It has been three years since the ghastly slaughter of innocent citizens in Mumbai. Once again, the way our people, transcending faith, have responded is a tribute to the inclusive, mature approach of Indian society.
But now it is necessary and timely that we take stock of our failings and the progress we have made in addressing them. The issue of terrorism is complex and multifaceted; perhaps that is why we keep hearing statements that we can’t guarantee a 100% terror-proof society. But it is only when the public is convinced that the government has done enough, can that government be seen as a legitimate authority. Else, the people will not be partners in the fight against terrorism and the battle will be lost. What we need now is a Right to Security Act – and a people’s agitation to bring it to the nation’s notice.
There are many elements that need to be in place before people can demand their right to security against terrorism.
Firstly, addressing terrorism requires a strong legal framework. Do we have one in place? The Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), the revoked Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act of 2008 (UAPA) are efforts made in this direction. The problem with such strong laws is that without robust safeguards, they are prone to misuse by the political executive against its opponents. POTA failed this test despite having review committees to scrutinize cases filed under the Act. It is now vital that the UAPA does not meet the same fate and anti-terror efforts are not weakened by the ire of human rights activists and people at large. A weak law habitually violated by officials anxious to safeguard the nation against terrorists, or a strong law which is strictly adhered to, so that national security and human rights are both reconciled? Clearly, compliance with a strong law is preferable to acting as judge, jury and executioner outside the boundaries of law.
Secondly, post-26/11 the National Investigative Agency (NIA) was specifically set up to deal with offences relating to internal security with the powers to initiate suo moto investigations. However, the public has not seen successful outcomes from the NIA yet. Even in cases of successful conviction of terrorists such as the attack on Parliament and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, we have seen inexcusable delays in enforcing punishment. It is absurd that mercy petitions of those convicted of terrorism are dealt with in a routine manner on par with convicts charged with routine offences. A sequential review of the mercy petitions that disregards the nation’s stakes in awarding exemplary punishment to those guilty of terrorism is a sign of bureaucratic callousness. Terrorist crimes should be given primacy to ensure that there is no delay in the legal process to enforce the punishments. The solution is for Parliament to consider enacting a legal provision that compels the government to submit a half-yearly report to the legislature on the status of terrorist investigations to the extent disclosable including the conviction rate and the status of mercy petitions, if any.
Once these reports are in the public domain, and Parliament debates them, timely action can be taken to correct past mistakes and learn from best practices elsewhere. Such periodic public focus on national security will keep the enforcement agencies on their toes and ensure accountability.
Thirdly, there still isn’t adequate coordination within the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The home minister has proposed a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) to bring the myriad intelligence agencies under one unified command. So far the proposal has met with strong resistance from these agencies who fear the encroachment of institutional turf. It will need strong political leadership to deal with this resistance and create a coherent, effective and integrated institutional intelligence framework.
Fourthly and perhaps most importantly, is the capacity of ground level police and other enforcement agencies. Has that been enhanced? India has around 150 policemen for every 1,00,000 citizens; the United Nations prescribes 222 per 100,000 citizens. Most western countries maintain ratios of around 250-500 per 100,000 citizens. Even the sanctioned strength within our own system is often not filled. The 40,000-strong Mumbai police force is reported to have a 15% vacancy rate. Existing forces are still not trained to deal with future terrorist threats. The procurement of bulletproof jackets, which could have saved the lives of police officers on 26/11, has become mired in corruption and controversy. Nor are our surveillance capabilities up to standard. How else can one explain that a big boat gets washed up on Mumbai’s shores without being noticed by our security agencies? After the July bomb blasts in Mumbai, the government said that the excessive public focus on corruption has caused the delay in the process of procuring such life-saving equipment. If the government cannot balance the requirements of providing adequate security apparatus with ethical standards in procurement, should it continue to be in power?
Finally, we need a strong civil society that puts adequate pressure on the government to beef up the system. The response of Mumbaikars after 26/11 was commendable – but momentary. We still do not have any noteworthy civil society organizations demanding a “Right to Security” in the same way that there has been a demand for other rights such as Information, Services, Food, Education, etc. Mumbaikars still have a poor showing during elections, despite knowing that the ballot is the best way to demand accountability.
Rampant corruption, weak and inept leadership, bureaucratic turf battles and plain lethargy have exposed our vulnerabilities as a society. The 1993 Bombay blasts were possible because the terrorists could bribe customs officials and get RDX consignments cleared. Incoherent and delayed responses are strengthening the will of the terrorist, and weakening the morale of the nation. Inter-agency battles are weakening the country. In contrast, terrorist outfits are determined and relentless in their efforts to undermine our unity and strength. We need resolute action and a relentless vigil to protect our interests.
State and society should be partners in this quest for safety of our citizens and security of the nation. We need a comprehensive legal framework that fuses three vital elements: effective coordination among all security agencies, reconciliation of security with human rights, and engagement of citizens in the protection of their nation. The Right to Security Act that will integrate all these elements is the need of the hour.
This article is part of the series “26/11: Reflections”. You can find a compilation of all the articles that are part of the series here.
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