Message from Home

The home ministry finally has a spokesman. But there’s a long way to go

In an op-ed in the Indian Express in October 2009, Sushant K Singh and I had called for the government to “release accurate and factual information to the public with unprecedented timeliness. In this age of inexpensive technology and connectivity, there is no excuse for the home ministry to be unable to release reports, photographs and video footage from the field. Paying for advertisements in the national media will only take it so far—unless the UPA government implements a sophisticated public communication strategy, it will find its political will sapped by the Naxalite propaganda machine.”

Out of the seas the home secretary churned comes a spot of nectar. It took the controversy created by G K Pillai’s comments about the ISI’s role in the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai for the Indian government to act on this. The home ministry has appointed a spokesman who will “interact with journalists at a specified time daily.” That’s a good move—but it must be backed by the spokesman being supported by staff competent in public communications and new media. While the spokesman can meet journalists on a daily basis, his department must work round the clock putting out authoritative official versions of facts out there.

The external affairs ministry’s public diplomacy division recently got onto Twitter. Home should follow.

What G K Pillai achieved

Highlighting the futility of engaging Pakistan’s civilian officials is a good thing

“(People) on the Indian side need to ask” writes Siddharth Varadarajan in The Hindu “what the home secretary hoped to achieve by saying the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate of the Pakistan army had been involved in 26/11 “from the beginning till the end.”” To Mr Varadarajan it is neither the outrageousness of the Pakistani negotiating line nor the obnoxiousness of the Pakistani foreign minister’s behaviour that is the problem—it is India’s refusal to set aside Pakistan’s complicity and stonewalling on 26/11 and “indulge Pakistan’s desire for official talks on Kashmir, Siachen and other ‘core issues'”.

It is generally a good thing that the Indian media has the space to present alternative viewpoints. That said, Mr Varadarajan’s criticism has a fundamental flaw. It is no longer tenable—as he contends—that talking to the motley bunch of smug, self-important men who occupy offices in Islamabad will somehow strengthen the “civilian government” of Pakistan. There was a time between the time when the PPP’s election victory in early 2008 and the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 when the argument would have made sense. But 26/11 was an effective coup against the Asif Ali Zardari’s seemingly conciliatory policies [See Kayani wins this round]. Since then it is the Pakistani army that controls the foreign & security policies—as evidenced by the fact that the United States directly deals with General Kayani on these subjects.

In the face of this reality, is Mr Varadarajan seriously saying that handing an odd, inconsequential lollipop to Shah Mahmood Qureshi will so much as make a dent in the military establishment’s hold on power? As a corollary, is strengthening Pakistan’s civilian government so much in India’s interests as to make substantive concessions on bilateral issues? Clearly, not.

Therein lies the answer to Mr Varadarajan’s question on what G K Pillai’s remarks achieved. Unless it is Mr Varadarajan’s case that talks between India & Pakistan must be held while keeping the Indian citizen in the dark, then Mr Pillai’s revelation had the important effect of tempering expectations. Had he remained silent on this vital bit of information, he would have been unfair to the External Affairs Minister who would have been expected to get Pakistan’s impotent civilian officials to take on people connected to the ISI. [See Please change the channel]

The genuineness of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s commitment to leave a legacy of improved relations with Pakistan is without doubt. The problem is he does not have a counterpart on the other side who shares the same vision. Given this objective reality, Dr Singh should pause and put his project in cold storage. For him to move forward in the face of a firmly entrenched military-jihadi complex is likely to result in an entirely different sort of legacy…one that he wouldn’t want to be associated with.

The change of NSA is a manifestation of deeper change

India’s national security reform is in the second stage

Going by most media reports, you will be forgiven for believing that M K Narayanan’s movement to West Bengal as governor has got entirely to do with an energetic home minister winning turf battles and the Congress party president going one up on the prime minister. Or even that he was removed for obstructing prime minister’s move towards a (US-brokered) deal on Kashmir. It is entirely possible that some of these reports are true. They are, however, more the consequences of the change, rather than the change itself.

