22 August 2015

India's Achilles' Heel

August 18, 2015

On July 27, three gunmen in military fatigues marched into a police station in Gurdaspur, an urban district in the Indian border state of Punjab. After an 11-hour gun battle, all three terrorists were killed—but so were nine civilians and police personnel. The state had not seen any significant terrorist violence since the 1980s, when a vicious ethno-religious insurgency between Sikhs and Hindus ended. According to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, based on evidence collected from GPS devices taken from the scene, the terrorists had come from Pakistan.

Despite the successful containment of the attack—the terrorists had apparently hoped to create more mayhem in the state—the incident has once more laid bare India’s lack of a sufficient counterterrorism strategy. This is despite continued attacks from terrorists based in Pakistan, the most dramatic of which was the one at multiple sites in Mumbai in November 2008. India’s response to that strike, which was attributed to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, was nothing short of shambolic; it took security forces close to 72 hours to suppress the gunmen, at a cost of over 150 lives.

Demonstrators hold a poster of Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri militant that India hanged for an attack on the country's parliament in 2001, as they take cover from coloured smoke released by fellow demonstrators, February 9, 2013.After 2008, New Delhi created the National Investigation Agency (NIA), with nationwide jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute terrorist incidents. It also launched a number of urban hubs for its National Security Guards (NSG), an elite corps of police designed originally for counterterrorism tasks, such as augmenting local police forces when confronting a terrorist threat. In the creation of the NIA, in particular, New Delhi faced significant opposition from state-level politicians because they saw the move as a usurpation of their local authority. And, in turn, the execution of the initiatives has been halfhearted.

The NIA, according to reliable press reports, has a sanctioned strength of a scant 865 officers and a total annual budget of a mere $16 million. Worse still, since the NIA was created, in 2009, it has been able to fill only three-quarters of its positions, and it has regular shortages of essential equipment. In October 2014, when investigating a bomb plot in the state of West Bengal, NIA operatives had to rent private taxis to because they had no vehicles. Even more disturbing is agents’ lack of technical capabilities. For example, the agency has no personnel who are trained to deal with cyber-surveillance, chemicals, or explosives. Thus far, it has relied on private firms to handle those matters.

For its part, the NSG draws its personnel from the ranks of police forces across the country, and they are apparently well trained. In the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, NSG contingents have been stationed in a number of urban centers beyond the four original sites of Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, and New Delhi. However, significant portions of this force of 7,500 have been tasked with providing personal security for Indian politicians who are deemed to be especially vulnerable to terrorist threats. Politicians who are in the highest threat category, Z Plus, have as many have as many as 36 NSG personnel guarding them at all times. This practice has come under widespread public criticism. The NSG director general has even insisted that New Delhi add no further individuals to the current protection list.

Meanwhile, India has made some uneven efforts to improve border security through the deployment of more forces, the construction of some fences, and through increased patrolling. However, its coastal areas remain highly vulnerable to infiltration.

Not all terrorist attacks are preventable. However, the experiences of other states suggest that there are better public policy options out there.As a result of the problems within the NIA and NSG, and the continued lack of security on some parts of the India border, the country is no better protected from terrorism than it was before 2008.


What explains India’s lackadaisical approach to counterterrorism? The problem is mostly structural and institutional. Regardless of political composition or ideological coloration, most governments have taken an ad hoc and reactive approach to counterterrorism. They have sought to address shortcomings only after an incident has taken place, and have done relatively little to anticipate future strikes and terrorist strategies.

In India in particular, despite the creation of the NIA, the country’s intelligence apparatus remains stovepiped like the United States’ was prior to 9/11. The civilian Intelligence Bureau (IB) is responsible for domestic counterintelligence and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is responsible for foreign counterintelligence. Despite the obvious overlap in their jurisdictions, the two bodies remain keenly committed to protecting their respective turf. Consequently, their ability to coordinate—invaluable to prevent future terrorism—is minimal.

Meanwhile, India’s political leadership has not devoted sufficient parliamentary attention to the terrorist menace, in part because politicians enjoy a very high level of protection at the expense of the taxpayer. Other parliamentary democracies across Western Europe have vigorously debated the vexing questions of balancing civil liberties against increased domestic surveillance before fashioning appropriate legislation. Sadly, India hasn’t seen such debates. Instead, after some grandstanding, legislators passed draconian laws that curb civil liberties. For example, the National Security Act of 1980 has provisions that grant the government the right to detain an individual for a maximum period of a year.


A student lifts a placard as he and others line up to take part in a march for peace in Mumbai, July 20, 2011.India’s counterterrorism strategy, if it can be called that, has not deterred either homegrown or foreign terrorists. (According to the authoritative South Asia Terrorism Portal, there have been close to 20,000 acts of terror between 2005 and 2015.) Instead, the strategy has led to the incarceration of many hapless individuals caught in a sweeping dragnet. Worse still, members of India’s Muslim minority have often been targeted even in the absence of compelling evidence of their involvement in terrorism. Leveling charges against members of that community because of putative connections with Pakistan could create a disastrous self-fulfilling prophecy.


Not all terrorist attacks are preventable. However, the experiences of other states suggest that there are better public policy options out there. For example, in the wake of 9/11, the United States created the Department of Homeland Security. Periodic internal assessments of the department have shown its flaws. However, in concert with intelligence and law enforcement agencies, it has effectively thwarted any other catastrophic terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

Indian parliamentarians might wish to look at such efforts to address India’s own terrorism problem. They should also look to other countries’ experience balancing intelligence with civil liberties to model new legislation. Such legislation should facilitate the collection of intelligence on both domestic and external terror groups but would also have built-in safeguards to ensure that minorities are not unfairly targeted. At an institutional level, New Delhi should promote greater integration between departments that collect and collate intelligence. It will also have to better fund existing institutions and it will need to look for ways to improve border security, including a drastic overhaul of its coastal security apparatus with the provision of high-speed vessels, improved radar coverage, and more frequent coastal patrols. Luckily for India, examples of successful counterterrorism programs abound. If New Delhi doesn’t take their lessons to heart, though, the country’s population will remain sadly vulnerable.

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