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For a mechanism to fight terror

Print edition : Jan 02, 2009 T+T-
NSG commandos who conducted the operation at Nariman House, at the organisations headquarters in New Delhi.-VIJAY VERMA/PTI

NSG commandos who conducted the operation at Nariman House, at the organisations headquarters in New Delhi.-VIJAY VERMA/PTI

An FIA will not put an end to terrorism, but it can investigate terrorist acts effectively and initiate measures that would act as a deterrent.

INVESTIGATION into the Mumbai incidents has made good progress. The evidence against the perpetrators is mounting each day. This is most welcome, and we should be able to take the lone terrorist in our hand to court very soon. The effort will be to cite as many others involved, who are present in Pakistan and elsewhere, as accused, in the hope that we can, in the distant future, apprehend them and bring them to justice. This is a very legalistic approach that any responsible government ought to do.

The main point is how India can convince international opinion that India has solid evidence to prove that almost all those guilty are from Pakistan. Criminal law demands conclusive proof to sustain a conviction. Exercises in the diplomatic arena, however, involve a preponderance of probabilities, where there is no unassailable evidence to link an arraigned person with a particular crime. Surely, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) will keep this in mind while projecting the available material before foreign governments. India has to act quickly if it has to make an impression on international opinion.

Alongside this propaganda offensive, both the Maharashtra government and the Centre will have to undertake a critical study of how the episode was handled by all public agencies. This need not necessarily be a fault-finding and penal exercise. Those who failed in their assigned responsibilities will, no doubt, have to explain themselves. This could put some deterrence into the system. More than this, there has to be a plan on how to handle such a crisis if it recurs. Ratan Tata has already referred to this in a poignant tone. We can ignore him only at our peril.

By all accounts, the National Security Guard (NSG) gave a good account of itself. This is notwithstanding one criticism, attributed to an Israeli observer, that the NSG could have waited and worn out the holed up terrorists before launching the final assault. Of course, this is a subjective evaluation. NSG Director-General J.K. Dutt alone can tell us why he did not choose to wait. He is a professional, and we should not say anything that will even remotely cast aspersions on his judgment.

There is, however, the well-merited criticism that the NSG did not have the infrastructure that would have enabled it to take charge of the operations in Mumbai much earlier than it did. Specifically, it is alleged that it did not have the aircraft that would have ensured a swifter ferrying of its men from near Delhi.

There are indications that the Ministry of Home Affairs will act swiftly to remedy this situation. A proposal to have an NSG contingent in each of the metros is also said to be under consideration. It is difficult to estimate how quickly this can be done, in view of the enormous infrastructure, including a training facility, required for this purpose. Whether the NSG, in view of the heightened role emerging from the Mumbai crisis, can afford to be distracted by the task of protecting dignitaries is another issue that the MHA will have to examine. The creation of another force to cover those not protected by the Special Protection Group (SPG), which came into existence after Indira Gandhis assassination (1984), may be expedient, if the NSG has to give its undivided attention to hostage-rescue responsibilities. All this would cost a lot of money. But Home Minister P. Chidambaram, with his enormous clout in government, should be able to bring in the money.

There is also the criticism that fighting the fire at Taj Mahal hotel was badly delayed. First, were there enough fire service personnel in Mumbai to undertake this difficult operation? If there were not, the issue of augmenting fire forces in major cities will have to be taken up on a war-footing. Here again, the Centres financial assistance is definitely called for.

The other point that has been aired in public is that even after the fire engines arrived they were not given access to the hotel by police personnel at the spot. If this is true, there is something radically wrong with the system. It is not to say that this act by the police was deliberate and motivated, or there was a turf war. The latter had possibly a reason for permitting the fire fighters only after considerable delay. Was this under NSG direction, under the belief that a raging fire would force the terrorists to jump out of the building when they could be apprehended? This will remain a piece of speculation until an independent inquiry throws up the facts, In any case, this happening points to a lack of coordination between the various agencies involved in the operation.

Interesting also is a report that there was one-upmanship on the part of some agency heads at the spot. If this charge has a basis, how does one prevent such clumsy conduct in future? Training may be one area that requires attention. Besides, attention to building a suitable organisational culture could help. The emphasis of such culture should be on team work rather than individual aggrandisement.

Accounts of what happened in Mumbai by way of official response do point to the need for a dispassionate, independent inquiry. The government should not fight shy of launching such an inquiry for the mere reason that some heads will roll. There is no case for benevolence and soft-pedalling here. There should also be transparency in sharing the findings of the inquiry with the public. If that is not done, it would be a great disservice to the public interest.

There is intense speculation that the Centre is considering an ordinance to create a Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) devoted to handling terrorist crime. This is long overdue. There is no time for political quibbling over the need for such an agency. It is not anybodys position that an FIA would put an end to terrorism. The hope is that such an agency would investigate terrorist acts effectively as also initiate action that would act as a deterrent.

It is not clear whether an FIA will also be responsible for collection of intelligence against terrorism. It seems prudent to assign to it such a charter. How the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) will react to such a move is anybodys guess. The fact that both will be under a strong Home Minister offers hope that a turf war will be avoided, at least in the initial stages.

New organisations take time to deliver goods. It will not be any different in the case of the proposed FIA. A lot will depend on the kind of leadership it gets in its early years. The best officers should be picked up from the States and Central Police Organisations (CPOs).

Finally, a word about private industrys role in combating terrorism. It should come out generously in terms of infrastructure support and innovative ideas. We have enough enlightened leaders such as Ratan Tata, Rahul Bajaj, Anil Mahindra, Kumar Mangalam Birla and Venu Srinivasan, to name only a few, who have contributed so much to society in a variety of ways. Again, thanks to his stint in the Finance Ministry, Chidambaram has sufficient rapport with them to invoke their unqualified support. This is crucial in the days to come.