Saturday, May 21, 2011

India: Lessons from terror list blunders

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi

In March, our Ministry of Home Affairs had given to its Pakistani counterpart a list of 50 terrorists----Indian as well as Pakistani nationals--- who were suspected to have been involved in acts of terrorism in India. The Pakistani authorities were requested to have them arrested and handed over to India for trial.

India had been giving such lists to Pakistan ever since the Khalistani terrorists hijacked some aircraft of the Indian Airlines to Pakistan in the 1980s. Initially, the lists included mostly the names of Khalistani terrorists who were operating from Pakistan. Subsequently, the lists were expanded in the 1990s to include the names of some terrorists from Jammu & Kashmir and the absconding accused of the 1993 blasts in Mumbai, including Dawood Ibrahim and his associates.

Till about 2004, this list had a total of about 20 names. It has since expanded to 50 due to the search for the absconding accused in post-2004 jihadi acts of terrorism. Pakistan used to deny the presence of any Indian national in its territory. In respect of the Pakistani nationals figuring in the Indian lists, its response used to be that India had not been able to produce any evidence regarding their involvement in terrorism.

This exercise had been going on for nearly 30 years without Pakistan taking any action to trace those wanted by India and arresting and handing them over. Before handing them over to Pakistan, the lists used to be vetted by a joint committee consisting of officers of all agencies and the State Police. A senior officer of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) used to chair this committee. The representatives of the State Police were required to confirm that the lists were correct.

No errors in the preparation of these lists had occurred in the past due to the systematic vetting of the lists by all agencies sitting jointly for the purpose before handing them over to Pakistan.

This procedure does not appear to have been followed in the case of the latest list of 50 wanted terrorists. As a result, the names of at least two suspects, who had been arrested in India and hence were not absconding, found their way into the list which showed them as hiding in Pakistan.

The US naval commando raid into the hide-out of Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad on May 2 and his death during the raid have given rise to considerable criticism in the US regarding the alleged role of Pakistan in sheltering wanted terrorists. Presumably to capitalize on the growing public criticism of Pakistan for giving shelter to terrorists, the MHA apparently decided to make the latest list available to the media in order to highlight Pakistan’s non-cooperation in tracing and arresting terrorists wanted in India.

Journalists of the “Times of India” and NDTV, who scrutinized the list, found out that two of the terrorists shown in the list as hiding in Pakistan were actually in India.

This has created considerable embarrassment for the Govt. of India. Though there was no mala fide intention on the part of the MHA, its failure to detect these errors before the list was handed over to Pakistan indicated a certain casualness in the maintenance of records relating to absconding accused in the Govt. of India and in the preparation of the list. The usual process of vetting of the list by a joint committee of the officers of the agencies and the Police was apparently not followed.

There was an unwise haste in preparing the list, handing it over to Pakistan and releasing it to the media in order to capitalize on the growing suspicions in the international community about Pakistan’s non-cooperation in counter-terrorism.

The embarrassment faced by the Government of India cannot be easily undone. The professional and diplomatic faux pas is likely to damage the reliability of our professional standards regarding investigation and documentation. It is going to take us some time to have the damage to our credibility repaired.

The episode will also enable Pakistan to reinforce its argument that Indian allegations of Pakistani support to terrorism are motivated propaganda and hence cannot be relied upon.

Three corrective steps are required to avoid a repeat of this embarrassment. Firstly, to act against the officers who have contributed to this embarrassment by their sins of commission and omission. Secondly, to revamp the process for the preparation of such documents in future to rule out errors. Thirdly, to avoid undue haste in preparing such lists and going to the media with them, in the hope of thereby embarrassing Pakistan.

If the international community has to be convinced about the correctness of our allegations against Pakistan, it must develop confidence in the reliability of our documentation and in our due diligence process in preparing such dossiers. ( 20-5-11)