Wednesday, March 18, 2009

To be safe at home, keep an eye on neighbours

NISHIT DHOLABHAI




New Delhi, March 18: Are we safer?

It is a famous, or notorious, argument that former home minister Shivraj Patil often used to seek cover from criticism — that compared to 36,259 incidents and 11,714 civilian deaths during the BJP’s tenure, there were only 25,042 incidents and 6,646 deaths during 2004-08. Even so, his perceived lapses had piled up so high he had to quit in the immediate aftermath of 26/11.

It could be argued that terror, by its very nature, is seldom easy to counter or contain, but then a democracy demands responsibility and Patil had to pay the price for dereliction.

His tenure as boss of the home ministry was replete with incidents that put the nation on edge. There were terrorist attacks with unprecedented impunity in Guwahati, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Varanasi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Hyderabad and Bangalore that were allegedly perpetrated through local modules of mostly Pakistan-based groups. There were also attacks on the railways, one of them on the Samjhauta Express to Pakistan shortly after it left Delhi.

Since 2006, hundreds were killed or maimed in these attacks and millions of rupees worth of property lost. Public confidence lay shattered. The attacks left a deep scar on the collective psyche of the nation. People began to think, very justifiably, that no place was safe.

India may still be a safer place than most others in the region, but things are changing fast. And a lot of that has to do with the grim security scenario in the neighbourhood — the expansion of jihadi and Taliban elements in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, in the main. Internal security is becoming more and more a function of keeping an eye on external factors.

The UPA government constituted the National Investigation Agency (NIA), one more to add to the long list of security agencies after the shock of Mumbai. The intelligence gathering mechanism was strengthened by sanctioning the hiring of 6,000 more people and measures for better co-ordination. The scope of security agencies like the CISF was expanded and the number of paramilitary forces increased by more than two lakh.

After the spectacular attack in Mumbai, the government decided to secure India’s 7,500km maritime boundary and set up a better co-ordination mechanism involving the navy.

Each of these desperate measures after the country was hit hard on November 26, 2008, however, are also “incremental” and do not give the “critical mass” to the security apparatus to deal with the situation, say experts. Therefore, though the NIA has been constituted to shut up political criticism, the agency does not have an office and only a paltry Rs 10 crore was allocated in the first financial year.

Two, in the process of looking at new things, the obvious was often overlooked. Attempts have been made to improve intelligence, but age-old systems proven efficacious were left to die.

The watch-and-ward system, which for years served as the eyes and ears of law enforcers at the lowest level, was allowed by successive governments to simply lapse into revenue functions rather than active reporting at the grassroots level.

Similar disadvantages have accrued from the failure of the governments to prevent ghettoisation of places like Ahmedabad. The age-old culture of living together and, as a result, watching and restraining one another, disappeared with the separation of communities.

Security can be compromised if crime and seeds of terror are inevitably sown in the ill-ventilated shanties of ghettos like Juhapura. There was no dearth of rhetoric in Delhi, but concerted action was missing.

Yes, in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast the government can pat its back for a combination of measures it took.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the government has successfully manoeuvred to bring terror groups under control and even allowed a pullback of troops from Srinagar, bringing down tension. This may be partly attributed to the changed situation in Pakistan but Delhi put its heart in getting things back on track.

In the Northeast, Tripura sprung into action on the development front by defeating insurgency and leading in horticulture; in Assam, the Ulfa is on the run; and in Nagaland, the peace process continues with hope. People in Manipur continue to suffer but Mizoram is raring to go.

The home ministry got tough with insurgent groups and successfully allowed space for development while balancing regional interests. At the same time, it was able to convince Bangladesh and Myanmar of discouraging Indian insurgent groups. Although reports suggest Chinese incursions continue in Arunachal Pradesh, the writ of Naga militant groups in Changlang and Tirap is greatly reduced compared to five years ago.

Loss of marks for this government in the first half of its tenure came with the rise in Left-wing extremism but it made up for the losses with some out-of-the-box measures. The integrated development-cum-security projects are working wonders in tandem with vastly modernised police forces in Naxalite-affected states.

It is this region of more than seven states that could cost the Indian nation a lot as Naxalites seem on the warpath. But then, home minister P. Chidambaram too has declared war on the “nihilists and anarchists”.

Any government who comes to power in May/June will have fixed challenges — terrorism, Naxalism, porous international boundaries and rabid communalism — which will need constant doses of antidotes.

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