Sleeper cells work, intel bureaus sleep

Thomas L. Friedman is probably the most popular of international columnists amongst Indians. That’s because he has an engaging worldview, and a special affection for India, seeing more positives in our country’s progress than most of us do.
His most recent column, though, was not on India, but on the attack on the Boston Marathon. His theme was “Cave dwelling is for terrorists. Americans? We run in the open on our streets… in shorts not armour, with abandon and never fear...” He went on to say, “Let’s repair the sidewalk immediately, fix the windows, fill the holes and leave not the smallest scar on our streets…” In short, don’t allow terrorists to affect the American way of life, the life of an open society.
Soon after, the terrorist strike in Bengaluru happened, and I thought to myself, isn’t this what we will do too? We may not be as quick to repair the sidewalk, or fix the windows or fill the holes, but our teeming life will fill the streets the moment police barricades are lifted, and the terrorists will have left not a single scar on the street. It’s happened in Mumbai, it’s happened in Pune, in Delhi, in Hyderabad… in places too numerous to name, and too numerous to forget. But forget we do, erase painful memories from our minds, as trauma patients often do, and get on with life as if nothing had happened.
So, then, Indians and Americans, living in the two biggest democracies in the world, are so alike, aren’t they? A bit of a yes, and more than a bit of a no. We Indians, like Americans, do get on with our lives, perhaps adding a few security checks here and there, but never really barricading ourselves from the world. Part of this has to do with normal human resilience, but a lot of it has to do with not having too many options. For example, when Mumbai’s suburban trains were bombed, did commuters stay away from them the next day? They didn’t. Not because commuters are an especially brave lot, but because most of them had no alternative ways of getting to work.
You can understand that: compulsion is often the companion of courage.
What makes us so different from the US is that after every terrorist attack destroys our peace, our official agencies too go back to “normal”, resuming their routine work as if nothing had happened. The commuter does this because he has no choice; official security agencies surely do.
Actually, they don’t. Or shouldn’t. Official agencies should have no choice in the matter: going back to a normal way of working is an option they should never have. In this, the contrast between American and Indian officialdom couldn’t be starker.
The Boston attack is the first terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. There have been attempts, and several plots, but they have all been nipped in the bud. The Boston bombers stepped through the cracks because they came from an unexpected and logic-defying quarter. In the same span of time, however, terrorist attacks have continued unabated on our cities, and hardly one has been foiled, even though we know
the source of these attacks.
Isn’t this a failure, a massive and continuing failure, of our intelligence network? When
P. Chidambaram was home minister, he tried to establish a national security agency, but that attempt was foiled by the politicking of many state chief ministers under the excuse of state autonomy. Notwithstanding that failure, Mr Chidambaram’s tenure showed what a strong and competent home minister could achieve, given enough powers and time to revamp our fossilised structure. But even under him, several initiatives, like forming specially trained rapid action anti-terror units, got stalled due to our stultifying bureaucracy. Now we have Sushilkumar Shinde, best known for permanently having a foot in his mouth: what is he going to achieve?
In fact, there is a case for recognising the home minister as the No. 2 man in the Cabinet, second only to the Prime Minister, and posting the best Cabinet minister there. Instead, we seem to have a policy of making it a sinecure for “loyalists” like
Mr Shinde and Shivraj Patil before him. If a media and people’s campaign is launched to get Delhi to recognise this point, the Prime Minister is sure to appoint a committee to look into the issue. He won’t recognise the fact staring starkly in our faces that the time for committees has long since passed; what we need is strong, collective, national action.
The network of informers (the “khabris” of the police) has to be strengthened, protected and rewarded. Rapid action forces have to be formed and quickly put in place in the most vulnerable cities. Citizens have to be trained in recognising potential dangers, and although an awareness campaign has been launched in this area, how many of us have the confidence that if we report a suspicious object, someone will attend to our query, and do something about it? Last but not least, an emergency response infrastructure has to be in place everywhere, so that police, hospitals, doctors, paramedics and citizens know what to do when a terrorist attack does take place. Who can forget what happened after the Mumbai train attacks? There was no official reaction at all; commuters helped their stricken companions, improvised stretchers out of sheets of cloth, commandeered cars and taxis in the absence of ambulances… It was an amazing response, but it can’t cover up for official apathy.
Have things improved since then? Not on your life. We will wait for the next attack to happen, then clean the streets, carry the dead away, and next day, go back to our open, and casual, way of life, as if all this is in a normal day’s work.

The writer is a senior journalist

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