By Sarah Watson —
The November 13 terrorist attack on Paris did not just shake Western capitals. Recognizing that the November 26, 2008 terrorist strike on Mumbai (commonly known as 26/11) is now a “global blueprint for terror,” India’s government is devoting new attention to protecting cities and targets far from the terror-plagued northwest border areas. The revived focus on counterterrorism, seven years after the Mumbai attacks, does not just increase India’s chances of keeping its citizens safe; it also offers a valuable opportunity for India to improve its working relationship with the United States and China – two partner countries that take terrorism very seriously.
No matter the coalition in power, India has a very poor record of maintaining steady focus on a counterterrorism agenda. Multiple governments have committed themselves to improving homeland security before, with disappointing results. Furthermore, India’s federal structure means that the states and government bureaucrats need to get (and stay) on board for most counterterrorism efforts to work. The United States should try to use this burst of Indian interest to push counterterrorism cooperation agreements that will last long after the current enthusiasm has faded.
Meeting only five days after the Paris attacks, India’s cabinet agreed to dedicate new funds to revitalize and expand the Crime and Criminals Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) project, first conceived in the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks. CCTNS was designed to connect all of India’s roughly 15,000 police stations and to allow basic paperwork, such as first information reports, to be stored online and shared between stations, facilitating tracking of criminals and the collection of national data on crime. CCTNS is one of the three main pillars of former home minister P. Chidambaram’s plan to prevent future versions of 26/11. Another element of the three, the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) — meant to provide single-window access to all of the intelligence databases — is moving forward, if sluggishly. It now has a dedicated 10-acre plot in South Delhi and a newly-appointed director.
The increased attention to CCTNS was not the only significant counterterrorism activity out of Delhi in mid-November. Home Minister Rajnath Singh made a long-scheduled visit to China on November 18. Although the trip was originally described as a chance for Singh to discuss issues related to the Sino-Indian border, terrorism became the focus of his agenda. Singh visited China’s Public Security University, a SWAT team headquarters in Beijing, and Shanghai’s Command and Control Centre. After a meeting between Singh and Chinese premier Li Keqiang, the two countries announced the creation of a new bilateral “ministerial mechanism” meant to help them cooperate on cross-border law enforcement issues.
The Modi administration was not always so interested in CCTNS, or counterterrorism in general. The project was founded in 2009 with an initial allocation of about $300 million from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. It received far smaller annual allocations while UPA was in power, but was allocated nothing in either of the Modi government budgets, endangering its continued existence. As recently as November 3, the government of Maharashtra was forced to pay over $3 million to keep the project going. CCTNS was a UPA program, but the Modi administration also failed to produce its own initiatives. It ignored a rare instance of interagency cooperation: a proposal from the heads of its domestic and foreign intelligence agencies that would have allowed counterterrorism personnel from both agencies to form a single team in order to share information and coordinate operations.
The last great surge of unsustained activity followed the Mumbai attacks, which forced India to take stock of its deep vulnerability to a commando-style raid on its cities. The result of that introspection was the aforementioned CCTNS, NATGRID, and the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), all of which were announced within three years of 26/11. NATGRID, as discussed above, still lacks a facility. Meanwhile, the NCTC was first gutted, and then essentially scrapped, in the face of united opposition from state Chief Ministers who feared that it impinged on the states’ constitutionally protected powers over law and order. This neglect is far from the sole responsibility of the Modi government; the UPA government froze recruitment to its foreign intelligence service for five straight years, leading to today’s dire shortage of experienced analysts.
Though India has avoided a mass-casualty attack since 2008, the terrorism threat is still present and getting bigger overseas. 20 Indians were held hostage during the November 20 attack on a Radisson Hotel in Bamako, Mali. Fortunately all escaped unharmed, but the attack made India’s global weakness clear. U.S. Special Operations Forces assisted the Malian police, and France sent a team to the stand-off, even though there were fewer French or American citizens than Indians in the hotel. 40 Indians working in Mosul, Iraq, were kidnapped by ISIS in 2014; only one has returned, and he claims that the others were murdered by their captors. Will India accept similar risks for the millions of Indians working in the Gulf states?
Collective pressure from the United States and China could keep India focused on terrorism long enough to build effective new institutions. The constructive tone of Minister Singh’s visit to China was in sharp contrast to the lack of progress in military-to-military talks on tensions at the border held the same week. India may see counterterrorism as an area where it can profitably conduct relationship-building cooperation with China: even though the two countries differ strongly when it comes to Pakistan they share a concern over Afghanistan becoming a terrorist haven. For the United States, India’s counterterrorism concerns offer an opportunity to broaden the scope of intelligence-sharing and to deepen the U.S.-India relationship by sharing best practices in homeland security. Keeping India’s eye on the ball will benefit all three nations.
Sarah Watson is an associate fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.