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THE INDOLENT GIANT - India must modernize its intelligence gathering machinery

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By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 9.01.09

On December 27, the day before the votes for the Jammu and Kashmir assembly were counted, some senior politicians received a call from an editor of a television channel asking their views on a poll forecast by the Intelligence Bureau. Whether the prognosis emanated from the desk of a part-time pollster who doubled up as a spook or was part of the IB’s official input to the Centre is a matter of conjecture. What is relevant is that just after a month following the horrific 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai, India’s premier intelligence agency was back to doing what it loves best: disseminating useless political intelligence.

The IB forecast of the Jammu and Kashmir elections was, as it turned out, one of its better pieces of deduction. Yet, the mere fact that senior officers of an agency that had only recently been lambasted for dereliction of duty were back to undertaking jobs that are quite outside the agency’s brief is revealing. Apart from anything else, it suggests that the home minister, P. Chidambaram, will have quite a task trying to get the intelligence agencies to single-mindedly focus on the grim security challenges before the country.

It is an open secret that since the United Progressive Alliance government assumed office, Central bodies such as the IB had been nudged into assuming that providing political tittle-tattle was as important as ensuring the country is better protected against the real enemy. Indian intelligence agencies failed to anticipate most of the bomb blasts that devastated Indian cities in the past four years. Yet they demonstrated their professional prowess by undertaking a very successful profiling operation of members of parliament in the run-up to the trust vote in the Lok Sabha on July 22 last year. The task of identifying potential defectors was carried out with professional precision.

John le Carré, the last word in spook culture, once suggested that the secret services offered a window into the character of the society they sought to protect. By this logic, the view of India is dismal. Yet, to suggest that India is lacking in a robust intelligence culture is historically untenable.

India inherited from the British an internal security apparatus that was devastatingly effective, without at the same time being obviously intrusive. In the final 50 years of its rule, the British were threatened with umpteen political conspiracies, some potentially dangerous and others amateurish. It is a commentary on the efficiency of the pre-Independence Indian police that hardly any of the “revolutionary” groups ever managed to conduct more than one operation. In fact, so elaborate was the network of spies and informers that most of the planned assassinations and bombings were thwarted at the planning stage. India, wrote Percival Griffiths in To Guard My People, a history of the police in colonial times, “can fairly claim to have been ahead of Britain in realising the need for specialist organisations for the investigation of certain forms of crime.”

In his seminal work, Empire and Information, the historian, Chris Bayly, has also shown that colonial administrators built an elaborate espionage network on the foundations of a pre-existing tradition of information gathering: “By controlling newswriters, corralling groups of spies and runners, and placing agents at religious centres, in bazaars and among bands of military men and wanderers, they had been able to anticipate the coalitions of the Indian powers and to plot their enemies’ movements and alliances. It was for this reason, rather than because of any deficiency of patriotism or absence of resistance, that there failed to materialise a general alliance… of all Puckery wallahs or turban wearers against all Topy wallahs, or hat wearers…”

In his address to the conference of chief ministers on January 6, the home minister stressed the need to return to the basics by bolstering human intelligence or Humint, particularly at the thana level. By implication he conceded that the main pillar on which intelligence gathering rests — an elaborate network of spies and informers — had been eroded and replaced by an over-dependence on electronic surveillance and intercepts. He also tacitly conceded the imperfect coordination and information-sharing between the states and the different agencies. In effect, Chidambaram admitted that India lacked the “pro-active” wherewithal to counter the numerous terrorist modules and sleeper cells in the country, either at the behest of Pakistan or non-state players. It is a commentary on India’s intelligence establishment that the government had to outsource the work on the dossier on the Mumbai attack to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The misplaced political and diplomatic priorities of the UPA government have contributed immeasurably to this dismal state of affairs. The repeal of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2004 was not brought about by an outpouring of concern for human rights and civil liberties. Pota was scrapped because large numbers of Muslim organizations chose to live in denial of Islamist terrorism. The UPA was too committed to electoral expediency to resist sectarian pressure and ended up opening a window of opportunity for terrorist groups. Likewise, muddle-headed formulations that terrorism would not be allowed to derail the peace process and that Pakistan is a co-victim of terrorism led to an all-round lowering of guard against threats from across the border.

The sheer imperatives of political survival, particularly the threat of a backlash in Middle India, may force the government to be a little more purposeful in maintaining internal security. Yet the improvements will be cosmetic unless there is a fundamental shift in the way the political class approaches intelligence and security.

The first step is to statutorily disengage bodies such as IB from humdrum political intelligence, including poll forecasting and monitoring the activities of rivals and adversaries. Their sole brief must be to uphold national security.

Secondly, confronting terrorism and other threats to India necessitates a profound institutionalized knowledge of the terrorist environment. This includes creating and nurturing channels of credible information in neighbouring countries. Ideally, this work should have been undertaken by the Research and Analysis Wing. However, given the ineptitude and murkiness that have marred its operations there is a compelling case for RAW’s absorption into either the IB or incorporation into a new body that can be entrusted with national security in its totality.

Finally, as the threat to India mounts, there is a growing recognition that bodies wedded to a shambolic and often corrupt bureaucratic culture may not be in a position to safeguard the national interest. Intelligence gathering now involves both technical and other expertise that is simply not available within the government. Required, for example, are people with a deep understanding of banking and the financial markets, not to speak of language skills, and even familiarity with the byways of theology. Like in the economic ministries, there is a need to facilitate the lateral entry of specialists. Institutions entrusted with national security have to be given complete functional autonomy from the rules governing the rest of the bureaucracy.

Britain is an example of a country that has adapted its intelligence bodies to confront new threats. In a rare interview earlier this week, the head of Britain's MI5 revealed that the average age of the organization’s 3,000-strong staff is below 40, 47 per cent being women.

India is in the frontline of a war that has devoured its neighbourhood. It is inevitable that the conflict has spilt over from Pakistan, the new epicentre of a global jihad, and Bangladesh. Exceptional circumstances demand exceptional responses. How India responds to the menacing challenge will determine whether or not it will remain an indolent giant or become a great power.