This is the NIA. Wonder why we can't beat terror!

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | September 27, 2011




The most exasperating aspect of terror strikes in our country is the perpetrators’ supreme confidence. They had, in a way, issued a warning on May 13 by putting a bomb at the Delhi high court’s parking lot. It didn’t kill anyone and the matter was casually dismissed by our security and intelligence agencies as a ‘minor’ incident. And then they revisited the spot on September 7, killing 15 and injuring more than 50, and sent not one but four separate emails to claim responsibility. One of this mail even warned of an impending strike at a shopping mall. Is the office of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), probing both the incidents from a rented office in the Supreme Forum mall of Jasola in southeast Delhi, their next target? It could well be so. 

You want to know the secret of their confidence? Read on.

Politicisation of Terror
Barely three weeks after the ghastly 26/11 terror strike that killed 260 people, the government enacted the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act 2008 to set up NIA as a tool to fight terror. Its mandate was “to investigate and prosecute offences affecting the sovereignty, security and integrity of India, security of State, friendly relations with foreign States and offences under Acts enacted to implement international treaties, agreements, conventions and resolutions of the United Nations, its agencies and other international organisations and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto” as home minister P Chidambaram himself outlined it at the end of the bill.

There have been several terror strikes since then – at German Bakery of Pune in February 2010, at Chinnaswamy stadium of Bangalore in April 2010, firing on foreigners outside Delhi’s Jama Masjid in September 2010, at Dashashwamedh Ghat of Varanasi in December 2010, at Zaveri Bazaar and elsewhere in Mumbai in July 2011 and two blasts outside the Delhi high court in May and September 2011. These strikes are believed to be the handiwork of the usual suspects – HuJI, SIMI, IM and so on.

NIA is the obvious choice to take up these cases, you would think. But wait. Except for the Delhi high court blasts, these terror attacks are not probed by it.

You would wonder what NIA is doing then, apart from probing the Delhi high court blasts. Well, it is probing the terror cases that happened before it came into existence: the Malegaon blast of September 2006, Samjhauta Express blasts of February 2007, Ajmer Sharif blasts of October 2007, Modasa blast of September 2008 and the Sunil Joshi murder case of December 2007.

Why so? Look closely for answer. All these latter cases are suspected to be the handiwork of the ‘saffron’ terrorists.

There you are. NIA is, primarily, tasked to probe the ‘saffron’ terror.

No, you are not wrong to assume that NIA has been turned into a political tool already, something that has happened with all our police and intelligence agencies too. So, what would you expect when the BJP or BJP-led coalition comes to power? Turn NIA on its head. Won’t it?
Just see how electoral (or vote bank) politics determines even our fight against terror.

The Jammu and Kashmir assembly (whose new session begins from September 26) has admitted a resolution seeking “amnesty” for Afzal Guru, who was awarded death sentence in 2004 for his involvement in the 2001 attack on our parliament. Recently, the home ministry asked the president to reject his mercy petition pending since 2006. The HuJI, in its mail, said the attack on Delhi high court was in retaliation to this.

In August, the Tamil Nadu assembly passed a “unanimous resolution” appealing the president to “reconsider” the mercy petition of the Rajiv Gandhi killers – Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan. Around the same time, the Madras high court stayed their execution. Ram Jethmalani, the BJP MP who pleaded their case, was quoted as saying afterwards: “The high court is doing justice. Be sure.”

This followed yet another similar episode. In May this year, the president rejected mercy petition of Devender Pal Singh Bhullar of Khalistan Liberation Force – sentenced to death for the 1993 Delhi blast that was targeted at Youth Congress leader Manjit Singh Bitta – hours after the supreme court issued notices on a writ petition questioning a long delay in his execution. Various Sikh bodies now want the Punjab assembly to request the “commuting” of his death sentence. Politicians cutting across party lines have joined the chorus.

