By Ajai Sahni*
In a series of arrests, at once indicating a major intelligence breakthrough and the sheer spread of the enduring threat of Pakistan-backed Islamist extremist terrorism in India, as many as 77 persons have already been arrested across the country in 2014, in connection with a string of Islamist terrorist plots and subversive activities. These prominently include Tehseen Akhtar alias Monu, who had replaced Yasin Bhatkal as the Indian Mujahiddeen’s (IM’s) ‘India operations chief’, and was the ‘mastermind’ of the Bodh Gaya and Patna attacks, and who was arrested from Naxalbari in Darjeeling District of West Bengal [arrest date not disclosed, announcement made on March 25, 2014], in the eastern corner of the country. Top IM operative, Pakistani national Zia-ur-Rehman alias Waqas, was arrested from outside the Ajmer Railway Station in the Western State of Rajasthan, in the morning of March 22, 2014. In a continuing series of arrests, Mohammad Mahruf and Mohammad Waqar Azhar alias Haneef, were arrested from Jaipur on March 23. On the same day, Shaquib Ansari alias Khalid, was arrested from Jodhpur, even as “a huge amount of explosive materials, detonators, electronic circuits/timers” was recovered from “the residences of these three people from Jaipur and Jodhpur”. Again, on March 25, another three IM operatives, Barkat Ali, Mohammed Javed and Mohammed Iqbal, were arrested from Jodhpur, followed by the arrest of five IM operative – Mohammad Aquib, Mohammad Sajjad, Mohammad Waqar, Mohammad Umar, and Mohammad Wahid – from Sikar on March 28, 2014. In Uttar Pradesh, two IM operatives, Murtaza and Owais, were arrested from Gorakhpur on March 26, 2014.
These arrests added to at least 882 persons arrested since 26/11 (the Mumbai attacks of 2008), according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in connection with Islamist extremism and terrorism, and including terrorist cadres, Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agents, and Bangladeshi, Nepali and Pakistani nationals. 151 of these arrests were made in 2013, and another 348 in 2012. These included three top terrorists – Yasin Bhatkal aka Mohammad Ahmed Siddibappa Zarrar aka Imran aka Asif aka Shahrukh; Asadullah Akhtar aka Haddi; and Abdul Karim Tunda – who were arrested from the Indian State of Bihar along the Indo-Nepal Border in August 2013. Yasin Bhatkal was thought to be IM’s ‘operational chief in India’, while Tunda ranked 15th on India’s dossier of most wanted terrorists in Pakistani safe havens.
In Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) at least six persons, including three militants, two civilians and one soldier were killed in Kathua District on March 28, 2014, when three Pakistani terrorists struck at Tarnah bridge at Dayala Chak near Hiranagar, killing a Bolero driver before striking at an Army camp at Janglot. An Army soldier and all three militants were killed while another trooper was injured.
In the Sukma District of Chhattisgarh, one of the States worst afflicted by the Left Wing Extremist insurgency, fifteen Security Force (SF) personnel were killed in an ambush by Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres, on March 11, 2014. One civilian, Vikram Nishad, also died in the crossfire, while three were injured. The incident occurred in the Jeeram Ghati area, barely eight kilometres from the location of the May 25, 2013, attack, when CPI-Maoist cadres killed 28 persons and injured at least 30 (another three subsequently died of their injuries), including the top leadership of the Congress Party in the State.
In the Kokrajhar District of Assam, in India’s troubled Northeast, six persons were killed when suspected militants of the Ingti Kathar Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS) opened fire at a bus on National Highway (NH) 31, at Serfanguri.
These developments and widely dispersed incidents come as sobering reminders of the enduring threat of extremist violence across India, despite broadly positive trends in fatalities and armed violence in a multiplicity of theatres. Crucially, total terrorism and insurgency related fatalities collapsed from a peak of 5,839 in 2001, to just 885 in 2013, according to the SATP database. The most dramatic drop has been in J&K, from 4,507 killed in 2001, to just 181 in 2013. Maoist violence, which peaked in 2010, with 1,080 fatalities, also registered a sharp contraction, with a total of 421 killed in 2013. In the multiple insurgencies across India’s Northeast, fatalities collapsed from a peak of 1,317 in 2001, to a total of 251 in 2013. Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist attacks outside J&K, which resulted in 364 fatalities in 2008, saw 29 killed in 2013. Significantly, on November 21, 2013, Syed Asif Ibrahim, Director, Intelligence Bureau, observed: “The LeT (Lashkar-e-Toiba) and IM have enlarged their network and developed capabilities to carry out acts of terror at short notice in various parts of the country… Evidence gathered from various cases indicates Pakistan continues to nurture terrorist groups…”
Demonstrating the fragility of these gains, however, J&K registered a rise in fatalities, from 117 in 2012, to 181 in 2013. This was compounded by an escalating campaign of cease fire violations by Pakistan’s Army with at least 195 violations recorded through 2013, resulting in 10 SF fatalities, as against 93 such violations in 2012, resulting in three SF fatalities. In the Maoist belt, fatalities rose from 367 to 421 between 2012 and 2013; Islamist terrorist attacks outside J&K accounted for one fatality in 2012, and 29 in 2013. In the Northeast, at least two States registered an increase in total fatalities between 2012 and 2013: Assam, from 91 to 101; and Meghalaya, from 48 to 60. India’s peculiar vulnerabilities, the sheer weakness of governance and of the internal security apparatus, and the mercurial geopolitical environment, leaves no room whatsoever for complacency.
