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26/11 - A Decade Later

A general view of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) in Mumbai. REUTERS File Photo

A decade after the traumatic 2008 sea-borne terrorist attack on Mumbai, is the Indian coastline more secure than it was earlier? While the concept of foolproof security does not exist, the government has to do much more to thwart attempts to breach the coastline. Post-26/11, the government never made any serious attempt to examine the systemic failure of coastal security in a comprehensive manner at the national level -- unlike after the Kargil fiasco. Therefore, what actually went wrong with coastal security management will never really be known.

To the credit of Indian intelligence agencies, they did acquire and convey some communication intercepts to the national security establishment in the months preceding the 26/11 attack. However, the Pakistan-based LeT would have taken at least a year or more to plan and execute an attack of this nature, which involved marine and weapons training, communication skills, target reconnaissance, etc. Did the intelligence agencies therefore manage to collate the various inputs and connect the dots to inform the prime minister, national security adviser and the security bureaucracy about an imminent threat? From all accounts, they did not. 

The security agencies such as the navy, coast guard, army and the Maharashtra state police, too, did not exactly cover themselves in glory. Was such a scenario of a sea-borne terrorist attack foreseen and war-gamed by Indian agencies? What role did the mandarins in the MHA play? Even the National Security Guards (NSG), which finally neutralised the terrorists, had clearly failed to plan for various contingencies. The NSG was based out of Manesar and did not have regional hubs. They therefore had to be airlifted from Delhi to Mumbai. The Aviation Research Centre which is mandated to provide the air transportation was unable to do so in a timely manner. On arrival, the NSG had to use Mumbai’s BEST buses to get to the affected areas. The net result was that the pace of operations at Mumbai was adversely affected. 

The National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), whose job it was as the intelligence aggregator and arbitrator to coordinate and make sense of diverse inputs from various agencies failed miserably in its job. While the former NSA had reportedly offered to resign, the worthies in the NSCS got away with murder. No heads rolled, and there was no radical reorganisation. Compare this with the total overhaul of the security establishment in the US after the 9/11 attack.

Today, the security establishment is mostly preoccupied with the more visible threats in Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East. But it is relatively easier for a group of terrorists to penetrate the loosely guarded coastal borders, especially now with a new government in power in Pakistan which has a symbiotic relationship with radical terrorist groups. New Delhi did set in motion a slew of measures after 26/11 in the form of Coastal Security Schemes I and II and incurred enormous expenditure on them, but while some projects have been completed, others are still works in progress.

The challenge of coastal security management is the multiplicity of maritime stakeholders who often work at cross-purposes. Narrow organisational loyalties, turf wars and reluctance to share information characterise most of them. Decision-makers in the civilian generalist bureaucracy lack maritime domain knowledge and may never have even seen a ship, let alone have been on one to sea. Further, the coastal states which have to ensure coastal security believe that this facet of national security is the Centre’s responsibility. The time has come to wield the whip as also to   incentivise the coastal states to take greater ownership of coastal security management.

The state marine police wings of the country’s 13 coastal states and union territories, created after 26/11, lack a dedicated cadre and training facilities and are the weak links in the coastal security chain. This is reflected in the Ministry of Home Affairs’ recent proposal to create a coastal border police force on the lines of the central armed police forces, which is not without attendant problems. Therefore, a decade after 26/11, the government plans to create another security organisation, which will probably take another decade to be of any consequence.

Meanwhile, the National Academy of Coastal Policing (NACP) in Gujarat is yet to take off, as also the state marine police training centres. A draft coastal security bill 2013, prepared jointly by the navy and coast guard, delineating responsibilities between various agencies, is yet to be passed by Parliament. Hopefully, the national intelligence agencies are better structured to provide actionable coastal intelligence to the security forces.

The absence of a nodal agency and oversight body to assume responsibility and exercise authority over all the maritime stakeholders is critical. The Narendra Modi government had in 2014 proclaimed that it would establish a multi-disciplinary National Maritime Authority (NMA). However, four years later, there is no sign of the NMA. This is surprising considering that the  government has displayed an astute understanding of maritime security and has not hesitated to take tough and unpleasant decisions.

The apex national security decision-making structure has lately been revamped and the NSA, Ajit Doval, now has three deputy NSAs who report to him. These include two former police officers and a diplomat. But there is no NMA or a Maritime Security Adviser. All other measures may be in vain without leadership in maritime governance. Countries like China have reorganised their maritime governance to cope with the challenges of the seas in the 21st century. New Delhi, however, continues to flounder and does not realise that time and tide will not wait for us to get our act together.

(The writer is a former Principal Director-Naval Intelligence and has been a director in the Cabinet Secretariat)

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