That change—and the India media have missed it almost entirely (save honourable exceptions)—involves the revamp of the national security apparatus in the wake of the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008. The first stage was a relatively quiet series of administrative and operational changes introduced in the home ministry, intelligence agencies and related security forces. Home Minister P Chidambaram’s Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture was titled “radical restructuring of security architecture.” Restructuring in any organisation involves, shall we say, ‘staff movements’, the radical type even more so. Mr Narayanan’s departure and the appointment of a new NSA has to be seen in this light.

How should the NSA’s job description change? K Subrahmanyam makes the case:

The present model gives too high a profile to the NSA, and impinges on the effectiveness of his role.While Kissinger and Brzezinski had high profile roles and were innovators focussing on one policy (Kissinger on China and Brzezenski on Afghanistan), they were not the ideal NSAs for the system. In India, Brajesh Mishra was resented by most Cabinet ministers. Cabinet secretaries are not resented since they play a low profile role. Condeleezza Rice was a prima donna as the Secretary of State and so was Colin Powell. But they played a low profile role as NSAs.

For the new NSA , much of the executive role for intelligence will shift out of his hands and so also internal security management, which will shift to the revamped home ministry.But it is necessary to ensure that all intelligence inputs of DNI are routed to the PM through him. The NSA should continue to have his coordinating role in respect of internal security in order to apprise the NSC of the continuing developments in the internal security situation. Our cabinet system functions on the basis that each minister is autonomous in respect of his own jurisdiction.The NSC concept is based on the recognition that on national security, the ministries need to be coordinated and that responsibility vests with NSA. Shedding of various executive responsibilities and assuming an expanded coordinating role will make the NSA more effective and permit the PM to implement his strategic vision better.

Civil servants have a preference for hands-on administrative roles.The purpose of NSC is to function as a thinktank for the strategic advancement of the nation. Such visions have to come from the political leadership.The most important challenges currently facing India are the rise of China and the new industrial revolution consequent on climate change on the external front, and terrorism and problems of left-wing extremism, ethnic sessionism and good and effective governance on the internal front. For an NSA or NSC to tackle this, India needs more thinking and planning, and a hands-on administration. [IE]

That the UPA government is embarking on a radical reform of the national security architecture is to be welcomed. But to the extent the media focus is on the superficial politics, on ‘frontrunners for the position’ and on perceived turf wars, there is little public scrutiny of the actual reform itself.

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)

Peering into the criminal mind

A revolution in investigative affairs?

The use of brain mapping in investigation, and most recently the acceptance of brain mapping reports as evidence by Indian courts has raised many eyebrows. Today’s New York Times has a report by Anand Giridharadas on this:

The Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test, or BEOS, was developed by Champadi Raman Mukundan, a neuroscientist who formerly ran the clinical psychology department of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore. His system builds on methods developed at American universities by other scientists, including Emanuel Donchin, Lawrence A. Farwell and J. Peter Rosenfeld.

Despite the technology’s promise—some believe it could transform investigations as much as DNA evidence has—many experts in psychology and neuroscience were troubled that it was used to win a criminal conviction before being validated by any independent study and reported in a respected scientific journal. Publication of data from testing of the scans would allow other scientists to judge its merits—and the validity of the studies—during peer reviews.

“Technologies which are neither seriously peer-reviewed nor independently replicated are not, in my opinion, credible,” said Dr. Rosenfeld, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Northwestern University and one of the early developers of electroencephalogram-based lie detection. “The fact that an advanced and sophisticated democratic society such as India would actually convict persons based on an unproven technology is even more incredible.” [NYT]

The use of this technology for investigation should be of relatively lesser concern, especially when the alternatives are of the unpleasant sort. But Dr Rosenfeld does have a point, especially when it comes to admissibility of these reports for securing convictions.

