INDIA’S VULNERABLE MARITIME FLANKS
Adm Arun Prakash (Retd), former CNS
The diabolic, well coordinated and ruthlessly executed multi-pronged terrorist assault on Mumbai has left the nation punch-drunk. And 48 hours later, we still have only a hazy notion of what hit us and how. Since Mumbai is a great port city, many in the media have been looking seawards for clues, and asking the inevitable question: could the Indian Navy (IN) or Coast Guard (CG) have done anything to stop the terror strikes? The dramatic high seas interception of two merchant ships, and their internment in a Gujarat port has added grist to the mill.
I think many of us are missing the wood for the trees. No set of people could have walked off a merchant ship in Sassoon Docks or stepped out of a dinghy at Machhlimar Nagar and launched these attacks. This operation called for reconnaissance, logistics, communications, local support and perhaps even rehearsals; all requiring time. The number of persons involved, directly or indirectly, could easily run into dozens if not a hundred. It speaks of the abysmal depths plumbed by our police and intelligence apparatus that they failed to hear an underworld rumour or a whisper on the airwaves, or obtain any sort of warning at all. But that seems to be now “par for the course” in India.
Soon after the July 2006 serial train blasts in Mumbai, which resulted in over 500 dead and injured, I attended a high level inter-ministry meeting to discuss this issue. After presentations, discussions and brain-storming lasting a couple of hours, a final question was asked by the Cabinet Secretary: what urgent remedial and precautionary measures should we take to prevent recurrence of such incidents?
After a pregnant silence, the sole suggestion that came was voiced by a junior functionary: “We must give the SHOs at the thana level more and better quality walkie-talkie sets.” I was shaken to the core because of the pedestrian and worm’s eye perspective that it demonstrated; not high-technology, not intelligence, not weapons, but walkie-talkies! And this was in 2006, after the nation had been experiencing bomb blasts or terrorist attacks with monotonous regularity in the wake of the horrifying 1993 Mumbai carnage. The score today, of course, stands much higher.
What we have been facing for many years now, and continue to face, is an “asymmetric war”, waged by a ruthless and imaginative intelligence agency. This war has many dimensions; aiding separatism and insurgency, attacking our economy by pumping in fake currency, inciting communal violence, and undermining the morale and cohesion of the armed forces (often through the instrumentality of the Indian media) are some other facets of this multi-pronged assault by the Pak Inter-Services Intelligence agency on the hapless Indian State.
Its most obvious manifestation has been the cold-blooded orchestration of violence amidst our civilian population. This is done through a complex and well-organized network of agents and surrogates, indigenous and foreign, who are trained, equipped and financed to wreak havoc. Mumbai was obviously a soft and undefended target, where they perpetrated mayhem with impunity.
Like ostriches with heads buried deep in sand, we have refused to acknowledge this asymmetric war. And full responsibility for this situation must be accepted by Indian politicians of all hues, who in their ruthless quest for votes and political one-upmanship, have systematically undermined every instrument of state, and rendered the nation vulnerable. While using it to gain electoral “brownie points” they have failed to make terrorism an issue of sharp focus for the security establishment, and our response to the asymmetric war has therefore remained disjointed, fragmented and disorganized for three reasons.
Firstly the netas have has emasculated the police forces and made the intelligence agencies ineffective by interference and politicization, so that they are unable to discharge their core functions. Secondly, the national security establishment has encouraged turf distribution and creation of fiefdoms, and thereby deprived itself of the benefits of holistic thinking and synchronized action. And lastly, in a system that must be unique world-wide, the Armed Forces are kept on the margins of national security management by a powerful bureaucracy, and rarely consulted or heard by politicians; even on issues in which they have exclusive expertise.
Let us return to Mumbai, which is not only a metropolis, port city and financial hub but also home to vital India’s nuclear establishments and the Western Naval Command. There can be little doubt that the city’s porous water-front is its Achilles heel, as is the state’s long coastal belt. But Maharashtra received adequate warning 15 years ago, when in 1993 the “mafia” landed a few tons of arms and explosives by boat near Ratnagiri, and with police connivance, transported them to Mumbai for the carnage that was to follow.
Soon thereafter, all coastal states were directed by the Centre to raise marine police wings equipped with high speed boats and communication equipment. To my knowledge, only Kerala has put together a small unit of this type, while the other states unrealistically expect the IN or the CG to undertake coastal policing functions. These two Services are meant to operate at sea, and cannot, for example, undertake patrolling of Juhu, Chowpatti, Cuffe Parade or Alibag; which is the job of the marine police.
However, that is not all. Like much else in our country, port and coastal security is in a total mess, because at least 14 ministries, departments and agencies (e.g. MoST, MHA, MoD, DG Shipping, ONGC, Customs, Immigration, Fisheries and so on) have a degree of involvement in maritime related issues. Most of the time our security is compromised because the left hand does not know what the right is doing. Agencies work at cross purposes, while important harbours like Mumbai remain unguarded.
For years, the IN has been pleading with the GoI that there is a dire need to constitute a central Maritime Commission for regulation, coordination and oversight of maritime security. That this eminently sensible proposal is languishing due to bureaucratic obduracy is proof of our political myopia and lack of resolve. Let us look at how other nations handle similar situations.
New York was struck by terrorists on 11th September 2001. By 1st October, a Homeland Defence Command had been established and placed under a 4-star military officer. The US Secretary of the Army stated: “…homeland security is the No. 1 job for the US military and we will act accordingly.” On 26th October, Public Law 107-56 was enacted by the US Congress without debate. The contrived acronym USA PATRIOT (standing for: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) explains the purport of the Act. With the sweeping powers available, the Homeland Defence Command has ensured that the USA has remained free of terrorism since 2001. Need one say more?
France, perceiving many serious threats from seawards, revived an old Napoleonic institution: the Prefet Maritime (Maritime Prefect) to implement security in a coherent and holistic manner. This functionary is the “…servant of the French State who exercises authority over the sea in a Prefecture. He reports to the Prime Minister for civil functions and to the Chief of Defence Staff for military operations.” A 3-star Admiral each has been placed in charge of the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Channel coasts of France, and is empowered to coordinate the efficient functioning of agencies like the navy, coast guard, marine police, customs, immigration, pollution control, search & rescue etc. No bickering like we have in Mumbai; France can afford to sleep in peace.
India’s coastal, maritime and national security too, would be tremendously enhanced if the Commanders-in- Chief of the Western and Eastern Naval Commands were to be similarly empowered. But for that we will not only need to reach a higher level of security consciousness but also learn to repose faith, confidence and responsibility in the only national institution which continues to function with dedication, efficiency and intense patriotism: the Indian Armed Forces.
Every newspaper and TV channel is, today, reflecting how drastically the stock of the politician has fallen with the common man. If India’s polity wants to redeem itself in the public eye, there is only one thing for them to do: convene an emergency session of both Houses of Parliament, and, sinking their petty differences, show the people that they have the nation’s vital interests at heart by enacting (or starting the process for) legislation for:
A Homeland Defence Organization, be it a civil ministry, a military command or a combination of the two.
Empowerment of the this organization with wide-ranging authority to, inter alia, gain access to telephones, e-mails, bank accounts of individuals suspected of posing a threat to our homeland, and to monitor their movements, search and detain them if necessary..