Hyderabad blasts: Is it time to revive the NCTC debate?

The remarkable thing about hindsight is that, with its persuasive power, it's possible to be 100 percent right about everything. So, media commentaries today are now pointing to a confession made by an Indian Mujahideen operative to the Delhi police in October 2012 - in which he had admitted to having carried out reconnaissance of three areas, including Dilsukh Nagar, in Hyderabad, the site of the blasts on Thursday evening - as proof that the intelligence had failed to avert the terrorist attack.

The confession of the Indian Mujahideen operative, identified  as Syed Maqbool, is recorded in the police interrogation report of the Delhi Police (the full text of which is available here). Maqbool had been arrested by the special cell of the Delhi Police from Hyderabd following an investigation into the Pune blasts of August last year.

According to the Delhi Police investigation report, Maqbool and Imran Khan, another operative of the Indian Mujahideen, had told the police that while plotting the Pune blasts, they had stayed in Hyderabad and had reconnoitered "Dilkhush Nagar" (evidently a misspelling of Dilsukh Nagar), Begum Bazar and Abids in Hyderabad on a motorcycle. This, they claimed, they had done under instruction from Indian Mujahideen leader Riyaz Bhatkal.

At the site of one of the Hyderabad blasts on Thursday. AP

At the site of one of the Hyderabad blasts on Thursday. AP

From that account, the Indian Mujahideen had at that time also been plotting a string of bomb attacks in, among other places, Bodh Gaya in Bihar - as retaliation for the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which is a Buddhist country.

In the wake of Thursday's blast in Dilsukh Nagar, that confession by Maqbool and Khan (in which the name of the locality was misspelt) flashed on someone's radar, and the point is being made that Dilsukh Nagar was a sitting duck, which the intelligence and security agencies failed to protect.

If you want evidence of lax intelligence-gathering and processing of information by the various police, intelligence and security agencies, at the Centre and in the States, there is plenty of it floating around, starting from the Home Ministry, presided over by a Minister who doesn't exactly appear switched-on on the job.

Yet, the Eureka! moment that commentators are experiencing by pointing to a non-specific bit of information about their reconnaissance efforts in different areas appears to be a bit of an overreaction. The response is understandable under the circumstances, given the proximity of the horrific blasts at Dilsukh Nagar, but utterly misdirected.

By its very nature, the intelligence-gathering throws up millions of nuggets of information on potential threats to security. If an alarm were to be sounded on every one of those bits of information, it's fair to say that as a country we would be in an eternal state of panic and alert, with no mindspace for anything else. Which is why intelligence agencies have to cross-verify every threat perception against a matrix of other information, and come to a conclusion on the extent of credibility that each potential threat enjoys.

If anything, the failure of intelligence in this case  is more likely attributable to that stage of information-processing. And it is there that attention should be focussed on if there is to be more meaningful sharing of intelligence alerts of security threats.

Sadly, it is one area where politics has interfered to prevent meaningful efforts at counter-terrorism.

Last year, the then Home Minister P Chidambaram attempted to initiate a debate on the need to establish a National Counter Terrorism Centre to enhance anti-terrorism cooperation and intelligence-sharing at a pan-Indian level. The structure of the NCTC he envisaged may have been intrusive for State governments, who were wary of the potential for political mischief. Yet, by shooting down the proposal in its entirety on the grounds that States' rights were being encroached upon and the federal structure of the Constitution had been violated, they spiked an initiative that did have intrinsic merits.

Firstpost had argued at that time (here) that for Chief Ministers to argue that the NCTC was unwelcome "in any form" was problematic, and would not serve the cause of meaningful counter-terrorism effort. It is the folly of that political stance that has given room for terrorist attacks of the sort we saw at Dilksukh Nagar on Thursday.

Of course, even in the absence of an institutional mechanism such as the NC TC, there is nothing that ought to have inhibited security and intelligence officials by processing the matrix of information that they had - and passed on credible intelligence alerts about specific security threats to the States.

Instead, under Shinde, the Home Ministry has become a post office, merely forwarding each and every strand of "potential threat" onto the States and leaving it up to them to frame an appropriate response based on their assessment of the credibility of the threat. Apart from swamping the States with countless false alarms, which induces a "boy who cried wolf" mindset to creep in, such interventions do not help much.

There is, of course, a case for the Home Ministry, and for intelligence and security agencies, to be more diligent in their processing of information relating to security threats. A bureaucratic file-pushing approach of the sorts that Shinde brings is grossly inadequate.

But if  genuine intelligence information about potential security threats is to be harnessed meaningfully, the States must be part of the effort to establish a nodal mechanism to process disjointed bits of intelligence information  - and process them for maximum effect.

Sadly, politics interfered with that effort. And on the streets of Dilsukh Nagar and in countless other neighbourhoods, innocent civilians are paying a bloody price for such political short-sightedness.

Updated Date: Feb 23, 2013 15:52 PM

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