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Responding to the Mumbai attacks: India's dilemma

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4 December 2008 09:44

Guest blogger: Amandeep Gill (pictured) is a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

To answer the question of how India responds to the Mumbai attacks, we need to first understand the constraints that India faces in crafting a response. These constraints differ significantly from those faced by other democracies — the US, UK and Israel – who also struggle to cope with terrorism while retaining their commitment to the rule of law and international good citizenship. 

Firstly, unlike the US, UK or even Israel, India is a developing country. It does not have unlimited resources to throw at security problems. However, given the widespread public anger at the continued use of India for target practice by international terrorists, the Indian Government has little choice but to channel more funds into internal security and make it a higher priority for the Government. The shifting of the Harvard-educated P Chidambaram, a poster-boy of economic reform, from Finance to the Home Ministry is a potent symbol of the coming shift.

Secondly, again unlike the others, India’s criminal justice system, its police and domestic intelligence apparatus are ill suited to tackle modern, messianic terrorism. Mumbai has 126 cops for every 100,000 residents, nearly half the UN norm of 222 for 100,000. The FBI’s Indian counterpart has 3500 agents, who are inundated with tasks. Even the elite commandos who went into the hotels after local policemen with their service pistols were overwhelmed by the terrorists did not have night vision devices.

Constitutionally too, unlike the UK or Israel but somewhat similar to the US, India is a federal state. Law and order is a ‘state’ subject and the federal government can only ‘aid’ and not ‘direct’ the states to take measures. It appears there were intelligence warnings about the attacks but action on those warnings got lost in India’s institutional labyrinth. No wonder the Indian Prime Minister has called for a federal agency to pursue counter-terrorism more effectively and has promised police and intelligence reforms.

Thirdly, the Prime Minister, an internationally acclaimed economist, would be conscious of the costs, and impact on investor confidence, of a muscular, military response that drags on for months. When Pakistan-based terrorists attacked India's parliament in December 2001, the then-Government deployed troops to the border well into 2002 to pressure Pakistan to act. In the ensuing crisis, Western governments issued travel advisories that damaged Indian industry. The global economic situation today does not permit a repeat.

Fourthly, the PM would have to weigh carefully international reactions. Pakistani officials have already warned of pulling troops from their Western border with Afghanistan and redeploying them east. That would not be pleasant news to President-elect Obama, who has made Afghanistan his top national security priority. US leverage with Pakistan is limited and it would not wish to see it stretched further with an India-Pakistan crisis. The US may have more leverage with India, because of improving ties.

In Pakistan itself, there is a new, fledgling civilian government, apparently friendly to India, and an attack or prolonged crisis could undermine its grip on power, complicate the US agenda in Afghanistan-Pakistan and lead to strains in warming India-US ties. India’s other Islamic neighbours in the Gulf, Central Asia and South East Asia would also be watching anxiously. As a controversial approach to fighting terrorism winds down in Washington, they do not wish to see it resurrected in their neighborhood.

Finally, the PM would be weighing domestic political factors. Regional elections in six states, including Jammu & Kashmir, are underway. Federal elections are due next spring. Seven thousand people have died in terrorist attacks since the Government took office in 2004. As recently as July, an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed two diplomats went unanswered even though US intelligence officials went public with their assessment that elements of Pakistani intelligence services were involved.

The opposition has accused the Government repeatedly of being ‘soft’ on terror and of pandering to Muslim vote banks. As a politician facing reelection, the PM cannot afford to ignore this. He would also be very sensitive to what any proposed action does to inter-religious harmony within India. You do too much and you radicalize a minority; you do too little and you radicalize sections of the majority. Unlike the US or Israel, India’s history and salad-bowl multi-culturalism does not afford an easy choice.

So what could the PM do apart from increasing the resources and priority given to internal security, strengthening which is in any case a long term and ongoing task? I'll tackle that question in a later post.

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