The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba’s attack on Mumbai in November 2008 is a watershed in the history of India’s efforts to fight terrorism. The Bombay blasts of 1993 had been facilitated by the landing of RDX and weapons off the Konkan coast, yet it was only after 26/11 that the issue of coastal security was seriously addressed.
At the central level, there was a flurry of activity as a new and ambitious Union Home Minister quickly got a multi-agency centre for sharing terrorism-related information going, pushed ahead with the coastal security scheme and conceived a large computer grid to tap into existing data bases to track suspects. Even more ambitiously, the Ministry began to hard-sell its bowdlerised version of a National Counter Terrorism Center to be placed under its command.
But, the whole can only be equal to the sum of its parts. And, in the case of counter-terrorism, the hopeless condition of our state police machinery makes it clear that howsoever impressive the MHA efforts may appear, they will come to a naught, unless it is able to push the states into overhauling their medieval police forces.
The state of affairs in the Mumbai police is merely a metaphor for the prevailing ethos in the other police forces of the land. The rivalry between the offices of the police commissioner, the anti-terrorism squad and the crime branch, all headed by Additional Director-General of Police level officers, is legendary. A great deal of the muck became public knowledge during 26/11 and in the investigations in its wake. Besides the inter-personal issues, is the more serious issue of corruption, often in association with the underworld. As part of its job, the police needs to keep tabs on the underworld, but some of the associations go way beyond the call of duty. Indeed, several police personnel are on the payrolls of known dons like Chhota Shakeel and Dawood Ibrahim.
As much was acknowledged by the police brass when they launched “Operation Clean House” in the wake of journalist Jyotirmoy Dey’s sensational killing recently. Over the years, the police had built up a core of personnel whose specialty was to gun down criminals. Though most were shot after they were arrested and disarmed, a cult of “encounter specialists” was built up to portray these people as brave officers ready to risk their lives in shootouts with the bad guys, whereas they were, in fact, carrying out illegal and extra-judicial killings.
Not surprisingly, some of these officers became heroes of the counter-terror effort, ever ready to gun down the dreaded Pakistani terrorist, even if it never became clear whether the person killed was even a Pakistani, leave alone a terrorist. Its star, Pradeep Sharma, with a “score” of 103 killed, was dismissed from the force two years ago for links with the underworld, but reinstated by an administrative tribunal. Sharma claimed he had been framed by the Chhota Rajan gang.
Earlier, in July 2005, Inspector Aslam Momin was sacked for his alleged nexus with the Dawood Ibrahim gang. Another “encounter specialist” Daya Nayak, an aide of Sharma, had been suspended for several years by the Mumbai police on corruption charges, but he, too, has since been reinstated. The so-called specialist officers of other cities, too, have been corrupted by power and money. In Delhi, “encounter killer” Inspector Rajbir Singh was himself shot dead by a property dealer in 2008.
The condition of the police in India’s vast hinterland is even worse. Where the encounter specialist delivers—usually an alleged criminal or terrorist’s head—the mofussil police gives back nothing. In fact it takes what it can from everyone—the landless peasant, the landlord, shop-keeper, rickshawallah, you name it. The idea of a scientific investigation is completely alien to them.
In a recent book, Shishir Gupta has pointed out that the police were unable to get on to the trail of the so-called Indian Mujahideen terrorist group because of the shoddy manner in which the UP police dismissed the Dashashwamedh Ghat blast of 2005 as a gas cylinder blast. Amazingly, Gupta says that another bomb which was planted in a pressure cooker failed to go off, and a police inspector who seized it, threw away its innards and took the utensil home for use in his kitchen.
Such forces botch up investigation to the point where it is difficult to separate truth from falsehood and the guilty from the innocent. This is the way the police has made a hash of the investigation into the Diwali serial blasts of October 2005 in Delhi, and the July 2006 train blasts in Mumbai.
According to a report, the same seems to have happened with the Varanasi blast of December 2010 where the police has not been able to obtain the electronic trail of the suspects. An email sent minutes after the blast in the name of
Al Fateh and two calls made through a cell phone by a person near the Sheetla Ghat were traced to Mumbai. This could have provided a lead to the most recent incident in Mumbai.
In all this the Union government has taken a peculiar stand. In the wake of 26/11 it created the National Investigation Agency to look into cases of terrorism since they often had ramifications across state lines. But now it seems to have developed cold feet. In Mumbai, it has forced the NIA to play second fiddle to the Maharashtra ATS headed by Rakesh Maria. It has also gone along with the idea that the “first responder”, the UP Police, would be a better bet in investigating the 2010 Varanasi blast than the NIA. This flies in the face of evidence that both forces have seriously blotted their copybooks in terrorist investigations.
The forensic investigation of terrorist attacks, especially bomb blasts, is a difficult affair which requires an enormous amount of expertise and time. Ideally every bit of the improvised explosive device that has not vapourised is collected for analysis that can lead to the unique “fingerprint” of its fabricator. Unfortunately, anyone who has witnessed the aftermath of a post-bombing scene in India will realise that in the crush of humanity—police, rescuers and do-gooders and onlookers—evidence is often rubbed out. This is not to say that the police makes an effort to preserve the evidence; it does not. In any case it lacks the expertise and culture of patient investigation and usually collects its evidence through arrests and “sustained interrogation” of suspects. In this, things have changed little from the working style of the police in the Mughal times.
Equally specialised is the issue of preventing terrorist attacks. While there is a good case for sound conventional policing and the activisation of the beat system, there is also the fact that connecting the dots to prevent a terrorist attack requires a different mind-set and training. It is for this reason that metropolitan cities like London and New York have embedded specialists in their police stations. In fact the counter-terrorism efforts of these two cities would be instructive for the manner in which they not only look at current threats, but ahead into that very real future where you can be hit by a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon. In the meantime, we flounder along building castles of sand and impress no one but ourselves with our sterling efforts.
Mail Today July 22, 2011