Where is zero tolerance on terror ?

I wonder if the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government in New Delhi today is any different from its predecessors in combating radical Islamist violence . Our Home Minister Rajnath Singh roared in a recent media interaction :  “If there is a terror attack against us, the government is able to give a befitting reply. There will be zero tolerance on terror and that has been the policy of this government through its tenure.”

The other day our Chief of the Army Staff General Dalbir Singh Suhag  claimed the same at  a press conference. He said:  “The Army is fully prepared and ready to respond to any threats and challenges.”  In the context of the Pathankot terror strike the General said:  “We alerted the forces in that area (Pathankot) , quick reaction teams were formed and columns readied... there was complete synergy...  it was wise to take pre- emptive action to send the elite unit ( National Security Guards ) in advance. The NSG is ideally trained to tackle hostage situations.”

It is, however, being very hard to believe either our Home Minister or Army Chief and feel assured of India’s security. Have not  the successive governments at the Centre been parroting  the rhetoric of zero tolerance  since long ? And does not the  handling of the recent Pathankot terror strike show what a sad state of India’s  security mechanism to combat terror still is ? 

Knowledgeable sources say  in the  Pathankot case Indian Army troops were available in thousands close by.  The  infantry of the  Army has been fighting counter insurgency for decades. It could have handled the crisis  much better with fewer casualties.  Precious  time was lost in sending NSG commandos from New Delhi. India has  two infantry divisions and two armoured brigades in the vicinity.  There are at least three corps headquarters in a couple of hours’ drive.  The  Northern Army headquarters is around .  They are all seasoned in carrying out counter-terror operations.  The NSG is meant to deal with a specific target, not an area target. The Indian Air Force’s Garuds have been raised for different special tasks , not anti-terror operations. 

The Army with its 10 Special Forces units, and at least the one based in Udhampur, would have been in Pathankot in a couple of hours.  The local Army unit conducts a recce of the entire airbase every six months. It could have been allowed to get in  .  Also, there was no unity of command in the NSG operation.

Eminent defence expert, Founding Director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Land Warfare Studies and our former Vice Chief of the Army Staff  Lt General Vijay Oberoi says : "The Pathankot attack has  brought to the fore the gross ineptness of both persons and institutions dealing  with our national security today .   Narco-terrorism was involved in making this attack possible . Many Border Security Force and Punjab Police personnel are in cahoots with smugglers of both sides The nexus extends all the way up to a few ministers of the Punjab Government, if not higher.”  

He says, “In this whole operation a  whole division or more of well trained and equipped force was left cooling its heels next door in Mamun Military Station. An  assortment of Defence Security Corps personnel, meant for static guard duties,  a few Garud Commandos ,  personnel of the Punjab Police,  some elements of the BSF, whose role is guarding the border; and few intelligence personnel conducted it…. The Base Commander of a sensitive operational base is always specially selected for his professionalism and leadership qualities. When a leader with such great responsibility is confronted with a challenge of this type, he needs space, interaction with his command to formulate plans and monitor execution. If  senior brass lands up in his base,  they are bound to curb the style of the commander and draw his attention away from the task at hand. This is exactly what happened.  It was the same case with the DG of NSG, who also landed up there."

The expert laments, “  Accountability is an alien word in the system the government follows in our country.  The cabinet did not meet for six days . The senior ministers concerned with security issues found many other engagements that kept them away .  Our National Security Adviser did not even think of calling the experts in counter terrorist operations. He chose to airlift a small team of NSG, trained for tackling hostage situations and anti- hijacking operations and not flushing out terrorists. It is baffling that the three Service Chiefs and particularly the Army Chief, who were also present, went along with this peculiar decision."