Is Britain anything more than a nuisance?

David Miliband’s trip raises serious questions on Britain’s role in countering terrorism

Never in recent times has a visiting foreign minister been so flippant and so insensitive. The flippancy concerns a bizarre trip to Rahul Gandhi’s rural constituency, the purpose of which is unfathomable beyond cheap political theatre.

But the British foreign secretary’s speech at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai—just over a month ago the site of one of the worst terrorist attacks in India—sets a new low in terms of its sheer insensitivity. For here is a leader of a foreign country, speaking at the site of a terrorist attack, not only telling India to co-operate with a country that refused so much to acknowledge the bleedingly obvious fact that the terrorist attack was of Pakistani provenance, but went so far as to call attention “to be alive to the impact of our counter-terrorism strategies on minorities. As the Sachar Committee reported, India’s Muslims remain socially and economically disadvantaged.”

Mr Miliband’s claim that “we share your anguish, we admire your resolve, and we are determined to work in close collaboration to address the threats we face” seems hollow, empty and patently insincere. If he shared India’s anguish, he would not have taken a position that compromises India’s demands on Pakistan. If he admired India’s resolve he wouldn’t have ignored the fact that co-operation over the last half-decade neither prevented the Mumbai attacks (and others before it) nor cause the Pakistani government to act with sincerity after their occurrence.

Britain might be ready to work with close collaboration to address the threats “we” face, but Mr Miliband’s statements must give the Indian government pause for thought. His contention that different terrorist groups have nothing to do with each other is only partially true. Perhaps the LTTE and the Naxalites have nothing to do with Hezbollah. But to suggest that there is no international network of Islamist terrorism is to indulge in vacuous political correctness or, as Melanie Philips describes it, to demonstrate “astounding shallowness”. But if we accept Mr Miliband’s contention—that the jihadis that attack Mumbai are not quite the same as the ones who attack Britain—then why should India collaborate with Britain at all? Perhaps the British government should be left to ‘cooperate’ with Islamabad to address the 75% of terrorism cases that it claims (without credible evidence, come to think of it) can be tracked back to Pakistan.

Britain must ask itself whether it intends to be part of a solution or merely a nuisance in the war against jihadi terrorism, which for India is very real indeed. Mr Miliband’s newfound dislike for the “war on terror” in the last week of the Bush administration’s term is opportunistic and linked to Britain’s attempt to extricate its armed forces out of Afghanistan where they have not exactly covered themselves in glory. But it is wholly unnecessary for Britain to recommend a Partition (this time of Jammu & Kashmir) every time it retreats from the subcontinent.

Mr Miliband ostensibly came to India to ‘defuse tensions’ with Pakistan. He has succeeded in creating new ones—with Britain. India’s response to Mr Miliband’s comments must extend beyond rebutting his words. Some cooling of relations is in order.

Update: Richard Beeston, foreign editor of The Times calls David Miliband out; Siddharth Varadarajan reports that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee didn’t take Mr Miliband’s hectoring too kindly. They would do well to ensure that such acts are costly.

My guest post on Dilip D’Souza’s blog

A common bank of votes and notes

As the ghastly chapter of the terrorist attack on Mumbai came to an end, long time reader Jai_Choorakkot wrote to Dilip D’Souza, Rohit Pradhan and me suggesting that posting on each others’ blogs would be a great way to show that Indians are united on fundamental issues. So here, on Dilip’s invitation is my take on what we—as individuals and citizens—could do in the wake of the terrorist attacks. To keep the discussion in one place, do leave your comments there too.

Policing is a state subject

Centralisation is not a silver bullet. Citizens will get internal security only when they demand it from their elected representatives.

In this month’s issue of Pragati, Ajit Kumar Doval, former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, argues that the “structural architecture of India’s legal-constitutional framework” poses a challenge to evolving a national counter-terrorism policy. He points out that

(While) national security, including internal security, is the responsibility of the Centre, most of the instruments—like powers to maintain law and order, the criminal administration system, police and prisons—are controlled by the constituent states. The states, keen to preserve their turf and apprehensive of the central government’s political interference are unwilling to provide any space to the Centre that could empower it to take direct action in security related matters. This renders the task of a holistic tackling of internal security threats difficult.

