Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Countering Terrorism in India: Major Political Parties Fail To Break Logjam Over Proposed NCTC

The one-day meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Home Minister P Chidambaram and the Chief Ministers, representing virtually all the major political parties, was held in New Delhi on May 5. The meeting that was organized on the setting up of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) remained inconclusive after steadfast opposition from chief ministers, including those from the Congress, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) allies, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and those of regional parties.

The opposition to it in the present form leaves the federal government with no option but to go back to the drawing board to redraft the NCTC, probably give it a new name. It will have to prune some powers of the proposed body and, in all possibilities, remove it from the ambit of the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

With chief ministers strongly opposed to the NCTC in its current form, the Home Ministry has no option but to remove the antiterror body outside IB and to have a mechanism for mandatory coordination between central agencies and state police forces.
Home Minister P Chidambaram made it abundantly clear that his ministry would work on removing the biggest hurdle in forming the anti-terror body in his concluding remarks at the chief ministers’ conference that were released officially on May 6.

Emerging Key Sticking Issues
Two key sticking issues emerged after the meeting. One that the anti-terror body should not be under the control of IB. Two, the counter-terror body - in whatever shape it is formed - should not carry out independent operations in states.
The NCTC, an anti-terror body proposed by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs on February 3, is not acceptable to chief ministers in its present form. 

The states which did not agree on the NCTC in its present form include a couple of Congress-ruled states, all BJP-ruled states and the states ruled by regional parties like the Akali Dal in Punjab, the National Conference (Jammu and Kashmir), the Trinamool Congress (West Bengal), the Biju Janata Dal (Odisha) and the AIADMK (Tamil Nadu). Many chief ministers questioned the logic of putting the NCTC under the IB.

Possible Options
One of the possible options is splitting the work of the NCTC-type body. A counter- terror body with central command could have access to IB databases on suspects, informers, friends of suspects and financiers for analysis. Operations could be handed over to the National Investigative Agency (NIA) formed after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Since the NIA was formed under an act of Parliament, Chief Ministers would have no objections to it.

The second contentious issue is of having only joint operations of central forces and state police forces. The chief ministers, even those of Congress and UPA allies-ruled states, made it clear that the NCTC type-body could not carry out independent operations -- arrests or detentions of suspects -- in states without prior information to the state DGP.

One of the options being studied is the possibility of forming small nodes of the NCTC type-body in states. These would have a dedicated unit of the state police force attached with the central agency team. As most state capitals already have a small central agency team, staffing the nodes would not be problem.

The joint team would be kept in the loop on all information and would simultaneously keep the state DGP informed. Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda was among those who suggested joint training of state and central forces at the meeting.

Instrument of Subversion
When Manmohan Singh says the NCTC is not meant for facilitating the federal government’s intrusion into the domain of the State Governments and Chidambaram seeks to allay the States’ apprehensions that this is yet another instrument of subversion of the Constitution, they do so in the hope of softening the tough stand taken by the chief ministers, especially of those States where the Congress is not in power. But the fact that their protestations have failed to move hearts and minds reaffirms, though not for the first time, what has been known for long now: Neither commands credibility.

There can be an endless debate on the need for an over-arching Central authority to deal with counter-terrorism across States. Those who argue in favor of the proposed NCTC have made points that cannot be entirely ignored. However, those opposed to the idea of erecting such a super-structure have raised issues that cannot be brushed aside. But much of the debate has been based on theoretical precepts that are borrowed from others’ experiences and are not necessarily rooted in the Indian reality. As Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi says, a robust, well-trained and well-equipped local police force is the best weapon to counter terrorism; after all, it is the local policeman who is, and shall remain, the first respondent. Second, to nibble away at the States’ constitutional rights, in this case maintenance of law and order, can never be acceptable, more so when the intentions of the federal government are questionable.

Pleas and Assurances
Undoubtedly, it is not a positive sign that despite the prime minister and the home minister’s impassioned pleas and assurances to dissenting states, the deadlock between the federal government and some states on the setting up of the NCTC could not be resolved. This should not, however, come as a surprise because the 10 dissenting states had made their stand clear beforehand. While most of the dissenters were non-UPA-ruled states and had a stake in keeping the pot boiling, the steadfast opposition of Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee and to a lesser degree Mulayam Singh Yadav and Omar Abdullah cannot but be deemed to be a blow to the Congress which spearheaded the move to set up the NCTC.

The scathing criticism of the federal government on the issue by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa was along expected lines but while it was reassuring to the opposition, it was a reminder for the Congress that it was up against a wall.

However, the Manmohan Singh government, on its part, merely restated its earlier position and made no efforts to address the specific provisions which the dissenting states were objecting to. For instance, the argument that the NCTC would undermine the states’ police powers was denied by both the prime minister and the home minister but there was no indication that the Centre was prepared to clothe the state police with greater powers to deal with terrorists while building up the NCTC as an apex body to coordinate action.

Clearly, some of states chief ministers do not sufficiently appreciate the sophisticated features of international terrorism which has targeted India for three decades; its reach, resources and swiftness of mobility of its deadly practitioners who flit across boundaries; the ultra-modern nature of communications and fighting equipment it employs; and the enormous funds at its disposal, not to mention ideological, political and occasionally ground-level support that becomes available to it. All of this was encapsulated in the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

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