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Nine years after 26/11 attack, India is safer today but still vulnerable

India has become inexplicably safer over the past years but her vulnerabilities have not diminished

Ajai Sahni  |  New Delhi 

Mumbai, 26
Smoke billows from the Taj hotel in Mumbai during the 26/11 terrorist attacks on India's financial capital. File photo

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India has become inexplicably safer over the past years since the horrific 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks but her vulnerabilities have not diminished, argues Ajai Sahni. Crucially, India's policing apparatus – the 'first responders' in case of terrorist attacks and the most productive sources of counter-terrorism intelligence – remains decrepit, ill-equipped, and substantially unprepared.

India's internal security apparatus continues to move with characteristic and elephantine slowness nine years after the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, when the national leadership had promised it would take all possible measures to ensure that such incidents would never be repeated. A constellation of factors – domestic, regional, and global – have nevertheless worked to ensure that there have been no repeats of the 26/11 attacks since, but vulnerabilities remain endemic. Indeed, speaking of the threat of Islamist terrorism, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh rightly observed, "There has been a decline in the incidents of extremism. The credit for this should go to the followers of Islam in India."

Nevertheless, despite enveloping deficiencies and deficits, the intelligence and policing establishments have also responded with surprising alacrity and effectiveness. Specifically, with regard to the threat from the Islamic State (Daesh), at least 112 persons have been arrested, including at least 33 in 2017, and another 60 detained, for linkages with, plots connected to, or attempts to travel to join this global terrorist formation. In over three years of strident Daesh and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) incitement, one fairly incompetent plot has come to fruition in the form of a low-intensity explosion on the Bhopal-Ujjain Passenger Train on March 7, 2017, which left at least 10 passengers injured. Through 2017, there has been just one fatality relating to Islamist terrorism outside Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), the killing of the leader of the Bhopal-Ujjain train blast conspiracy, Saifullah, in Lucknow. There were 11 such fatalities in 2016 (in two incidents in Punjab, essentially an overflow of the J&K insurgency); 13 in 2015; four in 2014; and 25 in 2013. The sobering reality, however, is that while there have been significant augmentations to technical intelligence capabilities, and these have been reflected in several counter-terrorism successes, the overall capacities of central and state intelligence agencies remain cripplingly inadequate in terms of their growing mandate. 

While immediate dangers have been contained, vulnerabilities still persist. This is despite the symbolism of various initiatives to augment capacities in diverse security sectors. Crucially, India's policing apparatus – the 'first responders', we have been repeatedly reminded, in case of terrorist attacks, and the most productive sources of counter-terrorism intelligence – remains decrepit, ill-equipped, and substantially unprepared. Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju rightly noted, "Most police security systems are old and obsolete... We are slowly adopting a new system."

The problem is that we are doing this much too slowly. Basic capacities are nowhere near adequate. To take the most rudimentary index of capacity, the police-to-population ratio, this remains a fraction of what is actually needed. The Bureau of Police Research & Development, which has now taken over maintenance of data on police strength from the far more stable and reliable databases of the National Crime Records Bureau, appears to be resorting to a measure of fudging to show relatively quick progress. Its 2017 report, for instance, claims that the ratio has gone up from 137.11 as on January 1, 2016, to 150.75 on January 1, 2017. For a population of roughly 1.3 billion, this would imply an addition to strength of over 177,000; further, one may assume a natural rate of attrition – death, disability, and retirement – of about 10 per cent in a force of over 1.9 million: about 190,000. But the report informs us that total recruitment in 2016 was just 78,030 (in one table, however, we are shown an increase in actual strength of 194,581). There is clear deception in much of this. Whatever the case, the exaggerated 150.75 ratio is well below what is necessary even for peacetime policing (projected at 220/100,000).

The 26/11 attacks came from the sea and coastal security has since been projected as a major priority. Despite significant expenditure and acquisitions in this direction, however, vulnerabilities remain undiminished as a result of fitful, poorly integrated, and insufficiently implemented projects.

Many critical projects have been delayed beyond reason. The most crucial of these, the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS), was originally intended to be completed by March 31, 2012. Despite boastful official claims about large quantities of data in, and online connectivity of, the system, the reality is that the deadline for the 'implementation stage' has annually been pushed back, most recently, to March 31, 2018. Significantly, received no budgetary allocations in financial years 2014-15 and 2015-16, and resource allocation has only been restored in the current financial year. Meanwhile, some sources suggest that the technologies acquired for are already approaching obsolescence. Another major database project with security implications, the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), remained headless for two years between May 2014 and July 2016. was originally slated for completion by May 2011 but is yet to be operationalised. 

India has become inexplicably safer over the past years but her vulnerabilities have not diminished.
The author is Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management and South Asia Terrorism Portal 

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Fri, November 24 2017. 10:35 IST