been ruled out.

The Indian government has recognised the threat from bio weapons as real and imminent. Both the ministry of defence and ministry of home affairs place high priority on this issue.

In 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underscored the fact that the government was working towards mitigating biological weapon threats. In July 2008, India's National Disaster Management Authority devised a draft plan to counter the threat of biological disaster, including man-made and natural outbreaks. We have seen actual movement of National Disaster Response Force during the 2010 Commonwealth Games. NDRF teams were deployed with prophylaxis for anthrax and nerve-gas antidotes and were equipped with residual vapour detectors, chemical agent monitors, water poisoning detector kits and three-colour detector papers to tackle any biological/chemical incidents at the venues in New Delhi.

As far as India is concerned, a possible bioterrorism tactic would appeal to Pakistan based Lashkar-e-Tayiba and other Kashmir centric groups. LeT is aware about the potential utility of bio weapon pathogen as it had observed the large-scale disruptions during the US anthrax letter cases. Also, it does not have to recruit or employ microbiologists or life scientists to carry out bioterrorist attacks.

As a matter of fact it has the most robust medical and path lab network in Pakistan and many of its activists are trained medical professionals. (eg Ad Dawa medical missions, Taiba Hospitals and Path Labs in Lahore, Karachi and number of mobile dispensaries).

Potentially the infrastructures and the manpower at the disposal of LeT/ Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD) can be modified to develop bio weapon pathogens without any large investments or at least spreading bioscare if the leadership wish to resort to the tactic.

As told to Vicky Nanjappa

Vicky Nanjappa in Bengaluru