By Kishore Dash
The Union Home Minister P.Chidambaram’s “Dream Project”, the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), which was to become operational from 1 March this year, has been cut in political logjam as no consensus could arrived at the May 5 marathon meeting in New Delhi due to the opposition of the regional club comprising chief ministers of Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Gujarat, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Tripura in addition to J&K’s Omar Abdullah and others on the ground that it violates the federal structure of the states. While, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Gujarat’s Narendra Modi and J Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu led the onslaught by accusing the home ministry of trying to usurp the powers of the states and widening the “trust deficit” between the Centre and the states, the Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik rejected National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) in its present form, saying it should not be part of a secret agency like the Intelligence Bureau (IB). In fact,on February 13, Naveen was the first CM to oppose the Centre's move to set up NCTC in the IB and also objected to ministry of home affairs' order vesting powers in NCTC in a meeting at Delhi on the day , which appear to be an "infringement on the powers of state governments in matters of investigation and maintenance of order". Describing the order as "draconian overtones",Pattnaik told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to review it. Around 10 other non-Congress CMs like Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa had also joined the chorus, forcing the Centre to convene a meeting of chief ministers on May 5. It's not just UPA's main ally Mamata Banerjee or Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik who are opposing the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), but even Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) - India's external intelligence agency - had put up a red flag way back in early 2010. And, theirs was, perhaps, the first dissent that the Home Minister P Chidambaram faced.
On December 23, 2009, hearing the Union Home Minister P Chidambaram at Vigyan Bhawan deliver the 22nd Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture in which he mooted for the first time the setting "up the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), the then Secretary of RA&W, K C Verma's, mind wandered off to the early years of the beginning of the 21st century. He was in the operations wing of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) then. Two terrorists operating from Mumbai area had to be eliminated. Although the operation was successful, there was one glitch. The IB was working with the Mumbai police and hadn't kept the local Mumbra police in the loop. And it was in Mumbra - a locality adjoining Mumbai - where the terrorists were based. After the operation, the Mumbra police was demanding its pound of flesh and credit. The resulting turf battle- with the Intelligence Bureau and the Mumbai Police on one side and the Mumbra police on the other - soon assumed bitter and unimaginable proportions and threatened to undo the entire operation. Selective leaks in the media about how the encounter may have been a completely staged and faked one, were getting too difficult to handle. Fortunately, for the Intelligence Bureau, the actual encounter was carried out by the local police and the IB itself had no role to play except to track down the terrorist and lead the policemen to them. After two harrowing weeks of damage control when the controversy showed signs of dying out, Verma became even more convinced about the IB modus-operandi; that of keeping a local police in the front and never showing its hand in any operation was one of the best way to deal with terror situations. The proposed NCTC with its operations wing and charter of national agencies carrying out pre-emptive anti-terror operations threatened to undo just that. Associated with this, was the fear that an overt hand in anti-terror operations would also open up these intelligence agencies to legal scrutiny which would not only turn embarrassing but at times even disastrous, given most intelligence tools used to carry out covert executive actions have no legal sanctity. So the opposition to NCTC within the intelligence community broadly stemmed from two concerns - lack of deniability if operations are carried out without keeping the local police in the front and also the chances of being dragged through the courts in case operations go wrong- which often happen.
Verma, a dyed-in-the-wool intelligence officer, known for his reputation for not holding back punches wrote out a dissent note detailing why the proposed NCTC wouldn't auger well for India. This was the first opposition to NCTC. Verma's discomfort with the NCTC was also shared by the then National Security Advisor (NSA) and former head of the IB, M K Narayanan.Mr Narayanan on his part pointed out that even in the United States of America, the NCTC doesn't have an operations wing. In a detailed paper to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, Mr Narayanan is understood to have pointed that NCTC in the US only collects, collates and analyzes information and then feeds the CIA, FBI and host of other intelligence organizations. Fusing operations wing of the IB and RA&W would prove to be counter - productive for pre-emptive counter terror operations and unacceptable to states even, he wrote. It's alleged that this opposition to NCTC and his hard line on Pakistan was largely responsible for Mr Narayanan's sudden and unceremonious exit that took him instead to the Raj Bhawan in Kolkata. Although Mr Narayanan was shunted out, Chidamabram still couldn't negotiate with the Union Cabinet successfully. The NCTC mandate was vastly diluted from the initial 2009 proposal. Originally Chidambaram envisaged the NCTC as an umbrella counter-terror outfit with the operations wing of the country's premier intelligence agencies ( R&AW, IB, NIA, NSG) all coming under it and reporting to the Home Minister alone. This was not approved by the cabinet. On January 12, 2012, the Cabinet Committee cleared a very truncated version of the original version of the NCTC. This new version says the new NCTC will function within the IB and the Director of the NCTC would report to the Director of the Intelligence Bureau, Union Home Secretary and Home Minister. So the grand proposal for an independent body with a single counter-terror Czar has been shelved for the time being.
While appreciating, the need for an organization at the central level to tackle terrorism and left wing extremism, Naveen Pattnaik is opposing the NCTC in its present form is simply not acceptable”. He has his own logic in saying no to the anti-terror act which can’t be rejected. The Chief Minister defends his opposition to the NCTC on the varied grounds. in the context that it should not be placed under the Intelligence Bureau (IB). Firstly, such an organisation should not be part of a secret intelligence agency, the IB. No other democratic country has given such wide ranging powers to their secret intelligence agencies as has been envisaged in the case of the NCTC. The job of an intelligence agency is to collect intelligence only. Therefore, the NCTC should not be a part of the IB. It can be with a separate agency like the National Investigation Agency (NIA)", he says. Naveen pointed out that the concurrence of concerned state governments should be taken for forming focus groups to deliberate on specific issues and problems areas and it should be mandatory for director of NCTC to intimate the DGP in advance about any operation in the state's jurisdiction. He said all operations taken by the central forces should be joint operations with the assistance of the state police force, an official quoted Naveen as having said.
