By Sarah Watson —
India has managed to avoid or overcome many of the counterterrorism quandaries that plague neighboring Pakistan. But India’s comparatively positive record in this area should not lead to complacency. Many of the challenges with which Pakistan struggles are present in the Indian context as well. A bold new report on Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts offers an opportunity to compare the two nations’ relative progress. While India is far ahead of Pakistan in many ways, they share serious deficits in the areas of forensic science and command and control of their respective counterterrorism policies.
On August 8, 2016, terrorists murdered Bilal Kasi, the president of the Baluchistan Bar Association, while he was driving to work in Quetta, Pakistan. When the members of the Quetta bar gathered at the hospital where his body had been taken, a suicide bomber inserted himself among the crowd and detonated an explosive vest, killing 75 people and injuring more than 100 others. Two months later, the Supreme Court of Pakistan asked Justice Qazi Faez Isa, a retired chief justice of the Baluchistan High Court, to form a one-man Commission of Inquiry to investigate the tragedy and Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts writ large. On December 15, the Quetta Inquiry Commission Report was released online.
Justice Isa’s report is an unusual official document; it is an honest, scathing, even sarcastic indictment of the incompetence of many Pakistani institutions and of Pakistan’s failed counterterror efforts over the past five years. Overall, the report presents a troubling picture of a breakdown of law and order due to bureaucratic inaction, under-resourced police, and a deliberately muddled counterterror architecture. Unfortunately, many of these issues will be familiar to observers of India as well.
One of the most glaring shortfalls comes in the area of policing procedure. Justice Isa describes astonishing deficits in Baluchistan’s forensic capacity and in forensic-related police procedure: the local police never even conducted a forensic examination of the crime scenes involved in the attack. Even if they had done so, Baluchistan has no forensic science laboratory to examine the results. As a result, even a high-profile crime like Kasi’s murder looks set to go unsolved.
India has world-class forensic laboratories and far greater resources in this area than Pakistan. But its advantages in this area are frequently obviated by poor police procedure and the overwhelming backlog of cases. In 2013, following reports that Delhi’s forensic science laboratory had a backlog of 10,000 cases, the Delhi government approved a second laboratory for the capital. By spring 2016, however, the backlog had only increased, to almost 12,000 cases. Forensic scientists’ task has been made more difficult due to poor evidence collection by Delhi police; in August 2016 the Delhi High Court launched an investigation of evidence handling practices.
These troubles are not confined to Delhi. In October the Bombay High Court urged the Maharashtra government to consider outsourcing forensic work. The court grew concerned after hearing a case brought by the father of a man murdered in 2012; the forensic report was still pending. Nationally, the Times of India reported in November 2015 that forensic results were still pending in high-profile cases like the Muzaffarnagar riots (late summer 2013) and the death of Sunanda Pushkar (January 2014). India’s police, unlike those in Quetta, apparently collect forensic evidence; but doing so is pointless unless that evidence can be processed in a timely fashion. And not all states have the resources of Delhi or Maharashtra; although the Government of India released funds in 2005 to build a full-service forensic laboratory at Jalpaiguri in northern West Bengal, when a terrorist attack took place in 2013 the building was not yet completed and a forensic team had to be brought in from outside the region.
The second major area of deficits is in the formulation and bureaucratic control of counterterrorism policy. Justice Isa reserves particular scorn for Pakistan’s National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA) which was founded in 2013 with a mandate to collect and disseminate intelligence on terrorist threats and to coordinate counterterrorism policy. As Isa notes, NACTA’s Board of Governors has never been convened and its executive committee has met only once in the three and a half years of the agency’s existence. It does not appear to act as an information clearinghouse and has not followed through on any counterterrorism strategy.
Unfortunately, India is in similar straits when it comes to overarching counterterrorism bodies. India has not even come to a decision on whether or not to bring its equivalent of NACTA, the National Counter Terror Centre (NCTC), online. In late 2016 a Home Ministry official told The Hindu that the 2012 proposal to create the NCTC was still “very much under consideration.” The center was first mooted in 2010. The NCTC concept has long been opposed by state-level leaders (including Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his previous capacity as chief minister of Gujarat), who object to the centralization of policing capacity. The Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution gives states power over police and public order.
Also in 2010, the previous Congress-led government mooted a proposal to create a single national intelligence database, NATGRID, which could be accessed by all of the nation’s law enforcement agencies. The project was in deep freeze for more than four years due to its association with the previous government, but Home Minister Rajnath Singh has revived the idea and appointed a CEO. It remains to be seen whether either project will come to fruition.
Coordination of counterterror efforts is just as important in the Indian context as it is in Pakistan. Justice Isa describes how coordination problems between Baluchistan’s three policing units—the provincial polices, the Levies Force, and the Frontier Corps—complicated counterterrorism efforts by diffusing responsibility. For example, Isa writes, when the police had identified the safe house where the masterminds of the Quetta attack were hiding, Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps took three hours to respond to a police request for reinforcements. India, for its part, has more than 30 state and Union Territory police forces — all of them reporting to different chiefs — two national investigative agencies, and seven paramilitary forces. The resulting difficulties are clear from the bureaucratic tussles over investigative responsibility that follow every major terrorist attack. In the case of the November 29 Nagrota attack, for instance, the National Investigation Agency only took control of the case on December 7. It is hard to imagine that this delay did not harm the investigation into the attacks.
No nation’s counterterrorism policy is perfect, and India has many reasons to be proud of its record on terrorism. It has a strong court system, dedicated and talented law enforcement officers, and an enviable lack of home-grown terrorists. But successive governments have left its counterterrorism and law enforcement institutions under-funded and lacking strategic direction. Indian policymakers might wish to read the Isa report as a disturbing reminder of what could happen if India does not take action soon.
Sarah Watson is an associate fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.