The Ministry of Home Affairs must hassle the bad guys, not the good
The resumed talks with Pakistan have made one thing clear: Peace will remain a long haul. It was important that the dialogue be resumed, but it is clear that we are far from even reaching the pre-26/11 stage, leave alone the one in 2007 when we had managed to narrow our differences in a range of areas, most specially Kashmir. So, even while the step-by-step process towards that goal has begun, there is need to go back to the bigger challenge — secure the country
against the threat of Pakistan-based, or inspired, Islamist terrorists.
Everyone is agreed that P. Chidambaram has worked wonders with the Union Home Ministry. But in one year he has only dealt with the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A Ministry which has been indifferently managed for decades is unlikely to be tuned to perfection in such a short space of time. Larger challenges remain, as is evident from the Minister’s efforts to reform the structure of the internal security mechanism of the country.
But an even bigger issue is to have a work-force which can best the terrorists at their own game. As things stand, things are not too good. Some recent examples show just what the problem is — a dull and unimaginative bureaucracy which is more interested in covering its butt, rather than anticipating real threats and neutralising them. Some recent steps would have been classed as comic, were it not for the needless inconvenience on foreign nationals visiting India, or worse, being arrested for infringement of rules that are either not clearly notified, or simply gratuitous.
Take the case of David Coleman Headley. Despite a yearlong investigation into the Mumbai case, the Indian security system failed to find any trace of the man who carried out the reconnaissance for the Mumbai attack. Till alerted by the US, they continued to insist that the terrorists acted alone. In reaction, as it were, officialdom has altered the visa rules to decree that no multiple entry visa holder can enter the country more than once in two months. Just why that two month figure is sacrosanct is not clear. But officials say it is to prevent the likes of Headley from repeating their act. All that the next man to do the reconnaissance has to do is to stay on, finish his work and go back.
Given the threat that the country faces, India does need tough regulations and fool-proof screening systems. But so does it need to show its people and the world that it will not allow itself to be rattled by the terrorist threat. And the first item on its agenda ought to be to ensure that rules and regulations are not knee-jerk reactions, but well-considered and logical steps that will yield an efficacious outcome.
If the Headley visa rule gets the first prize for stupidity, the second prize goes to the prosecution of Green activist Andy Pag, who was arrested for possessing a satellite phone in Rajasthan. Pag, entering through the border in Punjab, did not hide his phone. But because such phones are banned, he has been charged with violating the Telegraph Act.
Why are sat phones still banned in the era of Skype? No one knows, perhaps only those in what has been christened as the Department of Bad Ideas in the Ministry of Home Affairs do. The sat phone was indeed a headache once because we did not have the ability to intercept conversations through them. But that is no longer so, as evidenced by the fact that another foreigner’s phone call was intercepted in Rajasthan and he was arrested, but happily, unlike Pag, he was let off.
Of course, because if sat phones are banned for you and me, there is no problem for terrorists, including those who were involved in the Mumbai attack and in Kashmir, to use it freely. Neither, of course, are terrorists likely to be discommoded by restrictions on visas; most of those affected will be innocent travellers.
An even more farcical case has two British plane spotters, Stephen Hampston and Steve Martin in detention and charged with violating an Act that was passed in 1885 when aircraft had not even been developed. Plane spotting is a well known hobby in the developed world and it is not uncommon during week-ends to see people lazing near the airports with scanners and listening on to Air Traffic Control communications with pilots of aircraft. Websites like flightradio.com or liveatc.net can give you, over the internet, the live feeds from scores of airports around the world, even of the so-called sensitive ones like the JFK in New York or the Ronald Reagan airport in Washington DC. Plane-spotting-hotels.com will give you a list of hotels, including those in India which are ideal for plane spotting and specify the rooms that you may like to occupy.
Section 20 of the Indian Telegraph Act, under which the two plane spotters are being charged, basically says that only the government can run a telegraph or wireless in the country. This antiquated act prevented wireless technology taking root in India in a significant way and it was only leap-frogged by cellular technology after over a century. But there have been incidental benefits as well as the following story will reveal.
When, in the wake of the first Gulf War in 1991, cable TV came to India, the government was petrified. It meant that people could receive TV signals from other countries without the ability of the government to interfere. Many well-off people and some five-star hotels put up C-band antennas and people saw the CNN’s coverage of the war first hand. And this was just the beginning. Soon, building blocks and residential colonies got cabled up.
A meeting was convened by the Union Home Ministry to do something about it. Two questions were posed. First, can we jam the signals? The response from the technical specialists present was that it would take a forest of transmitters to do so across India, as well as a good bit of the
electric power generated in the country.
Second, can we block the cable-wallahs? The answer was that the Telegraph Act is silent since the cables do not cross main highways and government land. So, there was no legal device to block the cables. Given the fact that India was also in the midst of an economic crisis, the government just looked the other way and, voila !, the age of cable TV began.
The government came up with the Cable Network TV (Regulation) Act in 1995 and has since then been trying to win back the ground it lost.
Given the stringent competition, only the best and the brightest become babus in this country. Many of them now are IIT and IIM alumni. Something happens thereafter to make the bureaucracy inward looking and ignorant. Living in their sarkari ghettoes, the officials become pompous and detached from the people and are impervious to learning through the so-called mid-career courses they are put through. Chidambaram’s guidance of the Home Ministry has shown why it is important for specialists to be guided by the good politicians.
He has already outlined the need for the Ministry to shed a great deal of its historical baggage and focus on internal security in all its dimensions.
But now he needs to ensure that he is able to get a set of officers and specialists who have an educated and sophisticated understanding of security, and are able to meet its increasingly complex demands.
This piece appeared first in Mail Today March 4, 2010