The CM also expressed serious reservations on the provision that NCTC can assume command over any crisis or situation and "act unilaterally without any concern for local sentiments and such powers would certainly undermine the authority of the state governments and vitiate their federal rights".To quote the Chief Minister, “I do hope that the government of India will respect the concerns of the states while finalising the creation of the NCTC. The creation of the Republic of India in its present form is a result of years of sacrifice and hard work by the founding fathers of our nation and the powers proposed to be vested with the NCTC will "certainly undermine the authority of the state governments and vitiate our federal rights".But, how far Chief Minister is right on his part to oppose the anti-terror law. Whether is politically motivated or not. This needs to be debated. It would be apparent to many that the current protests are motivated by reasons other than a deep allegiance to the principles of federalism, for the past ‘arbitrary’ and ‘un-federal’ counter-terror measures of New Delhi have not been so bitterly protested against. For example, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), set up in 2009, allegedly transgresses the authority of the states just like the NCTC. In 2011, New Delhi unilaterally brought all Hindu terror cases from several states and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and assigned the NIA with their investigation. Murmur of protests is all that we had heard from the states then. Let’s get it straight. The opposition to NCTC from certain states has nothing to do with federal principles, it is about politics. The fear of the Centre usurping the powers of the states through the anti-terror body is too much hype and little substance — yes, we have heard of a KGB in the making in India and worse scare-mongering; none of it makes much sense.The fact is, other central bodies such as the CBI and the NIA have similar powers and none of the governments in states have collapsed because of that. The arguments that the NCTC would be an instrument with the Centre to browbeat the states and it could facilitate a 1975-type situation don’t hold much water. Times have changed. The Centre, led by a coalition government as it is, is not strong enough to precipitate an Emergency-like situation and the judiciary is a much stronger factor in national politics than it was three decades ago. It would be a strong bulwark against any arbitrary move from the Centre against the states. If the states are really serious about fighting terror, they should stop pegging it on the issue of federalism.
The NCTC has its weaknesses alright but these are mostly technical in nature. For example, the proposed anti-terrorism centre is supposed to work under the Intelligence Bureau, which itself does not have the powers to arrest or detain. Intelligence agencies are usually not given powers of arrest, searches and interrogation in good democracies. This could be addressed without making federalism the debating point. The current acrimony shows that states are not serious about fighting terrorism.The opposition to NCTC boils down to politics, nothing else. The presumption that peace gestures from either Sonia Gandhi, the AICC president, or Prime minister Manmohan Singh would lead to a happy solution to the controversy is rather immature. Surely, the Congress-led UPA could do much better in communicating with political rivals but there is hardly a chance leaders like Narendra Modi or Jayalalithaa would melt at such gestures. Their acrimony towards the Congress and the UPA is too deeply entrenched for that.
The issue of federalism right now is an alibi to create an anti-UPA, cross-state alliance which may or may not support the NDA. There could be a secretive effort at formation of a new front too. There are other possibilities too. Narendra Modi could be trying to strengthen his case for the prime ministership by roping in allies like Jayalalithaa and Parkash Singh Badalof the Shiromoni Akali Dal.If he has a couple of additional states to offer to the NDA besides Gujarat, he emerges very strong within the BJP. He still has opposition to his candidature for the top job within the party. In case he has the support of a few non-NDA states behind him, he can ward off any challenge from other leaders within the party and the NDA itself.Jaya herself is an aspirant for the top job. It helps her cause if she has strong allies like Modi and Naveen Patnaik of Orissa. In case of a fractured mandate in 2014 general election, the field is wide open for all regional players. If she lands 40 seats she has a chance of leveraging it to her benefit. After than a decade as Odisha’s chief minister, in Naveen Patnaik could be looking aiming for a bigger role at the Centre.AThis is, however, not to absolve the UPA or its leaders of any guilt. Its leaders, particularly those of the Congress, have been spectacularly ineffective in assuaging the feeling of neglect among the opposition-ruled states. They have allowed matters to precipitate by appearing obstinate in their approach in a range of issues involving states. If they face attack from the states, they deserve it.
But the NCTC issue is different from issues such as of devolving financial power and greater autonomy to states. The matter of federalism is not a genuine argument in this particular case. There are unstated motives behind the argument. These can only be politics and political ambitions for 2014. Allies hammering on every issue to exert political pressure to bargain for more funds may sometime be politically helpful but not always. Political barter system indulged in by the allies or the regional parties against the central government is certainly not a healthy sign in a mature democracy.
At least on some key issue the political parties must put their self or personal interests on the backburner. Nevertheless, groupism on the pretext of opposing NCTC is an indication of emergence of a new political entity of regional players in search of a level playing field vis-a-vis the Centre while keeping an eye on the coming general elections. Maoists opposition to the NCTC has also raised many questions. The Union Home Ministry’s recent letter to the Odisha Home Secretary blaming the state machinery for its total failure to tame Naxalism has further raised over the efficiency of the government. Hope fully, Naveen Pattnaik said to be a strong critic of National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) would realize the gravity of the situation and would act in the larger interest of the state.