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Suggestions on intelligence reforms

Outlook writes that a report on intelligence reforms is in the offing. The review is being undertaken by a government think tank, taking cue from the speech of the Vice President Hamid Ansari. Ten years after the Kargil Review Committee instigated ‘Garry’ Saxena task force report to the Group of Ministers, this is a timely and welcome development. 

The Rajya Sabha chairman had said at the annual RN Kao Memorial Lecture a year back that, ‘there is no reason why a democratic system like ours should not have a Standing Committee of Parliament on intelligence…’. His speech then had come close on the heels of Mr. Chidambaram’s talk, ‘A New Architecture for India’s Intelligence’ at the Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture. Thus, political India had made its intent clear that change was in the offing regarding both the internal and external dimensions of intelligence. This was understandable since Mumbai 26/11 had indeed shaken up the security system. With reforms elsewhere in place, such as coastal security, it was the turn of intelligence organizations that had seemingly failed yet again after Kargil.

It is being authored by an intelligence ‘insider’, Rana Banerji. He had figured in the news a couple of years back as a leading contender for the top job in the external intelligence agency. In the event the intelligence professional in the race lost out to a police man. The ideas he may have envisioned and could not undertake may come up in the report, making it worth looking forward to.

Saikat Dutta (‘Ghosts who walk’,Outlook, 28 February 2011) writes that the whole gamut of intelligence function is being reviewed including recruitment, training, covert operations, the operations-analyses balance, financial accountability, ethics etc. Though no report can possibly recommend opening up the intelligence domain to legislative oversight, the manner and extent of this recommendation would be its highlight, given the reservations that may exist against this novel idea, though well overdue.

This article suggests inclusion of a recommendation on ethnic, regional and community profile balancing within these organisations. The idea can be considered irrespective of whether the Equal Opportunity Bill under debate sees the light of day.

Since no data exists, on account of secrecy that understandably attends entails intelligence function, that this aspect is less than optimal cannot be said outright. However, the possibility of certain subgroups not being represented adequately, such as Muslims and other groups from certain regions, cannot be discounted. The figures, albeit contested, provided by late Omar Khalidi, in his book Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India are representative. The remainder of this article argues why a greater representation of Muslims would be beneficial to the organizations in question and good for national security.

There is a perception of Muslim under-representation to the extent of their numbers being negligible to minimal, particularly so in officer ranks. Outlook had revealed this in 2006. That there is no policy to get this effect, can be conceded, though the article had suggested that it was the outcome of an ‘unwritten code’. It is possibly due, instead to lack of qualification and to a dearth of volunteers. The latter is also due to the self-reinforcing cycle of Muslims not applying under the impression that they would not in any case make the grade. Given this, there is a case for remedial action.

While positive discrimination is not the answer, an open recruiting policy may help. Targeting Muslims through an outreach to the community, through its leaders, may be useful. The figures for police and paramilitary recruitment have registered an upward trend for Muslims since the Sachar committee suggested this. At officer level initially, Muslims can be taken on deputation from other organizations, such as police and the military. That deserving Muslims would most likely seize the opportunity as can be seen from a Muslim topping the IAS last year and the Indian Forest Service exam this year. The Vastanvi episode indicates the focus on education and jobs in the multiple communities that together form India’s and the world’s largest minority.

Why is this necessary? Take for instance the information given by these intelligence agencies and police after the terror bombings, now revealed to have been the handiwork of right wing extremists. The refrain in intelligence input, magnified through the media, was that these were Muslim perpetrated. However, the discourse in the Urdu press and in drawing rooms of Muslim households was to the contrary. It could have proved a correct line of investigation, saving time and lessening the trauma of the nation during the series of bombings in the middle of the last decade.

At a higher level of abstraction, the domestication of the intelligence function is important for the plural, secular and democratic underpinnings of the republic. In case the character of the state is to be changed, it is the closed intelligence apparatus that would be the first target. Without checks and balances, which is absent in the present system, these organizations lend themselves to such misleading conclusions. While democratic control of the military has witnessed much theorizing, the democracy-intelligence relationship has been neglected.

Inevitably, the nay-sayers will cry foul. Their arguments will be that this would compromise security, that this is affirmative action by the back door, that it would lead to lowering of standards and cohesion etc. These must be seen for what they are, rationalizations of those understandably seeking self-interest by preserving their turf, lobbies and perks.

The nation will benefit. Upliftment in the prospects that this entails would enhance the national indices of well being. If 15 per cent of the nation prospers alongside, it can only benefit the larger whole. The contrary is that the larger society will suffer if it leaves a significant proportion behind. If a level playing field is made possible by opening up of the intelligence sector, then the prospects of employment in allied security sectors such as policing, military etc automatically improve. This will have a self-reinforcing cycle, not only making for prosperity but increasing patriotism.

 These are the political considerations needed to make a policy, as against parochial organizational level arguments. The study underway could consider incorporating this idea into its proposals.

Firdaus Ahmad

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 March 2011 on page no. 6

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