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Mumbai 26/11 Ė lessons learnt

By Abhinav Kumar


As a serving police officer it is difficult not to feel a sense of outrage and betrayal at the many failures of policy and practice that led to Mumbaiís extended version of 9/11.

For almost three days in November, witnessing the carnage in Mumbai, India came to a standstill. It will be a while before we, as a nation and civil society, come to terms with the enormity of this latest assault on the most vibrant symbol of our material and cultural resurgence. But witnessing the scenes of destruction and mourning for our dead citizens and foreign guests, for our innocent civilians and our brave soldiers of the nationís security forces, as a serving police officer it is difficult not to feel a sense of frustration, outrage and betrayal at the many failures of policy and practice that led to Mumbaiís extended version of 9/11.

Once the furore has subsided, will it be back to business as usual? Odds are that the urgent and vital changes that need to be carried out to restore some semblance of belief that the Indian state is caring and capable enough to secure the life of its citizens and its most valuable economic and cultural symbols from assault from any and all quarters, will yet again be neatly sidestepped and wilfully neglected. After all, for too long as a nation and as a civil society, our pathology has been that politics, power games and bureaucratic turf wars are far too lucrative an enterprise to be distracted from, to seriously address the more mundane and intractable matters of national security and public safety.

At the very outset, we must admit that the fact that the attack happened at all in the brazen manner it did, represents a systemic failure of our security apparatus at many levels. Despite the courage and sacrifice displayed by individuals, officers Shri Karkare, Shri Amte, Major Unnikrishanan, Inspector Salaskar and the 16 other jawans of our security forces who made the ultimate sacrifice, and the effective response mounted by Central and State agencies once the magnitude of the attack was fully understood, this incident raises many awkward questions. Heads have rolled, but by itself, the resignation or sacking of ministers and senior officials, while it may satisfy the media and the general public, who want instant accountability and instant solutions, it will not begin to rectify the many failings of our internal security systems. Securing India is not a Roman circus where the substance of governance, through thoughtful policy making and implementation, can take backseat to a spectacle driven by mob and media frenzy.

There are several issues that are raised by the Mumbai attacks and in the days to come I am sure we will see plenty of political leaders, security experts, media persons and intellectuals from all across the political spectrum representing all shades of opinion offer their take on what is probably a turning point in modern Indian history. The intelligence failure that led to the attack in the first place, the lapses in security at different points, the delay in initial response, the quality and quantity of equipment and manpower that we were able to bring to bear on the spot as the crisis unfolded, the extent of civilian casualties and the extent to which these were preventable, the response of the emergency services, the handling of the media and distraught relatives, these would all be valid points of discussion and debate. Does Mumbai 26/11 mark an inflection point in our national response to the growing challenges of policing and internal security facing the country? One would hope so. Would it result in much required meaningful structural changes in our internal security architecture that would make us a more vigilant and more secure country? I have my doubts.

The political economy of present day India and the constitutional and administrative constraints underlying our structure of government make it very difficult to carry out the kind of radical reforms and changes that were effected in the USA and the UK in the aftermath of New York 9/11 and London 7/7. First and foremost we still lack a political consensus on terrorism, a failure for which all political parties must share responsibility. Not too long ago the parties on the left were castigating the Jamia Nagar encounter while the parties on the right were up in arms against the Maharashtra ATS probe into the Malegaon blasts. Perhaps in the wake of Mumbai, both sides of the political divide would appreciate that we in the police are not in the business of catching Hindus and Muslims. We are in the business of catching criminals and terrorists and bringing them to justice. Today the late Shri Hemant Karkare is a hero of India and till he breathed his last he was portrayed a villain Ė for his probe into the Malegaon blasts. This kind of politics plays havoc with the professionalism and morale of our police forces. Now more than ever, the political establishment needs to ignore its usual instincts and refrain from scoring political brownie points on issues of national security.

Related to this issue of a lack of political consensus is the issue of politicization of the police and our intelligence agencies in their day to day working. Our politicians consider it their birthright to interfere in every aspect of police work. As a District SP I have dealt with public representatives who would try to brazenly influence the investigations into heinous offences such as murder and extortion and emphatically believed that in the name of democratic accountability it was their natural right to do so. The same is the case with intelligence agencies. It is widely believed that the primary task of our intelligence agencies, both at the centre and the state level is to collect political intelligence for the government of the day. Intelligence collection pertaining to national security is perhaps a lesser priority than serving the immediate political interests of our elected masters. It is then quite farcical to see opinion makers especially political leaders talk of intelligence failure in this instance when quite clearly our intelligence agencies are just as politicised as the rest of our police apparatus. The temptation to use the intelligence network to spy on political opponents and their associates is unlikely to vanish anytime soon.

Added to the problem of politicization, is the more general and equally serious crisis of credibility afflicting our police forces. Consider a scenario where the Maharashtra ATS had arrested the 10 terrorists on the afternoon of November 26 with a huge quantity of arms, ammunition and explosives and produced them in court charged under appropriate sections of law. Would anybody have believed them? I am sure quite a few political parties, sections of the media and assorted activists would have instantly come forward rubbishing the police case as another far fetched fabrication and harassment of the minorities. There would have been demands for a judicial probe and compensation. This lack of credibility is related to the problem of politicization but is further compounded by our internal weaknesses of corruption, divisions along the lines of caste and community and outright incompetence. Nonetheless it must be appreciated that whether it was Punjab in the 1980s, Kashmir in the 1990s, or the various fidayeen attacks on Parliament, Akshardham, Ayodhya and now Mumbai, these very same security forces have somehow found it within themselves to rise to the occasion and do the nation proud with their courage and selflessness. Man to man our jawans are as brave, as motivated and as skilful as the best in the world, what lets them down time and again is the indifferent quality of leadership and vision, compounded by a far from conducive operational environment, that we are able to give them as a state and civil society.

