Proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre stalled due to political wrangling, opposition from various states
India’s counter-terrorism efforts have witnessed a mix of achievements and failures. But overall, it could be convincingly argued that India’s counter-terrorism strategy has continued to be largely ill-defined, reactionary, and lacking in coherence.
Terrorism remains a highly subjective and multifaceted phenomenon that defies a universally accepted definition. If highly politicised nature of terrorism leads to different interpretations, the multiplicity of its nature and manifestations is another important reason for the lack of consensus on the definition of terrorism. Moreover, the threat of terrorism differs from country to country, occurring in many guises with the acts justified by different ideologies and grievances. This makes countering terrorism as difficult as defining it. However, there can be no doubt that the acts of terrorism constitute a challenge to a country’s constitutional authority.
India’s counter-terrorism efforts have witnessed a mix of achievements and failures. But overall, it could be convincingly argued that India’s counter-terrorism strategy has continued to be largely ill-defined, reactionary, and lacking in coherence. Some of the responses have instead created unanticipated negative consequences, and this is troublesome considering that a huge amount is spent on the fight against terrorism.
It is very strange that when all the countries are deeply affected by terrorism, India is yet to devise an institutionalised mechanism to counter it. As India does not have a single unified authority that could coordinate the operations of various intelligence and counter-terror agencies for ensuring a quick response in times of crisis like the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs has recently recommended that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) “should immediately revive the idea of the NCTC as a single, unified counter-terrorism agency and re-issue the notification laying down the power, functions and duties of NCTC.”
The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks had jolted the Indian state in the same way the Americans were shaken to the core by 9/11 attacks. The intelligence failure coupled with the poor response forced the central government to effect a thorough transformation of India’s internal security architecture. Besides creating the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), the government had also announced an ambitious plan to create a single overarching body — the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) — for counter-terrorism purposes. The Multi-Agency Centre (MAC), an intelligence-sharing ‘fusion centre’ functioning under the Intelligence Bureau (IB), was to be subsumed under it. The NCTC was supposed to come into being in 2012. But its non-establishment has been the single biggest disappointment of the post-26/11 internal security reform process.
In India, the issue of response, funding and information sharing that deals with terrorism are all connected with that of federalism. Indian Constitution largely distinguishes the Indian model of federalism from the one followed in the United States. Indian federalism is related more to the distribution of power between the central and the states governments than about limiting the power of the government. As per India’s Constitution, ‘public order’ and ‘police’ are in the state list, which is the sole preserve of a state government.
However, the Constitution has also vested the central government with some emergency powers and the power to encroach upon many issues listed in the state list. Hence, the central government has raised some Central Paramilitary Forces — the Central Research Police Force (CRPF), Border Security Force (BSF), Assam Rifles, Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB) and the National Security Guard (NSG) — which perform a wide range of duties including management of law and order, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency across India.
At the same time, it would be incorrect to assert the preponderance of centralisation in India’s federal system since the practice of politics in India vastly differs from the constitutional prescriptions. The states, if governed by the Opposition party, vociferously defend their autonomy. Moreover, the very nature of India’s administrative architecture makes it imperative on the central government to depend heavily on the state governments for the implementation of its several policies and agendas. The NCTC also became an unavoidable victim of the politics of federalism during the previous UPA regime.
Many non-Congress ruling states at the time did not approve of the proposal to establish the NCTC. Their major Opposition stemmed from the potential violation of the principle of federalism as they expressed deep apprehensions of the investigative and operational powers of the NCTC, which was authorised to arrest any suspect and to carry out operations without prior approval from and knowledge of the respective states. Narendra Modi, as the then chief minister of Gujarat, was also opposed to the NCTC alleging that such a structure would interfere with the functioning of state security agencies.
As clearly seen, the state governments in India enjoy far greater powers than those possessed by similar constituent units in other democratic countries. A huge discretion of local police in handling security issues is not entirely unreasonable, as states have to be policed on the basis of local norms. But terrorist groups often take advantage of this fragmented system. Thus, inter-agency coordination is a serious challenge both at the centre and in the states. The MAC and state MACs are required to ensure this coordination but there is an urgent need to do much better, particularly on follow-up action on the shared intelligence.
India’s NCTC was modelled on the American institution of the same name. Created after the reorganisation and restructuring of the intelligence community following the 9/11 attacks, the American NCTC describes itself as “a center of gravity and leading voice that unifies counterterrorism intelligence for the homeland and abroad” and “integrate the national counterterrorism (CT) effort by fusing foreign and domestic CT information, providing terrorism analysis, sharing information with partners across the CT enterprise, and driving whole-of-government action to secure our national CT objectives.”
