“Can you get Dawood Ibrahim?” National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval is learnt to have asked a meeting of top sleuths a few months ago. How those in the meeting responded to that question is not important, but, for the record, some mulled over it as a challenge thrown at them, while others silently scoffed at it.
What is important is that it was asked at all by India’s National Security Advisor. It suggests that Ajit Doval, who has earned his spurs as one of the country's most accomplished spooks, is perhaps caught in a time warp.
As someone who is credited with providing sharp and specific intelligence that led to the success of Operation Black Thunder, the most efficient exercise ever conducted on Indian soil to flush out terrorists (from the Golden Temple in May, 1988), and Doval earned a reputation for being a peerless field operative as an undercover asset in Pakistan in the early nineties.
And as most field operatives go, he was known for his flamboyance as recorded in at least two well-known attempts he directed to neutralise Dawood Ibrahim in Pakistan. Both the attempts, the first in the late nineties with the help of gangster Babloo Srivastava and the second in 2006 with the help of Chhota Rajan, failed. But they only added to his aura and swagger.
But those were the days of his life in the Intelligence Bureau (IB), through which establishment he rose, eventually heading it as Director. Neutralising Dawood or bringing him to before the courts in India was a national security priority, given the context of those times and Dawood’s hand in the worst terror attack on India, in 1993.
So, ‘Can you get Dawood Ibrahim?' would have been a perfectly legitimate question to ask as the Director of IB. But coming from the National Security Advisor in 2015, when the realities of global terror and its implications for India have completely changed, suggests a fixation with Dawood that the National Security Advisor of India can ill-afford.
This irrelevance of the Dawood Ibrahim question was brought into the limelight over the last few days when terrorists infiltrated into India and played havoc inside one of the country's forward bases, operated by the Indian Air Force in Pathankot. The fact that this latest incursion came just a few months after the first big one in more than a decade in Punjab only highlights the fact that India’s national security concerns have snowballed to a level that makes Dawood Ibrahim a bit player in the current context.
Terrorists have been finding yawning holes in the India’s border security like it’s a walk in the park… it quite literally was in the case of the Pathankot attack. We now know that the terrorists went undetected for ten hours after they crossed the border. What’s even more scary is that they spent another 12 hours hiding behind bushes in within the airbase even as the entire security apparatus of the country was aware of the breach but couldn’t locate them until the terrorists chose to launch their attack in the wee hours of Saturday, 2 January.
There are multiple aspects to security of our international borders, of course. But the manner in which the six (hopefully this number won’t be revised again) heavily armed terrorists sneaked into the airbase, roamed around freely, is a telling commentary not only on the failure to secure our borders but of complicity of locals. There are reports that all along the international borders, the equipment deployed to detect intrusions is faulty and ineffectual. Given the history of intrusions in this sector, the issue merited serious intervention from the Border Security Force (BSF) headquarters in Delhi but it was given the go by. Nothing has been done to stamp out the thriving smuggling rackets that become easy conduits and support cross-border terror organisations.
Those aware of the security scenario on international borders see a sinister pattern in neglecting border security. “It has more to do with economics than anything else,” they point out. Take for instance, the cattle-smuggling economy along the Indo-Bangladesh border. It is estimated at over Rs 50,000 crore. There have been instances when officials and staff of the BSF have been involved in this massive illegal trade. A former BSF DG once pointed out to me that it was physically impossible to prevent members of the BSF from falling for such a huge economic inducements.
Along the same border runs an organised trade of counterfeit Indian currency. Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiries have found out that there are identified gangs in India and Bangladesh supported by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that conduct the business without fear. “They throw bundles of notes in polythene bags across the border which are picked up on the Indian side,” confided a CBI official investigating the case. The BSF personnel who are tasked to man the border are either ill-equipped to deal with the menace or look the other way in order to line their own pockets. More often than not, these gangs are patronised by regional political heavyweights of West Bengal.
In spite of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to raise the level of bilateral relations with Bangladesh and infuse mutual trust by ceding large territories to Bangladesh in the exchange of enclaves, the international border remains porous. Cattle smuggling continues unabated, rendering this part as the most vulnerable for infiltration by terrorists and smugglers.
Similarly the porosity of the international border along Nepal and the north eastern states is well known. But India’s eastern borders are not fenced, unlike the border with Pakistan. Still it has become a haven for narcotics smugglers; they have turned hundreds of thousands of young men and women in Punjab, especially in its rural areas, into drug addicts. On both sides, east and west, it is a well-known fact that narcotics and terrorism are intertwined. The Modi government has come up short on renewed efforts to seal these borders.
Punjab has had a turbulent past and is prone to insurgency with a combination of factors stoking the fires. It is not far-fetched to assume that a generation of youth thriving on drugs and easy money can be induced to join terrorist networks. The intelligence branch of the BSF (known as G branch) has come across credible inputs that confirm Pakistan’s design to revive insurgency in Punjab. The infiltration through Punjab and the attacks on the Pathankot airbase and the police station of Dinapur a few months earlier, form a sinister trend. Ironically, despite availability of all these inputs and Doval’s own formidable experience of handling Punjab terrorism, there is little attempt on the ground to meet the challenge.
Now consider the north eastern states, India’s most turbulent geographical region since Independence. More recently the government conjured up a peace pact with Issac-Muivah group which turned out to be eyewash. Home Minister Rajnath Singh was learnt to have been restrained by his officers from endorsing the pact in Parliament. This pact, conducted with much fanfare in the Prime Minister’s residence, remains an enigma even for its executioners.
Nothing demonstrated the bankruptcy on the national security front more that the government’s chest-thumping on carrying out a daring and bold operation against Naga insurgents on Myanmar’s soil in the wake of the killing of Indian security personnel by Naga (Khaplang) rebels. Right from the word go, the tall claims around the operation became suspect and never gained credibility. The hollow bravado (that India would now pursue its enemies across borders) is not lost on anybody, not even on the insurgents and the Myanmar army Junta which are still acting in tandem.
Similarly on the Pakistan front, the government’s moves seem guided more by optics than substance. For instance the open exultation of the Indian side after the omission of Jammu & Kashmir from the joint statement in Ufa was an approach afflicted with a strategy-myopia of the kind that has rarely been witnessed in the many decades of the two countries' tumultuous relations. This compromised the position of the civilian government in Pakistan leading to its quick reversal.
It is clear that in the Modi regime Ajit Kumar Doval has emerged as a powerful figure, redefining the priorities of national security. All heads of the central police organisations (CPOs) report to him directly instead of the Home Minister, whose role has been substantially marginalised. Doval also lords over the agencies that analyse intelligence inputs and convert them into actionable intelligence. He is undoubtedly one of the most powerful NSAs India has ever had. Those who worked with him describe him as an outstanding, if typically flamboyant, operations man.
As we grapple with the mess we have in Pathankot, the one question that will be asked of the security establishment is this: Is the National Security Advisor missing the woods for the trees? India’s national security reality dictates that operational enthusiasm and focus don’t overshadow the need for a wholesome national security doctrine or strategic vision. Is Ajit Doval getting too embroiled in operations, which forms only a part of his strategic role as NSA?