Believe it or not, in the hours since the murderous terrorist bombings in Mumbai, the ruling dispensation has been busy congratulating itself on the robustness of its counter-terrorism policies. Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi told journalists in Bhubaneswar that the United Progressive Alliance’s police and intelligence reforms had succeeded in stopping “99 per cent of terrorist attacks” — a claim startling for its arithmetical precision as much as its empirical innocence. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram underlined the fact that there had been no terrorist strike on Mumbai since November 2008 — even though there is no evidence that policing deterred a single planned attack. He explained the absence of intelligence this time by noting that the perpetrators of this carnage had “worked in a very clandestine manner.” Responses like this are of a piece with a longstanding official tradition: after each tragedy, cities are promised that gaps in policing will be filled, and lavishly praised for their spirit of resilience. The same resilience marks the lives of peoples in Karachi or Beirut, surely not models we should emulate.
The unpleasant truth is that the much-vaunted police modernisation effort the government began after 26/11 has just not delivered. Not one of the five urban terrorist attacks that preceded the latest Mumbai bombings has been solved. India’s intelligence services believe all these attacks are linked — and probably carried out by different modules of the Indian Mujahideen, the Lashkar-e-Taiba-affiliated group responsible for bombings that claimed hundreds of lives between 2005 and 2008. Key leaders of the Indian Mujahideen escaped a successful police crackdown in 2008; the testimony of the Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley has corroborated earlier suspicions that several remain active in Pakistan, harboured by elements of its intelligence services. Indian intelligence operations targeting these networks remain deficient. Emergency response capabilities have not improved significantly since November 2008. In Mumbai on Wednesday, the injured were evacuated, like cattle, on trucks and other readily-available transport; hospitals ran short of blood; traffic snarled and rumours proliferated. Mr. Chidambaram has correctly pointed out that India is located in one of the most dangerous regions in the world. That makes it all the more imperative to develop the capacities our police and intelligence services desperately need: better training, better skills, better working conditions. Instead, the focus of the post-26/11 effort has been on raising special forces and acquiring cutting-edge technology, assets which the existing system simply does not have the foundations to use to good effect. It is disturbing that two years after 26/11, India does not have a national centre of excellence for education in investigation and intelligence-gathering, a world class centre that can produce trainers for State police forces. The nation’s counter-terrorism establishment needs to stop focussing on appearing impressive on television, and buckle down to the task of serious, system-wide reform.