Monday, April 16, 2012

Missing the Point on the NCTC

All the political noise about the National Counter Terrorism Center completely misses the point.

The real danger the NCTC poses is not to India's federal structure but to its democracy and the rights and liberties of its citizens.

And the NCTC is not "proposed" as our "elite" media persist in characterizing it.

It already exists as an intelligence agency with unsupervised powers of surveillance, arrest and interrogation -- a KGB-ISI in the making.  

It was brought in under the political radar by a series of administrative steps invoking the 1967 "Unlawful Activities Prevention Act" as amended in 2004 (to extend its coverage to counter-terrorism), and 2008 (to give the NCTC operational control of counter-terrorism activities).

As Kapil Sibal told journalists last February (when he was Minister for Human Resources Development), the powers of the NCTC are "already there."

He traced the origins of the NCTC to the Inter-State Intelligence Support System created after the Kargil War to improve spy operations. Following a recommendation of the Administrative Reforms Commission the ISISS (a deeply ominous acronym if ever there was one), was converted into the NCTC.

Sibal did not attempt to explain how the drive to improve intelligence operations mutated into anti-terrorism activities and then into law enforcement.

The net result of that evolution is a secret agency without either legislative authorization or operational accountability, with vast intrusive and interrogatory powers that will certainly be subject to abusive use.

Few will take comfort from that fact that the NCTC at the Centre will be supervised by an officer "not below the rank of Joint-Secretary" and at the state level by someone "not below the rank of Secretary."

What is to stop ambitious politicians, spy masters or bureaucrats in the pay of the ├╝ber rich from misusing the NCTC for political/social surveillance and blackmail?  What is to prevent the torture of "suspects" and the coverup of extrajudicial killings? What is to prevent the emergence of an undemocratic and unconstitutional power centre under the aegis of the NCTC? What is to prevent India becoming Pakistan?


There are no oversight mechanisms, no appeals process for suspects/victims, no judicial much less public accountability. If a secret process of oversight and accountability does exist, it can be no more than a cozy arrangement to protect insiders.

Spokesmen for the UPA, including the Prime Minister and Home Minister have tried to make the NCTC controversy seem as if it is something that can be smoothed away by explanations and clarifications.

It would be fatal for Indian democracy to buy that argument.

We need a complete overhaul of the intelligence establishment, which now operates without legal authorization or constitutional safeguards.

The NCTC does not belong under an Act meant to maintain the country's internal security. To frame its activities within that limiting framework is to guarantee failure.

Terrorism is not a homegrown problem. Even though we have some homegrown terrorists, they are the domestic face of external enemies. Unless we keep the focus of NCTC and RAW firmly on external enemies all action within our borders will be reactive second-guessing.

The UPA government must abandon its ill advised move to create a NCTC that is bound to be subversive of our national interests. It must consult with the Opposition to bring in a piece of consensus legislation that will for the first time in Indian history provide a constitutional floor and framework for the work of our Intelligence agencies.

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