It would be convenient to link the 7 September explosion outside the Delhi High Court that killed 11 people and injured close to 80 others, to the approaching 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It would also be easy to link it to the death sentence passed by the Indian Supreme Court on Afzal Guru, a terrorist who carried out the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001. The claim made by ‘Harkat-ul-Jehadi’ for carrying out the blast pointed at that direction. But at the top of it, the capacities of the terrorists to succeed repeatedly in carrying out such acts of sabotage are inherently linked to the chronic failure of the country to learn from the past attacks and its demonstrated insincerity in installing an effective counter-terrorism architecture.
Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s reaction to the terror attack admitted “some weaknesses in the system”, although a few “innovative measures” have been put in place. “This is a long war in which all political parties and all the people of India will have to stand united so that this scourge of terrorism is crushed”, he said. Dr. Singh is being repetitive in his assertions. Less than a month back he had told the nation on 15 August on the occasion of India’s Independence Day that the previous 13 July serial blasts in Mumbai “warn us that there cannot be any slip-up in our vigilance as far as the fight against terrorism is concerned.” This is a “long battle to be fought jointly by the central government, state governments and the common man”, he said.
What Dr. Singh obviously failed to mention that his government has been extremely callous in addressing the loopholes in India’s counter-terror architecture since the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed more than 170 people. In spite of the promises made and the tall claims since then, the only achievement of consequence since then has been the installation of the National Investigative Agency (NIA), mostly to investigate terror attacks post-facto. On the other hand, the proposal to set up a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) has not progressed beyond the stage of conception and the idea behind a National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) has barely managed a Cabinet approval in June this year. The actual installation is sure to outlast the tenure of the present government unless some hyper activism is brought in.
The reasons for the tardy pace of response to reforming the security architecture are inter-agency rivalry, inter-ministry bickering and petty politicking. Even the NIA’s work continues to be hampered by non-cooperation from the state police departments. The 13 July Mumbai attacks is a case in point. The promises ministers and politicians make after each terror attack aren’t exactly the promises that are kept.
It is almost religious to ask whether a terror attack is the result of an intelligence failure? This time Home Minister Mr. P Chidambaram indicated that some sort of intelligence regarding an attack had been shared with the Delhi Police in the month of July. Will that constitute an intelligence failure, however, remains an important question. It would depend on whether the intelligence shared was actionable or was it in the mere category of ‘security advisories’ that many police officers would not even bother to go through? It remains an accepted fact that mega-cities like Delhi or Mumbai, where islands of chaos as well as order maintain baffling coexistence, are perennially ill equipped and ill managed to prevent a terror attack, once the terrorists have gained access to the cities with the required explosives.
To pre-empt a terror attack is also a near impossibility given the organisational drawbacks with the Delhi Police. Considered to be the best in India, Delhi Police’s total staff strength of 64,443 personnel is barely enough for this megacity of 18 million people, spread over 1483 square kilometres. The insufficiency of Delhi Police’s numbers is discernible from the fact that as of 2009, total cases for investigation including pending cases of previous years stood at a staggering 110700. Moreover, there is a 34 percent vacancy in the armed forces component of the Delhi Police and 19 percent vacancy in its civil wing. For a city, which has 468 identified high value target locations, such vacancies are sources of immense weakness.
The task of intelligence collection further suffers because of a large vacancy in the Intelligence Bureau (IB), India’s domestic intelligence agency. This agency, as on August 2011, had 9443 posts are lying vacant, amounting to almost 25 percent of its sanctioned strength. Obviously, the agency is in no position to know of the terror plots that are being hatched within the country.
Like all terror attacks, the 7 September attack serves a reminder to India’s government to get its acts together. The country has frequently pointed at the instability in the surrounding countries as a perennial source of problem for itself. However, it has almost no justification for the lapses that result in such terror attacks, many of which in recent past have been organised internally.