India’s police at a loss over terror

Just inside one of the pink stone gates leading into the walled city of Jaipur, Officer Amar Singh scans passing vehicles for out-of-state licence plates, his old-fashioned bolt-action rifle a warning to travellers deemed suspicious. Nearby, a new public address system exhorts street hawkers and shoppers to notify the authorities of any unattended packages.

Jaipur, the jewel of India’s popular tourist state of Rajasthan, has been in a state of heightened vigilance since May when eight bombs exploded in front of Hindu temples, scenic spots and police posts, killing 69 and injuring more than 250. The attack was claimed by a little-known group calling itself Indian Mujahideen, which was also behind a series of 16 bombs that killed at least 45 people in Ahmedabad last month.

But so far, Mr Singh’s random checks have turned up nothing useful. Nor has the broader investigation managed to identify the Jaipur bombers, despite interviewing more than 10,000 people in 10 states across India. “The efforts are being made but so far they have not borne fruit,” Gulab Chand Khataria, the Rajasthan state home minister, told the Financial Times.

Gyansham Jai Singh, a Jaipur sweets vendor who lost one employee and two of his milk suppliers in the bombings, doubts police will find the culprits. “Even if they arrest someone, they will be fake suspects – just to satisfy the public sentiment,” he says. “The real guys are sitting somewhere far away.”

Indeed, India’s law enforcement apparatus is woefully unprepared for the challenge it now appears to confront – a radical fringe of technologically savvy, disaffected local Muslims embracing terror in response to the perceived injustices dealt to their community by India’s Hindu-dominated society. Security challenges are nothing new in a country that has long struggled with separatist insurgencies and leftist guerrilla movements, but these have tended to be confined to specific areas far from the country’s economic heart.

Understaffed, under-funded and fragmented, the Indian police are widely perceived as being better at extracting forced confessions and monitoring the political opposition than at compiling sound criminal cases. Little wonder, then, that most urban Indians are sceptical about the authorities’ ability to protect them from further terrorist attacks. A few consecutive days in July saw eight small explosions rattle the information technology capital of Bangalore and kill one; the more serious Ahmedabad blasts; and the discovery of 25 bombs, which were all defused, maybe after malfunctioning – in the diamond-cutting centre of Surat.

Security for Friday’s Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi will be tight, with parts of the capital in a virtual lockdown. Yet many will stay away nonetheless, wary of being in crowded public places in the current climate. In the long run, there are fears that repeated attacks – and the authorities’ seeming inability to stop them – could undermine India’s aspiration to emerge as an economic superpower.

“We are abysmally ill-equipped to handle any of this,” says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management, which studies terrorism in South Asia. “We have the same police force now, or perhaps worse, than when the British left us ... You can’t have first-rate counter-terrorism in a third-grade policing system.”

While the United Nations recommends a peacetime police-to-population ratio of 222 to 100,000, India has around 126, according to Mr Sahni. But perhaps more significant than this manpower shortage is the culture of the policing system itself.

Organised exclusively along state lines, the police are often under extreme pressure to satisfy the government of the day. Much intelligence-gathering is focused on local opposition political parties, while crimes by those in power, their families and allies have been covered over.

Meanwhile, authorities across India are struggling to monitor developments in the country’s 150m-strong Muslim community, where feeling remains raw over the 2002 Gujarat riots, when nearly 3,500 people, mainly Muslims, were killed by Hindu mobs while police stood by. Intelligence often remains at a local level, due to lack of routine co-ordination between state forces. “The problem is in the collection of information and intelligence,” says H.G. Raghavendra Suhasaa, director-general of police in Jaipur. “We don’t take proactive measures in penetrating these kind of networks.”

India’s sole federal law enforcement agency, the Central Bureau of Investigations, is primarily mandated to investigate official cor­ruption and gets in­volved in other cases only if invited by state authorities or ordered by a high court – which usually makes it a late arrival to any criminal probes.

The Intelligence Bureau, India’s domestic spy agency, has limited legal powers, is unable to conduct searches or present evidence in court and, like the police, is seen as being susceptible to political pressure.

Dependent primarily on informants – including local people – wherever it works, the Intelligence Bureau has struggled to build inroads into the Muslim community. “They think it will be against Islam if they co-operate with the police,” says B. Raman, an intelligence specialist. “There is a perception that the police is anti-Muslim.”

Since the Ahmedabad blasts, calls have mounted for creation of a federal counter-terrorism agency capable of responding to the new threat. “We need to have an agency that has higher powers, higher financial assistance and can move very quickly around the country, barge into any state and go and get the things done,” says Mr Suhasaa, who is part of a special 100-man team investigating the Jaipur blasts. Others suggest that, rather than creating a new agency, it may be easier to reform existing agencies and give them the resources better to fulfil their responsibilities.

Until that happens, investigations into terror attacks are likely to continue to mean broad sweeps through Muslim communities, often culminating in arbitrary round-ups. In Jaipur, Anwar Shah, general secretary of the Jama Masjid, or Old Mosque, says many Muslim workers fled to their home states after the May attacks, fearful of getting caught in a police dragnet.

Such tactics not only fail to find the real perpetrators but risk further antagonising already alienated Muslim communities, whose co-operation is sorely needed in the battle against violent extremism. “You have to have cordial relations in the locality and develop contacts with reputed people in the area and keep watch through them,” says Mr Shah. “Leave all this harassment. The image of harassment should be removed by the police authorities. Police are trying to change, but still they are falling into the old pattern.”

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