Coming to the basic question of resource allocation and the manner in which the nationís internal security apparatus is structured it is here that we have to make some difficult decisions. Despite repeated requests from the police leadership police remains a non-plan subject. This means there is very little systematic allocation of resources for improving our police infrastructure unlike the somewhat better planned manner in which resources are provided for our highways, airports or schools and hospitals. Investments in the police are naturally accorded a lower priority in our vote-bank and pork barrel driven system of resource allocation. Now with an enormously successful finance minister at the helm of the Union Home Ministry, it is hoped that this anomaly is rectified and the police is included in the plan process along with all other critical parts of our nationís infrastructure for sustained investment, so that the perennial resource crunch facing our police forces becomes a thing of the past. The voices of outrage expressed by Indiaís corporate titans in the aftermath of Mumbai must address this issue. The middle classes of India must be prepared to forgo some part of the hundreds of thousands of crores of subsidies they enjoy in areas of health, education, power, energy and the public distribution system for finding the resources needed to improve our internal security capabilities.

The second issue is a legal and constitutional issue of letting the police remain as a state subject. The threat to the union is too immediate to hide behind this anomaly. The fragmented and contradictory response to terror in different states is a direct consequence of this peculiar position and unless it is amended we cannot forge a truly national strategy. Unfortunately, the threats posed by Jihadist terrorism and naxalism do not come in a state-wise, federal form. These are nationwide threats requiring a nationwide response. Therefore on matters of internal security the Indian state has to adopt a more unitary posture. In any case unless there are nationally mandated standards of basic policing and a basic synergy between the different state police forces and central agencies we will never be able to either prevent or respond effectively to any future attacks. Along with charting a new constitutional course, tougher laws with stringent safeguards against abuse, and well equipped agencies with a national mandate are unavoidable choices that will have to be made in Indiaís war against terror.

The third issue is the need to revamp our policy making bodies. The Union Home Ministry is the apex policy making body for all police and internal security related matters. However out of the 25 odd officers of Joint Secretary rank and above in the MHA, only two are professional police officers with any field experience and their real influence on policy making is debatable. Other nerve centres of the decision making structure, namely the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat are equally bereft of professional internal security expertise. The present NSA is a career intelligence officer but he is an exception as there is no institutional mechanism that accords pride of place to dedicated professionals with direct experience of policing in the field. The same situation prevails in the states where Home Departments pride themselves on keeping police professionals away from policy making. The political executive both in the centre and the states will have to consider the wisdom of continuing with these outdated institutional arrangements that leave police professionals out of the critical loops of internal security policy making.

The fourth issue is the de-politicization of the day to day working of our police and intelligence agencies. Urgent implementation of the reforms outlined in the Supreme Court judgement of September 2006 is crucial for the police. It would not be enough for the nation to simply invest more in the police by hiring more manpower. Although this is a crucial step as our police population ratios are far below international norms, we would simultaneously need to invest in training, infrastructure, including communications, mobility, buildings, weaponry and information technology. It never ceases to amaze me that despite having an IT sector that provides expertise to the best in the world we are so sluggish in harnessing this talent for securing our country. But most importantly we will have to make a serious effort at ensuring that the right mix of incentives and punitive measures are in place for ensuring that we have a professional, impartial and upright police force. For our intelligence agencies we may like to consider a system of parliamentary oversight similar to the one in place in the USA to prevent them from becoming a tool of partisan politics. This would require an enormous change of mindset from our political classes, but without this change Indiaís police forces would never be able to rise to the challenge posed by anti-national forces with any kind of institutional credibility.

As a policeman, whether it is the jihadi terrorism sponsored by ISI, or the other varieties of home-grown terrorism by fringe elements on the left and right of the political divide, one cannot help but feel growing rage and anger at the repeated assaults on the idea of India and feel frustration and impotence at the constraints that we are made to operate under. People expect immediate changes in our internal security structures. It is doubtful whether they can be adopted as quickly as the public mood warrants. Even if they were to be implemented, given other dysfunctional elements of our governance, it is doubtful that they would have the desired impact. Still, if Mumbai 26/11 is able to create a national mood for effecting the required across the board changes in how India governs and secures itself in a time bound manner, it would be the most apt tribute to all the innocents who lost their lives. Otherwise it would be business as usual as there is no shortage in India of either civilian victims or brave men in uniform ready to lay down their lives in vain for their country.

The author is SSP STF Uttarakhand. These are his personal views.

About the author

Abhinav Kumar is the Assistant to the Director General of Police Uttarakhand, with additional responsibility of SSP Special Task Force - a special unit tasked with combating organised crime and terrorism. He is stationed at Dehradun.

Doon School and Oxford-educated, Abhinav joined the Indian Police Service in 1996, prior to which he worked for a couple of years as a journalist. He contributes regularly to the national media on police and internal security issues, and enjoys trekking, cricket, tennis, squash and Bollywood movies.





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