Countering terror

Published : Aug 29, 2008 00:00 IST

Home Guards in a march past in New Delhi. The State governments should give teeth to Home Guards so that they are enthused to lend the best possible assistance to an overstretched police.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Home Guards in a march past in New Delhi. The State governments should give teeth to Home Guards so that they are enthused to lend the best possible assistance to an overstretched police.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

To blunt the terrorists striking power, what is needed is a second-line police force that has an ear to the ground and complements the full-time policeman.

JAIPUR, Kabul, Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Which next? It is anybodys guess. The group that hides a plan for the next assault in its sleeve must be really amused that it always holds the advantage in a war that has left no one in doubt as to who calls the shots. But then, this has always been the principal characteristic of modern terrorism. As the Irish Republican Army (IRA) warned Margaret Thatcher, its principal adversary, after the unsuccessful bombing (1980) of a hotel in Brighton where she was staying: Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always. Such is the power (read arrogance) of the terrorist who has the element of surprise as the principal weapon in his armoury. In this nearly unequal relationship, law enforcement has no doubt won a number of times by busting conspiracies and arresting potential bombers and assassins. But it has rarely got the accolades it so richly deserves because the impact of just one successful attack attended by violence and a huge loss of lives is far greater than the intangible benefit of any number of foiled attacks. There is no point in cribbing about this, and we have to necessarily carry on gallantly with the task of protecting the community, which increasingly seems impossible.

As far as India is concerned, a few facts are now clearly beyond any doubt and they enable the common citizen to comprehend the danger that confronts him every day. For quite some years to come, we will be continually at the receiving end of terrorist fury, but at unpredictable intervals. It is the geopolitics of the region in which two of our unfriendly neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are sold out to a philosophy of hatred that will dictate the situation.

Also, there may not be any definite pattern to the violence unleashed on us that could help to prepare ourselves at any point of time. A phase of lull that induces complacence in us will almost always precede a major assault. There could be some common features between two or three successive incidents leading to the false belief that we can take care of a future attack. Bicycles have been used to leave explosives behind at public places in more than one incident. There is no way we can restrict the use of cycles by our citizens, because it is about the cheapest means of transport they have. Places of worship Hindu and Muslim have been the venues of violence in more than one place. These will continue to draw large crowds and the chaos that prevails there offers a convenient target for the terrorist. Heightened security arrangements here can have only a modest impact. Packed trains have been bombed frequently, persuading us to take better care of the railway system. The mind-boggling number of trains that criss-cross our system and the sheer volume of passenger traffic, however, militate against any foolproof security arrangements.

As against these known patterns, in Ahmedabad we saw, for the first time, a hospital providing the setting for mounting terror. Yes, we can certainly go on to beefing up arrangements at hospitals, with no great prospect, however, of success, as these are places of free access, especially for the poor and the needy. Hospitals, cinema houses, railway stations, and temples in festival time will continue to be sitting ducks. We can instal sensors or explosive detectors at all these places, and also use sniffer dogs. The horrifying truth, as we found in Ahmedabad, is that the time interval between the planting of bombs and their taking off is shrinking at such an alarming speed that before we can defuse an explosive, it will have caused dreadful damage. Every way, this is a lose-lose situation for the victim. This unpleasant truth is becoming more and more obvious with each terrorist attack.

The so-called Indian Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for the Ahmedabad attacks. It had come to notice first during the spate of violence last year in Uttar Pradesh when a series of judicial courts were targeted. There are several speculations on the subject. My first impulse was to disbelieve that such an organisation existed at all. It is not difficult for some groups close to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or Al Qaeda to give themselves a new name from time to time to hoodwink the authorities, as also to impress on their sympathisers that the anti-India movement is gathering strength through the arrival of new supporters. Equally plausible are conjectures pertaining to the Indian Mujahideens composition and the source of its inspiration. The assessment that the Indian Mujahideen is an essentially Indian outfit with little or modest assistance from external instigators such as the ISI is difficult to swallow. It would be naive to rule out a mixture of Pakistani infiltrators and local elements acting in concert under a self-styled Indian Mujahideen banner. It hardly matters whether the motivation is self-rule for Kashmiri Muslims or the Gujarat killings. What is common is a hatred for the Indian government and all that it represents.

The main question is, how do we cut at the roots of terrorist prowess? Two ready-made solutions are offered by some armchair critics and self-styled experts. The first course of action suggested is to make intelligence agencies deliver the goods so that terrorist attacks are prevented as soon as they are planned. This is more easily said than done. The Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) of the Ministry of Home Affairs is apolitical, at least as far as the fight against terrorism is concerned. It has had almost continuously some outstanding leadership. But it is far too thinly spread on the ground for a vast country such as ours to be effective. Excessive dependence on the I.B. has been our bane. What we actually need are strong professional counterparts of the I.B. in the States so that grass-roots intelligence is available. The Special Branches, in most of the States, are a laughing stock because they are misused beyond belief only to watch the Chief Ministers adversaries in opposition parties, and sometimes within the ruling party itself. Hence their utility is extremely limited. In many States, there are now anti-terrorist cells, which are a little more professional than the Special Branch.

The marginal success achieved by some of them is not enough to tackle an explosive situation that faces us now. The pile-up of so many unsolved terrorist attacks will bear testimony to the charge of their incompetence. The crux of the matter is how to make the I.B. and State intelligence and investigating agencies (such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, CBI, and the State Crime Branches, CIDs) more professional and accountable. Except for minor regional differences in styles of policing, there is nothing that militates against central coordination of the energies of policemen to fight terrorism. The proposal for a federal investigation agency for handling this task seems reasonable. It offers hopes of a more focussed attention to a burning problem.

Although there are reservations about taking the task away from the CBI, this is worth a trial. By stonewalling this commendable initiative by the Centre, the States are doing the greatest disservice to a cause that does not brook any delay, all in the name of guarding State autonomy. History will not forgive them for injecting politics into what should be a purely professional decision-making process.

There is a second course of action that could help to blunt the terrorists striking power. This is through reducing gains flowing from his actions. We may not be able to prevent every assault. But we can definitely reduce losses of life and property. This is where strengthening the existing civil defence mechanism assumes high priority. Well-trained and highly-motivated Home Guards provide muscle to such a system. Community Support Officers (CSOs) do a splendid job on London streets. These are carefully chosen and attractively paid, and provide auxiliary support to the regular police. What we need is a second-line police force that will patrol the streets, pick up useful information available at the grass-roots and complement the full-time policeman. Such a force is not only economical to raise and maintain, but it can swiftly move into a crisis for discharging emergency functions such as guarding a scene of violence to preserve vital clues and rushing injured persons to hospitals. One can add many more tasks that become essential in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

There are limits to sanctioning additional manpower to existing numbers in State and Central police forces. This is why a beefed-up Home Guards wing becomes essential. We do have such a set-up now. Somehow, there is a feeling that its enormous potential has not been understood. I am hoping that the present crisis caused by a series of terrorist strikes will persuade the State governments to give teeth to Home Guards so that they are enthused to lend the best possible assistance to an overstretched police. Such a strategy should yield as much of a benefit as an attempt to strengthen intelligence-collection or bringing in a more deterrent anti-terror law. All this can, however, come only through an obsession in national life that the terrorist has to be fought relentlessly. Only obsessions assure excellence in governance. Nothing short of it will work at the present juncture.

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