Recall how, when Digvijaya Singh, twice chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and Congress general secretary, had to criticise Pakistan for harbouring Osama bin Laden after the Abbottabad operation in May this year, he had to add an honorific ‘ji’ while referring to the dreaded terrorist (“Osamaji”).
More recently, a day after the September 7 blast, former defence minister who was chief minister of UP several times, Mulayam Singh Yadav declared in Delhi without any apparent provocation: “Whenever there is a terror act, a particular community is looked at with suspicion. This is not good. It should stop. It is dangerous.

Terror cases with NIA
1. Delhi high court blasts, May and September 2011
2. Malegaon blast, Sept 2006
3. Samjhauta Express blasts, February 2007
4. Ajmer Sharif blasts, October 2007
5. Modasa (Gujarat) blast, September 2008
6. Sunil Joshi murder case, December 2007

All except the first happened before NIA came into existence and which are suspected to be the handiwork of ‘saffron’ terror groups. And in none of these cases the state governments are cooperating with NIA.

Terror cases not with NIA
1. German bakery blast of Feb 2010
2. Blasts at Chinnaswamy stadium, Bangalore, April 2010
3. Firing at foreigners outside Jama Masjid, Sept 2010
4. Blasts at Dashashwamedha Ghat, Varanasi, Dec 2010
5. Mumbai blasts of July 2011

In none of these saffron terror groups are suspected to be involved but happened after NIA came into being.

Also recall how the BJP-run state governments dragged their feet when it emerged that the ‘saffron’ terror was behind some of the terror incidents like the Malegaon and Samjhauta Express blasts. This was one of the reasons why NIA was given the job to “reinvestigate” those cases. (And that is also why the BJP-ruled states are not cooperating with NIA in investigations.

With so much politics at play and so many politicians and political parties willing to defend even the confirmed and convicted terrorists, any wonder the terrorists are having a free run in this country?

9/11 and 26/11
What did the US do after 9/11? They appointed a National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the US and took a comprehensive look at the failures, institutional and otherwise. The report ripped apart the security and intelligence mechanisms of the US, described the Congressional oversight mechanism as “dysfunctional” and suggested radical changes. The changes were brought in –a new Department of Homeland Security with overarching and wide range of powers, a tough Patriot Act, more teeth to the FBI and so on. This highly critical and unsparing report was made public and is available in bookshops across the world.

Compare this to our 26/11. It was the state government which appointed the Pradhan committee to go into it, but with a limited mandate – “lapses to act on intelligence inputs”, “lapses to promptly act or react” by the Mumbai police and “to make appropriate recommendations”.  It was assumed from the very beginning that 26/11 was the failure of the state police alone. There was no need to probe into the role of any other agency or agencies – state intelligence unit, central intelligence agencies like Intelligence Bureau (IB), Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Joint Investigation Committee (JIC) or enforcement agencies like Coast Guard, National Security Guard (NSG) and the naval commandos (involved in fighting the terrorists before NSG stepped in) etc.

And the results of even this limited exercise of the Pradhan committee were not made public. After the report was leaked to the media, a Marathi version of it was tabled in the assembly. As for acting on its recommendations, no change has been noticed on the ground.

We simply don’t have a culture of introspection, accountability or taking the responsibility for such gross failures that the US agencies did and hence, are better placed to add teeth to their counter-terror activities.

Chidambaram, who replaced Shivraj Patil as home minister after 26/11, did initiate some measures at the centre. Here is a low down on these measures:

  • The Multi-agency Centre (MAC) was set up under the IB’s supervision. Its mandate is to “pull” more information and intelligence from state capitals and “push” more information and intelligence into the security system. This is a duplication of what the JIC, functioning under the National Security Advisor (NSA) in the PMO, is supposed to do. Those in the know say MAC meets every day and is “slowly taking shape”. But it has made no visible or discernible difference yet to the fight against terror. More on this later.
  • NIA was set up. As noted above, it has been turned into a political tool. Moreover, instead of creating a new infrastructure of its own, the agency has borrowed manpower from various state police, central intelligence agencies and paramilitary forces. Close to half of its investigators are from the central paramilitary forces with no experience and training in investigation.
  • A “security meeting” was started on a daily basis. The NSA, home secretary, RAW secretary, IB director, JIC chairman and special secretary (internal security) of MHA attend this meeting. 
  • NATGRID is being set up to provide “quick, seamless and secure access” to 21 sets of database available with government departments. The cabinet gave its clearance only in June this year and it is expected to be operational next year. Former home secretary G K Pillai, who played a significant role in developing the new security architecture, says it should have come up a year ago but didn’t, because “no one is willing to part with information. They (concerned departments and agencies) are used to a culture of telling only when asked, not otherwise”.
  • A National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) is proposed to be set up. This would be a body under the MHA and perform “functions relating to intelligence, investigation and operations”. All intelligence agencies would be represented in NCTC. In fact, it will have NIA, NTRO (National Technical Research Organisation), JIC, NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau), NSG, NATGRID and CCTNS (Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems) within its fold. RAW, ARC (Aviation Research Centre) and CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) will function under its “oversight” and representatives of intelligence agencies of the armed forces will be its members. The whole concept, and even the very title of NCTC, is a direct lift from the 9/11 Commission report. Chidambaram banks a lot on this to achieve his goal – “to disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat the terrorist groups”. Close to three years since 26/11, NCTC is still at the drafting stage.
    Reason? Pillai says: “There are issues of territory, turf and ego between departments.” This is self-explanatory.
  • A Central Foreigners’ Bureau (CFB) has been proposed to keep a tab on undesirable foreign elements. This is a long term project – four to five years – for which more than Rs 1,000 crore is needed. There is little information about its progress.
  • A separate department or ministry for “internal security” has been proposed. Chidambaram wanted to recreate the US Department of Homeland Security. Nothing has been heard on it since he last spoke about it in December 2009.

Ajai Sahni, a counter-terrorism expert and executive director of the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Conflict Management, has this to say on Chidambaram’s biggest anti-terror tool, NCTC: “We don’t need super bureaucrats discussing (security issues) in New Delhi. We need operational intelligence and coordination. NCTC will be as useless as JIC. We need NCTC when there is (adequate) flow of intelligence from the ground.”

His prescription: “Our basic need is to create intelligence and operational capabilities at the grassroots level.” 

Pillai provides some startling facts and figures. He says, our police forces need 18,00,000 more personnel to reach the target of 230 policemen for every 1,00,000 population. Our national average at present is a pathetic 130/1,00,000.

IB needs 4,500 personnel. The government recruited 800 personnel in 2009 (that is the number we can handle at a time for the purpose of their 18-month training). These 800 personnel will go to the field, after completing their training, this year and it will take three to five years for them to develop sources.

His conclusion? “Our intelligence level is still the same as that existed in 2008 (before 26/11).”

Terror strikes in the UK and US prompted their intelligence agencies to focus their attention on suspicious segments of society, carry out extensive community contact programmes that continue till date, carry out extensive surveillance, identify and isolate suspicious elements and develop quick response teams. These steps paid rich dividends. We haven’t attempted any of these.

A former joint director of IB, M K Dhar, says the problem with our intelligence agencies is that they have very little assets in susceptible communities where homegrown terror modules live and thrive.

To make matters worse, he says, the moment a raid happens or an ‘encounter’ takes place in a Muslim-dominated area, various human-right groups, NGOs and political parties jump in and make life miserable for our security forces.

Chidambaram’s new architecture
Multi-agency Centre (MAC): Part of IB and meets every day. Its job is to “pull” more information and intelligence from state capitals and “push” more information and intelligence into the security system.
Daily security meeting: Home minister takes this meeting every day, around noon, which is attended by NSA, home secretary, secretary (RAW), DIB, chairman of JIC and special secretary (internal security) of MHA.
NCTC: The proposed body to take NIA, NTRO, JIC, NCRB, NATGRID, CCTNS and NSG under its wings. RAW, ARC and CBI to be under its oversight. Intelligence units of the armed forces will have its representation too. It will be part of the MHA.
NATGRID: to provide “quick, seamless and secure access” to 21 sets of data base available with government departments.
NIA: Established in December 2008 to investigate terror cases.
Central Foreigners’ Bureau: To monitor foreign nationals

