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India: Mr Chidambaram’s security ‘revolution’ February 2, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Gordon, Sandy, India , trackback

Sandy Gordon

In a far-ranging speech on 23 December, the Indian Home Minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, outlined his vision for India’s ongoing internal security reforms.  Mr Chidambaram has been in the position just one year.  In the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks now known in India as 26/11, he had been briefed by the Prime Minister to fix up India’s arcane internal security structure in light of its poor performance at the time of the attacks. Since, he has been engaged in strenuous efforts to create a viable internal security architecture out of India’s complex federal structure and Byzantine layers of bureaucracy.

Reforms to date or those planned and announced in the speech of 23 December would amount to a virtual ‘revolution’ in India’s internal security architecture if fully implemented.

The reforms include:

These changes are far-reaching by any standards for one year’s activities.  But they will not, in themselves, significantly fix India’s internal security, crime and governance problems. The issue Mr Chidambaram faces is that there is a ‘seamless web’ between security at the state and local levels and India’s higher security requirements. As the Union Home Minister he only has so many levers he can pull to effect security at these lower levels.

In particular, India’s repressive, creaking, 1.5 million-strong police service requires urgent, far-reaching reform. These reforms lie within the purview of the states rather than the Union Government and unfortunately at least some states do not want that to happen because the political class is happy with a situation in which there is no meaningful separation of powers. (Witness the attacks of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Ms Mayawati, on the Congress leader, Rita Bahugana, as detailed in this blog). Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, is also notorious for the large-scale corruption surrounding police recruitment.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most of India’s police services are still governed according to Acts that closely resemble the Union Government’s 1861 Police Act, which was in turn based on the Irish Constabulary Act and intended as a means of repressing large populations with minimal manpower. They are consequently not subjected to the type of separation of powers usually evident in other Westminster-style democracies. They substantially consist of paramilitary-style forces and poorly trained and paid constables and senior constables with virtually no hope of promotion, commanded by a small, elite officer class (the Indian Police Service). In most cases they are not subject to independent, properly resourced accountability systems but depend on internal complaints systems. Such forces are hardly conducive to state-of-the-art community policing. Nor are they ideal instruments for gathering intelligence at the grass-roots level.

Unfortunately, the new NIA will not be able to fill the gap. There is a close nexus in South Asia between organised crime and terrorism and sound policing is essential to attack organised crime. While a significant development, the formation of the NIA is unlikely to prove adequate for the task. Unlike the Australian Crime Commission (ACC), the NIA can only intervene once a crime has been committed and therefore has no meaningful intelligence collection role. Without such a role its capability to pre-empt crime and terrorism will be minimal. The processes to call it in are cumbersome.  Nor does it have the Royal Commission-like powers of the ACC.

So although Mr Chidambaram’s internal security ‘revolution’ constitutes a valiant effort, unless he can use his considerable reputation, energy and force of character to bully or otherwise cajole the states to engage in meaningful police and governance reform, India’s new security architecture is unlikely to provide sustainable solutions to its closely related governance, crime and terrorism problems.

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