205 of the country’s 640 Districts continued to be afflicted by varying intensities of chronic subversive, insurgent and terrorist activity in 2013, including 120 Districts where the Maoists remained active; 20 Districts in J&K afflicted by Pakistan-backed Islamist separatist terrorism; and 65 Districts in six Northeastern States where numerous ethnicity based terrorist and insurgent formations operate. This is, of course, down from a peak of 310 Districts so listed in 2010, principally as a result of the abrupt contraction of the Maoist rampage which had escalated enormously in the 2009-10 period. In 2012, the number of afflicted Districts stood at 252.
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The divergent trends and their causal dynamic in different States and theatres have been analysed in detail elsewhere, and need not detain us here. It needs to be emphasised that a wide range of extraneous factors, often unrelated to state policy or strategy, have influenced these trends, and grave dangers of reversal – including the impact of developments in Afghanistan and a creeping implosion in Pakistan – exist. Crucially, India’s own vulnerabilities and deficits in its security and intelligence apparatus remain glaring, and there is much reason to be sceptical of the claim made by Union Minister of Home Affairs, Sushilkumar Shinde, that “The Government will deal with iron fist (sic) when it comes to terrorism.” Indeed, the lackadaisical, often corruption-led approach to India’s security is everywhere in evidence, with crucial projects, acquisitions and plans delayed beyond measure, or implemented in a fitful manner that destroys the very possibility of their efficacy in securing intended ends. A brief review of the status of some of the most urgent measures illustrates the sheer incoherence of approach, despite massive increases in expenditure on internal security. The annual budgetary allocation for the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), for instance, has escalated dramatically since 26/11, more than doubling, from INR 254.39 billion in 2008-09, to 592.41 billion in 2013-14. A detailed breakdown of this expenditure is not available, nor is any detailed assessment of its components possible here. It is useful, however, to take an overview of some of the most pressing heads and commitments made post-26/11, to see the sheer magnitude of implementation failure. More than five years after the debacle in Mumbai, and the many political declarations of determination and intent, capacity augmentation has been no more than marginal, and most state agencies continue to struggle with manpower, technology and resource deficits that are little different from the situation in 2008.
Thus, on March 12, 2013, in a written statement to the Lok Sabha, Minister of State of Home Affairs, R.P.N Singh disclosed, “As against a sanctioned strength of 26,867 personnel in IB (Intelligence Bureau), at present 18,795 personnel are available with a total of 8,072 vacancies (30%).” Improvements in the manpower-strapped IB have been conceived of as critical to the country’s counter-terrorism (CT) and counter-insurgency (CI) responses, and this single datum, manifesting an manpower at best marginally different from the situation in 2008, is itself a comprehensive indictment of the state’s approach.
Similarly, the Government informed the Rajya Sabha on August 22, 2013, that Indian Police Service (IPS) officers ‘in position’ as per the 2013 civil list stood at 3,637, some 1,093 short of the total authorized strength of 4,730 IPS officers, a deficit of 23.1 per cent, as compared to the situation in 2008, when a deficit of 14.42 per cent existed against a lesser sanctioned strength of 3,903. The actual addition to this cadre has been just 297 officers over five years. The sanctioned strength, moreover, remains well below the estimated requirement of Police leadership in the country.
The police-population ratio has risen from 128 per 100,000 in 2008, to no more than 138 per 100,000 in 2012, as against a general norm of 220 per 100,000 for ‘peacetime policing’, with some Western countries maintaining ratios over and above 220 per 100,000. There is, moreover, no evidence whatsoever of any significant change in the very poor manpower profile of the Police Forces, or in their training and capabilities. Despite the creation of the ‘elite’ Force 10, Mumbai, today, has the same general policing capabilities that so dramatically failed to protect the city against the 26/11 attacks. The State Police across much of the country, with occasional exception, is measurably worse in terms of resources, capacities and capabilities.
The Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), the stopgap responders for every emergency in the country, including the chronic crises generated by enduring movements of terrorism and insurgency, have seen some increase in manpower. The sanctioned strength of CAPFs at end-2008 stood at 838,893, and actual strength at 777,743 (a deficit of 7.28 per cent). By January 2013, according to Bureau of Police Research and Development data, these numbers had been raised to 984,781 sanctioned, and 883,581 actual (a deficit of 10.2 per cent). Actual strength has, thus, seen an improvement of 105,838 personnel, which is significant, but far from adequate to meet the augmenting challenges of a progressively widening mandate and the geographically dispersed threats across the country.
While these numbers may suggest some qualified gains in the CAPFs, the scandalous pace of capacity development is illustrated by a March 22, 2014, news report regarding the status of protective headgear for the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the designated ‘lead agency’ for CT-CI operations. Jugal Purohit discloses, in India Today, that, against an authorisation of 109,000 protective headgear in two categories – helmets and patkas – the current availability is an abysmal 762 helmets and under 1,100 patkas. Tortuous and dilatory bureaucratic processes continue to obstruct necessary acquisitions, placing SF personnel at unacceptable risk in counter-insurgency deployments across India. Significantly, at least 226 CRPF personnel have been killed in the course of their duties between 2010 and 2012.
Shortly after 26/11, a ‘modernization plan’ for the CAPFs was announced, with a total allocation of INR 41.85 billion, to acquire the latest weapons, surveillance and communication equipment, vehicles, body protection gear, etc. But only a fraction of these financial commitments have actually been met. Thus, the CAPFs sought INR 23.60 billion for 2013 for their CT-CI and border control acquisitions; the UMHA released just INR 900 million. The CRPF had raised a demand of INR 8.73 billion, but was sanctioned just INR 200 million. The Border Security Force (BSF) sought INR 6.94 billion, but received just INR 200 million.
Coastal security was identified as one of the priority areas of security reform after 26/11, with its utter and comprehensive vulnerability demonstrated in the Mumbai attacks. That India’s coastline remain just as vulnerable, was dramatically demonstrated with the discovery of the 390 tonne Seaman Guard Ohio, owned by a private US firm, AdvanFort, which its commander admitted had been functioning undetected as an illegal ‘floating armoury’ for merchant vessels in Indian territorial waters for 45 days prior to its detention 10 nautical miles off Tuticorin along the Tamil Nadu coastline, on October 12, 2013. 35 weapons, including 34 rifles, one pistol and ammunition were recovered from the vessel. The vessel was supposedly checked and found clean when it had berthed on August 23, 2013, at Kochi in Kerala, suggesting, either, that the inspection was far from thorough, or that the arms had been acquired in Indian waters before the vessel reached the point of its interception. Clearly, a terrorist attempt to pass through Indian waters to a target port would take considerably less than 45 days of undetected movement.
Even more startling was the evident and continuing vulnerability of the Mumbai coast demonstrated by three incidents in 2011, when three massive vessels simply drifted into Mumbai, completely unnoticed by the numerous Coastal Police Stations, check-posts, outposts, and sea and land patrols that had been established after 26/11.
With tens of thousands of vessels, large and small, at sea along India’s vast coastline each day, it is impossible, irrespective of the intensity of patrolling, to identify the interloper or deviant, unless there is a GPS tagging system to identify those whose presence is legitimate. The rudiments of such a system are yet to be created.
Substantial expenditure has certainly been incurred on various initiatives intended to secure India’s coastline, but the systems are far from functional and effective. A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report released in July 2013 noted: “72 per cent of the fast patrol vessels (FPVs)/inshore patrol vessels (IPVs), 47 per cent of the advanced offshore patrol vessels (AOPVs) and 37 interceptor boats were either on extended life or their extended life had expired…” Many of the coastal Police Stations and Posts sanctioned had not been established. Sea patrolling was a fraction of the prescribed frequency, and there had been no night flying. “Out of the 50 CCPs [Coastal check-posts] and COPs [Costal outposts] completed, 36 remained non-operational as police personnel were not deployed…”
Unsurprisingly, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, observed, on November 21, 2013, “Coastal areas in southern states of India can be potential targets for terrorists to infiltrate into the country.”
