Even with prior intelligence information India was not able to prevent terror attacks on Pathankot airbase recently. Same was the case with 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Those who were supposed to act on the terror alerts, those who were supposed to guard the seas and those who were supposed to protect Mumbai, all carried on with their professional lives. No one was held accountable. In all of its contemporary history, India has only been going around in a loop in its inability to tackle armed non-state actors. However, all these attacks are characterized by three critical missteps:
- Ignored intelligence inputs.
- Inconsistent security response.
- Heavy casualties.
Terrorism has been the biggest threat faced by India on almost all major counts — the number of soldiers killed, duration of engagement with armed movements or the spread of the menace. However, terrorism hasn’t had a commensurate impact on reshaping India’s security posture and tactics, as well as political strategies and this is why India has one of the poorest track records in tackling insurgencies.
- The country’s armed forces have been unsuccessful in ending many of the decades old armed conflicts in the country, be it Naga insurgency or other northern movements or Kashmir militancy.
- Neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and China too have role in fomenting these movements. But it is a futile blame game considering the limited diplomatic options available to rein in those countries. Besides, practical statecraft will acknowledge that the use of non-state actors for tactical and strategic aims across the border is commonplace.
What is needed to tackle such activities then?
- Even-handed approach:
At the core of the state response should be a well-delineated national security doctrine and security strategy, which has to be placed firmly on constitutional values, especially equality before law.
- Addressing grievances of various groups and dealing with all wrongdoers with the same force of law is critical in this fight against terrorism. However, successive governments have failed that test.
- End misuse of state organs:
The Central Bureau of Investigation and the National Investigation Agency are often used as tools of the government of the day. Successive governments have not considered it necessary to write out any fresh instructive manuals for Indian democracy.
- Political misuse of state organs and the complete lack of transparency in their operations have resulted in Indian intelligence agencies emerging as obscure centres obfuscating facts or exaggerating things, mostly to impress political masters or for other vested interests. This must end, if the Indian state is serious about fighting terrorism.
The lack of accountability has meant that field operations of intelligence agencies are mostly cottage industries run on fake sources or exaggerated claims. Underlying all of it is the significant financial benefits.
- The final result is that even when genuine intelligence alerts are available, they are not acted upon with seriousness. Most intelligence alerts of Indian agencies actually read like fantasy stories from unbridled minds.
- There have been several discussions about improving the accountability of intelligence agencies and other federal organisations responsible for the security of the country. Many experts are apprehensive of an adverse effect of parliamentarians being given oversight of intelligence agencies.
- However, the fact is that there is no better accountability system possible. The diversity of Indian politics will ensure there is robust oversight, and that the mechanism is not held hostage by a few vested interests in Parliament.
- A documented security doctrine:
As many experts recommend, it is time for India to have a documented national security doctrine, like the Constitution, so that successive governments do not forget the fact that they are mere custodians of an idea called India, and not revolutionaries mandated with recreating the nation-state.
- Standard response protocols:
The doctrine should be accompanied by a security strategy that should spell out the state response to various kinds of security challenges. If it is a terrorist strike, then the decision-makers must know the responses expected of them, and not try to improvise based on their limited awareness. Command and control for such operations should also be spelt out in the document.
- Federal commission:
India must also constitute a very credible, and permanent, federal commission of accountability on security matters. This is important not just to bring in accountability to the security establishment, but also to ensure that the many insurgencies and terrorist challenges do not result in the intelligence and security apparatus getting a free hand to misuse their powers.
- Such a commission can also be a watchdog in places like Kashmir and the Northeast, where repeated allegations of human rights violations are haunting political efforts to find peace, and feeding terrorism.
India, and its security forces, can’t any more trust the wisdom of a few wise men to tackle terror threats, secure our assets and safeguard national interests. It is time to finally accept the reality and move forward on a broad sweep of reforms in the security establishment. The first step is to write down what the rulers of the day should do when a terror threat occurs.