Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Antidote for Terrorism

There seems to be a common perception that terrorism is the new threat that faces the world. The United States, under President George W. Bush, launched a "War on Terror." In its name, two countries were invaded, the draconian (by civilised standards) Patriot Act was passed, and a set of other initiatives designed to fight terrorism. Although terrorism is by no means a trifling problem, the casualties of this war have been increased budget in security and the abeyance of some of our civil liberties. Admittedly, terrorism has taken a hard knock in areas where intelligence confirmed their existence, but that is no reason to sit on our laurels - the very nature of terrorism is that it retreats in visiblity to regain its advantage of invisibility and hits again at other unsuspecting targets.

It is perhaps time to think our strategies on combatting terrorism. For one, vast armies have been shown to be somewhat impotent against it. Secondly, to evade the high tech surveillance net, many terror groups have reverted to old fashioned low tech solutions - instead of mobile phones, they use drop boxes; instead of email, they meet in person. Third, terrorism is not particularly different from regular crime - save the one difference of public and political statements in their choice of targets, terrorists are by and large common criminals albeit some with better resources. The fact remains, however, that even the mightiest army in the world, the US, has no answer when the terror groups originate from rogue states. A nuclear Pakistan has allowed terror groups there a modicum of security against an Afghanistan-style invasion by either the US or India (in 1999). Arabia, though not technically a rogue state, is a powder keg in that as home of Sunni Islam's two holiest sites, action against it could set off a worldwide orgy of Islamist violence (supported by apologists both Muslim and academic).

So what can be done differently? There is no one answer, obviously, but one proposition is to scale back the rhetoric and tackle it based on the facts on the ground. Clearly, there are multiple levels to the problem but each needs its own solution. At the ground level, states should train and arm police better. Despite its size and complexity, India is a relatively under-policed country with about one police officer for each 1,200 citizens (national average - some states are better) as against the usual 1:250 ratio found in most western countries. Despite this, there are some 113,000 sanctioned positions for the post of beat constable that are unfilled. The reason for this is that many politicians ensure that only those who bribe them or who belong to the "right" caste or faith get selected to become a police officer. The absence of professional standards for all but higher-level police positions ensures that several entrants have matters other than the security of citizens as their first priority. In all too many cases, the police are tasked with ensuring the financial and political interests of their patrons often at the expense of the public interest. In the situation where India finds itself as one of the three focal points for jihadi terror (together with the United States and Israel), it would appear self-evident that the training of the police force would be given a high priority. Yet till now, six decades after the British left, there is zero - repeat zero - training given to police constables or indeed any member of the police force below the level of assistant superintendent, usually the junior most position formerly held by a British officer. Then, as now, those further down the chain were not trained except in the most rudimentary way. After all, it does not take a high IQ to learn how to wield a stick or bark out warnings to the public. Small wonder that the quality of the police force is, to put it charitably, uneven. It is a tribute to the civilizational values of the Indian people that despite this weakness in its administrative architecture, public order is relatively high, especially when compared to their neighbors. Even in the UK or in the United States it will be seen that crimes involving Indian-Americans are much less frequent in number than those involving those from countries that have sought to shed the heritage of India and embrace Wahabbism and its attitudes, such as Pakistan and increasingly Bangladesh. For example, even though Mumbai was swamped by torrents of rain at about the same time that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, there was none of the law and order breakdown in Mumbai that was witnessed in New Orleans.

The district superintendent of police (DSP) is the key officer in each district. Although DSPs are usually seconded to the state administration from the centrally recruited Indian Police Service (IPS), the power of transfer is wielded by the chief minister and the home minister to ensure the DSP's subservience to their dictates. It may seem fantastical but the reality is that the average tenure (within a district) of the superintendent of police in India is about six months. There are cases of police officers (usually those unfortunate enough to be honest) that have been transferred as much as 11 times in one year, thereby playing havoc with the education of their children and the stability of family life.

Normally, it takes about six months for the district police chief to understand the local law and order situation as well as the capabilities of his or her personnel. After that, a minimum tenure of three years is needed to ensure that such knowledge as well as one's efficiency and motivation is reflected in performance. Sadly, those given such long tenures within a district are almost always officers who are ultra-obliging of the whims of their political masters. Clearly, at least in matters of police administration, things change very slowly in India, if at all. The registration of false cases against political and personal opponents and the immunity given to friends of the powerful is endemic in India. The only saving grace is that the disease of maladministration in most parts of India is (as yet) nowhere near the levels reached in Pakistan and Bangladesh, two countries where Wahabbism has found secure nests and from where the Wahabbis seek to infuse their poison into India's 157 million Muslims.

Although corruption is a problem, it is hard not to have empathy for the average policeman whose salary is around Rs. 8,000 in Bombay, one of the most expensive cities of the world. As a result, policemen (and women) are forced to seek other sources of income to make ends meet for themselves and their families. Sadly, the standard of living of the (honest) police constable in India has been reduced to but a tad above that of a street beggar. He has no training, no housing and certainly not a living wage. The wonder is that despite such neglect by those in authority, the police in India work an average of 16 hours per day and manage to keep the country within the ranks of the more stable in the world. Again, a huge part of the credit goes to the culture of India that ensures that the inhabitants of a millionaire's mansion can exist peaceably next to a teeming slum, with not even a single guard for protection. This can be compared to, for example, South Africa or Russia where the rich are forced to barricade themselves inside of fortresses to ensure their survival.