Vulnerabilities along the country’s land borders also persist. Home Minister Shinde noted on December 20, 2013, that “anti-national” elements were taking advantage of “friendly borders”, and described the task of guarding open and friendly borders with countries like Nepal and Bhutan as a “big challenge”. The problem along borders with not-so-friendly countries is obviously greater. According to partial data compiled by SATP, at least 43 attempts at infiltration were made from across the International Border and Line of Control in J&K in 2013. The movement of terrorists and subversive from Pakistan into India, through friendly countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh has also been frequently documented, and remains a persistent threat to internal security.
The multi-agency centre (MAC), which coordinates all intelligence generated by various central intelligence agencies, prominently including the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), National Technical Research Organisation, Military Intelligence, among others, as well as the Intelligence Bureau’s (IB’s) Subsidiary Intelligence Bureaus (SIBs) in the State, became active sometime in May-June, 2012. This has resulted in significant improvements in the acquisition, coordination and dissemination of available intelligence, but falls considerably short of creating a national database on terrorist and insurgency activities – an objective that can only come to fruition with the creation of the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) project, which is intended to link up all Police Stations in the country, and which received sanction on June 19, 2009. The CCTNS project is yet to take off, with several States failing even to initiate first steps. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which has been charged with the implementation of the process, is yet to finalize an MoU between itself and the software developing agency that is to take the project forward. The project received approval of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) on June 19, 2009. Crucially, the CCTNS project is a reinvention of the PolNet (Police Network) project, which was sanctioned as far back as 1996, with the same objective of linking the Police Stations across the country. INR 2.76 billion was allocated for the CCTNS project in 2013-14, but most observers believe it will take years before the network is ready.
Similarly, the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) project, which was intended to integrate 21 existing databases – including banking, finance, and transportation databases – and which the Government claimed would help ‘fight terrorism’, has also failed to take off. Nevertheless, the foundation laying day of the NATGRID data centre in New Delhi was observed on December 19, 2013. The NATGRID data centre and other administrative infrastructure are intended to be completed over the succeeding 30 months, inside a CRPF campus in south Delhi, will cost INR 2.34 billion. NATGRID’s potential impact on terrorism is, moreover, debatable, and its efficacy has been questioned even by within the intelligence community. Crucially, sources indicate that the project is “several months to several years” away from providing any useful inputs to the security establishment.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA), which was hurriedly established in the immediate wake of the 26/11 attacks, has expectedly failed to impact significantly on the trajectory of terrorism, despite occasional successes. The total cases registered by NIA currently stand at just 72, in a country where thousands of terrorist offences are committed every year. Charge Sheets have, thus far, been filed in only 33 cases. Convictions have been obtained in seven cases. The number of persons convicted stands at 11, with one of these, Samir Ahmed, convicted in two cases. Interestingly, NIA has failed to obtain a conviction in any major case of terrorist attack. Significantly, many of the investigations ‘taken over’ by the NIA had already been at least partially completed by State agencies. The cumulative CT impact of the NIA – if at all measurable – would at best be negligible. It is useful to note that the total strength of all Crime Investigation Departments (CID) in the State Police across the country stood at 11,729 personnel in 2011; with as many as 6,252,729 offences registered that year, yielding a ratio of 533.09 cases per officer (it is no surprise that most of these cases go uninvestigated). NIA has a sanctioned strength of 650 officers and 72 cases – yielding an investigative caseload that can only be the envy of agencies in the States.
The Government quickly implemented the decision to establish ‘hubs’ of the elite National Security Guard (NSG) in four major metropolitan centres, but the utility of this move has always been in question. Moreover, the hubs continue to function under acute limitations for training and readiness of the units, even as the NSG suffers from a critical leadership shortfall, with a deficit of over 22 per cent against its sanctioned strength of officers.
Despite numerous, sometimes dramatic, successes by India’s resource strapped security and intelligence agencies, both at the Centre and in the States, the reality is that India’s internal security apparatus continues to suffer from gaping vulnerabilities. While we may celebrate the relief that declining overall trends in terrorism and insurgency related fatalities offer, the truth is, these trends are overwhelmingly a consequence of factors other than measurable improvements in state capacities and capabilities. This is unsurprising. According to NCRB data for 2012, India’s per capita expenditure on State Police, for instance, works out to a pitiable Rs. 1.25 per day – a fraction of what a cup of tea would cost at a roadside stall. Only the blind and congenitally stupid could expect an effective policing and internal security system at this kind of cost.
India’s internal security apparatus continues to suffer extreme susceptibility under the control of an ignorant, deeply compromised and corrupt political executive. The system lacks the capacities even to deal with current challenges and transient emergencies, and will certainly and comprehensively fail if a generational shift in terrorist capabilities or intent – to include catastrophic or chemical-biological-radiological and nuclear terrorism (CBRN) – occurs.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, ICM & SATP