NEW DELHI — More than three years after Pakistani militants sailed into Mumbai and launched a series of attacks that killed 166 people, India is still struggling to put in place counterterrorism measures that would help authorities prevent and respond to future threats.
An ambitious plan to set up a National Counterterrorism Center — similar to the center in the United States — has been delayed, a victim of turf wars and the increasingly fractured nature of Indian politics.
The anti-terrorism center was supposed to give authorities sweeping powers to search, interrogate and arrest suspects across India. But it has become embroiled in a face-off between the national government in New Delhi and the increasingly querulous governments of some states that are trying to protect the autonomy of their police forces.
The impasse not only weakens India’s effort to mount a coordinated campaign against terrorism, but also reflects the growing power of regional parties that is making the country increasingly tough to govern, analysts say.
As India and the United States step up their counterterrorism cooperation through training and joint exercises, India’s disjointed response to national security runs the risk of crippling the counterterrorism campaign in this volatile region.
“The Mumbai attacks demonstrated that business as usual cannot continue and the need for a consolidated national effort,” said Paul Kapur, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “The states on their own do not have the mindset and resources to deal with this. The next big terror attack may be even more provocative than the ones in Mumbai and may lead to international conflict. That is not lost on people here” in the United States.
But the fractious nature of Indian politics is such that chief ministers from 12 states have established a formidable coalition since February to oppose the setting up of the NCTC, the umbrella organization.
“We were not consulted about the NCTC, which will have the power to raid and search anywhere and arrest anybody it suspects, without the permission of state governments,” said Sultan Ahmad, a lawmaker with the Trinamool Congress, a regional party from the eastern state of West Bengal. “We want to fight terrorism, but we do not want a body that will infringe upon our freedom to govern our states.”
Analysts say the stalemate is another example of the dwindling credibility of the national government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which is constantly entangled in messy, public disagreements with not only its opponents but also its coalition allies. Similar confrontations with regional parties have delayed economic decisions and anti-corruption laws in recent months.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram said this month that an umbrella organization is long overdue because India is the target of several militant groups and that “al-Qaeda’s shadow falls in this area.” The government says it has broken up 51 terrorism cells and foiled 43 plots since the Mumbai attacks in 2008.
But many security analysts say the tough measures India pledged after the Mumbai attacks are in disarray.
Another measure, an electronic information-sharing project called Natgrid, has also run into trouble over privacy concerns. That project seeks to consolidate databases relating to banking, travel, phone calls and the Internet behavior of citizens.
“We have so many intelligence agencies working independently, but the big picture can emerge only when we can connect all the dots together,” said P.K. Hormis Tharakan, a former intelligence chief. “But there is a huge trust deficit. By giving search and arrest powers to the NCTC, New Delhi appears to be saying it does not trust state police departments to do the job. And state governments are wary that the NCTC is trying to undermine them.”
Singh recently told state leaders in New Delhi that India cannot afford to drop its guard. “Today, terrorist groups are nimble, more lethal than ever before and increasingly networked across frontiers,” he said.
But India’s response to terrorism is often marred by poor coordination, which critics say has resulted in Muslim suspects being arrested after bombings without credible evidence. In January, a man arrested by Mumbai police on suspicion of orchestrating serial blasts in the city in July turned out to be a covert informer that New Delhi had sent to break up terrorism cells. Lack of coordination was blamed for the mistake.
State governments often follow different strategies in combating Maoist guerrillas operating deep in the jungles in parts of central and eastern India. While one state decides to undertake commando-style operations, another might decide to open talks. The varying approaches, critics say, have allowed some armed rebels to escape and regroup.
“Sometimes, we get actionable intelligence input about terror cells or illegal weapons from Delhi, but there are several delays before we can launch an operation,” said a senior police officer from a state in central India, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject with the media.
Chidambaram, the home minister, plans to meet with state chief ministers in New Delhi this week to make another effort to persuade them. But members of the regional parties are already writing it off as a futile exercise.