It is difficult to understand why Mr Giridharadas’s report does not quote any Indian scientist on the subject. It leaves out an important point: on September 6th, The Hindu reported that “an expert committee studying the efficacy of brain mapping criminal suspects has concluded that it is unscientific and should be discontinued as an investigative tool and as evidence in courts.” Rakesh Maria, Mumbai police crime branch chief, has been quoted as saying ‘that while BEOS was a useful technique of examination, it couldn’t achieve conviction all by itself. “The technique needs to be corroborated with other evidence.”‘

Towards a new national anti-terrorism policy

A seven-point programme for your favourite party’s manifesto

Start fighting the war of minds
1. Project the war for what it is—that the New Jihadis are against everything that India stands for: freedom, openness, democracy and a tolerant way of life.

2. Assure the nation that we will fight—and win—this war. This will bring fence-sitters onto the side they think that will win. But the assurance must be credible.

Dominate the battle on the ground
3. Connect every thana, every chowki (and in future every policeman) to a national database and network. Neither POTA nor a new anti-terrorism agency is crucial: connect existing intelligence and law-enforcement agencies through a common network.

4. Empower police by implementing police reforms. Use the Supreme Court of India’s judgement in Prakash Singh & Others vs Union of India & Others to generate momentum. Strengthen police-public partnerships.

5. Move internal security to the PMO. The Prime Minister should chair a Cabinet Committee on Internal Security; a dedicated internal security advisor (rank of secretary or higher) should be appointed to act as the point man covering all aspects of internal security.

Engage the nation (don’t merely ‘secure their approval’)
6. Mobilise the nation through a national satyagraha against terrorism. Get the grassroots to be uncompromising and unrelenting in the battle against terrorism. Pay special attention to reconciliation and form national integration committees in sensitive areas.

7. Liberalise the economy. Terrorism and dissatisfaction are a direct result of the polices of “communal socialism”, a form of social “license-raj” that stifles socio-economic mobility. Economic freedom will lead to economic growth that will undermine the jihadi base.

Reading the Arthashastra: Dealing with disaffection

Its causes and its remedies

Which of the three, Kautilya asks, is the worst—an impoverished people, a greedy people or a disaffected people?

He answers:

An impoverished people are ever apprehensive of oppression and destruction (by over-taxation, etc.), and are therefore desirous of getting rid of their impoverishment, or of waging war or of migrating elsewhere.

A greedy people are ever discontented and they yield themselves to the intrigues of an enemy.

A disaffected people rise against their master along with his enemy. [Arthashastra VII:5]

Kautilya enumerates eight categories of reasons for disaffection. They can be summarised to be in the nature of “doing what ought not to be done and not doing what ought to be done”. In today’s terminology, these would be called failure to provide good governance. In addition to righteousness and rule of law, “by carelessness and negligence…in maintaining the security of person and property of his subjects, the king causes impoverishment, greed, and disaffection to appear among his subjects.”

In Kautilya’s causal chain, “when a people are impoverished, they become greedy; when they are greedy, they become disaffected; when disaffected, they voluntarily go to the side of the enemy or destroy their own master.” This leads to a unambiguous injunction:

Hence, no king should give room to such causes as would bring about impoverishment, greed or disaffection among his people. If, however, they appear, he should at once take remedial measures against them. [Arthashastra VII:5]

How? As discussed in a previous post on internal security, Kautilya distinguishes between internal and external dimensions. For internal threats he recommends a two-pronged strategy. Distinguishing between disaffected people and their leaders, he advises reconciliation for the former and elimination of the latter.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

The grammar of anarchy challenges the idea of India

The right to protest does not imply that the protests are right

K Subrahmanyam’s piece warning against giving in to separatist demands makes a very important point—the tendency to tolerate and appease those who take to the streets to press their demands.

But the challenge facing India is whether we try to set right our governance and improve it or yield to the protesters. Disruption is being made part of India’s political culture by most of our political parties.