When we come to weaponry and equipment, the events of November 26-28, 2008, demonstrated on live television the police force's lack of firepower. For ten crucial hours they faced trained terrorist commandos while armed only with sticks or, at best, World War II vintage rifles. Except for the third of the police force that is now used almost entirely for the security of the country's political and official elite, the rest are pitifully armed. Also, such a high proportion of the total force set aside for the ritual assembly of police officers along different points of a VVIP's route and at the VVIP's meeting places is unreasonably high given that the total number of the worthies benefiting by such manpower.

During the 2009 election season, when Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi filed her nomination papers in the Rae Raebareli constituency the country's television audience was witness to the sycophancy of senior administrators towards their political bosses, a level that must surpass even the high levels of subservience recorded during the period of the Raj. The director-general (DG) of the Special Protection Group (SPG) was seen on television running alongside the car ferrying Sonia Gandhi to the town's election center. What was the DG (SPG) doing at the time? Was he monitoring the situation and assessing threats? Or keeping in touch with his personnel from across the country tasked as they are with the protection of numerous worthies including the prime minister? Not exactly. He was brushing away rose petals from the vehicle's hood! A crucial national security task indeed and certainly one deserving of the DG (SPG)'s undivided attention. It speaks well for the 58-year-old's level of fitness that one of the most senior police officers in the country was able to keep pace with Sonia's vehicle, albeit with a slight bout of panting towards the end.

Were such obsequious behaviors towards those in power be atypical they would not be a cause for worry. But they are becoming the norm. At least four major commissions have given suggestions for police reform - principally rescuing the force from the death-grip of the politicians - but they have been ignored. Politicians have taken care to pay lip service to the idea of a better police force - as Jim Hacker in Yes, Prime Minister reminds us, sometimes, you have to look as if you are trying to solve something but not actually solve it. An article in the Times of Indian in September reported on some basic facts about the police in India:

* Existing manpower -- 14.5 police personnel per 10,000 of population
* Desirable position -- 22 police personnel per 10,000 of population
* Gap between existing and desirable strength -- 5.96 lakh police personnel
* Total number of police stations -- 14,000
* Police stations in rural area -- 8,000
* Gap between existing and desirable strength in rural areas -- 3.4 lakh police personnel
* On an average, a cop gets in-service training only once in 20 years against the desirable norm of one in-service training every five years
* Total number of policemen in states -- 16 lakh
* Total 99,000 cops got in-service training in 2004; 69,000 in 2005 and 51,000 in 2006 -- decreasing trend
* Home ministry estimates that states will need Rs 25,808 crore annually for next five years to meet gaps in police strength and training

The police continue to act as the personal militias of the powerful rather than the guarantors of law and order for the ordinary citizen. According to a study done in Rajasthan Police Service, the self-perception of police was also found to be negative, as they themselves felt overworked, unappreciated and victims of political manipulation.  Unless the police in India are given the manpower, the remuneration and the equipment and training needed to evolve into a modern and professional force they are at risk of being ineffective against not just the average pickpocket but the next boatload of terrorists from Pakistan.

At a national level, it is perhaps a better idea to coordinate the efforts of various agencies. One thing India does not lack in is bureaucracy, and there are umpteem departments and agencies working in the same field to secure the Indian people from within and without. For example, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) perform the same role. Of course, the National Security Guards (NSG) seems to be the unit that does the grunt work after two bureaucracies have gone through the paperwork. On top of that, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have their own fiefdoms within the intelligence and security community. The Border Security Force (BSF), Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB), and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) also perform the same job - protecting the border from smuggling operations and infiltration. Then there are the state police. Bureaucracies need bureaucracies to keep them in line, obviously: the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) suggest better ways of storing police data, modernisation of the police force (good job there!), and other such things. What is sorely needed is a streamlining of Indian security operations. The collapsing of the agencies into a larger parent group and the sharing of information between them would be one small step in the right direction.

Finally, at a national level, there is perhaps the least that can be achieved. Trade with terror harbours such as Pakistan should be subject to a security tarrif; every opportunity should be used to remind the world of where the terror elements arise; strong partnerships must evolve between like-minded countries such as the Israel, France, Italy, Spain, Britain, and the United States (there is the danger of information leaks, of course). National policy must make every step that enriches the terror groups or their host nations more difficult - no cricket, more difficult travel permits (including Arabia), diversification of oil purchases and investment and research into alternative sources of energy such as nuclear power and hydrogen. At the same time, ties should be improved with moderate Muslim countries such as Jordan and Indonesia to give Indian diplomacy a voice and influence in the "dar al-Islam." Needless to say, these steps have to be taken diplomatically so as not to seem overtly hostile - whatever goodwill we do have needs to be maintained at all costs.

I have written in other articles (or discussions to articles) on the Centre-Right India blog that terrorism is a grassroots movement which cannot be defeated by state military might alone. The fight needs to be taken to the terrorists, at the lowest level they operate on - the hawaldars and beat police. Just like crime, or a virus, terrorism may never completely go away, for as long as a crime is committed for political reasons, terrorism will survive. That does not mean that, like crime (or a virus), it cannot be controlled or contained. It is time states took terrorism seriously and look at it as a criminal problem and not an ungodly apparition - it only gives the terrorists more power.