Backgrounder: Counterterrorism in India

The deadly terrorist assault on Mumbai's hotel district and a spate of bomb attacks across India's cities this year have claimed hundreds of lives and once again raised questions about India's vulnerability to terrorism. According to the latest report on global terrorism by the U.S. government's National Counter-Terrorism Center, more than 1,000 people died in India because of terrorist attacks in 2007, ranking India fourth behind only Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. India, a nation of a billion people, has been confronted with terrorism since its birth, and currently contends with a variety of regional groups mainly intent on separatism.

Why is India the target of so many terrorist attacks?
India is embroiled in a number of low-intensity conflicts throughout its territory. Many terrorist incidents are the products of these clashes. The regions most affected are:

What groups are involved in terrorism in India?
There are scores of insurgent and terrorist groups operating in the country. Those recognized by the U.S. State Department as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) or other "groups of concern" are:

What agencies are responsible for fighting terrorism in India?
A number of intelligence, military, and police organizations within the Indian government contribute to counterterrorism efforts. These include state-run police forces, special security forces to guard airports and other high-profile targets, and paramilitary forces that patrol the borders and assist the police when necessary. These paramilitary groups, such as the 165,000-strong Central Reserve Police Force, have been accused of committing human rights violations, especially in Kashmir, where they are particularly active. The army usually participates in counterterrorism operations as a last resort, though in Jammu and Kashmir they play a more consistent role. India's closest structural equivalent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees national police, paramilitaries, and domestic intelligence gathering.

India has several intelligence agencies that monitor terrorist activities. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is the external intelligence agency and the Intelligence Bureau (IB), a division of the Home Affairs Ministry, collects intelligence inside India. A Joint Intelligence Committee analyzes intelligence data from RAW and IB as well as from a handful of military intelligence agencies, which usually provide tactical information gathered while carrying out counterterrorist operations.

The IB oversees an interagency counterterrorism center similar to the CIA. The Ministry of External Affairs oversees its own counterterrorism body, much like the U.S. State Department, which oversees diplomatic counterterrorism functions such as briefing other nations on suspected Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism in India.

How does the government react to terrorist attacks?
Experts say the government's response to terrorist attacks have been episodic; soon after an attack the government appears to take short-term measures. "India lacks a coherent strategic response to terrorism; there is no doctrine, and most of our responses are kneejerk," says retired Major General Sheru Thapliyal, who works at the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi.

Indian security officials usually focus their investigations on the country's Muslim minority following such attacks. India is home to 150 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world. But a large percentage of them feel disadvantaged and discriminated against by the government and the security forces.

How have India's counterterrorism agencies performed?
Some Indian journalists called the July 11 Mumbai bombings a failure of the country's intelligence community. Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that within the ongoing debate over the effectiveness of India's counterterrorism apparatus, "there's general agreement that the old institutions can't cope with the new pressures." Wilson John, a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, writes in the Terrorism Monitor the problem is an intelligence structure which has yet to emerge from its "debilitating colonial legacy and a complementary stranglehold of bureaucracy." John argues the state police and intelligence units are mostly structured as agencies to protect law and order and spy on rivals rather than act as investigative and intelligence units. He says there is reluctance, and even refusal, to share information among the intelligence and security agencies.

Others counter that the intelligence agencies are performing well, but politicians too often shy away from making tough security decisions for fear of angering their constituents. Jeevan Deol, a lecturer in South Asian studies at the University of London, says, "There may well be occasions where elected politicians may not see it in their interest to isolate insurgent groups." He says their actions are nothing "too unusual for an elected democracy."

India's counterterrorism measures have often been the subject of appeals by human rights organizations. Deol says Indian officials have a higher tolerance for collateral damage than counterterrorism authorities in many other nations. In an example of such tactics, he says, "Agencies and arms of the state have been accused of turning a blind eye in order to run rival gangs that would be tasked with killing other insurgents, but would also kill innocent people." Such tactics have been effective in the past, says Cohen, but only when coupled with political accommodation.

Does India have antiterrorism legislation similar to the U.S. Patriot Act?
Not anymore. In 2002 India passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), expanding the government's powers in combating terrorism. Some measures, such as the ability to keep terror suspects in custody without bringing them to trial, met with objections, and the law was repealed in 2004 after allegations that officials were abusing their powers. However, after the recent spate of bombings, some Indian politicians are calling for the law to be restored.

Some Indian states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra have other laws, Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act (MCOCA) and the Karnataka Control of Organized Crime Act, that are used to try suspected terrorists. The MCOCA was also extended to Delhi in 2002. Some lawyers have alleged that MCOCA is even more draconian than POTA and has often been misused by the investigative agencies. Other states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are also seeking similar anti-terror laws.