Dec 1st 2018
This week residents of Mumbai marked ten years since gunmen of Lashkar-e-Taiba (let), a terrorist group with close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence service, rampaged through their city over four harrowing days, killing 166 people. A decade on India has beefed up security, launched cross-border raids against terrorists and drummed up international pressure on Pakistan. Yet many of the institutional failings that left it open to attack remain unchanged, while let and like-minded jihadists are stronger than ever.
The good news is that Indian cities are safer than they were. The number of serious attacks, excluding those in insurgency-ridden states like Kashmir, fell from 25 in the eight years leading up to the Mumbai attacks to six since, notes Tilak Devasher, a former Indian security official. Large cities have avoided Mumbai-like atrocities.
That may partly be owing to improved defences. A spate of institutions were established or spruced up after 2008. A new National Investigation Agency became the lead law-enforcement body for terrorism cases. The Multi Agency Centre, which was created after lapses in intelligence-sharing between different government agencies allowed Pakistani troops to grab a sliver of Indian territory in Kashmir in 1999, was strengthened following a similar failure of co-ordination ahead of the assault on Mumbai. The National Security Guard (nsg), a force of commandos that was pilloried for taking ten agonising hours to get to Mumbai from its New Delhi headquarters, set up hubs in six other cities.
India’s spies and soldiers have also stepped up their work. India has tightened links with foreign spy services, including those of America and Britain, both of which eavesdrop closely on jihadists in Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, once a favourite hideaway for shady Pakistanis. It has signed extradition treaties with seven additional countries and agreed Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties with 15 more.
Shivshankar Menon, who became national security adviser after the Mumbai attacks, says that India responded with “covert” and “asymmetric” measures as well. The army has been more willing to flex its muscles, too, conducting what the government called “surgical strikes” on Pakistan’s bit of Kashmir after a massacre in 2016 of Indian soldiers by militants based in Pakistan, though many thought these more a political stunt than a serious deterrent.
For all this activity, many experts and officials remain sceptical about how much has changed. Co-ordination between the central government and states, which have constitutional responsibility for policing and public order, as well as among states, remains a problem. Vappala Balachandran, a veteran police officer and intelligence official, points to a tussle between the Anti-Terrorism Squad of Maharashtra, a large western state which includes Mumbai, and New Delhi’s police force, with each arresting one another’s operatives. A National Counter Terrorism Centre was supposed to resolve these feuds but never got off the ground. Officials also point to massive staff shortages, poor personnel management and rampant nepotism in intelligence agencies, as well as a police-to-population ratio that is one of the lowest in the world. Remarkably, nsg commandos still lack their own aircraft.
In recent months Ajit Doval, the national security adviser, seen by acolytes as a swashbuckling figure who would personally slip across the border to shoot at terrorists if given the chance, has ushered in a sweeping reorganisation of his office, stacking it with spies instead of diplomats, increasing its budget tenfold and taking over prime New Delhi office space from cabinet ministers. The concentration of power has irked many. It is “totally unsuited to a democracy like India”, Mr Balachandran says.
Meanwhile the threat to India is dormant but undiminished. Pakistan has largely kept let on a leash over the past decade, wary of provoking Indian bombs or America’s wrath. But Hafiz Saeed, let’s leader, was allowed to field candidates in elections in July and his front organisations were recently dropped from Pakistan’s list of banned outfits. On September 30th the loquacious Mr Saeed even shared a stage with Pakistan’s religious affairs minister, cheerfully defying a $10m American bounty on his head. Were he to be permitted to strike an Indian city once more, India’s only partly patched defences would be sorely tested.