While the states lack capabilities to cope with these threats on their own they are unwilling to allow any direct intervention by the Centre. This seriously limits the Centre’s ability to formulate, execute, monitor and resource national counter terrorist policies in an effective and comprehensive manner.[Ajit K Doval/Pragati]

It is tempting to see a solution in shifting the responsibility to the central government. The new National Investigating Agency (a poor choice of words, “investigations” would have been better) that is now in the process of being instituted is likely to take this route. Now, it makes sense to charge a central agency with the mandate to investigate inter-state crimes like terrorism, drug trafficking and counterfeiting. But the need for a new agency was debatable—and because the parliament passed it in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, it did not sufficiently debate this. Couldn’t the existing Central Bureau of Investigation have been given additional responsibilities, powers, resources and most importantly, independence?

While central agencies have a role to play, it is the police forces of the states that are on the frontline in the battle against terrorists. Literally, as Mumbai showed. So improving the quality of local policing and equipping them for the twenty-first century is the main act. Seductive as it is to push policing to the central government, it insidiously changes the centre-state balance. This is undesirable in principle, at least not without careful debate. But it is also dangerous: just imagine a scenario where policing is fully centralised and another Shivraj Patil is in charge.

Even financing police (linkthanks PE)through the central government’s funds carries a moral hazard—states are likely to abdicate their fiscal responsibility (or rather, never develop such a responsibility at all), and with it, begin to point fingers at New Delhi for their own failures. Citizens must hold their MLAs and state governments accountable for maintaining law and order. Central overreach disrupts this basic constitutional relationship of democratic accountability.

India didn’t suffer from this campaign of terrorist attacks because it lacked a NIA. The proximate cause is a grand mismanagement of internal security under an incompetent home minister and an ineffective prime minister. The fundamental cause is that there has been a systematic under-investment in improving policing and intelligence over the last three decades. Unless voters hold their elected representatives to account, matters will remain much the same.

Related Post:Towards a new national counter-terrorism policy

The Kagan Proposal

If the Pakistani government cannot control the military-jihadi complex in its territory, the international community should step in

Many pundits have spoken. Most of them explained just how difficult and dangerous the situation in Pakistan is. But only a few had some good ideas on how exactly Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex—the nucleus of a terrorist threat to many countries—could be contained, if not completely dismantled. One of those few is Robert Kagan. Mr Kagan’s proposal deserves to be taken seriously in the capitals of any country, not least because what happened in Mumbai could happen in any of the world’s cities.

One can feel sympathy for Zardari’s plight. He and his new civilian government did not train or assist the Pakistani terrorist organizations that probably carried out last week’s attacks in Mumbai…So if the world is indeed not to be held hostage by non-state actors operating from Pakistan, what can be done?

…Rather than simply begging the Indians to show restraint, a better option could be to internationalize the response. Have the international community declare that parts of Pakistan have become ungovernable and a menace to international security. Establish an international force to work with the Pakistanis to root out terrorist camps in Kashmir as well as in the tribal areas. This would have the advantage of preventing a direct military confrontation between India and Pakistan. It might also save face for the Pakistani government, since the international community would be helping the central government reestablish its authority in areas where it has lost it. But whether or not Islamabad is happy, don’t the international community and the United States, at the end of the day, have some obligation to demonstrate to the Indian people that we take attacks on them as seriously as we take attacks on ourselves?

Would such an action violate Pakistan’s sovereignty? Yes, but nations should not be able to claim sovereign rights when they cannot control territory from which terrorist attacks are launched. If there is such a thing as a “responsibility to protect,” which justifies international intervention to prevent humanitarian catastrophe either caused or allowed by a nation’s government, there must also be a responsibility to protect one’s neighbors from attacks from one’s own territory, even when the attacks are carried out by “non-state actors.” [WP]

Nationalist terrorism is terrorism

And is as abhorrent is any other kind of terrorism

Even as we await more details of the plot behind the terrorist attacks in Malegaon, and even as media and political reactions to the affair take on even more grotesque forms, some commentators have argued that there can be no moral equivalence between a form of terrorism that seeks to destroy the Indian state and a form that does not seek it.