Not only Kashmir, but violent agitations elsewhere pose a challenge to the idea of India. The country has to seek a comprehensive strategy to deal with this challenge. Yielding to the Kashmiri secessionists is not a solution. It would be the end of the concept of India. [TOI]

Once the ‘grammar of anarchy’ is accepted as legitimate, accommodating the demands of those who use it—whether it is the Gujjars of Rajasthan, the Amarnath Samiti of Jammu or the Communists in various parts of the country—becomes merely a matter of rationalisation. Any number of principles can be trotted out for the purpose. Shouldn’t those who support yielding to separatist demands in Kashmir also support reservations as demanded by the Gujjars and oppose reservations as demanded by Youth For Equality? Does drawing the bigger, louder, angrier, more violent crowd help reconcile such opposing demands?

This is more than just about Jammu & Kashmir. It’s about the model that Indians accept as the way to reconcile the diverse interests of a diverse population. Mobs, general strikes and public demonstrations might be legitimate means for citizens to express their opinions. But this does not mean that society—and certainly not the government—should accept demands made in this manner. Here the media deserves a share of the blame: the profusion of media outlets has encouraged the tendency of “camera-friendly” agitations—remember Rage Boy—which in turn are blown out of proportion by breathless on-scene reporters and shouting anchors.

Related Link: The inaugural editorial of Pragati; and Harsh Khare calls for “a fundamentalist belief in the curative power of Indian democracy” (linkthanks Anand Sampath).

Mr Patil’s zen-like mastery!

India burns while Shivraj Patil works on a grand plan to recruit more policemen

Over at Tehelka magazine they have a curious defence of Shivraj Patil, arguably the worst home minister in the worst government in Indian history (linkthanks Gautam John). The article tells us that “sources close to the Home Minister said that is precisely how he is expected to function — by not taking sides. They said that Patil understands his job differently: he will not speak except when seeking “balance and tolerance”. They said that Patil keeps everybody at bay.” As an example it cites how he did not make a call on whether or not the governor of Jammu & Kashmir should impose a curfew in Srinagar in the face of separatist protests. “Patil said it was for the Governor to take a call. As the man on the spot, Vohra had to decide, not Patil.”

Most people would call this evidence of high incompetence. They would think that the honourable home minister would drop everything he was doing to handle a crisis of national, not municipal importance. But according to Mr Patil, they would be wrong. According to him, his job is not to take sides. And he’s doing it admirably well. He’s not taking sides in the battle against Naxalites, in the war against jihadi terrorism, between terrorists and victims, and evidently, in Jammu & Kashmir.

But there’s more. “Patil’s zen-like mastery lies in what he does not say or do. He will act exactly in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.” The writer obviously has no idea of what zen-like mastery is but that’s not Mr Patil’s fault. But “act exactly in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution”? That’s no virtue, that’s expected. That he should think it’s a virtue speaks a lot for the values of his colleagues. But more importantly, it’s untrue: how is taking Sonia Gandhi for a free ride on an IAF aircraft in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution?

And there’s even more. Mr Patil’s main job is to “oversee Centre-State relations. If these relations haven’t deteriorated despite the terrorist attacks it is because of Patil’s calm”. There’s that little business of BJP-ruled states complaining of Mr Patil’s ministry playing partisan games with anti-terror legislation. And there’s that business of Jammu & Kashmir. Just what is Mr Patil overseeing, calmly?

The pièce de résistance is this: “Patil has concluded that things cannot improve until there are more and more policemen on the streets. Patil is working on a grand plan to change the nature of policing in India.” This would have been half-believable in 2004, when his term started. But months away from the next election, after presiding over unprecedented damage to internal security on all fronts, Mr Patil is still working on a grand plan to recruit more policemen! So why did the Supreme Court, in despair, legislate police reforms from the Bench?

Let there be no mistake—Shivraj Patil is an unmitigated disaster. The worst part is that he is just one of a constellation of individuals in the UPA government who will vie for the infamous position of having done the worst damage to India’s national interests.

The article concludes that “On available evidence, Patil has a long way to go.” Not quite. He has a very short way to go—the distance between his desk and the door.