Poor performer, slow learner

The nation's intelligence coordination and assess-ment apparatus isn't suited to the changing nature of the terrorist threat facing it.

Recent terror strike in Pathankot has once again revived the debate on India’s counter-terror policy. India’s response to a terrorist event follows a predictable pattern: The government pledges to bring the perpetrators to justice while the opposition denounces the government’s counter-terrorism policy without offering any constructive solutions. Media coverage surges for a few days but soon reverts back to discussions about Bollywood stars’ latest foibles.

India faces a structural problem given its location in one of the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods – South Asia – which is now the epicentre of Islamist radicalism. India’s neighbours harbour terrorist networks and use them as instruments of state policy.

The tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which have long been outside the realm of effective control, have become a breeding ground for Islamist radicals. And now the rise of the Islamic State (IS) is rapidly changing the dimensions of global terror.

India began dealing with the threat of terrorism long before it reached Western shores. The terror saga in Jammu and Kashmir is more than three decades old. But until September 11, the West viewed the Kashmir problem through the lens of India’s inability to improve its human rights record.

The threat spiked in the early 1990s; Mumbai witnessed multiple terror strikes in 1993, and then in November 2008, jihadists, aided and abetted by Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), openly confronted the might of the Indian state in full glare of the global media.

In the wake of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the government took some initial steps to-ward a more robust counterterrorism policy. But even since then, deadly attacks on high value targets in India have continued.

From left-wing extremism to right-wing religious fundamentalism, the Indian State continues to face multiple challenges that threaten to derail the story of a rising India. India remains a strong society with a weak state, unable to harness its national power for national purpose.

Despite perfunctory denunciations, across the political spectrum, no consensus exists on how best to fight terrorism and extremism. Vote-bank politics have created an environment in which political and religious polarisation has been so complete as to render effective action against terrorism impossible.

India had long claimed to be detached from Al Qaeda or any international terror plot – even though it has the second largest Muslim population in the world. This of course has turned out to be false: every major Islamist urban terror cell in the country since 1993 has seen a preponderance of Indian nationals.

India is fast emerging both as a target and a recruitment base for organisations like Al Qaeda and the IS, and attacks are being carried out with impunity by home-grown jihadist groups, trained and aided by organisations in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Institutionally, India remains a poor performer with no lessons learned desp-ite numerous tragedies. India’s intellig-ence coordination and assessment appa-ratus is not suited to the changing nature of the terrorist threat facing the nation.

Despite the horrendous attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, it took the government nearly three years to approve the proposal for a National Intelligence Grid, a facility to improve coordination among government agencies to fight terrorism.

The other major proposal – to create a National Centre for Counter-Terrorism (NCTC) – is yet to become fully functional. The government did set up the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to improve intelligence-gathering and sharing but it remains underfunded. Despite the creation of the NIA, modelled on the US FBI, none of the terror investigations in recent years have yet reached their logical conclusion.

Rather than improving grassroots capabilities to effectively counter terrorism, the government has gone for grand initiatives such as the NIA and the NCTC. Police modernisation is lagging; the police forces, the frontline agencies in dealing with the threat of terrorism, remain underfunded and ill-trained.

Striking at will

National security issues should transcend politics but the lack of civil dialogue among political parties is an abomination. The nation needs a political environment where political parties can see beyond their immediate electoral gains and losses. Terrorist organisations appear to be able to strike at will, demoralising an entire nation even as the government continues to rely on symbolism to deal with terrorism.

In this day and age, no government can provide its citizens with a foolproof guarantee against terrorism. But in India, citizens continue to suffer around 700 terror attacks every year without any accountability. This will have to change if India wants to be taken seriously as a global power to reckon with.

In the wake of Pathankot attack, the debate once again is about whether India should talk to Pakistan or not. This is a puerile debate and has little bearing on India’s management of terrorism.  The Narendra Modi government seems to have resolved to keep the dialogue with Pakistan on track. This is sensible and deepening India’s engagement with the civilian administration in Islamabad can only help New Delhi.

There seems to be a recognition at the highest echelons of the Indian government that dialogue can continue with the Pakistani civilian establishment but with a clear focus on outcomes.

It is for this reason that Modi government's reaction seems to have muted against Pakistan. The onus is now on the Sharif government to demonstrate that it is willing and capable of delivering on Indian demands.

If it turns out that the Sharif government is really powerless (which is most likely the case), then India should chose a time and place of its own choosing in retaliating. The focus should be on building credible military options for retaliation so that a robust counter-terror policy can be put in place.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King’s College London)

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