Time to call the bluff

Published : Jan 30, 2009 00:00 IST

The Gujarat Police checking the documents and identity cards of fishermen in Porbandar on December 2, 2008. Security has been beefed up in coastal towns and ports in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat because of the suspicion that terrorists used the Porbandar port to reach Mumbai.-AJIT SOLANKI/AP

The Gujarat Police checking the documents and identity cards of fishermen in Porbandar on December 2, 2008. Security has been beefed up in coastal towns and ports in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat because of the suspicion that terrorists used the Porbandar port to reach Mumbai.-AJIT SOLANKI/AP

AT the time of writing this column, Home Minister P. Chidambaram was scheduled to visit Washington to present to authorities in the United States all the evidence that Indian intelligence and investigative agencies have assiduously collected on the Mumbai terror attacks. (It is believed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has already given a report to Pakistan on the basis of its own investigation. According to one report, India has done likewise in the past few days.)

The purpose of the exercise is to expose the untruth behind Pakistans protestations that Ajmal Amir Iman Kasab, the terrorist now in custody in Mumbai, is not a Pakistani national and that none of the government agencies in that country had anything at all to do with the Mumbai attacks.

Chidambaram has hinted that the Pakistan government is not as innocent as it claims to be. There is a feeling that some government outfit in Pakistan has possibly come to adverse notice for a direct or indirect role.

There could be some scepticism about the Home Ministers mission to Washington, especially on what will come out of telling the U.S. all that the Indian government knows about Pakistans indifference and complicity. Here, one cannot look for immediate dividends. If past actions are any guide, Pakistan will not hand over any of the suspects named by India. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has already made a categorical statement to this effect. It would be disastrous for any Pakistan administration to respond to India favourably because of the enormous power wielded by the Taliban and other fundamental elements in the region. However, in international diplomacy, the strategy is one of building opinion among countries that count, and the U.S definitely does count vis-a-vis Pakistan.

The idea is that pressure should be mounted continually on Pakistan to turn in its citizens who have been identified as the conspirators behind the Mumbai attacks or else face consequences, including hot pursuit. Pakistan is notorious for shielding criminals such as Dawood Ibrahim and telling India with a straight face that none of them was on its soil. It is time we called its bluff. The Home Ministers visit to Washington should be viewed only in this context.

At the end of that visit, the people of India need to be told what information was shared. While observing the usual precaution of protecting sources, the broad details may have to be made public so that the people get to know that Indias claims are not bogus or are not too vague for action by Pakistan. This is too important a matter to be confined to the executive alone or to wait until Parliament reconvenes.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has been hogging the news for the past few weeks. Rightly so because great things are expected of the new organisation. As I said in my last column, the Centres move to create the NIA is most appropriate. Terrorism is a complicated phenomenon, and investigating terrorist attacks has many international ramifications.

The Central Bureau of Investigation is overburdened and cannot cope with the workload that has been thrown up by terrorist designs. The decision to bypass the CBI and opt for a new outfit will be justified only if the proposed NIA has a wide charter and is designed to give leadership in the area to all the police forces in the country. This was the all-round expectation. But what has been explained by the Home Minister on this comes as a huge disappointment.

We are told the NIA will be a small agency that will pick and choose its cases. We are already told that it will not probe the Mumbai attacks. This decision in particular is intriguing, even assuming that most of the investigation is complete. Is it because the Maharashtra police are reluctant to hand over the case to the NIA?

If this is so, it does not require extraordinary intelligence to predict what future relations between the NIA and the State police in any part of the country will be like. There is a pious hope that States will cooperate with the NIA. But when politics gets injected into what should be a clinical process, you get an entirely different brew.

Take the case, for instance, of Vaiko in Tamil Nadu, who is open about his support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. While one group considers the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leaders pro-LTTE utterances as indefensible and actionable, others are not all that exercised about his antics and would prefer to turn a blind eye to them. Ultimately, it boils down to which side you are on while indulging in rhetoric bordering on support to terrorists.

The feedback on the NIA that I get from several sources is one of scepticism. It focusses on the fact that what people want is a mechanism that will foil terrorist attacks rather than an agency that comes into the picture one day after the fair. Nothing that has been said about the NIA even hints at a preventive role for it. Nor is there any mention of its capacity for collection of intelligence.

When this is the case, the question that is asked is: In what way does the NIA improve on the CBI in respect of terrorism-related investigations? In the final analysis, I would opt for an overburdened CBI rather than an NIA, which is modestly equipped and, more importantly, not accountable for its performance.

The importance of coastal security has been known for quite some time, but the subject has hardly received the kind of attention it deserves. The Mumbai blasts of 1993 revealed the chinks in the armour in the form of a corrupt customs official who turned a blind eye to a shipment of explosives brought across the Gujarat coast. This was the lethal contraband that led to more than 200 deaths in the episode.

The Mumbai attacks have once again brought into focus several issues that cry for immediate action. Here again, who is in charge and who is accountable? There is a lot of confusion. Given the dubious record of some States, the Centre needs to take charge of all that matters in this regard.

The Navy and Coast Guard are the vital arms that can give professional leadership. I do not set much score by State police forces, which reek of corruption and inefficiency. The ease with which the Mumbai attacks were executed should give us jitters. Tightened coastal patrolling and aerial surveillance over our waters can greatly enhance our capabilities. Depending on State governments even for a modicum support will be fatal. Building support among the community that lives off the long coastline and setting up infrastructure that will help to tip off the Navy and Coast Guard whenever a strange movement is noticed are an essential part of the scheme to ensure national security.

A liberal supply of cellphones to identified volunteers situated on the coast should enhance communication capabilities between the community and law enforcement.

It is to the credit of State governments that they have been very honest about their intentions: that they are not for fundamental changes in the way the country is policed and that cosmetic changes are more than adequate to appease the Supreme Court and the public. There is unanimity among political parties of different hues that the police should not be given any autonomy at all. When this is the mindset, how can you expect sweeping changes in the system that would bring in a professional and independent police force?

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