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Overburdened Police Force

Shortcomings of India’s Internal Security

Chris Ogden (cco2@st-andrews.ac.uk) teaches Asian Security at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews, Scotland, United Kingdom. His research interests focus on India’s domestic and foreign politics and those of China and Asia as a whole.

Keeping India Safe: The Dilemma of Internal Security by Vappala Balachandran, Noida: Harper Collins, 2017; xx+308, 599.

The Indian police have an enormous internal responsibility that ranges from solving crimes such as murder, rape and robbery, to investigating offensive odours and infectious diseases, cracking down on illegal constructions, and protecting high-end hotels and shopping malls. As Vappala Balachandran notes, in this lucid, personal, anecdote-filled and narrative-driven account, in 2014 there were a staggering 72,29,193 cognisable crimes in India. A third of these fall under the Indian Penal Code and the rest are considered to be minor acts. Remarkably, all of these offences are within the purview of the Indian police as potential crimes which they have the power to investigate. That the police do not share internal security functions—through different agencies specialising in particular crimes—critically impedes these powers and minimises their potential for success.

In Charge of Everything

As this volume repeatedly points out, this latter observation points to deep structural and institutional shortcomings in India’s internal security apparatus, whereby the police are acting in capacities that in other countries are frequently taken care of by numerous government agencies or officials (especially with regard to the vast swathe of offences under the minor acts). This lack of sophistication and development means that India does not have sufficient mechanisms to counteract all of these issues in an effective or efficient manner. Collectively, the scale of this task represents a colossal burden on a police force that is frequently undermanned and under-resourced: factors that essentially magnify the scope of the challenges they face. The sheer size of India and its population—and corresponding geographic and ethnic complexity—intensifies these understandings, and produces wild variances in performance and capabilities.

It is within this set of challenges which the author seeks to explain, that this book is situated. His investigation begins with India’s Constitution, which is seen to contain a series of negative inheritances from the British occupation. Principally, when this document was formulated, internal security was viewed as more an issue of “public order,” an understanding that has persisted to this day, despite the emergence of new challenges to the Indian state, most pertinently insurgency, separatism and terrorism. In this sense, for the author, many of the provisions made by the Constitution are unfit for the purpose, and outdated for the task at hand. Through his career as a former Indian Police Service officer and as Special Secretary to the Cabinet Secretariat, the author’s first-hand experience of these shortcomings directly informs this book, and gives it a critical edge, while his knowledge and familiarity of the issues inform the core arguments made.

Further, the Constitution did not adequately consider “the adverse effects of the dispersal of central authority on internal security” (p 68), whereby policing has become part of local fiefdoms of power and influence. The resulting politicisation not only weakened the potential for collective investigation and intelligence sharing (especially between the central government and local authorities), but has meant that police forces are often diverted away from their expected day-to-day duties, and are instead, for example, deployed by politicians to police controversial film premieres, or crack down on perceived unsavoury behaviour in bars. At its worst, politicians have ignored police provisions, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party not utilising the 20,000 policemen available to them at Ayodhya in 1992 (a culpability that can be just as well be directed to the Congress party with regard to the anti-Sikh pogroms following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984). Such elements also impact the fundamental will of India’s leaders to reform the police, as underpinned by the high levels of alleged and proven criminality across India’s political class.

Security Flaws Laid Bare

The seriousness of these concerns is most clearly exemplified by the 26/11 terrorist attacks across Mumbai that revealed the deep-seated nature of these flaws, as well as the consequences that they have on India’s internal and national security. These shortcomings not only expose the Indian population to sources of danger that have the potential to be effectively controlled—or at least effectively responded to—but also undermine the central goal of any domestic police force, which is to protect the citizens who invest confidence in them. More broadly, there are further international implications that ought to be of special relevance to any member of India’s elite, primarily that events such as 26/11 (and indeed any terrorist/insurgency event) have the ability to derail India’s great power emergence, as they fundamentally point to institutionalised incompetence, structural inertia, and negative politicisation, thereby weakening India’s image and reputation abroad. As India’s global visibility grows, such deficiencies will be reported more, and hence will be more damaging. That there were nearly 800 deaths from terrorism in 2017 only underscores this practical urgency.

