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What we have today is systemic failure
Vikram Sood
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November 28, 2008
Terror now stalks the country. As one watched the television screens on the night of November 26 it seemed a re-run of past terrorist incidents in India. Yet these were different. India has not seen a terrorist attack of this kind where terrorists have stormed a hotel, taken people hostage, killed others and have made no ransom demand so far. Obviously they are playing for publicity and merely want to draw attention to themselves and whatever be their demands. Our hysterical response on television channels and confused response of the authorities adds to the publicity.

Anyone watching the television scenes would have noticed that the terrorists seemed calm, physically fit and had not even bothered to cover their faces. Their demeanour was that of well trained persons, familiar with their surroundings and the task to be accomplished almost commando-like in their bearing. They were either planning to drop their weapons after the act and melt into the crowd or go down fighting. The game is simple -- the longer the crisis lasts, the greater the publicity and greater the pressure on the government to do something. It will require consummate skill and determination to overcome this crisis with minimal loss of innocent lives.

The present lot of terrorists are not the traditional suicide bombers ready to blow themselves up. Yet somehow the manner of their arrival by boats and the physical features of the terrorists brings to mind Mumbai March 1993. At that time too a part of the plot was to carry out killings at other selected targets after the simultaneous bomb explosions. The area of operation and the targets were also quite similar -- upper class and affluent. Is there a Pakistani�ISI-Dawood hand in this? It is still early days but these questions need to be asked.

In India our tendency has been to make some post event superficial changes, pious declarations of intent and condemnations of the act accompanied by horrendous photographs of the event with knee jerk expert comments from media rookies. That is until the next attack takes place. We do not even have adequate laws to deal with the threat like the British and the Americans do, and for a country that has had to face terrorism for most of its independent existence, we do not even have national identity cards because it is politically inexpedient. Our border controls remain inadequate.

Post event the investigating agencies should be allowed to operate in areas and societies from where the attack is suspected to have occurred or planned. There can be little success if exclusions are made on grounds of religion or region.

Public indifference to terrorist incidents may indicate that the people may have overcome fear which is a positive development but if it is because of indifference to suffering based on the hope that 'I' shall not be the target because tragedies are only meant for 'the other', then we have a problem.

There is inadequate public response because it is generally assumed that prevention of terrorism is exclusively the task of the State. This attitude has to change and only the State can help this change. The average citizen must be encouraged and educated to help the State by providing clues, warnings and assistance in investigations.

It has to be acknowledged that the police force is inadequately prepared to deal with the menace and it is not their fault that this is so. The governments of the day are responsible for this state of affairs. Ill equipped, ill trained, undermanned station houses they live in appalling conditions sometimes at the mercy of the very don against whom they are supposed to protect the society. Successive governments have taken away the authority and the dignity of the profession.

The public has little confidence in the force and the force is unsympathetic to the public. The witness protection schemes are badly flawed and justice is indefinitely delayed. There is little incentive for the public to come forward with evidence and little incentive for the force to prosecute. Invariably, always each terrorist incident evokes criticism about intelligence failure.

In India, there is a general lack of appreciation (one suspects at the highest level as well) that intelligence agencies are the sword arms of the nation (not the government) in the furtherance of its foreign security interests and the protection of the country.

In normal times, when it is the best time for the agencies to be allowed to hone their skills, develop their sources and prepare for the future, they suffer from benign neglect. Posts remain unsanctioned, purchase of new equipment is postponed and upgrading is frowned upon, all because the powers-that-be assess that the threat has passed.

Yet, when an incident takes place, intelligence agencies become the useful whipping boys with politicians and others ready to shift blame as they assess their political fortunes.

The best and perhaps the only way to fight terrorism is to develop and sustain an effective intelligence system, not only at the Centre but at every level down to the constable. Unless we have this we will continue to get surprised.

What we have today is systemic failure. All systems have malfunctioned.

A terrorist event makes a good story or 'breaking news', but the media too needs some rules of conduct. It is important to report the truth but it is also sometimes important when we are fighting a war to sometimes not report or to modify the report without modifying the truth. Repeated telecast of pictures of frightened families, terrified children or mangled bodies is a victory for the terrorist. He has succeeded in frightening the people. And photographs of a prospective witness circulated widely would only help the terrorist. Often we glorify a terrorist when we refer to him as a fidayeen.

All this has to change too if we want to win the war on terrorism. India must get ready to detect, deter and destroy this menace before it destroys us.

Vikram Sood is a former R&AW chief

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