This argument is fallacious. Political violence of any form is morally repugnant and indefensible. Terrorism—a form that involves the indiscriminate targeting of civilians—is perhaps the most repugnant. It is repugnant if carried out by nationalists, separatists, secessionists, Leftists, jihadis or Hindu extremists. The first step in a national strategy to defeat terrorism is the realisation that political violence, leave alone terrorism, must not be tolerated by civil society.

So “Hindu terrorists” are being suspected of having carried out the bombings in Malegaon. Even as segments of the political spectrum delight in emphasising the adjective “Hindu” in that phrase, it is the noun “terrorist” that must be the focus of our attention. And our condemnation.

The communal overtones of the debate over the Malegaon terrorist attacks only underline the fact that that UPA government’s failure to maintain internal security, its yielding to competitive intolerance and its viewing of counter-terrorism through a communal prism risks sparking off political violence on a wider scale. The descent to matsya-nyaya is palpable: and unless arrested immediately, will have grave consequences in the near future. For the normative illegitimacy of political violence requires the state to enforce and be seen as enforcing the rule of law.

The only solution is a complete, resolute and unambiguous intolerance of political violence and terrorism—regardless of scale or perpetrator—by the government. And yes, by Indian society.

After terrorists, their apologists strike (2)

Fact-finding civil society teams and their predictable findings

One would have thought that the death of the leader of the police team involved in the shootout with terrorists in New Delhi’s Jamia Nagar would silence the predictable apologists for who every “encounter” is a false one.

It turns out that Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma’s death was not sufficient. No sooner had the shootout ended than civil society teams had already launched ‘fact finding’ teams that pronounced the predictable verdict. The encounter had been staged and innocent Muslims had been targeted. Why, a Coordination Committee for Indian Muslims was formed (an unfortunate nomenclature, for the separatists in Jammu & Kashmir have their own Coordination Committee), and one of its leaders boldly announced that “it is pretty clear that Sharma was killed by his own men at very close range from behind. It was the mistake of the police to rush 2500 policemen into the narrow lanes of Batla House.” So here we have a bunch of sundry political activists and university lecturers acquiring the competence and authority to offer definitive opinions on how police conduct their operations. [See Retributions]

What is worse, such presumptuousness goes unchallenged.

The abjectly communal reaction of these worthies—from self-appointed fact-finding teams to office bearers of the Jamia Millia University—not only damages the prospects of a united, national battle against the radical Muslims who are resorting to terrorism. It also damages the interests of the Muslim community itself. Ajai Sahni is right when he says that “there are grave dangers for the country’s future in this.”

The argument has been put forward that ‘innocent Muslims’ are being targeted in the spate of recent arrests – but no evidence has, at any point, been cited, to support the thesis, other than an undercurrent of sustained denigration of the Police. Crucially, the responses of enforcement agencies are increasingly being held hostage to an irrational media backlash that follows both the failure to act and effective action.

There has been a constant clamour about investigative failures to solve the major terrorist attacks over the past over two years. But when a case is actually solved, there is immediate and unverified uproar over the ‘targeting of innocent Muslims’, and altogether bizarre conspiracy theories abound. Worse, it is more than evident that enforcement agencies in India have simply failed to acquire the skills and acumen necessary to deal with the intrusive, increasingly frenzied, and overwhelmingly ignorant media, and this has only further fed a rising panic in public perceptions.

The institutional paralysis is deepened manifold by opportunistic and unprincipled political responses – variously based on tactics that seek mobilisation through appeasement or escalation of tensions between communities – as well as through strategic advocacy by a number of sympathetic communal formations. [Outlook]

That civil society groups should involve themselves in fact-finding is a good thing. It is a good thing regardless of the fact that it is selective—for few civil society groups found it necessary to conduct fact-finding missions to investigate bomb blasts and terrorist attacks. But before their conclusions are amplified by the hyperventilating media it is necessary to subject them to intense scrutiny. In an environment where conspiracy theories and narratives of victimisation create more terrorists—a fact that even the Coordination Committee member concedes—an credulous, undiscriminating airing of ‘facts and findings’ is more dangerous than merely irresponsible.

