The views expressed by former National Security Advisor (NSA) and current governor of West Bengal M K Narayanan on October 12 on the continuing expansion of the elite National Security Guard (NSG) underlines the necessity of visiting the doctrine regarding special forces in the country.
Narayanan, rallying in favour of a “leaner and meaner” NSG, contends that idea of creating four hubs for the force as well as continuous expansion of the force is ‘archaic’, which will invariably result in the dilution of the very concept around which NSG’s existence has revolved.
Although the statement was part of Narayanan’s speech during the raising day celebrations of the NSG, its political context is difficult to ignore. Narayanan was the NSA when the idea of creating four NSG hubs was mooted by then Home Minister P Chidambaram in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Narayanan was still the NSA when the first of the hubs was inaugurated in July 2009 in Hyderabad. All the four proposed hubs have already been set up in different locations. In addition, an additional hub is being set up in Gujarat. There is, thus, little practical use of criticising the move at this belated stage.
The rationale behind creating regional hubs for the NSG was to minimise the reaction time of the force to any terrorist incident in any part of the country. It is a valid idea. Narayanan’s recent statement indicates that his views either originated in the comforts of the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata, much after he was shunted out from the post of NSA, or had been superseded during the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) discussions on the national security architecture during his days as the NSA.
In any event, Narayanan’s opposition to the increasing size and numbers of the NSG raises an important point. It highlights the fact that our national obsession of making generalists out of specialists has found its way into the realm of national security. Such a trend has potential negative ramifications.
Narayanan argues against “increasing the size and numbers” of the NSG which “is bound to dilute both quality and capability of the force”. He says that the elite special force is “intended to meet a specific situation and not intended to confront the normal law and order situation”.
Growth of the NSG, since its 1984 founding, does point at a dilution of its mandate. It was raised, on the lines of UK’s Special Air Service (SAS) and Germany’s Border Marksman Group-9 (GSG-9), under an Act of the Indian Parliament “to tackle all facets of terrorism in the country”. According to its mandate, the NSG commandos are to be used “only in exceptional situations”.
In 1986, the NSG took part in Operation Black Thunder-I against the Sikh terrorists in Punjab’s Golden Temple. Since then, the force has taken part in several counter-terrorism operations all over the country, evolving as the country’s elite anti-hijacking, anti-terror and bomb disposal force. At the same time, it is also a force that has been tasked with protecting VIPs and VVIPs—Central ministers, chief ministers, politicians, governors, including many of Narayanan’s compatriots in other states and former security officials.
In fact, sizeable expansion among the special forces is bit of a contradiction. From the year 2000 to 2008, the strength of the NSG remained fixed at little over 7,300. Since the Mumbai attacks, however, the organisation has been on a recruitment spree. In the years to come, strength of the NSG could grow at least two-fold. In comparison, the SAS, which was raised during World War II, has less than 500 men. The GSG-9, raised in 1973, is only 200-men strong. Even the Navy SEAL of the US, which killed Osama bin Laden, has a commando strength of only 2,000. NSG, with its expansion, could become the most bloated ‘special force’ in the entire world, invariably opening up the possibility of its sweeping use. Narayanan’s fears are not completely unfounded.
Such apprehensions have enough precedence among the other Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs). Although raised with different mandates and operating principles, CAPFs from different organisations are not only deployed in the Naxal theatres but also have been used in normal law and order duties all over the country. Manifold numerical expansion and complete blurring of the functional distinctiveness have been the two distinct and degenerating trends of the growth of the CAPFs in the past years.
New Delhi’s future strategy on the special forces must examine if federalising anti-terrorism force raising and operations won’t be a more workable idea than to sacrifice the NSG’s X-factor.
This article appeared in The New Indian Express and is reprinted with permission.