Old and existing architecture
Intelligence elements: IB (reports to HM), RAW (reports to PM), JIC, NTRO, ARC (report to NSA), National Security Council Secretariat (reports to NSA).
Armed forces have their own intelligence agencies and an umbrella body, DIA.
Agencies specialising in finanacial intelligence – directorates in Income Tax, Customs and Central Excise, Financial Intelligence Unit, Enforcement Directorate.
Enforcement elements: CRPF, BSF, CISF, ITBP, Assam Rifles, SSB, NSG.
Administrative elements: MHA, PMO and cabinet secretariat

There are other systemic issues too – lack of transparent and merit-based recruitment and arbitrary posting and transfer of police personnel.

It is too well known that no government recruitment takes place without paying money anywhere in the country. (“Corruption starts with the very appointment of the policeman”, says Pillai.) The National Police Mission Division (NPMD) of the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) devised a transparent recruitment policy, which cuts out “discretionary powers” of the politicians, and the home ministry circulated it to all state governments. Only UP followed it and recruited 19,000 personnel last year. UP has also set up a Civil Service Board, supposedly independent of the political masters, to regulate posting and transfer of police officers in the state. But the average tenure of an SP in the state is four months.

That is so, because orders come to the board directly from the chief minister’s office and it complies.

Having paid money for the job and living at the mercy of politicians day in and day out, cops can hardly be expected to do justice to their job. Moreover, their primary job is to maintain law and order and VIP security. Intelligence comes third in the list of priorities for which little time or resources are available.

“Why is the law and order situation bad in the country?” asks Pillai, before answering it himself: “Because no officer can be held responsible or accountable if he is not in control of his force.” He adds that accountability exists and works in our armed forces because the officers themselves decide these matters.

Dark World of Intelligence
Our intelligence and security agencies live and work in complete secrecy. They don’t exist or work outside some inaccessible files. Every possible thing that one probably needs to know about the US Department of Homeland Security or FBI – mandate, mission, budgets, ways and means to interact and inform or know about terror threats and terrorists – is available on their websites. Ours simply don’t exist.

The US Congress has an oversight committee to review, monitor and supervise functioning of their intelligence and security agencies. The 9/11 Commission report said this about its functioning: “Congressional oversight for intelligence – and counterterrorism – is now dysfunctional. Congress should address the problem. We have considered various alternatives….” (Congress is to the US what parliament is for us).

Can you think of a similar mechanism or report in India? Sahni says that to expect accountability in intelligence agencies when there is “not even a rudimentary accountability” in any government department is foolish. He draws attention to how even a constitutional body like the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) came under fire from the government, no less than the PM himself, for exposing 2G, CWG and ISRO Spectrum scams. Our intelligence and other security agencies are reporting to the very same politicians.

Here is a secret revealed. CAG submitted a special audit report exposing massive corruption in NTRO and actions of its officials leading to compromise with national security to the PMO in February this year. This happened because of a whistleblower, V K Mittal, and a daring CAG, Vinod Rai. The PMO, instead of acting on it, constituted another probe and entrusted the task to RAW chief Sanjeev Tripathi. Tripathi recently returned the brief, expressing his inability to probe the matter. All that the PMO officials now say is that it is an “unfortunate development”.

Dhar says he and other like-minded people have been demanding parliamentary oversight over our intelligence and security agencies, just as it exists in the US. Vice president Hamid Ansari made an impassioned plea for setting up a parliamentary standing committee to make intelligence agencies accountable to the legislature while addressing the R N Kao Memorial Lecture in January 2010. Manish Tewari of the Congress has moved a private member’s bill in this regard too, but there is little political will to make it happen.

Now you know the secret of terrorists’ supreme confidence: An overdose of politics even when it involves confirmed and convicted terrorists and complete absence of accountability and transparency in our governance system.

Read this and more in the October 1-15 issue (Vol.02, Issue 17) Governance Now magazine.

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