Related Post: An earlier edition

Pirates of Puntland

India must secure its maritime interests off the Horn of Africa

Among the tasks assigned to the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150)—an international naval task force comprising, among others, of US, British, French, Pakistani and Bahraini ships—are maritime security operations in the Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. While its purpose is to deny the use of the seas to smugglers and terrorists the main problem in the area under its watch is piracy.

CTF-150 doesn’t have enough ships to secure one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. So it advises large, slower vessels to travel in convoys so that it can better watch over them. But since this is not always possible, around one in 500 ships fall victim to pirates. Since the monthly traffic is around 1500, pirates succeed in raiding three or four ships each month.

The proceeds from these raids have sparked off a boom in Puntland, on the Horn of Africa.

Whenever word comes out that pirates have taken yet another ship in the Somali region of Puntland, extraordinary things start to happen.

There is a great rush to the port of Eyl, where most of the hijacked vessels are kept by the well-armed pirate gangs.

People put on ties and smart clothes. They arrive in land cruisers with their laptops, one saying he is the pirates’ accountant, another that he is their chief negotiator. [‘BBC’]

Indian ships, cargoes and sailors have been affected by piracy off Somalia in recent years. Even without considering the linkages to international terrorism, there is a case for the Indian navy to help secure shipping lanes and Indian interests in that region. The Indian government must quickly approve the Navy’s proposals (via interim thoughts)to begin patrolling waters off Africa’s eastern coast.

Expensive mistakes on national security (2)

A flip after the flop

And just one day after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that his government has “no fixed, inflexible or ideological view” with regard to anti-terrorism laws, and that it was actively considering strengthening the legal framework in line with “global consensus”, his government has announced that it won’t be doing so after all.

“No, No, No. It is a draconian (law) and against human rights. If the present anti-terror laws are implemented properly, there is no requirement for additional laws,” Information and Broadcasting Minister P R Dasmunsi said.

“What do you mean by tougher anti-terror laws? Some of our laws are much more strong than those in the US and UK,” he shot back when asked whether the government was planning to bring in an anti-terror law similar to POTA. [TOI, emphasis added]

So this what what Dr Singh meant by not having a fixed and inflexible view. Depending on time of the day, day of the week and member of his cabinet, you get very different views. (Psst. Note that it is Mr Dasmunshi and not the home minister who is announcing these cabinet decisions, in the company of the home secretary.)

Expensive mistakes on national security

Yes, it was the UPA’s political persuasions that got in the way of fighting terrorists

On June 8th, 2004, the UPA government presented its programme in parliament, in the president’s speech:

My government is concerned about the misuse of POTA in the recent past. While there can be no compromise on the fight against terrorism, the Government is of the view that existing laws could adequately handle the menace of terrorism. The Government, therefore, proposes to repeal POTA. [IBEF, emphasis added]

In his address to the Governor’s Conference, on September 17th, 2008, four years and umpteen acts of terrorism later, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared:

The public debate on the issue of terrorism has, unfortunately, tended to get driven by politics, and has centered on certain laws enacted or repealed by Governments of different political persuasions. Our Government has no fixed, inflexible or ideological view in this regardWe are actively considering legislation to further strengthen the substantive anti-terrorism law in line with the global consensus on the fight against terrorism. [PMO, emphasis added]

Dr Singh’s sanctimoniousness, as usual, is gratuitous. If the issue with POTA was “basically (related) to the procedural aspects of investigation and prosecution of terrorism related offences”, and the need was to “address the apprehensions”, then surely repealing the entire act (instead of amending it) is not merely about the UPA government being wrong its view about the efficacy of “existing laws”. It is about a deliberate decision to subordinate internal security to political persuasions.

As for attributing the need to change to a global consensus, Dr Singh is on an even weaker wicket. That global consensus—to the extent that the term is even meaningful—was much stronger in 2004 than it is now. Even so, that Dr Singh should say—even for the purposes of saving face—that the ‘global consensus’ should determine India’s internal security policies reveals just how lost he and his government are on this subject. (Mercifully, he did not think that the global consensus on nuclear non-proliferation ought to determine India’s nuclear weapons policy)