This book strives to find solutions that can more effectively serve India’s internal security demands. The author notes how this task is made more complicated given India’s quick economic progress, as well as increasing urbanisation and more business activity (often producing more air/water pollution, which again, is currently investigated by the police). Historical examples are used to show possible reforms; most fruitfully the reforms by William Henry Sleeman, whose “machine” of information, maps, analysis and cross-referenced lists, in conjunction with centralised prosecution, effectively assuaged the thuggee threat in the 19th century. Indeed, the author calls for a neo-Sleeman approach whereby India sets up efficient specialised courts to deal with specific threats—such as the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) or the Indian Mujahideen—rather than dealing with them at myriad and non-standardised locations across the country, as is the current practice. Such a demand is for an ambitious “central police force with all-India jurisdiction” (p 129), a measure that was recommended (but ignored) after the 1999 Kargil war, and which current bodies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) cannot presently undertake, since they need to gain permission from the respective states to investigate trans-border crimes. The role of the chief minister in allowing or blocking such requests is a stumbling block for India’s internal security provision, which the author rightly asserts must be removed as soon as possible.

The lack of coordination is also an issue within these dynamics, and Balachandran ably deploys pertinent examples that attest to the issues posed by different agencies using various approaches, which stymie effective investigations, prevent arrests, create legal ambiguity and actually inculcate wider insecurity by failing to solve crimes. An engaging study of the events leading up to the 26/11 terror attack are instructive in this regard, and retreading details taken by other accounts, is highly useful in understanding why internal shortcomings—including bureaucratic complacency, incompetence and empty elite assurances—occur in India. Also highlighted are the lack of coordination between intelligence agencies before and after the attacks (whose neglect is well described as a tragic inadequacy), as well as India’s “dysfunctional National Security Council” (p 211) that did not fulfil its basic purpose when Mumbai was attacked, and the ineffective Crisis Management Group which was not formally convened during the 26/11 attack.

Not all of the examples presented are so compelling. The author’s depiction of the Emergency, especially by comparing it to that in France following the November 2014 Paris attacks, is badly handled, and ignores the political fallout concerning the mass arrests of opposition politicians and the suspension of the free press (things which did not occur in France). Although there is much merit to noting the negative internal security situation, the Emergency remains a highly-negative event for Indian democracy and highlights the possibility of authoritarian tendencies to gain traction and become a reality under certain conditions. This existential threat remains present today and ought not to be partially overlooked or underplayed as it has been here.

Agenda for Reform

In his conclusion, the author lays out a strategy for reform. This rests upon having more joint counterterrorism operations with other countries (including higher-level diplomatic connections, to enhance capabilities and information exchanges); intelligence-led policing (comprising better laws to cover India’s intelligence agencies, which currently have no legal backing); and developing government–private cooperation in security matters (whereby the public are better informed and even involved in internal security provision). He also notes the importance of better research on terrorism; splitting the Ministry of Home Affairs (in order to create a specific Ministry of Internal Security); reducing the burden on the police (by reforming their role concerning prisons, railways and coastal protection, and changing how policing is managed in big cities); as well as enacting several bureaucratic changes (to give the CBI legal autonomy and to form specific apex intelligence groupings).

This list of reforms is lengthy and impressive in scope, and underscores the sizeable mountain that India must climb to improve her internal security situation. As the author declares, such an undertaking must not be obstructed by “inept leaders who were more eager to blame others than set in motion an affective and preventive mechanism” (p 267). As he also fluently and eruditely declares:

The adverse results of India’s poor security system are borne by the common man and not by the protected phalanx of politicians and administrative leaders who resort to official secrecy to cover up their failures … it is also for the common man, the worst sufferer, to put pressure on the elected representatives to change the present system. (p 267)

India’s leaders need to heed Balachandran’s warning while the Indian citizens must embrace his calling.

 

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