Failing Hyderabad, failing India

Two aspects of yesterday’s bomb blasts in Hyderabad worry me. The first has to do with the identity of the bombers. Judging by past experience, it is probably fair to say that Indian investigators will not do a lot of detective work. In the case of previous attacks, various police forces have competed with each other to arrest the men they believe are responsible, without doing any investigation to actually determine guilt or responsibility.

It is a defining characteristic of Indian policing across the board that very little investigation is normally conducted. Usually, the police pick up a few suspects, subject them to third-degree interrogation and then record confessions or elicit the names of co-conspirators from them.

To be fair, this approach does yield some dividends. But it also leads to a lot of fake confessions extracted under torture. Over the last decade, different police forces have claimed to have arrested different terrorists responsible for exactly the same blasts.

Sometimes this can get embarrassing. Police forces had arrested jehadis in connection with the Sanjhauta Express blasts before deciding that the bombs were planted by saffron terrorists not jehadis.

What all this confusion obscures is a very real threat. Till now, all of us have taken pride in the fact that at a time when a jehadi wave has swept the Islamic world, Indian Muslims – and we have the second-largest Muslim population in the world – have remained largely immune to the politics of violence and hatred. We take the line that every terrorist attack in India emanates from Pakistan and that those Indian Muslims who do participate in the conspiracy are no more than dupes or Pakistani agents. Even the Indian Mujahideen, the shadowy group linked to many blasts, is portrayed by Indian investigators as being no more than a Pakistani proxy.

If this view is valid, then we have something to worry about but it is not a crisis that strikes deep at the heart of India’s nationhood. If, on the other hand, we are just being optimistic and the blasts are entirely home-grown then we may be in more trouble than we realise. If such a large minority as India’s Muslims does get radicalised, then terrorism will be almost impossible to fight.

So far at least, the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of India’s Muslims have rejected the jehadi option. But my worry is that even if a home-grown terror movement does develop, the inept nature of India’s policing and the reliance on torture over investigation, will prevent us from discovering the truth until it is too late.

My second concern is to do with the failure of intelligence. Much has been made of the fact that a terror suspect, held in connection with another case, told the Delhi Police last October that he had surveyed various possible terror targets including the Dilsukh Nagar area of Hyderabad. Why didn’t the authorities take action if they already had such a confession, ask indignant anchors.

The answer is that this information, though useful, is hardly enough to foil a terror attack. Assume, for instance, that a terrorist confessed to the Bombay Police that his group was considering whether to plant bombs in Bandra, Andheri and Parel. What can the police do?

They can’t check every car and every bicycle entering these areas indefinitely. The confession about Dilsukh Nagar, for instance, was extracted in October. The blasts took place four months later. In the interim, the police could hardly have turned each of the areas mentioned by the suspect into fortress-like, high-security zones for months on end.

The guiding principle in the war against terror is that the only way to defeat the terrorists is to find out who they are. The US has had massive success in its battle against al Qaeda in the years after 9/11. This has not been achieved by guarding every vulnerable location that might be prone to attacks. It has been achieved by identifying the terrorists, hunting them down and then either arresting them or taking them out in a drone strike or a commando attack.

The problem with India’s battle against terrorism is that we have clearly failed to identify the terror networks and that we do not have adequate information about terrorist conspiracies in real time. And even when we do know who the terror masterminds are and in which part of Pakistan they live, we lack the political will to take them out in the manner in which the Americans have eliminated virtually the entire top leadership of al Qaeda.

Much of this has to do with the inept nature of our policing and the incompetence of local police forces. A central intelligence agency must depend on information provided by the states. But in a country where state police forces are corrupt, lazy and foolish, no real information of value ever emerges from their investigations.

Which is not to say that the central services are much better. While IB gained during P Chidambaram’s tenure as home minister, R&AW has been destroyed by the apathy of the UPA. It is now a vast, useless bureaucracy whose officers spend more time plotting against each other than in gathering intelligence from abroad.

So, while I pray for the best, I am not hopeful that we can prevent Hyderabad-like attacks in the future. Our policemen and our spies inspire little confidence. And I doubt if they can keep us safe.

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