A cautious government has watered down the NCTC concept
Home minister P. Chidambaram, in his Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment lecture delivered in New Delhi on 27 December 2009 outlined a ‘broad architecture of a new security system that would serve the country today and in the foreseeable future’. He had, by then, completed a little over a year as the Union home minister, and with his considerable powers of observation and analysis, worked out a new system that would be put in place to fight terrorism.
It is this lecture that set the tone for the introduction of far reaching security reforms in India. Some of the statistics that the minister brought out were depressing — we had an average of 130 policemen for a hundred thousand people against an international average of 270. We had over 250,000 vacancies even within this structure. Chidamabaram said that there was ‘…no substitute for the policeman who walks the streets. He is the gatherer of intelligence, the enforcer of the law, the preventer of the offence, the investigator of the crime and the standard-bearer of the authority of the State, all rolled into one. If he is not there, it means that all these functions are not performed. That — the failure to perform essential police functions — is where the rot began and that is where the rot lies even today’.
Two years down the road while some states have shown improvement in recruitment, there are several which lag behind — leaving large number of vacancies in the rank of Constables in most states; the recruited Constable has to be given training and the shortage of trainers and appropriate infra-structure continues to be a big road block in most of the states. There are states where neither the Constables nor the officers have been sent for any training for decades after the initial training.
The minister said that the over 13,000 police stations in the country were functioning as islands, and that, though there is better connectivity today, there was no system of data storage, data sharing and accessing data. There was ‘no system under which one police station can talk to another directly’. There was ‘no record of crimes or criminals that can be accessed by a Station House Officer, except the manual records relating to that police station’. The minister referred to the Crime and Criminal Tracking System that the central government was pushing through, so that the work of the district police, the state police headquarters and the Central Police Organisations is greatly facilitated. Here again, while a lot of ground has been covered, a lot more remains to be covered. The minister also emphasised the need for community policing to enable citizens to interact freely with the police and to set up toll free service for them to pass information or lodge complaints.
The Prime Minister has also underlined the importance of community policing, but there is no uniform model of community policing that is followed throughout the country. Chidambaram called for restructuring the intelligence gathering system in the states by having a separate cadre for the State Special Branch and for setting up Quick Reaction Teams in all the districts to respond to attack of terrorists.
The home minister called all the above changes simple and basic, which can be addressed without much difficulty. However, he said beyond these there were questions of Constitutional responsibilities and division of powers, including of jurisdiction and turfs, where there will be many more difficulties. And as India could not afford to side-line such questions any longer, Chidambaram proposed a new security architecture for the country. He referred to the improvements already introduced, like the daily meetings that were taken by him of the NSA and other intelligence chiefs at the centre for better coordination, and the strengthening of the Multi Agency Centre at the central level and the State level MACs, where the State Special Branch is also a party. While the government is better informed and the agencies are more alert, he categorically pointed out that it did not mean that we had the ability to prevent or pre-empt terrorist attacks. He observed that the various agencies at the Centre, like the Intelligence Bureau, the R&AW, the JIC, the Defence Intelligence Agencies, and the Financial Intelligence Agencies etc did not report to a single authority and there was no single or unified command which could issue directions to these agencies and bodies.
Chidambaram also mentioned the need to integrate 21 different data bases which contained vital and sensitive information, but did not share it with each other, as they stood at that point of time. He said that the central government has decided to create the NATGRID or the National Intelligence Grid for this purpose, and that in 18 to 24 months, it would be in place. However, due to concerns raised by various ministries and fears of breaching of privacy laws, it took the government about 18 months to clear the first phase of the programme. According to Raghu Raman, the chief executive of the new organisation, ‘NATGRID, in its first phase, will network 21 sets of data sources to provide quick and secure access to information required by 10 intelligence and law enforcement agencies as part of the counter terror-related investigative processes’.
Two other projects the minister referred to, for strengthening immigration and visa issuing procedures were re-engineering of the Foreigners Division and ‘the more ambitious Mission Mode Project on Immigration, Visa and Foreigners’ Registration and Tracking with the objective of creating a secure and integrated service delivery framework for facilitating legitimate travellers and strengthening security’. Chidambaram also said that terror networks overlapped with those of drugs, arms and human traffickers. He wanted regulation of enforcement of each of these areas to be brought under overall management of internal security.
But the most ambitious proposal of Chidambaram was the setting up of the National Counter Terrorism Centre with the goal of countering terrorism. He said that “this will include preventing a terrorist attack, containing a terrorist attack — should one take place — and responding to a terrorist attack, by inflicting pain upon the perpetrators. Such an organisation does not exist today. It has to be created from scratch. I am told that the United States was able to do it within 36 months of 11 September 2001. India cannot afford to wait for 36 months. India must decide now to go forward and India must succeed in setting up the NCTC by the end of 2010.” The Cabinet Committee on Security cleared the proposal of the home ministry only a couple of days back, over 24 months after the proposal was first mooted, overshooting Chidambaram’s target already by over 12 months! It is said that the proposal that was cleared was a watered down version of the one envisaged by Chidambaram in his IB Endowment lecture, and would be put to test for a certain period.
So the actual work, or the nitty gritties of setting up the NCTC will start now — bringing together the intelligence, investigation and operational components. The minister hoped that there would be no turf wars, as the NCTC will have to have oversight responsibilities of a number of agencies. He also said that the NCTC will have to have, apart from MAC, the NIA, the NCRB, the NTRO, the JIC and the NSG, and that positioning the R&AW, the ARC and the CBI under the NCTC, to the extent that they deal with terrorism will have to be looked into. The minister expressed the need to bifurcate internal security from the current ambit of the overburdened home ministry for better and focussed attention. In the watered down proposal, it is doubtful whether any of the existing agencies would cede their turf to the NCTC. It would be interesting to observe as to what extent the various projects unveiled by the minister in his December lecture of 2009 take shape. With passage of time, even the wounds left by 26/11 have been forgotten. The changes the minister wanted to implement should have been introduced right after 26/11, when the wounds were fresh, and the states would have been compelled to cooperate with the Centre, in the interest of national security. There were voices then that tried to impress the need for an agency that would have preventive, detective and operational responsibilities to tackle terrorism in India, but were drowned in the fears that states would not permit such a system.
We do not have the concept of federal crime, like in the United States. There, only a Federal Agency like the FBI can investigate a federal offence, not the state police. Even though, the National Investigation Agency was set up in India to investigate terrorist crimes, and the central government can direct it to take over investigation of any terror-related crime without a state’s consent, the home ministry was reluctant to ask NIA to take over investigation of the German Bakery case in Pune of February 2010 and the serial blasts in Mumbai of July 2011.
Unless this aspect is addressed through a Constitutional amendment if necessary, the NCTC’s investigative wing would continue to be inherently weak. In the current set up in Delhi, this appears well-nigh impossible. Policy makers should realise that terrorists strike after understanding weak points in the security architecture. Hence, any compromise on security to satisfy different pressure groups within and outside the government would be counter-productive and defeat the purpose of securing the country.
(The writer retired as the first chief of NIA. Earlier he was the additional director general of police, Jammu and Kashmir. He was also Vigilance Commissioner in Jammu & Kashmir)