Mumbai Avengers and Other Tales from the Indian Security Establishment

The launch party for a fictional book this past weekend in New Delhi featured a number of noteworthy assertions about the real-world dimensions of the India-Pakistan rivalry and the inside workings of India’s national security machinery.

Mumbai Avengers is a new thriller about a retired Indian army general who puts together a crack team of free-lance agents to roam the world tracking down the perpetrators of the horrific November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.  For its part, the book’s release party assembled a real-life retired Indian army general (V.K. Singh) and a retired senior police official (Neeraj Kumar) who together stole the limelight with their remarks.

Consider the comments by General Singh, a former Indian army chief (March 2010-May 2012) so colorful and voluble that a novelist could easily pattern a fictional character after him.  Singh, who spent much of his military career in the special forces, had been involved in plenty of bureaucratic intrigues as he worked his way up the army hierarchy as well as putting in a cameo appearance in a Bollywood film.

Once he landed as the army chief, he used his time in office to wage war on his civilian masters.  To start, he took them to court in an unsuccessful bid to extend his tenure, an affair that also included jitters within Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government that a military coup was underway.  The general also raised hackles by airing a convoluted allegation about corruption in a procurement matter that the defense minister supposedly turned a blind eye to, and penning a letter to the prime minister (which quickly found its way to the media) asserting that the army was in decrepit condition and the special forces were “woefully short of essential weapons.”  Adding to the drama, a report surfaced during these ructions about the defense minister’s office being bugged.  (Fuller details here.)

At the book launch, Singh, who currently serves as a headline-grabbing junior minister in the foreign ministry, proclaimed that the “Indian army is very capable.  Given a task it will execute it in a much better manner than the Americans did [in the Abbottabad commando raid that killed Osama Bin Laden four years ago].”  This claim is entirely at odds with the depiction in his letter to the prime minister three years ago regarding the overall shape of the army in general and the special operations forces in particular.  Nor does it accord with what is known about India’s capacity to pull off a daring commando assault deep inside Pakistan.

Indeed, a series of technical, operational and political constraints all but rule out such an operation.  First, the Indian capacity for sophisticated, multi-dimensional (combining on-the-ground operatives, satellite reconnaissance and communications intercepts) tracking of terrorism suspects is virtually non-existent.  As Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta note in their recent book, India’s external intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), possesses a good reputation for covert action but performs poorly with actual intelligence gathering and analysis.  V.P. Malik, one of General Singh’s predecessors as army chief, points to the pervasive lack of coordination among the various parts of India’s national security machinery as a major obstacle to launching cross-border commando raids: “In India, the armed forces, the foreign service, the intelligence agencies, the national security advisor operate in watertight compartments. One does not consult the other, and they do not know what the other is doing.”

The embarrassing inability to mount a speedy airlift of National Security Guard commandos the 850 miles from New Delhi to Mumbai during the November 2008 terrorist strike likewise calls into severe question India’s operational capacity to launch complex, lightning-fast airborne assaults far inside hostile territory.  (By the way, the NSG is reportedly still plagued by severe manpower, training and transport challenges.)  And one important reason that U.S. helicopters flying out of Afghanistan were able to arrive at the Bin Laden compound undetected is that the bulk of Pakistani air defense systems are oriented toward India.  So even if Indian military forces did possess the means for rapier-like, long-distance assaults, they would have to be prepared to engage in a continuous fight from and on their way home once Pakistani authorities discovered the intrusion.

Finally it is very difficult to believe that highly risk-averse political leaders in New Delhi would even countenance a raid that has the all but certain probability of sparking a large-scale clash with Pakistani forces, which in turn could escalate more broadly.  Hawkish commentators have long condemned the political class for perpetuating India’s image as a “soft state” and for lacking the will for bold, decisive action to defend the country’s security interests.

Singh alluded to these political constraints when he acknowledged that significant factors, including the economic consequences, prevent India from retaliating against Mumbai-style attacks.  For his part, Neeraj Kumar, who retired as the Delhi police commissioner two years ago following criticism of his handling of a notorious December 2012 gang-rape case, had a much blunter assessment, averring that India is a “soft state” even when it comes to “thinking” about retaliation.

During his career, Kumar spent a long stint at the Central Bureau of Investigation, the central government agency that handles major criminal probes, and oversaw the investigation of a series of bombings in Mumbai in early 1993 that left over 300 people dead and some 1400 injured.  At the book release, he drove home his point about India being a “soft state” by relating that the CBI had formulated a plan to use “non-state” actors “to get at a certain gentleman in Pakistan,” presumably a reference to Dawood Ibrahim, the head of a powerful criminal syndicate in Mumbai who orchestrated the 1993 bombings and who is now reportedly being sheltered in Karachi by the Pakistani security service.

Kumar continued …

Everything was done. At the last day we thought we would inform the political bosses or shall I say the boss but he said ‘no, we are not Pakistan, we are India’ [emphasis added].

If Kumar is to be believed, it’s astounding that the Indian security establishment was on the verge of launching a high-stakes covert operation, one that risked serious blowback from Pakistan if discovered, when someone determined almost as an afterthought that it might be wise to seek authorization from the country’s elected leadership.

Critical reports have emerged in recent years about the frightfully dysfunctional state of the national security establishment (see here, here, here, herehere and here).  Yet Kumar’s words highlight the most dangerous problem of all – the lack of democratic accountability.  In this respect, at least, India may well be on the way to becoming more like Pakistan.

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Act East: Nehru’s Lesson for Modi

There is a central dichotomy regarding India’s role in Asia – grand ambitions and high-minded sentiments are regularly hobbled by internal deficiencies and the lack of credible follow-up.  This is a key lesson for New Delhi to absorb as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government seeks to enhance India’s economic and security relevance in the region.

Read the rest of the essay on Asia Sentinel‘s website.

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