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Review internal security challenges

15 years after Mumbai attacks, there has been no significant reform in the intelligence domain

Review internal security challenges

DASTARDLY: 26/11 stands as one of the most grievous attacks on India’s sovereignty. PTI



C Uday Bhaskar

Director, Society for Policy Studies

November 26 marked the 15th anniversary of the dastardly terrorist attack that resulted in a bloodbath in Mumbai in 2008 — a brutal assault on the hapless residents of the metropolis that stands as one of the most grievous attacks on India’s internal security and sovereignty. 26/11, as it is referred to, left the Indian security establishment paralysed in the early stages of the attack. The correspondence with the October 7 terror attack by Hamas that similarly jolted Israel points to the complex and often intractable nature that terror challenge poses to policymakers.

The carnage of 26/11 revealed many institutional inadequacies in the management of national security.

This is an opportune moment to review the state of India’s internal security challenges and the lessons learnt, or otherwise, over the past 15 years. The modus operandi adopted by the 26/11 perpetrators and their handlers from across the border was totally unexpected and there was a systemic failure of apex national security management from Delhi to Mumbai — with the lapses in the intelligence domain being particularly glaring.

Paradoxically, institutional intelligence inadequacies had been highlighted in relation to the Kargil War of 1999 and the report of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) headed by late K Subrahmanyam noted that, “There is no institutionalised mechanism for coordination or objective-oriented interaction between agencies and consumers at different levels. Similarly, there is no mechanism for tasking the agencies, monitoring their performance and reviewing their records to evaluate their quality. Nor is there any oversight of the overall functioning of the agencies.”

However, notwithstanding the enormity of 26/11 and the inadequacies that were so visible, there has been no significant reform in the intelligence domain in the past 15 years. This is a matter of grave import. And extending this disturbing pattern of intelligence inadequacies leading to avoidable security setbacks, India is still smarting from the ignominy of the Galwan episode that took place in June 2020, when the Chinese PLA ‘surprised’ Indian troops.

The National Security Council, represented by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), took decades to embark on military reforms. The creation of the post of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), which began during the Narasimha Rao years in the mid-1990s, was realised by the Modi team only in 2019. This extended timeline is indicative of both the reluctance to initiate institutional review and reform in the national security domain, and the resistance from vested interests.

India’s primary intelligence agencies include the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA). These agencies operate under the umbrella of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Union Home Ministry. In addition, the military has the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and each armed force has its own intelligence directorate. Furthermore, there are specialised intelligence agencies focused on the revenue and financial sectors. Given the current explosion in the cyber, communication and information domains, continuous 24x7 monitoring by the state is also imperative. Most of these agencies are staffed at the senior level by officials drawn from the IPS (Indian Police Service), and this is part of the larger challenge to reform.

The late B Raman, widely regarded as one of the most competent and cerebral intelligence officials in India, was a staunch advocate of reforms in intelligence agencies. I had the opportunity to engage with him in the post-Kargil years. His wry observation in 2012 about the strategic culture of the Indian intelligence ecosystem is both pithy and import-laden. He noted that the “police or Special Branch culture still largely governed the thinking and functioning of our intelligence agencies”.

The core question that needs to be addressed is: why has reform in the intelligence domain made little or no progress despite unambiguous recommendations contained in a clutch of reports submitted to the government over the past 24 years? An objective and candid review would suggest that both politicians and senior echelons of the police have developed a vested interest in maintaining the current status quo, even if it is detrimental to the larger national security imperative.

While the run-up to the 2024 General Election is not an opportune period to initiate major institutional reforms, there is a strong case for the next government, which will assume office next year, to address this issue in a resolute manner. A rigorous review of previous reports and recommendations by a task force comprising individuals with proven domain competence and personal integrity could be a crucial first step, and the blueprint for action can then follow.

The building blocks that will form the basis for such reforms in the intelligence sector will in all probability include familiar strands that have been highlighted by domain experts over the last two decades. These include parliamentary oversight, appropriate legal status, operational accountability and periodic audits, revamp of recruitment and training, better coordination and analysis of existing intelligence inputs, and sustained funding to enhance current levels of both technical intelligence (TECHINT) and human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities.

Professional integrity and individual rectitude among the intelligence community are of paramount importance, for there is an opaque layer that is inherent to this domain and public scrutiny may not be desirable or feasible. The recent aspersions cast by Canada and news reports about concerns expressed by the US in relation to Indian agencies combating terrorism are illustrative of the credibility factor and the imperative to ensure that it remains unsullied.

The carnage of 26/11 revealed many institutional inadequacies in the management of national security. Addressing them with resolve should not take another 15 years.

#Mumbai


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