The MHA’s desire to emulate the American NCTC was understandable. But an important detail was ignored in the rush to create the NCTC. The American NCTC is an integral part of its Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI), which is manned by officials from the Pentagon, FBI, CIA and other agencies who can also access its databases. By analysing and collating terrorism-related information to support counterterrorism operations of various intelligence agencies that have ground-level source networks, it actually duplicates their analysis and assessment functions. But it is neither authorised to conduct intelligence operations on its own nor does it have the powers to investigate or arrest. It cannot even order other intelligence agencies to follow-up on its assessments since its primary role is supportive in nature, confined to advice and agenda-setting.
In India’s context, the move to keep the NCTC under the control of Intelligence Bureau created another huge controversy. The Intelligence Bureau is the nodal agency for counterterrorism, and it makes sense to house the NCTC under it in the similar fashion the MAC was placed under the Intelligence Bureau. But it is also an accepted principle in all liberal democratic countries that an intelligence agency should not possess police powers of arrest. The Opposition parties were quick to express fears that if the NCTC was made part of the Intelligence Bureau, the powers given to it under the anti-terror law — the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act — could be misused. At present, the Intelligence Bureau is almost immune from any parliamentary oversight. It is often alleged that the politicisation of India’s intelligence agencies has allowed the ruling parties to use these agencies for political purposes.
In the face of acrimonious political debates and opposition from various states, plans for the NCTC were steadily watered-down. The 2012 executive order had mandated the NCTC to function as an integral part of the Intelligence Bureau besides giving it the powers of ‘arrest, search and seizure’ without seeking the permission of the states. The NCTC would provide real-time intelligence sharing using multiple databases such as those maintained by the NATGRID, which is in the pipeline, and the Crimes and Criminal Tracking Network and System (CCTNS). But the revised draft attempted to bring the tempers down and kill all controversies. NCTC was to work directly under the MHA and not under the control of the Intelligence Bureau. It was also clarified that upon identification of a terrorist or a terror group, operations would be carried out in conjunction with state police. Although, there was no clarification as to how the remodelled NCTC was an improvement over the MAC.
Since 2013, the operationalisation of NCTC has been kept in abeyance. However, the lapses before and during the counter-terror operation in Pathankot in 2016 had underlined the need for NCTC kind of institution which could have helped preempt a terrorist attack as well as better coordinate post-attack operations.
Media reports regularly speculate upon the likely structure, mandate and legal framework of yet-to-be-established NCTC. The recent unconfirmed reports put NCTC as an umbrella body encompassing all intelligence agencies – such as the Intelligence Bureau, NIA, RAW, NTRO etc. whose respective heads will report to the director of NCTC. Again, a brief discussion of American NCTC is in order. The analysts and planners of NCTC are drawn from the various components of America’s intelligence community. Its director reports to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) on intelligence management pertaining to counter-terrorism, and serves as the DNI’s principal adviser on intelligence operations relating to counter-terrorism.
Moreover, NCTC director also reports directly to the US President for counter-terrorism strategic operational planning activities, which ensures unity of effort across the US government. Thus, even if we assume that the position of India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) encompasses the functions being performed by the American DNI, the same could not be held about the director of India’s Intelligence Bureau vis-à-vis the director of America’s NCTC.
India faces constant threats from terrorism, cross-border as well as from locally radicalised jihadists, and the need to develop a strong counter-terrorism mechanism has been felt for a long time. Although India has not yet witnessed lone-wolf attacks, any complacency on this front can prove to be self-defeating. India needs to remain prepared to deal with all tactics adopted by terrorists and terror outfits.
Legally speaking, all terrorist acts involve kidnapping, torture, murder, shooting and bombing, which, because of being criminals acts, generally fall under the state jurisdiction. But terrorist acts are not merely criminal acts as they also involve vital issues of national security and foreign policy which is the exclusive jurisdiction of the central government. However, neither India’s political class nor the policymakers seem to grasp the complexities involved in fighting terrorism in the fast-changing global environment, which means that India’s counter-terror response continues to remain tardy and incoherent. And single-minded focus on winning elections has only added to the difficulties. As parliamentary elections are approaching next year, it is least likely that any institution similar to NCTC will come into being.
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