March 02, 2012

Row over national security: Dim prospects for political harmony

by G. Parthasarathy

After turmoil across the country and in both Houses of Parliament over corruption, throughout 2011, one was hoping that the country and its leaders would be able to get back to addressing the serious internal and external problems we now confront and even reach consensus on key legislative issues of national governance. While inflation affecting the common man was showing some welcome signs of decline towards the end of 2011, it still remains at unacceptably high and indeed backbreaking levels for the majority of our citizens. There is also considerable uncertainty and confusion on how the government will deal with the fallout of the Supreme Court judgement cancelling 122 telecom licences approved by Mr A. Raja.

Political controversy, however, has suddenly arisen from an issue of national security, on which there should normally have been a wide consensus, if not total unity. The 26/11 terrorist attack exposed glaring shortcomings in our intelligence and internal security structures. Over the past few years, the Home Minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, has sought to address these shortcomings that existed throughout the tenure of his impeccably attired predecessor. Seeking to coordinate and amalgamate the information available to all intelligence agencies, the Home Ministry came up with the idea of a National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) which would act as a nodal point for coordinating, analysing and disseminating relevant information to other Central Agencies and to designated authorities in state governments. The decision to establish the NCTC was formally conveyed to state governments on February 1, 2012.

The Union government has set up the NCTC under the Provisions of Section 2 (C) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act of 1967. The work of the NCTC will be supervised directly by the Director of the Intelligence Bureau (DIB). The NCTC will have, under the Provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the powers for investigation, interrogation, arrest, detention and prosecution of those it charges with terrorism-related offences. It is also empowered to set up inter-state teams where terrorist cells are located across state boundaries. When state governments studied the powers assigned to the NCTC, over a dozen Chief Ministers went ballistic claiming that the Home Ministry's notification on the NCTC violated the basic federal structure of the Constitution and undermined their constitutional authority on the maintenance of law and order. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa alone drew pointed attention to the fact that an intelligence organization being vested with such sweeping powers was undesirable in any democratic polity.

India's foremost expert on global terrorism B. Raman has pointedly noted that the concept of having a single agency for intelligence, investigation, arrest and prosecution was the brainchild of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. His brainchild, the KGB, was responsible for the arrest, detention, disappearance and execution of thousands of innocent Russians during his rule. Moreover, as a matter of principle, it is unwise to concentrate wide-ranging powers in the hands of a single intelligence agency, whose actions are not subject to rigorous parliamentary scrutiny. This is not to suggest that the IB in India has any propensity for indulging in extra-constitutional acts. The IB is an organisation which is respected by its peers internationally for its professional competence. Given the way it functions, much of what it achieves does not receive public attention or acclaim. Nevertheless, institutional checks and balances remain crucial for democratic governance.

Following the terrorist strikes of 9/11, the Americans introduced a number of changes to make inter-agency cooperation and coordination more effective. One of the measures undertaken was the establishment of a National Counter-Terrorism Centre to ensure better coordination between intelligence and investigative agencies. But the American NCTC has no powers to investigate crimes, or arrest and prosecute terrorists. This power remains with the FBI, which like the CBI is an investigative agency, though it enjoys far wider powers and has a larger role than the CBI. Similarly, the UK Counter-Terrorism Command was created in 2006 by merging the anti-terrorism branch and the special branch of the Metropolitan Police. This command has the powers for investigation, search and arrest. The MI 5, which is the British equivalent of the IB, does not have powers of arrest or prosecution. New Delhi should bear this in mind while refashioning the role of the NCTC.

This year has also not started well in the conduct of foreign policy. Uncertainty and faulty assessments of developments in the Maldives led us to initially label what in reality was a coup as a constitutional transfer of power. Not surprisingly, busybodies like the British jumped into the fray offering advice to the Maldivians on what they should do. India has to ensure that there is no Islamist takeover of the Maldives. Surely, all this should have been anticipated and an Indian Navy destroyer positioned alongside Male to give substance to the messages being conveyed by our diplomats. But all this pales in comparison with the looming crisis in our relations with Bangladesh. Two major agreements, on the demarcation of the land boundary and the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river remain unimplemented because of opposition within India. It is obvious that whatever consultations the government may have held with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee were not considered adequate unlike those held by Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram on the Farakka issue with then Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray in April 1977, or the subsequent negotiations for the final Farakka Accord in 1997, in which Mr Jyoti Basu was actively involved.

It will be a major foreign policy disaster if New Delhi does not get West Bengal Chief Minister and the National Opposition leadership on board in tackling both the river waters and boundary demarcation issues. We will be letting down a friendly Bangladesh Prime Minister who had placed her faith in us. It would pave the way for a return of rampant anti-Indian rhetoric and Islamist tendencies in the polity of Bangladesh. Foreign leaders will be loath to believe the assurances we give, or promises we make. Adding to this dismal external picture is the concern voiced by our astute Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee stating: "As Finance Minister, when I think of the enormity of subsidies to be provided, I lose sleep." He was echoing the statement of Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar that the proposed Food Security Bill was not implementable. Populism and fiscal profligacy have led to disaster in European countries like Greece, Italy and Spain. Must we follow the same route?


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